Civilisation successor Alpha Centauri may have sold fewer copies than any of the games from its parent series, but that hasn’t stopped Firaxis from trying again with a spiritual successor, Civilization: Beyond Earth. As was the case with its predecessor, Beyond Earth tasks the player with leading an expedition to colonise an alien world. The eight or so minutes we see of the game’s alpha is familiar: we’ve landed on an alien world nicely divided into Civ tiles, and our explorer unit has scouted to the north and south of our base.

The world is made up of lush alien forests, deep rift canyons with magma glowing at the bottom of them, arid deserts, and more. Of particular interest is a green mist called miasma, an environmental hazard that damages your units if you end your turn in it. It is also used as a weapon by creatures called Manticores, who hurl balls of it from afar. There are Manticores to the north of our position, so we avoid them for now, as aliens on the planet act as a single faction: aggro one, and you aggro them all.

To the south of our base is a resource pile from earth, which grants us some Energy, a currency used to purchase buildings and units. Below that is Fort Miller, an independent settlement that we decide to trade with, and purple floating stones known as Floatstone, which are needed for certain buildings and units.

E3: Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions
E3: Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions

Elsewhere, a gigantic Dune-style Siege Worm burrows through the landscape. Very aggressive and dangerous, Siege Worms require the coordinated efforts of several military units to bring down and can destroy the contents of entire tiles simply by crossing through them.

We give it a wide berth, and instead investigate a large alien skeleton nearby. The planet is covered in explorable stuff like this, and when our explorer completes his expedition in a few turns, we will get resources or possibly even an alien unit we can control.

We are now prompted for a quest decision. “With Civilisation the story is what the player does. The quests are there to provide additional interesting decisions,” says 2K’s Pete Murray. For example, we have completed a quest called “Gifts from Home” and received a bonus to our Science stat, as well as a gene vault – an early-game wonder that preserves genetic material from Earth.

Our latest quest is called “For Your Eyes Only”, and involves sending a spy from our agency to the city of a rival faction (the American Reclamation Corporation) to see what he can find. The act of sending him generates Intrigue, and the longer he’s there, the more he can do – smuggle energy out, or plant attractors for siege worms, for example.

The American Reclamation Corporation faction is in our sights because it is one of several NPCs that does not share our plans for the planet. These plans are expressed as one of three affinities, and due to the choices we have made so far ours is Supremacy: we believe that humans should be independent of the planet they are on, and we believe technology will be our saviour. As such, we aren’t opposed to things like augmentation and cybernetics. This affinity gives our buildings an angular and dark architecture with gold highlights for easy identification. It also means that our Supremacy units work better in tightly-formed groups than they do alone, as they dish out buffs to adjacent units.

E3: Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions
E3: Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions
E3: Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions

We can gain affinity levels by investigating ruins and uncovering resource pods, but it’s mainly achieved through the game’s tech web. On this screen there are large branches for broad technologies like computing, and beneath these sit “leaf” technologies like autonomous systems. These leaf technologies are often tied to a specific affinity, so what we select determines our outlook.

Susan Fielding of the American Reclamation Corporation does not share our enthusiasm for the blending of man and machine. Her faction’s affinity is Purity, distinguished by her white flowing clothes, gold leaf trim, and desire to preserve humans exactly as they are.

In her view, this new world needs to be a new Earth, and it is up to the planet to adapt to us rather than vice versa.

Susan may become a problem later, but right now our focus is on Fahrain, an African fellow whose green clothes betray his faction’s Harmony leanings – that is, he believes that humans must be integrated into the planet via things like gene splicing. Fahrain is forefront in our mind because he has Firaxite, a resource used by Supremacy factions to create special units. We’ve offered to trade for it and been declined, so we’ve assembled an army on his borders.

A quick shift to the game’s orbital layer shows our troops are backed up by a tactical satellite, which improves their combat capabilities and HP regeneration. Satellites can also be manufactured to do things like push away or attract miasma, increase the energy yield of the tiles beneath them, or even damage units directly. With such a backing, the battle is short and lop-sided. All Fahrain’s units are destroyed, and we capture and convert his buildings, whose architecture now reflects their inhabitants’ new-found love of technology. And thus ends our demo.

Alpha Centauri may not have sold well, but it was a critical hit, and with many of its developers working on Beyond Earth, there is little reason to doubt Firaxis can create another winner. The game is instantly recognisable as a Civilization title circa Civ V, but the orbital layer and tech web look like they will keep Beyond Earth from being simply “Civ in space”. The good news is that we won’t need to wait long to find out: Civilization: Beyond Earth is due out on Windows PC, Mac, and Linux in the second half of this year.