It is 1991. I am eagerly clicking my way into my copy of Populous II, recently purchased from WHSmith (can you imagine!) and Uncle John is watching over my shoulder. He observes for a while, and then says “just looks like a lot of clicking to me.” It is, I say, but there's something going on here, a struggle, a strategy.
It is 2013. I am eagerly clicking my way into my copy of Godus, recently purchased from Steam, and the internet is watching over my shoulder. It observes for a while and then comments “lol, just looks like a lot of clicking to me.” It is, I say, but there's something going on here. Isn't there? This time I am not so sure.
Qualifications first. Godus is in beta, and something like 40% complete, according to 22 Cans. There's going to be an in-game shop, which is not yet implemented, and there's a huge range of possible changes and new features that could be made in the coming weeks. It is very definitely a work in progress, and that seems to be reflected in most aspects of the game. This unfinishedness creates an exciting possibility space. Anything could happen in the next... 60%.
That said, the game is available for $20, and so therefore well within the purview of some critical discussion.
Godus is to be the “Regenesis Of The God Game”, apparently, and what that means is that it has a Populous-like aspect to it: you are interacting with the RTS-view world as a god, and doing things like altering the landscape, raising totems to direct your followers, and causing them to grow across the world so that you are more worshipped, and therefore more powerful. You have no direct control, other than getting them to gather at a totem when it's activated, and the little fellas depend on your rudimentary terraforming for their rolling urbanism. More powers are to come, obviously.
It's very attractive, I must say. The sort of low-poly flat shaded look works really well here. And there's something compulsive about that world. I want to open it all up. I think. But...
The basic process of expansion in Godus involves clearing space for settlements to be founded. When space exists, you can get a villager to go there, if they are nearby, by clicking on a previous settlement with a flag on it. Flagged settlements can eject someone. If that someone has to walk too far, or has nowhere to settle, they will eventually die.
Mana, too, plays an important part, and you can't landform or totem-throw without it. This must be manually collected from each house – they generate a tiny pink orbs from time to time, each with a value dependent on the size of the settlement – and eventually you will only collect when you need to, because that collection process involves a quite extraordinary amount of clicking. Except its not really extraordinary, because that's what these sorts of games involve. Populous was like this, as Uncle John observed, and I should not be surprised. But I still am, because all that clicking hasn't, so far, led to much.
I'm several hours in, and so far I have simply expanded from a beachy spur in the (very pretty) ocean, and into a hilly landscape. It's been grindingly slow. Things to do along the way largely involved pulling the layers of land about (which never feels fluid, and is like having something elastic stuck to your fingers, causing many a misclick to destroy a settlement) to make space for settlements, and occasionally to reveal resources that can be collected to unlock cards, which do something that's not really clear to me.
The most novel moment so far has been the "online" battles – launched via the discovery of some kind of monument - which involve being popped out of my world and into an "arena" situation with a perplexed Godus "player" (actually a slightly creepy bot), whose base I promptly swamp with my frenetically clicked-up swarm of worshippers. I'm a bit foggy as to what this is supposed to be about, or even why it is part of the single player game, but it unlocks lots of the cards, and is presumably an option for more rapid advance. Having crushed numerous "players" whose ability to play seemed AFK, I stopped going for battles. It just didn't feel right. And it was a little creepy to see the bot referring to its dad being out.
And so onwards my people expand. More little settlements, hundreds more pink bubbles, and so far no conflict or jeopardy of any kind. Well, there are occasionally wolves, but they are just a scrap of pixels that are ultimately meaningless in the scheme of things.
Where, then, is the struggle and the strategy? Are they really restricted to those arena battles with hapless randoms? Apparently there are to be "Other Peoples" in your world, but this must in the 60% of the game that's not yet in the beta.
It's important to remember that such delights are on the roadmap, but for now at least I am beginning to be haunted by not the ghost of Populous, but rather other games which require a lot of clicking. Games with little jeopardy, and plenty of things to collect. Free games, which appeared on a popular social networking site. It's a queasy feeling.
So I suppose - for now at least - it's just about the building. It's about the civilisation rising up and up. Which I suppose could work out, eventually. But I am not sure what it will take to reach that, or what that means in a game with no immediate jeopardy. How am I to keep going without challenge or danger?
From what I have seen so far, From Dust was a better tribe-inspirer, with far more interesting terraforming, and the clumsiness of the "online" aspects of Godus have put me off ever wanting to look at them again. Far from the richness of Godly action and indirect strategy I'd expect from a god game (let alone the “Regenesis” of the genre), I've yet to detect much of anything other than very slow, unimpeded expansion, and a gradual unlocking of a tech tree which makes only the most marginal of changes to what I see happening on the field of play. If I am god, then I am god of a very quiet little world.
Anyway. This bit is important, because it is the conclusion: we can make no firm judgement on Godus as yet. There is the largest part of the game still to come, including (presumably) the "real" online battles, the sense of challenge in the world, and doubtless a slicker and more satisfying opening section of the game. That the beta is so far disappointing might come from that great distance from the finishing line. That the beta is so far disappointing comes, perhaps, from expectation rather than reality. But sometimes reality does need to reach for expectation. It could still do so.
Oh God game, let us pray it does so.
Godus is available now via pre-purchase on Steam.