Civilization: Beyond Earth

I started writing this post months ago (back in 2015, I think) - long before I had any inkling of the impending release of Civilization VI. This post may be entirely moot now that Civ VI has been announced, and it seems unlikely to me that Beyond Earth will see further expansions. However, I still want to present these ideas, so I've re-written this post to be less speculative and more retrospective. Even if these ideas aren't fated to be implemented for Beyond Earth, it's still an opportunity to look at a way in which the game could have differentiated itself from Civ V, and they could serve as a template for future Civ titles (maybe even Beyond Earth 2) or for modders. Maybe I'll even mod it in myself if I get time and motivation.

Civilization: Beyond Earth really struggled to separate itself from Civ V. The expansion, Rising Tide takes steps to address this with some of its new gameplay mechanics and revised diplomatic engine. Sadly, these efforts don't really address one of the underlying, fundamental, disconnects that the game has with me:

"One of the things that bothered me about Beyond Earth was the way that the victory conditions create an unnecessary competition between the different civs. Aren't we all just colonists from the same earth who are supposed to be trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past? Aren't we trying to preserve the human race? Without the various civs starting the game with any sort of pre-established ideology or agendas, there's no reason for them to be competing with one another. Without a genuine shared victory, there's also no systems in place to share your colonial success with your fellow colonies. The net effect is that once you've defeated the challenge of taming the planet and [one way or another] eliminating the aliens as a threat to your expansion, then the rest of the game is a competition between civs to be the first to reach any of the [mechanically satisfying and varied, yet intellectually vapid] victory conditions."
   - from my Rising Tide review
Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide - attacking cities
Heck, why are we competing to begin with?

Despite being mechanically different from Civ V's victory conditions, Beyond Earth still fell into the trap of being fundamentally, unnecessarily tribalistic and competitive. I don't know if this is supposed to be some kind of sad, fatalist message that Firaxis is writing into Beyond Earth: that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. This isn't Fallout. I hope that Firaxis' designers aren't that cynical, and that it was an unintentional emergent consequence of design.

This may seem like a small, trivial, superficial issue, but it's not. Regular Civilization is easy to buy into because it's based [loosely] on established history and uses real-world characters and states that most people are already familiar with. Buying into the theme of Beyond Earth is just so much harder because there's so much of the game that just doesn't make sense, or which doesn't really follow from the opening cinematic or the game's flavor text. This is why Alpha Centauri went to such great pains to personlize the leaders, and to turn them into charicatures of established real-world ideologies and standard sci-fi tropes. These are factions with established goals and agendas that we can understand, and we can buy into their conflicts. Beyond Earth doesn't have that, and so not only do its leaders fall flat as characters unto their own, but the entire basis upon which the game's core conflicts and victory conditions are based start to fall apart as well.

In any case, I think that one of the best ways that Beyond Earth could have truly separated itself from Civ V (mechanically and thematically) would have been to change the competitive nature of the victories and introduce truly cooperative victories, or maybe even a "players versus map" victory type. And I want to emphasize from the start that I haven't put nearly as much time into Beyond Earth as I have into Civ V. I'm by no means an "expert" in the game. So feel free to take the following suggestions with a grain of salt. I admit that these ideas simply might not work, but I still think that it's worthwhile to explore the possibility space that this game could have offered...

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Star Trek: Fleet Captains - manual shows painted miniatures
Star Trek: Fleet Captains is an exploration and combat board game by WizKids.

Good Star Trek games are few and far between. That goes for both video games and board games. Part of the reason for this is that it's often difficult to capture the spirit of Star Trek when trying to adapt it into en existing game genre. This is why Trek-themed games end up turning into dull shooters or tactical combat games. Games about exploration or scientific discovery, or role-play are sadly uncommon in video game formats (which is what makes 1999's PC game Birth of the Federation stand out to me as an underrated Trek classic). Sure it was just a reskin of Master of Orion II, and it had lots of technical and A.I. flaws, but in a market dominated by cookie-cutter games like Star Trek: Armada, Elite Force, and Invasion, Birth of the Federation was a rare game in which "exploring strange new worlds" and "seeking out new life and new civilizations" was a primary game mechanic.

