Relevant information before reading this early impression article:
I was not given a review copy.
I have no affiliation nor contact with anyone at Firaxis Games.
I have played every Civilization game released on PC, however I would not consider myself a hardcore player.
Gameplay system as follows:
I7-2600K @ 4.2GHz w/ H100i balanced pre-set.
8Gb DDR3 RAM @ 1333MHz
Crucial M500 240GB SSD
ASUS Strix 970 4GB @ 1454MHz Boost Core / 3645MHz VRAM
Logitech Proteus Core g502 Mouse
Vortex KBC Poker II Mechanical Keyboard w/Cherry Reds
At the time of writing this piece, I had played for the game for 26 hours and completed three games on varying difficulty levels.
CIVILIZATION V TO BEYOND EARTH: WHAT'S CHANGED?
While Beyond Earth is clearly an iteration of Civilization V - the same engine, same movement and combat rules, same hex grid - there are some clear differences between the two games. Let's take a look at the major differences;
The most obvious change is the theme. When you start your first game of Beyond Earth, those that have played Alpha Centauri will get a serious hit of nostalgia - you choose a sponsor rather than a traditional civilisation, and you now have a semi-modular approach to your starting bonuses which make it easier to choose your play style. You also get some control over where you place your capital, and as soon as another civilisation spawns you're given their capital's location and an introduction.
Starting a game you'll be met with a hostile planet - noxious miasma and more than a smattering of unpredictable alien life forms, which have replaced barbarians. Some units can cause serious problems, especially siege worms which have a nasty habit of appearing where you'd like to place your next colony. They're hard to deal with early in the game as they can one-shot most units.
Strategic resources have been given a revamp to match the theme, however some, like copper and oil, remain. There are no resources in Beyond Earth that count as 'luxury' resources, though.
Religions have not been included in Beyond Earth, however they have been replaced somewhat by affinities. As you progress through a game, you'll be presented with certain choices through quests (more later) and progression through the tech tree that will give you levels of affinity. There are three to choose from - Harmony, Purity and Supremacy.
Harmony is an alien-friendly affinity which looks to integrate your people into the new ecosystem and ensuring that the planet becomes an ally rather than an enemy. Following this path will present you with advantages such as being (eventually) immune to miasma and even allowing your units to heal while stood in it, and the ability to unleash siege worms on your enemies through covert operations. This affinity is also directly linked to the Transcendence victory type - more on those later.
Supremacy is a more robotic and technology based affinity. As you progress down this line, your people will shed their humanity in favour of a more mechanical appearance, and their later unit upgrades are flexible in that you can either focus on a strength in numbers approach with adjacency bonuses, or go the other way and receive powerful 'lone wolf' buffs.
Purity is the 100% human approach to progress. Following this route, your people will preserve their humanity at all costs without any adaptation to the alien planet. Unit upgrades further in the game are powerful and look to remove environmental penalties - such as hover tanks that can move equally well over land and water.
Espionage, which is referred to in-game as covert operations, has been given a boost in Beyond Earth. You can no longer turn it off in the advanced game setup options, and it makes researching Computing in every game essential - especially if you're playing a game that has the domination victory enabled. High levels of intrigue in a city allow you to perform devastating actions - such as the inciting a Siege Worm attack - but perhaps the most infuriating and powerful action is the 'Coup d'etat'. It only has a moderate difficulty rating, and it allows your spy to transfer control of the target city to your civilisation. Yes, this includes capitals. A well-timed series of coups can bring you a single-turn domination victory.
You're also limited in your path by affinities - if you want to focus on one specific affinity then you'll need to go for certain technologies, which can often leave you feeling that your hands are tied when it comes to choosing what to research.
There are less units in Beyond Earth. The argument can be made that this is a thematic restriction. You're not advancing through technology in the same way as in traditional Civilization games - you're already advanced enough to fly through deep space and land on another planet, after all. The following units are available: workers, colonists (settlers), explorers (scouts, although they can also carry out a limited number of excavations), trade, melee, ranged, fast melee (mounted units in Civilization V), artillery, naval combat, naval transport, air and orbital. Advancing in affinities will change the appearance and stats of these units - and in a nice touch, units are automatically upgraded without having to pay for it.
Speaking of orbital units, this is one of the few strikingly different mechanical changes from Civilization V, and re-introduces a mechanic that we have not seen in a Civilization game for quite some time. Orbital units can be launched into a layer of the map above where your cities and units reside, offering bonuses and functions such as miasma removal, anti-espionage, terraforming and military platforms.
