Civilization: Beyond Earth takes the basic structure of Civilization 5 and infuses it with science-fiction tropes, alien creatures, and a sprawling web of advanced speculative technology. Yes, it's an excellent game. Its only fault is that it's not quite alien enough.
Civ: BE is a rich, deep 4X game (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) with a tech tree that's fun to explore, lush graphics, and an interesting plot that explores a couple of interesting futuristic concepts. Kotaku has already reviewed it, of course, and while I don't 100% agree with that review (I found the other colonies to be quite aggressive enough, thank you), it's a good primer. I want to focus on the science-fiction aspects of the game, and what sets it apart from Civ 5.
That's really the heart of the matter – the developers of Civ: BE had to walk this incredibly fine line between a game so different it doesn't really feel like Civ anymore, and one that's so close to Civ 5 that it's just a glorified reskin. Ultimately, I think they were too conservative in this regard. The parts of Civ: BE I like best, the things that get me most excited about starting up a new game, are the parts that are the most different from Civ 5.
The game's central conceit is that it happens after someone wins the technology victory in Civ 5, sending a huge ship into space to seek a new planet in a new star system to settle. Apparently all the other civs do this too, since a bunch of Earth factions all show up on the same planet within a few turns of each other. The problem here is that Civ 5 is typically played on a random map, so settling a random world with a bunch of other factions feels really similar to Civ 5. In fact, it would be pretty cool to play Civ: BE on an Earth map and pretend you're returning centuries later to recolonize the abandoned world.
The planets themselves are pretty alien, in that the forests have slightly weird trees and the resources are different (fungus, algae, alien xenomass, etc.). The maps are crossed by mountain ranges, craters, and impassable chasms, which tends to make things more constrained – even in a wide open continent, the terrain is interesting because you have these little pockets enclosed by chasms and mountains. With the graphics cranked up to ultra, everything is of course gorgeous.
You eventually unlock a huge variety of tile improvements, far beyond the basic farm/road/mine. You can build domes, generators, satellite arrays, science academies, and even terraform tiles to look like Earth.
The aliens you encounter are essentially wild animals, and take the place of Civ 5's barbarians. There are a few different types, but you'll run into the same aliens no matter which planet you settle, and your interaction with them is basically avoid them or kill them. One key difference is that in the early game they are much, much tougher than barbarians ever were. Remember how you'd send a lone warrior out to explore and beat up barbarians? No. A solitary soldier unit will get obliterated by aliens. I learned a lot of hard lessons sending out poorly protected colonists. Once your units are upgraded a bit, you can go out and stomp those bugs with impunity, but at first, be cautious. And if you see a Siege Worm, run away.
Speaking of unit upgrades, you no longer have to pay to upgrade individual units. Most reviews tout this as an improvement, since it eliminates a tedious task from Civ 5. I actually really liked upgrading units manually – you'd have to redirect money and spend a few turns modernizing your military every 30 turns or so, and it really felt like it marked a point between eras (and deciding not to do so gave your civ an identity too). So I kind of miss that.
Something I did not miss was the way you had to send workers out to clear nuclear waste in Civ 4. All the fun of that is back, but this time it's "alien miasma" which infests a good portion of the map when you arrive. In Civ: BE's defense, there are multiple ways to deal with miasma, from sending up a satellite to clear an entire area to choosing certain techs that make your units immune to it.
Satellites are one of the coolest innovations. There's a whole map layer you can use to see what satellites you have in orbit and what map tiles they affect. You can research and build satellites that enhance military capabilities, increase food production, and several other effects. It creates an extra level of strategy, since you can build buildings that increase satellite range and use military or espionage units to take out enemy satellites.
The cornerstone of the entire game, and the best thing about it, is the tech tree. It's more accurate to call it a tech web, and it's the area where Civ: BE diverges most from Civ 5. Instead of narrow set of branches where every choice ultimately takes you to the same place, Civ: BE has you start in the middle of a web of connected techs. Each tech branch has a few leaves beneath it representing more specific technologies within the branch's broader scientific concept. You have to research a branch before you get to the leaves, and the leaves tend to be more research intensive than the branches.
The way the web is set up, there are branches and leaves you'll never come close to researching within a given game. You have to make a serious choice about focusing on a certain part of the web and pushing in that direction, inevitably leaving another area of the web unexplored. This really lets your civ differentiate itself from the others – in my current game, for instance, my civ is invested in computing, AI, robotics, and social engineering. It's very different from one focused on military tech and alien biology.
Instead of the political ideologies from Civ 5, Civ: BE features three "paths": Purity, Unity, and Supremacy. Each one reflects your civ's general attitude toward the alien world you live on and your overall goal about what the civ should ultimately become. Your cities, units, and even leader avatars all change based on the path you choose to follow. It can affect how you relate to other civs, too. A civ dedicated to Purity will kill a lot of aliens and remove as much miasma as possible. Their Unity neighbors will be disappointed.
There are also virtues, which determine your civ's pragmatic approach. Moving down the virtue tree gives you a stronger military, better science, or faster growing cities. There's a benefit to taking a more general approach as well, since you get bonuses for both how deep into a certain part of the tree you go and how broadly you select virtues across one tier of the tree.
All of these elements are entwined: tech, virtues, diplomacy, choices with aliens all lead to quest choices which pop up from time to time. Initially these seem fairly general, and give you a choice of an added bonus for a new building you can build in your cities. Some quests drive an ongoing plot and depend on your path. For instance, my AI-heavy civ endured a mild robot revolt that lead to the creation of a robot-only city within the civ. If you play this game a lot, you will of course see the same quests pop up in each playthrough, but in the late game, different situations will occur that keep things fresh.
I wish the aliens were something more than animals to kill or farm, and I wish the factions were weirder and more distinctive – or maybe even alien. But with its intricate tech web and involving tale about the moral consequences of advanced technology and living on an alien world, Civ: BE has sunk its hooks into me. In a year, when a I feel like playing some Civ, will I pick Civ 5 or Civ: BE? It depends if I want the epic sweep of history or a speculative future. Or it might just come down to how much I love that tech web.