Like Earth, but not like Earth. For example, on Earth we don’t have giant Siege Worms who aggro whenever you invade their space. Nor do we have thick plumes of miasma that can choke the life out of humans, or be thrown at us in organic weapon-like form by some of the planet’s native inhabitants (read: aliens to us). And we sure don’t have half the technology we’ll be striving for through the harnessing of raw minerals and materials on our new home among the stars. Yes, it’s very much “Civilization in space”, and of course it’s a “spiritual successor” to Alpha Centauri as a result, but it’s also working to craft its own place among both namesakes, and this is going to be the result of a few seemingly small, but devilishly deep changes to how you play a Civilization game.
Exploration, for example, will lead to new discoveries that will be alien to humans and human history. We’re also told the native life on the planet will eventually be able to be taken control of for the betterment of your civilisation. How this happens will be somewhat familiar barring the emergence of the game’s new dynamic quest system. But initially, it’s not going to be easy being the true aliens here.
“The alien AI is something we’re still working on and fine-tuning,” explains lead game designer Will Miller. “The intention was for this planet to be pretty hostile when you get there. But yes there are different ways to get the aliens under control.”
“Yeah, if you antagonise the aliens too much without proper planning, you can be wiped out by them,” adds lead designer David McDonough.
It’s an important aspect to the game, and while it’s not specifically pointed out as a core pillar in the usual PR-driven bullet-point sense, it’s immediately apparent. The biggest environmental hurdle you really ever faced in the Earth-based Civ games was desert, cold or unnavigable water -- all aspects you can understand and respect from the outset. On your new home, however, not everything is understood right away and your instincts to attack and kill what you don’t understand could be your ultimate undoing. In many ways, the initial hostility is likely going to lead to a greater appreciation of the game-world and how you can use it to your advantage.
In fact, the planet itself is tied heavily to one of the game’s three Affinities -- visions for colonising mankind that include Purity, Supremacy and Harmony -- the latter being the focus of your new home. Anyone who adopts the Harmony affinity is going to embrace the planet, its inhabitants and its core offerings. Supremacy rejects assimilation to the world[s] around us though, and it’s here you can focus on the advancement of humanity in the ubiquitous sense -- through cybernetics and augmentation, humans can effectively live and go anywhere -- unhindered by the dangers of human frailty. Purity then, is changing the planet to be more Earth-like; to terraform it so that “human frailty” I mentioned can be overlooked and we -- as a pure species -- can survive.
Obviously these aren’t binary choices though, and as you play through and make decisions you’ll impact each affinity in varying ways that will weave a unique web to you and your playstyle. It’s a fitting metaphor too, because there’s no longer a tech-tree to build on, but rather a tech web because “we don’t know what the future of mankind is going to be” -- in other words, the game isn’t working off existing or known technology and the more specialised you become in your tech-web investment, the more likely you are to start discovering truly “out there” sci-fi inspired ideas. And all of this ties back into my first point about what’s so differential here -- exploration.
To carry the theme further, while the previous games have been a personal journey for players based on building and advancement choices, Beyond Earth will carry with it a series of quest lines built to not only help you learn the nuances of the new venture, but to help with context and to give you a bit of narrative choice. There’s a meta-game built around spying and espionage, for example, that expands upon anything like it in the past, but your choices in these narrative-driven missions will add to the exploration for just who, you as a player in a brave new world, are. It’s an interesting idea for game that is normally about mathematical choices, and one -- given the setting -- I fully embrace as a fan of the series.
Getting hands-on with the game recently, I can tell you it’s easy to pick-up-and-play if you dabbled at all in Civ V (even previous games, but this builds off the systems in V). We had 55 turns which, if you’re a veteran, you’ll know is not even remotely enough to know how it’s going to play out at all and the new sub-systems and menus, while looking familiar, are definitely a bit daunting for that sort of play environment. It looks good in pre-alpha and by the end of my turn I’d explored a rather large chunk of the landscape, completed at least three small investigation quests, destroyed one Siege Worm, created a veteran unit and was on my way to building my first wonder. But without more time, it’s just not enough.
I didn’t even get to play with the Orbital Layer, which is another playspace entirely that lets you use satellites for technology, settlement and unit buffs as well as what I assume is a lot more, but I’ll need more than 50-odd turns to really explore the space.
What I can say is that the game is familiar in its core systems, but enticing for all the things I don’t know about or fully understand. Ideas like being able to not only control the native inhabitants, but genetically create a hybrid of them, or discover ancient alien ruins of civilisations who’ve been here before you are just the sort of thing I’ve been wanting in this series for a while. And while it’s certainly in similar company to Alpha Centauri, it looks like it’ll blast its own unique path through the stars, and beyond
. More please.