Anno has always been an interesting blend of different genres, enough so that I’ve spent a good deal of time in its last two instalments. When I heard that the next instalment was going to be set in the 1800s I was intrigued as I had always thought it was a futuristic title. As it turns out that’s not the case as the original Anno game was set in 1404 and it just so happened that I got into the series when it took on its future bent. However it seems the setting matters little as this is very much an Anno game at heart, much more so than 2205 was. For the purists it will be a welcome return to form however for me, someone who quite enjoyed the streamlining, it reminded me of the endless frustration I had in balancing the equation that every Anno game puts before you. Therein lies the rub: this is most certainly a game for fans of the Anno series, just not ones like me.
You father was imprisoned for a crime he swears he didn’t commit and his near allies all fled from his side. Seemingly unable to live with the guilt of the shame he brought upon his family your father took his own life whilst still in gaol. With the little inheritance you’ve been bequeathed at the mercy of your uncle you buy a small island and set about rebuilding your name. In your travels however you find out that your father was telling the truth and it looks likely that the crime was a plot conspired by your uncle to snatch away your father’s fortunes. So you must now become the person that your father raised you to be: a cunning but compassionate business person who can take down your dastardly uncle once and for all.
The engine powering Anno 1400, which from what I gather is Blue Byte’s own internally developed one, appears to have received a few improvements for this instalment. Most notably this comes in the form of NPCs wandering around your town, something that I don’t recall either of its predecessors having. It might sound small but simulating those things in addition to the rest of the game whilst maintaining performance can’t have been an easy challenge to solve. The artwork is, once again, top notch even if the animations still leave something to be desired (would it really kill you to do the lip synching?). I did need to give the game a few tweaks to get it running properly but after that the game has been quite smooth, even at late game stages. For such a long running series it’s good to see Blue Byte still investing in keeping their games up with the times.
If 2205 was a simplification and streamlining of the core game mechanics 1800 is a regression back to its true roots with the mechanical complexity of previous games back in spades. The core game loop is still very much the same: you have one island which support so much so you have to expand to others in order to keep progressing your citizens up the hierarchy. One influence from 2205 remains though in the form of the “New World” map which has resources that you can’t get in the Old World. There’s also an item system for getting buffs for certain things like your trade union or ships, although nothing that makes a game breaking difference. There are some remnants of the streamlining still there like the buildings being hidden behind the citizen’s needs which makes it quite easy to ensure they’re properly satisfied. One last new feature is the expeditions, essentially side missions that you send a ship off on in order to get some item or unlock something. It’s pretty much blow for blow the same game as I remember 2070 being, albeit with just a single race to play.
The RTS aspect of Anno 1800 is very much secondary to the rest of the game, really only there to function as another part of the overall political landscape that you’ll be playing in. In any engagement it’s going to come down to raw numbers rather than the skill of any one player so your best bet in winning is just to have as many of the biggest ships you can manage. To be frank you can get away without having much military for the majority of the game as it really only starts to become a concern later on when your allies start declaring war on others which you are unfortunately obligated to do as well (lest you then end up in a war with them). This time around the combat at least felt like it was serving something of a higher purpose, I.E. leveraging a NPC a bit more to get something you wanted out of them. Still in the grand scheme of Anno 1800 it’s not much more than a distraction.
Anno 1800 follows the series’ formula very closely with the standard tech tree advanced through meeting your citizen’s needs so they can then be upgraded to the next tier. Being able to see exactly what’s needed to meet that need through the build menu is a nice touch as whilst it wasn’t terribly difficult to find out in the last couple games it was a bit of a chore to have to remember it all the time. Other parts of the UI have also had some good quality of life improvements as well, like the shortcuts on the build menu that let you define a few often used buildings that are a single click away. Your also unlikely to go bankrupt as easily this time around as I noticed it was far, far easier to run a sustainable business than it has been before. Fans of the Anno series will feel right at home as pretty much everything else is identical from a mechanics perspective.