Board games and table-top games have maybe fared a bit better than video game adaptations. We have our Dungeons & Dragons-inspired role playing games, our tactical starship simulators, and then countless board game reskins (ranging from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan, and virtually everything in between). Most of these games are pretty old, but there's also a handful of newer Star Trek games that run the gamut. One such game is WizKids' Star Trek: Fleet Captains.

WizKids is probably best known for its Mage Knight and Hero Clix miniatures games based on fantasy, video game, and comic book characters. The bases for these figures include a rotating dial that allows the player to change the attributes of the character to one of several pre-set values. This can include altering their combat attack power, hit points, mana, or any other value that the specific game might require. Fleet Captains uses a similar clix system as the backbone of its starship management mechanics.

Unboxing impressions

My first impressions upon opening the box was a bit disappointing. I'm not a big fan of the ship miniatures. They're fairly well-detailed and made out of a sturdy plastic and seem like they should stand up to a lot of play, but that's the only thing that I like about them. They take up a lot of space, making it difficult to cram more than two or three ships on any single hex. There seems to have been some effort made to scale the size of the Federation ships with one another, but it isn't consistent. Voyager, for example, is almost as large as the Enterprise E, but the Enterprise A and Reliant are noticeably smaller and appear decently-scaled against the Galaxy class Venture. Klingon ships, however, seem to have no effort put into trying to appropriately scale them. Birds of Prey and classic cruisers look huge compared to most Federation ships and to other Klingon ships. The Negh'var, despite being one of the largest ships in the game, just doesn't seem as massive and intimidating as it should be.

Despite the manual showing painted miniatures in its components list [LEFT],
the actual miniatures [RIGHT] are unpainted and not to-scale with one another.

The ships are also all are made of the same mono-chrome plastic and are un-painted (even though the instructions appear to show painted miniatures in the components list). These ships are different enough in design that it's really not hard to tell them apart, and so I see no reason why they couldn't have been painted (as opposed to being the same color for ease of recognition)...

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Papers, Please

With Dark Souls III behind me, and while I wait for the inevitable time-eater that will be Civilization VI, I wanted to go back through my backlog of smaller games. Papers, Please is a simple little indie title that has been out for almost three years (at the time of this writing), and has been sitting in my Steam library, unplayed, for quite some time. Now seemed like as good a time as any to rectify that.

I just paid to go to a second job that I don't get paid for

Papers, Please is a funny little game in that it is so dedicated to its theme that the game actually does start to feel almost like a real job. You have to click and drag to open up documents, sort through papers, check dates, make sure the document was issued in a valid city, and so on. It's a lot of mundane work, and if you miss any little detail, then you have an omniscient boss who will print out a citation. I quickly came to anticipate the sound of a citation being printed with a Pavlovian anxiety after sending applicants through, even for the ones whose documents I thought I had thoroughly checked. You get two warnings before your omniscient boss starts docking your pay, which keeps constant pressure on you to try to be as close to perfect as possible. Paying for this game is almost like paying for a second job that you, yourself, don't get paid for. And it's kind of a shitty job, at that.

It's not just the potential immigrants' problems that you have to think about. You have your own problems. Every day, you go home with a measly salary, and you have to pay daily for rent, heat, and food for yourself and your family. Maybe you kids or wife get sick, and you have to spend some precious extra dollars on medicine that night. And if your pay gets docked for letting in people with invalid passports, then you might have to go that night without food or heat or medicines, which will just make your family more likely to get sick.

Papers, Please - shuffling paperwork
Hooray! A game in which I get to shuffle paper work and perform bureaucratic government functions!

You'll also have people with invalid documents begging to let you in to the country so they can be re-united with their families, or because they're political refugees who will be killed if they go back to their own country...

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DreadOut

The opening moments of DreadOut set the bar pretty low for what was to come. The visual quality varies wildly. The main character, Linda, looks and animates decent enough, but the other characters all look incredibly stiff and robotic. And they sound almost as stiff and robotic. I'm not sure if it's a matter of poor translation, cultural disconnects, or if it's a deliberate attempt by the developers at camp, but the dialogue and voice acting is cringe-worthy. It wasn't even laughably bad. It was just bad. Don't worry though, you won't have to put up with them for long. They'll disappear for the majority of act 1, rendering the game's futile attempts at early character-building moot, and likely leading to you forgetting that they ever existed until they reappear later. The ghosts and monsters themselves actually get better development and depth, as each one is given a thematic backstory, and its aesthetic design attempts to represent that theme - with varying degrees of success.

