Jun 22, 2018

Alien Evolution

an advanced Harmony unit
This is the third part of my commentary on the science fiction-oriented game Beyond Earth. In part one, I introduced the central game feature of combat against the native aliens of the exoplanet that you are colonizing during the game. In part 2, I explored the advanced technologies that can be used to capture and control alien creatures.

Late in the game, some of the advanced units mix together human and alien components. The idea that in the year 2800 you might create alien mounts for a cavalry unit seems more like fantasy than science fiction, but it reminds me of a scene in Araminta Station where the main characters go for a Bunter ride.

Technological Singularity
mind flower
The technology tree for Beyond Earth is an odd mixture of known technologies and imaginary ones. In the year 2750, you can find yourself at the point of having worked for 150 years developing futuristic advances such as "synergetics", the you are back to "reclaiming" older "lost" technologies such as a "network" that "links all of our systems". One way to win the game is to build a "giant bio-mechanical brain machine" that allows you to merge with the aliens of the planet and achieve "a new level of consciousness."

The next version?
Isaac Asimov wrote several stories about "conscious planets", the most famous being his world "Gaia" from the Foundation saga. In his novel Nemesis, Asimov depicted human colonists establishing telepathic contact with the alien "mind" of a planet called Erythro. It would be fun to have a version of Beyond Earth that simulated the development of planet Erythro into the group mind of Gaia, all in the context of Asimov's imagined Galactic Empire.

warp gate, version 1.0
Sadly, the computer-generated factions in Beyond Earth display no hint of human-like artificial intelligence; I suppose we must play in multi-player game mode if we want more intelligent opponents.

In Beyond Earth, if you obtain the "artificial intelligence" and "hypercomputing" technologies, then you can build a "warp gate" that allows you to return to Earth. There is one teleportation technology that can be used to move your units around the exoplanet that you are colonizing: an orbital unit called a "phasal transporter" can bring units from your cities to a distant site, for example, on another continent. To get this technology develop engineering, fabrication, cybernetics and "autogyros".

scout unit
Even with all of your fantastic future technology, it takes an explorer unit FOREVER to reach the other side of your exoplanet. The game is designed to make you laboriously explore the planet one hex at a time. This made sense in the original Civilization game when you began playing in 4000 BCE, but makes little sense for a future world where you have orbital satellites and advanced transportation. When playing Colonization, I don't mind if it takes most of the game to explore the map using slowly-moving scout units, but in the futuristic world of Beyond Earth, this kind of slow movement across the map makes no sense.

soldiers passing through a cloud of miasma
One of the features of Beyond Earth is "miasma", what looks like a green mist covering perhaps 20% of the map hexes. The main effect of "miasma" is that it makes game designers stop thinking. All of your units in Beyond Earth wear special respiration equipment, but we are told that their health is damaged by passing through clouds of "miasma spores", even though any alien "spore" should be able to get filtered out of the air using the technology of the year 2800.

nanite engineers clearing "Black Miasma" nanites
This "miasma" could have been transformed by the game developers from "virulent spores" to a type of nanotechnology left behind by the Progenitors. There could have been different "types" or "levels" of Progenitor nanites scattered around the planet, with one "type" functioning in the way that "miasma" does, but another, thicker type of nanite cloud (call it "black miasma") would have functioned to obscure the ability of satellites to find the resource pods and expedition sites that are scattered around the planet. There could have been a special unit for exploring the planet and clearing the regions of "black miasma". These units could have been very fast in traveling to their destination, but slow to perform the difficult work of clearing away the "black miasma" nanites.

warp gate version 2.0
Hypercomputing and Hyper-drive
Needing "hypercomputing" to get a "warp gate" reminds me of an old story by Isaac Asimov in which a super-intelligent "positronic brain" invents "hyperdrive" technology. This "warp" technology in Beyond Earth could have been a bridge towards another game in which players spread to many worlds and develop a civilization that grows through the galaxy, but instead it is only used for a few silly purposes such as a return to Earth, apparently (see the "warp gate v1.0" image, above) so that you can defeat the poor Earthlings with your (what looks like) clone army. A slightly more interesting use of the warp gate technology is to bring  additional settlers to your exoplanet from Earth. Since this happens late in the game, it can be a challenge to find a place for these new settlers, which is part of the "Purity" victory condition.

refugee camp
I was not impressed by the appearance of the Earthling settlements that house the new arrivals from Earth. I was expecting settlement camps that would grow with each new settler arriving, but these camps have no interesting features and never change. They appear to have been a last-minute addition, a way to simply stretch out the Purity victory condition for another 20 turns. Boo!
make alien contact

