Civilization: Beyond Earth hands-on with new details galore!

Last Updated August 16th, 2021

Civilization: Beyond Earth is the game I’m looking forward to more than any other this year. I’ve been playing the Civilization series since number two, I played Alpha Centauri when it was new, and I was at the PAX East Beyond Earth announcement cheering along with the crowd. After that announcement I interviewed the game’s developers and squeezed every bit of information out of them that I could, and I couldn’t wait to learn more.

And then recently I actually got to go hands-on with the game while I peppered a Firaxis team member with question after question…and I had every one of my questions answered.

Buckle up for over 3,000 words of brand new Beyond Earth information (if you’re busy or scared of reading, we’ve put together a quick list of some of the most exciting new Beyond Earth bits, but this article goes into MUCH more detail).

civilization beyond earth logo

Familiar But Fresh

The man guiding me through my first hands-on experience with Civilization: Beyond Earth was Pete Murray of Firaxis, Marketing Manager and a writer for the game. He was eager to provide all the details he could and to help me navigate through the demo, though he was also careful to stress that what I was playing was a “pre-alpha” build and everything was subject to change.

Civilization: Beyond Earth will be immediately accessible to anyone who has played Civ V. The basics of cities, tiles, and units are similar enough to feel familiar while still containing tantalizing glimpses into the changes brought in Beyond Earth. Many features of classic Civ games show up in Beyond Earth in new forms. Resource pods sent from Earth serve the function of ruins or “goodie huts” in past Civ titles, and grabbing them can provide an early boost for your civilization. Players can build futuristic wonders with evocative names like “The Gene Vault” and “The Panopticon,” the latter of which is a sort of super-spy system that provides a variety of bonuses.

civilization beyond earth lush terrainThe hex-based map of Beyond Earth combines familiar and brand-new elements.

Pete explained that, while some of the map types in Beyond Earth will be familiar to experienced Civ players, leaving Earth behind inspired the designers to introduce some dramatically new options as well. Though inaccessible polar regions will remain a standard map feature, the designers pushed the boundaries in other ways. One map type, called “Vulcan,” was described as “the opposite of an archipelago,” which means there are no oceans, just lakes and small seas. With no coastal borders to limit early expansion and exploration, a game on a Vulcan map could offer a very different kind of gameplay experience.

The Beyond Earth world map, rich in green and purple hues, contains some features and resources that players will already know well,  such as mountains, deserts, and oil, combined with brand new elements that introduce unexpected ripples into the familiar Civ formula.

The most dramatic of these new terrain features is the glowing green mist known as the “miasma.” In the early game, you’ll mainly be concerned with keeping your forces out of the alien gas, since the miasma will inflict damage to units that end their turn in it. As you advance through the tech web and upgrade your Workers you’ll have the option to remove the miasma, making your territory a bit more hospitable and Earth-like. For players who follow the Harmony Affinity, however, there’s a dramatically different option. You can work on adapting your people to the new planetary environment to such an extent that the miasma clouds actually provide healing, rather than damage. At that point it can become advantageous to research the “Restore Miasma” ability for your Workers, which will allow you to begin flooding every spare hex of your territory with the green clouds — toxic to other players, but life-giving to your new human-alien hybrid soldiers.

civilization beyond earth miasmaClouds of glowing green miasma provide strategic challenges and opportunities.

Left In The Past

Unique units and buildings are one feature from past Civ games that won’t be showing up in Beyond Earth, because as Pete explained the functions that these elements had served in the past are covered by different systems in Beyond Earth. Most of the differentiation between civilizations at the game’s outset comes from the pre-game options you choose for your colonists, cargo, and spacecraft — a system Pete described as “almost like deckbuilding” — while later in the game your units will be distinct from those of your neighbors thanks to the technology and Affinity you’ve chosen to pursue.

beyond earth soldier purityTechnological and Affinity progression will lead to visual and strategic differences between armies over the course of a game of Beyond Earth.

There are no Great People in Civilization: Beyond Earth, so you won’t be seeing some futuristic version of Elvis Presley culture-bombing your borders. Much of the in-game functionality of the Great People system has instead been shifted into the sky with the new Orbital Layer, where, for example, military satellites provide the area bonuses previously found on Great Generals. Satellites come with a whole slew of interesting strategic options, since they can’t be moved once placed and their lives are temporary, meaning their orbits will eventually decay and they’ll crash down to the surface, depositing wreckage that can be excavated by Explorers for tech or resource bonuses.

