What would you do if you had an untouched planet to settle and a grip on the keys to humanity’s future? Would you seek out other intelligent life? Bring your technological advancements back to the people of Earth, to either help or conquer them? Descend into petty squabbles with other colonists in a selfish bid for power?
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth gives you an opportunity to answer this question with Firaxas’ new take on an old idea. A very familiar old idea if your history with Meier’s work goes back far enough to include Alpha Centauri.
“It’s something a lot of our fans are going to think and, I have to say, they should. Alpha Centauri was a big inspiration for this game,” Beyond Earth Lead Designer David McDonough tells Digital Trends. “But it’s important to remember that this is not actually the same game again. It’s a whole new idea for Civilization [that considers] the future of mankind on an alien world.”
For a fan who’s poured tens of hours (if not hundreds) into the Firaxis franchise, it’s hard to imagine how a Civilization game could even work outside the boundaries of known history. Starting out in the Stone Age and building toward a nuclear-powered future is just as intrinsic to the experience as the turn-by-turn tactical play that sees players expanding their borders and influence – militarily, culturally, economically, scientifically – with each passing year.
McDonough agrees that there’s a challenge, but it’s not as insurmountable as it might seem. “There are the bones of the experience that every Civ game has in its core DNA. A lot of things that every Civ fan will recognize are the bones of this experience too. The maps, the units on the tiles, the city improvements and buildings, Wonders, leaders and diplomacy. But when we built this game, we stripped Civ down to that aforementioned skeleton and rebuilt the whole experience on top of that.”
This rebuilding process cleared the way for entirely new, fresh elements, things that either hadn’t been attempted or hadn’t even been possible in the past games. There’s a whole quest system, designed to introduce players to the alien landscape around them and the possible courses of development. There’s an orbital layer to build into, for military, scientific, and economic purposes. There’s the planet itself, an environment filled with competing colonists and any number of unknowns. There’s even a rethinking of how the building blocks of a typical civ’s life are first laid out.
“It’s sort of like a prequel, a prologue to the game. We call it the Seeding,” McDonough says of the opening section of any Beyond Earth game. “You get to choose a bunch of customization options for who you are and what your colony expedition is made up of. Starting with your faction and then selecting the colonists that go along, the spacecraft you travel in, the cargo you bring with you.
“It’s a whole new idea for Civilization [that considers] the future of mankind on an alien world.”
Technological development is also the product of a complete overhaul, with the semi-linear march through the ages that characterized previous games replaced by a web-like grid of advancement possibilities. “In this game you start with technology that we understand and grow toward … a science fiction future where we’ve got to imagine what the limits of humankind are going to be like in 1,000 years. All [colonists] start in a common centerpoint surrounded by roughly recognizable technologies and then grow outwards into any frontier that you want.”
The most dramatic shift, however, may be the way Beyond Earth‘s endgame plays out. Traditionally, Civilization games are a race to be the best at your chosen path of development before anyone else can be the best at theirs. You earn a military victory by squashing all competing leaders and taking their capitals. A cultural victory is the product of an enlightened society. These are grounded concepts that, in many ways, are inspired by much of the conflict and competition – both armed and unarmed – in real-life history.
Beyond Earth requires a different paradigm. It’s right there in the title. We are beyond Earth. The traditional rules of human growth and development don’t apply. That rulebook hasn’t even been written yet, not outside of fictional utopian and dystopian works that consider humanity’s present-day condition and where it might lead.
The idea with Beyond Earth – which, at its heart, is a work of interaction science fiction – is to let players write the rulebook, and the endgame is a product of that thinking. “The aim of the game is to survive this sea change for the human race and then set up the next one,” McDonough says. “There’s three [victory conditions] based on this concept called Affinity. It’s sort of an ideological post-human agenda. An imagining of a possible endpoint for humanity at the end of the game.
“In this game you start with technology that we understand and grow toward … a science fiction future.”
The moment-to-moment mechanics of aligning your colonists with a particular Affinity aren’t clear. It’s likely a product of how you tailor the technological growth of your people, since each one represents a major milestone to build toward. Following one or the other isn’t the only way to achieve victory in Beyond Earth, however.
There are two other win scenarios that McDonough refers to as “universal,” in that they’re more tied to the here-and-now of your colonists’ new existence. From the way he describes it, Affinity victories are about pushing all of mankind in a particular direction whereas these universal conditions are about serving your own interests. The Domination victory is the same one we’ve seen in every other Civ game: wipe everyone else out. Then there’s Contact, which involves establishing communications with a sentient alien race on a distant planet.
“We’re hoping that players who love Civ games will find a lot to be happy with in this game, but that it’s totally going to twist everything that they know about how a Civ game is meant to go,” McDonough says. “It’s a whole new experience, a whole new idea within the Civ canon, really enabled by our freedom from historical context.”
“The next big leap for humanity [is your focus], and it is up to you to decide what it’s going to be.”
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is due to arrive for Linux, Mac, and Windows PCs in fall 2014, for $49.99.