Alien Contact
Besides the standard victory that can be achieved by capturing the capitol city of all the other factions, the remaining way to win is a Contact victory. This path to victory reminds me of Contact, by Carl Sagan.

building the Beacon
You can build and launch a Deep Space Telescope and use it to detect a signal from the Progenitors. However, to make contact with this mysterious alien civilization, you must then build the Beacon, a gigantic land-based transmitter that has similarities to the "Machine" in the Contact movie. You can only build this fantastic device by making use of instructions provided in the decoded signal.

transmitting Beacon
To activate the Beacon you need to have saved up 1000 energy units. Once the Beacon begins transmitting its signal to the Progenitors, you can not accumulate any more energy; the Beacon uses it all for transmission. In the end, with contact achieved, sadly there is no great revelation and not even a look at the alien Progenitors. A disappointment of the standard Harmony affinity transcendence victory is that you "merge with your exoplanet" but fail to actually contact an alien intelligence.

I hope that in the future there might be a Civilization game (this isn't it) that allows players to explore the galaxy and interact with intelligent aliens. Also, why not explicitly include a form of time travel as part of the game?

remains of a giant alien creature
There are still some bugs in Beyond Earth. There is a "Hall of Fame", but it only shows my first two completed games such as "Polystralia, Transcendence Victory!", then the page started saying: "You have not yet completed any games" and no other completed games are added to the list. Sometimes you try to give orders to a unit using the menu of orders, but then the available unit orders is covered up by a battle outcome popup message that you don't want.

different palettes of
unit action buttons
For me, the most annoying part of the user interface is the set of buttons for selecting actions for your units to perform. Rather than one standard pallet for the actions, the choices change and their positions on the screen change. You can accidentally push the wrong button if you don't pay careful attention to these changes in position of the buttons.

location, location,
Some of the game features seem like fantasy rather than science fiction. You find the bones of gigantic alien creatures, so large that only a dozen could inhabit the entire planet at one time. Maybe the mysterious "Progenitors" who were on your new exoplanet in the distant past engineered creatures that had fantastically strong material components, allowing them to be gigantic?

game startup settings
The "world builder" for advanced game set-up and the system for selecting your landing site on the planet can be annoying. You can set your planet for "lush" growth but still find yourself landed on a part of the planet that is desert. There is a gigantic element of randomness in the game, so players should not hesitate to terminate a game early if your starting conditions are not favorable.

War fleet with carrier units, taking aircraft
to the other side of the planet.
For example, in my first game at the third level of difficulty, there was an alien nest right next to my first city, no access to the ocean (only a lake) and two nearby factions that created new cities at an absurdly fast rate, soon occupying all the nearby land that was worth developing.

I did not try for a "Domination" victory until I was playing at the 4th difficulty level. At the three easiest difficulty levels I used the maximum number of computer-generated opponents. To simplify my try for Domination, I decided to have only 4 opponents. None of the computer-controlled factions was located close to me, which gave me room to expand and build many cities without ever coming into conflict with another faction during the early part of the game.

A "Gemini" difficulty level military victory.
Eventually, I built a fleet to carry some aircraft within range of the enemy cities. Strangely, none of my opponents ever built any aircraft in that "Gemini" level game. Sadly, I was three turns away from being able to build my first orbital attack unit when I won the game using my air and sea power.

collected artifacts (click image to enlarge)
Another gigantic source of randomness in Beyond Earth is the type of bonus that you get from finding a resource pod or from completing an expedition. This has always been a feature of Civilization games, but in Beyond Earth the most rare and interesting bonuses are the "artifacts". The artifacts that you collect can be exchanged for mundane bonuses such as some energy or special ones. Some of these artifact rewards give you an immediate result such as increased strength and range for air units (Sky Chitin) or the ability to construct buildings such as the Warp Spire.

vexed and hexed
When built in a city, Warp Spires provide a boost to your traded resources. I wish that the game developers had taken the opportunity to make these Spires into teleportation devices. 

final words of a defeated opponent (click to enlarge)
The fun to be had in playing Beyond Earth out-weighs the petty annoyances. When you defeat your military opponents, they will have a pithy final comment about having underestimated your abilities, but I wish the game was programmed for a more Sci Fi-specific feel at these moments. The vanquished foe could comment on the particular future technology that you used to crush your opponent rather that just utter a generic excuse for their dismal defeat.

