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Civilisation: Beyond Earth Review

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The great beyond

★★★★★

Like all the best science fiction, Civilization: Beyond Earth uses insurmountable odds as a backdrop against which to tell a more introspective tale about humanity. In Sid Meier’s latest, our species has been forced to leave Earth to colonise a new home; a prospective future to be crafted at your fingertips rather than determined by history. Previous Civilization games offered minor historical meanders but few real overhauls – save for the odd militarised Gandhi – and Beyond Earth turns that on its head and gives you the tools to make your own path. It’s a sequel about learning to change, both as a species and as players.

The game’s mechanics are instantly recognisable to anyone who’s played Civilization V. You can get bogged down by familiarity during the first few uneventful turns but here it’s made exciting by the wonder of your new setting – plus a frightfully dense technology tree full of curious upgrades like ‘transgenics’ and ‘swarm robotics’.

Lightyears from our homeworld, Beyond Earth’s otherworldly biomes are beautiful, with huge craters, arid deserts and fungal fauna. Within the vibrant and often deadly environments are mysteries, aliens to fight or tame and treasures to stumble across as you push back the fog of war. Your units frequently come up against the poisonous miasma that clouds much of the map and this environmental danger becomes a tactical consideration for exploration, expansion and confrontation. You can even turn it to your advantage if you research specific upgrades.

For every beat that feels like a re-tread of familiar ground, Beyond Earth throws new stuff at you. After all, this isn’t Earth and the rules have changed significantly. Adapt with it and Beyond Earth enters a different league - it’s the first Civilization in a long time where changing a path of play feels necessary, and doing so is much more compelling.

Ditching historics like George Washington and Genghis Khan, factions like Polystralia and the Pan-Asian Cooperative give the sense that Earth’s political makeup has changed dramatically by the year 2600. The new leaders aren’t charismatic – there isn’t the buzz of playing a famous historical icon – but the blank canvas of fictional leadership does give room to paint your own story.

That freedom ties directly into the game’s affinities (supremacy, purity and harmony), which replace Civilization V’s ideologies. These three pillars determine your route through Beyond Earth and work well, giving you clear goals and a sense of identity. Supremacy is the go-to for transhumanists looking to create robot super-soldiers, while purity is more focused on the preservation of humanity in its current state – terraforming and such. Harmony is the hippy-go-lucky option of the three, embraces the indigenous life. You even get to command aliens once you've reached a certain stage.

Whichever affinity you choose, or whether you ignore them entirely, your civilisation becomes recognisable in its own right. The tech web, Beyond Earth's sprawling take on the old tech tree and its greatest new feature, opens up countless different permutations; the fact Firaxis also makes these upgrades feel tangible rather than so much technobabble is no small achievement. There’s nothing like watching your marines turn into super soldiers, or finally seeing what the ‘xeno swarm’ looks like in action. Be warned, though; the tech web can be difficult to master and the AI can quickly pull away on the scoreboard. The game is tough, so it will take time to learn how to win.

Also new is the virtues system, Beyond Earth’s take on social policies, as well as orbital units, which can be rocketed into space to give your civilisation area effects. Virtues work well as a satisfying way to diversify your people, so that even two playthroughs with the same affinity can be unique. Orbital units add another physical layer to your game and are useful to clear miasma off the hex grid, offer protection and buff your surface units. Quests are a further addition, keeping you occupied during downtime.

Beyond Earth’s shortfalls are parts familiar, parts confusing. AI civilisations can still act erratically and interacting with them can be a nuisance distraction. There are also not that many of them and Beyond Earth removes the intricacies of city state relationships, which simplifies trading dramatically.

The most perplexing part is how abrupt the endgame plays out: just one screen and you’re back to the menu without any recap of your actions over the course of time. This feels like a sizeable oversight, hopefully one that’ll be rectified in a later patch, because it’s supremely unsatisfying given how much time you can put into a single game.

Weird missteps like this aside, Beyond Earth is an immensely enjoyable strategy game that captures the sense of the unknown, the thrill of discovery and the freedom to choose like few Civilization games before it. If you play it like you've played Civ for the last ten years then it’s a tried and tested formula in a sci-fi skin; but change is in Beyond Earth’s DNA and players who diversify are handsomely rewarded.