A whole new world. A new fantastic point of view.
…I’m so sorry.
However, I am pleased to report that sci-fi strategy game Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is not simply Civ V with green face paint on. It has the same hexes and it does have much of the same infrastructure as its historical-themed predecessor, but its transformation into something alien goes far more than miasma-coated skindeep. The essential framework of Civ remains, but the final frontier – for the 200 turns with beta code I’ve spent there – requires a very different sort of thinking.
Most pointedly, an alien is not a barbarian. Where, back on Earth, centuries ago, I fought against roaming angry, hairy dudes, now I’m up against house-sized, poison-lobbing manticores and clouds of massive green insects, spawned at a faintly traumatic rate from the nests that litter the surface of the world you’re attempting to colonise. In Beyond Earth, simply getting your first colony established is a challenge; getting a second colony up and running is a BFD.
To some degree I’m over the hump once I have got to the point of colony 2, and have clambered up a few tech tree branches, but much depends on how the alien nests are placed. In my first five games of CBE, there was a clutch of nests basically right next door to my starting settlement. Getting an Explorer past them was a suicide mission most of the time – although they wouldn’t always attack – and my resource and population-light colony just couldn’t crank out enough soldiers to get rid of the small, regenerating swarm in a timely fashion.
My settlement itself wasn’t in enormous danger, although a massive worm-thing which arrived at about turn 50 did a number on the improvements I’d built around it, but all I could really do was survive. Trading with other civilizations or micro-nations wasn’t yet viable because the scaly bastards camped outside my door would kill all my envoys – at least until I’d picked a particular bit of research – and to build a Pioneer for a second colony was risking tons of spending and waiting on something that might well get nobbled too.
This is the frontier of frontiers. This isn’t Earth. Making any progress in an alien world should be tough. Small wins, tiny progress: I’m attempting the hitherto impossible, after all.
There’s also a creeping anxiety that maybe I shouldn’t be killing these aliens at all. While they’re aggressive – particularly if I send units too close to their nests – they were here first. Here I am – as well as potential chums or rivals from the likes of Franco-Iberia and the Pan-Asian Co-operative (which sounds like a specialist UK supermarket) – building farms and mines and reactors all over their world.
With my preview build limited to 200 turns, I don’t yet know if there will be later consequences or options, but right now I’m being reminded of another Civilization spin-off, Colonization. That offered the choice to work with or butcher the Native American population as my colonies expanded, and while I’m not going to be trading sugar with pissed-off giant alien insects, I wonder if demolishing the resources they live off so I can lay down roads and generators is the right thing to do. We shall, much later on, see.
The business of survival, interwoven with a vague agonising about whether I should expunge or work around the chitinous natives, means I spend little time courting or challenging the other human factions who have arrived here. I haven’t yet chosen to be warlike, so I quickly agree to offers of open borders and unspecific co-operation, doing my best to keep everyone sweet. This is familiar fare: Kavitha Thakur of the Kavithan Protectorate wants me to join their war on Samatar Jam Barre of The African Union. I politely decline.
Some Relationships cool to Neutral rather than friendly as I try to be all things to all nations, but no shots are fired. Hopefully that means everyone’s as busy as I am with the business of simply surviving. It’s slow and difficult work, but I send out pioneers to establish new settlements, I reluctantly beat back the aliens who block the path, and my settlements are gradually blessed with new buildings and improvements.
Then, as the land becomes too full, I settle that little bit too close to a Pan-Asian Co-Operative city. I thought it would be fine – everyone’s chummy around here. Then their leader, Daoming Sochua, declares war. I’m overcome by horror. I’m simply not ready for this.
The PAC are frighteningly militarised. Where I’d been fighting a war of attrition against the aliens with a small handful of regularly-murdered Marines and Combat Rovers, they’d clearly squandered nothing, and had quietly amassed an army of missile wielding rovers, which have appeared almost instantaneously at my doorstep.
After two harrowing turns in which my inability to defend myself is incontestably demonstrated, The Kavithans decide to join in, though I have never once provoked them. The ARC also decide to join in, though I have never once provoked them either. They’ve scented blood – they’re nowhere near my fight against the PAC, but I do have other settlements near them and they now know there’s almost nothing to protect them. Open goals. Evil in their hearts, all this time.
I miss shooting angry alien insects. I also realise that I spent too much time shooting angry alien insects, then worrying about whether I should be shooting angry insects. I chose poorly. I chose a mixed approach – peace to my fellow humans, tempered aggression towards aliens, and a research path that was a bit of this, a bit of that, whatever sounded cool. Out on this distant world, I can’t afford to be so vague and speculative. This is a hostile place, and a priceless goal for all who settle here, and I need to be far more determined and resolute than I ever was on Earth.
There are many familiar things here, and many unfamiliar things too, but what I haven’t been able to have is complacence. Where Earth – where Civilization – was primarily about expansion, this is much more about survival. It requires more caution, more adaptation to a fast-changing playing field, and much more understanding than I currently have. New technology awaits me if I can make it far enough; hell, victory even awaits me at some point. If I want any of that, I simply can’t rely on the old ways.
To come out of character – though I’m not entirely sure I was ever in it – this isn’t Alpha Centauri, but equally it’s not Civilization V. There might be many familiar streets here, but the layout is all out different. What I’ve played has lacked the relative immediacy and the early small triumphs of a traditional Civ game, and there were times (specifically where pushing past the early flocks of aliens seemed an endless and brutal task) when I worried it might not be for me, but those factors have been approached by a more palpable sense of struggle, giving me some measure of the pioneering spirit this game and its theme is all about.
All that said, I’m still not entirely sure what manner of creature this wants to be. Particularly, through all I’ve done there have also been some simmering sub-plots, about progenitor races and augmented humans. Told through sporadic pop-up text usually involving quick choice of response – each with a different resource bonus – they’ve yet to draw me much into the fiction, but I wonder if far greater consequences await me later.
All told, I’m keen to see what happens past turn 200, and what happens if and when I can be in ascendancy rather than simply scrabbling in the dirt.
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth will be released on October 24th. We’ll do all we can to offer you a verdict on it on or before that date.