Useful mod: explorer unit upgrades
At the start of the game, growth of your new civilization seems slow compared to the pace of technological advance near the end of the game. This provides the player with some sense of an approaching technological singularity.

I've investigated some of the available modifications for Beyond Earth. The never-changing, slow-as-a-snail explorer units are a real weak point in Beyond Earth. Modifications to the game that allow for more sophisticated explorer actions and upgrades are an obvious way to improve Beyond Earth.

Space is flat and full of hexagons! (image source)

Jun 17, 2018

Twisted Game Time

CivBE fan art (source)
This is the second part of my commentary on the science fiction-oriented game Beyond Earth. In part one, I described the fact that there are many opportunities to blast either the native life forms of the exoplanet that you colonize in Beyond Earth, or the other human factions who "share" the planet with you. Blowing things up is certainly one element found in many science fiction stories, but for me, military science fiction and fictional politics are dreadfully dull. What other types of Sci Fi play can be had in a game of Beyond Earth?

 Time Travel
Travel to the future.
I like to imagine that time travel is an important science fiction element of Beyond Earth. If you get into a difficult situation, you can go back a few turns and replay, making slightly different choices. The game will then generate alternative events, often much more favorable to you than what you experienced previously in the timeline. I prefer to view this ability to "travel back in time" as being part of the game, not a form of cheating.

Some of the terrain improvements: manufactory,
geothermal well, quarry, plantation.
click the image to enlarge
For me, it is fun to micro-manage and develop the resources available around my growing cities during a game of Beyond Earth. Other players prefer to automate their worker units and not have to pay attention to all of the details. After investing so much care in the placement and development of my cities, it is a major disappointment to discover some small annoying fact such as an alien nest that is close to your city and is going to be a cause of endless conflict with the aliens. Why not go back in time and make a simple change such as moving the location of the city over a space or two?

black smoke plumes rise from a damaged facility.
Click on the image to enlarge.
Part of the problem for me is that the graphic depictions of the cities and the terrain improvements are so beautiful in Beyond Earth. It is fascinating for me to see the transformation of the original forests and other terrain features into the developed landscape of plantations and other improvements. It is not hyperbole to say that I fall in love with my growing civilization in each game. If an annoying Makara decides to lumber into my developed land, damaging roads and improvements, I'm seriously offended. The game developers did a good job of making ugly damaged versions of improvements, including dark plumes of smoke rising from some pillaged features such as oil wells.

A petroleum well (left); click image to enlarge.
The developers of Beyond Earth made petroleum a strategic resource that has tempting benefits and significant costs. You can receive large production bonuses from developing petroleum resources, but there are also health costs. Late in the game, you can build and deploy the "Planet Carver" orbital military unit if you have both petroleum and titanium.

Promethean wonder (click to enlarge)
If you build the "Promethean" wonder in a city then that city no longer has health penalties for the use of petroleum resources. That benefit covers both your nearby oil wells and the Petrochemical Plant building in the city.

A blast from orbit:
the Planet Carver orbital unit attacks
an enemy ground unit
A Planet Carver can destroy an enemy unit with a single laser blast from orbit or completely weaken a city's defenses. In comparison, it might take four aircraft bombing runs to accomplish the same mission.

A Planet Carver orbital unit in position unit over an enemy city.
However, as powerful as the Carver unit is on offense, it is weak defensively. Like other orbital units, the Carver can be shot down and destroyed.

A strange feature of Beyond Earth is "covert ops". You can deploy secret agents to enemy cities. Doing so provides you with the ability to target a city and its nearby military units for air attacks. Strangely, it can take as long as 5 years for your agents to travel to a foreign city, even if they move between two sister cities that are right next to each other. This long delay could have been modified by the game developers if teleportation of spies was a part of the game upon developing some advanced technology. However, the spies are not even depicted as units in this game, unlike some other Civilization games. It is particularly annoying when early in the game it takes "only" three years for an agent to reach some cities, then later, it takes five years to reach other cities. Yawn.
An agent arrives in the foreign city of Ard and reports on the city's production capacity.

A "Science Stolen" covert operation is completed.
During the game, some of the available rewards involve speeding up worker actions and covert operations: take these reward options when they are available or it will take 20 years to steel some science and magrail improvements for your transportation network will will take a long time to build.

global mini-map
One disappointing limitation in Beyond Earth is the limited mapping technology. First, you are limited in the scales at which you can observer the planet. Zoomed in,  I see a small are about 4 hexes square. Fully zoomed out, there are about 22 hexes across the screen. However, there are about six or seven such "screens full" to get entirely around the "massive" size planets that I have used. You can't see the whole layout of continents. There is a tiny global map, but I wish I could see it at different scales.

