‘Civilization VI’: Comes as close to living up to expectations as possible

 

Anyone familiar with my reviews thus far, namely my two-part retrospective on Sid Meier’s Civilization V, will know my expectations going into Civilization VI were sky-high. Many traditionalist game reviewers will say that having such expectations is bad form, that to best report on the true essence and value of a game, one must approach it as though it were a totally blank slate, devoid of any prior conceptions or opinions. But such a robotic approach will alienate more people than it attracts – and sometimes it’s impossible to review a game without going heavy on prior opinions. Yes, I am a fan of the Civilization series, and I especially cherish that milestone in strategy gaming known as Civilization V. And I’m very happy to report that even if all of that wasn’t true, Civilization VI is a joy from beginning to end.

I was as skeptical as anyone when it came to the new art design. I was willing to give Firaxis the benefit of the doubt, but it certainly did feel like the development team was chasing after style at the expense of realism. Once I got in the game though, it didn’t feel distracting at all, and it becomes clear that the mission of making the game look as good in the micro as it did in the macro was certainly accomplished. The core gameplay will feel very familiar to the seasoned Civilization players – with cities as the foundation of your empire, you progress through the game using science and culture, facing off against other civilizations to expand, conquer and achieve victory. However, the new mechanics – while some may take some getting used to – add a new layer of depth to the game, and give the inner workings of your empire a feeling of interconnectedness as yet unachieved by previous installments.


Read Jon’s review of ‘NBA 2k17’


The biggest of these departures has to of course be the “unstacking” of cities, with new specialized districts and wonders taking up their own tile, and receiving boosts based on their placement. This is the first time in the Civilization series where the city is no longer fully self-contained, merely surrounded by a patchwork of farms and mines. Now, cities become highly specialized – as it is difficult to have any one city contain all of the available districts, plus any wonders you may wish to build. Campuses contain universities, libraries, etc. and provide science, Encampments hold armories, barracks, etc. and serve as military centers, and the list goes on. Now, building a city becomes a puzzle of matching districts to where they will be most productive as well as tending to the ever-present needs for food, production, luxuries, and all of the other usual necessities of life. With Civilization 6 already carrying over the much-loved features like trade routes, great works of art, and religion from Civilization V’s two expansions, the new district system feels like a logical progression to an already polished formula. Now, city planning is a real consideration and challenge, adding a layer to the game that greatly enhances the strategic elements of the game.

Speaking of the city, districts are not the only change to be found in Civilization VI. Instead of outright happiness – an important element to the gameplay of Civilization VI, now the rate at which your cities grow and your population increases is determined by two factors – amenities and housing. Amenities are accumulated through both having luxuries inside your borders and the buildings inside your Entertainment Complex districts. Housing, on the other hand, can only be gained two ways – by settling your city on a tile with high “appeal” (a measure of its attractiveness, from breathtaking to disgusting”), and, starting the Industrial Era, building neighborhoods, effectively acting as suburbs for your crowded and bustling cities. This means that the level of success your city can possibly achieve is in part determined before it is ever even settled, and giving the phrase “location, location, location” a new meaning in this series.

The game is also littered with small new features that make the game more accessible and interesting, such as the ability to drop pins on the map – marking the locations of things you may want to build in the future. There are also plenty of different menus to view every useful metric and statistic, as well as Eureka moments that boost your scientific research, a separate tech and culture tree, roads being automatically generated by trade routes and plenty more. Going back to only 20 civilizations to choose from may feel a bit jarring after playing Civilization V, which at the end of its lifespan had about 40. However, with leaders now having different agendas and a much-revamped government system, the reduction of civilizations themselves is deftly made up for with all there is to do with the Civilizations that are present.

In usual Firaxis fashion, the attention to detail in Civilization VI is impressive. The new theme music is a worthy successor to the much beloved Civilization IV theme “Babba Yetu,” and the music for the civilizations themselves is well composed and memorable – with the tunes growing and evolving with the ages, instead of staying static throughout the game.  The graphics are crisp and sharp, and any newcomer to the series wouldn’t have too difficult of a time learning the ropes. Of the new features, from the new district system to the revamped policy/government system to the ability to do something as simple as combine individual military units into larger armies – everything is well adapted into the game and don’t feel like the jarring new additions they easily could have.

So, in the end it seems Civilization 6 is poised to reach the same heights as its esteemed predecessors. The old maxim among Civilization fans, “just one more turn”,  you will be repeating a lot as Civilization VI continues to mature and grow into something even greater than it is now.


Read Jon’s review of ‘Battlefield 1’


‘NBA 2k17’: The winner by mercy rule

To be perfectly honest, I have hardly any prior experience with the NBA 2k series. I have played it at friends’ houses over the years, and understood that it was the widely accepted exemplar of the yearly basketball game releases (the competition being EA’s NBA Live series), but that was pretty much it. Much like my interest in the sport of basketball itself, I’ll watch it if it’s on, but I’ll rarely seek it out.

Upon seeing the trailer for NBA 2k17, thoughsomething intrigued me. Not only was it a chance to get into a new sports series, but it was also widely anticipated to be the deepest and most well-polished sports game of the year. So I went into the game with an open mind and healthy expectations – and was not disappointed. The entry from the 2K Sports publishing house strived to provide the deepest sports simulation in recent memory and, for all intents and purposes, achieved it.

