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Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth review

The rocket's red glare.

Beyond Earth isn't a sequel to Alpha Centauri, and it isn't quite an expansion of Civ 5, either. It's richer - and far darker.

Sometimes, you need to achieve a little distance in order to get a little perspective. Beyond Earth blasts the Civilization 5 template into space, but it's ultimately less of an offshoot to the main series and more of a measured response. It's a response to the fact that Civ 5, even at its cruellest, is still so often a game for leaders who like to lean back and ponder their actions with a certain kind of holiday cheeriness. It's a battle, but it's also a bubblebath. Annex Te-Moak? Burn Boston to the ground? Go nuclear on Pedro II? Why not, eh? Why not.

By contrast, Beyond Earth has you hunched forward for every second, fighting for survival on the fidgety surface of a planet that has unambiguous feelings about all that vertical farming you're trying to do to it. Beyond Earth seeks to shake up the predictability of gentlemanly Civ opening gambits, with their familiar routines and breezy, acquisitive calm. Then, eight hours later, new victory conditions, introduced far earlier than before, are giving dynamism to the sometimes amorphous Civ end-game.

Does it work? Beyond Earth certainly offers fewer instances where you're clicking through decisions that don't feel like they matter. It offers more choices, but they paradoxically provide more focus. There are fewer lapses into last-minute domination victories, too - partly because they're just harder, but partly because the ennui that so often prompts you to kill everyone is slower to take hold. Civ's always gobbled your time, but Beyond Earth makes clearer demands on your attention. Sit up. Lean in.

Coming from the main series, you'll recognise the basics. The menus and interfaces that drive the turn-based clockwork of both games are practically identical, right down to intricacies like the city screen and espionage system. Elsewhere, gold becomes energy, denouncements become condemnations and happiness becomes health. (This last one is a slightly awkward formulation that replaces unhappiness with negative health.) Units may have gained a toy-like tacility through the shift into the future - catapults are replaced by the likes of missile rovers, while settlers become waffle-iron colonist craft that open out to form outposts - but warfare and expansion work the same old way. Stacking's still out, and cities retain ranged attacks, swift contrails neatly replacing the volley of arrows. Such is progress.

So many new resources to deal with - where to start?

In terms of spirit, however, the game is a mixture of influences. Like Alpha Centauri, Beyond Earth begins where so many games of Civ end, with the rocket that signals a science victory sending you heavenward to see how the stars feel about your gunship diplomacy and printing presses. And, like Alpha Centauri, the tone is anything but victorious. This is careworn science-fiction, as a fragmented and ideologically divided humanity scrambles away from a poisoned homeworld. If Civ's always had a certain balmy optimism due to its focus on progress, its certainty that it knows the beats and can recite the timeline, Beyond Earth explores what happens once progress has wrung you out: once it's landed you and a handful of uneasy competitors in the armpit of the universe, with one trembling city to your name and memories of the distant paradise that you accidentally turned into an ashtray.

It's in the game's opening sections where you can see Beyond Earth's third spiritual influence, Colonization, invoked in the scrabbling frontier mentality and the wilderness you're trying to 'tame' - a questionable analysis of the situation, achieved through distinctly questionable means. Regardless, survival experiences require a degree of uncertainty, and many of Beyond Earth's early alterations serve to return uncertainty to this most familiar of series. First, they chop away at the memory tax. You know: the fact that, if I'm playing as Brazil in Civ 5, I generally know I'm aiming for a culture victory, and I generally know what I have to do to get that culture victory going. I'm moving across a freshly generated world, but I have ceased to really explore.

Beyond Earth's solution is surprisingly empowering. Alongside choosing a map style and a civ, which comes with its own perk, you now also choose a cargo, a crew, and even a spaceship, all of which bring different starting units, tech, or even a wider view of the landing site. Simple variables help to make the beginning of each game different because you are different.

Small changes, but they're swiftly joined by a map that scatters resource pods around the landing site, by units and buildings that come with a basic trait-defining choice the first time you construct them, and by quests which provide the structure of regular mini-objectives while also - hey! - culminating in additional choices. All of these micro-decisions disrupt the predictable flow while broadening the strategic scope. Regardless of how quickly you commit all this to memory, your starting civ no longer matters as much as your actions in the first 50 turns.

