I think I am beginning to understand those old-school gamers who were miffed by EA’s Dungeon Keeper app. Because, you see, with Beyond Earth I thought I was buying Alpha Centauri and ended up with a full-price Civ 5 mod instead.
That is not an entirely fair comparison, of course. I knew this wasn’t going to be Alpha Centauri. But… you know… I kinda wished it was. Alpha Centauri consumed a solid chunk of my adolescent mindspace, where it resides to this day. Like… like a mind worm. That will need to be nerve stapled to be removed. And don’t even get me started on those real-world quotations used when researching new tech – I walked into my college courses years later with the equivalent of AP credit from being inspired by Plato and Aristotle half a dozen years before they were required reading.
Anyway. Back to
Civ 5 Beyond Earth.
You know, it’s actually extra unfair that I keep belaboring this Civ 5 point because I didn’t start playing Civ 5 until about two months ago. I have a total of 24 hours /played in Civ 5 actually. By contrast, I have 16 hours in Beyond Earth as of this morning. It came out three days ago. So there is that.
What I already like about the game are the
barbarians aliens. There are multiple kinds roaming about, including ranged and flying units, and even some “endgame” aliens right from the start. While it feels a bit unfair to stumble across a Siege Worm with an Explorer on Turn 3, I enjoy that extra level of randomness insofar as it gives you some interesting decisions. Such as A) run screaming, B) decide you didn’t want to build a city over there anyway, and/or C) New Random World.
Another thing I like – thus far – is the tech web:
The basic gist is that instead of needing to research lame things like Pottery and Horseback Riding on your road to thermonuclear weapons, you can make a beeline to wherever you want. Each tech “branch” has tech “leaves,” which I thought was a pretty clever way to keep the web itself relatively clean. Still, there is a lot of convoluted nonsense in there with some techs granting bonuses to buildings on the other side of the tree and the rather unfortunate necessity to research certain techs to “unlock” strategic resources. I know Civ 5 had something similar, but it’s extra important in Beyond Earth because your Affinity special units “reserve” a certain amount of said resource, and you never really know how much you’ll have until unlock the ability to see it. Combine that with Civ 5’s “we still don’t like you building cities” M.O. and you could be frustratingly locked into a different Affinity or just use standard units forever.
Speaking of forever, my Civ 5 experience in pressing End Turn about a thousand times before anything of consequence occurs has carried over into Beyond Earth. I have completed one game thus far, where I decided to go for the Supremacy victory instead of “just roll over the insane enemy Civs” victory. After grinding up Supremacy to the prerequisite level, I had to spend 30 turns building an Emancipation gate. Then I needed to… send 1,000 Attack worth of units through the gate. And you can only send one unit per turn. I get that this would probably be completely compelling in a multiplayer match or something, but Jesus.
My second game was on a bigger map that ended up being an Archipelago-ish area. Which could be interesting… except, whoops, you need to spend ~17 turns researching the ability to Embark your land units. Remember when I told you that high-level aliens are everywhere right from the start? That also includes the seas. You can’t even escort a colony expansion until you research Gunboats in such a scenario, and one Gunboat can eat about two hits from the standard sea alien. It was literally turn 98 before my 2nd city came up to speed. I might have been able to push for a much earlier expansion but, again, Sid Meier apparently hates cities these days so I wanted the few he would deign to grant me to be near some strategic resource.
Want to know how that game ended? I came into it deciding to go Harmony and channel my inner Deirdre this time around. After unlocking the ability to see Xenomass, I check out the map and… huh. There is pretty much just one free node anywhere near me. Which makes sense, in a way, given that it spawns on land and this particular world is mostly water. Still, it was discouraging enough for me to just abandon the effort altogether. No doubt I could have switched strategies to something else – there were alternative avenues of (eventual) victory – but I wanted a Xeno Titan. Oh well.
There is more to say about Beyond Earth and it’s inevitable parade of expansions that will socket in more Civ 5 mechanics, but these are my impressions at 2am after playing 16 hours across three days. If you liked Civ 5, you’ll probably like this game. If you liked Alpha Centauri, you probably won’t. I am not quite sure what I ultimately feel like right now, but I do know that I would like to try it again.
Tobold put up a rather cringe-inducing critique of Mass Effect 3 the other day, prefaced by the Sid Meier quote of “good games are a series of interesting choices.” From there, Tobold argued that ME3 was not a good game, because the story choices being presented did not lead to gameplay changes. Indeed, he goes so far as to say in the comments:
My point is that this is supposed to be a GAME, and not just some interactive story. Choices that only affect the story, but change nothing in gameplay shouldn’t be in a game. Otherwise I might as well wait for “Mass Effect – The Movie”, and not bother playing at all.
First, that argument is so absurdly cliche that I started questioning whether he was simply trolling us at that point.
Secondly, in point of fact, you could not simply wait for Mass Effect: the Movie because any such film could not encompass the varied plot choices you can make over the course of the game. Characters can die in Mass Effect 1 & 2 and thus not show up in Mass Effect 3, cutting out entire swaths of character arcs. Who makes it through the Suicide Mission? Would the film feature a male Shepard or FemShep? Would the choices be primarily Paragon or Renegade? Which races get the shaft? Would the conclusion be the Red, Blue, or Green Cupcake?
Third, I believe Tobold’s stance is exceedingly pernicious to the maturation of gaming as a medium. It simply boggles my mind that a self-professed lover of D&D would twist “interactive story” into a pejorative; are non-interactive stories supposed to be preferable?
Individual agency has a way of submerging players into a narrative in a way that traditional storytelling does not. Just look at the mind-bending (at the time) twist in the original Bioshock and the narrative arc in Far Cry 2. Even if you were not particularly impressed with the depth of these narratives, those story mechanisms simply cannot be replicated in book or movie form. Reducing games to their mere mechanical components would be an incredible tragedy of potential.
What the exchange highlighted to me though, was how squishy the venerable Sid Meier quote actually is.¹ To me, the choice between curing the Krogan genophage or deciding not to was interesting. In fact, I spent ten minutes or so agonizing over it when the dialog wheel was presented. Was it fair of us to cripple an entire species because we feared their hardiness and breeding speed? At first, I was worried about that hypothetical. Once the Reapers were gone, who is to say that the Krogans don’t simply out-breed and out-muscle the rest of us out of the universe? Then I thought: wait a minute, is this not the same sort of argument used against inter-racial marriages in the past, and even concerns about Islam today?
In contrast, Tobold simply picked whatever gave him the most War Assets.
I do agree that a good game is full of interesting choices. But what should be obvious to anyone spending more than a minute thinking about it, is that what is interesting to one person can be boring/irrelevant/pointless to someone else. “Interesting” is not an objective term; Sid Meier may as well quipped “Good games are full of fun” for all the sage wisdom it contains.
¹ The full quote is actually: “According to Sid Meier, a [good] game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38.) This does not meaningfully change my objections, as whether an option is “clearly better” and/or “equally attractive” is necessarily subjective. For example, I almost always prefer passive abilities to active ones, to the point that most of the WoW talent tree levels have only a single rational (to me) option.