Those among you who are long-nailed and hoary-bearded enough to remember my initial posts on NHS may recall my fond reminiscences concerning an 8-bit strategy game called Chaos. I’m not sure how well known it was outside the UK, but its pedigree is sufficient that it’s well known among prominent games journalists this side of the pond and is a common target for fan remakes.
But the fan remakes can go stuff themselves, because the real thing is about to be updated. Its designer, Julian Gollop whose name you’ll likely recognise from the XCOM remake is kickstarting a modern sequel, Chaos Reborn.
I want to play this game. I need to play this game. I haven’t desired a game with such fervour since the manic buildup to Half-Life 2. But it looks like I might need your help to get it, since the kickstarter still needs about $65k with 15 days to go. Rarely have I despaired more of the tastes of the modern gamer.
Go back it now. I thank you. And when you get the game, you’ll probably thank yourself.
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.
It’s the time of year for lists. Lists of things from the year that’s about to end. Most especially of things that you’ve found to be of surpassing excellence. I am no dissenter, no maverick, not strong enough to resist the pull of seasonal traditions. So here is mine.
Thanks to my slot at Gamezebo I feel, for the first time ever, qualified to make not one list but two. Both in the same article, o lucky reader! First there will be my favourite iOS games of the year, and then my favoured board games. With so much to write there is no longer time for seasonal waffle and chit-chat. On with the picks.
5. Blood of the Zombies
The Fighting Fantasy franchise was something I remember fondly from my childhood 25 years ago, so it’s astonishing that author Ian Livingstone and studio Tin Man Games have managed to ensure it remains relevant and thrilling today. It turns out that Blood of the Zombies makes a superb candidate for the app treatment, having a stripped down combat system and more inherent challenge and replay value than the bulk of the series. And Tin Man didn’t disappoint with their implementation. It’s all spelled out in detail in my Gamezbo review plus more. I’ve enjoyed previous iOS gamebooks but this is the first that was truly special, and made me excited about more Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery adaptations coming next year.
4. Punch Quest
Endless runner games are, in my opinion, a showcase for everything that’s wrong with mobile gaming. Shallow and repetitive, they offer little but the pavlovian rewards obtained from completing arbitrary goals and leaderboard positions. It is therefore a bit of a shock that Punch Quest turned out to be so brilliant. What makes it so is simply depth: there is tremendous variability and enormous skill in this. With a cavalcade of different enemies, items, terrain, bosses and branching paths and the ability to buy and recombine power ups to suit your play style, I’ll quite possibly be running this one endlessly.
3. Summoner Wars
Playdek rarely disappoint in terms of their apps, but I still think this game redefined the bar for board adaptations to mobile. The underlying game is a superb candidate for the treatment in any case being short and having perfectly encapsulated player turns to reduce to-ing and fro-ing. But the app built over it is flawless, looking good, playing smoothly, offering all the functionality you could possibly want. We might have had to wait post-release to actually get a copy but boy, was it ever worth it.
2. Battle of the Bulge
I’ve really said everything I can about this in my Gamezebo review, so go read that. I will add that what makes it better than Summoner Wars is just that Shenandoah Studios didn’t adapt a board game to iOS: they took board game mechanics and created something amazing that actually worked better on a tablet than it would in real life. Can you imagine fiddling with all those ever-changing VP combinations and goals in a real-life game? No, and that’s just the thin end of the wedge in terms of how this app does all the heavy lifting, leaving the gamers totally absorbed in the experience.
1. Battle Academy.
I reviewed this one too, on F:AT. There was never going to be another choice for number one slot: I’ve played this game regularly, as in several times a week, since it was released in late spring. No other game on any platform has managed that feat. It might be expensive, but it’s so, so worth it.
What’s the overarching theme here? Strategy. The strategy genre might be (XCOM excepted) pretty much a dead duck on other platforms but its undergoing a massive renaissance on mobile. That’s not surprising: touch screen interfaces are actually pretty clumsy for most twitch games but they’re perfectly suited to strategy. I suspect there’s going to be some more stellar work in this area in 2013 from the studios behind my top three picks, plus Games Workshop finally entering the mobile market with Space Hulk and Warhammer Quest. Going to be an exciting year.
