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But while the UI should be familiar, this is definitely an exotic planet, with unfamiliar formations like canyons and craters, clouds of poisonous gas, alien critters used for resources, and other alien critters that are actively hostile. It's definitely dangerous terrain for a fledgling civilization. But you'll find resource pods dotted throughout the landscape, which usually contain caches of energy or satellites. Satellites are launched into orbit and extract energy from the planet's surface, though it's not clear how. They stay up for a limited time, though, so you'll need to keep finding them, or produce them on your own. You'll also encounter stations, which behave similarly to city-states in Civ V.
And your explorer (scout) unit can excavate native ruins and giant animal bones to grant more bonuses, like free technology. He can only carry one of these excavation kits at once, though, and he needs to return to a city to get more. It also takes five turns to excavate something. This slower pace maintains the unit's viability for a longer stretch than in previous games, and compels you to make more agonizing decisions. Competing factions also don't like it when you excavate something that's closer to their territory than to yours. So you have to balance your desire for discovery against your long-term political risks.
Meanwhile, you'll be conducting research on new buildings and units. Instead of going left to right and hitting up pretty much everything along the way, you begin from a central point on the research map and must choose between different branches, each of which contains "leaves" or individual research choices. Each branch has a theme, usually divided into cultural, military, and scientific categories. You can try focusing on one theme, or it might be better to balance as many as you can. Since we were limited to 100 turns, we weren't able to see which turned out to be the better strategy. The things you encounter on the map, the things you build, and the tech you research will frequently trigger binary choices. At one point, the game made us choose between two stations to conduct business with. One station specialized in converting military equipment for civilian use, while another could increase our science score. Both choices have effects on your relationship with the planet's flora and fauna, and you have three affinities to balance: Harmony, Supremacy, and Purity.
Each choice grants you a mix of experience points in each affinity, and enough points in one will move you up a level and grant you a bonus. Hovering your mouse over each affinity (located in the upper left-hand corner) tells you what different levels will do. Level 1 of Harmony, for example, reduces the aggression level of the native creatures. Eventually you'll actually gain health from the poison clouds (called "miasma"), and the highest level of your primary affinity grants a critical element for one of the five available victory conditions. At the same time, you'll eventually be at odds with the factions that have different affinities than yours. You can attempt to smooth over relations by establishing lucrative trading routes, engaging in joint military actions, and good old-fashioned bribery. Or you can attempt to wipe them off the map, if you're not into the whole diplomacy thing.
And let's not forget about the Virtue system. These operate like Civ V's social policies, but this time there are four of them with nine tiers, so there's more focus and depth to your choices here. On top of that is a grid of synergies, designed to encourage the exploration of multiple virtues. Activating the first tier of each virtue, for example, gives you a bonus activation of your choosing.
Eventually, the 2K staff gently ushered us out the door, and we were reluctant to leave. Beyond Earth has a more layers of faction evolution and political intrigue than we're used to seeing in Civ, and we were eager to see the choices that the game would present us with next. We also wanted to build more stuff, of course, and establish more trade routes, explore more of the map, investigate the critters, and maybe start a war or two. Thankfully, we only have about eight more weeks until the game launches into orbit.