Space. The final frontier, as Star Trek puts it. It's been a mainstay of the Civilization series ever since the first game, where one of the more peaceful ways of achieving victory was to launch a spaceship to a far-away galaxy, to find a habitable planet and settle there. It's the kind of voyage that takes years and years to complete, and you won the game as soon as the ship arrived. Civ never dealt with what happened upon their arrival. Until now.
Things are bad on Planet Earth, humanity is close to being doomed due to something called The Great Mistake. In a desperate attempt to ensure survival, many of Earth's nations send colonization ships into deep space, and you assume the role of commander on one of these, just as it arrives on a strange and alien planet, far away from our solar system.
From that point on, your mission is clear: establish a base, provide for your colonists, and discover the secrets and resources of the planet. With a bit of luck and a lot of skill, you'll build a new future for humanity.
It's an idea Firaxis has worked with before. Back when the studio was relatively young, and the rights to the Civilization series was out of the hands of Sid Meier and crew, they made Alpha Centauri. The game became a cult hit, was lauded as one of the best strategy games ever, and fans have been longing for a sequel ever since.
But while Alpha Centauri has been a big inspiration for Civilization: Beyond Earth, the two lead designers, David McDonough and Will Miller, are quick to point out that their game is not a direct sequel.
"Alpha Centauri was a huge influence. Both of us played that game a lot, and we made Beyond Earth game for fans of that game", says Miller. "That said, Beyond Earth is not Alpha Centauri, it's not a sequel, it's not a prequel, it's a new game. It's Civilization in space like Alpha Centauri was, but we made it to stand on its own. It's our take on that idea".
And what is that take like, then? That's what Gamereactor, as one of the only outlets in the world, travelled to the state of Maryland to discover, to visit Firaxis and try the game for ourselves.
At first glance, Beyond Earth looks like Civilization as we know it, to a degree where Civ V players will feel right at home. The game board is made up of large hexagonal tiles, and the UI, the button placement, the keyboard shortcuts, the big "End Turn" button in the bottom right corner, are all recognisable. But obviously, there are differences. The terrain feels unfamiliar, with huge craters and canyons cutting through the surface. We see grasslands and desert, but also tiles shrouded in a mysterious green mist, rocks suspended in the air, and a few tiles above us we even see alien creatures.
Before actually arriving on the planet, we've already made a string of choices. The first one is our sponsor - the nation back on earth that backed and supplied our voyage into space. The different countries have names like Franco-Iberia, African Union, Polystralia, Brazilia, Pan-Asian Cooperative and ARC (American Reclamation Corporation), hinting at the state of things in the old world. As always, different nations provide different bonuses.
Next, we select what type of crew we've brought on our ship, which again provides different bonuses, favoring either production, science, economy or military. Next choice is our craft itself, providing different bonuses at the start of the game, such as seeing the outline of continents, nearby lifeforms, or giving you a big pile of energy, Beyond Earth's equivalent of cold cash.
Finally, we choose our cargo, in this case guns, which means we'll get a free marine unit as we land. So far, so good. Time to explore.
I found by first city and send my explorer unit west, far away from the aliens north of my position. I order my marines to become intimately familiar with this native life form. They uncover a nest full of the bug-like creatures, and are immediately attacked. My marines are made of the right stuff, though, and with a little aid from my city's missile battery, they clear out both bugs and nest a few turns later.
"The alien creatures that you find are not sentient, they're not like a whole other civ, but not they're animals either," David McDonough explains. "They're somewhere in-between, and they pay attention to what you do. Everything from how you treat the land to whether or not you encroach on their nests, they will take up a reaction against you. If you're aggressive towards them, they'll be aggressive back, but if you leave them alone, they'll gradually become more neutral."
In this case, the nest was almost right next to my city, and since they pop out a steady stream of alien creatures, I'd end up being overrun if I didn't clear it. Later on I discover more nests further away, but by keeping my distance I avoid confrontation, and the creatures leave me be as promised.
Back in my city, I spend some of the energy I've brought along to buy a worker unit and start constructing my first building. The worker's first task is to build a farm on one of the grassland tiles nearby, providing food for my population and allowing my city to grow. Next order of business is to clear the green mist covering a few of the adjacent tiles.
The mist is called miasma, and is poisonous. If I leave a unit in the miasma, they'll gradually lose some health each turn. Not enough to kill them immediately, but enough that you'll mostly want to avoid it. Units can move through it without damage though, as long they don't make any stops. The aliens, on the other hand, love the miasma, as it'll heal them and give them attack bonuses. In other words, it has to go.