Starting off things are easy enough as you only have one type of citizen and their needs are basic. Moving up the chain is, as it always was, where the difficulty starts to ramp up exponentially as you have to find the balance in providing all the resources needed so that your colony can keep growing. It gets even worse at higher populations as you’ll usually have multiple islands, both in the old world and the new, which all need trade routes to each other to ensure that you’ve got enough supplies in the right spot to do what you want to do. This is then exacerbated by the constant onslaught of on-screen events like the newspaper guy asking for you input on the latest issue, the various factions commenting on your actions and the expeditions needing your attention.
It honestly got to be too much for me this time around and I found myself simply giving up and shutting the game down every time I hit yet another roadblock for something. Keeping a colony going is easy enough, even at higher populations, but once you’re in the multi island, new/old world end game it can get really tiring dealing with all the goings on. This is, of course, what most people play Anno for and to a certain extent that’s what I like playing these kinds of games for to. However Anno felt like it rubber banded back just a bit too far towards the old school way of doing things as I really quite enjoyed the simplification of 2205 as it kept me playing for longer.Of course I know I’m likely in the minority for that given the backlash 2205 saw.
There’s also room for a little polish in a couple of places. For instance it’s not entirely clear that if you select a shipyard and then click somewhere else on the map you’re actually setting the rally point for it. The game doesn’t have a line marker or anything for it so I routinely had ships disappearing to all sorts of weird places until I figured out what was happening. This is the same for any unit as well and the only remedy is to deselect the unit with esc to get around it. A highlight mode for resource nodes (or even a list like the fertilities) would be nice as it can be quite a chore to track down what resources an island has. Changing these probably wouldn’t do much to remedy the ungodly complexity that the core game loop has but it would at least make it somewhat more tolerable.
Give it’s wild commercial success, shipping 4 times the units in its first week than 2205 did, I’m sure there’s no one out there reading this review to decide if the latest Anno game is worth it. Indeed you probably shouldn’t be reading this to decide either as if this is the first you’re hearing of the series then it’s likely not for you. However if you’re like me, one of the odd few who enjoyed 2205 for what it did to the then 6 year old formula then Anno 1800 likely isn’t for you. Sure it has all the trappings we’ve come to expect from the series but its regression back to the mean assures that your time spent with it will be a taxing one. For some that’s exactly what they’re after however, for me, I’d prefer a little more sugar with my coffee.
Anno 1800 is available on PC right now for $59.99, Total play time was almost 7 hours with a total of 19% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s not often that a developer simply explaining the mechanics sells me on the game. Usually if you can’t simply show how it works through a gameplay trailer or similar I’ll switch off as even high concept games can hook you with as much. Still though I was intrigued by the voiced over trailer that GrizzlyGames put on their Steam page for Islanders, a rework of typical city builder/strategy games where there’s no resources to harvest, economies to manage or little NPCs trotting around. No instead everything is based around the buildings and how much you can make of them, something which sounds simple on first take but takes some real practice to get a feel for.
Graphically Islanders has a bright and simple aesthetic, taking inspiration from the numerous low-poly games that have made the style quite popular with the indie crowd. The simplicity is also partly born out of necessity as you’ll quickly start to crow out your little island in short order, making it a bit of a visual challenge as the game progresses. The highly saturated colours coupled with the varied biomes and procedural generation of each island means you’re not likely to get bored of the visuals any time soon. After spending my time in high end visuals from AAA developers it’s been nice to go back to a more visually simple game.
The core mechanic of Islanders is intriguing: instead of it following the usual city builder or RTS trope of giving you a main base and then letting you loose to harvest resources instead you’re given a handful of buildings. Each building you place will give you a certain number of points, something you can maximise if you understand what gives them bonuses. Just blindly plonking down buildings in places that give you the most points isn’t actually a bad strategy to start off with, however you quickly realise that if you want to go after the high score you’re going to have to be a lot more strategic about it. Each of the different island biomes has different mechanics available to it and you’ll need to understand each of them in order to maximise their effect. Further to that there’s numerous late game buildings that have synergies that you’ll need to build towards and that’s when the real challenge starts to set in.
You’ll likely want to set up various areas that are dedicated to a certain kind of synergy like say an area for houses, another for mansions and an area for all your farming/brewing/logging activities. This is because those buildings not only have synergies with themselves they also have strong disaffinity with each other’s late game buildings. This is something that became painfully obvious to me after I’d clustered as many buildings together in one spot only to realise that the late game buildings were effectively useless, preventing me from going on any further. Thankfully there is an out for this but you’ll want to use it strategically lest you abandon all the good work you’ve done and, by consequence, many of those delicious points.
