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Cardboard Throne

Much as with the base game before it, I believe I’m done with Beyond Earth for now.

This is not to suggest that I believe Beyond Earth to be a bad Civ game. There are quite a few issues – some imbalances, some questionable design philosophies, etc – as pointed out in various Reddit threads dedicated to the game. However, it absolutely captures that whole addictive “I pressed End Turn for six hours in a row” part of the Civ experience. Even now, I’m getting the urge to boot it back up.

What is stopping me is the realization that what I like about the game and what the game actually does are two separate things.

It's all downhill from here.

It’s all downhill from here.

My favorite part of a Civ match is the beginning, when your strategy is largely formless, reactive, as you cast your eyes about an unknown and hostile world. “Okay, let’s scout out that island.” “Ooo, a city here would capture three strategic resources!” This feeling lasts maybe the first 100 turns, beyond which everything becomes a formality, a known, an inevitability. Yes, perhaps disaster strikes, perhaps you lose a city, perhaps an enemy Civ suddenly wins with a surprise victory condition. Nevertheless, you still know what you have to or should be doing at that point – it all just becomes the mechanical action of carrying it out.

All for what? The personal satisfaction of grinding the patience of a machine to dust? If Firaxis changed the Retire button to a No Longer Delay the Inevitable button, I would win the same amount of times with at least some in-game acknowledgment of the hours poured into the equivalent of a roguelike. Do I really need to conquer those last two capitals before the game is officially over? The game was arguably decided hours ago when I stopped exploring and building cities.

This sort of reminds me of when I used to be really into RTS games like Command & Conquer and Starcraft, up until I understood the concept of Actions Per Minute. Suddenly, the game I was hitherto playing was no longer. I could not unlearn how horribly inefficient my “build six Protoss Carriers” strategies were, nor how much better I could have been playing. The three aspects of gameplay were (still) entertaining – building bases, ordering units around, micromanaging one unit’s abilities specifically – but I both understood that I was incapable of engaging in more than one of them at a time, and not particularly motivated to try to get better. If you had time to turtle up to spam endgame units, you probably had time to win much earlier. Which means I was doing… what, exactly?

There is nothing necessarily wrong with enjoying a game outside of its intended purpose, but if the box brings more joy to the cat than the toy it contained, maybe you should just have bought a box instead. Or go find a better toy.

Like I said though, if Civ and Beyond Earth is your type of game, more power to you. I used to think it was mine. But now that I see myself sitting upon a virtual throne of cardboard boxes, I am not quite sure what to think. Other than maybe I should go play something else.

Deus Ex: Cardboard Box Revolution

Been playing DE: HR for about 11 hours now, and I have come to some early conclusions.

  • Many of the design incentives are all screwed up.

It is one thing for your reward scheme to be rote enough that a player can earn XP for knocking out a guard, and then earn even more XP for killing the unconscious guard. Or that there are obviously invisible XP triggers in the duct-work, that encourage players to actually wander around up there long after there was a need to. Those are fine, whatever.

Where I begin to draw the line is the differences between hacking a computer and using the known passcode for the same computer. It is not just the XP that you get for doing the former: the hacking bit is actually fun and rewards its own loot. Not getting the hacking loot might be considered an acceptable “cost” for someone who never bothers to upgrade those skills, sure. But the game design in regards to hackers doesn’t make sense on two levels. 1) Using the passcode prevents you from playing the fun minigame, and 2) it makes no goddamn sense that you couldn’t unlock those secret files with full administrative access to the computer. If I can find secret files while hacking, why can’t I find secret files when I enter the password?

Of course, many people have commented on the above inconsistencies months ago. While I haven’t gone around killing the guards I knock unconscious or running around in the duct-work unnecessarily for the XP, I find the hacking bit to be especially jarring. That could be a sign of my atrophied “simulation is important” organ lurching back to life, but I prefer to think of it as the principal of the thing. If I’m a hacker-type and get your password, I should automatically get all the goodies on your computer. It’s only fair.

  • I’m getting nervous about my computer investment.

Perhaps its unrealistic expectations, but I honestly thought I’d boot up the game and play on the highest settings at 60+ FPS. That… is not the case. I turned some settings down, usually the ones with the acronyms that they don’t bother explaining, and am at a point where everything still looks good and plays smoothly. Considering Kotaku pointed out a deal today on a laptop with a i5-2430M, GeForce GT 555M for $695.20… I’m concerned I may not have got $500 more oomph for my money. Ultimately, it will come down to how BF3 plays, since that was my primary impetus for the purchase.

  • Did this game begin as a cardboard box simulator?

Seriously, you cannot walk 15 feet in-game without half a dozen cardboard boxes being highlighted in helpful yellow. At first I was confused about all this seemingly pointless interactivity. But that was before I got to the basement of the police station…

Nothing out of the ordinary here, Mr. Camera.

Directly behind me was a keycard reader I was hacking; behind the boxes is an oscillating video camera with its helpful green beams. In a break from FPS tradition (Bioshock, et tal), hacking in DE:HR forces you to stand up and do so in real time. After some close calls with attempting to disable the camera with my stun gun and hack my way through the door while getting all the goodies, I came upon the more… practical solution.