It's time to get my scientists cracking on new technology, and there are big changes in this area. Traditionally, the Civilization series has used a technology tree that you'd gradually move along linearly, but for Beyond Earth, the devs have replaced it with a technology web. You start at the center and move outwards in the directions you find most useful. Many technologies are interconnected, meaning there several paths to most tech. Unlike previous Civ games, the web is has many more options than you'll be able to research within a single game - there'll always be technologies and directions you won't get, McDonough says:
"We designed the web to be bigger than the size of the game, so you wont get them all. And we designed it to be diverse, so if you really emphasise robotics, and you really emphasise genetics, you're gonna get really different civs, and you probably won't get along."
I start off researching ecology, mainly because it provides me with a new building, the Repeller Screen, that'll keep aliens at a distance from the city. That sounds useful. Zooming in on the web, you'll find smaller bonus techs, called leafs, attached to the bigger overarching techs, the branches. Leafs become available as you progress through the web, can be researched in shorter time, and provides concrete improvements and bonuses. They also give you points towards another of Beyond Earths major concepts - affinity.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is not just about people travelling into space and settling on a new planet. It's also about how new and alien technology influences humanity and its destiny. "The arc of this game is you start as a guy in a space suit, and you end as something very different, but still human," Miller says.
There are three affinities to build towards. The first one is called Purity, and is essentially about retaining the "pure" human while staying away from hijinks like gene manipulation, body augmentation and other new-fangled tech.
The second is Harmony, that's about embracing the biology of the new planet. That means gene tech, plant and animal life, natural resources and so on. Harmony players can, among other things, evolve to gain bonuses from miasma.
Finally there's Supremacy, which is about computers, robotics and advanced weaponry. Cyborgs, robotic limbs, brain implants, that kind of stuff. A fusion of man and machine.
The three affinities will have a major impact on the development of your civilization, your units, what resources you'll need and so on. In other words, they cater to very different play styles with different roads to victory, and each carrying their own distinct identity.
What units you'll have available is also dependent on affinity. Everyone has access to basic stuff like space marines, but other units will be wildly different, even while belonging to the same class on paper. Upgrade options also rely on your affinity.
For instance, Purity is based around big, hulking units with many, many guns. Harmony units are more agile and can utilise the environment to their advantage, and with time you'll develop the ability to build and breed aliens and field them in combat. Supremacy is about finesse and positioning. Individually, their units are the weakest of the bunch, but they'll grow stronger in the right combinations, and can gain bonuses from having friendly units adjacent to them.
Meanwhile, my explorers have come across some ruins, a sign that intelligent life has walked this planet before us. The find is rewarded with energy and construction materials, and also starts our first quest, another new addition in Beyond Earth.
The lead designers quickly point out that quests in Beyond Earth aren't like quests in role playing games. There's no quest to kill 20 enemy units. "We don't have any quests for quest's sake," says Miller. Instead they're optional, with concrete rewards for completing them. "They're not the fundamental engine for the game, like it would be in an RPG. It's very beneficial to do them, and you have to do one at least to win the game, and each quest has a reward at the end, as well as a faction payoff. But we also use them to introduce game systems, and they're very intelligent about when they introduce themselves."
In this case, the quest is about finding two additional ruins. I manage to do so quickly, a good indicator of how short most of them will be - with the exception of the victory quests, that'll be a fair bit more complicated.
There are five ways to win the game in Civilization: Beyond Earth. The first is pretty straightforward, you'll just have to take out your opponents' capitals. The next is to get to the bottom of the mystery of the intelligent creatures, that previously inhabited the planet, discovering a signal from them, building a huge antenna relay and make first contact, Star Trek-style. The remaining three depend on your affinity.
If you're playing Purity, you win the game by opening a warp gate back to Earth, bring a bunch of colonists forward and protect them as they settle, thus saving humanity from a grueling fate.
For Harmony players, the goal is to discover that the planet itself and its many biosystems form a sort of super-organism, and by making contact with it, you'll reach a higher state of consciousness.
Supremacy is by far the most gruesome of the three. Their victory also involves opening a gateway to Earth - but for the purpose of invading the planet and cleansing it of its poor, deluded organic lifeforms and creating a garden of machine Eden. Ouch.
We load up a savegame set a good deal later in the game in order to see more new mechanics and additions. We found another city, a process that's a lot more active and involved than in previous Civilization games.
