Flieger, grüß' mir die Sonne, grüß' mir die Sterne und grüß' mir den Mond. Dein Leben, das ist ein Schweben, durch die Ferne, die keiner bewohnt! - Hans Albers, F.P.1 antwortet nicht (Adaptation in the 80s: Extrabreit)

Monday, 27 October 2014

Beyond Earth - not elite

Just another turn... just one turn... one more.

In a nutshell, that´s how I spend my two weekend nights. It is the well known turn-based game mechanics from the Civilisation franchise, which is also the core of the newest installment, Beyond Earth. And here is my "a first look" impression.

Tempation wants me to call it a clone. A clone of Civilisation V, with different unit models (back in time, we used to call them sprites) and a slightly different tech tree. Which means, my first impression is rather tending towards "unimpressed". Unlike the "original" game, Alpha Centauri, this new version has no soul.

And now that I get started, I really have to vent it off. Attention, heavy rant incoming.

So far, I have played three games, the last one a "perfectly micromanaged" one after getting aqcuainted during the first two games, and I did not finish any of them. Not a good sign. Normally, I start one game, just to try out by doing and then launch a "serious" one where I try to take advantage of everything I have learned about the game mechanics. When I got bored somewhere in the middle of my third game, the feeling grew that something was not right with this game.

First, to get the good stuff out of the way: Graphics are up to date, the tech web really makes you think long and hard as to which order of research you want/need to go, the models are nicely designed, and some little new game mechanics, especially the explorer mechanic, add a nice touch.

Ok, now about the other stuff, in order of severity (read, level of rage I feel about the game designer´s undesignedness):

- Factions in Beyond Earth are bland, totally missing those overdrawn sarcastic personalities, which still make me quote today Director Morgan or Sister Miriam. Back in Alpha Centauri, every science discovery was accompanied by some vitriolic remarks about their societal implementation by one of the faction leaders. Beyond Earth has a generic female voice quoting some half-esoteric mumbo jumbo, quotes which never really seem to be in proper context. Let me give an example:
"It is every citizen's final duty to go into the tanks and become one with all the people." - this is a quote from Alpha Centauri´s faction leader Shang Ji Yang, a despotic communist who employs people like machines, but at the same time also representing the highest Bhuddist wisdom, on the development of the recycling tanks. Also vitriolic remark about applications at the borderline of ethicality. You will never ever find something similar in Beyond Earth; there are some references, but they are shallow at best.
Here is a collection of some of the fantastic quotes from Alpha Centauri. Read them, really! Read all of them!

(Side remark: Alpha Centauri is also one of the very, very few ones, where I consider the voice actors in the German version as vastly superiour to the English one. The faction leader´s personalities came to live thanks to their voice actors.)

- Beyond Earth´s units are subject to a simple level-up system, diverting into three branches; after the first level-up, according to the level of each affinity, you can choose two times one of three upgrades. This in no way comes near the versatility and fun which I have had with Alpha Centauri´s workshop, where you could assemble and mod every existing unit to your liking (weapon level, armor level, one or two of many different possible special abilities).

-  The Aliens look boring and uninspired, huge insects-animal crossbreed, as if they were copied from Starship Troopers and painted green. They roam the maps in herds, and a convenient colour code shows you if they are neutral or more agressive towards you. In Alpha Centauri, there were these amorph crawling chunks of tentacles popping in from out of nowhere, behaving like totally oblivious amoebae, not even identifyable as animal, so they were called mind worms. Those mind worms where totally creepy, mysterious, alien; descriptions which those bison-insects, here, are not even fulfil in the slightest.

- The tech web manages to be even more complicated (as opposed to complex) than the previous tech trees. The resulting applications are intransparent as to whether they are world wonders or installations. There are no armor or weapon inventions, only whole units, and as such the options still feel for me less diversified. See also under "no workshop". But I did not have much time to dabble with warfare yet, so I am a bit cautious here with my latter judgement.

- World wonders and victory conditions are bland. No secrets to discover, no moody scene setter, just the raw game mechanic, made very obvious level-ish, all requiring the same order of discover and build something, again with a female voice cast spouting some meta-ethical crap. In Alpha Centauri, the option for transcendancy only appears after the according story development, and the diplomatic and tech victory get complemented with another very inventive peaceful option, namely to dominate the energy market.

This is the stuff which immediately pops out of my mind, there is some little stuff which equally annoys the nerd within me, e.g.

- Starting screen. Nice graphics, but the landing ships look nothing like they are supposed to look, also not as they look in the game.

- The mood does not fit the game. And this is the core of the issue. Alpha Centauri has a personality; it is a very, very dark and sarcastic reflection on human society, with ample of vitriolic remarks and sideglances in their all time famous descriptions and quotes. It is a good piece of pop culture literature. Gameplay-wise, it oozed strangeness and complexity, but in a practical and easy going user interface. Opposed to this, Beyond Earth makes me feel like game rules with nice pictures. I doubt that anybody would attribute "personality" to this game.

- Hexes and animations. A gripe I also have with Civ V. While hexes can indeed benefit the core of any turn based game, namely a tactical and strategiy board game play, the graphic implementation comes across weird. It somehow tries to become more realistic, and by doing so, it becomes more unrealistic. Difficult to explain. Example, the Working Unit. Looks like an overgrown digger, nicely animated, thereby implying that this is the actual vehicule. It never is; it is supposed to be a representation of a whole fleet of workers and machinery, which work across several square kilometers of area. It therefore should be a representation, not an imitation. The same goes for the landscape on hexes; it just does not fit together. Either be gone altogether with a grid, or make the landscape more iconic for each grid. It is supposed to represent a certain landscape, not "be" that landscape. And, after three games, I still did not find an option to make the grid actually visible, thereby making me guess if a resource will be actually within range of my colony-to-be-founded, or not.

- "Health" game mechanic: I felt like forcing my people into a one-child policy, repeatedly. Population growth usually runs ahead of available medical care, represented by the health score. Thus, you have to manually reign in population growth every 10 turns or so, until finally one of those rare buildings with health bonus become available. It is not fun, it is tedious. I would prefer if they would just limit population growth and be done with it.

All in all, this game leaves me a bit dumbfounded. It is not a bad game. But, how on earth - how beyond earth - could the game designers miss virtually everything, everything which made Alpha Centauri so special? Beyond Earth is nothing more than Civilisation in space, and beyond that, for me, it is merely an uninspired accumulation of game mechanics.

Beyond Earth´s game mechanics are sufficiently complex, but the variations in gameplay are limited. Besides that, it is a bland, uninspired installment of Civilisation in space, totally missing the mood, queeriness and the soul of the original, "Alpha Centauri". It compares as a penny dreadful with a good novel about science fiction. If you still do not believe me, read e.g. this review. I bet with you that you will never ever find a similar review for Beyond Earth. If you want to play it, wait a bit until it is half price, because it is overpriced right now for what it actually offers.

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