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Hands-On: Civilization - Beyond Earth

Alien Nations

Last week, I visited Firaxis to talk about the studio's history and the ongoing evolution of Civilization. We mainly focused on the series of games rather than humanity's works as a whole, so as to stay on topic, and I spent part of the day playing Beyond Earth. Is it a sci-fi spin-off or a fully fledged sequel? How precisely is it related to the series and to the much-loved Alpha Centauri? Later this week, I'll share conversations with the development team and more thoughts on the history of the series, but first of all, here are some impressions of the game itself.

Please don’t be a Civ V reskin, please don’t be a Civ V reskin.

I say that as someone who likes Civ V, particularly now that it has expanded so impressively. One of the many problems associated with preview trips is that they often take place in a faraway land. That means creaking eyelids on the early morning train to the airport, the resigned anticipation of jetlag and remembering to pack an extra pair of pants. In the case of TransAtlantic trips in particular, it also means sitting for hours on a plane with a mind returning to the same questions again and again. Will Ferrell’s sketch-stitched man-child routine is just the right level of background noise – it shouldn’t escape onto a bigger screen down on the ground but the occasional chuckle distracts from the storm brewing just beyond the wingtip.

I’m heading to Firaxis to learn what makes the company tick. Civilization has been a constant in my gaming life, just as it has been the thread running through the house that Sid built, and I’ll be speaking to employees who remember the early days, tracing the history of the studio and the series at its heart.

That comes later though. First, there’s the small matter of Beyond Earth. The announcement flared up in my inbox like a supernova. The older parts of the internet spluttered with excitement. Alpha Centauri’s back, went the whisper, ALPHA CENTAURI IS BACK AT LAST.

As more information trickled out, it became clear that sci-fi Civ does not automatically equate to an updated Alpha Centauri. Beyond Earth will be a different game and that should give hope that it’ll be something entirely new rather than a faucet piped into the murky reservoirs of nostalgia.

The majority of my doubts sprang from one simple fact – Civ is a series about exploring what is already known and Beyond Earth will be transposing that framework onto a story of the unknown. How much of Civ’s structural integrity is purpose-built to support linear progression through history? Civ V’s shift to hexes and abandonment of unit stacking changed a great deal in the turn-by-turn experience, but Beyond Earth needs to alter the superstructure of the long-term experience if it is to be something other than Civ in space.

That’s why I spend most of the trip to Firaxis’ Maryland studio wondering what the convincing change to the formula will be. I want to see evidence that Civ V’s core can handle mystery as well as history.

Three playthroughs of the first one hundred turns following planetfall convince me that, yes, Beyond Earth is capable of emulating alien experiences. It doesn’t sound like enough, one hundred turns, and in many ways it isn’t. I want to see the later tech, I want to nurture my new outposts and I want to defy my fellow humans as we begin the struggle for resources and space. Playing a Civilization game with a turn limit is an exercise in frustration. At E3, the limit was set to 50 – I have double that and I make full use of my time to explore alternative paths. In theory.

In truth, Beyond Earth doesn’t allow me to set my goals quite as comfortably as I’m accustomed to. I could play the beginning of almost any Civ game a hundred times and do almost exactly the same things. There are learned behaviours that dictate the movement of settlers, the build queues that I lay out and the route that I take through the tech tree. Beyond Earth tears up the blueprints, smashes the GPS and feeds my colonists to an enormous siege worm.

Civ V changed the way players interacted with the map, adding those extra sides to each space and only allowing one unit to occupy them at a time. The two expansions fleshed out the mid- and end-game, adding new layers to the map and civs, as we as additional diplomatic interactions. Beyond Earth leaves the map as it is, in terms of the basic rules that govern it, and works instead on the systems behind it. The most obvious immediate change is the abolition of the tech tree.

There’s still tech to discover, of course, but the linear tree of historical progression has become a web of discovery. It’s a little like a second map, overlayed on the planet itself. Players begin in the middle, with the technology to survive planetfall and make a home for their people, and from there they set out into the unknown. Tech takes two forms – branches and leaves, suggesting this might be a tree after all. The branches can be unlocked when a learned branch touches them, and leaves are the individual pieces of knowledge that stem from each branch.

The ‘Physics’ branch might allow a Civ to turn over the ‘advanced ballistics’ and ‘atom smasher’ leaves, for example. Different applications of the same base discoveries. It’s entirely possible for every faction in a game to journey along different branches to its neighbours. This means that instead of a race toward gunpowder and nukes, along with the same wondrous checkpoints along the route to modernity, Beyond Earth’s late game may well pit divergent factions against one another. This is reflected in the other major change to the formula – affinities.

Broadly speaking, the three affinities define the relationship between a faction and the living planet. Each has its own victory condition, aesthetic and technologies. As well as directly influencing what is and isn’t available to a faction, affinities provide some of the grammar with which Beyond Earth tells its stories.

