Preview: Sid Meier's Beyond Civilization

Firaxis is hard at work on a spiritual successor to the beloved Alpha Centauri, and only the second game to take the Civilization franchise away from our planet. But this is no mere cosmetic change, as John Gillooly delves into the new systems and concepts in Beyond Earth.

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Preview: Sid Meier's Beyond Civilization

Firaxis call it the great mistake, an unspecified event that happened on Earth and sent its citizens to the stars. It is a way to acknowledge that Beyond Earth follows on from the events of Civilization, but also gently plays on the nature of victory in the 4X strategy series.

Each game of Civilization is a journey, using the same parts each time to reach wildly different outcomes. Victory is never quite as important as what happens along the way, this time you might nuke the French, next time India might outgrow you and engulf your tiny state, or Egypt might manage to pull out each Wonder first, choking off all important parts of your strategy. If anything, the game ending causes this journey to cease, as you watch the fruits of your Civilization disappear off into space, wondering where they are headed.

Beyond Earth marks the second time Firaxis has looked at that happens next for Civilization. The first was the game that the studio was founded to make, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC), a game that still stands as the highpoint for the genre, and Beyond Earth is very much a spiritual successor to that.

“Beyond Earth picks up after the spaceship takes off” begins senior producer Dennis Shirk “There is this notion of a great mistake that occurred, that caused people to have to leave Earth, to seek out a new home, and the game picks up where that starts. Its about you setting up for your journey, you picking your faction and landing on this strange alien planet, you are alone, there is nobody else with you at this time, and all you can see looking out massive crevices of geothermal steam coming out. You’re eventually going to be running into aliens that are somewhat sentient and have an opinion on you so they might be hostile, they might not be hostile. But basically you have to find a way for your people to survive on this new place.”

The whole game is all about exploration, eventually other human factions are going to start landing on the planet, introducing themselves. “The whole approach is to give you an entirely new experience to play that is unlike anything you have seen in something like Civ 5 or Civ 4”

As Lead Designer Dave McDonough puts it “It’s about the future of mankind”, and asking “who do they become over the next 3, 4 or 5000 years.”

A step beyond Alpha Centauri

When asked about the legacy of SMAC, the last time Firaxis wondered what happened next, Dennis was quite positive “I don’t think we have to worry about direct comparison, because this is a game that stands on its own two legs and I think we have actually surpassed Alpha Centauri in many ways by opening it up and making it accessible to our entire Civ audience.

This is a game that will appeal to the vast numbers of players who lost hours to SMAC, while not being shackled by its legacy. The feeling that this game is consider to be a new concept in its own right is readily apparent when you talk to the team at Firaxis, who are clearly excited by the setting.

According to Lead Designer Anton Strenger moving from work on the Civilization Expansions to Beyond Earth was refreshing. “One of the really great strengths of Beyond Earth is being freed from that historical constraint”. This was especially important from a design perspective, where the team relished, and were a little daunted by, the need to invent new things rather than find great historical examples to reference.

This freeing from history isn’t just apparent in the look of Beyond Earth. It also manifests itself in the systems underlying the game, which have roots in Civilization V but have been reimagined. One such system, that Anton had been working on before we talked, was the orbital layer.

“The orbital layer - where you launch satellites over the game map and they effect what is going on on the tiles beneath them. You can launch, for example, a military satellite over a battlefield and it can shoot down lasers to attack your enemies on the battlefield. or you can have more peaceful satellites that boost your tile output around your cities. That system doesn’t make sense in an historical setting, but with the freedom of sci fi we were really able to come up with cool new things like that.”

One of the other significant additions is a quest system, which rewards and encourages you to explore and engage with the planet. It isn’t a single narrative, but rather a series of challenges placed in front of you as your colony settles in.

“The quest system is a big addition” according the Civilization Producer, Lena Brenk, “We wanted to give the player a new framework for this planet. For the future they are going to get to know the planet and its history, so the quest system is one of the examples of how we deliver story and give players goals to achieve during the playthrough.”

A glimpse of the future

As you watch a game of the currently pre Alpha version of Beyond Earth play out, the Civilization V roots are quite obvious. Your civilization lands on a planet, with a colonist unit and one or two others. You find a spot to locate your base, then task your combat units and explorers with venturing out into the fog of war to see what can be located. The environment clearly isn’t Earth like in any way, but for the first turn or two it feels like a Civilization game.

Then your units come across their first Aliens. These look like Barbarian units, and are spawned by nest tiles akin to encampments, but present a much more complex challenge to the player. When you land on the planet in Beyond Earth you are the first arrival, and other civilizations will land later in the game. Your initial challenge is to gain a toehold on the planet, and this involves dealing with the local populace.

“The aliens for us represent this wild, unknown hostility of this alien planet and you bring a lot of tech with you on the ship but you dont know how it applies to this new environment.” says Anton “They’re not always going to be hostile, you can have a peaceful existence with them”. But you can also “come out with guns blazing… you might get a lot of early gains from that. But they are going to be pushing back as a result.”

