Don’t believe the hype (in gaming). Civ: Beyond Earth expansion announced

On Monday, I stumbled upon Firaxis’ announcement they will be releasing an expansion to Civilization: Beyond Earth. Suffice it to say, this game very much reminded me of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Back then, I was a young and impressionable teen who thought the Phantom Menace was going to be the greatest thing since well, the original series. When my friends and I emerged from the theatre, we were still under the haze of the CGI effects and thought it was “ok”. Within about half an hour of discussion our opinion evolved to it was mediocre. About an hour later, our view of the movies was decidedly lower than the general consensus. I won’t recap the reasons why, but a very in depth analysis has already been done.

How this relates to Civ: BE, well, the devs talked a big game and the hype machine was not so large as to signal red flags but still sufficient enough to generate interest. We all enjoyed Civilization 5, particularly after the additions included in its two expansions. When my best friend and I loaded up the game, we struggled at first as the devs had warned traditional strategies from the previous games would not prove successful in this iteration of the series. I figured out the idiosyncrasies by the 2nd playthrough. Instead we found other issues. The game was a re-skin of Civ 5 with fewer features, little personality, broken game systems, laughable AI, mediocre in-game choices, and micro-management of trade routes which made you feel like a train station operator rather than making meaningful decisions for the survival of humanity. Honestly, they had done better in the past. Now the game did not have a few improvements, I’ll skip to the point. Simply put the game was underwhelming.

By the time the next game came out, I was already skeptical and chose to wait for reviews. During the hype machine, Sid Meier himself was interviewed and stated his involvement in Beyond Earth was limited. As if to disown the game as the red-headed stepchild of which his name is attached. However, this time he assured the community he was more involved! And the game well, sucked. It seems the parallels grow stronger as I write. Now on to the expansion. The developers and publisher are already talking about features. Here’s a list of what they’ve said and my interpretation.

2K and Firaxis also promise an “overhauled diplomacy system,”

In the words of producer Andrew Frederiksen, “I think tweaked would undersell it. Diplomacy has been, for lack of a better term, completely ripped out and rebuilt from the ground up.”

I’m glad they recognize diplomacy sucked, and largely always did, in the Civ series. Their attempt to include a favour system was largely ineffectual. The AI gave favours freely but wouldn’t accept you to cash them in. With the AI being very weak, placating them was also counter-productive. Any diplomatic trades agreements were largely not worth it other than to improve your trade routes. However, I dislike the fact they choose to fix what they recognize to be a poorly implemented feature by including it in an expansion. What about the basic game? Shouldn’t this be a patch instead? If I go and buy another type of product and some of its features are broken or not existent I can get a full refund. Instead, refunds for games are horribly obtuse and difficult to obtain. If you’re lucky, you will get reduced store credit or something similar.

From Frederiksen’s description, traits seem like a more flexible version of policies from Civilization V. Where the cost of policies and the fact that only a few policy trees were mutually exclusive often discouraged switching them mid-game, traits are meant to be managed more actively.

Here, Frederiksen informs you they are re-packaging a previously omitted feature with some slight tweaks. Why was this feature not in the original game? The cynic in me wants to write “to package it as part of an expansion later”, while my “nice guy” side makes me think it was cut due to time. If the former, the dev publisher are trying to milk us, the player of money. If the latter, couldn’t this have been patched in? As someone who works in IT, normally a client won’t accept the delivery of an unfinished project (unless funds were lacking) or at least accept a staggered release with the promise of missing features added later. The video game industry instead prefers milking its customers. This might have worked years ago when the majority of “gamers” were kids with little disposable income. Now though, the average gamer age is trending upward.

The Rising Tide will also herald the arrival of four new factions; the only leader announced thus far is Arshia Kishk, head of the Al Falah.  As Beyond Earth’s story tells it, the Middle East was mostly depopulated after The Great Mistake. In the years that followed, a tenacious group of resilient survivors held on and refused to desert their homeland. When they finally managed to fund a spaceship send forth colonists, it wasn’t the cryogenic variety that most other civilizations sent. It was a generation ship, meaning that those who boarded it knew they would never see their destination, and those who touch down at the end of the journey have never set foot on a planet before.

The issue with the original game wasn’t explicitly the lack of factions but rather their bland personalities. To be fair, the above description is evocative and could potentially alter a civilization’s outlook and society. However, these games were never designed about exploring philosophies or outlooks and how they interact. At least not since Alpha Centauri. Rather, it was always about conflict. Also, pre-preemptively nuking Ghandi.

The final “big feature” is ocean colonies. This isn’t new having already existed in Alpha Centauri. In fact there was a faction based entirely on piracy. Well two if you count the ones about controlling the internet. The line which made me roll my eyes was:

As co-lead designer of Beyond Earth, David McDonough, put it during a recent phone interview, “It’s not just moving things out to the water; it’s not just blue terrain. We really changed some of the very fundamental ways in which you build cities, capture territory, develop, and grow, so that if you play at sea, you have a whole different strategic landscape.”

Yeah, totally not blue terrain.

Let’s deconstruct the statement. Likely, the construction of the cities will result in sea colony pods instead of regular colony pods. Again, something already present in the Alpha Centauri game. Strategic territory control will be diffused as more of the map will become available for exploration and exploitation. What that means, is controlling landmass is not as important or crippling to your rivals. Thus, conflict will be reduced as there are more resources available. One of the main reasons a player or players choose to play on maps with large bodies of waters is to promote these conflicts. What opening the oceans does is reduce the appeal of such maps.

I’ll await to see what other features will be announced. Right now, I recommend picking up Alpha Centauri on GOG and pick up Beyond Earth “Game of the Year edition” during a Steam sale once all the expansions are out.

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