City-states are also gone in Beyond Earth, but much of the role they played in Civ 5 is now the domain of “stations.” Stations are independent businesses that take up a single tile (no more city-states hogging the best territory, hooray!) that establish themselves throughout the map over the early stages of the game. Stations offer opportunities for trade (via vulnerable trader units that will travel back and forth from your cities to the station) of particular kinds of resources and bonuses. For those stations closest to your first cities, you’ll often have a chance to choose which type of station they will be, so you’ll be able to tailor them to your interests and play-style, somewhat. Your active trade routes aren’t unlimited however, and stations will only trade with one civilization at a time — and they may become less friendly towards you if you neglect them for too long. In this way stations function as something “halfway between city-states and shared tile improvements,” according to Pete.

Brave New World

Establishing trade with stations is one of many ways that the early game of Beyond Earth is different from that of past Civ titles. The beginnings of a game of Beyond Earth are all about “taking control of your area, and setting up the space you’re going to operate in,”  Pete says. As soon as you land on your new planet you’ll need to start figuring out how you’ll deal with the aliens that are undoubtedly nearby. In classic Civilization games there would usually be no reason not to start taking out barbarian units as soon as you were able, but in Beyond Earth things are different. The alien life is tough, for starters, and engaging in a constant war against it from the first turn of the game probably isn’t the best way to proceed – especially since the titanic “Siege Worms” that dot the landscape are stronger than any military unit you’ll be able to produce for a long time, and killing them won’t really be an option early on even when they travel through your territory and destroy your tile improvements.

civilization beyond earth screenshot siege wormA battle against a Siege Worm in one of Beyond Earth’s “Lush” biomes.

Because the alien life has a nuanced diplomatic opinion of you, your best option might be to avoid antagonizing it early on — though that might mean resisting the urge to retaliate if your unit ends its turn next to an alien nest and gets attacked. Sooner or later, though, it’s likely you’re going to want to start pushing back against the alien inhabitants and claiming more territory for yourself…unless of course you’re pursuing the path of Harmony, in which case you might want to keep the aliens around.

Another way an early game of Beyond Earth is different is in the delayed arrival of your rival civilizations. Though this is an option you can turn on or off, the “standard” way to play is for your people to be the first to arrive on the new planet, with new civilizations arriving over the early turns of the game. While this may seem like a small change, in practice it can throw a major wrench into your plans to have a new neighbor suddenly appear right next to some juicy resources you were planning on claiming yourself.

The Mysterious Tech Web

In my first interview with Beyond Earth’s developers right after the game’s announcement I was told that the game’s “tech web” wouldn’t have pre-requisites, but now that I’ve had a chance to see it in action it’s clear that the reality isn’t quite so dramatic. Technology research is arranged into a branching web that begins in the center, and features both “stem” and “leaf” technologies. Stem techs represent the first level of a given area of research, while leaf techs provide more advanced exploration of that same field, with different bonuses for each different leaf. Under the “Synthetic Thought” stem, for example, players can advance all the way down to the “Swarm Intelligence” technology…or, if they prefer, they can continue branching  outward, as only the stem techs are necessary to advance further in the web.

There are pre-requisites of a fashion in Beyond Earth’s tech web, though they are much less strict than what we’ve seen in previous Civilization games. Aside from the stem techs, which are natural pre-requistes for the leaf techs beneath them, reaching technologies further out in the web will first require researching other earlier techs — though the web structure provides lateral connections between techs that allow for several different ways to progress. In this sense traditional pre-requisites are mostly gone, since end-game technologies can be reached via several different possible paths, but it still won’t be possible to begin researching any technology you like right from the game’s first turn.

A Supremacy city, with floatstone, firaxite, and some of the game's new tile improvements visible nearby.A Supremacy city, with floatstone, firaxite, and some of the game’s new tile improvements visible nearby.