And your reactions. Beyond Earth's most significant early game twist comes with the planet itself, which replaces Civ's barbarians with alien hordes who really aren't screwing around. Manticores lob poison while wolf beetles offer endless harassment. Then there are the biggies - the siege worms who can undermine a fledgling colony before it's even turned into a city, and the krakens of the sea: huge, spiny mountains with Cthulian tentacles lurking underwater.

A worm has just died.

These guys, along with scatterings of poisonous miasma, initially forced an immediate rethink of my entirely lazy Civ fallback strategy. No more setting expensive units to explore, as they merely autopilot their way into the mouth of something nasty. No more mindless city-spamming as a hedge against attack. Beyond Earth can be downright oppressive for your first few games, and that's to its credit. I found myself playing in a way I'd never played before, because the game was forcing me to be less stupid. Suddenly, I was staying small, building up defences, and seeing each new colony, each unmolested trade convoy, as a significant victory. I suspect that even if you're actually good at Civ you'll have to question your approach somewhat. Sit up. Lean in.

Retrain, in other words. Once you do, Beyond Earth makes more sense. You don't actually have to ceaselessly battle the environment, for starters. You can fall into step with it, investing in things that allow you to protect units from attack, remove miasma from tiles or use it to regain health.

Even without that approach, both miasma and aliens feel like they're trying to finish a revolution that Civ 5 started when it removed stacking. Now that brute force isn't possible, they're there to make hex-based combat truly tactical, using attrition to raise the price of moving big armies about and forcing you towards precision strikes with a small selection of the right forces. (If that fails, units can at least be evolved to the point where they're really deadly, and even those siege worms are eventually countered by the searing Spielbergian god-light of a planet carver satellite which hovers above the map and can burn them away in a single turn. )

These developments are driven by affinities and by a tech web that replaces the classic Civ tech tree. They're both brilliant additions, and they both, ultimately, shape the game just as much as the alien landscape, the former adding direction, the latter temptations. The web may be Beyond Earth's masterstroke. I'm ashamed to say I actually gasped when it first unfolded before me. Rather than a track that starts with you at one end and the really great stuff at the other, the web drops you in the very middle with options fanning out all around, divided into branches, which tackle broad subjects, and leaves, which are specialised and expensive.

This means you have more choices at any moment, and that the final expression of each research path is only ever a handful of hops away. Long-term strategies become immediately comprehensible in a landscape of short journeys, and yet this is balanced with the endless sweetshop distraction of the proposition. I really want to build one of those planet carvers, but what the hell is 'swarm intelligence'? The web contains the bulk of Beyond Earth's futurist dreams and nightmares, but it also speaks to the game's philosophy. You can work backwards in traditional Civ because you know how civilisation itself has unfolded. Beyond Earth is about moving outwards.

Virtues are a less fiddly version of Civ 5's policies.

Speaking of philosophies, affinities are three different approaches to playing the game that shape your options, either through quest decisions or tech that grants affinity points. Affinities are the route to a number of distinct unit evolutions and perks, and they're also pleasingly distinct: purity for those who cling to humanity; supremacy for people who embrace technology; and harmony for anybody who wants to hug an alien. Racism, robots and goat's cheese; in keeping with Beyond Earth's grim vision, the ultimate expression of each affinity is quietly monstrous. Harmony sees you driving around in slithery Triton ships as your xeno cavalry ride around on the local wildlife. Purity depicts the retreat to an ugly militaristic core, churning out blunt, boxy units of death. This is the future, and it's a Trabant factory.

Web and affinities drive the game's new victory conditions. Previous Civ science and culture victories have long been meatier than their names suggested, but Beyond Earth really reinforces a shift away from bland concepts towards immediately tangible goals: contacting alien intelligence, re-establishing a link with earth, or nurturing the lifeforce of the planet itself. Alongside domination and the timed victory, there are four of these end-games to aim for, generally requiring an interdisciplinary blend of culture and science, a cherry-picking of tech and specific wonders and a gimmick of some sort, like a planetary wonder that you have to protect. They add a lot in terms of drama and basic story structure.

