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CIVILIZATION: BEYOND EARTH is a Stellar 4X Strategy Experience

For centuries mankind has looked to the stars and wondered what lay beyond. Now, we have the technology, the courage, and the ambition, but do we have the survival skills? Foul green miasma surrounds our colony and the local fauna has proved, well, unfriendly to say the least. Still, there is a glimmer of hope. Resources are bountiful and our scientists are learning more and more each day, developing new ways to reinforce our walls and terraform the landscape, but — wait, what was that? Oh god, they’re here. SIEGE WORMS!  SIEGE WOOOOOOR—

The sounds of death and destruction follow as giant Dune-worthy space worms rend my troops asunder.

Poor attempt at theatrics aside, Alpha Centauri is back, you guys, and it’s glorious. Well, it’s not technically Alpha Centauri, but Civilization: Beyond Earth is as close of a spiritual successor to the 1996 classic as you’re likely to get. At a recent pre-E3 press event, I was allotted 50 turns to establish my first colony and try to carve out the humble beginnings of my nascent intergalactic empire. Based on my hands-on experience, which was an all together too brief 45 minutes, fans of Alpha Centauri, Civilization, and mind-numbingly addictive strategy games will find plenty to be excited about with 2K Games and Firaxis’ latest addition. And did I mention the horrifying Siege Worms? Because holy shit they’re scary.

Having poured hundreds of hours into the Civilization series over the years, I am intimately familiar with the core game mechanics of empire-building, raising armies, telling Gandhi that his days are numbered, researching wild new technologies, and generally conquering the world. While Gandhi’s presence hasn’t yet been confirmed, all of these mechanics are present in Beyond Earth in some form or another. They may be tweaked and modified with a shiny new coat of paint, but they’ll be instantly familiar in that Matrix deja vu kind of way. That being said, the game isn’t just a reskinned version of Civ 5 or Alpha Centauri, for that matter — it is it’s own unique, highly addictive beast.

In the alpha build we played, your fledgling colony has established a base of operations on Mandira, a vaguely tropical alien planet populated by aggressive insectoid alien creatures that seem to have a preternatural taste for human flesh. Also threatening our every step are pockets of a noxious green mist called miasma that deals damage to any poor, unfortunate soul foolish enough to end their turn within its gaseous grasp. As my intrepid explorers braved death at every turn, I made my way to a crashed resource pod, the game’s goody hut equivalent, and found survivors who joined my colony.  A wise decision for we are a welcoming, industrious people that shall soon inherit this verdant paradise.

The biggest change with Civilization: Beyond Earth is that you’re no longer worrying about just one map, but two. The primary action will play out on the planet’s surface as a normal Civ game would, but now there’s also something called an “orbital layer”, which allows for the construction of satellites to provide buffs to ground forces and, hopefully in future builds, giant Gears of War-style Hammer of Dawn. Just imagine how cool it would be to raze an enemy outpost to the ground with a precision laser strike from the upper stratosphere. I’m getting shivers already.

On the slightly nerdier end of the spectrum, Beyond Earth‘s other big change is to the venerable tech tree, the branching system of research that has been a staple of games past. It has been replaced by a “tech web”, a sprawling, ever-expanding web of potential research topics that gets increasingly speculative and futuristic as you approach its far reaches. Adding further depth to the already sweeping offerings is the addition of branching options within each larger technology category, allowing for further sub-division and specialization. As a player who loves nothing more than creating an advanced race of supersmart tech wizards, these changes please me greatly. Sort of like when Final Fantasy X introduced the Sphere Grid, but less frustrating.

In addition to your usual city upkeep, terrain improvement, and exploration, the turn-by-turn routine has been spiced up with the addition of quests, objective-based prompts that will either give you a reward or a tough decision to make. Having just built a clinic to keep my citizens happy and healthy, I was faced with a choice: provide free healthcare for all or free healthcare for the city workers who toil there and endure dangerous conditions to keep my city safe. While I would love for all my citizens to be cared for by the best doctors in the nebula, I am a pragmatist first and foremost. Also, I just watched House of Cards Season 2, so I’m channeling Frank Underwood when I decide to award free healthcare only to my city workers. Now I’ve really earned that #1 Boss mug sitting on my space desk.

One of the other major new additions is what Firaxis is calling an “affinity,” which is basically an overarching direction in which you can steer your emergent empire. Split into three choices – harmony, purity, and supremacy – these allow you to gain passive bonuses that will help your civilization reach its peak. As time passes and these alignments become more defined, they can put you into direct conflict with other nations who esteem opposing ideals. It’s a clever mechanic, for sure, and yet another interesting wrench to potentially gum up the diplomatic works in spectacular fashion. Except they made one mistake — I don’t negotiate with terrorists.

My first contact with another civilization came in the form of Suzanne Marjorie Fielding of the American Reclamation Corporation. Prizing science, infrastructure, and production above all else (with a weakness for culture and religion), Fielding and I seemed like we would be fast friends. Diplomacy is a major part of the Civilization experience, forcing you to toe the line between appeasement and asserting yourself Alas, my advances were rebuffed and my offers of open borders were scoffed at like the one misshapen carrot at the bottom of every bag. This aggression – or passive aggression – would not stand. So, naturally, I declared war because, hey, I’m only with these meatbags for fifty turns, so why not make things interesting? Unfortunately for me, the local wildlife had other ideas.

Remember those Siege Worms I mentioned? Taking the place of Civ‘s roaming barbarian hordes are the aforementioned insectoid aliens I encountered. Most of them are smaller, more manageable melee and ranged units that look like a cross between Xenomorphs and Scyther from Pokemon, but there are also stygian, eldritch beasts that lurk just below the surface. As the fog of war faded away to nothingness, my scout stood in abject horror as the ground began to shake and a giant purple Siege Worm erupted from the ground, towering above the poor bastards. It only took one gnash of its gaping maw to turn my poor men into finely minced beef and suddenly I found myself facing 3 more surrounding my capitol’s borders. Was it all for naught? Was man’s journey into space sheer folly? Only time will tell, but for my space kingdom it seems as though that is all she wrote because that was coincidentally when my 50 turns came to an end. Yet even though I had not drank from the sweet cup of victory, I felt a familiar sense of excitement running through my veins, the sense of excitement that only comes with a new Civilization game. Even in its early alpha stage, Beyond Earth is well on its way to being one of the best in the series.

Civilization: Beyond Earth comes to PC, Mac, and Linux this fall.

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