Civilization: Beyond Earth hands-on: defining the next phase of human evolution, one turn at a time

Tom Senior

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Firaxis are firing the classic Civilization turn-based strategy formula into space, for the first time since the release of Alpha Centauri, 15 years ago. Like a rocket escaping the atmosphere, Beyond Earth jettisons the bits of traditional Civ it no longer needs. The technology tree is now a sprawling web, replacing the known milestones of human achievement with the boldest predictions of science fiction. Civ's terran landscapes give way to multiple biomes of alien terrain, teeming with exotic life. As you expand and develop your colony, you will define your relationship with technology and the indigenous creatures that surround you to dictate the next phase of human evolution, rather than merely raking over the coals of the past.

Civilization: Beyond Earth is set after a mass exodus from our home planet. Driven away by overpopulation, dwindling resources and an unstoppable tide of cat gifs, thousands of colony ships have scattered like dandelion seeds across the galaxy, to settle on the first habitable planet they can find. Every time you start a new game, you play as another ship, and can choose a different leader, colony vehicle, cargo haul, colonist group and Earthbound sponsor to keep the early game fresh.

I start my play session with a craft sponsored by Franco-Iberia, and pack its aisles with intellectuals who grant me a boost to science research. I could have picked mercenaries for superior military, aristocrats for efficient commerce, engineers for faster production or pilgrims for stronger faith, but the lure of far-future tech is too great. Speaking of tech, I have a choice of objects to put in my cargo hold. I could take survey gear to gain an outline of the new planet's continents, or sensors to detect nearby lifeforms. Instead I choose to load out my cargo hold with great big guns, which will give me a unit of soldiers right away. Anything could be waiting for me down there.

My colony ship makes landfall on the alien planet. Blue craters form a mountain range to the west. My lonely outpost is surrounded by weird alien forests, broken up by pockets of glowing green miasma—deadly to units who breathe it for too long. To the east a multi-hex canyon scars the surface. In the finished game you'll be able to see the faint glow of lava in the depths of these cracks, and harness nearby geothermal vents for extra power. The interface, from the neon hexlines to the diminutive menu buttons, will be very familiar to Civ V players, largely because Beyond Earth is built in an upgraded version of the Civ V engine. It's as beautiful as Civ's ever been, but refreshed with some wonderfully weird art design. I want to explore immediately.

The units also look neat. My soldiers' bulky backpacks and visors hint at the outlines of a NASA spacesuit. Firaxis have modelled early vehicles and outposts on cobbled-together NASA architecture, to make it look as though your colony's first vehicles have been improvised from parts of your colony ship. That soon changes as you expand and start aligning with the three 'affinities' that determine your build options, win conditions and how your whole civilisation will look.

Each affinity represents a different philosophical approach to extraterrestrial exploration. Harmony civilisations embrace their new environment and seek to adapt to the planet's ecosystem. Their architecture takes on the organic forms of the surrounding plant life, they travel easily over difficult terrain and they can use local creatures as mounts. I mention to my hosts that they sound a bit like the big blue nature-lovers from James Cameron's Avatar, but I'm assured that Harmony humans “aren't space elves.” In fact, they can eventually breed their own units, like the enormous Xeno Titan, which is so big it required an engine tweak to enable it to bleed out of its containing hex.

Supremacy players embrace technology as a way to secure humanity. Their units are sleek and angular, with flashes of neon. They want to improve all aspects of life through science, and have no loyalty to the flesh and bone forms of their ancestors. “The Supremacy player is very finesse oriented,” says lead designer Will Miller. “It's going to be about building units and putting them in a geometry that lets them harmonise with each other. You have units that are very specialised, but if put in the right places relative to others, you get a lot of buffs.”

The Purity path imagines humanity recoiling from the strangeness of the alien world. A Purity civilisation is obsessed with preserving humanity perfectly in its current form. They can use archivist technology to codify the current state of the human race, documenting our species to better preserve it, thought they're just as likely to preserve the human legacy with enormous hovering gun platforms. They build huge, blocky war machines and wall-off small patches of territory to keep the planet's influence at bay.

The affinities are designed to support any playstyle. They offer options for Civ players who enjoy rolling across the map with a big military force, but have equally potent economic and scientific routes. The Purity player won't always be a warmonger, but if they do choose to wage war, they'll do it in a manner that reflects their faction. Firaxis want the affinities to combine with your initial colony ship choice to create distinct faction variations. In former Civs and Alpha Centauri, you picked a pre-made nation with a set stack of bonuses. In Beyond Earth, you stack colony ship, affinity and research decisions to design your own race.

AI colonies make similar decisions when they make planetfall. You can no longer meet a leader and immediately understand the faction's politics and intentions. Leaders have personalities, but you'll have to use spies, and observe the evolving architecture of their settlements, to determine their affinity and guess which victory condition they're going for. “We never want there to be a critical path through this game,” says Miller. “We never want there to be this very quick analysis of the map at the beginning, and I build this and I research that and I build this building... We want it to be a much more adaptive, organic experience.”

In Beyond Earth, competing factions make landfall and establish contact one by one in the first 50 turns, which means I'm free to explore this planet alone for the time being. I send my scouts north and a sinister gong announces the discovery of an alien nest. A swarm of 'Wolfbeetles' lurk outside. They look hungry and vicious, and they're uncomfortably close to my base. Time to make first contact.

