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This War of Mine Review


They say that civilization is only three meals away from barbarism, but I managed six. After two days without food, I stabbed an elderly priest in a fight over carrot and then fled in terror from his avenging friends. As if I didn’t feel bad enough after that, This War of Mine informed me that the carrot did nothing to assuage my gnawing hunger.

It’s very much that kind of game, where you’re damned whatever you do. It loses no opportunity to ram home the bleakness of its setting, the trials of three civilians trying to survive in a war-torn city. Sometimes, its solemnity tips over the edge into parody. But mostly it traps you in a vice between compelling gameplay and the tragic consequences of your decisions.

You spend the game in a variety of buildings. During the day, it’s your hideout in a ruined house. The first job is to strip the building of accessible raw materials. Then you c

an use what you’ve found to build things like shovels and crowbars to get to other parts of the house to ransack. When you’ve stripped the place clean, you can start to construct the rudiments of living. Furniture, water stills, stoves, heaters, basic medicine and so on. There’s a substantial technology tree to explore, and a diverse range of threats that need to be headed off.

Doing anything in the game requires clicking on an interaction point, then waiting while a brief timer ticks down as you complete the task. It’s obvious enough where you can click, although the icons used to denote what you can do there take a bit of getting used to. With such simplistic core gameplay mechanics, things are in danger of getting a bit repetitive. And during that day, it can feel that way, although you’ll sometimes be interrupted by strangers wanting to barter, or looking for help. The night, however, is a different matter.

After emptying your shelter of resources, the only way to gain more is to scavenging in the surrounding locations. You can only do this at night: it’s too dangerous during the day. The side on view is transformed into a two-dimensional stealth game with passing similarities to Mark of the Ninja. You must creep through your target building, looking for loot and hoping you don’t encounter hostile inhabitants. Sounds in the darkness are represented with expanding circles. It could be a rat. It could be a fellow scavenger. It could be an aggressive bandit with a gun.

These forays out into the ruined city thrum with tension, because you never know what’s out there. That abandoned garage you’ve chosen to loot could be empty, or crawling with dangerous inhabitants. You’ve no way of knowing when you set out. I once arrived at a school, desperate for supplies, and was horrified to find others already picking it over. I waited outside in the cold for the chance to sneak in unseen and grab a few meagre scraps, when an armed man came out to stand guard. “Hey you!” he shouted, and my heart was in my mouth. “There’s plenty for everyone,” he continued, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more pathetically grateful to a bunch of pixels.

It’s imperative that you have a successful night because the game doesn’t hold any fake concepts of balance. Life in This War of Mine is nasty, brutish and short, and the game is designed to teach you the grim reality in short order. If you want to build tools or repair your walls, the raw materials can be pulled from piles of rubble everywhere. But daily essentials such as food and medicine are like gold dust. Their rarity doesn’t stop your characters getting sick, or hungry. So sick and hungry they go, their despair showing in lethargic animations with heavy limbs, until they die, or you’re able to find or trade for what you need. Having to trade a whole stash of jewellery for a single tin of food is a painful demonstration of what’s really valuable in life.

This is the opposite of how a strategy game should work. You should have hints about the outcome of your actions, be able to make plans, organise things to gain advantage over the game. This War of Mine gives you little beyond the obvious, like knowing an empty, ruined shop is a safer and more productive scavenging location than an occupied church. But nothing is certain. And as you charges become exhausted and famished, you become desperate enough to risk anything in the quest for sustenance.

Sometimes, scavenging offers horrible vignettes of life under occupation. Once, while looting a burned-out supermarket I had to hide behind shelves and watch as some soldiers dragged off a defenseless woman. They had guns and I had nothing. What else could I do? But just like the lack of food, the game punished me anyway, infecting my protagonists with despair about their inability to help others in need. If they get too morose, they’ll commit suicide. This is not a game to play for laughs.

The sombre tone is reflected in the excellent artwork. While not a graphical powerhouse, the muted palette and distinctive pencil-drawn style suits the mood. The sound design is spartan with little more than the odd sound effect over the music. But it works. The sudden warm crackle as you turn on the radio offers a little glimmer of hope in the ruin of normality.

As a veteran strategy gamer, I have burned a thousand cities in my time with never a thought for the suffering of the inhabitants. After playing This War of Mine, I doubt I’ll ever play a wargame again without wondering about their fate. Mechanically it’s perhaps a little too bare bones and repetitive. But in terms of theme and narrative, it’s an absolute triumph.

Originally published in The Average Gamer. Reproduced here with kind permission.

