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Civilization: Beyond Earth shoots for the stars

By Nick Cowen on Tuesday 20th May 2014 at 2:00 PM BST

The Oxford English dictionary's definition of the word 'Civilisation' is: "The stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced."

Sid Meier's Civilization series has always taken a more misanthropic view of its moniker. Invariably the aim of Civilization has always been to make the race of humans the player controls into the ubermensch. Whether that involves reducing the cities and lands of other races to nuclear-bombed toxic slag or heading off-world to Alpha Centauri and leaving those unevolved losers in the dust is immaterial. The name of the game here is advancement at the cost of any other race.

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth doesn't really change that basic template. But it does toss a boatload of new mechanics, themes and tools for advancement into the player's lap. The basic mechanics will be pretty similar to Civ players. The lion's share of their time is taken up by building units, researching, placing wonders and structures and generally spreading slowly across the map like a virus. Resource management and combat. Rinse repeat.

However, the new main conceit here is that, rather than battle it out for supremacy on the third rock from the sun - even if that rock bears no relation topographically to the earth we live on now - the action takes place in a rather hostile alien world. Here, humans are as risk as much from alien creatures - such as foundation-destroying Siege Worms - and pockets of lethal gas as they are from each other.

Prosaically enough, though, humans are easily the biggest obstacle to their own advancement, although in this game, the societies aren't driven so much by political structures as they are by a new aspect called Affinity.

Affinity dictates the philosophical, political and visual aesthetics of each society and there are three types that players can opt for: Harmony, Purity and Supremacy.

Players who pick Harmony will see their society and its structures take on a more organic, otherworldy quality. The reason being as the driving philosophy of this Affinity dictates that man should develop a symbiotic relationship with its environment. To that end, players who plump for the Harmony Affinity are able to adapt and recruit alien creatures. At high levels they can unleash an attack of Siege Worms on enemy cities, razing them to the ground.

Supremacy stands at the opposite end of this spectrum. A good reference point for this Affinity would be to imagine The Borg from Star Trek, except without the hive mind rubbish. A Supremacy society believes they should live separately not just from the environment they inhabit, but also from their human flesh. To that end, cybernetic enhancements are the order of the day and the structures this civilisation constructs are all hard metal and sharp edges.

Purity sits at the centre of the spectrum. A Purity civilisation rejects the ideas of corrupting the human form with either cybernetics or organic alien enhancements. Instead, the people of this Affinity are your bog-standard meat sacks. Their structures look more traditional and their answer to all weapons enhancements is simply to build bigger craft and stick as many guns on it as possible. At high levels, players controlling a Purity civilisation can produce giant floating towers bristling with high-powered cannons.

"Beyond Earth doesn't really change the basic template. But it does toss a boatload of new mechanics, themes and tools for advancement into the player's lap"

The Orbital Layer is another big factor in the game, not just because it offers players the chance provide coverage to those units on the ground, but also because it's a factor that can lead to conflict in the campaign. Players can only launch satellites where they have orbital coverage, and this is dictated by the size of each city. As the cities grow, the coverage starts to overlap with that of the conurbations of other races and this can cause the AI to issue threats and attack, mainly because the player is encroaching on its orbital turf.

Once they have the capability to launch satellites, players can start slinging military hubs, research facilities and economic platforms skyward. While these all have a bearing on what takes place on the ground, satellites can't shoot each other down. Rather, they change hands as one civilisation overruns another.

There's more than one way to take down enemy cities than simply brute force, however. Players can deploy spies to enemy cities where they start building up that sprawl's 'Intrigue' rating. Once it's high enough, they can start to destabalise the local population by setting up smuggling rings, black market enterprises and even set up seismic thumpers to attract Siege Worms, that'll pretty much wreck any structure they bore through.

Tech Webs replace Tech Trees although players assign research as normal. Research also earns Affinity points, which players can use to open up new abilities for their people and troops. For our money, it's worth pouring money into areas that'll bolster your civilisations defence and attack capabilities early on, as there's a bit of a brutal learning curve in play here.

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In the hour-long hands-on I had with the game, it was revealed that the alien surroundings of the planet are brutally hostile to begin with. I began the game with one unit of soldiers, and an explorer. The areas surrounding my city had dozens of pockets of Miasma gas - which deals damage to any unit that ends their turn in it - and an alien hive, which pumped vicious enemy troops out towards my city until I managed to destroy it. By the time I'd done this I'd poured pretty much every ounce of research towards military concerns.

It's a harsh and nasty world in Sid Meier's Civlisation: Beyond Earth, but it probably mirrors the game's philosophical aesthetics better than any of its predecessors. The harder one's environment is, the more Darwinian they're likely to be in their outlook and approach towards others. Treaties, trading and alliances are all still part of the package, but the political niceties in the game feel far more fleeting than ever before.

Civilization: Beyond Earth has been confirmed for a Autumn/Fall 2014 release, or Spring in Australia, for PC and Mac.