Harmony, Purity, And Supremacy

Affinities are very much the driving force underlying all of Beyond Earth, and they influence just about every aspect of the game. Diplomatically, they look to be every bit the factor that religions were in Civilization IV, creating natural alliances and tensions depending on the Affinities of your neighbors. Affinities bring cosmetic changes too, for cites (dedicating yourself to Supremacy will turn your cities dark, grey, and angular), and for leaders (Purity-focused leaders begin wearing clothing evocative of classical Roman history, while Harmony leads to the appearance of strange markings on leaders’ faces and other signs of their advancing relationship with the planet). These visual changes extend to a civilization’s army as well, since Affinity-based upgrades will soon lead to what were once basic units evolving in dramatically different ways, both tactically and cosmetically. In a nice touch, conquering an enemy city results in a gradual visual assimilation process where buildings that match your Affinity replace whatever was there before.

beyond earth floatstoneThe impact of Affinity even extends into the world of resources, as the alien world sports three special materials that can only be fully exploited by those dedicated to particular Affinity paths. Floatstone enables a Purity player to build some of the game’s most advanced military units, the glowing mineral Firaxite is of special interest to those dedicated to Supremacy, and the planet’s biological Xenomass can be used by a Harmony player. In this way, the resources surrounding your territory can provide strong incentives to dedicate yourself to a particular Affinity, even if you had entered the game with a different plan in mind.  Alternately, possessing a treasure trove of resources that your neighbor really wants and which are less important to you could present some interesting diplomatic options — or lead to a war.

It’s interesting to note that dedicating yourself to a particular Affinity isn’t something you declare with a single click, as it has been for religions or social policies in past Civilization games. Instead your Affinity develops naturally as a results of dozens or hundreds of small decisions you make over the course of a game. Foremost among these choices are the technologies that you choose to pursue, many of which will give you “points” towards particular Affinities. The game’s story-based “quests” are  another way Affinity is determined, as they often offer opportunities to choose between bonuses that come complete with small steps towards one Affinity or another.

Throughout the game, opportunities to advance in particular Affinities are usually marked with the color associated with that Affinity: red for Purity, gold for Supremacy, and green for Harmony. As you make your way through the game you’ll begin “leveling up” in different Affinities based on your decisions — and it’s entirely possible to have levels in more than one. While dedicating yourself to a single Affinity at the expense of the other two will likely be a good way to advance in particular areas — civilization-wide unit upgrades require certain levels of Affinity, for example — it is also very possible that spreading your focus between different paths could be a viable tactic as well, particularly if you’re heading for a Domination or Contact victory, the two win conditions that are available to players regardless of Affinity.

Because of the way Affinities work in Beyond Earth, the question “Can you switch Affinities?” isn’t quite as straightforward as “Can you switch religions?” was for Civ IV. Since your dominant Affinity is the result of so many small choices, switching to pursue a different one is theoretically possible at any point in the game — though if you’ve already gone far down a single track it might not be possible to switch your dominant Affinity before the game ends, and attempting to do so may be strategically unwise. According to Pete the toughest “switch” to make later in the game would probably be from “Supremacy to Purity,” as the military of the former is focused on smaller numbers of advanced units boosted by their spatial relationship to each other and the latter is all about giant armies.

civilization beyond earth supremacy combatAn army of Supremacy units engaging in battle.

The Virtues Of Power

The Virtues system hasn’t gotten as much attention as Affinity in early reporting on Beyond Earth, but it looks to be a major way in which different civilizations pursuing the same Affinity will be distinguished from one another strategically. You unlock Virtues through the advancement of your overall culture, and they provide bonuses in one of four areas: Might, Knowledge, Prosperity, and Industry, much in the fashion of Civ V’s social policies. As previously revealed on 2K’s blog, the Virtues system also features “kickers,” which are additional bonuses that are awarded for progressing deep into a particular virtue or spreading your culture wide across the different virtue trees. These bonuses start small, providing small amounts of extra science or food, but can be quite dramatic at higher levels, offering civilization-wide bonuses to production or research for players who dedicate themselves to particular virtues or who branch out as much as possible.

When combined with the Affinities, Virtues provide strategic flexibility. Pete shared several examples of this, including the “Might plus Knowledge plus Supremacy” style of play, which he said “Feels like playing as Korea in Civ V, where you’ll always have a few highly-advanced super-units.” In contrast to this, combining Supremacy with Prosperity and Industry offers more of a “soft Supremacy” approach, and leads to the development of super-productive cities. It’s even possible to pursue a “hard Harmony” strategy, combining Might and the Harmony Affinity and conquering your foes with the imposing-sounding “Xeno Swarm” or “Xeno Titan” units — the later of which was described as “basically a Kaiju.”