So, on to the board game picks.
5. Lords of Waterdeep
I’ll probably get some stick for this, but I don’t care. It’s not the cleverest, most innovative game on the block but it made a sterling demonstration of how building on previous designs in a genre, looking at what words and what doesn’t then skimming the cream off the top and recombining it into a single game can create a brilliant thing. Balancing accessibility and fun with some solid strategy, and bringing dreadfully needed interaction into the staid, dull worker placement mechanic, it’s easily the best European-style game I played this year. More details in my review.
4. Android: Netrunner
This earned its slot on the strength of its emergent theme. When you’ve got games like City of Horror that can stick some zombie pictures on top of a generic negotiation mechanic and calling it a theme, Netrunner offers a primal lesson in communicating a sense of place and being through mechanics alone. Playing this you’re no longer a gamer, but for 60 minutes are transfigured into a global corporation or sly hacker. The other stuff, the clever intermarriage of strategy and bluff, the customisation and deckbuilding, is just gravy as discussed in my full review.
And from one game with wonderful emergent theme to another. It’s much more of an ephemeral thing here, but it’s odd how this game simply *feels* just as it should. Pitch perfect in terms of weight, production, theme and ship handling. Opponents have remarked how they suddenly find themselves humming the Star Wars theme or imagining green and red laser bursts as they play. Personally, every time those little plastic ships come out I’m a child again, even if only for a moment. The game might be a money pit, but how do you put a value on that? If you like, you can put a value on my review instead.
2. Merchant of Venus
I’m still kind of reeling from the fact that thirty years ago someone managed to design an interesting pick up and deliver game and yet virtually everything that followed in its wake was dull as arse. Thus, old as it was, this game came as something of a revelation and a breath of fresh air. That’s why I’ve enjoyed it so much. That and the wonderful manner in which it offers a variable setup that ensures both rich narrative and keeps repeat strategies at bay. Every game re-engages both your logical centers and your imagination anew. Amazingly, here is my review.
Remember this, from back close to the turn of last year? I do. It’s so easy to forget early release games when compiling these yearly lists but this has stayed with me, popping out again and again with different groups and in different places, the only game I’ve probably collected a physical dime of plays this year. And every time it’s been ridiculous fun. Hilarious, enthralling, varied, entertaining. Every single time. It’s ticks all the boxes I could want for a short, light game, even offering just enough strategy in the card and position combinations s to keep your brain engaged. An absolute joy: itching to see an expansion. You will be unsurprised by now if I link to my full review of the base game.
The overview on the board game front is a little more troubling. Three out of the top five are reprints. They’re nicely modernised with streamlined rules and high production values, but they’re still reprints. So while it’s great that Fantasy Flight are getting their act together as regards their updating of classic games, and its great to see old material back in the limelight, it’s a bit alarming that so many of the best games I’ve played this year have been reprints rather than fresh designs.
I’ve never been one much for the hype machine. But what I’d like to see in 2013 is some more quality new designs. A deep, interactive deck-builder would be a nice start, something that really makes good on the achingly unfulfilled promise of that genre. In terms of actual titles, the only ones I’ve got earmarked at the moment are story-telling game Story Realms which looks fresh and interesting, Bowen Simmons’ long awaited Guns of Gettysburg, the world war 2 tactical block game Courage from Columbia and the multi-player card driven game Cuba Libre from the designer of Labyrinth. Seeing as it’s felt like a relatively lean year for wargames this year, that’s a nice slice of history for the near future.
In one of my very earliest posts here, I described my long-time love affair with the ancient 8-bit strategy classic Chaos. It’s more than 25 years old, and I still play it on my Android phone.
So imagine my surprise. No, imagine my delight. No, imagine the sheer, sparkling column of incandescent light that I became when the developer popped up from decades of obscurity and announced a modern remake. That developer, Julian Gollop was also the brains behind the original X-Com, and I don’t doubt his decision was influence by the success of the remake of that game.
Watch this space, people. The rebirth of PC Strategy starts here, and it’s going to be amazing.