Xeno siren keeping an
alien Makara contained
A great source of frustration is that there is no way of annotating the map or adding markers. Also, the game software is not helpful in showing you where your orbital units crash out of orbit. Often you want to replace the old unit, but you have to do boring visual scans of your territory in order to find the location of lost orbital units.

solar collector
One of the earliest future technologies in the game is an orbital solar power satellite that beams energy down to a city. This is a useful way to obtain energy early in the game, since you can sometimes "magically" obtain a solar collector while exploring the exoplanet. Eventually you can attain the ability to manufacture a solar collector for your colony after having first research the needed technologies. Mysteriously, you must obtain these technologies: chemistry, "organics" and "photosystems".

Station Sentinel orbital unit
These space-based energy collectors in Beyond Earth remind me of Isaac Asimov's science fiction stories (for example, "Reason") that involve collecting solar energy in space and "beaming" it to Earth.

There are other orbital units, including the "station sentinel". A station sentinel can double the yield of trade with a station. These trading stations appear randomly and you should support them with your patronage when they offer large rewards. 

Domestic trait: Developer (click image to enlarge)
One of the key features of Beyond Earth is "health". Your cities and your entire colony must keep earning "health" points or your growing civilization will grind to a halt. There are many choices that can lead to better heath and one way to get an early health boost is using accumulated "diplomacy" points to obtain the domestic "Developer" trait.

This planet isn't big enough for the two of us.
I like to imagine that a new exoplanet should be large enough for 8-10 factions to spread out and cooperate in exploiting the available resources. However, the game is designed to provide opportunities for conflict with both the alien creatures and the other human factions. Early in the game when your military technology is primitive, you are roughly an equal match for your opponents. After you begin to make a few key technological advances, your fighting strength leaps ahead and conflicts become easy to settle by military brute strength.

As shown in the image to the left, sometimes you begin a game located very close to another faction. In this case, the other faction declared war against me early in the game when it had no visible military units. I simply ignored them through the entire game. Eventually, after about 100 years with no fighting, they ended the "war".

The makers of these Civilization family of turn-based strategy games have always allowed exponential growth to be a big part of the game. Once your new civilization gets established, it grows exponentially. At the end of the game there is supposed to be an exciting opportunity for one faction to make a dramatic attack on a Warp Gate (see below) and snatch victory from impending defeat. However, such "last minute" efforts are pitifully ineffective when the faction approaching victory has a vastly superior level of technology.

A level 4 degree of difficulty game (click to enlarge).
After about 100 years the "singularity effect"
takes hold and you move into the lead.
In the level 3 difficulty game that I played, the computerized factions seemed to have been programmed to attack trading stations and destroy them. To protect a station that I was trading with, I went to war. It was not too hard to defeat my opponent given my superiority in military technology.

in game art for flying units
For no apparent reason, a second faction took the opportunity to declare war on me while I was already fighting my first foe. The game is obviously programmed to try to prevent you from completing your long drawn-out projects that are required for victory, but have no fear of quickly advancing up the difficulty levels as you try the various victory conditions. In order to survive wars against two factions at the same time it was handy to have highly-mobile aircraft that I could quickly shift from one front to the other. Eventually, both of these computerized players asked for peace. I think it would have been fun if Beyond Earth had been designed to gradually shift you from aircraft to using some sort of teleportation technology.

Summary graph for a level 1 (easiest) game.
At the first difficulty setting, it is very easy to pull ahead of the computerized factions. As shown in the graph to the right, after about 50 turns you will have a higher overall "score" than your opponents. The weak opponents will often declare war if they are close to your territory. On the easy setting, it is not hard to eliminate these computerized factions from the game. It is not unusual for an opponent to assemble most of their military units and send them half way around the planet to confront you. By the time they arrive, the war might already be over, having been ended by their request for peace!

click image to enlarge
The time when an opponent might ask for an end to fighting is mysterious in Beyond Earth. In the image shown to the left, I tried to speak to an opponent and got the cold shoulder.

now she's tired
On the very next turn, she called me up and asked for peace (see the image to the right). In this "Soyuz" level game, the "peace terms" included me receiving several useless cities that I did not want. The computer seemed to have calculated that by giving me those cities, I would be forced into a low health situation.

obtaining energy from floatstone
Sci Fi Resources
Some technologies, units and buildings require access to strategic resources. Some Beyond Earth resources are very odd, such as the mysterious "floatstone". Is this some remnant from ancient Progenitor civilization, some remnant of their anti-gravity technology? With the development of ecology and the imaginary technology "terraforming" you can obtain energy from floatstone and use it in the construction of some futuristic units and buildings.

