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.
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.