Democracy 3 Review


Everybody Wants to Rule the World, according to a well-known song from a band hailing from my home town. Well now you can experience ruling a small part of it, at least, with Democracy 3.

The new game screen gives you a choice of western nations to choose from, but it’s deceptive: your pick has very little impact on the game. Curiously for a game with this title, the actual different models of democracy like first past the post and proportional representation aren’t modeled at all. Rather, this is a game about the act of governance itself, of raising and spending revenue for the good (or otherwise) of your citizens.

Naturally, a realistic simulation of such a thing would be impossible, and even coming close would require a gargantuan quantity of inter-relating factors to influence and track. This is what Democracy does, and it could easy have been totally overwhelming were it not for a lot of clever interface design.

Most of the game takes place on a screen of circles, each with a colour and an icon describing what it is: blue for statistics (like GDP), red for serious problems (like an asthma epidemic) but mostly white for policies that you put in place (like maternity leave). However over one and arrows will magically appear showing what other things influence it, positively or negatively and how strongly.

It is overwhelming at first, but it very quickly becomes second nature to hover over a problem spot, pick out the most important related policies and tweak them to your liking.

Of course you’re not limited to simply changing spending levels for things already on the mind-map, you can add your own too from an impressive palette of policy from the mundane, like a mansion tax, to the blue-sky such as a new space program. The selection is expanded considerably by a new DLC pack called Social Engineering, which gives you a whole new raft of ideas to play with.

For those masochists who want to engage with the hard numbers instead of this super-whizzy graphical interface then there’s a staggering array of bar charts, pie graphs, numeric breakdowns and the like to keep you happy. You can even delve into the murky world of political focus groups and voting intentions if you want, although most of us can make do with the vague voting intention percentage you get each turn.

Even with the benefits of such a well designed overlay, this remains a colossal exercise in number crunching and could quite easily have been an awful, boring snoozefest. Thankfully, it isn’t.


It must be understood that, like the SimCity games of yore, this isn’t really a game with a goal. You can aim to bring peace and happiness to your population and get voted in over and over again. But it’s not actually that difficult: build the basis of a strong economy without putting too many noises out of joint and your approval ratings will quickly go through the roof. But happiness is overrated. The appeal of popularity quickly wears thin.

Rather, the draw of the experience is simply to experiment, and this is where the game reveals its depth.

Whatever your political sympathies, Democracy 3 quickly demonstrates how high-flying ideology is rapidly pinned to the earth by the tedious tethers of reality. Raise excessive taxes on the rich and your economy will become hugely noncompetitive, leaving you with a soaring deficit and vicious interest repayments. Slash welfare to the bone and you’ll find crime and civil unrest running rampant, with similarly disastrous economic results.

The fun in the game, for me, was working it as close to the bone as possible, tinkering with the engines of government to deliberately create oddball or extreme mix of policies to see what situations develop in the country and still try and keep things on the rails enough to keep you in office. The game conspired with me in my efforts to create democratically acceptable socialist paradise by throwing curveballs in the shape of various random events like terrorist attacks to deal with. When my policies forced disgruntled capitalists into trying to bomb me out of Downing Street, I knew I was pursuing the right policies.

You see, one of the most striking, and true to life things about the game is that there are things voters care about more than the cost of living. You can succeed in improving life by almost every conceivable statistic and still get voted out because you ignored voters’ ingrained moral and political beliefs. So long as you keep various core demographics happy enough to keep voting for you, you can run things close to the edge and still return a majority at election time.

Democracy 3 might not be a particularly accurate simulation of a modern nation state but it is a fascinating experiment in sandbox gaming, an open world for you to explore shorn of its geography and culture and reduced almost entirely to numbers, yet enthralling for all that.

Shelter Review


It was the blind cruelty of mathematics that got me in the end.

Shelter is a game which aims unapologetically for your hearstrings. From the outset where you, a badger mother in charge of five cubs, must help a sick cub before you can leave your flooding burrow, it tries to make you fraught with the responsibility of caring for these helpless little bundles of fur.

But I’m a hardened gamer, used to laying waste to battlefields with overwhelming firepower, not babysitting badger cubs, and I approached Shelter in the standard mindset. Two cubs lost when they strayed from my protection and into the dark night, lost forever in the gloaming. Another swept away during a badly-timed crossing of a raging torrent. But they were collateral damage sustained on the way to game end and a nice achievement. Nothing to worry about.