DreadOut - camp
Dialogue and voice-acting might have been going for deliberate camp, but ends up just being bad.

It's an indie game, so I don't expect its graphics to impress on any technical level. But what's presented on screen is often only passable for a PS2-era game, and there's very little artistry or detail in the majority of environments. Some of the environments are decent, and there's the occasional well-placed lighting or particle effect that helps to set a mood. That mood rarely lasts though, because you'll turn a corner and find repetitive environments and flat textures. It is very easy to get lost in a few areas of this game because so much of the environment looks the same. The school building was particularly bad, as all the classrooms had the same desks, chairs, and backpacks sitting around. Only two rooms in the entire building had unique decorations (a teacher's office and what appeared to be a biology lab). The difficult-to-read signposts and lack of any sort of in-game map just exacerbates the sameness of the game's environmental design.

DreadOut - black cat
"Aw, hello Mr. Kitty!"
Oh, you're a black cat and are
supposed to be scary. My bad..

Gameplay is less a mixed-bag, and is more universally terrible. Movement is very clunky. The camera loves to pivot around when you go through doors, leading to temporary disorientation as you try to figure out which direction the character is facing. It doesn't help that so much of the game looks the same, so it's easy to get turned around and confused (or outright lost) when the camera wigs out on you.

There's a blue vignette effect that indicates a nearby item that is designed to work as a player aid, but sometimes it can be a hindrance. It works through walls, which I guess is fine since it can let you know that you need to go into a nearby room. What isn't fine is that it also seems to work through floors and ceilings. So the game will nag you that a useful item or clue is nearby, but it might be on a different floor of the building. So you end up wandering back and forth trying to find it - which you never will because it's not there...

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Five Nights at Freddy's

Five Nights at Freddy's was recommended to me by some friends a couple years ago. They knew that I was interested in horror games, and that I was disappointed with the stock of horror games that were available at the time. I bought it at the time, but never got around to playing until recently.

The concept for the game is quite a good one. You work as a night watchman of a Chuck E. Cheese-style children's birthday party center. By day, there's four animatronic animals along the lines of Disney's Country Bear Jamboree that dance and sing songs to entertain children; but by night, these animatronic animals come to life, stalk the halls of the facility, and have been known to attack and kill anybody that they find. This is definitely the stuff of nightmares, and if your young child ever plays the game (or sees you playing it), he or she might never want to go to Chuck E. Cheese or Disneyland ever again. But as an adult, the game just doesn't quite do it for me.

I think the core problem is that the whole experience is built around providing semi-random jump scares. It might cause someone to jump the first one or two times it happens, but after that, you get pretty quickly desensitized to it. And once that happens, the game loses all of its effectiveness, even though it doesn't necessarily lose any of its borderline-unfair challenge.

Five Nights at Freddy's - security door
Keeping the security doors closed consumes power, sacrificing your long-term security.

You must spend five nights sitting in a security control room. There's two security doors and a series of camera, but there's also a limited supply of dwindling power. Closing the doors consumes power, looking through the cameras consumes power, turning the lights on consumes power. And if power runs out, you are left sitting in the dark for the rest of the night with no defense against the monstrous mechanical mascots.

The amount of nightmare logic that is required just to establish the setting is actually kind of interesting in its own right. What kind of a place operates with dwindling power? How poorly-maintained is this facility? How does it maintain power during the day? Is it even safe for kids during the day? Why would the doors require power to stay closed? You also get voicemails each night from the former night watchman, who casually talks about the increasingly-complex behaviors of the mascots, new strategies for dealing with them, and so on. These phone messages are very well-acted and well-delivered. All of this contributes to the game's incredible uncanny setting, and everything seems to be in the perfect place to create an incredible horror experience based on powerlessness and creeping tension.

But then the actual gameplay starts, and the excellent atmosphere starts to buckle...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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