This summer, I've played Civilization: Beyond Earth at various media events, beginning at a 50-turn limit, then 100 turns and now 250 turns. Each time, I've been allowed to play repeatedly, so I've pulled a good few hours so far.
As a dedicated Civilization 5 fan (it's my favorite video game ever) I still can't say whether or not I will plump down a handful of notes on this sci-fi version, due out on Oct. 24.
I want to stress that if you like Civ 5 and you like sci-fi, this game does everything right. The world, the techs, the aliens, the rival civs, the city improvements, the resources, they all have a lovely futuristic non-Earth feel.
Everything seems to work and to be balanced superbly. It would be a major shock if, four years after its original launch, a developer with Firaxis' reputation had failed to add the necessary polish to its engines.
But outside the basic engine, mechanics and aesthetics, it's essentially the same game.
What changes there are will be viewed with much interest by Civ-fans. There's a slightly more sophisticated AI in diplomacy negotiations, which will hopefully manifest itself in less crazy late-game volte-face manoeuvres than we have seen in the past. The aliens are more robust and varied, meaning expansion in the early game is more interesting. The tech tree and culture perks offer greater options in terms of paths. Trading posts offer a neat twist on the notion of independent City States.
These all add to the feeling that the designers have tweaked and improved on core systems, and haven't merely overlain alien blobs and spaceships onto Civ 5.
Part of the magic of Civ is choosing technologies and city improvements that reflect your own chosen strategies and your own personality. Firaxis recognizes this need for self expression through its system of "affinities."
Certainly, in every decision that was placed before me, I was torn between resolving a short-term objective and sticking to my own in-game principles of adapting to my new world and doing as little harm as possible.
Fictional future-leaders exert less gravitational pull on the fantasy
As in Democracy 3, this dilemma of doing what is right, and doing what is right, is a marvelous piece of interactive fiction. Even in the 250-turn campaign, I was making compromises with myself along the lines of "oh, well, I'll make up for that diversion into evil-doing later in the game."
Set on a new planet and freed from the shackles of history, you get to be yourself. The Civ-leaders are all fairly bland shells, unlike the heavily baggaged historical leaders of the old world games. Although the leaders in both games do as you wish them to do, somehow the fictional future-leaders exert less gravitational pull on the fantasy.
Personally, it is taking me some time to get fully accustomed to the unfamiliar units, improvements and techs. Of course, they were always proxies for statistical buffs (I need more of x, so I should choose to research and build y) but somehow a printing press, say, feels more solid and real than a Thorium Reactor.
But I fully accept that this may well be a failure of my own imagination. The huge success of Alpha Centauri back in the era of Civ 2 shows that other-world civ adventures are highly desired.
This is shaping up to be yet another admirable episode in the history of the Civilization franchise. I still have questions about that $50 price-tag, and about my own desire to spend dozens of hours on a game that isn't all that different from one I have already played for hundreds of hours. But at 250 turns, I have to say that this is an enjoyable and rich experience.