A worker unit on a farm hex adjacent to a xenomass well.
Click on the image to enlarge it.
Another strategic resource in Beyond Earth is "xenomass". Xenomass reminds me of the organic "pold" in a story by Jack Vance. Check out some xenomass fan art by Runolite.
xenomass well by Runolite

Even with an entire planet to explore, aliens to meet and a civilization to build, the game is designed to bring you into conflict with other factions. Even if you try to ignore the diplomacy part of Beyond Earth you still receive an endless stream of annoying commentary from the computer-generated factions. Some of these communications are simple saber rattling while others are technobabble such as, "Your production procedures are not fractal." There are some useful "diplomatic agreements" that you can "negotiate" with the other factions, but most of them can be ignored. The game could easily have been improved if the human factions were mostly concerned with studying their shared exoplanet and exchanging information about the alien life and recovered Progenitor technologies. Instead, be prepared for endless taunts from your computerized opponents about the small size of your army.

land and sea trader units
The other diplomacy "trait" that I like to have early during the game is the "character" trait "Common Bond". This allows for several "free" robotic cargo transports to be available so that they can move between cities, generating useful resources by means of simulated trade. However, one danger is that alien units can destroy roads and trade units. Another good source of energy is from trade with the cities of other factions.

siege worm passes through a trade vehicle
Your trade units can be destroyed at any time by alien creatures or by the military units of other factions during a war. Eventually you can obtain protection against having trade units destroyed by aliens, so don't pass up getting this perk when the opportunity arises. Having protected trade units can lead to absurd scenes in which a siege worm seemingly grinds a trade vehicle to shreds, but the trader suffers no damage.

Trader units can move over land or across water. Most units are either restricted to land or water. The explorer unit is amphibious and also has one special feature that I like to obtain early in the game...
colossal aliens

Capturing Aliens
I'd rather capture an alien creature than destroy it. When there are many alien creatures near my cities, then my first priority in research is often the development of the means to capture alien creatures. At first (after you develop genetics and the "alien lifeforms" technologies), your special exploration units can capture the smaller alien creatures. This is all you need: sometimes the aliens get in your way, blocking a resource pod. With the technology-endowed "leash" ability you can capture the alien creature and it becomes a unit that you control. Eventually, with the full development of advanced technologies (level 9 Harmony and "alien domestication"), your units can capture even the larger aliens such as the amphibious Makara.

Drone unit discovers alien skeletal remains.
Another science fiction homage is the Kraken unit. These can appear early in the game and damage your water improvements, in the same spirit as siege worms. Carl Linnaeus included the legendary kraken in his first edition of the Systema Naturae.

affinity levels (click image to enlarge)
If you want to use the game's provisions for capturing aliens, then you need to accumulate "Harmony" points and attain the level 3 "Harmony" affinity.

mixed units
Even if your game strategy involves an emphasis on one of the three affinities, you will accumulate points towards all three. There are important synergies between the three different affinity types including special "mixed affinity" units that become available when you attain high enough levels in two of the affinities.

a quest has been completed
A major game feature in Beyond Earth is the "quest". When you complete these tasks you are given a reward. The "Strength and Decay" quest involves exploring the planet and doing a "biopsy" on the skeletal remains of giant alien creatures. Amazingly, study of the bones leads you to a great discovery concerning alien neurobiology.

If you complete the "Strength and Decay" quest then your combat units will also be given the ability to capture alien creatures. The explanation given for this by the game designers is that special radio frequencies can activate an alien brain region involved with "stress relief". Right.....

alien Drone unit
Expeditions can be conducted on abandoned Progenitor sites, crashed satellites and abandoned settlements. One odd variation on the idea of capturing alien creatures for your own use involves the discovery of other, smaller skeletal remains of alien creatures that can be the target for an expedition.

Two types of expedition sites marked by pick and shovel.
By digging into this type of alien remains, you are rewarded with a live alien unit. This is a great way to obtain a few alien units early in the game. The alien Drone units move relatively quickly over all terrain and are great for picking up resource pods, particularly at the icy poles of the planet. What do these Drones eat while spending years in the arctic ice fields? Such biological mysteries are never resolved in Beyond Earth.

Next: part III of my exploration of Beyond Earth.