The mechanic I’m referring to is the ability to travel to the next island. The game does confirm with you that you want to move on but it never goes into the why of it. If you’re like me you’ll likely just hit the next island button the second it becomes available, a viable strategy in some cases, however you’re likely better placed to hang onto it until you get yourself into a corner. You see Islanders will go on for as long as you have a building (or + sign, which allows you to get more buildings) in your inventory. If you find yourself in a position where you can’t get to the next lot of buildings and you’ve got a next island available you can continue afresh there. The game will then reset the target score to just 20 above your current, giving you free reign over the next island. Whilst this isn’t always an option understanding this is what helped me go from the 8,000th ranked player to around the 800th. I’m sure there’s even deeper strategies than that but honestly, I’m happy enough with that.
Islanders does have a good amount of polish on it although you can still pull off some shenanigans with building placement if you fiddle for long enough. The platforms seem to be the easiest ones to mess around with as I was able to embed a few water platforms in places where there was no water. You can do this by finding a place where it’ll let you place it and start sliding it against one of the invisible walls the game puts there to help you with placement. Done right you can slide along them for quite a ways, giving you a lot more options than would otherwise be available. I didn’t find any other issues during my playthrough so hats off to the developers for testing it thoroughly.
There are a couple improvements I’d like though. An undo button, even if it was just for the last thing you placed, would be nice as a small quality of life improvement. I can’t tell you how many times I placed a building awkwardly only realising I could’ve done it better if I moved the camera a little bit. It’d also be nice to have a mode that allowed you to rearrange things, possibly with a higher requirement on points for each level, as it’s quite satisfying to place a building just right and have all those little tokens tinkle away onto the score board. Thinking about it more most of the things I’d like to see in the game are just things that’d make me want to play it for longer, not so much things that need to be fixed.
Islanders is a fantastic twist on the typical city builder game, stripping away the mechanical complexity and replacing it instead with skill mastery. The visuals are simple and wonderfully colourful, a trend I’m very much happy to see continue in casual titles like this. The mechanics are simple but take some time to master and even then you’re still at the hand of RNGesus. I may have only played a couple hours of Islanders but I can see it being a good distraction every so often, especially when I’ve only got one hand free (the other holding my daughter, get your mind out of the gutter).
Islanders is available on PC right now for $8.50. Total play time was 2 hours with 73% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve very much come to enjoy the new breed of city building simulators like Frostpunk and They Are Billions. I think this is mostly due to their more relaxed pace than other games I typically play, allowing me to plod along at my own pace, only spending a little bit of time here or there to fix the minor issues in the mostly automated systems. Of course part of the fun is also figuring out just how those automated systems work and, most importantly, what makes them break. Dawn of Man, from the developers who gave us Planetbase, is another title in this vein and whilst it might not have the same brutal mechanical complexity that its predecessor did it still provided me with quite a few hours of enjoyable playtime.
You’re in charge of a tribe of people at the very dawn of early civilisation. You start in the stone age with all the trials and tribulations that comes with it: the availability of food limited to what you can find and hunt, stored resources don’t last long and working in the winter is a game of life and death. It is your job as the invisible hand behind this colony to guide them from their primitive origins and get them to the Iron Age…alive preferably.
Like Planetbase before it Dawn of Man has that Unity-esque look and feel to it that many indie games do. There isn’t a huge amount of detail packed into each individual asset, made more to be looked at from above rather than up close and personal all the time, but for the kind of game this is the visuals are more than appropriate. The lack of detail is also helps ensure that the simulation engine has enough grunt to keep everything running smoothly without running into noticeable performance hiccups. I didn’t notice any performance degradation during my time with the game so it appears to be well optimised for its task. Suffice to say though you’re probably not going to be playing this game for the visuals, you’re in it more for the emergent storytelling that the engine can provide.
