Civilization is going to space. The next game in Sid Meier's iconic turn-based strategy series will take place on an alien planet, where you'll explore, colonise and fight other factions as you attempt to navigate uncharted sci-fi territory.
Sound familiar? Civilization: Beyond Earth, as it's called, seems very much like a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, the wonderful sci-fi Civ spinoff released back in 1999. Beyond Earth will be out this spring for PC, Mac and Linux, which should excite more than a few Civ fans. Strategy game addicts have been waiting almost 15 years for another sci-fi 4X game, and the next big thing from Firaxis is just that.
The Alpha Centauri comparisons can't be avoided. But the folks at Firaxis — most recently responsible for XCOM, a much different kind of sci-fi game — say they want Beyond Earth to feel different than that 90s classic.
"This is going our own direction," Beyond Earth designer Anton Strenger said in a phone interview earlier this week. "But that's not to say that we have not, you know, drawn some inspiration from Alpha Centauri. When I was in sixth grade I played Alpha Centauri. That was my first 4X game, and I remember learning it over my friend's shoulder and not knowing exactly what was going on but loving every minute of it."
In Alpha Centauri, you'd pick one of seven factions and colonize an alien planet, fighting off nasty mindworms and workshopping new units as you negotiated and battled with your fellow human settlers, like the zealous Believers and the draconic Hive. It mixed the brain candy of a Civilisation game with some solid sci-fi fiction, and the results were engrossing and addictive. Fans spent years craving and demanding a successor, but that could never really happen — Alpha Centauri is owned by the publisher Electronic Arts, while Firaxis is now owned by one of their competitors, 2K Games.
(Full disclosure: I have spent many, many hours playing Alpha Centauri. Too many. I'm glad there's no way to track that.)
So what about this upcoming game, Civilization: Beyond Earth? Well, for starters, here's a CGI trailer, released by Firaxis today:
Let's break down some of the basic features, as described to me by the Firaxis folks.
Pre-game preparation is a big thing here. "When you start a game of Civ: Beyond Earth, your choices start before turn zero," said Strenger. "You're composing your spacecraft on your expedition to this new alien planet." So you'll get to make some basic decisions — colonists, cargo, type of spacecraft — before the game starts. That, the designers say, will impact the outcome of your entire game.
"Even when you arrive you're not just this kind of pre-baked factional identity, you're this composition of different choices that plays out a little bit different every time," Strenger said. "That goes for the human player and also for the AI players as well."
Factions are a little different than they are in Civ. Instead of playing as familiar civilizations like, say, the Romans, or Russia, you'll play as futuristic fictional factions — like the American Reclamation Corporation. Or the Panasian Cooperative.
"Factions each have distinct personalities," said producer Dennis Shirk. "You might have an aggressive personality and they have a specific trait, but it's going to vary greatly, because depending what they start out with, those loadouts are gonna mean that you're gonna get a different experience each time."
You can't play as an alien race. Sadly. Maybe that will come in an expansion pack later, like it did with Alpha Centauri's Alien Crossfire. For now, aliens in Beyond Earth will be more like barbarians in a Civ game — you can ignore them or pick fights to clear them out of your way.
The tech tree is non-linear. Really, it's more web than a tree, the designers say.
See, in most Civilization games, you go through technologies by progressing linearly, moving from discoveries like masonry and writing to philosophy and mathematics and eventually working your way up to modern times, where you can learn how to blow things up. In Beyond Earth, you'll be able to pick one of a few different branches — like chemistry or engineering — and head down that particular branch. As you progress through the game, you can either stick with the branch you chose, or switch paths to unlock other kinds of stuff.
"Once you go to ecology, for example, that can lead into technologies for terraforming, and for advance satellites, and for geoscoping," said Strenger. "Whereas if you go down the engineering route, that leads to civil support, cybernetics, and other technologies instead. You can advance in many different directions, and at any point you can go back and say, 'OK I've gone enough down this branch for now,' and go back and focus on other things."
You probably won't be able to get every piece of tech by the end of a match, Strenger said. "Each decision you make, each thing that you wanna go for is gonna come at the cost of not being able to get something else."
Surrounding that technology web are big-picture decisions. Themes, really. The developers at Firaxis call them affinities. Based on how you choose to progress through the tech web, you'll find your civilisation leaning toward one of three different "post-human identities": purity, harmony, or supremacy.
"Purity is very concerned with maintaining the glory of old earth and the tradition and the culture," Strenger said, "so they're kinda rejecting these new influences on the alien planet. The harmony affinity embraces genetics and alien life forms on the planet and tries to integrate with the planet. And then supremacy does the same sort of integration and moving past what humanity was, but they do it in a technological direction. So they implant cybernetics into their own bodies, and they link up their minds to neural networks."
You'll also be able to...
- Do quests and side missions while exploring the planet.
- Negotiate with other factions, build trade routes, and do all the other little management activities that make a Civ game a Civ game.
- Find alien relics, not unlike in Alpha Centauri.
- Build satellites for different kinds of military, economic, and technological advantages.
- Go insane and declare war on everybody in a mad attempt to take control of the planet by killing everyone else.
Hopefully they can capture what made Alpha Centauri so great. Anyone who spent long nights battling with Zakharov and Santiago undoubtedly has fond memories of transcending humankind and merging with the Planet in Firaxis's sci-fi classic. It was a top-notch game, and though the Civilization series has been consistently great since Sid Meier programmed the first Civ back in 1990,Alpha Centauri always stood out, possibly because it could create its own story, unconfined by history or realism.
The folks at Firaxis seem to agree. And if anyone can pull off a great spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, it's Sid Meier and crew. Who else could do it?
"This is, for the whole team, just an amazing thrill to be able to cast off the shackles of historic context and work on something amazing like this," Shirk said. "Because it's been a while since Firaxis has gone into space, outside of XCOM. So just to go through the whole process, watch the designers go through the whole process, has been amazing."