Update: Sarah LeBoeuf
There are many topics about which Escapist Editor-in-Chief Greg Tito and I vehemently disagree. Baseball, for instance (he loves the Red Sox, I adore the Phillies). Mac vs. PC is a hotly debated topic. Denny’s vs. IHOP is another point of contention. There is one thing we’ve always agreed on, though: our love for Sid Meier’s Civilization. So, naturally, the 2K booth was my first stop on the E3 show floor.
Unlike Greg’s lengthy pre-E3 session, my demo was only about 15 minutes, and strictly hands-off. In a game where a single campaign can take dozens of hours, that’s not nearly enough time to get a firm grasp on just what Civilization: Beyond Earth is all about, but I did feel a few waves of déjà vu watching the presentation. As Greg noted, it looks very much like a sci-fi-skinned Civilization V; as someone who’s sunk over 300 hours into that game and its expansions, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but it would have been nice to see some more refreshing ideas presented.
There’s the same hexagonal tiles, the civilizations, the land and sea units waging war–of course, this time those units are more mechanical and robotic in nature, and instead of barbarians, you’ll fight hostile aliens as you explore your new home planet. Amongst the lush green vegetation are tiles of a purple haze. An extraterrestrial skeleton gave the Explorer unit a bonus, seemingly similar to Civ V‘s ancient ruins. No alien planet is complete without a giant worm, and the siege worm that gave me Dune flashbacks surged in and out of the ground as the player scrolled around the map; we were warned it would take an army to defeat that one, and the lone Explorer stayed safely away.
We got a quick look at the Tech Web, which isn’t exactly the same as Civ V‘s skill tree, but the concepts are pretty similar; unlocking certain techs will raise the player’s Affinity, whether they choose Harmony, Purity, or Supremacy. As Greg noted, Affinities work similar to how ideologies do in Civ V: Brave New World. In the demo, the player had chosen to go with Supremacy, the belief that humanity would be saved through use of technology. The Supremacy civilization needed Firaxite, a resource important for building units; however, it was currently in the territory of a Harmonious civ that wanted humans to be more like the planet’s native species through gene splicing and mutations. War was waged, and the technologically superior troops made short work of the defending Harmony-embracing civ, which brought the demo to a close.
I left wishing I’d had more time to dig deeper and see more of what set Civilization: Beyond Earth apart from its predecessor. A 2K rep called it a brand new entry in the Civilization family, but it looked more like an alternate universe Civ V. That didn’t stifle my excitement, though. Like I said, 15 minutes just wasn’t enough time; I guess I’ll have to spend dozens (or hundreds) of hours getting to know Beyond Earth better when it comes out later this year.
After playing the first 50 turns twice, Beyond Earth feels closer to Civilization V than Alpha Centauri.
Orignal Story: To say that I was interested in Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth would be a vast understatement. The last sci-fi game from the team at Firaxis – Alpha Centauri was actually the first game published by the studio formed from the ashes of MicroProse – was a huge timesink for me. At 2K’s Pre-E3 event in LA last week, Pete Murray from Firaxis let me dig into the alpha build of Beyond Earth. I got to explore a new world from a set starting point until around turn 50, and then, while my colleagues all got up for lunch, I stuck around to play through it again. While Beyond Earth is certainly very different from a standard historical Civ, the gameplay had a lot more in common with Civ V than Alpha Centauri. I think that’s a good thing, but my nostalgia for the old game got a kick in the nuts.
For one, the factions are all geo-politically based instead of divided by philosophy or religion. There’s the American Reclamation Corporation led by Suzanne Fielding, and Samatar Jama Barre is in charge of the People’s African Union. Other factions include the slavic Kavithan Protectorate and a group called the Pan-Asian Cooperative. But while there’s less potential characterization up front than, say Nwabudike Morgan or Lady Deirdre Skye of the Gaians, co-lead designers Will Miller and Dave McDonough assured me there’s a lot of personality underneath the old Earthbound national lines.
“When we began work on this game, we started with where we are right now, our geo-political landscape, and extrapolated 25 years until what we’re calling the Great Mistake,” said Miller. “The Great Mistake was a catastrophe that led to a humanitarian crisis and destabilized the nations of the world. Most of our leaders speak a combination of languages instead of just one language, which suggests that cultures blended and there were migrations of people. It is a departure from Alpha Centauri where those leaders were divided along ideological lines, where ours are more rooted in the past. But they certainly have personalities though.”
While the new leaders may not be as recognizable as Montezuma’s warmongering, the team said you will learn their stories as you play Beyond Earth. For example, the voiceovers when you learn a technology still use the leaders reading an excerpt from their work or a speech that may give a clue as to what affinities they are likely to pursue. “We want each leader to be a puzzle that you have to solve as a player through diplomacy, covert operations and just seeing how they react to certain situations on planet,” Miller continued. (Check out my full video interview with Miller and McDonough here.)
In playing Beyond Earth, I started to discover other ways in which it differs from its predecessors. I started out with one city already founded, a soldier unit and a new unit called an explorer. I moved around the map, checking out landmarks that looked interesting, while avoiding alien units. Some of these buggers were easy pickings for my soldiers, like the ranged manticore unit, but siege worms were vicious in their attacks and were really tough to take down.