Friends, Neighbors, And The Futuristic Montezuma

There were several different leaders and colony sponsors on display in the Beyond Earth demo, including Daoming Sochua of the Pan-Asian Cooperative, Samatar Jama Barre of the People’s African Union, Kavitha Thakur of the Kavithan Protectorate, and Suzanne Marjorie Fielding of the American Reclamation Corporation. In the hands-off part of the demonstration I also spotted a city called “Le Crouer” sporting a faction symbol in blue and white that looked a lot like a stylized fleur-de-lis, which could indicate the presence of a French-inspired civilization in the game.

For the four confirmed leaders and associated colony sponsors, their strengths and weaknesses are as follows:

  • Daoming Sochua (Pan-Asian Cooperative)
    • Strengths – Culture, Energy, Science
    • Weaknesses – Military, Diplomacy, Religion
  • Samatar Jama Barre (People’s African Union)
    • Strengths – Diplomacy, Growth, Health
    • Weaknesses – Production, Religion
  • Kavitha Thakur (Kavithan Protectorate)
    • Strengths – Religion, Growth, Culture
    • Weaknesses – Military Training, Infrastructure, Science
  • Suzanne Marjorie Fielding (American Reclamation Corporation)
    • Strengths – Science, Infrastructure, Production
    • Weaknesses – Culture, Religion

civilization beyond earth leadersConcept art of Beyond Earth leaders. From left to right: Suzanne Marjorie Fielding, Kavitha Thakur, Daoming Sochua, and Samatar Jama Barre.

Since the leaders that show up in Beyond Earth aren’t the well-known historical figures featured in other Civilization games, Firaxis is working to give them personality in other ways. Full-body animated leaders return from Civ V, with the same nuances of expression and body language that were so effective at making you want to slap Napoleon in the face in that game. Additionally, each discovered technology comes complete with a special quote voiced by one of the game’s leaders and drawn from each leader’s personal book of philosophy — sort of their equivalents of Mao’s Little Red Book. Some fans of theCivlization series might mourn the loss of the classic quotes from past games, but these new quotes provide effective bits of world-building and background on the leaders and their personalities.

Since Affinities are clearly the core strategic choice in Beyond Earth, I asked Pete if specific AI leaders would pursue the same Affinity in every game. He said no. “Our leaders have certain preferences, but they won’t always follow the same Affinities. We have a few different flavors of each leader.” Pete went on to explain that leaders will take things like territory, resources, and what their neighbors are doing into account when determining their Affinity choice. When I asked if Beyond Earth features a futuristic equivalent ofMontezuma, the ultimate bad neighbor in Civ, he said that is definitely the case. In an interesting wrinkle, aggressive civilizations in Beyond Earth are often aggressive both against other players AND the alien life, attacking nests and prompting aliens to start attacking anyone who is nearby — which can mean big trouble if that nest is near your cities.

Pete also identified the American Reclamation Corporation and the African Union as particularly troublesome neighbors, as the former is extremely commerce-focused and will grab up as many resources as possible and the latter is a lot like Civ 5’s Shoshone, expanding early and then fiercely defending their territory.

civilization beyond earth terrain 2A coastal city in Beyond Earth.

The Final Frontier

Overall, Beyond Earth looks to be coming along very well. Speaking to Firaxis about the game their excitement and enthusiasm is palpable, and they seem eager to explain how each small part of the game fits into the the larger overall vision for the title as an evolution of the classic series. Pete told me that personally likes to say that “Beyond Earth is to Civilization as XCOM: Enemy Unknown is to the original X-COM.” From what I saw in my time with the game, I would say that’s a great way to put it.

I stayed late at the Beyond Earth press demo — in fact I was the last one there who wasn’t an employee of Firaxis or 2K. I stayed late enough to see the developers of the game leave for a different kind of event: they were going to get a tour of Space X, the private space transport company founded by Elon Musk. Apparently the visit had been arranged by someone at Space X who was excited about Beyond Earth…which of course makes perfect sense. The new Civilization game is bursting at the seams with the same kind of wild optimism and dreams for the future that make something like Space X possible, after all. I can’t think of a more appropriate place for the Beyond Earth development team to visit…at least not a place on this planet.

Civilization: Beyond Earth is slated for release in the Fall of 2014.

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