It’s something of a happy coincidence that Civilization: Beyond Earth rolled out around when Christopher Nolan's Interstellar hit theaters. In the computer game, humanity builds a new society on a distant planet after some apocalyptic Earth disaster called "The Great Mistake." Sounds a lot like the wormhole-journeying pioneers of Interstellar, fleeing our neo-Dust Bowl planet, no? I've been playing Beyond Earth for a couple weeks now, and while its similarities with Nolan's film are superficial, it’s nice to have such an abundance of sci-fi awesomeness available at once.
Beyond Earth is particularly exciting for any long-time Civilization fan, and there are a lot of us. I've been playing these PC games since I was 11 years old, when I watched patiently as a friend played round after round of Civilization II and explained its vast, complicated mechanics to me. In the intervening 17 years, I've never really stopped playing. There have been many sequels and updates, but the core concept has remained the same: You are a grand civilization (pick from one of history's many great dynasties—Roman! American! Zulu!), and you're trying to keep your citizens healthy, expand your borders, and balance diplomacy with many other nations as you progress into the modern era and beyond.
But the series' latest iteration sticks to the basic formula while thoroughly changing everything else. Beyond Earth sees you trying to establish a new colony on a hostile planet that, when you land, you do not fully understand. As a seasoned Civilization player, I dove into the game expecting to pick up its mechanics quickly. Before long, hostile aliens overran me and my burgeoning population was shrinking from living in desperately unhealthy conditions. Suitably chastened, I knocked the difficulty level down a few settings and tried again.
Beyond Earth is the second attempt by Firaxis Games (the developers behind the Civilization series) to set an adventure in an alien planet in the future. 1999's Alpha Centauri, a follow-up to Civilization II, was well received but sold poorly compared to its progenitor. The problem seemed not to be the game itself, which was beautifully designed, but the concept. When you're playing Civilization, the historical gains you make seem tactile and easy to understand—you'll discover horseback riding, the wheel, philosophy, gunpowder, and so on. The arc of history is easy to follow, and randomizing the circumstances of humanity's progress leads to engrossingly goofy outcomes: Vikings developing the Manhattan Project, or the Polynesian empire founding Judaism. In Alpha Centauri you're discovering Quantum Machinery and Graviton Theory—sci-fi abstractions. Not as fun.
Beyond Earth turns this problem into a feature by exploring the ethical quandaries that come with colonizing an alien planet. There are three broad paths to choose from: trying to work alongside and intermingle with the alien life forms you discover (harmony), purging them entirely to create a new Earth (purity), or embracing technology to become trans-human cybernetic beings (supremacy). Each offers its own perks and downsides, but beyond that, gives you a story arc to pursue to make your progress that much more understandable.
Early on in my game, I decided to devote myself to a harmonious existence with the planet's life, which eventually let me breed hybrid alien warriors and draw special powers from its extra-terrestrial resources. Diplomacy with other nations became more compelling—there was a holiness to my mission, and something tangible to our disagreements. Whether this would be as compelling on the fifth or 10th re-play is less assured—part of the fun of Civilization is that it's endlessly different every time you play, but I'm not sure the same would go for Beyond Earth.
Still, I've been satisfied enough to fire up Beyond Earth almost every day since I got it. No matter how much the Civilization window dressing changes, the mechanics are the same ones that hooked 11-year-old me raptly watching cartoon soldiers move around a pixilated map in my friend's bedroom. The magic of watching a world's history unfold in front of you, even an alien world, is inextinguishable.