If you got the chance to rebuild society from scratch, how much of the past would you keep? And how much would you leave behind? In the upcoming "Civilization: Beyond Earth," players get to answer these questions for themselves.
The game is a sequel to Firaxis Games' build-your-own society Civilization series. That series is one of the pillars, if not the main pillar, of what's known as a 4X strategy game. The term is shorthand for "explore, expand, exploit and exterminate" -- a succinct, if oversimplified explanation of the point of these games. Firaxis' director of creative development, Sid Meier, is an industry legend -- as evidenced by his hits such as "Civilization" and "Railroad Tycoon." (His 1987 title "Pirates" even earned a spot in the Smithsonian's 2012 exhibition on the Art of Video Games.)
The Civilization series has always been steeped in history -- albeit a version of history where George Washington competes with Catherine the Great to create the world's dominant society. As in traditional Civilization, "Beyond Earth" players put themselves in the shoes of a great leader to form the shape of the world. But coming to a new world poses its own problems. In Civ, for example, you know that Genghis Khan likes to fight. You have no such knowledge of the leader of the "Pan-Asian Cooperative."
It's a new world for series fans -- and for the designers, who have taken on the challenge of designing a Civilization game that has to be both familiar and completely different. In a recent visit to the studio's Baltimore-area headquarters, I only got to play 100 turns -- about one-fifth of a standard game. But it was enough to get my feet wet.
One way that "Beyond Earth" differs from its predecessors is that it certainly doesn't ignore the fact that you've landed on a living planet. Instead of starting in mostly uninhabited land, as in other versions of the game, in "Beyond Earth," you're dropped into a planet's fully formed ecosystem, with its own native flora and fauna. Five turns in, I'm happily setting up a farm when a massive siege worm -- think of the sandworms from "Dune," but with more teeth -- decides with no provocation to head my way.
Not good. And trying to fight it with my limited resources rather than letting it go on its way meant that I quickly found myself in a war I couldn't win, particularly when it decided I was annoying enough to call a friend over.
Being outmatched so early on in the game can be frustrating. But it also points to the fact that "Beyond Earth" asks you to think more carefully about your knee-jerk reactions -- a nod at the fact that any new planet would, naturally, throw up obstacles you couldn't deal with when you start off. In traditional Civilization games, players do come across "barbarians" -- uncivilized tribes of your own level that attack indiscriminately and need to be wiped out. The aliens are a force to be reckoned with -- as I learned to my own detriment.
"We didn't want them to be barbarians," said one of the game's two lead designers David McDonough. "They predate you and they're critical to the way you evolve. They're sort of like a ninth player."
Despite changes like that, true-blue Civ fans shouldn't fret. Anyone who's played any version of Civilization -- particularly the latest, "Civilization V" -- will feel right at home. As one who's dedicated hundreds of hours to the Civilization series, I found myself on a very shallow learning curve. It didn't take long for me to found my first city, cultivate my land and start to lay the groundwork for my next colony. That said, it's also a nice entry point for people who haven't played any of the games before; like other Civ games, messages pop up periodically on the screen that help you figure out what move to make next. (These can be turned off once you get the hang of things.)
The game has a firm starting point, around 2600 AD, after a major (and undisclosed) catastrophic event called the "Great Mistake" prompts an exodus from Earth.
"The story extrapolates from the present day," said the game's lead designer, Will Miller, and so the game is designed to ease players in from a society they recognize to one that fulfills all of their futurist fantasies.
In the absence of historical templates, Firaxis Games designers have offered three frameworks for players to follow of how humankind changes when it leaves Earth. There's "Purity," a slavish devotion to remodeling Earth's societies on a new planet. "Supremacy" extrapolates our current obsession with tech to a point where soldiers happily replace their own legs with robotic prostheses. And then there's "Harmony" -- an approach to colonization that communes with the new planet, eventually allowing the player to land bonuses such as being able to navigate through poisonous swamps.
I dove into the Supremacy tree, influenced partially by my own affection for technology, as well as the natural resources around my landing site. By the time my 100 turns were over, I had already laid the groundwork for research into developing swarms of nanorobots that could supplement the human body, and my units had already taken on a certain RoboCop-like aesthetic.
Those philosophies act as touchpoints throughout your game. But unlike in Civilization, the colonizing feel of the game gives you more of an incentive to be a generalist rather than a specialist as you build a new society. In traditional Civilization, for example, if you choose to build your empire as the Netherlands, it behooves you to focus heavily on developing good trade relations. Queen Elizabeth players are smart to build out the navy. But when setting up all the societies from scratch in "Beyond Earth," it can help you just as much to have a broad base of strengths -- excellent scientific research, a focus on industry, or a flourishing culture for the fine arts, for example -- as it does to have one killer specialty.
That's reflected, too, in the options that players have to develop their societies. Rather than a straight-forward path for new technologies to research, players are presented with a web that encourages you to get a broad base of knowledge that still aligns with your chosen path. The same is true for what the game calls "virtues," which are essentially the basis of laws you set in your new society. In "Civilization V," players reaped the greatest rewards for creating policies that followed a strict ideology, such as mercantilism. With Beyond Earth, you can stretch your wings a bit more.
There's still the appeal of a good ol' fashioned land grab in "Beyond Earth." You're in a race against other factions to settle the planet. In my playthrough, all the other players were run via artifical intelligence, but you will be able to compete with other players when the game goes to market in October. As with the traditional Civ games, diplomacy is a key part of the game, and "Beyond Earth" lets you not only make deals but also trade "favors" to be called in at a later date in exchange for something like an immediate infusion of cash.
In a new twist to the Civ series, you've also got to keep an eye on the skies. Players get a chance to play with the "orbital layer" to launch satellites that can benefit their own societies, or harm their enemies, in short bursts. I only got to the earliest version of the satellite, a beneficial one that I launched over my city. But later in the game, the developers said, you can create satellites that can rain down acid or bolster defenses. Even more intriguing, you can slide a spy satellite into orbit--as long as you keep an eye on when your opponents' satellites are going into and out of orbit to avoid detection.
And finally, a note for true Civ nerds: "Beyond Earth" has been seen as a spiritual successor to a much-beloved late-90s title "Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri" -- the first "Civ in space" title. But the comparison doesn't quite ring true. Even in 100 turns, it's safe to say that it's definitely more a Civilization game than it is a remake or sequel to Alpha Centauri. That said, the "Beyond Earth" branch is setting out on a new trajectory of its own, and it will be fascinating to see how it develops.