I finished XCOM: Enemy Unknown Tuesday night, so that means it’s time for a proper review. (I officially give up on the hyphen. From now on we’ll just pretend it’s there.) Before I get into that, however, a few words about the two recently announced pieces of DLC: Slingshot and Elite Soldier Pack. This is the 2k I know and loath. First, the Elite Soldier Pack is basically armor colors and a few more heads (three helmeted ones and a new hairdo). It’s content (particularly the armor tinting) that should have been part of the main game by default. Asking people to pay $5 for this is shameful. It’s the same nickel and dime for the least amount possible that we got from a lot of the Civ 5 DLC. The Slingshot DLC adds a new playable “hero” to the squad and some scripted missions. It’s not fair to judge sight unseen, but I am not enamored with the idea. I think it fundamentally misunderstands what makes this game good. It’s arguable that the weakest parts of XCOM are the parts where it’s scripted, which is thankfully uncommon, so trying to make people excited about three new council missions that have their own story arc isn’t the world’s greatest sell. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong about that.
On with the review…
Big. Damn. Heroes.
X-COM: UFO Defense, released in 1994, is a gaming legend. As is often the case with legends that means, in addition to being a great game in its time and place, it’s remembered for being a bit more than it actually was. It was buggy, fiddly, and, even for the time, didn’t look particularly good. These things didn’t keep this game about halting an alien invasion of Earth from deservedly becoming one of the most fondly remembered games of its time. I point this out only to dispense with the notion that UFO Defense was somehow a perfect model to which any remake must slavishly adhere.
Firaxis’ new spin on the X-COM legacy, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is every bit as flawed as the original, if for different reasons, and yet it’s also every bit as memorable as its namesake (for many of the same reasons). Firaxis had an impossible job to do in making a turn-based strategy game in 2012, one that had to function equally well on PC and console, and make it worthy of the legacy. It could have been too wonky for mass audiences. It could have been too dumbed-down to appeal to core strategy gamers that still fondly remember action points and facing rules. That Firaxis was able to strike such a fair balance of streamlined mechanics and wonderfully emergent tactical gameplay is a credit to a talented and storied studio. XCOM is the game I’ve been waiting for, for a long, long time.
The fascinating incongruity about XCOM (old and new) is that it’s a game about stories where the overriding background story is just that – background. That’s because the best stories in XCOM don’t come from any of its largely random missions, only a handful of which are loosely scripted. The real stories in this game are emergent, born of a dozen different decisions you’ll make from turn to turn. Sure, the Earth facing invasion and annihilation by beings from another world, and it’s attempt to thwart disaster by having its major powers unite to form an elite alien-fighting task force (XCOM), provides an adequate backdrop, but it’s when you take your squad of four to six solders, soldiers you customize in name, appearance, and ability, that the real stories begin.
It’s a game that begs you to tell your buddies in the real world or on an online gaming forum about that time your heavy class trooper fired a rocket in a storefront wall to take away a muton’s cover, allowing your sniper a clear killshot. Or how you risked a double-move out of cover with your wounded assault trooper only to have her miss a wide open shot and end up poisoned to death by a thin man. Or what about that time you had a total party wipe when an unseen sectopod caught your squad grouped up next to a UFO power source that it caused to explode? This is a game that ten different people can play and, yeah, they’ll all follow the same rough story threads, but they’ll also have ten wholly unique experiences in the process of traversing them. Old version, new version, that is the genius of XCOM and it’s alive and well here.
No, not everything is perfect, though the line between design brilliance and notable flaw will vary based on your expectations. If you’re a die-hard from the UFO Defense era that treasured large squads of 10+ soldiers on a mission and the more intricate group tactics they afford, or having to worry about what direction a squaddie is facing or whether they’re kneeling or not, or being able to swap large inventories between squaddies and rifle through the effects of dead aliens in-mission, then you’re not going to like the compromises made here. This is a beer and pretzels tactics game that you’ll pick up quickly and then keep playing because the mechanics in place function so effortlessly together.
Die-hards aren’t going to like the narrower environments that don’t offer nearly as much room to roam and explore as X-COM. But there’s a benefit to that too. Missions in this game aren’t designed to go on for hours and hours. Some are longer than others, but most are meant to be bit off in manageable 30 to 60-minute chunks. You’re not going to waste nearly as much time just wandering around, hoping to stumble into that last remaining sectoid before you can pick up and return to base. I call the more directed maps a net win for this reason – oh and they’re gorgeous and wholly destructible.