NBA 2k17 is more than just a basketball game; rather, it’s an all-around interactive experience for all things NBA. Every angle is covered, from a story mode based around rising to stardom from your college days to the pros, to MyGM and MyLeague modes that let you play with and manage all of the inner workings of the NBA including expansion teams and the yearly draft, to a trading card-esque Ultimate Team mode, to good old fashioned Blacktop gameplay and PvP mode. Starting off with the story mode, I was blown away with the slim but well-polished narrative, proving that not only can sports games have stories, but good ones that are both entertaining and involving. You start off looking back on your high school team days, before picking which college to attend to play basketball there, and finally being drafted into an NBA team to play in the pros. Throughout the story, you navigate the ins-and –outs of your career, with pressures to succeed both on the court and off. The story not only serves as a decent narrative, but also gradually ups the ante on the skills you need to succeed, the challenge starting in college and continuing to grow in the NBA. The voice acting by Michael B. Jordan and Hannibal Buress is great, and the story makes for an all-around satisfying experience.


Read Jon’s review of ‘Battlefield 1’


The most touted new feature in NBA 2k17 though is of course the MyGM and MyLeauge modes, which have slightly differing goals but equally impressive execution. MyGM is focused on running the day-to-day operations of an NBA team, handling the draft, managing players, dealing with other teams, impressing the owner and ultimately building a championship-worthy team. MyLeague however, offers you total control of the entire NBA, giving a range of customization options unheard of in any sports game I’ve ever seen. Not only can you manage the day-to-day operations of the league, but you can also create expansion teams, allowing you to create up to 6 new teams in the United States and Canada, with a wide range of cities to choose from. Then, you can design every part of those new teams, like the name, logo, stadium type, court design, uniforms, and even different sound effects to be played in the stadium during games. This part in particular blew me away, becoming nearly as fun as the basketball itself.  The level of control and customization present in these two modes is immense, and designing different expansion teams especially promise hours upon hours of customizing fun.

But NBA 2k17 hardly stops there. The level of detail in usually mundane modes such as one-off matchups against teams is impressive, as not only can you play as NBA teams but also Euro League and historical teams (such as the ’95-’96 Bulls), but every detail, including the pregame show and commentary featuring the likes of Shaquille O’Neil and Chris Webber are present and polished as well. Ultimate Team is a fun, if not exactly revolutionary take on the old card-trading mix-and-match style game mode one would usually find in games like Madden NFL, and playing with your handmade character on the blacktop or in the arena is always a fun 1 on 1 with friends. The visuals are crisp and clear, and the music does a good job of setting the tone. If god is in the details, then NBA 2k17 has every base covered.

And all of that really is a testament to just how much this game brings to the table. I came in cautiously optimistic, with only tepid levels of interest in the series and the sport it is based around, and the and now it’s one of my most thoroughly enjoyed games of the year. The story is well thought out, MyGM and MyLeague offer all of the customization and traditional NBA antics you could want, and all of the smaller modes bring something to the table where they could just as easily faded into the background. NBA 2k17 delivered on its promise to be the deepest sports game of the year, and I think it sets a strong example that other sports title developers (*cough* EA *cough*) could and should follow.


Read Jon’s review of ‘Killing Floor 2’


 

‘Battlefield 1’: Believe the hype

battlefield1Only a few times in a year does a big-budget, heavy hitter of a game truly live up to the level of hype it had received leading up to its release.  These days, most blockbuster titles (especially in the crowded FPS market) fail to meet expectations altogether – leading to frustrated fans and the further erosion of faith in the big cornerstone publishers. Even more rare, happening maybe once or twice in a year will a new big-name release not only meet, but exceed the already sky high expectations of its fans. I am very happy to report that that is exactly what EA and the DICE team have managed to accomplish with Battlefield 1. In terms of what a first-person shooter can be, it is difficult to describe Battlefield 1 as much less than a masterclass in how to take a risk and turn a little-explored era in video games – the First World War – into the new flagship game of the genre. While not completely without fault, Battlefield 1 manages not to throw the baby out with the bathwater – it seamlessly incorporated the lessons learned in what made Battlefield 4 and its predecessors so successful, while also bringing in some new mechanics that refreshes the formula and keeps the series famous dramatic, big-battle multiplayer exciting in the new setting. The end result is a game that challenges the notion that big studios like EA are incapable of evolution in their established properties. Battlefield 1 is helping to broaden the horizons of the FPS genre, one tank, biplane and bolt-action rifle at a time.

The stories and campaigns have rarely been the highpoints of games in the Battlefield series. However, Battlefield 1 has taken an innovative step to avoid the same pitfall that Battlefield 4 and prior games have fallen into story wise – just ditch the contrived, drawn out plot altogether. Instead of tasking the writers with coming up with a whole story populated with white bread, uninspiring characters fighting in strictly choreographed battles against an unbelievable enemy with increasingly over the top set pieces, Battlefield 1 does what seems obvious but really isn’t in the FPS genre these days – using the time period the game is set in, actually tell some of the stories of the soldiers whose experiences came to define the war. These short vignettes of real stories from the “war to end all wars” not only make the single-player campaign a compelling alternative to what would typically be considered a multiplayer dominated game, but provides a much needed narrative in a genre notorious for playing up the pomp and circumstance of war and romanticizing battle, at the expense of showing just how futile and merciless fighting a war really is. Going into this game, many observers were worried that the developers of Battlefield 1 would fall into the old Call of Duty trope of us vs. them, oversimplifying the true horrors of a war as unthinkable as WWI, to make it more palatable to the average person looking to buy the game. Play through the first 5 minutes though, and those concerns could immediately be put to rest as the player is thrust into the short collection of mini-missions that make up the prologue – an experience that the game openly tells the player they are not expected to survive. A crash course in just some of the horrors that awaited the average soldier on the frontlines of this war, whether it be the ceaseless machinegun fire, the artillery barrages, the impossible to survive charges into no-man’s land and of course, the poison gas.


