Beyond Earth is definitely not beyond imagination

I confess that my expectations of what Civilization: Beyond Earth would be like were probably unrealistic and unseasonable. So I understand that it might just be me that was disappointed. It isn’t a bad game, but it doesn’t feel like it’s a great game in the way that earlier incarnations of the franchise have been.

In thinking about my reaction to this game, I wondered if  part of the problem is that I don’t play the vanilla versions of Civilization much any more. The mods, for Civ IV in particular, added customization, depth, storyline and visual texture. Importantly, some of the more notable full conversions, added entire story-lines in unique worlds. In my opinion, the example of this – for Civ IV at least – is Fall from Heaven II. Sure, it played to the stereotypical fantasy archetypes, but it did so with style and ridiculous re-playability.

Now, I can’t put my finger on all the reasons why Beyond Earth seems less playable as I don’t have the language to express what is wrong with certain aspects of the game design.

What I can say is that I was disappointed with the lack of depth in the storyline woven through the progression of certain tech achievements.

The discovery of nanotechnology could lead to massively disruptive consequences, as it did in Accelerando. Even if things didn’t get quite that out of hand, the effect could have been a bit more profound. While on the subject of nano-tech, why did it’s discovery lead to the development of a (presumably faster-than-light) warp gate? For a game that sold itself with a lot of talk about having future technology at last slightly based on actual science, I thought this was a bit weak.

The divergence of the affinities should introduce more conflict and it should do so in a more thoughtful way. The division between affinities would be one of the most important events in human/post-human history. Choosing to adapt to the environment instead of destroying it and/or choosing to avoid the perceived enslavement to certain technologies drive massive amounts of narrative in books like the Hyperion Cantos. In Civ BE, there is a bit of urgency, but not much.

On reflection, I think my problem with Civ BE was indeed that my expectations were unrealistic. It’s a computer game. So expecting the depth that might be found in a book, or even a good movie, is probably a good way to court disappointment. Since starting to write this, I went back and played the un-expanded version of Civ IV. Now that is a good game. But it’s nothing compared to the expansion packs or modded versions. So perhaps the same thing is true of the basic, un-expanded, un-modded version of Civ BE.

I would agree that maybe a game that makes people really think about a big question like the future of humanity is never going to be a commercial winner. But part of what makes science-fiction exciting and compelling is that it challenges preconceptions and assumptions – in other words, it makes people think. So while Civ BE might be passable as a game, as a creative work of science-fiction, I think that it largely fails.

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