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Civilization V Review [Game Overview]
Oct 29th, 2010 by Dan

This piece was conceived of as yet another Mesa Brothers Experiment (TM) through which we might examine the differing views and approaches we have/take on the same subject. See his take here.

Is it just me getting old and grumpy or does everything seem to be getting dumbed down lately? Apple is trying to tell the world they can’t handle the software on their own devices, subtlety is all but gone in television and movies, and the most popular books in America are coming out of the Young Adult genre. There’s a whole political movement proudly proclaiming anti-intellectualism and pro-ignorance while the other side does its best to maintain power by stooping to the same lows because all of a sudden smart became the new evil in this country.

The most common target audience for a video game sequels nowadays seems to be people who don’t already play your video games because they find them to be too complicated. Wii, Kinect, and Move are all initiatives launched to dumb down video games and capture audiences not within core demographics. PC gaming is “dying” in the face of the simplified console market.

So, too, has Firaxis done its best to appeal to the non-PC, mainstream audience. Before there was a Civ V there was Civilization Revolutions, a highly simplified, quasi-arcade Civilization game. Before the announcement of Civ V there was the Facebook game Civilization Network, the as-of-this-writing unreleased game intended to tap into the obscenely large casual/social network games market. With Civ V they hoped to appease those who are already enslaved to the brand while simultaneously revamping its mechanics to lure in new consumers. What we’re left with is this feeling of innovation for the sake of market share, but not any real progress.

Take the grid system. Every previous Civilization game has taken place on a square grid. Each of these tiles has eight entry points. One for each side and one for each point. Now we have hexes, which allow only six entry points to a tile, a clear attempt to lure Settlers of Catan (and other board game) players into the series. Why? Simple: the hexes discretely remove complexity while appearing to increase it and simultaneously attract more customers. You see, a six-sided object is noticeably more complex than a four-sided object. It’s got two more sides, for Christ’s sake! That’s 150% more sides!

Worse still are the fates of the victory conditions. Some streamlining actually improves the game. Mopping up every teeny city that Gandhi has managed to hide throughout the planet was a pain in the ass before, so requiring players to only capture Delhi for a Domination victory is an admirable change, but to go ahead and completely neuter the Diplomatic victory condition makes me wonder why they even left it in the game. To summarize, in the past the United Nations was a multi-faceted wonder. When constructed it allowed the player and world AIs to make decisions that shaped the world rules. These decisions ranged from rendering slavery illegal to banning the production of nuclear weapons, both huge decisions and policies that can shape global politics and play styles. Additionally, each Civilization has representation proportional to the world population under his/her control.

Civilization V oversimplifies this system. All Civilizations and city-states (another new feature that miraculously feels both oversimplified and interesting (perhaps because it’s a missed opportunity?)) have precisely one vote for the UN Secretary General. Every surviving civilization will naturally vote for his or herself with this one vote, because not doing so is tantamount to forfeiting. The only way to win the diplomatic victory is to liberate a conquered civilization or city-state from another player (thus rendering them REQUIRED to vote for you) or to become allied with surviving city-states, hoping that there are enough surviving states to vote you in as leader.

Worse still, the AI is a jumbled mess. I find myself either frustrated with how stupid it is on the difficulty level that confers an even playing field to both player and AI (not to mention how stupid it is when I’m buffed and the AI is handicapped ) or frustrated with how ineptly played AI civilizations are when difficulty is turned up. You see, AI doesn’t really ramp up in difficulty, it just gets more bonuses. This is par for the course for Civilization, but I feel like the team at Firaxis has been deeply damaged by the departure of famed AI-programmer Soren Johnson. I lost many games of Civ IV on an even playing field with the AI. It’s inconceivable for me to lose to the same level in V.

It doesn’t seem that bad, in principle, but when playing it I can’t help but feel like I’m moving backwards in terms of interesting game mechanics. I find myself torn between the fact that I truly love the game and can’t stop playing once I start and that niggling feeling in the back of my head that this could have been so much more.

Which brings me back to my original point. I don’t think I’m the player that Firaxis is designing for. They know they’ve got me, so why bother doing what I think is best for the series? If they can impress me by throwing me a bone here and there with tiny flourishes like the fact that each civilization speaks in their native language when contacted, why bother trying to actually improve upon systems that seem complicated to the outside player?

I still love this game. It is addictive in ways that I don’t quite understand, considering how frustrated with it I get sometimes. The conceit of the series has been, is, and always will be both irresistible and addictive to me, regardless of how it continues to morph to entice and entertain the many people who are not me.