Read Jon’s review of ‘Killing Floor 2’


Over the course of the six story arcs we are introduced to the six different characters we play as – a cast that well reflects both the well-known stories and the silent heroes of the First World War, from the British tank driver in France to the Bedouin woman taking up arms to aid in the efforts of T.E Lawrence, a.k.a Lawrence of Arabia. With all of the pieces taken together, Battlefield 1 strikes a marvelous balance with its approach to a story driven campaign. It highlights acts of true heroism and bravery without beating its chest or shying away from the difficult realities of the war, it offers up actually compelling characters whose triumphs and struggles carry real weight as opposed to the meathead protagonists one would often see in other FPS campaigns, the writing stays strong throughout all 6 stories while also keeping the action intense, and where many games veer into tokenism,  the cast of characters here all have a clear and important purpose while also maintaining an impressive diversity.

But of course, the main selling point of any contemporary Battlefield game is its big, loud, cinematic 64-player battles. On this front as well, Battlefield 1 does not disappoint. From its impressive collection of era appropriate weapons to the huge scope of its dynamic maps to its many fully operable vehicles to its multileveled nature incorporating land, air and sea, Battlefield 1 unsurprisingly sets the bar for what can be accomplished in any sort of multiplayer game,  period.  The action, whether it be trying to hold the flags in Conquest or simply to hunt down the other team in Team Deathmatch is explosive, and the smallest details to the big new “Behemoth” mechanic (Massive vehicles that interact with the map such as armored trains, a battleship, or a giant airship) are all sublime. Nothing quite beats the thrill of jumping into a biplane and getting into a dogfight with an enemy player, or smashing through the walls of a building in a tank, or leading an assault on an enemy stronghold on foot. Every game is dynamic and varied, and each map offers its own quirks and challenges. All told, there are so many variables to the cause and effect of each battle that every match feels new and fresh.

Battlefield 1’s greatest crime is that there simply isn’t more of it. Both the single and multiplayer modes offer an improvement over what has been seen both earlier in the series and in the genre as a whole, and in virtually every way this game is pushing the boundaries of how a time-tested formula can be improved and innovated on without sacrificing any of what made it great in the first place. There is still the occasional bug or glitch in the multiplayer, but hardly anything that distracts from the gameplay. The visuals are sharp, the framerate is smooth, the interface is easy to navigate, the controls take little experience to learn and the music perfectly sets the tone for the game. I’m looking forward to all there is yet to see from this game, and hope that other franchises in the FPS genre will take a lesson from what is working here. Where most games fail to live up to expectation, Battlefield 1 is certainly the exception and not the rule.

Killing Floor 2: Major Improvements, Minor Glitches

 

Killing-Floor-2-feature Killing Floor is one those franchises that always seems the most poised to turn the zombie-shootout formula on its head. The original Killing Floor (2009) wasn’t in itself revolutionary by any measure, with rudimentary graphics, thin plot and somewhat repetitive gameplay compared with its contemporary FPS games. Despite this, the game managed to become a stalwart best-seller following its rollout on Steam, won several awards and to this day has sold over 3 million copies. How? Because for all of its flaws, Tripwire Interactive’s original Killing Floor managed to capture a niche in the crowded zombie sub-genre and work with what it was given. That niche was the all-out, no-holds-barred survival shooter that throws you right into the action and doesn’t let up. Not only did it work, but it helped to create the grittier and more think-on-your-feet zombie genre in video games that is now being replicated elsewhere. So, Killing Floor 2 has some big shoes to fill. After spending some time with the game and trying out its various new features, I think it’s safe to say that this latest installment has put in some effort to address the shortcomings of the original, while keeping the winning Killing Floor formula intact.

Gameplay is very similar to the original. Playing solo or cooperatively with up to six players, you are dropped into a map to survive waves of the undead. The style is just as the original was: loud and fast, with plenty of blood, guts and general monstrosities to go around. Outside of the character you play as, Killing Floor 2 seems to have abandoned any pretext of a plot or single-player story, in favor of strictly focusing on the multiplayer aspects of the game. There is a class system, each with its own perks, skill boosts and upgrade path. You can also customize your favorite character with different outfits and unlockables, making them feel a bit more personal. Through gameplay you gain experience points, which can later be redeemed for class-specific upgrades, including those that can benefit team members.

In game, different types of zombies (called “Zeds”) can appear depending on which wave you’re on, and enough successive waves culminates in a boss fight. In addition, the enemy count scales with the number of players in game, and since a patch released earlier this year has introduced “dynamic difficulty”, meaning that the computer can determine the strength of the next wave depending on your team’s performance in the current one. Random weapons and armor can be found throughout the levels, though there is a limited amount you can carry at once. Finally, if you are killed during a wave, you cannot respawn until that wave is defeated. If your whole team is killed during a wave, its game over. Music-wise, I hope you like rock and metal, because there is a lot of it here. The soundtrack certainly sets the tone for the frantic survival gameplay.