Dawn of Man is like pretty much any other city builder that you’d care to point to as most of the basic tasks are the same. You’ll need to provide basic resources to your colony in the form of food, water and shelter all of which you have varying means of acquiring at your disposal. Beyond that you’ll also need to accumulate knowledge points, a kind of currency you’ll gain for hitting various milestones that can then be spent at the tech tree. To advance to the next age you’ll need to unlock that age’s key technology and it’ll come at a hefty price so you’ll need your colony to be somewhat advanced to make it. Beyond that the only other real challenge is the occasional raid from other humans or possibly even a couple animals but, beyond that, there’s not much more to the game. At least at the base level anyway.
Getting into these games is always a bit of a challenge as figuring out how the various systems interact with each isn’t always obvious, nor does the game really tell you much beyond the basics in the tutorial. Typically this is usually where I’ll restart my first game a couple times over, usually as it becomes clear I’ve backed myself into a corner I can’t get out of. For Dawn of Man though I didn’t end up doing that, instead I was able to find ways out of every dire situation I found myself in. Now I don’t know if this is because I’ve played quite a few more titles like this since I played Planetbase all those years ago but it definitely felt like there were a lot more outs in Dawn of Man than I’m used to having.
I say all of this because it means there’s no funny story of me failing miserably and killing everyone, apologies! 😉
Dawn of Man follows the usual trope of keeping things simple in the beginning but adding incremental complexity as you progress through the game. Progression in this sense is pretty linear as new tech is really only unlocked when you move to a new age and you’re only going to move to a new age once you’ve stabilised your colony in the current one. Of course I was playing on the first scenario so I’m not sure how this would play out in the challenge modes, most of which seem to have another built in layer of complexity in order to ramp up the difficulty a bit more. Further to that the game has Steam Community support so I’m sure there’s likely to be many mods and improvements that’ll add all sorts of interesting nonsense to the game in the near future.
For my colony the primary challenge typically came from being out of a particular resource which would stall my progression. The first of these was tannin, required for making leather which I needed for various upgrades and things to improve my colony overall. What I usually found was that, although those resources were available, the work zones I had put down weren’t getting filled with people to complete the work, there were even people showing as underutilised. The way to get around this it seemed was to put down multiple work zones for the same resource rather than having one stacked with the same number of people. Looking through the forums on this I’m not the only one who’s struggled with this kind of challenge and indeed it seems most of the games real challenge comes from the AI wigging out and doing something completely unexpected.
I had quite a few instances of this in my game, the funniest (well, looking back it now anyway) was when half my colonists were walking around starving themselves to death. For some reason there’s certain tasks that the AI will prioritise over eating, to the point of people working themselves to death before they’ll take 10 minutes to get a meal. I eventually worked out that the problem, and honestly this shouldn’t even be a problem, was that the food I had on hand still needed to be “cooked” even though it had been already. Certain other foods can be consumed instantly and, when they’re not around, it seems the AI prefers to try and keep them working than take the required time to cook. It’s a bit of an edge case, I’ll grant you, but there’s dozens of other emergent behaviours (like the AI not respecting hard resource limits you set) that you’ll have to figure out lest they become the downfall of your colony.
Dawn of Man does tend to hide a lot of information behind dozens of menus, many of which aren’t readily accessible. A lot of good information is shown on the various tabs you can put on screen but for some things, like which colonists are idle and which ones aren’t, need quite a few clicks to get to before you can see that information. Similarly, whilst some information is packed together well (like resource limits on the places where those resources are produced) others, like milestones and knowledge point tasks, are on completely different menus. This isn’t something that’s beyond fixing and at the very least I’ll bet that someone from the community will fix it up with a mod in the not too distant future.
Once you get past the basics with Dawn of Man though there seems to be a couple tricks that enable you to basically do whatever you want. For me I found that wool, which is effectively an unlimited resource, sells quite well with traders and so I was routinely clearing them out each time they came by. This is especially good considering that you can buy tech unlocks from them, something I always ended up doing as I’d routinely have 200+ units of wool just lying around. At that point I really was just running out the clock on the game to unlock all the tech and get the last milestone though. For me though that was enough as I was plenty satisfied with the time I had spent in the game by then. More serious players will likely find a lot of enjoyment in the challenge modes and community mods but for this old player I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.
