My Day at FiraxiCon

Where They’re Going, They Don’t Need Roads…

It’s amazing what happens to the Civilization series when it’s not bound by the limits of historical accuracy. The last time it veered off that course we were given Alpha Centauri and that has gone down as one of the finest 4X games of all time. While it’s too early to tell whether or not Civilization: Beyond Earth will capture that same Alpha Centauri magic, I can absolutely say that it has managed to capture my imagination and left me more excited than I could have ever thought. Two hours with the game flew by and my day with Firaxis at their first-ever Firaxicon left me in awe of a great development team and just how well they brought science fiction back to the lauded series.

The day started with a check-in with some very friendly people who seemed genuinely excited to tell us all about the planned events. My friend and I received a time slot to, let’s just be honest here, do what I’d driven two hours to do: play Beyond Earth. We chose the earliest available slot, which meant we were less than an hour away from playing. Despite having slept only a few short, disjointed hours the night before (my real job is as a paramedic in a local fire department where I was actually on leave from to get here), I was more than capable of keeping myself awake with the excitement of being able to play.

There were at least a couple dozen of these bad boys for us to use

Our time came quickly and we sat down on some state-of-the-art Alienware computers. Each of them had slick-looking Beyond Earth headphones and super crisp monitors. A friendly gentleman named Corey, a Quality Assurance Specialist from Firaxis, began explaining to us how we should take a quick look at our options to ensure that everything was set up as we liked and once we were ready, we could begin playing!

The faction selection process in Beyond Earth very nearly acts as a custom faction selection every game. Sure, you select your sponsor, which is basically the nation you will play as on the new world, but you’re then presented with options on what kind of colonists you’ll bring, such as scientists for the science output bonus or refugees for the food bonus.  Then what supplies you’ll bring, such as a soldier unit or a worker unit, and lastly, what spacecraft did you use? Is it one that helps with surveying the coasts or one that brought more energy (used as a currency of sorts)? Each decision is filled with 4 or 5 choices and obviously directly effects how you play the first few turns and the process is a unique way of basically allowing you to pick custom faction traits.

For my first hour, I played as the Kavithan Protectorate, a group formed from the remaining population of an Indian-Pakistani pairing. I chose them mostly because they were different than what my normal choice would be and because their bonus, that outposts become cities 50% faster than normal, sounded like a great bonus for a wide empire. I knew it wouldn’t get to that in an hour, but again, I was looking for something outside of what I’m usually comfortable with. I chose the bonus to industrial output, the engineers, and chose to bring a soldier unit with me for the extra defense. Finally, I chose Retrograde Thrusters, which allowed me a wider area to choose from when selecting where my first city would be located.

Play began with the option to settle a large area of tiles and I found a good site and plopped down. The next thirty minutes were a whirlwind of exploring my surroundings with my soldier unit, interacting with the alien life on the planet, and finding resource pods littered among the map features. It all felt truly alien to me. The vegetation was beautiful and truly unique and the alien life was menacing, but rather passive, as if they were trying to get a feel for me, too. Eventually I’m given quests to complete, like a mandate to explore a particular ruin or found another city, or in another case, I’m provided a choice between two options, one providing a culture bonus to as structure I can build and the other providing an energy bonus. I take the energy bonus and it applies to a terrain upgrade that I’ve already built twice, which increases my per-turn output enough that I feel my choice was a wise one. Meanwhile, I was making my way through the new technology web, which I’m happy to say, is both easily understood thanks to some amazing tooltips, and more exciting than any other technology tree I’ve seen in a long time or maybe even ever. It was bliss!

It’s about this time that the power goes out on all of the computers in the play area! The Firaxians told us not to worry as Autosave was enabled for just this sort of possibility. As they worked to get us up and running, Corey (the QA Specialist) came back to talk to us as we waited. He began by asking us what we thought of the game so far and what parts of the game we really enjoyed. He continued to explain that the Beyond Earth team is incredibly receptive to input and suggestions and encouraged us to provide some if we had any. I could tell that it wasn’t just good PR; he and his comrades took the time to listen intently and eagerly to all we had to say. This team is genuinely interested in making the best game that they could for Civilization and 4X fans. When asked for his thoughts on Civilization, Corey told us that he has been playing the series from the very beginning and despite over 3500 hours of time playing Beyond Earth and exploring its many nooks and crannies, he still gets excited to come in to work and play some more. He even mentioned that he has started dreaming in hexes (and I believe it!). His passion and excitement for Beyond Earth were both evident and contagious, and it really made me want to play this game even more!

Soon enough, the power was restored and we were up and running again. I’d lost only one turn, and about ten minutes, to the whole thing and I was quickly back to exploring the beautiful terrascapes and eventually meeting other civilizations as they landed on *my* planet. The whole experience was incredibly polished for a game that’s still a month out from release. Eventually, I accumulated enough points in the Affinity system, a system that allows for your faction to express its stand on how you handle the alien life and how you want to bring the human race forward, to make a choice on how I’d move forward. Being peaceful and enjoying how little the aliens messed with me the less I messed with them, I chose Harmony. The Harmony affinity believes that aliens and humans can and should coexist, choosing to change as a people instead of changing the planet. The Purity affinity, on the other hand, believe that humans are most important and tend to be isolationists with the intention of making the new planet more Earth-like, holding tightly to their ways. The last of the three, Supremacy, clings to technology and believe that the only way forward is through the advancement of technology above all else, striving to create a more Asimov type society. That said, you can become peaceful with the Aliens regardless of which path you choose.

Choosing Harmony led to less hostility towards my faction from aliens and ended up changing the appearance of my front-line soldiers. As you progress through each affinity, those appearances change to reflect how invested you are and the more the investment, the more advanced your units become. I wasn’t able to see that much in this regard as I only played for about 60 turns the first hour.

This was my territory, about 45 turns in

Before I knew it, and WAY TOO SOON, I was told that my play time had expired. Unfortunately, they had around 200 attendees and much fewer computers. I stood up and was already scheming in my head as to how I’d get back to my…precious….

Needless to say, I’m extremely optimistic about Beyond Earth. As some of you may know, I was very vocal about my initial impressions of this game a few months ago. I claimed it to be a well-funded mod and had some concerns that it was essentially a re-skin. Frankly, I’m almost ashamed of admitting that now, as after I’ve had the opportunity to personally experience the hard work of this fine group, I’m completely certain that it is much, much more than just a well-funded and well-executed mod. It’s a complete rework in many ways and it is the most exciting Civilization game for me since Civilization 2 or Alpha Centauri.

I did manage to get another hour of game time in later that evening and made some very different play choices that resulted in a very different 65 turns. It gave me serious confidence that Firaxis has something truly special here. We’re less than a month away from seeing this game in all of its glory and judging just how special it is, but I’m willing to bet my paramedic paycheck that, barring a complete catastrophe of epic proportions, it will go down as one of 2014’s best games in any genre. As Firaxis seems to be full of smart, dedicated, and talented people, I’m pretty sure I’ll keep my paycheck. Bottom line: October 24th cannot come soon enough!

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