That’s all well and good, you might think, but is the game actually worth buying? Well, Killing Floor 2 isn’t perfect. The game’s overall fidelity  is clearly designed with more powerful PC’s in mind, meaning those with normal consumer computers will probably be disappointed. The graphics, online matchmaking (I often found myself getting dropped into dead-end lobbies and lobbies that were already full), and general little details still aren’t perfect, but I think if you enjoyed the original Killing Floor and have a more performance–oriented computer, you will probably get the same kick out of 2.

The number of improvements the game brings over its predecessor is notable though, such as more maps, a new player-vs.-player mode, breakable objects, integration with the Steam Workshop, higher frame rate and more detailed animations. Further, the new progression system makes for less grinding for upgrades and more customization. Also important is the unranked multiplayer setting, allowing for open use of mods in Multiplayer. Although there are some micro-transactions available in the game, they don’t seem to affect gameplay.

So Killing Floor 2 isn’t re-inventing the wheel as I thought it might. It has its key improvements, as well as its fair share of drawbacks. Like its predecessor, it isn’t itself especially remarkable, but it and games like it will continue to set the tone for the zombie genre games to come. It comfortably occupies the run-and-gun niche Killing Floor did, and that same basic formula that made Killing Floor successful in the first place is definitely here. At $30 on the Steam store, I’d call it a good buy if you are looking to scratch your co-op survival itch. Provided, of course, you don’t mind a little gore.

Killing Floor 2 is currently in Early Access on the Steam store. It is due to be released November 18th.

 

Civilization V, Part 2: Where we’re going

 

civ vIf you read last week’s installment, you won’t be surprised when I say I love Civilization V to pieces. As a strategy game it is pure bliss. Detailed, yet digestible. Powerful, yet light. You can pick up and put down each game with ease, and each time you play means a different saga exactly as you want. I love the Gods and Kings and Brave New World expansions, and I even loved the often beleaguered Vanilla version. It’s the rare game that actually manages to get get more fun the more plays you give it, and where there is very little barrier to separate the veterans from the newcomers. But there is also a glaring fact to contend with: Civilization V is now 6 years old. Though three of those years have been spent building on the game through DLC and expansions, the fact remains: any successful series needs to keep moving forward. So let’s examine the next steps: both Civilization: Beyond Earth and what we’ve heard so far about the next installment, the hotly anticipated Civilization 6.

Beyond Earth was a new direction for the franchise. Its unique future setting signifies a spiritual successor to another Sid Meier title, Alpha Centauri from 1999, but it most certainly stands alone. Because it is built from the Civilization V engine,  its base concepts will be familiar. Co-lead designer David McDonough described the relationship between the two games by saying, “The bones of the experience are very much recognizably Civ. The idea of the cities, city-based progression, leaders, the passage of time, tiles, turns, building improvements, technologies. A lot of them are very familiar themes to the Civ player.”

The big differences, though, are immediately apparent. The game takes place not during the history of Earth, but on an alien planet years after human colonizers/refugees left our planet in the wake of “The Great Mistake”. As such, you don’t assume the role of an historic leader, but a fictional one of a futuristic superstate. In a way, it is almost like build-your-own civ: You chose which ship you take as well as who and what you bring with you, each decision coming with its own benefits and limitations.

Once you land on the planet you choose, there is more marvel at. The music and artistic direction is extremely well-developed and ambient, and the different alien creatures (who fill the “barbarians” role from V) are sure to intrigue and intimidate on at least your first play-through. Possibly the biggest departure gameplay-wise from V though is the transition from a semi-linear “tech tree” to a widely branching “tech web”. In my opinion, while the tech web doesn’t take away from the overall game, it isn’t really an improvement on the formula either. While it adds customizability, it is just really complex and makes it difficult to figure out your priorities in advance.

Most other things will be familiar. You still build civilian and military units, and trading, espionage, diplomacy, and most other features of V are present in Beyond Earth. Culture is now grouped into Affinities, which are overarching ideologies which push your civilization in a certain direction throughout the game. Victory can be attained by building the final project of the affinity you chose, or by the classic “Domination” victory, by crushing the other colonies and being the last civilization standing. Also, there is the “Rising Tide” expansion for the game, which among other small improvements added floating cities and hybrid affinities. So, the verdict all of this exposition? I enjoyed Beyond Earth, but it just doesn’t have the replayability of V.

There is hope on the horizon – the very long awaited Civilization VI comes out this October. The true successor is finally here. So what do we know so far? The two biggest departures that we have seen are the art style, which the developers said their hope was to look as good up close as it does far way as compared to V, and the new “unstacking of the cities”. Whereas every building in V existed inside cities, now certain buildings can be spun off into districts, which exist just outside of the city center and provide certain bonuses for their position. For instance, one of your cities could be science-focused, it can host the “academy” district (which would contain a university, public school, observatory, etc). In addition to this, we know religion and cultural policies are returning, we will have new diplomatic tools, overland trade units can now build roads between the cities they serve, and there will be a new religious victory in addition to all of the familiar ones. Instead of workers taking a certain amount of turns to construct an improvement, now they can construct it instantly but can only build so many before disbanding. As well, Wonders are now also built outside of city limits and the developers are bringing back the much-loved short wonder-construction films as well as a brand new day-night cycle. Is seems the only feature that will not be present in VI that was present in V is the “World Congress”, which will likely be replaced by something similar in DLC or Expansions.

