Don’t miss our full review of Beyond Earth!
I’m a long-time fan of the Civilization series. I’ve played every game in the series going back to Civ II, and have logged hundreds of hours in games number 3, 4, 5, and the sci-fi flavored sibling game Alpha Centauri. Civilization: Beyond Earth is the game I’m personally looking forward to more than any other this year, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve had a chance to spend about 20 hours of gameplay time with an early preview demo of the game. The demo was limited to the first 250 turns of play, but aside from that it felt very much like a fully-featured experience just about ready for release.
It’s the little things
Though the basics of Beyond Earth will be immediately familiar to anyone who has spent any time with Civilization V, the important differences between the titles are apparent even before you actually visit the world map. The game set-up options in Beyond Earth are a lot more robust than what we’ve seen in past Civ titles, and the description from Firaxis of the process being “almost like deckbuilding” feels perfectly accurate. After choosing your faction you’ll make a series of other choices, about the colonists on board your ship as well as its cargo and equipment.
When taken all together, the variety of choices available at the beginning present 1,000 different possibilities for your particular set of bonuses before you’ve even started the game, and there is likely going to be extensive discussion on sites like Civ Fanatics about the best strategic choices for different victory conditions and difficulty settings. Even in my early experience with the game, I found there was a lot of fun to be had in debating the merits of focusing as many bonuses as possible in a single area (stacking the African Union’s 10% Food bonus, the Refugee Colonists +2 Food bonus, and the Hydroponics +2 Population in first City bonus, for example) or going for a more balanced approach combining bonuses to tech, food, and production.
Once the game actually begins, this sense of customizable bonuses doesn’t stop, and if I could identify one single gameplay element that makes Beyond Earth feel different that other Civ titles this would be it. Throughout the game you will be making small choices between different bonuses through Quests or the Virtue system that, when all taken together, make factions in Beyond Earth much more fluid and dynamic than anything we’ve seen before from the series. You could play a dozen games as the same faction against the same opponents and every one would have the potential to be different, based on the little choices you make along the way.
Though this increased level of customization and choice-making is by and large a good thing, I found that it did make the game a bit more difficult to learn early on. In past Civ titles it was usually fairly straightforward to figure out what you needed to build in order to address a certain problem or achieve a certain goal. Because so many of Beyond Earth‘s buildings provide variable bonuses depending on your choices, small bonuses in several different areas at once, or bonuses that are only temporary (in the case of those launched into the game’s Orbital Layer), identifying the proper build order seemed more complex than in Civ V. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and will likely allow for deeper and more variable strategies in the long-run, but I can see it potentially providing a stumbling block for new players.
While AI factions have general tendencies they will pursue and that you will come to know over the course of many games of Beyond Earth, at the beginning they don’t really stand out from one another, in part because they are all fictional creations rather than being grounded in the traits of historical empires. Adding a wider variety of bonuses factions can choose from increases the strategic depth and variety you’re likely to see, but it could potentially also result in factions that aren’t as memorable (or notorious) for the ways in which they seek victory. Are we likely to see any neighbor in Beyond Earth as predictably aggressive as Montezuma, considering the variety of different options and strategies the AI will be able to employ? Only time will tell.
You might think, given the initial level of technology of the factions in Beyond Earth, that the early game would move a bit more quickly than in past Civ titles, where you’re clawing your way out of the stone age and inventing the wheel. That’s not really the case, though, and if anything I found that early game development in Beyond Earth seemed a bit slower and more deliberate than in Civ V.
For many classic Civ games, you reach a point rather quickly where you start bumping up against the borders of your neighbors, and most of the good spots on the map have already been claimed. Civ V successfully dialed that back a bit, making it less rewarding to build a large number of cities rapidly. Beyond Earth seems to have expanded upon that theme, with the faction-wide Health metric replacing happiness and limiting your growth, science, and culture if you grow too rapidly.