Dawn of Man is another competent city builder from developer Madruga Works, one that’s likely to provide many hours of entertainment to those who love this genre. It certainly felt a lot easier than other games in this genre have of late, although that could quite possible be because I’ve played a number of them over the past few years. Still if you’re after a casual, low stress city building experience then I think Dawn of Man will be right up your alley.
Dawn of Man is available on PC right now for $35.95. Total play time was 8 hours with 28% of the achievements unlocked.
Games, as a whole, have come a long way when it comes to giving the player real control over how the narrative develops. Gone are the days of the simple binary choices, instead we’re treated to branching dialogue trees and emergent gameplay mechanics that allow us to craft our own narrative experience. Often these choices are tied into the concepts of ethics and morality, giving you choices between good and evil (or somewhere inbetween). It’s rare that story choices will have an impact on the game mechanics themselves though, something which Frostpunk (from the creators of This War of Mine) does exceptionally well. Whilst a scenario based city builder likely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea 11 bit Studio’s latest release stands out as one of 2018’s more intriguing titles to date.
The world has been plunged into a new ice age, freezing the oceans and forcing many to abandon their homes. We’ve known about this for some time however and teams of our best scientists and engineers were sent north to figure out a solution. Their hope lied in the Generators, massive coal burning behemoths capable of generating the heat required to keep a colony alive. However, upon arrival, you find the generator cold and lifeless, the teams you sent months ago nowhere to be found. It seems you, as the captain of this expedition, are all that stands between your colony and a bitterly cold end. Are you up to the task of making the hard decisions to keep your colony alive? Or will you, like the others before you, perish in the unrelenting winter that now grips the world.
For a game with such a bleak and dystopian setting Frostpunk is a gorgeous game, both in terms of the graphics but also in terms of the UI and other 2D design elements. I initially had some performance issues with it which I tracked down to it rendering at 4K resolution by default. I’m not entirely sure what caused this but after adjusting it to a more sane resolution (1080p) everything ran extremely well. There are numerous little touches which really sell the experience, like the differing amount of snowfall on the roofs of buildings or the way snow melts away when you plonk down a new steam hub. The lighting and particle effects are top notch too, making the city at night time a particularly pretty thing to look at. Honestly when I first saw this I wasn’t expecting such a visual marvel so hats off to the devs for that.
Frostpunk is a city building survival game with a bit of a twist: it’s scenario based. Unlike many other city building games, which are typically open ended with win conditions you can achieve at your own pace, Frostpunk sets out a goal for you to accomplish in a set amount of time. Whilst not every playthrough will be identical due to the RNG elements they will always play out the same, allowing you to get better at a particular scenario through multiple playthroughs (or through, you know, Google). For the first scenario, the only one which I completed, this means setting up a colony to survive in an ever increasingly cold environment. You’ll have to provide food, shelter, medicine and heat to everyone in your colony whilst also keeping a close eye on hope and discontent. This by itself would be challenging enough however the random events that occur will mean you’ll have to make some tough decisions about which direction your colony will take and what kind of leader you want to be.
Things start off relatively simple: you just need to keep everyone alive. The steady decline in temperature though will force you to start making some tough decisions early on and this will start to shape your path going forwards. Many of the early decisions are tough choices between doing the “right” thing and something that will greatly help in your colony’s survival. Of course survival isn’t everything and whilst you might be able to easily keep everyone alive you’ll quickly find yourself with an unhopeful lot of malcontents who want nothing more than to overthrow you. Herein likes the core challenge of Frostpunk: carefully balancing each part of the equation to ensure that everyone makes it through yet another day, including yourself.
The random events that you’ll uncover play into this mechanic as well, many of which will lay to waste any carefully laid plans you might have. For instance in my first mildly successful playthrough I did what any human being thinks they’d do in such a situation: I tried to save everyone. This saw my colony’s population double in a very short amount of time, putting an incredible amount of stress on the meagre reserves I had accumulated. This was further compounded by the unavoidable storm event which shut down all my food production and wreaked havoc on my coal production facilities. The end state was dozens of people dying every day due to starvation, cold and trying to save the coal mines from complete collapse. My choice of wanting to do the right thing by everyone ended up dooming them all to die and so began my next playthrough: the one where I prioritised survival of the few over the many.
