Friday, September 4, 2015

Civilization: Beyond Earth, or Alpha Centauri II (sort of)

Civilization: Beyond Earth
Grade: C-
Platform: PC, Mac, GNU/Linux
Genre: 4X

The good news is, Beyond Earth is basically Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri 2.  The bad news is, Beyond Earth is basically Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri 2.

Like a great many sequels, this one definitely lacks something.  And what it lacks isn't a vague je ne sais quoi, but pretty clearly and easily explained.  But first, let's examine the good, and there is a surprising amount of good considering the low grade I've given the game as a whole.

I get the impression that in a lot of ways we're looking at many of the innovations the Civilization V designers wanted to include in Civ V, but weren't allowed to for fear it'd be too radical a departure from the standard Civilization experience.

Sometimes this is a very nifty approach that I'm sorry that Civ V was too stogy to use.  For example, when you build the first of most newly researched buildings, you're presented with a choice of (usually) two ways you can customize it. I might chose to save energy by having my relics maintenance free, you may chose to pay maintenance on relics but get extra culture from them. It allows for the player to minmax a bit based on their play style.

Likewise, rather than simply replacing old units you get choices in how they can be upgraded.  I don't approve of this as much as I do the building customization because rather than having the freeform units of Alpha Centauri you are given a much more limited set of options based on your ideological choices.  But at least there's some player choice involved, and that's never a bad thing even though it could easily be better.

Unfortunately, some of the new ideas just don't work, I don't know if the devs just didn't want to risk making things too different, or if there was executive meddling, but some changes simply feel timid.

The tech web is a perfect example of this.  Rather than a simple tech tree that everyone climbs and by endgame you either have all the technologies listed or you're just playing badly, Beyond Earth has a genuine tech web.  I suppose it might be possible to get all the techs in a single game, but I haven't yet.  In theory, that would allow for diverse and varied gameplay as you use different parts of the web from your opponents, or change your game style by exploring different techs.

Unfortunately, in practice, the tech web is kind of bleh and really your choices there don't make as much difference in gameplay as you'd hope.  Nor, really, do the choices between the three ideological options of purity, supremacy, and harmony.

So rather than having to make truly hard, game changing, decisions based on the tech you choose to research, the only real factor in your decision is simply what victory condition you want to chase.  A player who has chosen a supremacy ideology and the emancipation victory won't have a game significantly different from a player who chose a harmony ideology and the transcendence victory. And that's a major disappointment because the game has so much potential.  The ideologies are intriguing, and if they and the tech had been more significant and produced different interactions with the game based on those choices it would have been truly wonderful.

We also have the problem of the publisher stripping out big chunks of the game to sell as DLC. The first is already available and allows ocean buildings and more oceanic options as well as adding more factions, improving diplomacy, and so on.  I expect we'll see another coming soon to expand on the anemic orbital game.

What disappoints the most is that Beyond Earth is, kind of, sort of, a sequel to Alpha Centauri.  And that's a problem, because they couldn't use Alpha Centauri intellectual property, that belongs to EA not Fireaxis.  This means that often they tried to duplicate Alpha Centauri ideas, but without referencing the forbidden IP.  Sometimes, some games, some publishers, this can work.  It didn't work for Beyond Earth.

The transcendence victory is clearly a call back to Alpha Centauri.  The problem is that in Alpha Centauri there was an overarching plot involving the planet's fungus being sapient effectively making the whole planet a single mind, so in Alpha Centauri the transcendence victory flowed naturally from the game as a whole.

But in Beyond Earth it just doesn't make sense.  There is no overarching plot of any sort, the aliens are just kind of buglike and it is never indicated that they are intelligent even individually much less collectively, so the idea of joining a planet mind in a telepathic rapport just doesn't fit the game.  But the option is there, because Alpha Centauri did it.

