Civilization: Beyond Earth Review—The Mistakes of Man

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<em>Civilization: Beyond Earth</em> Review&#8212;The Mistakes of Man

“I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours. There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all.”

Space is equalizing. It is the most hostile environment our kind has ever known. Yet perhaps more now than in the previous half century, our species seems to yearn for it. Even the United States, which has reached the farthest into the void, isn’t by any means dominant in the black. People all over the globe, throughout all of history, have looked up into the night skies and wondered. That giant, black dome, with dotted points of shifting light, pushes us to wonder what the future holds, what lays beyond the horizon.

Beyond Earth wants to be that answer, or at least it aims to get as close as any game reasonably can. In the same way that previous Civilization titles have sought to encapsulate all that humanity has been, Beyond Earth tries to show us what we can be. It’s a lofty goal that makes it that much more painful to see that, at least according to this vision, our future holds yet more strife, prejudice and national conflict.

Opening with a short video clip, Beyond Earth quickly sets its tone. Earth’s been used up and the only hope left for our people is to push into the stars and find new homes. Upon finding a suitable planet, the star faring colonists make planet fall, dig in and do their best to survive on this alien world. From there, it plays almost identically to Civilization V—with half of its features missing. The city building, national management, research and more are still here. Beyond Earth is definitely a Civ game, but it feels like a huge step backwards—thematically and mechanically.

Civilization V had two expansion packs to build upon its initially threadbare foundation. Gods and Kings added religion, city-states and espionage, while Brave New World brought in a stronger emphasis on international trade and a more robust system for managing culture. Beyond Earth keeps only about half of these. Religion, for example, is completely gone. That’s a shame as it helped establish trade routes and economics as a brilliant source of soft power. Now trade feels like another means to an end instead of a piece of an intricate strategic web. Espionage has been beefed up a bit, such that it no longer feels like an afterthought, and the addition of orbital structures provides a myriad of tactical options, but these changes seem geared to a more aggressive, literally xenophobic style of play.

civ beyond earth screenshot.jpg

Different victory conditions (science, cultural, diplomatic, etc.) exist in Civilization games to support not only a myriad of play styles, but a myriad of philosophies. To a degree, that’s retained in Beyond Earth, but the philosophies guiding most of the victory paths are driven by conventional thinking.

When I started my first game, I saw that I could steer my fledgling colony towards “Harmony” with the indigenous wild life. The generally hostile-looking creatures never attacked me or bothered me. It’s something I became increasingly proud of as I saw other civilizations struggling to keep their citizens safe from terrible lizards and massive, carnivorous worms. Eventually, I thought, I’d form a more completely symbiotic relationships with the local fauna. Instead I discovered more and more ways to subjugate these creatures—to manipulate them, control them and abuse them.

The more I think about it, the more this bothers me. There are only two other options for the basic philosophy that guides your Civ—Purity, which seeks to exterminate the local life, and Supremacy which, so far as I can tell, just focuses on human superiority without any emphasis on being intentionally hostile. I’m sure many will suggest that Beyond Earth’s mechanics tie into real-world issues with colonization, but it doesn’t really. In Beyond Earth, we’re told that humanity has no choice, that we’ve reached out to the stars just to survive. The same couldn’t be said of colonially-minded Europeans a few hundred years ago. That distinction is important, because it contextualizes everything else. Colonization out of necessity itself deserves cooperation—a level of mutual respect. But that isn’t something you can achieve in Beyond Earth. Instead, you’ll always ultimately lay the ground work for the same kind of destructive ideologies that led to our needing to leave Earth in the first place. You can command and control, you can wipe out those that are different, or you can pretend that you’re beyond everyone else, ignoring the struggles of those around you.

Victory in Beyond Earth is understandably hollow, because it comes with the understanding that hundreds of years from now, unless something radical changes, this planet will send out a new wave of colonists, people desperate to find somewhere new to call home. I can understand not having every victory condition be genuinely forward-thinking. Some people inevitably cling to toxic ideologies, no matter how far beyond them the rest of the world moves. What I can’t abide, or rather what I find deeply disturbing, is that Beyond Earth masquerades as hope, but ultimately comes off as ruthlessly cynical.

Daniel Starkey has written about games for Destructoid, Gamespot, ScrewAttack, Extra Credits and more. He tweets @dcstarkey.