Pete Murray cautioned us before the session that attacking aliens would probably be a bad idea, especially early on, so I tried not to get into a direct conflict with them in my first playthrough. I was told the alien units act almost like their own faction. If you get on their bad side by killing too many of them, they will be more actively hostile towards all human players – a tactic you can use to antagonize rivals all over the planet.
My city was surrounded by green foggy hexes – called miasma – which is some pretty nasty alien shit. If a unit ends its turn in a hex with miasma, it will take damage. Miasma also diminishes the resources you can gain from the terrain, and prevents improvements from being built on the hex. You can’t remove miasma until you get the requisite technology, so it will be an early nuisance for sure but it’s possible you could use it to your advantage in the late stages. Think of miasma as analogous to the xenofungus from Alpha Centauri.
I was surprised to encounter an amalgamation of concepts found in Civ V in a science fiction setting. I got a quest saying two groups were looking for a charter to found an outpost near my territory and choosing one of them places an independent outpost on the map, similar to city states. You can then send trade units to these groups and create a trade route, earning you science or other resources depending on the group you chartered. These routes are mutually exclusive, so you might be fighting with other factions for the benefits an especially juicy charter can provide.
Researching techs is a big part of the Civ franchise, but it works a bit differently in Beyond Earth. All players start with one tech, and you can choose to research any of six technologies in a web surrounding the start, or a secondary branching tech. The related technologies, or branches, cost significantly less than researching in a whole new direction, so it encourages players to choose a path rather than cherry-pick from all over. Technologies are also the main way you can choose to influence your civ’s affinity.
Affinities are similar to the ideologies choices of Brave New World in that other civs will gravitate diplomatically towards factions who think like them. “The affinities are existential perspectives on what humanity is going to be,” McDonough told me. “The Harmony affinity which involves you examining the planet as your new home and trying to make yourself an ideal lifeform to live there in symbiosis with the planet. There’s the Purity affinity which says that humanity needs to be preserved. We need to bring our culture and our past with us and keep it safe and make the planet into a place where humans belong. The Supremacy affinity says that humans are saved through technology – it’s how we got off of Earth and it’s how we’re going to survive wherever we have to go from here. They embrace computers and robotics.”
You don’t outright choose your affinity in a dialogue box, but your choices will influence which philosophy your civ leans toward. As I said technologies will have a large part in that, but how you complete or interact with quests will also push you down a certain track. The random nature of the quests seems like it could backfire, but the designers had already thought of that. The game AI is smart enough to see which way you are leaning, and offer quests and storytelling moments which reflect your choices to give you the opportunity to fully embrace an affinity. Once you go Harmony or Purity or Supremacy, the architecture of your cities and buildings changes, and the appearance of your units might also be altered so there is visual feedback as well. Of course, there will be special units and powerful wonders only open to specific affinities.
I was peaceful in my first playthrough. I found some ruins near the city with my explorer and set up building an architectural dig to find what was underneath. This consumed my explorer, but it didn’t matter as I received 200 energy (gold) which would allow me to build another unit or rush a building in my capital. The dig also popped up a quest to explore some other ruins, far to the south. I was intrigued, so I headed there with my soldier. The quest system was a little rough in its presentation, but was an interesting addition to the Civ formula. I had a proper quest log like in World of Warcraft, and I used it to check to see what my objectives were or what I had already completed, along with story description text from the previous steps in the quest line. After I found the ruins site, the quest said the next step was to found an outpost there.
It was time to found my first city, so I calmly built a settler and made my way south. Once at my location, I pressed “B” to give the age-old command to found city. But here’s the catch, the city (or outpost as it’s called in Beyond Earth) didn’t get founded immediately. Each turn, a new hex joined the city’s working radius until it finally was founded 6 turns in. This delayed founding of settlements can be used to my advantage in war, as an incomplete outpost isn’t yet owned by its faction. That means you can attack them with impunity! File that one for future backstabbings.
On the next playthrough, I decided to go full warfare. I built nothing but military units, researching technologies to allow cavalry, ranged units and eventually air superiority. I decided not to avoid the aliens this time, but shoot on sight. That allowed my units to gain experience and when they gained a level I had two choices – heal them to full or give a permanent +10% combat strength bonus. If you have the requisite technologies, you can also upgrade your soldiers to have specific traits such as marines to make amphibious assaults easier once they level. The devs told me in that way the units you have at the start of the game could end up being devastating by game’s end, if they survive.
Before long, massive siege worms appeared that looked straight outta Dune. When you first see these beasts, a quest pops up asking you to kill one of them. After attacking with ranged fire from two units, my city, and two melee soldiers, I finally destroyed a siege worm and got a big pile of science points for my efforts. Those points can go towards researching better technology to upgrade my armies, thereby ensuring a pure offensive strategy is extremely viable in Beyond Earth.
I asked the next question that came to mind: “Do the siege worms always provide that science boost or was it just for the first time?” “Every time.”
I’ll be checking for wormsign when Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth comes out on PC in the fall.