Worse, they didn't try for anything interesting or new in what little plot the game has.  Alpha Centauri had a story, an intreguing story that the player discovered through the tech quotes, through gameplay, through bits of short fiction that popped up at significant events.  It had factions that were believable and interesting and lead by characters who exemplified a single trait but had personality beyond that one trait.  Miriam Godwinson was a religious fanatic to be sure, but there was more to her than just that.

There is no real story in Beyond Earth, the factions are bland and mostly indistinguishable, the faction leaders are mere faces and names.

There are three voice actors, total.  All the tech quotes are done by one actor, and she's fine and does a good job, but it seems kind of limited when compared to the quotes from Alpha Centauri.  Worse, since there isn't an overarching plot, and all the factions are kind of blandly similar, the tech quotes don't - can't -  reveal anything about the factions and their leaders.  When compared to Alpha Centauri in this aspect it falls horribly short.  And frankly, it doesn't do all that well in comparison to the blander Civ tech quotes either. While in Civ the quotes are often meaningful historic quotes, all the Beyond Earth quotes are made up which which would be OK if they told us more about the game setting, but they don't.
I really want to give Beyond Earth a better grade, I loved Alpha Centauri, I applaud efforts to make a sequel, I love that they made it available for GNU/Linux, and I am delighted with the effort to go beyond the Civ restrictions and do newish things with the series.

But, at the end of the day, it just falls flat.  I still play Alpha Centauri, but after finishing three games of Beyond Earth I doubt I'll play much more.  As DLC for Civilization V it'd be fantastic and I'd probably have given it a higher grade.  But as a stand alone game there just isn't enough content to justify the price.

The need for more centralization in government

And now a politics post instead of a gaming post.

One of the things I've been thinking about a lot lately are the problems inherent to America's decentralized, local autonomy, style of government.  It's a style that has a lot of benefits, and I don't suggest eliminating it.  But I do think we need some reform, and a bit of centralization that is currently non-existent.

Right now there are over 20,000 completely independent law enforcement agencies in the USA.  By "completely independent", I mean not answerable to any authority higher than their own commander.  Most of these are the various sheriff's departments, and to repeat, the sheriff's departments of America are not in a hierarchy or chain of command that involves any authority higher than the sheriff.

In theory this allows for flexibility and local decision making in law enforcement.  And when things work well, that's what we get.  But when things don't go so well the result is Boss Hogg or Joe Arpaio.  There is no real mechanism to remove incompetent, corrupt, or abusive sheriffs beyond the state legislature impeaching them, and most state legislatures aren't full time so any problem has to either wait until the lege is in session or be so bad that the governor calls a special session.  Worse, since there's no hierarchy there's no supervision or monitoring or even best practices, no superiors an grieved person can contact with any reasonable hope of resolving their dispute with the sheriff.

We see this same dynamic play out with Kim Davis, who though currently in jail for contempt of court because she's refusing to do her job and issue marriage licenses to everyone who is legally entitled to one, she's still the county clerk and there is no way for her to be removed save impeachment by the Kentucky legislature which isn't currently in session even if it were inclined to impeach her.

A county clerk is just a tax collection and license issuing agent, I'm dubious about the value of having such positions being elected positions at all, it sounds to me that the job of county clerk is one that should be done by an employee of the county not an elected official.  But even if we do decide to keep them elected, there needs to be best practices and standards at a state level (or even federal level), and some chain of command with a mechanism for disciplining or removing those who are incompetent, refuse to do their jobs, or otherwise are messing up.

Again, I don't dispute the utility of a degree of autonomy and decentralization.  But I think we need to evaluate such things from a utility standpoint, not from an ideological commitment to the idea of county government as sacrosanct or quasi-sovereign.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Master of Magic - A retrospective review

Master of Magic
Grade: A-
Platform: Anything that supports DOSBox, originally PC
Genre: 4X before it was called 4X
Game Wiki

Released in 1994, Master of Magic is now old enough to drink.  And despite being a game well worth playing, it shows its age.  People who weren't fans back in the day may not be able to get past the antique graphics or the clunky UI, but if you can the game beneath is something amazingly good that still hasn't been really successfully duplicated.  If you like 4X games you owe it to yourself to try Master of Magic, it's cheap through GOG. There is also a Master of Magic remake, of course, and I'll be reviewing it later, but I recommend the original for the 4X fan who hasn't tried it yet.