Another big factor limiting your expansion, of course, is the alien life that is Beyond Earth’s far more interesting take on Barbarians. Though the alien life is not initially hostile to units inside your territory, once you’ve pushed beyond your borders all bets are off. I lost several trading units to alien attacks, and even experienced the loss of a Colony unit (Beyond Earth’s Settler equivalent) in the game we played in the following video (though we didn’t capture that particular tearful moment):[embedvideo id=”zQz8aSX9_MI” website=”youtube”]
Areas around an alien nest are dangerous and unpredictable, and will likely remain uncolonized by any of the factions until the mid-game at the earliest, once strong enough units are available to take them out (or Harmony-focused players have developed the technology necessary to eliminate the risks posed by alien neighbors). In this way, Beyond Earth allows for land-rushes and resource-grabbing much later on than in classic Civilization games, which is likely to be a feature that organically leads to conflicts between factions.
Another way Beyond Earth draws out the early-game establishment portion of things has to do with the terrain features of its maps. In my experience, playing on a normal Terran-style map, I was surprised by the number and placement of impassable mountain ranges and chasms around the map. Land-based units are frequently forced to take long, roundabout paths to get to their destinations, and maps are rich with natural choke points. The challenge presented by the rugged land terrain is somewhat mitigated by the ability of land units to embark and traverse the seas from a very early stage of the game, but is likely to be a critical factor in determining the placement of cities and the outcome of wars in many games of Beyond Earth to come.
The Flavor of Space
Beyond Earth is full of fantastic flavor, and every part of the game, from the graphics to the gameplay to the writing, shows signs of having been designed with love by fans of the sci-fi genre. Every Quest, Technology, and entry in the Civilopedia feels like a tiny science fiction story, and genre fans will recognize references to classic novels and films as well as interesting ideas that feel completely fresh.
While in practice you’d be able to play the game just fine ignoring all these storytelling and roleplaying opportunities and just going for the options that make the most dry strategic sense, if you’re the kind of player who enjoyed the emergent story capabilities of traditional Civ games (“I conquered the world as a Fascist Hindu Gandhi, using nuclear weapons!”) then Beyond Earth is bursting with features tailor-made for you.
We’ve previously written a lot about Beyond Earth’s Affinities, and how they play into both the flavor and the strategy of the game. I was eager to see them in action myself, but based on my early experience it seems as though Affinities will be more of a mid-to-late-game factor, and thus their impact was relatively minor in the 250 turn games I was able to play.
In my first game I pushed as hard as I could for Purity points early on, shooting for the associated technologies and always making Purity-based Quest decisions when available, but I was never able to get more than three levels of Purity (and three corresponding unit upgrades) during my limited playing time. I also received frequent diplomatic notifications from the other factions, all thanking me for respecting the alien life, which was clearly intended as a sign of their preference for Harmony, but which I suspect was more because it’s wise to avoid direct conflict with the aliens until you can handle the blow-back. In effect, a lot of factions may have been pursuing the Harmony path by default early on, just to avoid the trouble of a constant war against the aliens.
The biggest difference in the sci-fi flavor of Beyond Earth when contrasted with the game’s spiritual ancestor, Alpha Centauri, is the overall sense of optimism and possibility that pervades Beyond Earth. This was something I noticed back in the game’s initial announcement and which the designers confirmed was intentional when I asked them about it, and it’s even clearer now that I’ve experienced it in action. Beyond Earth is a long way from the dystopian, nerve-stapling, mind-worm-blasting experience of Alpha Centauri.
Beyond Earth constantly presents you with new and exciting technologies and choices, and you’re almost always choosing between different positive options, rather than “good and evil” or “bad or worse” possibilities. Your decisions are mainly focused on how best to use your advancing technology and the new resources you discover in the service of your people. As Lead Designer David McDonough said back in April, “the salvation and preservation of humanity is always the goal.”
Civilization: Beyond Earth releases on October 24, just a little under a month away. Building on the Civilization V engine and mixing in a healthy dose of sci-fi, the game looks poised to be an enormous hit among established fans of the series. While the Civilization franchise has never been the best-selling game series around, among fans of turn-based 4X strategy games there are few titles that can rival it.
Though the sci-fi elements of Beyond Earth are a departure for the series, they are likely to be embraced by fans, especially considering how well these elements look to be integrated into the core Civ experience. Hardcore franchise fans have demonstrated a desire to follow the base gameplay beyond the world of history — the success of the Fall From Heaven mod series is a testament to that — and from what I’ve seen so far there is little reason to suspect Beyond Earth won’t be one of the kings of the strategy genre over the next year.