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'Beyond Earth' takes 'Sid Meier's Civilization' off-planet and into the final frontier

April 16, 2014 5:46pm

Earlier this month, when Firaxis Games teased that it would be revealing a new game at PAX East in Boston, most assumed the obvious: Civilization VI, the next installment in the illustrious series of historical empire management games. What got announced that weekend though, was far from expected. Sure enough, it is another entry in the Civilization series, but set on another planet across the stars.

'Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth' will be released later this year on Mac, Windows and Linux PCs. Long-time followers of Firaxis Games, the award-winning studio whose most recent releases include Sid Meier's Ace Patrol and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, will be psyched to know that press outlets like Eurogamer and Forbes have dubbed Beyond Earth the spiritual successor to Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri.

Released in 1999, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was a spin-off from the Civilization franchise, following on from the well known space victory that sees players send their civilization into the stars. Tasked with colonizing an alien planet, players of 'SMAC' developed transhuman technologies, set customized ideologies and interacted with an extraterrestrial sentience. Its rich texture and compelling in-game characters and fiction and have drawn a devoted cult following.

'Beyond Earth' will chart a similar course, also asking players to settle, explore and expand on a new alien planet. Sid Meier, Firaxis' creative director and the man whose name serves as the marquee to almost every game the studio has produced, had this to say:" The Civ team was excited about the opportunity to continue the story of Civilization into the future, because it allows the team to break free of historical context." 

The setup for 'Beyond Earth' begins with The Great Mistake. "The state of Earth a couple hundred years from now becomes rather dire," said gameplay desiger Anton Strenger while speaking to Polygon's Dave Tach at PAX. "Internally, we've written out exactly what those events are, but for the player, we're leaving it vague and allowing their imagination to fill the gaps." Strenger stressed that such a vague narrative stance empowers the players to create their own story.

Following The Great Mistake, humanity sends expeditions into space to colonize alien worlds. But instead of picking a great ruler or faction leader for a set of prepackaged benefits, players will be tasked with spacecraft loadout. Strenger told TIME: "[Y]ou could bring extra weapons to get off to an early military star [...] You’re also deciding what types of colonists you want to bring with to form your first colony. They might be more intellectual, and you’d have scientific bonuses starting on turn one."

Still, 'Beyond Earth' is meant to be an all new iteration of the 4X (expand, explore, exploit, exterminate) strategy formula so perfectly refined by Firaxis. Just as 'Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri' was not an official entry in the Civilization brand -- the 'Civilization' name passed through three different companies before landing with publisher 2K Games -- 'Beyond Earth' is not the sequel to 'Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri'.  That's not just because the rights to the 'Alpha Centauri' name remain with Electronic Arts, the company that published the game, but because the designers are creating mechanics and systems unlike any it's ever developed. 

Whereas the tech trees of Civ represent the historical march of scientific advancement, in its place is a tech web. From its center, players progress from the most familiar of speculative technologies and outwards into more esoteric advances. Technologies can help define their post-Earth humanity through affinities. Purity advances help shape their new home closer to an idyllic restoration of Earth that once was. Supremacy choices focus on the embrace of total transhumanism through cybernetic advancement. Harmony adaptations encourage their people to develop a symbiotic relationship with their new environment.

These affinities are defined by their victory conditions, which are meant to be distinct from a more conventional military victory. Harmony players win by embracing the consciousness of an extraterrestrial super-organism. Supremacists embrace augmentation and then return to Earth to free humanity from the confines of their flesh. Purity players transform the new planet into a new Eden and facilitate an exodus into their new paradise. 

Would-be extraterrestrial conquistadors can still go for that military victory. And to that end, 'Beyond Earth' is literally adding a new layer to the map that presents compelling tactical options. "I thought [combat in Civilization V] was very elegant and would make a good fit for this game," lead designer David McDonough told Gamespot. " We’ve added these alternate game layers--such as the orbital layer--which sort of let you break that rule by launching units into space and having them effect units on the ground without being stacked on top of them." 

The developers conceded to PC Gamer that the game is about the idea of the future: "The influence of Alpha Centauri will be apparent, but it's in winks and nods—it's an homage to that game—this game really is meant to be our version of the place that game sat when it came out. It's our version of this idea of mankind in space, and we started with that perspective of the fiction and the narrative, and also of Civ V." Where Civilization allows players to rewrite the history of mankind, 'Beyond Earth' will "let them create the future." — TJD, GMA News
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