Master of Magic was released shortly after Master of Orion, [1] and was intended as a sort of companion or counterpoint to Master of Orion.  Like Master of Orion, Master of Magic features a blend of strategy and tactics, the main action takes place on the world map but when combat begins the player is given a tactical map and interface to direct individual units.

It wasn't originally well received, it was buggy and the AI was broken on release, but that was patched and the game became enshrined in the hearts of 4X fans.  So don't let anyone tell you that releasing a broken game and then patching it post release is all that new, they were doing it back in 1994 too.

Master of Magic is a somewhat odd beast, and my grade of A- may well be tainted by nostalgia but I don't think so, it really is an amazing game.  An amazing game that had many problems baked right into the core mechanics, things that were lamented at release, but in retrospect turn out to be why, 21 years after release, people like me are still playing it from time to time.

To classify the problematic, yet in a weird way good, aspects of Master of Magic I'd say that they make a sort of accidental form of asymmetric game play.  The simple fact is that Master of Magic is not balanced.  At all.  If you start as a human you get access to the full tech tree and the paladin special unit which is immune to magic and can curbstomp pretty much any other unit in the game.  If you start as a lizardman you get a tech tree that's more of a tech shrub and your units can swim.

Yet, despite that, you can win playing nothing but lizardmen.  It requires a completely different play style than winning playing with humans, or high elves, or orcs, or any of the other "better" races, but it is possible.

Magic is similarly unbalanced.  Magic is broken into color based schools, green for life, white for healing, red for destruction, black for evil, blue for air and metamagic, and some are simply better than the others.  It is undeniable that the magic in Master of Magic is as unbalanced as the races.  Start with blue magic and you can summon Phantom Warriors, who mow through most early game units easily, and by late game summon Sky Drakes and throw lightning bolts with enough power to one shot just about any unit.  Start with white magic and you might as well not bother casting spells until mid to late game, and even then your spells will suck compared to blue or red, or even black or green, spells.

And yet...

And yet that very lack of balance is why I keep playing.  Never mind that Master of Magic helped define the 4X game, never mind that it was a truly innovative break from Civilization and Master of Orion.  The fact is that the lack of balance made the game fun and challenging in a way that even modern AI (which often isn't really that much better than antique game AI) or multiplayer often lacks.

Because you CAN win playing a wizard with all white magic and nothing but lizardmen.  You've got to take a human wave approach to combat and expansion, you've got to use your magic to maximize population and healing, you have to hit your enemies fast and hard before they can start pumping out units that will smash your armies solo, it's risky and you may lose horribly, but it can be done.  And succeeding with all the odds against you feels damn good.

There are a handful of deliberately asymmetric games out there, AI War is the canonical example but Sorcerer King represents an attempt to intentionally achieve what Master of Magic did (I think) purely accidentally.  Asymmetric games are hard to design because the whole point of them is that they're unfair, and making something unfair fun, winnable, and challenging is difficult to say the least.  That Master of Magic succeeded in doing it basically by accident is amazing.

One of the ways Master of Magic succeeds is with a game that had a sandbox feel before the term sandbox had been invented.  They developed a game with a greater variety of units, a huge number of spells and magic effects, and allowed the players to mix and match as they chose.  The ability to customize your wizard allows you to minmax traits and spellbooks to create an unstoppable force of nature who can stomp through the game even on impossible difficulty with no real trouble.  Or you can go the opposite route and make a wizard who has a mix of traits and spells you think simply can't win, and then win anyway.