I love what we’ve seen from VI so far. From the trailers to the individual civilization reveals to the gameplay demos, everything seems in order to make for a great installment in the Civilization series. At this point, I can only ask one thing: Please keep Mod and Multi-player support an integral part of the game. The developers have already said some very encouraging things about Multi-Player in VI, stating that in addition to standard games, you may now be able to play shorter historical scenarios, meaning that you won’t have to commit hours upon hours to a single game. And as for Mods, the developers have stated that they are very aware of the dedicated Civilization community and want to keep it easy for modders to add content to the Steam Workshop.

Civilization V, Part 1: Where We Are

civ v

Civilization as a series truly is the grandfather of PC strategy games. Since 1991, we have been transfixed by our computer screens, choosing a civilization and guiding it throughout human history, from the invention of basic agriculture to the technologies of the future. We have built great cities, created cultures and religions, and changed the face of the Earth every time we played. For history buffs like me, there is no purer form of poetry: creating a new human timeline just as you want it, every time. Sid Meier’s series reaches a previously unmatched balance: balance between in-depth simulation and fun.

However, there was always a degree of separation between Firaxis Games’ past Civilization releases and the player themselves. Yes, you are controlling everything your empire does, but due to graphical and system limitations, you never really felt a part of your own decisions. Everything was flat, as if you were looking at the world on a map and just reacting to changes, not causing change. If Civilization wanted to keep its venerated status at the top of the strategy gaming world, something needed to change – in fact, a lot of things needed to change. In order for Civilization to stay relevant, designer Jon Shafer needed to re-invent it. And so, in 2010, it did.

Comparing Civilization IV to Civilization V feels a bit like comparing a record player to an iPod touch. It feels as though in the only 5-year difference between the two games, the actual presentation and gameplay has jumped forward a generation. The improvements in the base game alone (disregarding the two massive expansions “Gods and Kings” and “Brave New World” which we’ll get into later) are almost too numerous to count as compared to the previous iteration. Not only is the presentation now beautiful between the graphics, aesthetic, music and attention to detail, but gameplay has also been significantly improved from IV to V.

The basic premise of V will feel quite familiar to seasoned Civilization players: You chose one of 18 civilizations you want to play as, and you start off at the beginning of society with only a settler, warrior and a knowledge of farming to your name. Once you settle your first city, you can start producing everything vital to your progression in the game, such as science (to gain knowledge of new technologies), culture (to add special bonuses to your government), faith (in the hopes of gaining a great prophet and founding a religion), and units and buildings. Every building you create throughout the game exists in your cities, making them the foundation in your empire. Your military units keep you safe from barbarians, and defend you lands in the event of a war with another civilization. Your civilian units can be everything from builders to trade units, making sure your empire continues to grow and runs smoothly. Over the course of the game, your empire will grow and get more complex with multiple cities and lots of science and culture, and diplomacy will grow more complex as the worlds gets more and more thoroughly explored. By the Renaissance/Industrial era, you should begin to consider which victory you are gearing towards, either Science, Diplomatic, Cultural, Domination, or Time.

First off of the notable new features, now there are “city states” which act as one-city minor civilizations that depending on their orientation (cultural, militaristic, or maritime) can offer you unique bonuses if allies with you, or a reliable friend if going to war against a common foe.  Also new is the imposition of the one unit per tile rule, removing the “stacks of death” that annoyed and angered players from earlier games and adding a new aspect of challenge to your military management. Now that the board is organized into hexagons instead of squares, you must find ways to maneuver fewer units around the enemy and make sure that every military formation is well thought out, so as to make the most of the units that you have. This results in combat that is more satisfying than ever before, feeling more like a game of chess than simply a matter of my-numbers-are-bigger-than-yours. In addition, there is now an online Multi-Player option, which means for the first time you can enjoy empire-building with you friends or just random people from around the world whenever you want.

In addition, Civilization V brings back compatibility with the Steam Workshop, allowing for an extremely robust collection of community built mods that can add everything from new scenarios, civilizations, maps and even gameplay features to your game. However, it is important to mention that Civilization V had over the course of 3 years since launch added two fantastic expansions called “Gods and Kings” and “Brave New World” which taken together introduced the religion system, espionage, improved AI, updated diplomacy features, tourism, trade, ideology and 18 entirely new civilizations to the base game. Together, the expansions are the difference between making Civilization V a good game or a great game. So, before you go crazy on the Steam Workshop, I would heartily recommend getting the expansions first.

All told, I could write an entire article just on why I love this game and the level of simulation it achieves, but now I just want to give you, the reader, a taste of what the game is like. Honestly, Civilization V, on account of its sheer scope and range of replay-abilityis a very difficult game to review, and just this short piece is not enough to do it justice. And even now, I’ve only had an opportunity to scratch the surface of all the improvements that V has made over its predecessor. However, do not despair! There is a second part to this review, dedicated solely to where the series goes from here, and some old and new features we want to see in Civilization VI (coming out October 21, 2016). Until then, enjoy building a civilization to stand the test of time!

(To be continued …)

Wolfenstein: The New Order Revives the 1P Shooter

Wolfenstein_The_New_Order_coverIt’s a grim world. There is nothing left but uniformity and conformation to dictated norms. All independent thinkers and dissidents have been forced out, and all that remains is more of the same drudgery, day in and day out. Indeed it would seem to be a world under occupation, with no hope left in sight.