I charge my soldiers north and open fire. The Wolfbeetles lunge forward and one of my astronauts go down, but their noisy return fire tears half the alien squad apart. My scouts move to join the fight, but encounter another pack of Wolfbeetles. It's now that I'm told that it might not be a great idea to annoy the local wildlife. Alien colonies get riled when attacked, becoming more aggressive with every loss. They'll even swarm your base if you overstretch. I've been on this new planet for five minutes and everything on it wants to eat me.

I train another squad of soldiers and send them south, then send some colonists to hide behind my embattled northern force. I move my damaged squad one hex back to take them out of a damaging miasma, and line up my scouts to their right. The aliens charge, and fall to the focused fire of my adjacent squads. Next turn, my soldiers smash their hive. I have a feeling I might end up playing Purity in the final game.

While workers lay down a couple of farms and a mine, I send my colonists westward, using the damaged soldiers as a guard. I establish a second colony between some forest tiles, and notice that it doesn't immediately become a full city. In Beyond Earth, you're maintaining a tenuous hold on a world you've yet to master. Every new city starts as a fragile outpost that the planet can snatch away at any moment. You have to establish supply routes from other cities, and feed outposts the materials they need, for them to become towns.

I don't have time to think about that now. My southern soldiers have found strange new things: a mysterious alien ruin, and some floating purple rocks. The latter are one of the new alien resources you can mine, useful for building hovervehicles in the late game. The former hides a trio of alien 'Manticores'. These strange creatures hurl balls of acid with a complicated flick of their tails. Firaxis's artists have clearly had a lot of fun creating elaborate new animations for these exotic units.

They've also created a lot of new terrain. In the final release there will be multiple types of planet to explore. There's a desert biome that'll procedurally generate homages to Dune's Arrakis. The Vulcan biome is overgrown with blue alien fungus, and the large seas of the aqua biome host many undersea alien monsters. Creatures are similar across each biome, but each specialised layout will support some species better than others. For example, in another nod to Dune, you can expect desert planets to be full of huge city-killing Siege Worms. “We cleared the decks and rebuilt the very idea of map generation,” says Miller. “We have these biomes with whole-world palettes with unique plantlife and unique colour schemes and unique layouts and so on, so when you go to one it feels like a different world each time. It's like you went to a whole different part of the galaxy.”

My soldiers condemn the Manticores to a splattery death, and my time with this section of the game comes to an end. Another save is loaded, and I'm dropped into an open stretch of land with three units of soldiers. Suddenly, the hex in front of my soldiers cracks open and a huge worm explodes out of the ground. Its three jaws unravel and it looms over my men, gaping horribly. That'll be the Siege Worm, then.

This is why I'm so excited about Beyond Earth. Unconstrained by history, Firaxis are free to add huge, mad elements to Civilization, making the old familiar format feel fresh. Once the Siege Worm dies, its skull can be recovered and studied, which can trigger a quest. If you complete the set objectives in a quest, you uncover more of the planet's story. Alpha Centauri told its story through text interludes as your campaign progressed. That's now been broken up and folded into the world in a way that makes more room for the player. “We decided very early that we would imply more than we say,” Miller tells me. “I think that's really important, because the gaps the player's going to fill in with their imagination... that's a story way more interesting than the one we could write ourselves.”

Scientists love Siege Worm skulls, but the monsters may be more useful to you alive than dead. Espionage has been expanded to enable serious high-level action: a Harmony spy can activate a thumper in an enemy city, drawing nearby Siege Worms to attack it. If you'd rather not mess with nature, you can sneak-in a suitcase nuke instead.

You can use spies to counter spies, but Beyond Earth also has an orbital layer of strategy. You can launch temporary satellites, which project a zone of influence onto a patch of the planet's surface. Some satellites are good at spotting spies, others can be used for terraforming, and some carry big guns that let you nuke your enemies from the stratosphere. Satellite influence zones can't overlap, so you can use the orbital layer to aggressively muscle-in on enemy territory you might be unable to reach on foot.

Satellites and Siege Worm thumpers are tiny elements in Beyond Earth's huge web of technology. You start at the centre, and research in any direction you choose. The game's other lead designer, David McDonough, explains that the farthest arms of the web represent some of sci-fi's biggest ideas. “Off to the left there's alteration to the human form: cybernetics, surrogacy, putting your brain in a can.” That road leads to trans-humanism. Elsewhere lie communication and data sciences. “Imagine a world run by the unholy alliance of Twitter and Wikipedia.” If that fills you with horror, you can always dig into xenosciences, or genetic manipulation, or terraforming, which has the power to “shake the very ground under your enemies.”

McDonough describes the tech tree as 'the engine' of the game, but your choice of destination even better demonstrates the quality of imagination behind Beyond Earth. Victory conditions are numerous. Any player can build a beacon to make first contact with a sentient alien race, and Harmony players can commune with the planet's collective consciousness to achieve a transcendent state of sentience. Both worthy options, but Purity and Supremacy players can actually build a portal back to Earth. Purity players then draw Earth troops out of the portal to claim the new planet in the name of the old world. Supremacy players send their monstrous bionic commandos into the portal as an invading force, to impose bionic ascendency on their fellow humans. You become the Borg. As objectives go, that's a fantastic reason to keep clicking 'next turn'. I look forward to being assimilated.

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