And, unlike in some games featuring magic, the magic in Master of Magic can truly shake the world.  At high levels you can not merely rise individual volcanoes, you can cast a spell that will automatically rise several volcanoes every turn (except in your cities of course) and eventually reshape the whole world into a hellscape of lava flows.  You can cast spells that plunge the world into eternal night, or slowly corrupt every bit of terrain making it unlivable.  You can cast spells to raise every fallen soldier as a zombie in your rotting undead army, or stop time for everyone but you so you can smash them piecemeal and steal their resources in the blink of an eye. Every one of those spells is horribly unbalanced, and fun in a way that the carefully balanced play of most games simply can't match.

Master of Magic is a game that no major studio would dare release today.  But it's good, and you should try it.

[1] Nostalgia is always profitable so naturally Master of Orion is being rebooted.  Here's the Steam page.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Fallout Shelter, a free to play done right

Fallout Shelter
Grade: C
Platforms: iOS, Android
Genre: Resource management


Fallout Shelter is an excellent example of the often rightly hated free to play model done right.  It's also a fun enough little resource management game.

Made to help generate hype for the upcoming release of Fallout 4, Fallout Shelter is enjoyable on its own even for people who have never played a Fallout game, though presumably most people who download it are Fallout fans.  There's not much to the game, no real objectives beyond collecting all the costumes, weapons, and special characters.  Like many mobile games it is intended to be played in brief bursts, not over long period.  There isn't much difficulty.

The graphics are based off the classic Vault Boy design and have a nice cartoonish look that clashes pleasantly with the gruesome violence of the universe, just as the original Vault Boy design was intended to.

Gameplay consists of assigning the characters with the right attribute to the various jobs, balancing training attributes vs. producing resources, fighting off the occasional raider or deathclaw invasion, and dealing with random infestations of radroaches, molerats, or a fire breaking out, and sending properly equipped characters out to scour the wasteland for guns, costumes, and occasionally special characters.

Like many burst play style mobile games, Fallout Shelter has a timer attached to most events. To have even a roughly 1 in 10 chance at getting the extra special goodies from the national guard depot you must have a character exploring the wasteland for 60 real life hours, and then have them spend 30 real life hours trudging back to the vault.  Rooms produce resources at a rate that varies depending on the stats of the Dweller assigned to that room, but it ranges between slightly less than a minute and fifteen minutes.

Unlike most free to play mobile games, there is no way to exchange real world currency to sidestep those timers.

In fact, you can buy exactly two things with real life money.  The first is Mr. Handy, everyone's favorite hovering betentacled flamethrower armed robot, who will wander the floor where you place him collecting resources so you don't have to.

The other thing you can spend real money on is extra lunch boxes.  You can get lunch boxes through normal game play by completing randomly generated assignments.  The lunch boxes contain a tiny assortment of resources, and a rare or semi-rare character or item.  It's those last you really care about of course.  The lunch boxes you buy are superior to the ones you get through playing, purchased lunch boxes are guaranteed a rare character or item, while the ones you get through playing occasionally only have normal things.

The only major objection I have is that on the Android there is no pause function other than quitting.  When you switch away from the game it continues to run in the background, your vault dwellers continue to consume resources, but since getting resources requires you to tap the room where they are generated they quickly run out and starve if you forget to quit instead of just hitting the home button.  If you have a Mr. Handy on all the resource producing floors that's actually a kind of good thing, as you can let the game run in the background and stock up on things without having to bother with the tapping.  If you don't have a Mr. Handy then it results in unhappy vault dwellers, and possibly a deathclaw attack ripping through your vault and killing everyone.

Since it can take upwards of thirty seconds to a minute to load once you've quit, frequently quitting is annoying.

