Godus - a review
I've commented on Godus before - well, okay, I've commented on an article on Godus before - but I wanted to hold fire until I'd given the thing a fair crack of the whip. I downloaded it on iOS last night and spent most of the evening messing around with it until now I feel like I've got the gist and can form an opinion.
I'll be honest though - it's not good.
Curiously, it's not good in a way I was entirely not expecting.
When you hit up the App Store, there it is in all it's Editor's Choice glory - as you'd expect, for something that has the Molyneux stamp on it. But you click on it and you're not presented with 22 Cans or Molyneux or anything like that.
That was my first worrying sign right there. Okay, it's mobile. Okay, it's F2P. I was expecting this. But I have an issue here - one that will crop up repeatedly over the course of this post. I shall enigmatically refer to it as the 'T' issue.
|Build, my minions! Build!|
The terrain is stylishly abstract. The stepped hills make a pleasant change from all of those hyper-realistic landscape engines. Oh hey - I'm as big a fan of From Dust's world as the next guy, but it's nice to see someone going a different way. The flat colours serve a purpose to denote both altitude and, subsequently, cost of modification - the sand layers are free, everything else uses resource. The lack of texture makes everything very clean.
I, like most gamers my age, probably bought in to the Godus idea as another of those 'spiritual successor' things that seem to be so popular these days*. This time it's Populous that's getting the reboot treatment and, given that Peter is one of a handful of people I'd say are qualified to give this a bash, I had high hopes. Not least of which because I kinda thought his vision on what makes Populous, was pretty well aligned with mine.
The God Game Genre
I don't think Populous has ever been done 'right' since the first one - for a variety of reasons. I say that having proudly worked on the second which, fun as it was, just wasn't quite there. Close, but it didn't quite capture the magic. Part of that was down to the more advanced technology**, but most of it was down to the inherent problems involved with balancing so many different effects.
For me, a God Game does several things a bit differently to other, similar games - something I've talked about previously. Core to this belief is the 'no direct control' rule. You are a God, not a General. You do not tell an individual person to go and do a thing. They decide to do it themselves. You influence the population. The minute you start micromanaging, you're in an RTS not a God Game.
So, Leashing is an instant black mark in my book. Thankfully, it's so wonderfully broken that it's not really something you ever use. At least, not something you ever use intentionally. More on that later.
Whilst we're on the subject of feeling like a God, Godus falls short there too. What kind of God scrabbles around in the dirt, digging up chests? Seems a bit... menial.
But back to the game.
The idea is sound. Provide flat land for your population to develop and thereby expand. Very Populous - we like that. At the start, it's all fine and dandy too. Plots are marked out and you turf Builders out of your buildings and off they go. Cool. Pretty soon, you'll have a nice little township developing. The way the map is laid out, you'll have a selection of tents then a ring of small huts then a ring of larger ones - provided, of course, you've managed to flatten out enough land.
There's part of me that misses the transient, fragile nature of the dwellings in Populous. They were always tailoring themselves to the surrounding landscape, meaning they were at risk every second from either a vengeful God, hell-bent on destruction or an errant one, over-zealously raising a new plot of land from the ocean and going just a shade too far. In Godus, once a house is built, it seems to stay built. At least it doesn't get destroyed if you modify the surrounding landscape - you have to wait until later to get effects that can blow stuff up. This means that the heart of my developing metropolis consists of ragged tents.
On the other hand, it does give the game a Settlers of the Stone Age, migratory feel to it. You can see where your tribe started and how it developed as a snapshot in time.
Each dwelling produces Belief, which is the resource used to do just about everything - landscape modification, Leashing, effects, etc. After the appropriate wait loop, a blob of Belief will appear above each house and you can tap on it to collect it. Or you can tap and hold on the first one, then drag your finger over each and every one of your houses, scooping up the pink stuff and playing out a tune. It's very compelling.
The tech tree annoyingly uses a card-based system. I say annoyingly - it's a fine system. It's just it's also thematically similar to what we've got in Super Glyph Quest... Well, to a point. Both use cards. Godus goes one step further. It's all very well to reach the point at which they give you an upgrade card but then you have to activate it. This entails sticking little resource stickers on it. Stick enough of the correct type of sticker on the card and it turns on, giving you all of its benefits. It's an interesting system, especially when you start picking up stickers with multiple resource types and values. Stickers are acquired by digging up those damn crates or sending your dudes out on a Voyage.
Voyages are like little quest arcs that see you solving a series of puzzle-based levels. It took a bit of getting in to, but these things are quite fun. It's like the Challenge levels in Populous II or, well, From Dust in micro. There's also a nice risk element there where you choose how many of your people to chance on each island. More people increases the chance of you getting the minimum number required to the target but any you lose won't be available for subsequent islands on this Voyage.
