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We're still a couple months away from the retail release of Civilization: Beyond Earth (C:BE), but publisher 2K Games couldn't hold back the horde any longer. We've been eager to try it out because it's Civ, but also because it feels like a spiritual sequel to Alpha Centauri, which itself dealt with a nagging question from earlier entries in the series: What happens when you win the game by launching an interstellar ship into space? Where do those people go? At first glance, C:BE looks like a sci-fi Civilization V with an exotic color palette, but a number of new layers unfolded during our time with it.
Most Civ games begin with selecting your starting conditions (unless you like to live on the edge and randomize all your choices). Your options include the usual things like world size, continent shape, and faction leader characteristics. In the build that we played, we could choose from three randomly generated planets. We could also let the game randomly choose one of those three for us, or we could tell C:BE to roll the dice and generate three new worlds. If that's not your cup of tea, we could also go to the "Advanced Worlds" menu and choose from about ten worlds with scripted conditions. 82 Eridani e, for example, has no oceans and little water. Or we could choose Archipelago, which was basically the opposite. Eta Vulpeculae b, meanwhile, has one large continent and an abundance of resources and wildlife.
Six of the worlds that are accessible from this menu come from the Exoplanets Map Pack, which you get by pre-ordering the game before October 24th. Each of these planets will randomize its geography each time you play, leading to an additional layer of replayability. We were not able to dig up a menu that allowed us to fine-tune specific map or gameplay attributes (such as disabling neutral factions or hostile wildlife), but this was not a final build.
Then you can also choose to begin the game with a soldier or worker unit, instead of an explorer. Or you could have a clinic installed in your first city automatically. This building improves the city health stat, which indicates population growth and the happiness of your citizens. You will also choose what ship type you want to use to arrive on the planet. This determines bonuses like starting with 100 energy (the currency of C:BE); the initial visibility of coast lines, alien nests, certain resources; and the size of the fog of war around your first city.
Then you choose your colonist type. For example, the Refugee type adds +2 food to every city, which promotes growth. Engineers give you +2 production in every city, which decreases the time it takes to construct buildings. Scientists, unsurprisingly, give you +2 science in every city, which increases the speed at which you research new technology. Lastly, you designate your sponsor, which determines who your faction leader is. There are no historical leaders this time, like George Washington or Ghandi. This new gang consists of fictional characters set in a speculative future. We had eight sponsors to choose from. Going with the African Union grants us +10% food in growing cities when their Health rating is 1 or greater. With the Pan-Asian Cooperative, you get a 10% production bonus for Wonders, and 25% faster workers.
So after agonizing over all of those branching decisions, you can finally drop into the game. If you're familiar with the last couple Civ games, the interface should be pretty familiar. Your resources appear in the upper right-hand corner, with positive and negative numbers indicating gains or losses per turn. Hovering the cursor over each one gives you a detailed breakdown of where the resources are coming from, and how they're being consumed. Your lower right-hand corner is for notifications and to run through your list of available actions The lower left-hand shows you your selected unit (if any) and its abilities.