Monday, October 27, 2014

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - 20/20 hours

At twenty hours, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this game. I played two games to completion, fully explored the tech-tree, and maxed out two of the three affinities. But I have not yet finished a game on normal difficulty, and I still have half the factions to try out, and I've barely paid attention to the reams and reams of flavor text that accompany technological advances, affinity levels, and completed quests.

That last one, especially, feels like a mistake. Part of the draw of the game is its sci-fi trappings, the work that went into creating and fleshing out a plausible future world, and the inhabitants, ideologies, and machinery therein. Yet, thus far, I've only really engaged the game on a mechanical level. I've tried to figure out how it works, but I haven't been paying attention to what it's trying to say.

I'm not sure how much I'm actually missing. Some games, like Bastion, have great storytelling. They use the virtues of the medium to create a form of presentation that sticks with you, even when the actual details of the story are not especially strong. Civilization: Beyond Earth seems like the opposite.

It is clear to me that a lot of thought went into the game's world-building, there are hundreds of voiced quotes from various hypothetical futuristic books and lectures, and a whole in-game encyclopedia that details the origins and implications of the stuff you build and research. Yet, despite all this effort, it almost feels like the game is apologetic about the very fact that it's telling a story. To discover all the background work, you have to dig for it. The vast majority of the flavor is hidden inside menus. The encyclopedia takes you out of the game-screen entirely, and even the stuff available from the main interface (such as the quest menu) is completely skippable.

I understand that the reason for this is to allow the player maximum autonomy. Those who are really interested in the story can search it out, whereas those who don't care are not bothered by intrusive pop-ups or narration. And I can respect that decision, but it made the story and the world feel a little bloodless to me, as if it didn't really matter, and that I was simply enjoying a sci-fi skin on a strategy game that could have taken place anywhere.

I think, in the future, I will resolve to actually do the work and deliberately seek out the story elements, but that is a goal for another time. For now, I'm ready to move on to a new game. While I'm generally positive about Civilization: Beyond Earth, I think it still needs a bit more polish before it can stand aside the classics of the genre.

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