Building, exploring and conquering for 250 turns in Civilization: Beyond Earth

Civilization is one of the longest and most respected series in gaming. Sid Meier’s original creation from 1991 has seen five major iterations and numerous spin-offs. The latest version, Civilization V, after two major expansions and various smaller additions, is damn near flawless. Where can Firaxis go next that would not be an unnecessary retread for the sake of cash-in iteration?

BANG! ZOOM! Straight [past] the moon!

Civilization: Beyond Earth is science fiction Civ, using the same basic framework that the series has developed over the last two and a half decades not to rewind the tape and play out history as we know it, but to project forward into humanity’s future. We recently had the chance to play out the first 250 turns a few times, more than enough time to form some impressions of what that future looks like.

Story/Concept

To boldly go. You begin where previous Civilizations left off if you won a science victory and took to the stars. 200 years in the future, multinational confederations—such as the industrious Pan-Asian Cooperative or the espionage-savvy American Reclamation Corporation—send colonization missions to a newly-discovered exoplanet. These sponsors are analogous to the civilizations of previous entries, each with a unique bonus that should help guide your overall strategy.

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You can further customize your mission by also choosing things like the type of people to send and what equipment they bring, which allows for finer degrees of specialization. Maybe you want to lean into Pan-Asia’s productivity bonus by bringing engineers for more productive cities and a worker so you can start improving the landscape immediately. Alternatively you could balance and support that bonus with a colony of culture-generating artists and a bigger stockpile of fungible energy, the de facto currency of the future.

Number One, set a course. Without a historical template for your fledgling civilization to follow, it’s on you to define your version of humanity’s philosophy. The affinity system gives mechanical weight to your ideological choices. Researching particular technologies or making certain choices in quests add points to one of three affinities, which unlock a series of increasingly powerful bonuses as you achieve higher and higher levels of commitment. Each has its own victory quests in addition to the familiar options like capturing everyone’s capitals.

Related: A look at the flow of the early game in Civilization: Beyond Earth

Harmony is for Gaia-loving hippies that want to become one with their newfound home. It focuses on adapting your people to the environment, rather than the other way around. It’s not all peace, love, and sunshine, though, since at higher levels of Harmony you call down the cataclysmic wrath of Shai-Hulud siege worms onto rival cities. Over time your units and buildings take on smooth, organic forms and natural colors that let everyone know you’ve truly gone native.

Supremacy is the affinity for Singularity believers that see technology as our salvation and wish to escape this anachronistic meatspace for a utopia of pure data. Technology is what got humanity this far, and so followers of Supremacy choose to lean into cybernetics as the path to a hybrid future of man plus machine that extends farther than either could alone. Your crude, colonial astronauts are gradually replaced by sleek robots that are as ruthless as they are efficient.

Purity rounds out the trio with some good ol’ rah-rah Earthican patriotism. If Harmony and Supremacy are about changing the face of humanity, Purity is for people who wish to honor and preserve humanity, as we know it now. Its technologies focus on terraforming the planet to more closely resemble Earth and defending that new homestead with raw force. Bulky, power-armored space marines are emblematic of the blunt and brutal style that marks Purity.

Gameplay

Just the same, but brand new. Fans of the series will feel immediately at home in Beyond Earth, which utilizes Civilization V’s engine and is faithful to its broad-strokes gameplay. After making planetfall and establishing your first city, you send out an explorer to get the lay of the land while you set your city to work on producing a worker, soldier, monument, or whatever your preferred opening gambit is. Each hexagonal tile produces some combination of food, production, energy, and the occasional strategic resource, and competing colonies race to spread out and build an empire that most effectively exploits the map.

Like the faction customization, more choice is a recurring theme in Beyond Earth‘s spin on the familiar elements of Sid Meier’s venerable game. On completing a new building, a quest window will pop up and present you with a choice about how to utilize it. Do you optimize your thorium reactors for more energy, or harness that excess potential for increased production? These tweaks give you a more personal stake in our colony’s direction. They also add narrative color to buildings that can otherwise feel just like abstract stat boosts.

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Quests come from a variety of other sources besides buildings as a new general mechanics to shape gameplay. One turn you might be informed that plants from Earth have started taking over the local ecosystem at an alarming rate. Whether you choose to contain the intruding flora or let it continue will have different and often unpredictable outcomes as time passes. In addition to modifiers to some of your buildings, quests can reward you with units, resource bonuses, and affinity points. Many of them are available every game, but some are entirely random, giving each play-through its own unique narrative in a way reminiscent of King of Dragon Pass.

Enemy unknown. Replacing the filthy barbarians of Civs past are the native fauna of your newfound home. Like barbarians, aliens spawn endlessly from nests and make the surrounding terrain more dangerous until dealt with. Unlike barbarians, though, how you interact with the aliens over time will affect your relationship. Leave them alone and for the most part they leave you alone. Get too aggressive, though, and their icons will go from green to orange to red, signifying their growing hostility.

Related: Laying out the broad strokes of advancement and affinities in Civilization: Beyond Earth

Roam if you want to. Cultural policies have been replaced with virtues, divided across a simplified system of four trees. Might is for bolstering combat, Prosperity helps your cities grow, Knowledge is for enhanced science and culture, and Industry increases productivity and income. Where previous games artificially bottlenecked policy trees to unlock when you entered particular eras, all four trees are presented to you from the beginning of Beyond Earth to pursue as you see fit. Synergy rewards are granted for unlocking virtues within a tree, rewarding specialization, but there are also rewards to encourage spreading out across multiple trees, unlocking when you hit certain numbers in each of three tiers, regardless of the tree.

Technology has similarly opened up from a linear left-to-right progression into a radial web. You can pursue wildly different courses of development than your opponents, rather than just racing along the same pre-determined track with subtle variations of emphasis. Affinity also factors into how you spread across the web, with certain options blocked or only available to your specific ideological stance.

Presentation

Brave new world. The exoplanets of Beyond Earth are convincingly alien, with glowing chasms dividing up landscapes of fungal forests shrouded in clouds of greenish miasma. The game ships with three biomes (lush, arid, and fungal) that amount to tile sets to give each world a different flavor

Charmingly animated leaders onto whom you can channel all of your diplomatic frustrations also make a return. Although no longer based on actual figures from history, each sponsor has been given a figurehead with whom you can interact. A fantastic touch that just started to manifest toward the end of our allotted 250 turns was that as each colony delves further into a particular affinity, their leader’s appearance changes to reflect that alongside their buildings and units.

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The design of units and buildings is great across the board, pulling from a wide range of source material. In the same way that post-Tolkien medieval worlds with elves and dwarves have been homogenized into “high fantasy,” the finely-tuned balance of tropes in Beyond Earth is a sort of “high sci-fi,” which serves as a perfect blank slate onto which you can project your particular future fantasy.

Takeaway

After playing through the early stages of Beyond Earth a few times we can confidently say that this is far more than a simple re-skin of Civilization V. The highly-refined elements that worked have been kept but every opportunity has been taken to put more choice into your hands. The open-ended and interlocking systems of technologies, virtues, and affinities provide an enormous, recombinant range of strategies and approaches to the game of which we were only able to scratch the surface.

Beyond Earth looks to be as strong a foundation as Firaxis Games has yet produced, building upon the collected wisdom of the series but adding in unique twists that make it stand alone as something exciting and new. We are eager to trek further into this bold new future.

Civilization: Beyond Earth comes out on Windows PC on October 24, 2014, with Mac and Linux versions to follow.

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