Firaxis make much of carefully dealing with the Aliens, suggesting the there are varying degrees of sentience and that these species will have long memories, and that the mechanic fills the role of diplomacy in the early stages of the game. Aggressively carve your way through nests to build a home for your people and you will have to deal with the consequences, keep a respectful distance and things might not play out that way.

Other Aliens will pose a more passive set of threats. One of which that was explained to us was a kind of Alien Worm, that makes its way peacefully across the map. It only really presents a threat when it closes in on your settlements, churning through your improvements. This then begs the question of whether you throw resources into de-worming the environment, or suck it up and rebuild.

After all, as Lena puts it “you have landed on this planet and you don’t belong, the Aliens belong”.

The eagle has landed

As you can expect, there are many ways to deal with your new world, and these are baked deeply into the DNA of the game. It begins at the beginning, as civilisation comes to an end and your people head for the stars.

Unlike Civ V, where you picked a faction that determined all your starting bonuses, this is called a Loadout process in Beyond Earth. You pick your Faction, then spaceship type and cargo. These give you bonuses of various types. For example, the cargo can include a Marine unit, which will be much more capable than your standard soldiers and give you an edge clearing out aliens.

There are also three possible worlds upon which you can land, each with its own environment and challenges. On the world in our demo, which was a fungal planet, the explorer and soldier units found themselves dealing with a mist called miasma, which did damage to any unit that ended its turn within. There was promise that certainly technological developments would allow Miasma to be leveraged for the good of your civilisation. We also saw an outcropping of the cutely named Firaxite, a metal whose use your civ can research down the track.

One of the more interesting encounters we witnessed was between several units and an alien known as a Siege Worm, which flailed about and needed a show of force to take down. Once it died it left a corpse that could be investigated by explorers, inside the promise of everything from technology to tame alien units that can be used by your civ.

Other things were just glimpsed during our brief demo time, but we were intrigued by the repulsor field city improvement, which promised to keep aliens two squares away from your colony, or the need to build trade routes to enable new colonies to grow. There are clearly many more surprises to be had in Beyond Earth.

The Tech web

It isn’t just a visual overhaul being done for Beyond Earth. Those systems that govern bonuses as you progress through the game have also been reimagined. Most significant of these is the Tech Web, an evolution of the standard tech tree used in Civ. It is designed as a nod to the fact that Beyond Earth deals with possibilities, whereas Civ dealt in reality, where we know the linear progression of science quite well.

“There is no linear tech tree anymore, because you are really in the future now and in uncharted territory. So when you start out you are in the middle of the technology web, rather than on a linear technology tree” According to Dennis. “It will change the very look of what your civ looks like”

You start the game in the centre of the web, and as you research you move outwards. This not only keeps every game different, thanks to the design nudging you to push your technological developments in a certain direction. To make the most of your research you will want to focus on an area of the tech web, pushing yourself down a path that manifests in the look and feel of your civilization and its inhabitants.

We only got a brief glimpse at the tech web but it looks fantastic, with an intricacy to the technological relationships that made us hanker for more. It is quite clear why Firaxis is so excited about this new feature, it takes one of the enduring parts of Civ and makes it new, reinvents it to suit the circumstance, which is indicative of why this is a standalone title, not just an expansion pack.

It also gives the chance for designers to stretch their brains, as Dave tells us, “We are very enthusiastic about contemporary spaceflight and realistic opportunities for humanity in space, but also fans of Sci-Fi”.

This means that “when the game begins all the options you have are based on conventional contemporary scientific discovery” however “When you land on the planet you’ll find a lot that you’ll recognise about establishing habitation, surviving and exploring the new world but as you branch out into the outer rings of the tech web it does become more mysterious, strange, interesting and more Sci-Fi”.

Affinity and its effects

Sci-Fi also influences another new system called affinities. Going by the names Supremecy, Purity and Harmony, these kinds of tech take your civilization in very different directions depending on how you decide to tackle the Alien World. “Its somewhere in between philosophy, ideology and religion. Its sort of an identify for humanity that your civilisation decides for itself along the way.”

Supremacy is technology focused, with an emphasis on computers, robotics, using machines to control the hostile world.

Harmony is the opposite, adapting themselves to become more at one with the planet. It involves a lot of biology, ecology, terraforming and other environmental sciences.

Purity involves the clinging onto the idea of what humanity once was, of changing their new home to fit them, and to keep themselves pure.

While choices made on the tech web will have a dominant effect on how your civilization evolves, it isn’t the only new system at play here. During our demo we saw that the virtue screen (Virtues are analogous to policies in Civ V) gave rewards for spreading your points out across the table horizontally, with the vertical depth a lot greater than in Civ V.

This has been done to encourage those who wish to generalise, the game no longer punishing players for not obsessively filling out every last point in a tree. It provides bonuses no matter which way you want to develop, and allows for deeper choice than in Civ V.

We asked about Multiplayer, but were informed that while planned, it is too early to talk any details. But from the massive slice of single player that we were exposed to, we can safely say that Beyond Earth is right near the top of PC PowerPlay’s most anticipated titles of 2014.

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