A closer look at the early game in Civilization: Beyond Earth hints at what’s to come later on

Even for those who don’t know the real history of the Babylonians or Egyptians, Sid Meier’s Civilization series has traditionally delighted with a slow and steady climb through the ages rife with familiar discoveries: the wheel, gunpowder, and plastics. That’s part of the allure. You’re not rewriting history, you’re piecing together an elaborate puzzle using significant moments of human advancement.

Civilization: Beyond Earth rockets off into the unknown. The splintered factions of humanity have cast off the familiar, venturing into outer space and on to an unsettled planet, one with new wonders to discover, new wars to fight. Where Civilization is traditionally about imagining historical what-if scenarios, Beyond Earth looks instead to a fantasy vision of our future. Do we attempt to live in harmony, both with ourselves and with the unspoiled world that we lay our heads down on? Do we work to sever our reliance on the frail human form by incorporating machine parts?

The long game in Civilization: Beyond Earth is all about shaping humanity’s future course, but the all-important seeds of what’s to come are always planted during the game’s early years, same as it ever was. For all the talk about venturing into the unknown, our recent time spent with the early game demonstrated just how much remains familiar.

Story and concept

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Infinite Affinity. Each civ commits to following one of three different Affinities, which amount to core philosophies that shape every facet of your people and their culture. Buildings, fashion, units, interactions with indigenous species, even technological development are all heavily influenced by the course you set for your people early on.

The Harmony Affinity is for hippie-dippy tree-huggers, based in the belief that that humanity can co-exist with and even tame this new, alien environment. The Purity Affinity, on the other hand, takes a humanity-first attitude, committing to a development path that preserves the core values of our home planet’s culture. Finally, the Supremacy Affinity treasures technology above all; colonists that pursue this course delve into the realm of cybernetics and finding ways to exist in any environment, no matter how hostile.

Civilization: Beyond Earth rockets off into the unknown, letting you play out a fantasy vision of humanity’s future.

Writing your future. Our demo kicked off after the initial Seeding phase (read about that here), just as colonists in our chosen faction make their initial planetfall. The first 40-50 turns are all about acclimatizing to this new place and establishing a foothold. The settler rush mentality that’s often so key to the early game in past Civilization titles is toned down here. In fact, you can’t even build settlers – they’re Colonists in Beyond Earth – until you research Pioneering.

It’s a small shift that puts much more of an emphasis on discovery in Beyond Earth‘s opening turns. New Quests give your own course of development a much more personal feel. You might be asked to explore a certain tile or set up an excavation (an Explorer unit ability). Complete a quest and you’re presented with a choice. There’s never a wrong answer; it’s more a situation of having to find the right answer for your people.

In one example during our demo, a pair of competing scientific research firms sought to establish a facility near our civ’s starting settlement. The Scyon Group was described as a vertically integrated lab geared toward genetics research, a very friendly setup for the Harmony Affinity. McDonough Labs, on the other hand, specialized in bio-mechanical research and human-machine systems, an easy pick for those in favor of the Supremacy Affinity. Once established, the facility becomes a neutral faction-controlled tile that can be traded with. It’s not a huge step away from the city-states of more recent Civ games, but the quest system establishes more of a personalized story for players to latch onto.

Gameplay

Screenshot_Terrain_Lush01

Into the familiar unknown. The heart of Civilization: Beyond Earth doesn’t feel unfamiliar. There’s some new iconography to learn in the user interface, and a handful of redesigned or brand new systems, but the moment-to-moment turn-based play (and “just one more turn” hook) remains the focus. You move your units around on a familiar, grid-based map, shift workers around to develop your territory, zoom in on cities to manage production … all the basic parts are there. That is until you realize that, instead of barbarians, there’s an assortment of alien life wandering about.

The indigenous beings you encounter on the planet aren’t evolved to the point of possessing technology, but they have an intelligence. The alien beings were described to us as a global faction unto itself. Like the other factions in a Civ game, they respond accordingly to both peaceful and aggressive acts. There’s no diplomacy option as there is with a developed civ, but leave the xenos alone and, for the most part, they’ll leave you alone.

This gives way to some fresh late-game possibilities once you factor in the new Affinities. Harmony-seekers want to live in peace with the world around them, so they’re likely to leave the indigenes alone. Supremacists, on the other hand, desire an existence that is independent of the surrounding environment. Their natural inclination to clear space to settle in disrupts the alien life. And the way the global “faction” works, disturbed aliens take out their frustrations on any nearby civ, regardless of Affinity.

2KGMKT_CivBE_Concept_Leader_KavithaThakurThe tangled web of technology. Technological advancement in Beyond Earth no longer follows the straight line that it did in previous games. Instead, tech is laid out on a massive web, usually with more than one item to research at each individual node. Affinities play an important role here. Throughout the web, certain advancements are marked with one of the three Affinity icons, an indication that researching the item carries an experience award within the connected Affinity.

We’re not clear on the full scope of how Affinity experience gains work, but we did see a unit upgrade screen that relates, one that exists separately from unit veterancy as it’s existed in previous games. Your troops will still level up as they survive and perform successful attack/defense actions, but they’ll also improve on a global level as your civ’s connection with a particular Affinity grows. The upgrade window breaks down into three tiers of improvements, with each tier empowering your gathered armies with anything from generally boosted attack/defense ratings to more specific specializations, such as bonuses when dealing with ranged troops or supporting troops in adjacent tiles with damage boosts.

Growth is a Virtue. The Social Policies of past Civ games are replaced in Beyond Earth with Virtues. They’re similar in some ways to the policy trees of old, breaking down into four separate categories: Might, Prosperity, Knowledge, and Industry. Choices in each tree help a civ grow in a variety of ways, and just like past Social Policies, there are bonuses for going deep and unlocking everything in a tree.

Unlike Social Polices, Virtues also carry rewards for players that spread their unlocks across multiple trees. These breadth bonuses work with any configuration, but Firaxis built Virtues so that certain trees are more complementary than others. Military-minded civs will see advantages in spreading Virtues between the Might and Knowledge trees, as this approach helps the civ research more powerful military units at an earlier point. Similarly, Prosperity pairs well with Industry for inward-looking players that want lots of infrastructure and Wonders; “aggressive turtling”, as a studio spokesperson refers to it.

Presentation

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A familiar alien world. Aside from the completely alien landscape and cosmetic UI changes, Civilization: Beyond Earth looks much the same as the more recent Civ games that precede it. The top-down, isometric perspective reveals more details as you zoom in closer and closer to the ground, same as always. The really noticeable change is to the landscape, with environments that look distinctly unfamiliar, from the wide fissures cutting across the land to the otherworldly forests and new resource tiles.

It’s definitely a fresh take, like nothing we’ve ever seen in a Civ game before. That said, Beyond Earth is immediately familiar if you’re a longtime fan of the series sitting down in front of the game for the first time.

Takeaway

Screenshot_Terrain_Lush03

Good news, fanfolk: Civilization: Beyond Earth is a Civilization game through and through. In the same way that Civilization V became something of a “perfect” version of the game after its expansions were released, the reworked systems in the upcoming game seem to suit the sci-fi setting very well. It’s hard to comment on how the game will shape up over long periods of play, but the early game that we sampled shows a lot of immediate promise.

Civilization: Beyond Earth comes to Linux, Mac OS, and Windows later this year.

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