This person is exactly correct about the sad, unimaginative state of 4X sci-fi gaming:
Explore And Expand, Or Exploit And Expire?
Clearly, this editorial is inspired by a sense of disappointment with Endless Space. Now, I am probably going to be pre-ordering ES at some point because it looks like it is going to be the heir apparent to GalCiv II (until Stardock gets around to GC3, of course). Plus, the devs seem really keen on continually expanding the game post-launch with all sorts of new content. Definitely seems like a keeper. But I also was a bit disappointed by the gameplay vids I watched because the game does nothing new to advance the genre. I guess the editorialist felt the same way.In the recent Endless Space preview, I mentioned a concern that the 4X genre might be running out of ideas. Even in the short time PlaySF has been running Iíve seen quite a few, and Iím coming to the conclusion that we need more X in our 4X games, or risk stagnation.
Exploration is my favourite of the four, and also my biggest disappointment. While most of the 4X games on the market contain some kind of exploration gameplay, once more it falls into one or two basic structures. We explore the galaxy, most of which is invariably hidden from us when we begin the game, and we occasionally happen across random events. But these events are nearly always interpreted in terms of boosts or nerfs to existing systems Ė you discover an ancient alien artefact that boosts your science production, or unlocks a new technology, and so on.
But it never feels as if weíre inhabiting a real universe. There is almost no sense of a Ďlivingí galaxy....The only standout in my mind here is the retro-styled Distant Worlds, which populates its galaxies with odd lifeforms, wormholes and snippets of storyline, as the only 4X where Iíve felt a genuine sense of exploration Ė that feeling that something, anything could be out there.
And good god, there needs to be something out there. Iím tired of approaching my 4x games solely from the perspective of one Empire that must beat all others. We take component-based ship building almost for granted now (and I can still remember when the notion of being able to design my own ship was awe-inspiring), but where is that level of interaction in exploration, in colonisation, in diplomacy? If I discover an ancient, ruined city while exploring a system, give me a little text quest, tell me about the dead species! Show me that the Galaxy Iím going to war over isnít a randomly generated blank slate Ė make me feel like thereís some history to the spaces between these stars. Make a colony more than just a collection of building upgrades -give it a culture, a history, even if itís just assembled from random text selections.
I also agree with his praise of Distant Worlds. That is the only game that has truly tried to innovate the 4X genre. Unfortunately, it has gone largely unnoticed because of its limited distribution on Matrix, not to mention its high price point.
As I wrote in the comments section of the article, I agree that 4X games have showed precious little innovation, and worse, little sense of a real ďlivingĒ environment. This thought hit me with the release of Prometheus. The discovery of alien ruins in a game rarely leads to more than a boost to some aspect of research. How boring for such a fantastic discovery! I would love to see a game develop such an event appropriately. Maybe the player would need to build a special survey ship? And then the researchers would request colonial equipment to stick around a while. And maybe there is x% chance that the investigation goes Prometheus bad? In other words, have the event play out over many turns, and have it truly involve the player in an ongoing research sub-plot with a potentially big good/bad pay off.
Same goes for other phenomena. Maybe a star starts to flicker on the galaxy map. The player should be able to organize an investigation into why. After a lot of effort and money, it turns out the star is becoming unstable and now the player needs to lead an evacuation effort of the area. Again, another epic story arc that occurs as a random event and sweeps the player along.
And donít even get me started on the silly nature of combat in most 4X games. The sad reality is that modern warships have capabilities and engagement ranges far in excess of what is portrayed in just about all sci-fi games.
Unfortunately, it seems that 4X games have been poisoned by the soft sci-fi of Star Wars, where everything is a fleet battle with "pew pew" lasers, and no real science or sense of discovery to be found.