Game Overview: Pre-Current Gen PC All-Stars
Jun 20th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

Constant through all these years of transitioning video game consoles has been and always will be the PC games market. Despite all those cries of “The PC market is dead!” I’ll tell you one golden rule about the PC market: It will always exist for as long as people use PCs, which seems like it would be indefinitely, the way that technology is going. I will concede that the PC gaming market is not in its golden years like it once was. The reasons for this are many, including more powerful home consoles whose games look comparable to PC games, the advent of the laptop, and the general weakness of any non-gaming rig due to lame motherboard graphics processing power.

However, despite these issues, the PC has always managed to produce great games and it will always continue to do so for the foreseeable future, simply because the markets have not converged enough yet. In fact, the four PC games that I will be talking about in this generation are all mostly games that either just plain don’t work well on consoles or just plain control better on the PC.

One final note before we begin, X-COM: UFO Defense will not be appearing on my list, even though it’s a staple of top PC lists everywhere. The simple reason: I’ve never played it. Maybe one of these days it’ll be on Steam or something and I’ll get a chance, but for now I have no idea how it plays. Also on the never played list: Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. These games might be so awesome they replace what’s on my list, but I don’t know any better at this point.

The first game we’ll be looking at today is one of the most popular games in the entire world. This game is so popular that an entire country more or less enjoys it as a national past time, complete with comedy routines that revolve completely around mimicking in-game sounds. It’s the game that’s sweeping Seoul and supposedly getting a sequel this year, StarCraft.

#3 StarCraft

I still remember the first time I tried to play StarCraft. Note that I said tried…

We ran a pretty pathetic rig back in those days. I’m sure it was decent at some point, but our 90 MHz (seriously!) junker couldn’t quite run anything! StarCraft installed and I even managed to get it to boot, but playing it…well it ran at a snail’s pace. I even remember trying to play it with my friend Tony over the Internet on our 14.4 modem (I know…). Needless to say, I never quite got around to beating StarCraft back then, but once we updated to a 1 GHz computer (holy cow! an order of magnitude better than our “100 MHz” machine!) I was finally able to experience Blizzard’s masterpiece.

Blizzard may have started their RTS days making Warcraft games, refining mechanics and storytelling ability with their Tolkien rip-off world, but they really came into their element once they took it into outer space. The single-player campaign tells the brilliant story of the Protoss, Terran, and Zerg as they all jockeyed for control of the known galaxy. Whether you were controlling Jim Raynor for the Terrans, working with the heretic Zeratul of the Protoss, or the converted Queen of Blades, Sarah Kerrigan, for the Zerg, you always felt like things were plenty cinematic (even though briefings were just talking heads) as the plot twisted and turned. As far as I’m concerned, StarCraft was really the only real original story that Blizzard was able to tell. Warcraft III borrows heavily from SC (come on…Arthas becoming Undead totally mirrors Kerrigan! Don’t even get me started on how the Protoss and Night Elves are nearly identical…), as it well should, since the betrayals and battles make for a very compelling storyline. Trust me when I say that the game that launched ten years ago was a masterpiece whose continuation I cannot wait to see later this year (hopefully!).

As far as gameplay goes, SC goes far beyond what most other RTS designers were doing at the time. Sure, most RTS games, Warcraft included, had multiple factions that the player could control, but rarely did these factions vary in essential gameplay concepts. They all had comparable infantry units or heavy units that had more or less identical firepower to each other. In fact, a lot of the time, the faction choices basically just represented which art style you preferred most and had little to no impact on gameplay. The three races in StarCraft absolutely bucked this trend. If you played as the Terrans you were required to play a fundamentally different game than the Protoss or Zerg were playing. The magic that made SC so special was that you basically had three games packed into one neat little package.

Even with these great innovations, everyone knows that SC has survived this long for one reason alone: competitive online play. Blizzard was wising up to Internet gaming not too long before SC’s launch, so it was no surprise that StarCraft launched fully capable of online competition via the awesomely free Battle.net matchmaking service. Sure, people had direct connected through phone lines to play RTS games before, but this was unprecedented. Now you could just log on and see who else in the country was on and just go up against their army. It took great study and care to actually be competitive in the online SC community, but B.net was a great idea by a company devoted to high quality releases.

I think the only thing I have to say to really make this sink in is that you can make a living in S. Korea just by being a professional StarCraft player. I rest my case.

Blizzard was also really great with cinematics, even way back in the day. Check out the opening to SC: Brood War:

The next game on the list has been a favorite of mine since I was in grade school. Granted, the version I will be featuring today is the latest iteration (beat the release of the current generation by about a month), but that’s only because the latest version has come back and shown us how truly amazing the series is. There’s nothing like a game that will have you awake at 0500 with the sun streaming through your windows as you tell yourself, “Damn, I gotta go to sleep…I’ll get on that after this next turn…” That’s right, I’m talking about Civilization IV.