Tech, units and aliens aside, storytelling may be the strongest focus for the team working on this new iteration of Civ. It’s not the sort of thing that makes for easy marketing material, a push toward a new type of strategic storytelling, but the evidence of a concentrated effort to engineer new narrative ideas is clear throughout the game. Discovering new tech doesn’t just trigger flavour text, it requires decision-making. How will the advances be applied in the new society you are building?

Missions arise too, early in the game. Crashed ships, ancient ruins and evidence of a progenitor race with technology beyond our wildest dreams (there’s always a progenitor race with technology beyond our wildest dreams). Using Civ V’s intelligent and clean UI, information and events drip down the right hand side of the screen awaiting the player’s attention. If the density of the early stages holds up, this will be a much busier game than previous Civs. In the (almost) 300 turns I played, across three separate starts, barely a single one passed without some interruption to my master plan.

One game saw me on a relatively benign continent, which I explored and excavated. Explorer units have a one-use excavator to dig up ruins, enormous skeletons or wreckage. Sometimes their efforts will uncover the beginning of a long-running subplot, revealing the planet’s secrets, or those of the stars beyond. Sometimes they’ll simply provide a resource boost. As other factions arrive, they introduce themselves and their base appears on the map. They’re friendly at first, or stand-offish at least. The planet must be tamed or beaten into submission before the humans can resort to the old warlike ways.

But on that first playthrough, the planet seemed tame enough already. Aliens aren’t aggressive, to begin with at least, and I gave the few species I encountered plenty of space, content to poke at the new tech and explore the surface.

On my second attempt, I decided to build a second colony. This involves building an outpost and cultivating it, ensuring that it survives its vulnerable infancy. Like so much else in the game, it’s a taste of the familiar with a few new ingredients added into the mix. Realising I didn’t have time to nurture the outpost, I decided to head to sea, which is where I met some of the planet’s larger lifeforms. Unlike barbarians, the aliens come in many shapes and sizes, and they are capable of mass destruction if angered.

My final playthrough almost ended before the 100 turns had expired. My first colony attracted two siege worms, like a piece of bait on the planet’s surface. They’re enormous creatures, emerging from the ground and swallowing units whole. All of my improvements, precious farms and mines, were smashed into pieces by the things’ passage, and I decided to fight back. It took fifteen turns for my city’s bombardment to destroy one worm and my explorers had found another family of the bastards to the east, where a collection of tempting ruins and wrecks lay on a miasma-choked plain. By the time the turn counter reached 100, I was in retreat, even though I'd discovered 'pet' aliens of my own.

I always tend to play Civilization the same way. Culture victories, peace and research. Beyond Earth won’t allow me to do that. The changes to tech, the addition of alien lifeforms and the extra narrative incentives are all part of a bigger fundamental shift – Beyond Earth forces the player to be reactive rather than following a formula. Even in the short time I spent with the game, I threw out my strategies and rethought my approach several times. And that’s before having a chance to deal with the other factions in any depth.

Beyond Earth is not a reskin, although it is recognisably a sequel to Civ V, sharing some of the same philosophy. Civ V changed the course of the series and that’s something I’ll be writing about later this week, with commentary and thoughts from several Firaxis members, including the two designers at the head of Beyond Earth.

It’s a far more interesting game than I’d anticipated. Early impressions, from afar, suggested that it might lack Alpha Centauri’s character and it certainly takes a very different approach. But the initial disappointment when the factions were revealed has drained away – Beyond Earth has backstory aplenty but its mechanics are engineered to allow players to create a personality for their faction rather than to adopt one. The tech tree, the affinities and the wildly varied victory conditions – one involves ‘emancipating’ the people of Earth from their flesh, another involves becoming Carl Sagan’s poet - are all part of the process by which the people who have left Earth become something new.

Their story hasn't already been told and their choices haven't yet been made. Through exploration, development and conflict, factions will take on a personality. The choices and strategies that define that personality are already looking far more diverse than what I've come to expect from myself, and from Civ. To avoid being the same game in a new set of clothes (purple clothes, right? Aliens always come in purple), Beyond Earth needed more than flavour text and thematic weight.

It has those things and the intricacy with which these particular futures have been created is far more impressive than I'd expected, but it also requires new strategies, many of which comfortably tie back to those themes of controlling strangers in a strange land. After years of feeling in control of my various civilisations and their path through history, a taste of the unknown is more than welcome.

Until I've experienced the mid- and late-game, it's impossible to say whether the game will retain the tension and surprise of these early hours, but it's a pleasing start. Importantly, there's enough shown in those beginnings to leave my mind full of imagined tactics and strategies a week after playing. Beyond Earth presents a lot of information but all of it feeds back into the basics of the design - management of resources and space. Easy enough to grasp, but with so many new permutations, mastering it might be as tricky as holding onto a siege worm.

Civilization: Beyond Earth is out on October 24th, worldwide (no oceans in space).

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