Civilization: A Look Beyond Earth

In May 2013 when Brave New World was announced as the final expansion pack for Civilization V in 2010, the announcement was unexpected, yet somewhat disappointing. After all, while the game was three years old, the features that Brave New World included "radically altered" and "redefined" the game’s experience. There was still a lot to be milked out of the latest installment of Firaxis’s flagship franchise. Where would the developers go next?

The answer came nearly a year later when they announced Civilization: Beyond Earth, a standalone game in the series that immediately drew comparisons to 1999’s Alpha Centauri. Both the game titling and the announcement trailer at first made it seems that this would be a more space-based 4X game like Galactic Civilizations II, but this would not be the case. The gameplay will not depart very much from Civilization V, all of it being confined to one mysterious alien planet that humanity has claimed some centuries in the future after an ambiguous event named “The Great Mistake” made Earth’s conditions less than desirable.

Our jaunt into Civilization began with an explorer far up the coast from his capital city -- a Firaxis representative showed us a dangerous new world, with new obstacles and enemies beyond those previously experienced in the stone age of prior Civilization games. On Earth, initially, you only had to worry about animals and local tribes -- here, we caught a glimpse of miasmic clouds that damage your units, manticores guarding alien nests and siege worms reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Our explorer wandered south to recover a supply drop sent from Earth before our arrival and acquired a trove of energy -- the new currency central to Civilization’s economy. Other highlights on this tour included stations, independent trade outposts your civilization can establish trade routes with, giving you benefits like siege units, or alien bones and relics, which, according to our developer guide, can reward you with allied alien units later in the game. This was implied to be very rewarding, as alien units will be a constant source of misery through the campaign.

From there, we returned to our civilization’s capital city, perched on the edge of a river, and learned about some of the biggest new changes to Civilization. First, there was the introduction of quests -- a system designed to tell the story of the player’s campaign, and give context to ongoing events. The quest log we saw was numerous and contained multiple objectives, which seemed to trigger after accomplishing goals that veteran Civilization players will be familiar with. Our developer guide did try to imply that these quests would provide "meaningful decisions" to players, but at the time it seemed more like a buzzword.

What I found most interesting as we took our tour of this brave new world was an emphasis on multiculturalism in the design of our post-Earth civilizations. America, for example, has become the American Reclamation Corporation, headed by the Hispanic-looking Susanne Marjorie Fielding. This conglomerate theme would persist, as our immediate neighbors were the People’s African Union, who seemed to have roots in an Islamic civilization. Firaxis’ biggest challenge will be envisioning a world where all nations, not just the current global superpowers, have access to space travel and colonization.

In introducing these new civilizations, we also learned about the three new affinities that affect playstyle and determine win conditions. They’re known as ‘purity, harmony, and supremacy, and each are influenced by the technologies you research in the tech web as well as your interactions with other civilizations. This differs from the similar concept of ideologies in Civilization V, which are entirely up to the player and have little if any prerequisites. You can quickly identify your affinity and other nations' affinities by architecture and the different dress of their leaders.

Purity represents a new civilization based on restoring Earth’s roots, Harmony seeks to evolve humanity to make them native inhabitants of this new world, and Supremacy seeks to shape humanity into a force that could expand and thrive among even more star systems. These attitudes can influence your relationships with other nations, but it would seem that, just as on Earth, conflict will come back to "you have something I want," as our demo closed on an invasion of the People’s African Union’s territory in a bid to gain Firaxite -- a resource apparently valuable to victory. Here we saw some of the new robotic and naval units that will aid our military conquest, and a sneak peek at a tactical satellite that players can use to boost their unit’s health and stats on a specific tile. The developer manning the demo quickly wiped out the opposing forces, and perhaps ironically reminded us of another franchise -- no matter what happens, war never changes.

In the end, Beyond Earth answered the question of “What next?” in a variety of ways. Clearly, Firaxis is not straying too far from their tried-and-true model of “start on uncharted land, expand, build a society out of nothing.” Humanity may have expanded to the stars, but settling a planet will always be a process. 

At the same time, Beyond Earth has shown itself to be more than just “Civilization in space!” - not that there’s anything wrong with that. The challenges the player will have to face are appropriate for the setting, from the initial threats when still exploring the world, to the fact that humanity has still not outgrown its reasons for conflict.

From the E3 impressions to other developer interviews, undercurrent of almost RPG-like elements hide in Beyond Earth - most notably with the concept of affinities, which appears to be a far more organic process than anything in past Civilization games. As strategy and RPGs are my two favorite genres in gaming, I their apparent fusion in Beyond Earth sounds promising to me. And if the preponderance of conflict means I get to drop antimatter warheads on Space Gandhi’s territory, all the better.