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Sid Meier's Starships is all about ship customization, tactical combat

Sid Meier's Starships, the recently announced downloadable follow-up to last year's Civilization: Beyond Earth, takes the strategy franchise in a bold new direction — where no Civ game has gone before, if you will.

During a PAX South panel, Meier himself ran the crowd through a demonstration of Starships, starting up a new galactic federation from scratch, equipping its fledgling ships with special upgrades and taking them into battle. Perhaps what's most striking about Starships is how focused it is on RPG-like progression systems for its titular vessels. Almost every system from Civilization — wonders, technology and so on — provide specific benefits for your ships, rather than more esoteric boosts to your civilization-at-large.

That customization starts from the very first screen of Starships, in which you choose your character — each of which carries different starting boons, like extra ships or random tech upgrades — and your Affinity, a system returning from Beyond Earth. The Supremacy, Harmony and Purity tracks all carry with them their own benefits and aesthetic differences; crew in Supremacy fleets, for example, are decked out in futuristic battle armor.

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Typically, your fleet starts with two ships, which you can immediately customize by upgrading their nine essential systems, which include engines, cannons, torpedoes, sensors and standalone fighters. Meier emphasized the depth of this system, explaining it basically allows you to create ships with different roles — by pouring energy into shield and cannon upgrades, you can make a heavy tank unit. Engine and sensor upgrades can create a speedy recon unit. Any kind of build is possible, he said, from a stealthy sniper unit to a massive aircraft carrier.

By researching technology, you can further bolster the capabilities of your fleet. By discovering and spending tech points on the Quantum Suppression technology option, you can boost the stealth capabilities of every ship you own. Similar Tech can improve your ships' hulls, giving them HP boosts in battle, among other helpful bonuses.

Those systems represent a surprisingly focused progression system, one less built around intergalactic micromanagement and more around building a badass space armada.

Your fleet can travel to any planet in the galaxy you've discovered and take on missions, each of which task you with completing an objective in a unique, hex-based battlefield. Combat in Starships is turn-based: You can move your ships and execute commands as long as your ships have energy to spend. Appropriately equipped vessels can activate stealth to protect them from distant enemies, launch fighter ships to assault foes, hang back and barrage the enemy fleet with torpedoes and execute a number of other strategic maneuvers.

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It's not as simple as getting in firing range of your enemy and blasting them, though. The battlefield is dynamic, with asteroids enemies can hide behind, jump gates you can use to bridge huge gaps and other features determined by the planet you're circling. One interesting feature demonstrated by Meier were passageways; gaps between asteroids on the map that can close up between turns, potentially cutting off your approach vector — or your escape route.

A successful mission means a reward — Meier earned a free Tech upgrade for his efforts — and a new trade route with the planet you've assisted, earning additional energy, metal, technology and food for your federation. By accruing influence points with those planets, you can permanently add them to your federation, boosting your galactic presence and moving towards a final victory.

Of course, other civilizations on the map are attempting to move toward the same goal. They'll fly around the galaxy, completing missions and broadening their own reach — but only after your turn ends. You'll need to periodically give up your turn in order to give your fleet's crew shore leave, as exhausted crew members can't perform at maximum capacity in battle.

Sid Meier's Starships launches on Windows PCs, Mac and iPad sometime in early 2015. You can check out the game's announcement trailer below.