I played a lot of Alpha Centauri. It was the game that launched my game journalism career, really, with an article I pitched to The Escapist back in 2005. So when I heard Firaxis was reimagining the concept of humanity taking on the challenge of colonizing a new planet one turn at a time, I was ecstatic. Part of the team that brought you Civ V and its expansions has been working on a new entry using the same engine called Civilization: Beyond Earth. There’s significant differences between the new game and Alpha Centauri, and the team balked at even calling it a spiritual successor, but nevertheless the excitement of exploring a new alien landscape, and reacting to science-fiction cues instead of historical ones, is alive and well for me. As 2K Games and Firaxis announced just now at PAX East in Boston, Civilization: Beyond Earth will be arriving on PC hard drives this fall.
“Civilization: Beyond Earth is a completely new entry into the Civ series,” said Dave McDonough, one of the designers on the game. “It does share the theme of settling an alien world with Alpha Centauri, but it takes the question in entirely new directions and isn’t about the history of a single planet like Chiron.
“Our story begins with hundreds or even thousands of colony spaceships leaving Earth for potential new planets during an event called the Seeding,” he said. “The idea is that every time you play a game, you pick up the story of one of those planet settlements.”
Brian Reynolds was the lead designer on Alpha Centauri, the first game created by the Firaxis studio formed from the ashes of Microprose. After it was made, Reynolds departed Firaxis to work at Big Huge Games and Zynga before eventually resigning to work on his own. I asked whether Reynolds was involved with the new project or if he gave it his blessing. The answer I got back was a bit cold, which led me to believe his input wasn’t desired. “Brian left Firaxis over a decade ago, and he is not involved with this project,” they said. It sounds like there was a desire not to necessarily distance this new game from its predecessor but to allow it to grow and breathe on its own. Give it some space, so to speak.
I got to talk with the team at Firaxis developing the game before the 2K panel at PAX East 2014 and I learned a lot about how it worked. You begin back on Earth, and make decisions on the kind of equipment you take with you to the stars. There is a set of 8 political factions, and they are as distinct as they can be, but the team really wanted to make every playthrough feel unique. “There is a set of 8 factions, but players can choose their colonists, cargo, and choice of spacecraft during the seeded start, each of which gives them a different outcome when the game starts,” the team said.
Will there be memorable characters like Lady Deidre Skye or Chairman Yang? “The factions do have named leaders that are representatives of their group,” McDonough said. “But the identity that your faction has is much more under your control. The first thing you do in the game is customize the colony ship and the expedition itself, and the faction leader is just the first step in that process.”
“We wanted to take advantage of the fact that we didn’t have to be held to fixed history,” producer Dennis Shirk said. “When you started out in Civ V and you had Genghis Khan on one side of the map and Montezuma on the other, you had a very good idea of what your game was going to be like. Lots of pain and suffering, burning cities,” he said with a laugh.
“But because Beyond Earth is a total sci-fi game and we can do what we want, the leaders will have distinct personalities, and a flavor to them, but wanted each experience to feel completely different,” Shirk said. The factions may not be as clear-cut in their characterization, but it does sound like the team has some interesting political ideologies which will lead to inevitable conflict.
“The factions are based on some plausible directions for political powers after the world reorganizes following a world-spanning disaster. We call it the ‘Great Mistake’ and allude to it indirectly through the game,” they said. “Each of these factions has a particular specialty, but are adaptable to a wide range of play styles.”
Mechanics-wise, Beyond Earth attempts to break new ground. There will be a wider array of geologic features on the map, so the planet itself will feel a lot more alien and strange. The advancement of technology will no longer be generally linear, as it is in Civ, but a “technology web” which will allow you to choose research in three different branches. The branches will coincide with different win-conditions, but they wouldn’t tell me exactly what those win conditions will be yet.
Finally, the orbital satellite system is being overhauled. You’ll be able to build satellites like any other unit, place them on the map, and they can give passive bonuses like adding to research or food production, or allow you to see farther. Satellites will degrade over time, eventually falling from orbit, so you’ll have to replace them, hopefully with stronger units. Of course, your enemies will also be able to shoot down your birds. There will be a strong risk/reward associated with investing heavily in satellites.
“You can launch recon satellites, or build satellites that buff ground forces or help with terraforming, or even provide some combat capability,” the team said. “Satellites can be shot down and have to be built like other units, so there are opportunity costs you have to factor into them.”
What about multiplayer? Or mod support? Firaxis said they were working hard at bringing those two aspects to Beyond Earth, but they couldn’t promise mods would be available for the launch. “Right now we’re focused on delivering a solid game and we’ll have more information regarding mods later on,” they said.
“Multiplayer will be ready for action when the game ships,” Shirk said. The game’s still having features added to it – still pre-alpha – but the quality assurance teams are already playing multiplayer matches.
One of the most memorable parts of Alpha Centauri was the over-arching story that was told through text interludes about the growth of the planet’s sentience. The team said there won’t be that complete of a throughline pushing the plot of Beyond Earth down one path, but a quest system will allow more emergent and random storytelling to take place. “Some of the early quests are based around exploration, or building your first new settlement, while others are complex, multi-part quests which feed into the victories within the game. They also help convey some information about the game and world to the player, and help people keep track of their progress towards victory,” they said.
I’m extremely excited about the prospect of playing a turn-based sci-fi game that’s based on a single planet rather than jumping from system to system. Don’t get me wrong, those types of games are great, but there’s something amazing about bringing the Civilization style of 4X play to an alien world. And while I loved Alpha Centauri, and would like nothing more than a modern-day remake, I respect McDonough, Shirk and the team at Firaxis (including Mr. Sid Meier) for not being afraid to try something brand new.
Screw the reboot. Let me play Civilization: Beyond Earth now.