Another way of getting precious Stickers is to bite the bullet and spooge a bit of premium currency on the gacha and buy a Sticker Pack. In the name of science, I gave that a go. Half of my currency later and I've got a handful of bonus Stickers which is just enough to... not actually activate any of the cards I have. I've said before that I don't mind gachas at all. I like card packs or monster eggs or things like that. But it feels like the balancing on this is a bit out of whack. That felt like an awful lot of currency for not very much in return. 'T' issue takes another hit.
Sprogging*** people and watching them go about their business is fun enough and, despite the 'car park construction simulator' aspect of reducing the lovely terrain to a flat eyesore, makes for a cool-looking town. Especially when you get to the Settlements part where you can schmoosh together a bunch of buildings to form a single building that holds all of the same people but with a smaller footprint. These things look very cool indeed and open up farming for wheat...
|So much Belief to collect.|
Then there's the landscape modification itself. I was always a bit concerned about the smearing thing as I've yet to see that done well, but a touchscreen should be a wonderfully tactile way of doing it and probably represents the best chance of pulling it off. Also, the stepped landscape should really play in to this - giving you precise boundaries and avoiding the vagaries of analogue slopes.
But it doesn't.
The controls are so incredibly fuzzy it's ridiculously tricky to get the game to do what you want it to. At the very least, 1 in 10 swipes will lead to something unintentional happening. Given that these miss-swipes can easily drain your vital Belief, this borders on the criminal. It's the 'T' issue - and it's happening in the interface itself! There's almost zero feedback to inform you that whatever you're doing is draining this Belief too***** meaning you can find yourself entirely hamstrung.
This is the last thing I was expecting. I was really expecting to enjoy the minute-to-minute stuff whenever the F2P trappings would let me. Instead, I found myself in the curious position of finding the F2P stuff pretty inoffensive - even the gacha, as I think that's just the perils of early adopting a system that may well yet to be fine tuned. Well, up until the wheat thing at least, but that was a good few hours in to the game.
The final element of the game comes back to the F2P styling of it. That is, this is supposed to feel like my tribe. My kingdom. My towns. I dictate where they go and how they look. But it doesn't feel like that at all. I know that I'm only given stuff when the game says I should be and everyone else gets it at the same time. All of our empires end up looking the same and I don't actually have any authorship over the game at all. It doesn't really matter what I do. I can't get 'good' at the game. To do so would move me outside the various formulae and spreadsheets that are carefully managed to funnel me through the 'experience'. They rely on me doing the same thing as everyone else at the same time as everyone else. It's so constrained.
Sure, there's some wriggle room - especially when you have more cards than the Stickers required to activate them - but it's nothing like a game like Civ, for example, where two people can have two very different games and approaches.
The 'T' Issue
I don't Trust DeNA (or almost any F2P publisher) to produce a decent, original game and not just be in it for the money. Yes, it's a business, but it's also a craft. I've yet to see a single design decision based on increasing revenue actually improve the gameplay and I know that DeNA's view on making a game better simply equates to making more money. I want to give you money, but I want a decent game in return.
I don't Trust the game's rules. When something so fundamental as the rules for building your settlements can change in an instant, you really don't know where you stand. What's next? Buildings explode if you don't collect their Belief? Every second Tuesday, all of your people whose name begins with 'F' spontaneously combust? Who knows!
I don't Trust myself. I've got an idea in my head about what it is I want to do on the micro level. I want to flatten this bit of land so that guy can build a nice house. Brilliant plan. So all I need to do is drag that bit of land over there and we're good. So that requires a swipe. Like... no. Not like that. That's squished a tree. No, not like that either. That's moved a guy across the map and wiped out half of my resources. Nope, that's raised the land instead and formed an impassable barrier. I need to flatten that out again. Oh, but it keeps springing back because... ah yes. I've used up all my Belief in doing all of these incorrect things. I don't like not being able to trust my fingers to do the job at hand, even though it really doesn't feel like it's their fault at all. It really is like a lottery, and that's not what you want from an interface at all******.
Godus is a very frustrating experience.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in there but they all seem to fight against each other and it's like their interactions have not been properly thought out. The interface seems to actively fight against you and the paywall comes down with such a resounding thud that it actively changes the way the game plays.
I hear the PC version is a completely different beast but the iOS one is sketchy at best. Maybe I'll give that a try as I really want it to be a good game.
* Largely involving old Bullfrog IP, I've noticed.
** The ability to have more than one person on a landscape tile, for example.
*** An old, in-house term for turfing people out of houses. In Populous you had to engineer less land for the house, shrinking the house so that it was too full and had to boot out a person. In Populous II this was streamlined in to just clicking on the house itself.
**** Or removing the Creature...
***** The virtual stuff - the actual stuff you can feel leaving you in waves.
****** Unless your interface is for a lottery.