Civilization: Beyond Earth is a lenticulated trick of light, like those pictures of ghosts you see in trashy bars; one moment a pre-Raphaelite beauty, the next a snarling corpse.
For a while, it seems like a whole entity, glowing with vitality and life. But then, it shades into a bony darkness, an incomplete thing that whispers of Frankenstein-like stitching.
There can be no doubt that this game is essentially Civilization 5, except set in the future, on an alien planet. And yet, playing for the first 100 turns earlier this week (a PR-restriction at a press event) repeatedly, I found myself entirely amenable to the game.
If you look for similarities with Civ 5, you will find them in the core of the game's mechanics. It is the same experience, in that your role is to build cities, harvest surrounding hexes, construct armies and war against rivals.
Civilization's vicious little hook has been sharpened and perfected for two decades, and the "one...more...turn" thing is very much in evidence. So why should you spend your money on a Civ 5-alike? Why go Beyond?
Mostly, it is about the fantasy board on which the game plays out. These alien planets ooze and crawl with fungal menace, populated by neon creatures and the promise of new frontiers. It is 'Civ 5: The Sci-Fi Version'.
This is also played out in the buildings you construct, the enemies you send into battle, the techs you research. Ultimately, a Radion Magnetic Capacitor (I made that up) is going to do much the same job as a Printing Press (X% boost to production or efficiency or whatever) but in the context of the game world, it is all good. You are progressing.
Civilization is and always has been a control simulation in which players get to enjoy managing an entire society. It makes just as much sense to recreate that in space, as it did when Sid Meier made Alpha Centauri back in '99, and attracted thousands of people who had never much cared for Civ 2 and its faintly schoolroom odor.
The futuristic-sci-fi version of Civ is necessarily the same game. But those of us who need to be convinced to invest our time in a space-age epic, those of us comfortable mooching around with gunpowder and archaeology, still need to feel differences beyond visuals.
These are, frankly, thin on the ground, as least so far as I can tell. The main difference is in progressing techs and perks. There are more options now in terms of choice. They are set up as interlocking webs rather than silos. This will make the experimental phase of playing a lot more interesting, although I suspect I am not the only player out there who finds a path of efficiency, fairly soon after buying a Civ game, and sticks to it fervently.
A presentation by Firaxis developers showed us how diplomacy has improved. If you do another civilization a favor, they are obliged to reciprocate. This is to be welcomed, because anything that stems the flow of crazy from the notoriously capricious AI players is a good thing.
But I still got a gobful of madness even in the early game. The other civs were mad at me for bothering the local aliens, even while I had barely given the creatures a nasty look.
The aliens are an enigma. Clearly, they are a cut above the moronic barbarians of Earth. They come in many shapes and forms, right from the earliest part of the game. Their motivations are mysterious. They do not exist merely for you to ratchet up some XP and cash. And yet, my attempts to leave them in peace left me no better off, seemingly, than when I waded in with plasma guns blazing. I hope there is something in this to explore, rather than alien-agency being a phantom.
I guess my conclusion, based on a few plays of the early game, is that this game is way more than just a re-skin, and that Firaxis is not trying to pull a fast one on its fans. It's a good idea to take Civ 5 and set it in the future. Firaxis has added some smart things to the model in order to progress the franchise, but I worry that more might have been done in order to justify what will be a $50 game.
We shall see in the months ahead when, with any luck, we'll get to play more than the first 100 turns. After all, Civ games generally get interesting after a few hundred turns. Civilization: Beyond Earth will arrive on Windows PC on Oct. 24.