It was on the last level, with two cubs left to feed that realisation dawned. A big part of Shelter is providing food for your cubs: spotting edible roots and grubbing them up, or the surprisingly engrossing process of stalking and hunting frogs and foxes. They get gradually paler as they hunger, a apt visual metaphor for slow starvation, and it’s part of your job to make sure the weakest get their fair share, no simple task in a mass of squeaking, squabbling offspring.

But with just two left, the task become immeasurably easier. Food, which once felt scarce, was now stupidly bountiful. With only two to sort out, feeding the hungrier of them was absurdly simple. And with this came the gut punch of nature’s iron laws: you make your own life easier by sacrificing that of others.

I’m a biologist by education. I learned about this stuff, about ecosystems, food chains, inverse predator-prey relationships. I can watch the most mawkishly fetishised nature documentaries without flinching. But this sudden, simple demonstration of those abstract concepts in action broke through my scientific detachment. I’d failed: I was a bad player and, far worse, a bad parent.

When the slightly confusing, scripted end came, reinforcing the game’s message of cyclical, unfeeling nature, it seemed both fair, and just.

So I started again. It’s a short game, taking maybe 90 minutes from beginning to end. And the art is quite wonderful, a variety of expressionist landscape paintings bought vividly to life on your screen. I was more than happy to see it all over for a second time.

This time I took more care of the cubs. I learned the variable stripe patterns on their backs so I could tell them apart, worked hard to shepherd them in the right directions and to always feed those most in need. I kept them close in the dark, hid with them from eagles in the long grass, bit my lip with worry as they struggled to catch up through foaming rivers and blazing scrub.

It felt a bit repetitive. For all the visual glory in the game, mechanically it’s pretty much all a variation on the theme of timing things right so that your always-following cubs make it through the window of safety you’ve chosen before the dangerous environments close in. Once you understand that, it’s plain sailing.

But the feeling of vindication when I made it through with all of them alive was exhilarating. Two or three runs is probably enough to glean all you can from the game: whether you think that represents good value depends on how much you’ll enjoy subtle emotional manipulation. There’s a day-by-day nurture mode that drip-feeds you sentimentality, but it’s little more than a curious distraction.

If it gets through to you, it pushes some extraordinarily primal parenting buttons in the psyche. If it doesn’t, it’s a short and overly-easy badger simulator. For me, Shelter taught me to care about pixels, and it paid off.

Now Playing: Mark of the Ninja


I picked this up as part of a Humble Bundle that contained two games I wanted to play; FTL and Fez. I’d never even heard of Mark of the Ninja, yet it’s become the most-played title in the little selection I secured.

It’s a stealth game and I’m not generally a fan of stealth games. My experience of them is creeping through dark corridors in first or third person, waiting an apparent age for a guard to wander over to an area where I think he can’t see or hear me, followed by a cautious move forward revealing he can, in fact see me and then my untimely demise. Repeating this semi-random process ad nauseum does not a fun game make.

But Mark of the Ninja is different. It’s simple shift of the action to a two dimensional platform perspective is a thing of genius, solving all these problems at a stroke. Now I can tell at a glance whether a guard can see me or not, or whether he’ll be able to hear an action I take. This is stealth by strategy and when I fail, I failed because I fucked up.

The result is a weird and compelling blend of puzzling, twitching and sandbox experimentation. Levels and your palette of actions are carefully designed so that there’s more than one solution to most problems. At the most basic level you can usually choose to either sneak past a guard or take him out.

In a more complex scenario you might blind a guard by blowing the light, throw down a trap for him to stumble into hoping his sudden and grisly death will panic his second comrade into accidentally shooting a third. There’s a lot of options in between these extremes too.

I ran through it in about seven hours total and mostly I thought it was novel and rather brilliant. But it started to pale just toward the end. Why?

A mediocre plot didn’t help. Ultimately I think the sandbox aspects of the game don’t work as well as they should because your goals are limited: it all still comes down to creeping past guards or killing them, no matter how many tools you have at your disposal for achieving those aims. But as a stealth game it’s an unparalleled experience.

Get British!


As the token Brit on NHS, it’s obviously my remit to drink copious quantities of tea, discuss the vagaries of the weather and get typecast in Hollywood movies as the villain. However I also take it upon myself to bring you occasional snippets of news from the UK games industry.

Here’s the latest: a kickstarter for a new British game, made in Britain starring British people and full of typical self-deprecating British humour. It’s a point and click adventure entitled Her Majesty’s SPIFFING and you can back it at the usual place. Take a look, have a think about it. We’ve fallen a long way since the 8-bit glory days, and frankly, we could do with the business.