The Civilization series, one of the core titles in the strategy genre of video games, can be difficult to review because everyone plays the games in a slightly different way. Still, the series of games follow the same basic structure. Players establish and lead a nation and control everything their society does. That means you, as a player, choose not only where to settle, what to build in your cities, but also more nuanced questions such as how much you prize education as a culture or where you fit in the global political landscape. They're also incredibly addictive, because every megalomaniac wants to know how their decisions ultimately will work out.
The Hunt Valley, Md. studio's newest title "Beyond Earth" has many of the same attributes, but the game plays quite a bit differently because of its, well, non-Earth setting. The core Civilization games let you choose between historical leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington or Catherine the Great and compete for global domination. By using figures we all know, Civilization generally gives players some basic insight into what a leader's strengths and weaknesses are. But with the "Beyond Earth" factions, because the game is set in the future and in outerspace, players lose that cultural and historical familiarity.
The upshot of that is that you have to pay a lot of attention to the text explanations that pop up in the game -- and there are a lot of them. That's good for players who are new to the game and to the series. For veteran players, it's tempting to blitz through the familiar instructions on how to build units or guide the progress of their civilization. But you should do so at your own risk: it's easy to find yourself far down one path only to realize that you've got to turn around and pick up something crucial that you've left behind.
The game lets you play as wide or as narrowly as you want, with a sprawling web of options that lets you chose the focus of our budding society's research. But the sheer size of the web of options can get difficult to deal and you're not completely sure about the implications of choosing "Transgenics" over "Bionics."
To ease some of that, Firaxis has made the web both searchable and sortable, so you can pick your way through it more easily if you've got a plan in mind. If you're more of a loose, reactive Civilization player it can be a good deal more overwhelming. In truth, the web could probably benefit a bit from some more recognizable organization. My Switch colleague Brian Fung suggested, for example, that labeling sections of the web -- agriculture, military tech, etc. -- would do wonders for navigability.
In addition to setting the future course of human knowledge, "Beyond Earth" also introduces the concept of affinities, or general philosophies that dictate how your society will interact with the surrounding alien world. The three basic tracks are Harmony, Supremacy and Purity. Harmony deeply infuses the alien world into your culture, Supremacy doubles-down on technology research as the way forward, and Purity is obsessed with changing the new world into the one humans left behind.
This can guide how you play in a lot of little ways. "Beyond Earth" is almost as much about competing with the planet as it is about finding your place among other human settlements. Choosing Harmony, for example, can help you adapt the harsh landscape to your needs -- and deal with those roving bands of aliens. Alien relations can also matter a lot in the game -- deciding, for example, how closely you feel comfortable settling near an alien nest. Affinities are also the way that players can customize military units -- choosing Supremacy gives you a fleet of Robocops, for example, while units developed with Harmony points are more plant-like and organic.
Affinities also can determine how you win the game. There are five overall conditions for victory. Three of them reflect which affinity course you have chosen. Or you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into research and develop the technology to reach out to another, higher sentient alien species. And, of course, you can also win by taking over the entire planet, as with all Civilization games.
When it comes to global relations, affinities also impact who are more likely to be your allies. Firaxis has taken a lot of time thinking about humanity now and designing the characters and factions to reflect how its creators think our present society will develop in the future. That shows up in subtle ways: for example, the leader of the "American Reclamation Corporation" speaks in a mix of Spanish and English, a sign of the game creators' belief that the Americas would knit together closely in the face of catastrophe. It's easy to miss these kinds of details. And keeping them in mind are key for the gameplay. While we may able to predict how Genghis Khan may behave based on common knowledge of history, it's much harder to forecast how an entirely made-up person in an alien environment could react.
My fellow Switchers Brian Fung and Andrea Peterson, also received review copies of the game from Firaxis's publisher, 2K Games, and joined in for a quick-ish test of its multiplayer mode. In our multiplayer playthrough, we had a technical problem that kicked Andrea out of the game and wouldn't let her come back in -- Brian and I then went on to play for three and a half more hours (note to my editors: this was done at night, not during work hours). The multiplayer mode here is sort of what you make of it: it's up to you to decide whether you want play cooperatively, competitively or -- as we did -- in a sort of Cold War-esque scenario in which you're neither friend nor foe. Players can chat during multiplayer mode, which makes for some fun discussions, but it doesn't have to change much about the way you play.
All in all, "Civilization:Beyond Earth" is an ambitious game, and a testament to the way this nearly 20-year-old studio is willing to play around with its tried and true formulas. At times, the learning curve felt very steep. But "Beyond Earth" still preserves the core joy of making your own society in your image, even in a world divorced from the one we know.
And is it still addictive? Oh, yes. Depending on how well you police your own ability to stop playing, you should probably plan to clear a day -- or even a week -- in your schedule if you buy this game.
"Civilization: Beyond Earth" goes on sale Friday at midnight around the world for PC. It costs $49.99.
Brian Fung and Andrea Peterson contributed reporting -- and playtime -- to this review.