Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Civilization and its discontents

(With apologies to Sigmund Freud.)

I've been a big fan of the PC computer game Civilization ever since the original version way back in 1991.  I think I've played just about every version that has come out since and while there have obviously been improvements over the intervening 24 years some editions were better than others, and to my mind Civ5 was the pinnacle of the series.

So when the science fiction version Civilization: Beyond Earth came out and it was based on the Civ5 engine I was originally very pumped.  Then I got a copy.

There are some definite improvements there.  I like the tech web rather the old tech tree which helps make every game different.  And I like the idea of affinities where by the decisions you make in game and technologies you learn have an effect on your units and what you can and cannot build.  And I liked that you had control of how your colony starts out by being able to decide on the load out of your space ship.  Various types of satellites as units is also a good addition for a science fiction game.

But in many ways I felt it was something of a step back.  The fact that there are only eight playable factions compared to the 30 or so of Civ5 limits game play choices at the start.  Not to mention it gets redundant seeing the same faces over and over again among the computer opponents.

The stations of C:BE are supposed to be the equivalent of Civ5's city-states but they are much less interesting.  Unlike the city-states which have territory and units and do things the stations just sort of sit there and wait for you to either trade with them or attack them.

And while I like the tech tree and affinities as I said earlier, it also became fairly easy to exploit the system to get the biggest advantages towards winning by ignoring techs that favor affinities you aren't interested in in favor of those that you are.

Plus while the diplomacy AI in C:BE is definitely improved over Civ5 it's still a bit...quirky.  In my most recent game I was twice condemned by Polystrilia even though they had a friendly attitude towards me.  Cynics could say something about realpolitik at this point but it just struck me as odd.

And the less said about the dark grey on black mini-map the better.

In short, I've been getting bored with the game.

Then yesterday 2K and Firaxis announced the first expansion called Rising Tides and I perked up.  Don't get me wrong.  I doubt this is a panacea.  But it sounds like a good first step.  They are adding more factions (though only four?) and added new units and rules for the oceans and new terrain types, all of which can only add to the game's enjoyment.  Rules to make gathering alien artifacts more important seem to me a great way to exploit one of the uniquely SFnal aspects of the game.  And I very much like the idea of new units that exploit having a wider base of affinities rather than homing in on one as is the tendency now.

True, there is nothing in the press release addressing my complaints about the stations but I can hope and that complaint is really rather minor I must admit.  But overall this expansion looks like a big step in the right direction and when it comes out in the fall I hope it will re-ignite my enjoyment of the game.

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One final note about the game play of C:BE that I find a bit irritating, namely that unless you choose a satellite in your initial load out you have to completely explore every aspect of the physical geography of the new world.  In the earlier science fiction attempt at Civ, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri this made sense in the games back story as everyone had to make an emergency landing on the planet to a shipboard disaster before they could scan the world. But in a controlled colonization situation it seems to me that the various colonists would take the time to orbit and scan the world before landing, if for no other reason than to help pick a site.  I get that discovering the geography of the world is part of the fun of the game but realistically any future space colonists would at least know where the shorelines and major mountains of a new world is.

Yes, I know I'm over-thinking it.

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