My experience with vanilla Beyond Earth is pretty much identical to my experience when vanilla Civilization 5 first came out: meh.
Lots of flashy new features added to the core Civilization experience, but painfully long wait times along with glaring balance issues made vanilla Civ 5 less engrossing than earlier entries.
Then the expansions and optimization tweaks came out, and Civ 5 became the 4x turn-based strategy juggernaut that it is today.
Beyond Earth reminds me of that vanilla Civilization 5 experience: promising new features that will take a lot of tweaking and polish to get right.
• An intricate tech web forces you to weigh what your faction needs right now while weighing it against your chosen end-game.
• Developing your chosen Affinity helps you better tailor your military, improvements and buildings the style of gameplay you are pursuing.
• Orbital satellites add a new layer of meta to help your faction while hindering your opponents.
• Aliens and miasma are challenging threats that add a layer of tension to the early and mid game.
• It can be immensely satisfying to watch you choice of improvements drastically reshape the land around your cities, from lush green terrascapes to layers of generators and satellite arrays.
• Hunting for expedition sites with your explorers is particularly fun, especially when running around for progenitor ruins.
• Espionage got a major boost, from recruting a bunch of defecting military units to “flipping” the capital of your enemies and winning a domination victory this way.
On the other hand:
• Wonders became nothing more than glorified city improvements that don’t even have inspiring portraits – much less video animations to reward your efforts.
• Three trade routes per city that generate both energy *and* science when linked to foreign cities give way too many advantages to wide empires.
• Couple this with nearly unlimited health (or happiness in Civ 5 terms) that comes with the Prosperity virtue tree, and there is no way small, tall empires can compete with wide empires conducting infinite city sprawl.
• Faction leaders are bland, lifeless automatons that no longer impress after the first ten minutes of gameplay.
• The limited AI still likes hitting your meatier tanks instead of bombing your softer rangers (archers) and artillery (catapults).
• The first few quests offer promising storylines to help you better determine your faction’s future, but they quickly run out and are replaced by boring “quest decisions” that mechamnically force you choose between benefit A and benefit B for city improvements.
• Endings are anticlimactically and unceremoniously dumped upon you; creating a completely disappointing climax to the buildup you’ve been so working hard for.
• A poorly designed interface makes it very difficult to find the information you need at a glance; forcing you to spend a lot of time sifting through a lot of information – especially when it comes to the tech web and managing multiple trade routes.
At the end of the day, Beyond Earth offers a lot of promising new features offset by a range of significant balance issues as well as underwhelming aesthetic and narrative options. I believe that the new features of Beyond Earth coupled with solid gameplay offsets its many shortcomings, but it was a very close call.
What tips the scales in the game’s favor, however, is Firaxis’ track record with Civilization 5. This company turned a shaky new entry in the Civ franchise into one of its most successful entries in the span of four years. That’s a shockingly long development time in the video game industry that ultimately paid off handsomely for the company.
Given enough time and support, we could see Firaxis repeat that success with Beyond Earth – something I am eagerly looking forward to given the promising array of new features introduced in this sci-fi reimagining of the Civilization franchise.
View the original Steam review here.