This playthrough wasn’t without its challenges of course but armed with the knowledge I’d gain from failure I felt much better prepared. Indeed it was interesting to explore different options for solving the same problem like using coal thumpers instead of mines. This allowed me to have them right next to town with good heat coverage, vastly reducing the amount of sick people the mines generated. This also opened up a lot more space for me to build other ancillary services in, making expansion that much cheaper. Of course there were also some other things I did which I hadn’t considered before like building multiple research centers to speed up technological progress. The final path through the storm still wasn’t a cakewalk however, the generator only being able to sustain overdrive for maybe half of the duration (even with all the upgrades) but it was enough that I didn’t end up in the frozen starvation ridden hell I had created before.
Like most games in this genre Frostpunk will lay out a good set of basics for you but from there you’re on your own. The tech trees (including the law ones) offer up multiple ways of solving problems with many of the later ones making up for the questionable choices you may have made earlier on. At first glance some options look better than others, like the buildings that seem to produce more output per person than others, but in practice they might be anything but. Indeed my first playthrough that put tech supremacy over anything else was a dismal failure, forcing me to consider a different approach. In the end it seemed like a steady trek up the tech tree, focusing on upgrading current infrastructure first before pursuing new solutions, ended up being the most viable approach. I’m sure I could get another 2 or more playthroughs out of the first scenario alone by just exploring the number of options available.
The story of Frostpunk, whilst following a kind of set path, is mostly one you’ll craft yourself. Nearly all the choices you make will have a direct impact on how the game plays out, creating a narrative that will be uniquely your own. It’s one of those games which I think will make great discussion pieces for a long time to come as we regale each other with how we overcame each of the challenges the game presented to us. It is, however, an exhausting and bleak narrative which is why I haven’t been back to it after finishing the first scenario. I don’t regret my time with it at all but I’m certainly not foaming at the mouth to get back into it.
Frostpunk is a harsh, unforgiving experience that rewards players who experiment, fail and try again. Its gorgeous art direction brought to us by 11 bit Studios own in house Liquid Engine was a surprise delight, something I certainly wasn’t expecting from a game like this. The game mechanics, which are deeply intertwined with the narrative elements, makes for a confronting affair; challenging you to make decisions that will be difficult to live with. Like many similar games though it’s an exhausting experience, one that will keep drawing you back but is easy to close the lid on once you’ve achieved victory. Frostpunk then goes down as one of my surprise delights for the 2018 gaming year, providing a great bit of distraction between the AAA release storms.
Frostpunk is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 22% of the achievements unlocked.
The RTS genre, once the king of all PC games, has been relegated to the sidelines for the past decade or so. You’ll still see its roots in the new genres that it spawned, like the MOBAs and Tower Defense games that are now ubiquitous, but an honest to goodness RTS is few and far between. Indeed the last true RTS I reviewed was almost 2 years ago now and since then there hasn’t been anything that has caught my fancy. However that changed when They Are Billions caught my eye when it popped up as one of the top games in my State of the Game post series. Now I typically steer clear of Early Access titles, reviewing before 1.0 always feels a little premature, but given that the hubbub surrounding the game didn’t seem to be dying down I figured it was probably worth a look in.
17 hours later I can report that it is, even if it still has the rough edges that comes with Early Access.
They Are Billions is set in the distant future where a great zombie apocalypse has destroyed almost all of civilisation, leaving but a few thousand behind. Your job is simple: survive 100 days in this world by building up a colony that can withstand the raging hordes of zombies that will come after you. To do so you’ll need to gather food for your workers, gather materials to build defenses and buildings, and train an army to fend off the dead. It all sounds easy right? Everything does until there’s a horde of zombies kicking in your door.
The game’s visual steampunk aesthetic has a slight dream like feel to it, I think partially due to the fact that it’s all hand drawn and animated. Make no mistake though the hand drawn part doesn’t mean a lack of detail as you can zoom in ludicrously close if you want to try and pixel peep on your units. The engine powering it is a custom one developed by Numantian Games and is apparently capable of handling quite a lot of units on-screen. Certainly the game didn’t miss a beat on my PC, handling the larger zombie invasions without breaking a sweat. Those hoping for Linux and OSX versions will be disappointed though as it’s a .NET based engine and the developers aren’t particularly interested in trying to optimise it for those platforms in the near term. For us of the Windows PC master race however we can get this in up to glorious 4K resolution, if that’s your thing.