Perhaps the biggest mechanical change in Beyond Earth is the introduction of quests. These are optional tasks that provide rewards or bonuses. Some take the form of decisions that allow you to choose a reward - do you want to take the harmony route, of the supremacy route? Would you like your trade convoys to be safe from alien attack, or would you like your Ultrasonic Fence to have greater range? Do you want your trade depots to provide extra energy, or extra production? Quests really help to guide the progress of your game and give some additional impetus to the mid-game, which Civilization V lacked in epic/marathon speeds.
Victory conditions have been reworked extensively - only Domination remains from Civilization V. 'Contact' involves building a specific wonder and defending it for a set amount of turns while it reaches out to an advanced alien race. 'Emancipation' is tied to the supremacy affinity and is based on building a portal and sending units back to Earth. 'Promised Land' is tied to the Purity affinity and is the opposite of Emancipation - you bring people from Earth to the new planet. 'Transcendence' is tied to the Harmony affinity and is similar to the Contact victory type - build a wonder and defend it.
The new victory conditions are disappointing in that none of them create an entertaining a game as Domination - and the only method to stop any of the other victory types is either by building the required wonder quicker or invading anyway. They don't do enough to vary the endgame.
Just a quick section on performance this time. As mentioned in the intro, Beyond Earth uses the same engine as Civilization V. Maybe the game progresses a hair quicker in the end game, but that could be down to the fewer number of factions that can be on a map at any one time. Graphically no improvements seem to have been made. A positive in this area is that the game is much more stable than Civilization V was on release, but again, as there are so few changes in the engine this should be expected.
A note on higher resolutions - tested with DSR - the interface suffers badly even when scaling to 1440p - it's too small and there's no option to adjust. Developers should really be taking note of higher resolutions now - interface scaling is a must.
As I wrote this review, I took the view that this is a progression from Civilization V rather than Alpha Centauri 2, and related my experiences accordingly. However, given the theme of the game and the mark that Alpha Centauri left on the games industry, it's inevitable that people will look to use that as a benchmark for Beyond Earth. The first time you start a game in Beyond Earth, you'll be reminded of Alpha Centauri - but sadly, viewing the game in this regard will leave it in a poor light. There is not as much story here, there's not as much character and the game does feel a lot like you're playing an extensive mod of Civilization V. There is less difference here than there was between Civilization and Colonization, and certainly less difference between Civilization 2 and Alpha Centauri. Ultimately, I think people expecting Alpha Centauri will become more disappointed the longer they play Beyond Earth.
There are areas where I think Firaxis didn't make enough changes. Diplomacy and the AI for instance are practically identical to Civilization V - they've added 'favours' which can be used an alternative bartering currency, but aside from that, the negotiations will take on a very familiar pattern very quickly - including the cascading wave of denunciations and the potential for suddenly being declared public enemy number one with little cause.
I find the end-game relating to the new victory conditions to be too rushed. They're too similar to one another and achieving them is very anti-climactic. I won with the contact victory condition - literally all I had to do was build a wonder, activate it (by the way, the game really needs to tell you how to progress in victory conditions, the icon to activate the wonder was seventy-five percent transparent, not mentioned anywhere and tucked away in the corner of the UI) and wait twenty turns. Upon achieving victory, I got a little pop-up window with some flair text, clicked through to rather lacklustre image with the same flair text and then given the option to carry on or end the game. No review of the game progress, no nice charts or time-lapse graphics, either. It would have been great if an alien mothership landed next to my capital, or if with the emancipation victory you could go to a small map of earth and lay waste your former home. Oh well, perhaps it can be modded in?
The lack of a satisfying ending for any victory type, save domination which brings its own climax, is enough to leave a sour taste in the mouth.
The other major gripe I have with the game is that they made no attempt to change the limitation on empire building. As mentioned earlier, health is very restrictive, much in the same way that happiness was in Civilization V and I feel that allowing one of the new affinities or virtue trees a way around that would have been a clever way to differentiate how the game feels in comparison to Civilization V.
Negatives aside, I have had fun playing through several games of Beyond Earth - and the fact that I've managed to get to the end of three over a weekend speaks highly to how engrossing the game can be once you've gotten started. If you look at this game without referencing Civilization V or Alpha Centauri, it stands up well. It's a very capable 4X strategy game that has great potential for expansion, both through DLC/expansion packs or the modding community.
At the end of these articles I will finish with a single line that sums up my recommendation - Worth a buy, wait for fixes, wait for sale, wait for more content or avoid.
For Civilization: Beyond Earth, my final recommendation will change depending on your experience with the series. If you're new to Civilization, I'll give it the worth a buy recommendation. If you've put plenty of hours into Civilization V or are desperately awaiting Alpha Centauri 2, then I would suggest that you wait for a sale, as you may find that not enough has changed, nor does it have the commitment and production value of Alpha Centauri to justify the AAA release price.