#2 Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

If you’ve never played a game in the Civilization series, then you don’t know the meaning of gameplay addiction. I’ve played many games until ungodly hours of the morning, but the game series that has made for the most red-eyed, bleary mornings has got to be Civ. If it weren’t for Civilization IV, the best of the series would have been the sophomore outing, Civilization II. Not that III was no good, but it just kept too much the same while not making enough different and new, which is, I believe, why IV succeeded so well in the series. It took everything that was bogging down the Civilization series, gave it a quick boot to the head, and came at it from a new, amazing angle.

I have to give great credit to Soren Johnson for reinvigorating what some may have felt to be a stagnant series. Civilization IV benefits from the direction he took it, making multiplayer a focus, getting rid of corruption and civil disobedience, adding great people, removing infinite city sprawl (ICS!), and attempting to diversify combat. Sure, sometimes the game is still slow, you still see unit stacks of doom, despite siege weapon deterrence, and the occasional phalanx might do serious damage to a battleship, but once you start going in and messing around with your own custom governments, you’ll see what an improvement Civ IV is to its predecessors.

A relative rarity for these lists, Civ lacks any story whatsoever other than whatever narrative you happen to create as you play. At the end of the day, you’re fully in control of your empire and more or less in control of how the AI treats you. For example, I know for a fact that Gandhi is secretly a war-mongering bastard. I have experienced his nuclear fury (granted…it was in retaliation for nuking him first, but still…). I’ve also seen the great Julius Caesar reduced to groveling at my feet as my armies marched into Rome (always satisfying) and I cannot emphasize how much of an aggressive, back-stabbing asshole Montezuma is, but these things do not make a game story. Plenty of the games don’t even feature any of these leaders, if you choose them not to. It’s a testament to this game’s character that I am able to have such fond memories of battling AI for world dominance without anyone but my own computer controlling them.

I would tell you to go out right now and buy Civilization IV to experience utterly refined game design and fun, but I don’t want to be held liable for the drastic decline of the rest of your life as you sink countless hours into building up the mighty Persian empire. Just remember that I warned you about this when it’s now 0723 and you’re still saying “Once construction on this wonder completes I’ll save and go to bed.”

Here’s some video of diplomacy gone bad:

A GREAT trailer compilation:

My absolute favorite PC game in pre-current gen era is actually a bit of a surprise to me. If you would have told me before I ever booted up that wonderful piece of software that I would love a first-person shooter. It’s like someone opened the faucet of creativity and poured it on this wonderful game. If this game is still as awesome when it’s 50% depleted, it will still kick more ass than most games on the market today. My favorite PC game (really up to the current gen) of the generations preceding this one is Half-Life 2.

#1 Half-Life 2

Valve is used to revolutionizing the medium. Gordon Freeman’s first quest was game of the year when it launched and Half-Life 2 received similar acclaim. There’s just so much about the game that it just exudes perfection. From the moment the game opens and the G-Man deposits you on the train into City 17, Half-Life 2 just never stops. Every character has inherent life and realism in their actions, the voice acting is superb, and the story just flows so well.

I could ramble on and on about how awesome HL2 is, but instead I’m gonna focus on something that only a few other games in the ENTIRE history of gaming have ever done (Ico’s the only one I can think of, but be sure to add more if I forgot some), add a sidekick that you not only genuinely care about, but is also totally useful, lifelike, and, most importantly, not annoying.

Alyx Vance is, bar none, the greatest character ever created for a video game. Game designers create tons of NPCs, especially female ones. It is so easy to go the cheap route: plenty of T, plenty of A, but, from the get-go, Valve knew they were gonna do something else. Alyx is a pretty girl, mind you, but in a much more restrained, realistic way. She wears normal jeans and has no cleavage, which is, quite frankly, pretty rare in this business (see Naomi Hunter in MGS4 for a blatant example of the opposite). Even so, if you were to go to a Valve message board, you’d most definitely find tons of posters stating how much they love Alyx. How did Valve do that? Quite simply by paying attention to real human emotion and interaction and by hiring amazing voice talent.

Voiced by Merle Dandridge, Alyx is given more than enough life by her voice acting, the way she reacts to situations, the way she urges you forward, and the way she interacts with the other expertly characterized NPCs. When Alyx is scared, you can not only see it in her amazingly animated face, you hear it in her voice. It’s present in abundance, yet it’s also understated. It’s perfect, really. She truly is your companion on your journey (even more so in Episode One).

Half-Life 2 brought life back to PC gaming and the FPS genre for me in such a big way. Never in my wildest dreams as an RPG player would I have imagined that an epic, fun, and good story could be told in that context. It just goes to show you that a masterful game can exist in just about any genre, it just takes talent and like ten years of time and devotion.

Enjoy the haunting opening to HL2 that drew me in right from the get-go:

And that, my devoted readers, is that. Be sure to tune in later this weekend (it may be Sunday instead of Saturday) to see the runner-up for the PC category!

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