This is not the world of Bethesda Softworks’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, at least not yet. The world I am describing now is that of the First Person Shooter genre, and how for the past five years it seems all the vitality has been sucked out of what was once the reliable backbone of the video gaming world. The same stories, told in the same ways, over and over again. The same dull tropes, the same tired dialogue, and the all-too-predictable twists. Call of Duty has lately become an easy target, but it is far from the only one to have twisted the FPS genre in pursuit of greater and greater profit. However, in the midst of all this, there is still some hope. Every once in a while, when you least expect it, a diamond in the rough appears. From the most unlikely of places, a breath of fresh air to reassure the world that excellent, big-budget FPS games are still possible. And that is what brings us to Wolfenstein: The New Order. Here we find a game that doesn’t feel the need sacrifice a compelling story for thrilling action, nor huge, eye-popping settings with heart-pounding, close-quarters combat. I often hesitate to refer to a game of any genre of “having it all”, but if Wolfenstein: The New Order doesn’t meet that description, it at least comes very, very close.

The gameplay is straightforward: In addition to a wide variety of weaponry options, there are also melee attacks and a cover system to accommodate any playstyle, from stealth kills to guns-a-blazing. Every gun has a secondary fire function that can be unlocked throughout the game (rocket launchers, laser cutters, etc.), and most weapons can be dual-wielded. Health is collected in increments, and you can upgrade your health bar throughout the game as well.

To be perfectly clear though, the true magic of Wolfenstein: The New Order is in its setting and story. The game’s prologue takes place in 1946, during a last-ditch Allied air raid on the castle headquarters of General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, the Nazi’s head of secret weaponry. In this timeline, after the events of Wolfenstein (2009) the Nazi’s have become the undisputed masters of advanced military technology and have turned the tide of the war. Thanks to the diabolical inventions of Strasse such as hulking armored dogs the size of a car, nuclear weapons, super soldiers, and tower-sized robots that seem straight out of War of the Worlds, the Soviets have been sent into full retreat and the rest of Europe has been subdued. The British and Americans know that if they can’t kill Strasse in this raid, then they will soon meet a similar fate. Here we meet our main protagonist: Captain William Blazkowicz, accompanied by pilot Fergus Reid and infantryman Probst Wyatt III. After crash-landing on the beach, the team proceeds on foot to infiltrate the castle. However, they are eventually captured and are brought face-to-face with Strasse, who makes the player choose which of the other two he will kill in front of them. This choice affects how certain mechanics function throughout the game, as the person who is spared will appear later on in the story.  After narrowly escaping the castle’s incinerator, Blazkowicz suffers a major head injury, which leads to a coma that lasts 14 years.

When the player awakes, they learn that the year is 1960 and the Nazi’s have won the war. He is informed that the United States surrendered shortly after an atomic bomb was dropped on New York in 1948, and that the Nazi’s now control nearly every corner of the globe, turning it into a warped dystopia. With the help of Anya, the Polish nurse who assisted Blazkowicz during his coma, you find you way to Berlin to reconnect with what’s left of the Kreisau Circle, including breaking out of prison the person you chose to save 14 years prior. As the game progresses, the world under Nazi rule is revealed, taking the player from Berlin to a forced labor camp in Croatia, to a still rebelling London, to a Nuclear-powered U-Boat to Gibraltar and even to the Nazi’s expansive moon base in pursuit of the launch codes to the nuclear weapons that will be used to destroy the Nazi war machine. This is all accompanied with thrilling combat with Strasse’s new and more terrifying weapons and soldiers, and set pieces that actually reward exploration and offer multiple pathway’s to the objective. At the end of the story, Blazkowicz defeats Strasse in a climactic final battle, though sustaining mortal wounds himself. He decides to sacrifice himself in order to complete the mission, and the last words of the story is him mentally reciting “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.

Throughout all of this, you feel an actual connection with the characters you are fighting alongside, who, unlike the usual one-note FPS protagonists whose dialogue is as thin as paper, raise some thought-provoking questions about the cost of war and its many unforeseen consequences. Throughout the game a certain feeling is hammered home –the fight you take part in is an inherently unfair one. Instead of trying to single-handedly bring down Nazi rule, your fight is just to survive the harsh new realities of the world.

And so, Wolfenstein: The New Order is blazing the trail for the next generation of FPS games that will break the mold and end the stagnation that has become the hallmark of the genre in these past few years. And that is the true brilliance of MachineGames, the developers of Wolfenstein: The New Order. That a game can contain as much narrative heft AND impactful action is a rare occurrence.

Tropico 5 Will Leave You Lonely

Being the all-seeing and all-controlling dictator of an island paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At first I suppose it was amusing enough, pulling the strings from the shadows in order to gain political control and expand my various industries. But now I’m left with a positive budget, a fat Swiss bank account and a dearth of things to actually do. Such is the story of Tropico 5, a game that I had such high hopes for, but in the end left me wanting more. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is Tropico 5? It’s an interesting hybrid of the 4x style of strategy (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) and your usual city builder with an admittedly exotic, tropical texture. It is no secret that the whole Tropico series strives to feel very Cuban in its aesthetic, from the music to the flow of history. However, the island you actually control in the game is entirely fictional. You play the role of El Presidente, and you have only one ultimate goal in the game: Stay in power.

