Our planet isn’t in very good shape. The good news, according to “Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth” (2K Games, for the PC, $49.99), is that we’ll be able to hang around for another 500 years or so. The bad news: After that, we’d better start looking for a new home.
It’s not the freshest sci-fi premise — “Interstellar” has essentially the same setup — but it gives Meier and his Firaxis Games studio a chance to expand the beloved Civilization franchise to entirely new worlds. It’s a mostly successful transplant, though at times I wished its scope was even more cosmic.
You begin by selecting one of eight “sponsors.” The United States, Canada and Mexico are now part of the American Reclamation Corp., for example, while China, Japan and Korea have joined forces in the Pan-Asian Cooperative. Their figureheads lack the charisma of classic Civ leaders like Alexander and Napoleon, and their differences aren’t that substantial in the long run.
You have a few other choices regarding passengers, spacecraft and cargo, each of which accelerates the game’s early stages. Then it’s time to make landfall. Sadly, your new home isn’t entirely welcoming; some areas are drenched with a poisonous miasma, and the native insectoids are all too eager to make a meal out of anyone who ventures away from your colony.
Obviously, we’re well beyond the “dawn of man” setup of earlier Civs, so you don’t have to teach your settlers rudimentary skills like agriculture and writing. Instead, you have an elaborate “tech web” that starts with topics like physics and genetics and levels all the way up to exotic sciences like neural uploading and artificial evolution.
All this new technology is a bit overwhelming, and if you’re not a science fiction fan you may be baffled by terms like nanorobotics and geoscaping. But “Beyond Earth” provides a helpful quest structure that lets you focus on short-term goals while you figure out what it will take to conquer the planet.
The game also lets you invest in four kinds of “virtues”: might, prosperity, knowledge and industry. And you score points in three “affinities”: harmony (adapting to the planet), purity (preserving earthling qualities) and supremacy (evolving beyond human flesh). Those points are essential to your ultimate triumph, which can be achieved several ways. Harmony, for example, can lead to transcendence, defined as the “merging of consciousness of all living things with the latent sentience of the planet.” Heavy.
While you’re juggling all that, you also have to contend with the demands of neighboring factions from Earth, which you can handle diplomatically or aggressively. There are many complicated systems at play, but Firaxis makes them work together smoothly.
Players itching to build a galaxy-spanning empire may be disappointed, because once you’ve landed on your planet, you’re pretty much stuck there. But Civ fans looking for a new world to conquer will be over the moon. Three stars out of four.