Speaking of your home base, if the in-mission tactical game weren’t impressive enough, Firaxis has done a remarkable job of making the strategic management of the XCOM project a seamless experience that doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae You get to make plenty of decisions in terms of what technologies to research, what buildings to construct, and generally how you can best spend the finite funding and resources at your disposal, but owing to the fact that you now run just a single base, (with satellites picking up the tab for monitoring the world’s alien activity), the game doesn’t let your time spent making these decisions become tedious. Sure the rewards for doing missions end up feeling rather arbitrary and the game could do with a bit more variety as to types of missions, but the sense of pervasive threat as you struggle to keep participating nations funding the XCOM project in the face of ever-increasing alien activity keeps the game humming along just fine. I could quibble that the research tree isn’t broad enough or that the game doesn’t last long enough, but it’s easy to forget just how crucial balancing all these different elements is to this game and just how remarkably well it achieves that balance.
Would that these kinds of fair compromises were the only issues. Unfortunately, there are problems to which even the most enthusiastic fan of the game must admit. The game is flat out buggy. I’ve mercifully been spared the worst of them, but there are bugs that can hamper your ability to properly play the game. I encountered one in the final mission that, had I been playing in the game’s Ironman mode (which prevents saving and reloading where you like), very likely would have prevented me from finishing the game. It makes playing it a gamble. Will you be among the lucky majority(?) that only sees weird graphical glitches like a soldier firing (visually) in the wrong direction or has its hairdo flicker back and forth between two styles during a mission? Or will you end up cursing Firaxis and swearing off the game forever when 30 hours of work gets wasted because a bug prevents you from opening a door you must pass through to continue on a mission? That’s a problem.
Less severe, but constantly annoying are some of the PC control issues. (I didn’t try the game using a gamepad. I’ve read that it controls better if you use one.) 95-percent of the time using a mouse and keyboard with XCOM is perfectly adequate. In a day and age where games built for PC and console simultaneously are often cursed with abysmal controls, perfectly adequate counts as a rather sad victory. There are hotkeys to control the camera, issue commands, etc. On a flat map, the mouse is extremely effective at letting you choose just the right spot for where to send a squaddie or toss a grenade. The problem is the camera and mouse combination cannot handle elevation, a rather crucial component of the game, and as a result it constantly behaves as if it knows better than you where it should place itself. Sometimes these issues are merely annoying, like how it snaps back to its default view every time you switch from one soldier to another. Other times it actively interferes with your ability to select a particular zone. Sending your team into a medium to large UFO is nothing but an exercise in frustration as you too often have to raise, lower, and rotate the camera every which way to get to a point where you can click where you want to click. Sometimes there is no way to clearly establish where the placement indicator is and you just have to click and hope that just because the ceiling obscures your view that your soldier will still end up where he should. Firaxis needs to address this problem and they need to do it sooner rather than later.
There are other nuisances to be sure, like the frustrating inventory management screen where you outfit your squad for battle. The game’s finale is jarringly scripted and offers a less than satisfying conclusion. And, seriously, why exactly is it I can change the name, ethnicity, and armor colors (with DLC), but not a squaddie’s nationality or gender? Yes, yes, it’s a game about an international organization and it should have soldiers from all over the world. That’s swell and all, but there is absolutely no reason not to let the player make this purely cosmetic choice for themselves.
Yes, these issues do diminish the experience somewhat, but these are largely distractions, blemishes that stand out precisely because the core of the game is so indelibly perfect. As you sit back in your chair wondering if you should direct your science steam to prioritize armor research, or weapons research, or start that alien interrogation; as you make decisions about whether to risk your squaddie’s life to protect a civilian from an approaching chrysalid; as you rank up an experienced team of veterans only to see them picked off one by one over successive missions — these are the critical areas that XCOM had to get right, and it clears the bar with room to spare. This is a game about choice and consequence in which you never stop making choices and the consequences always have weight. When the experience is as good as the one XCOM offers, its few missteps aren’t enough –not nearly enough– to make this anything less than one of my single favorite games of the past five years. Yes, it is that good.