As of just after 1AM last night, the latest installment in the Civilization series was released in the UK. Beyond Earth takes the familiar mechanics of previous games, most notably Civilization V, and takes them to an alien world.
While it is based on the previous engine, Firaxis has made many changes to the formula. The first change that a veteran of the series will notice is an increase in the variety of starting options. As well as picking a faction, you also need to pick what type of colonists you've brought, what feature your ship had, and what additional cargo you brought. Some of these will make a long term impact on your game, others just give you an initial boost. Some bonusses feel more pronounced than others, such as starting with a worker. It'll be interesting to see how they all play out in the long run though.
After setting up, it starts to get much more recognisable. Instead of starting with a city builder unit, you get a selection of tiles where you can place down your first city. Other than that though, you have equivalents for the scout, the warrior. The game asks you for something to build and something to research. You'd be forgiven for trying to play it like you would its predecessor.
The new technology tree uses quite an interesting design. Each node on the tree has a 'branch' technology (the top one), and a number of leaf technologies (the ones underneath). The branch technology represents a broad field of study, and is comparatively cheap to research. It's also the only requirement for getting to other branch technologies. The leaf technologies represent more specific research areas, and cost more to research than their branch equivalents. They are usually however more useful in what they unlock. It also takes much longer to research things compared to their equivalents in previous games.
It's around this point you take your first steps outside your cosy city, into a hostile alien world. It turns out, that your explorer units aren't much of a match for pretty much anything on this world. While the local wildlife won't necessarily attack you on sight doesn't mean you should feel too comfortable being close to it. They can, and often will, destroy any units you own in the early game.
However, you can't just hide behind your borders. Dotted around the landscape are a number of collectible resources, usually displayed as things like crashed satellites. These contain useful early game resources, like research boosts and extra materials. The amount you can gain from these sources is huge compared to how slow you progress otherwise. An early game excavation saved me 60 turns out of 90 on my current technology, the first technology my faction had attempted to research. While I'm still very early in the game, the number of these sites makes it clear that good exploration and excavation will be important in getting a solid start.
These changes to the game so far have managed to make me feel much more involved and invested in my early game exploration. It's the first time I've been on the edge of my seat during the other player turns, crossing my fingers and hoping that my explorer remains intact for one more turn. In previous games, the early game units have always been able to hold their own and so I spend more time looking after my city development. In this, its the other way around. I'm spending a lot of time carefully routing my units, and comparatively little time on developing my city.
It'll be interesting to see whether this feeling of a hostile world will continue to be fun for the entire length of a game. So far though, I'm enjoying it, and I'm impressed at how different Firaxis has managed to make this feel compared to previous civilization games.