Example: I spent last Tuesday trying to awaken the consciousness of my alien world, and it was absolutely nerve-shredding. I stayed small, kept an eye on health and let the wildlife go nuts. I ignored the other civs as much as possible and even refrained from the temptation to use my spies to unleash a siege worm strike on their cities. Instead, I cut a path to three specific techs I needed and built up harmony until I could unlock a huge planetary wonder I then had to nanny as it charged up. It was unbearably tense - as it was when I tried to contact alien life a few days later, spamming the world with explorers as I searched for relics. In both cases, I found a game in which there was little open conflict but much menace as I avoided the gaze of lurking superpowers. This sort of tension could be found in Civ before, but Beyond Earth is brilliant at creating it, clarifying the process (although the civilopedia is still not great on details) and making each step feel like a race.

Kraken wins the Best Monster prize in my book.

The impact of Beyond Earth's newer elements is initially so extreme that the AI civs can seem a bit of a distraction. When they do make their presence felt, they still seem to be the game's weakest element. It's foolish to speculate too much on what's going on inside the black box of a Civ AI, but after a week or so of Beyond Earth, it does still feel like a black box, and that's part of the problem. Lacking the - ugh - brand values of people like Napoleon and Gandhi, civ personalities and perspectives take a while to come into focus, and while there have probably been improvements under the hood, they still demonstrate the classic problems. For one thing, they're responding to buried triggers and making decisions based on dozens of hidden variables, like a computer would, but they're explaining themselves in character, like a human; as the two identities grind, they often seem skittish or mad. Beyond that, they're still hamstrung by a limited list of things they can actually do, and they still struggle to play the game aggressively (or above normal difficulty) without cheating.

The good news is that, if Beyond Earth hasn't fixed the AI in immediately apparent ways, it has created a framework in which the AI's eccentricities matter a little less. Over time, the AIs start to earn a place for themselves in Beyond Earth as a meddling distraction that stops the clear-eyed pursuit of victory from lapsing into something clinical. More than that, though, they do what AIs should and make the game feel a little more alive. Not when they're parroting the same limited responses to your actions like precocious foreign students who have all read the same phrasebook, or even when they attack with force and then step back and lose the thread of their own campaign, but in the way they blend dogma with a kind of lacerating opportunism - lecturing you about peace before diving on the weakest, giving a distinctly human kind of playground heat to each match by constantly asking if they can be friends, if they can have your toys, if you'll join them in teaming up against the latest victim.

In the terrified contortions and contradictions that thinly disguised self-interest forces on them, the AIs do genuinely approximate real-world political figures, in other words. And, regardless of how they truly work, after a week of hanging out with them, they've left me with great memories, both from fighting them and from trying to avoid conflict. At one point, a former friend advanced along the coast after I had utterly tanked my economy mid-game, taking over my cities and turning the lights off one by one as he approached. At another, an explorer of mine met a rival explorer as they both rolled through deep alien tundra. Spirit met Opportunity. For a wordless turn or two, the fiction of Beyond Earth really sang.

Managing your satellite units requires a new layer of UI - and they can de-orbit when you really need them not to.

Most pleasingly, the AIs tie into Beyond Earth's deeper ponderings. Firaxis' latest 4X is not without annoyances or bugs - one mistake can still lead to a lengthy bleeding out, units still get stuck on long journeys, hotseat multiplayer is currently a mess of missing buttons and there are still some moments where you're almost hypnotised by the endless procession of incidental choices you're presented with - but it is a surprisingly profound experience at times.

Inevitably, it's not really a game about space and aliens, even though it effortlessly got me googling Bracewell probes and the Great Attractor. Like the best SF, Beyond Earth is about humanity - more so, perhaps, than Civ itself is. Here comes Earth, eh? So filled with contradictory certainties and lofty dogma, so ready to forget its principles when greed takes over. The wider mechanics, meanwhile - with that web, those quests, all those new choices - are emphatically concerned with distracting you from your dogma and even your self-interest, with distracting you from one strategy by offering so many others.

Beyond Earth isn't concerned with your plan so much as it's concerned with the intersection of that plan with a dozen other complications. Seeing this feels valuable. It's possibly why we spent so long in the middle ages, why 2014, a year that sounds like science fiction, is still mired in Ebola and austerity, and why nobody you're friends with lives on Pluto - but it's also why we aren't all Nazis.

Civilization has always had something to say about this stuff (and civilisation has always had something to say about this stuff) but Beyond Earth goes further than ever, suggesting that even if we do eventually live on Pluto, the distractions will have joined us there, and will probably have multiplied. When we get into space, the real danger - and the real wonder - will be the fact that we have brought ourselves along.

8 / 10