You guide your island through four eras: the  colonial period, the World Wars, the Cold War, and modern day. As such, each era has its own unique traits. In the colonial period, you must appease mandates from the Crown while also sowing the seeds of independence on the island and, by extension, your own ascendancy. When the World Wars break out, there are pressures to ally yourself with either the Allies or the Axis, or build up an army big enough to withstand invasion from either or both. The Cold War is the heart of the game, as it has always been in the Tropico series. Here the great factions of the World Wars give way to the world’s pre-eminent superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only will you have to make strategic decisions with whom you will align, but you will have to resist the subversive activities both will attempt in order to gain influence over your island. The influence of corporations and international trade becomes a much bigger factor in the Cold War, meaning your industry and tourism will have to undergo massive expansion and modernization to keep up. This is, unsurprisingly, where the game most strongly satirizes the classic Tropico subtext of the old “banana republics” of the mid- 20th century.  The tongue-in-cheek humor is effective as usual (it’s a trademark of the Tropico series), despite referencing the grim subjects of neocolonialism, totalitarianism, and electoral fraud. Finally, the modern era offers the new challenges associated with globalism, such as new world powers and powerful internal forces. Throughout the game you have to explore and develop your island, maintain the budget, raise a militia in case rebels attack or the military stages a coup, stay popular with your citizens, appease the local factions (Communists, Capitalists, the Religious, Intellectuals, Militarists, etc.), approve edicts, and add to you island’s constitution, which can greatly affect how your citizens and the outside world regard you.

But, outside of a general overview, there are a number of things that were supposed to set this installment apart from previous iterations in the Tropico series. While both the Era system and the constitution feature are new additions, the big selling point for Tropico 5 was the new multiplayer mode. In theory, up to four people could build their separate cities on the same island and choose to either cooperate or compete. In practice though, after waiting for an hour for the multiplayer servers to liven up, I got nothing to show for it. Unless you and a friend plan in advance to be on the server at the same time and play together, I wouldn’t count on getting anything out of the multiplayer.

So does the single player alone make the game worth $25? I can’t in good conscience say it does. While the game delivered almost everything it promised, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no actual progress had been made from Tropico 4. In fact, it felt like s regression. On the technical side, 5 had the same graphics and overlay of its predecessor, yet I found that unlike in Tropico 4 where the progression through the game felt natural and easy to just pick up and play, Tropico 5 felt like a laundry list of tasks with just a sprinkling of what made Tropico great in the first place mixed in between. The challenge was sparse, and the game has long spells of calm that further cause the player to want to just push the story forward. The addition of the constitution is positive, but the eras just feel like an arbitrary distraction from the main focus of the game. And worse yet, I encountered more bugs and glitches in a limited amount of time with Tropico 5 than I ever did with Tropico 4. (Not to mention one very annoying bug that locked me out of my main save file, meaning I had to go back to the beginning and start again with an entirely new character.)

The team at Haemimont Games tried to fix something that wasn’t broken, and lost some of that Tropico wit and charm in the process.

Democracy 3, Pizzazz 0

 

Democracy 3 is almost exactly as you would expect: a complex, interweaving simulation of policy, crisis management and electioneering. Although this setup might appeal to someone like me who prefers a slower-paced, methodical game, I have no illusions that this entry will appeal to anyone outside that niche. Democracy 3 has a lot going for it, but in some ways its limited target demographic and emphasis on substance over style may be its downfall.

The setup of the game is simple enough. You start by choosing the country you’ll be operating in (U.S., France, U.K., Canada, Japan or Australia), then configure the circumstances of that nation (such as the ruling/opposition parties, natural disasters, etc.)  to determine the tenor of your simulation. Then, you are dropped into the game as the head of the new ruling party as you familiarize yourself with the issues of the day. The backbone of the game is determining polices and adjusting government spending through the use of political capital, which is generated through your cabinet. Each of your cabinet ministers has a set of interests and political sympathies, making their management an integral part of the game. You can reshuffle your cabinet and install new ministers, but be careful to make sure what you are giving up is worth what you are getting: if your policy priorities stray too far from the interests of a particular minister, they will resign and your political capital will decrease until they can be replaced. Not to mention there is also a loyalty meter, making ministers that agree with you more often or have been with you longer more effective at carrying out your directives.

The main challenge of the game is demographics.Depending on the settings you choose, there will be an election looming in two to four years from the outset of the game and the game progresses three months each turn. Almost every demographic distinction is represented in some way throughout the game such as political factions (liberal vs. conservative), fiscal differences (wealthy vs. poor), age (young vs. retirees) and special interests like environmentalists, farmers, labor unions, big business and state employees. Every policy you enact or alter has positive and negative effects of different sections of society, meaning that much of the game is posturing and consensus building in anticipation of the election.

There are also random disasters that will require your response to throughout the game, from assassination attempts to earthquakes and hurricanes. It is important to keep an eye on situations as they develop, as they could have a profound effect on the game later on. In addition, it’s important to watch the budget: it costs less political capital to change the budget on a certain policy than it does to raise or lower a specific tax, so be careful your political agenda isn’t running away with the state checkbook. It is very easy to govern based on one’s person convictions but beware – if your popularity with certain demographics drops below a certain point – it will only strengthen the opposition party.

