I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Here I am, turn 210. A mere two centuries ago I landed on this planet with naught but a handful of colonists, a rudimentary understanding of the Habitation technology, and the means to stake out a better future for humanity.

That original colony is unrecognizable now. In the years since we first set foot upon these barren, rocky lands, we've built up a massive trading empire that's the envy of the entire planet. Our small home-away-from-home has become a mass of skyscrapers, and it's but the centerpiece to a civilization that contains three healthy and happy cities. Our treasury is filled with excess energy which we can use to outright buy units or new buildings when the sweat of our brow won't do. Because everyone likes a little more money in their pockets, our traders have managed to finagle friendly relations with more than half the colonies on this forsaken world.

We're well on the way to emancipating the human race from its self-inflicted bonds.

Everything is going exactly as planned, which is why I'm a nervous wreck. After all, any veteran Civilization player knows it's right when things seem perfect that it's all about to fall apart.

Emperor's new clothes

Whether you refer to Civilization: Beyond Earth as "Civilization V in space" or "The Sequel to Alpha Centauri We Never Got," the fact remains that it feels very familiar. We've now had more than two decades of Sid Meier-branded 4X games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) and while the production value has inevitably gone up through the years, it's fundamentally the same game every time.

Perhaps it speaks to the quality and the inventiveness of Civilization: Beyond Earth, then, that this is the first Civilization game I've been hooked on in years.

It really is, at its core, a re-skin. You're still hastening to construct a city or a range of cities faster than your opponents, in pursuit of ever-improving technologies and a host of stat-boosting, one-per-world Wonders. Instead of the ancient world's Warrior, now your initial melee unit is called a Soldier. The Archer of old is a Ranger. Trade is carried out by Convoys, not Caravans. Brave New World's Archaeologist is now an Explorer, with the same purpose--to dig up artifacts for your colony.

Most importantly, you're still going to want just one more turn to round out the night.

There's something about Firaxis being liberated from the constraints of historical plausibility that's freeing. The range of science fiction and nonfiction influences is clear, from Dune to Foundation to Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, and references are dotted everywhere from the menus to Wonders to unit designs. It's not that this is necessarily better than the standard Civilization aesthetic. Rather, it helps make what's old feel new again.

If I have any qualms, it's that the new names for old concepts make starting the game a bit of a chore. Poring over the interlaced tech web is particularly tedious, as you try to associate names like Genetic Design and Artificial Evolution with whatever strategy you're pursuing. It's not nearly as intuitive as Civilization proper. Everyone knows what results from researching Agriculture or Flight, or the benefits of Steam Power, but something like "Alien Ethics" is a bit more mysterious.

Affinity FTW

Other tweaks to the Civilization formula are welcome, though--particularly the new win conditions. Previous Civilization games have allowed you to win by military domination, launching a rocket into space (basically the beginning of Beyond Earth), being voted World Leader by the United Nations, spreading your culture worldwide, or simply having the highest score when time runs out (which is the least satisfying victory of all).

Beyond Earth still lets you wipe your opponents out with a military victory or run the clock out, but the other win conditions change up Civilization completely. You now follow one of three Affinities: Supremacy, Harmony, or Purity. (See the screenshot below for basic descriptions of each.) Whichever you're most adept in is reflected in the design of your units and city. Each Affinity is pursued through the tech web, and they're not mutually exclusive. You could pursue Harmony for half the game in order to get the alien mobs off your back, then switch to Purity because you want to destroy said aliens.

You're better off focusing on one Affinity from the start, however, for two reasons. 1) The high-level units and unique units are incredibly powerful. 2) You need to hit level 13 in one of these Affinities in order to unlock three of the win conditions. The fourth non-military, non-time victory is Affinity-ambiguous, if you just want to experiment.

Simply put, the new victories are great. They're complex, multi-step processes that completely change the way you play the game and feel actually worth pursuing instead of just aiming for the military win. They make it so non-military players actually have something to do at the end of the game instead of just tapping the "Next Turn" button repeatedly. That's a huge change for Civilization.

Everyday interstellar life

Helping to keep you on track is the new Quest system, which forces you to make decisions about your colony's evolution and provides some more guidance than previous Civilization games.

While interesting in theory, the Quest system may need some tweaking. Right now it railroads down a specific path a bit too much, and it's too predictable. Most technologies have a Quest decision associated with them, and it always shows up. If you build the Ultrasonic Fence to keep aliens out of your city, for instance, you always know that you'll soon get the option to attach the same defenses to your trade convoys. Always. While some people will appreciate the predictability, it makes the system feel exploitable instead of like an actual organic series of quests.

Trade also feels overpowered in this early incarnation of Beyond Earth. You basically need trade in order to bolster your science and production output, and anything you can do to enhance trade is a smart move even if you're not initially looking to form a trade empire. It's also an easily exploited system--newly formed colonies provide more trade benefits than older ones. Thus it's a viable strategy to unleash some small, fledgling colonies to trade with and get a production boost for a few turns on a Wonder or an end-game victory condition.

By contrast, the new Orbital Layer feels underutilized. You can launch satellites into orbit that provide various boosts, from food to combat buffs to actual weaponry. The game doesn't urge you to use the feature much, though, and I could see new players forgetting it's there after a while. It doesn't help that concepts like "Orbital Coverage" are poorly explained, making the system as a whole a bit bewildering.

And then we come to Favors, which are the big diplomatic addition. Instead of needing to make an agreement with foreign colonies for practical goods--say, I'll open my borders to you for a bunch of money--you can instead help out other colonies in return for Favors. Basically, "Hey, here's an IOU note for giving me access to that Titanium/Xenomass/ (Insert Other Resource) earlier."

Unfortunately it's hard to quantify the real-world value of a Favor, and I accumulated a ton only to find them basically useless later. The leader of the neighboring "Russian" colony (now termed the Slavic Federation) racked up ten or so Favors with me late in the game and then declared war on my colony.

Even after wiping out most of his military and taking hold of one of his cities he refused to negotiate for peace, rendering all those accumulated Favors useless. It's an interesting system, but the ambiguous value of a Favor makes it harder to know whether you're getting screwed or not.

Bottom line

You know what, though? Civilization: Beyond Earth's issues pale in comparison to the fantastic whole. Unlike Civilization V, which took multiple expansions before it felt as polished and deep as its predecessors, Beyond Earth already plays like a complete experience. Most of the features from Civilization V's excellent Brave New World expansion already made it into the base Beyond Earth game, plus a smattering of new ideas.

It has some issues and sure, there are some systems I expect Firaxis will tweak or develop further in coming expansions, but Beyond Earth is basically Civilization V in space--and I mean that in the best way possible.