Strategy games have always attracted the attention of a specific kind of player, even among PC gamers. Sure, WADS would fall just as easily under their fingers as any other gamer, but such games do not capture their imagination quite like the genre greats Homeworld and, of course, Civilization. That is hardly surprising when you consider the demands of the genre; short-term and long-term planning, intuitive knowledge of available resources and units and, as can happen in the Civ series, a sometimes considerable investment of time.
This last point is perhaps the most important. No one in their right mind will invest multiple sessions into completing a scenario if the game simply doesn’t challenge and, therefore, interest them. I couldn’t begin to imagine the hours I have personally logged into playing previous Civilization games, especially the series off-shoot Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC), of which Beyond Earth (BE) is a ‘spiritual successor’. These are hours I have no regrets about. In fact, for most of the time I’ve spent playing strategy games, whether they be 4X games or the more tactical games like Homeworld, they are hours I’ve viewed as the most well spent among games I’ve played.
I wish I could say the same about Beyond Earth. Truly, I do. If I could rewrite this pseudo-review in a positive light without feeling like a liar, I would. My hopes for BE faded after only 5 games. Five. Not quite the extensive investment I had allotted time for, with multiplayer games anticipated with friends I’d made over the years falling short of fruition for the same reason: BE is simply not engaging to hardcore fans of the genre.
For the uninitiated, calling oneself a ‘hardcore’ fan may invoke the impression that we’re looking too hard at the game. After all, it’s just a game. It’s spilt milk. Find another game. This, of course, is a myopic assessment. Alpha Centauri holds many fond memories. Whether it be bickering with Sister Miriam, experiencing the snide of Brother Lal, or fighting wars of attrition with Colonel Santiago, the world felt alive.
Such nuance and texture do not exist to the same extent in BE. Despite the incessant quest decisions after every building has completed construction. Which, Firaxis tell me, apparently add up to some sort of story of humanity guided by the player.
Well, you could have fooled me there. Every game felt about as different as a litter of pugs.
Alpha Centauri was quite different. The detail was evident by comparison without needing to label oneself a hardcore player. The game held a level of detail which made people such as myself into a ‘hardcore’ fan of the game, and indeed the genre. The depth existed. It was palatable.
The datalinks, the ingame encyclopedia, known as the Civilopedia in Civilization series, bustled with historical information and musings by the faction leaders. Chairman Yang would speak (literally) on nihilism in society, while CEO Morgan would discuss free market economics. Instead, the player is meant to feel nostalgic, perhaps titillated when they see the option to construct the ‘Recycling Tanks’ in a city. “Oh, the memories,” we’re to exclaim, “This really is Alpha Centauri II!”
Enter ‘emergent gameplay’
It should be clear from the last two paragraphs, which iterated the same point, that I am two shots away from a full blown tirade that may well end in a strongly worded letter to Sid Meier, threatening to send him to gaming purgatory where all the wayward developers go when they allow a sub-par work to evoke the name of a well-regarded game to appeal to the nostalgia crowd. Indeed, looking at user reviews compared to critic reviews, you’d wonder if BE were just another page in the GamerGate saga waiting to happen.
Such a tirade would be pointless for it would not go anywhere toward addressing the malaise that has sunk its teeth into strategy games; casualization. That incessant desire to make games enjoyable by even the lowest common denominator to the chagrin of everyone else.
However, we must explore a concept known as emergent gameplay first. The strategy genre hinges upon this concept. That is, it is gameplay which relies upon the interaction of relatively simple mechanics within a game (a dynamic economy with fluctuating exchange rates dependent upon actions in the game world, for example) which, put together, add up to a complex and dynamic field of play.
Beyond Earth, of course, fits this description. Then there is the emergent narrative, which, as you may infer, is a game which does not use a pre-written narrative (outside of the setting) and instead relies upon the players actions in developing the story. Less common categorically, but we do see in BE that there is an emergent narrative element.
So where does casualization come into this?
Emergent narrative and gameplay aren’t inherently bad, in and of themselves. Indeed, I’d be hard pressed to call the team behind BE clueless as well. After all, BE is not a bad game. It is very disappointing compared to predecessors, but not bad. At a glance, one might say what has occurred here is a complete misreading of that which the long-time fans of the series want from the series; depth and balanced game play. A true learning curve. A game which should be superior to its alleged predecessor to justify the AAA game price tag when one can purchase the latter for $5 from GoG!
Unfortunately, money talks. The game is casualized, if you will, for the sake of attracting a wider audience, or maybe just to dazzle game journalists to say nice things and not it’s “too much for most people.” After all, gaming is booming and Firaxis, like any company, want to attract as much of that boom as possible. Meanwhile, the bean counters want to keep the margins as high as possible. So why throw all that money at such pesky window dressings like narrative and voice overs when the game is all about what the player does, right? Just get rid of all that, and make it about developing the ‘story of the humanity.’ Emergent gameplay—it’s a hoot.
Casualization, in this sense, is a euphemism for cheaper game development which developers like Firaxis follow at their own peril. Games like Beyond Earth are one giant middle finger to series veterans, with the gaming press acting as an accomplice when you view the seemingly glowing reviews the game has received compared to the reaction on the street. It is the same middle finger Bethesda held up when Skyrim was released and the gaming press happily gave their 5 stars to that as well.
Games such as this would be tolerable if some level of difficulty existed within them. Some kind of challenge that set off the dopamine after a campaign involving skill and cunning is successful. However, developing an A.I. costs money, and knowledgeable people aren’t cheap. So instead BE just supplies the A.I. opponents with a considerable handicap.
On the hardest setting, the A.I. factions receive a myriad of economic bonuses, a bipolar personality in diplomacy regardless of difficulty level and five free land units at planet fall while the player receives one. Just like Civilization 5 before it. That’s right. In the four years since Civ 5 released, Firaxis still haven’t quite worked out how to make an A.I. which doesn’t want to go to war with you then desire peace 4-5 turns later and toss in one of their cities to boot.
So what we have here is a game which fires a bullet to the foot of the genre, and a slap to the face of the fans. The almighty dollar and casualization congeal into a bacterial mass which spells a slow death for the series. An infection which began incubation four years ago and has come back in 2014 to say “Hey, remember how we just made your game suck a little bit? Well, we’re a stage II tumour now and you’re gonna love it.”
It will be a death which won’t result in ‘top 5’ lists which feature games from the later period, but games from the seemingly bygone era of the early to mid 2000’s with the last AAA strategy game having been released 3-5 years prior to that. This will probably be Starcraft III.
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