My biggest minor objection is that using stimpacks on your dwellers before they die during attacks is sometimes frustrating because they clump together making it hard to tap the right dweller. I suppose you could argue that's an intentional design choice to increase difficulty, I suspect it's just a mistake on the developer's part

Overall, it's a perfectly enjoyable way to kill a few minutes while you wait for the bus and I have no doubt that other fans of the Fallout series will enjoy the in jokes.  If you're like me, you'll become obsessed with collecting all the canonical characters available (so far all from Fallout 3 except for a couple of Fallout 4 preview characters, but doubtless New Vegas and 1 & 2 characters are on their way).

Why "C is Average"

Why "C is Average" and my basic thinking on game and movie reviews and an introduction

Game reviews are well established to be broken, mostly deliberately by the game publishers with the willing cooperation of the big reviewers.  Find a site that ranks games from 1 to 10 and you'll find a site that has a real range of 8 to 10, with a 7 meaning, essentially "this is the worst game ever, for the love of all that's good in the world don't play it".

To try and avoid this I'll be reviewing games based on an A to F scale where C is average [1].  Here a grade of C means that the game was average, which means a solid game, entertaining, worth buying and playing but nothing groundbreaking or exceptional.  A grade of B is reserved for a game that is BETTER than the average entertaining and fun game, and a grade of A is reserved for those rare games that are incredibly good and groundbreaking.  I won't be giving many A's.

Similarly, I won't be giving many F's.  Most games that actually make it to a release on Steam or the Google Store are at least going to be semi-functional.  If I give a game a D that will mean that it's noticeably below average, that it has serious flaws and that it is the sort of thing only people really devoted to the series or genre should consider, and maybe not even then.

I reserve the grade of F for true failures, games that simply don't work, are horribly broken, or otherwise are worse than Scrappy Doo or Jar-Jar Binks.  If I can't look at a game and honestly say to myself "yup, this makes Jar-Jar look good by comparison", then it doesn't merit an F.

For example, I'd give Aliens: Colonial Marines a D-, it is a terrible game but it isn't worse than Scrappy Doo.  Likewise, much as it pains me not to give an F to the horrible Dungeon Keeper mobile game, I'd be forced to give it a D- as well.  While it was an awful game with few redeeming qualities (the voice of Richard Ridings being the only one I can think of offhand), it wasn't a total and abject failure.  It at least ran without crashing.

An example of a game that merits an F is Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, not only was the game bad, it was released in a broken state that didn't actually involve any racing, collision detection, or adjustable speed.

The fact is, most of the games out today are average.  Nothing super great, nothing bad, just kind of fun ways to spend some time.

Each review will be different, as each game is different.  I'm not going to lock myself into a formula or format for game reviewing.  A shooter is different from a god sim, they should be graded differently.  And Fallout Shelter is different from Beyond Civilization even though both are god sims, they should be graded differently.  The only things I can think of that will be consistent in all reviews are that C is average, and I'll talk about both the good and bad parts of the game.

Of course this is all entirely subjective, your taste may be wildly different from mine, so my opinions on games may not match yours.  I'd say I'll try to be objective, but that's impossible.  You can't be objective in an opinion.  What I will be is, as best I can manage, fair and fact based.  If I think a game is awful, I'll explain why instead of just saying that the game is garbage; it may be that the reasons I think a game is bad are reasons you think it's great.

I'll also be reviewing old games that I think are worth looking at, either as examples of how things can go wrong or as games that are well worth playing despite their age.

There will also be occasional movie reviews, following much the same philosophy as the game reviews.  Don't expect many A's or F's.

I'll also note that while reviews are a big part of what I'll be doing here, I do plan on posting many things that aren't gaming, movie, or entertainment related.  If you don't like that, you can skip it as all my stuff will be tagged appropriately.

[1] Historic side note, it turns out that "C is average" is really just a sort of statistical fluke, it was never really designed to mean average, the fact that averages in most schools are above C isn't the fault of grade inflation.  But for the purposes of this blog I'm using it even though it really doesn't mean that academically.