Democracy 3 sports its fair share of flaws.  The game’s novelty wears thin quickly and sucks the fun out of running your own country. In that way, the simulation may work almost too well, plenty of serious decisions and administrative issues, but there’s a certain polish that separates the good games from the great games that just isn’t here. The political capital system can feel arbitrary and annoying, but turning it off just sucks all the challenge out of game, making the thrill wear off even more quickly. The in-game models are strange-looking, the music is droning and at the end of the day you spend most of the game just looking at bubbles meant to represent the issues on the screen, and not doing much else. Also, there is library of mods for Democracy 3 is still growing, which means for the moment you are mostly stuck with what comes out of the box. My best consumer advice for this game is this: wait until it goes on sale, buy it at the reduced price and expect to get a few good hours out of it, and not much after that.

And even then, that is assuming you are in the market for this kind of game in the first place. For someone like me who loves simulation games and politics, this was an easy sell. But if even I couldn’t find much love for this one, I doubt someone who doesn’t enjoy either of those things would. Democracy 3 is a game with admirable intentions that I can easily respect, and the bones of a great game are definitely present, but in the end the follow through just isn’t there. I hope that if there should be a Democracy 4, it can take would did work from Democracy 3 and build on it to make it the game it deserves to be. Until then, the search for a political simulation game that is both realistic and truly enjoyable continues. I’m sure it must be out there somewhere.

Don’t Be Afraid of ‘Hearts of Iron IV’

Even as an avid strategy game fan, I was intimidated when I first watched Hearts of Iron IV gameplay. The level of detail it was trying to achieve struck me as overbearing, unnecessary and, frankly, dull. Hearts of Iron IV is a “grand strategy” game, a subgenre of strategy that has recently seen a big resurgence in popularity with other Paradox Games series such as Europa Universalis (whose focus is the Renaissance era and court intrigue/diplomacy) and Victoria (which focuses on the industrial era and has an emphasis on internal development and social/political changes). The hallmark of this style of game is extreme attention paid to detail, simulation and accuracy – putting the player in the driver’s seat of a particular nation or empire to manage the many intricacies of war and peace. The Hearts of Iron series expands on this formula by bringing the Paradox saga to the World War II age, and instead of the big emphasis being on politics and statecraft, now it is the execution of grand battle plans and the formation of large alliances – bound together by ideology or common interest.

I won’t lie to you, tutorial or no, this game has a steep learning curve, so be prepared to learn a lot through trial and error in your first play through. For my first game, I chose a setup that I thought would be good for a first timer, Great Britain at the 1936 start date (you can also chose to begin the game in 1939) on regular difficulty with historical AI focuses. One of the great strengths of Paradox games is that you can choose any country on the map to play you want, meaning nearly limitless ways you could change history on different playthroughs. I chose the UK because it is on the list of “Interesting Countries”, meaning that it was one of the major powers of the war and has a specific policy tree.

When you start the game can have a big impact on the games result. Should you chose to start in 1939, (if the AI is set to its historical focus), Germany will invade Poland and the world war will begin. However, if you chose to start in 1936, three smaller wars will break out (the Italo-Ethiopian war, the Spanish Civil war, and the Sino-Japanese war) that you could potentially effect or even change the outcome of. Also with the 1936 start is the growth of factions, namely the Axis (fascist nations), the Allies (democratic nations), and the Comintern (communist nations).

In addition to controlling the political momentum in your nation, the diplomatic features of the game include trade and conscription policy, overseeing the appointment of government operatives, industrial advisors and a military high command. You can improve relations with another nation, justify war goals against them and even grow party support and stage coups as part of the espionage elements of the game. Under certain circumstances, you can also begin a lend-lease agreement or even deploy volunteer forces to help out a friend in need. On top of all of this, the backbone of Hearts of Iron IV is logistics. You are responsible for trade and the construction of factories and infrastructure throughout your lands, in addition to the production of armaments and supplies, and the training of new units for the army. You also have to build up a navy and air force, as well as conduct research for new wartime technologies.

This leads me to the beating heart of (no pun intended) Hearts of Iron IV: the battles. Once you have organized your units into armies under the leadership of a general, you can have that army carry out specific orders, including fortifying provinces you already own, forming a front line as the basis for an offensive march, preparing for an amphibious assault, etc. The more experienced your general’s are, the better tactics they will use in battle, leading to a higher chance of victory. The navy and air force is managed in a similar way, being grouped together with other units of its kind and carrying out specific orders. Unlike in games such as Civilization, all players make their moves simultaneously as time goes on. Once the war got underway as Germany invaded Poland, things began to take an interesting turn. Although the Netherlands and Belgium fell, my volunteer forces in France were able to hold off the German invaders, leading the war to shift south instead of west. By 1943, Italy and Germany had divided up North Africa between themselves, and the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan over Manchuria, by extension mobilizing their forces in Eastern Europe as well. Throughout all of this, the U.S withdrew from the Allies, and having never been attacked by the Japanese, stayed neutral throughout the war. In 1944, the seemingly unending Soviet force took Berlin and Rome, while China with help from the French and myself had the Japanese with their backs to the sea.

The game allows for variations in the AI’s decisions within the historical context. That degree of unpredictability makes it a fun world to revisit time and time again. For instance, there are random events that can take place in the lead up to the war, such as Amelia Earhart surviving her round-the-world flight and Leon Trotsky surviving the attempt on his life in Mexico City that can have an interesting, alternate future effect on the rest of the game.

I am quickly beginning to believe that “grand strategy” is the future. If you sit down, give it some time, and know that not everything will go as you want it on your first try, I promise it’ll grow on you. Not to mention the graphics and music are impressive, and the overall tone of the game is right where it should be: serious, without being overly somber.