When I ask Firaxis lead designer why the studio decided to take the Civilization series to space with Civilization: Beyond Earth – just announced at PAX East – his answer is simple: "Why not?" Designer and programmer Anton Strenger offers a little more meat. "I think that one of the things that space allows us to do as designers, and for the artists as well, is to get free from a historical context." Civilization has always been tied to human history, but Beyond Earth allows it to branch out in a fresh new direction (even if that direction isn't completely new to Firaxis).
"We, as designers, were free to come up with really fun new gameplay systems that didn't really make sense in a more historical game, or even like a fantasy game." Specifically, Strenger mentions one of Beyond Earth's new tactical elements, the orbital layer, which allows players to launch satellites over a planet, influencing the events below. Firaxis' artists had a field day creating satellite designs, says Strenger. Producer Lena Brenk chimes in, "Yeah, that was amazing to see the artists. Usually we have historic reference that they're working from, and right now they get to invent a world, basically, an alien planet in the future."
That's not to say, however, that Firaxis is just making everything up. "It's really important to us that the player be able to draw a line of plausibility through the entire experience," says lead designer Will Miller, "we want the suspension of disbelief maintained throughout." Beyond Earth begins around 200 to 250 years in the future, he says, and science-fiction fans will recognize plausible concepts like ships that fly at sub-light speeds and cryogenic stasis. "But where you end up is quite different, so we're going to draw that line from where we are now to these sort of post-human evolutions." You won't be starting NASA from scratch, in other words, but Beyond Earth starts in a believable place: Humanity travels to a new planet. The question is how you choose to master it."That's actually one of the big differentiators to other Civ entries, the historical Civs," says Brenk. "Because, in history, we know how technology evolved." The future is unwritten, however, and Beyond Earth allows players to pursue one of three possible paths for humanity: Purity, Harmony or Supremacy. As lead designer David McDonough explains it, these paths – called affinities – are Firaxis' "hypothesis of what humanity could be like in 1,000 years." Supremacy is a technologically oriented path, he says, heavy on robotics and humans that find "safety in their own technology." Harmony is geared toward understanding your new planet, guiding human evolution so that it is well-suited to its new environment. Purity is pseudo-religious, he says, and a path that attempts to "keep humanity pure" by transforming every planet into a new Earth. "Whatever else you do, whatever wars you fight, or technology you research, it's all kind of in pursuit of this affinity goal," says McDonough.
Those wars will be fought against other humans. There will be alien lifeforms in Beyond Earth, but you won't be conducting diplomatic missions with Quarians or Klingons. "You'll find alien creatures," says McDonough, "and you'll have a fun time deciding along the course of the game just how smart they really are." In addition to these creatures, players may discover evidence of highly advanced civilizations, "and unraveling the mystery of who they are, or were, is also something you can pursue in the game." Aliens are a "big part" of Beyond Earth, he says, but there are no playable aliens. Players will be busy enough helping humanity come to grips with life on the final frontier.
While Beyond Earth will literally strike out for new territory for Civilization, it should still be familiar to series fans. The team at Firaxis has learned to strike the balance between complexity, usability and fun, says Miller. Though Civilization players will recognize elements like hex-based combat, other features like the orbital layer change tactics dramatically. "It's still one unit per tile, it's still hex combat, so all of the tactical things that players understand will carry over, but treat this game like Civ 5 at your own peril."
Brenk assures fans that Beyond Earth is a true Civilization game. "The new systems that are implemented here give this game complexity. I know our fans [are always] afraid of us dumbing something down. This is not dumbed down." Part of that complexity also comes from the planets themselves. Says McDonough, "Every world that you play on is unique, and every time you play, the world itself is something you have to figure out." There are several biomes that the map generator can use, including lush jungle, desert and a "totally wild" fungal environment. That sort of flexibility is just begging for player-created planets, and Firaxis is aware of that. Brenk acknowledges that modding has long been an important part of the Civilization series. "We're trying to get as much modding support in it as we can, but right now we can't really talk about details yet."
Civilization: Beyond Earth will go boldly this fall.
[Images: 2K Games]