With the exception of your first city, which essentially represents your spaceship landing, cities don't start out as cities. They start as outposts, only claiming a single tile on the board as territory, and slowly grow to a proper city. The outposts have no defences, their population doesn't grow, and they have to be carefully protected. Establishing trade routes speeds up the process, but these too need protection, at least as long as they're close to your borders and uncharted land.
And so we send out marines to form a protective perimeter, but they quickly draw the ire of a huge digger worm that takes several units to bring down.
"Your small plot on this alien world is a tenuous one, and pushing back the darkness, as you do in Civ, is a more difficult affair," says Will Miller. "You have to actually escort vulnerable things with units that aren't so vulnerable, or they'll get picked off and eaten by the aliens. And expansion is different, we want you to play a much more active role in that part of the game, it's not just fire and forget, now there's a city there."
While the marines are fighting, my explorers come across a derelict settlement, once occupied by intelligent life. This settlement has a lot more to offer than the ruins I've found previsouly, and so I have the explorers set up an expedition, a process that will extract all the knowledge it can from the site over several turns.
I get the same option with the corpse of the monstrous worm creature that my marines fought. By setting up an expedition here, I can learn more about these creatures, where they come from, and hopefully find more effective ways to kill them.
"A lot of the story of the game happens in response to what you're up to. Based on what you're doing in the game, the game board will change and throw different opportunities your way," says David McDonough.
A look around the map shows that we're no longer alone on the planet. Colony ships from other Earthly nations have arrived, settled and made contact. Unlike previous Civ-games, everyone doesn't start out at the same time - other nations arrive within the first 40-50 turns, and bring different sets of things and tech with them than you did. "Depending on when they land, they may bring better things than you have. So there's some asymmetry there that wasn't present in previous civ games. They also make contact with you immediately, so as soon as they get there, you can begin engaging with them diplomatically and see where there capital is," says Will Miller.
"We have radio - we can talk to each other", McDonough adds, referring to diplomacy mechanics of previous Civ games, where you could only contact other civs once you'd bumped into their units on the board.
The other civs relationships with you will be more dynamic and reactive than in previous games, according to the design leads. They care about what quests you're on, what you're doing with your satellites, whether you're riling up the aliens. And naturally, they care about your affinity.
"Affinity is like a philosophical, cultural identity," says McDonough. "As your affinities diverge, that will intensify your diplomatic landscape. And it's not just reflected in the fact that I have more territory and I'm encroaching, because I'm a Harmony player and they grow really well. It's that, I have decided that your attitude towards human life is fundamentally blasphemous, and I will now undertake a holy war to cleanse the planet of your existence. Regardless of how good friends we might otherwise be."
After a quick talk with the leader of the ARC civilization, Suzanne Fielding (who greets us with a spanish "hola"), the demo ends. The thorough tour of the games' many systems and mechanics, more than we have room cover here, is over. While I've only scratched the surface, I'm deeply fascinated. Like Civilization V before it, Beyond Earth constantly presents the player with a string of interesting choices, but as you're no longer bound by history and are literally looking towards the future, these decisions become all the more exciting. With the addition of the technology web and the affinity system, there's a much greater feeling of building "your" civ, rather than building one that goes along familiar patterns.
And speaking with the two design leads, you get the feeling that this has been one of their goals for the game - and one of the reasons they aren't doing an actual Alpha Centauri sequel.
"The strong ideologies of the AC leaders is often cited as one of the things people most remembered," says David McDonough. "I think that the ideological identities in Alpha Centauri were interesting, but also very limiting. If you played Morgan Industries, you were the wealth civ, you could never be anything else. That was your strength, if you didn't play towards wealth, you were doing it wrong, you were gonna lose.
"In this game we said, take some of what made you good, made you strong and noble on earth, take that with you to a new planet, and then find out who you're gonna be. And be able to adapt, able to grow. So you can make turns, you can reorient during the game, and by the time it's over, it's your story, even if it didn't go the way you thought it was gonna go. It's not a question of executing your identity, but discovering it."
Civilization is one of the longest running series in gaming, and also one of the most universally praised. But there's no resting on the laurels for Firaxis, as Beyond Earth feels like a bold step for the series, a giant leap into new and uncharted territory. There's huge potential here - perhaps even for becoming the best game in the series. If nothing else, I'm excited to try out the final game, when Civilization: Beyond Earth releases this fall.