They Are Billions is a combination of RTS, city building and roguelike game elements. The game takes place in real time and the base building, whilst comparable to your typical RTS affair, feels a lot closer to city builders like Banished than it would a true RTS. The roguelike elements come mostly from the random map generation which, depending on what seed you get, can make your life incredibly easy or frustratingly hard. Of course there’s nothing stopping you from playing a map for 5 minutes, seeing what you’ve got to work with and restarting if you don’t like what you see. There’s upgrades to be researched, tech trees to unlock and various different types of army units all of which have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. All in all it’s a pretty competent RTS, something I didn’t expect given the fact it’s PVE only.
The game currently has no tutorial to speak of so after selecting your map preferences (more on that later) you’ll be dropped unceremoniously into a game with a command center, 5 troops and a whole lot of questions. The basics are relatively easy to figure out: there’s primary resource categories like wood and stone, secondary resources like workers and food and the ultimate limiting factor: gold. Anything you build will draw from all 3 of these resource pools and different tiers will have different requirements. Bases have a power grid which can be extended through the use of Tesla Towers which limits where you can build things (even unpowered defenses, for some reason). This usually means that you’ll be able to expand aggressively up until a point where you’re short of a critical resource. It’s at that point you have to figure out what you need and whether or not your current territory can provide it. If not you need to expand and thus you must venture forth into the unknown.
Here is where the game sets out its first challenge for you. The map is littered with zombies, some by themselves and others in groups. Some of them wander around and, when you’re unlucky enough, one of them will stumble into your colony. If you’ve got some defenses around you’ll know but often it’s not possible to have every approach guarded or fenced off. So the first dozen or so games are likely to end in tragedy because a single zombie got through, managed to infect one tent or other structure and the infected multiplied out of control from there. If you’re also unlucky enough to stumble across one of the zombie towns (which look like theme parks for some reason) you could also unwittingly bring a horde of zombies down on yourself with your only hope being that they stop chasing you once you’re out of vision range. This by itself would provide enough challenge to keep most players interested for a good while but They Are Billions doesn’t stop there.
Oh sweet jesus it doesn’t stop there.
Every 10 days or so you’ll be treated to a wave of infected coming at you from an area of the map (north/east/south/west). It’s up to you to guess which side of your colony they end up on and you’ll have a limited amount of time to ready your defenses before they get there. The first few waves can be easily dealt with by your original troops and a wood wall but the numbers get exponentially larger from there. The size of these hordes can be changed by a setting when you set up the map (as can be the number of zombies that are scattered around) but even then if you misjudge where they’re coming from or don’t have the proper defenses in place when they get there it can be all over quicker than you’d think. Indeed several of my games ended because the horde figured out that one section, even though it was a much longer route to get to, was much less defended than my other parts and blasted through my woeful defenses. I’m sure the waves get absolutely terrifying beyond the 70 day mark but I honestly couldn’t tell you because I never got there.
I did eventually manage to get a good strategy in place but the problem is that, in order to endure the later waves, you must expand in order to tech up sufficiently. This increases your attack surface and thus, the more defenses required to keep it in check. There is, of course, an equilibrium point but I only managed to reach that after numerous failed games and several difficulty notches down from the standard. It was at this point where I started to grow tired of the game and decided to leave it at that. Honestly with 17+ hours in the game I don’t think that’s a bad thing, indeed I’ve put down higher budget titles much quicker and for less than what They Are Billions has done to me. I guess I want to mention that to say that whilst there is a lot of replayability here it’s not infinite and the rough edges of Early Access are likely to start wearing on you after a while.
Those rough edges are quite numerous too. Army management is a chore as the hitboxes on the zombies are so small that trying to micro units is a complete waste of time. Similarly upgrading buildings with hot keys will sometimes work, sometimes it won’t which means its usually quicker to just click to make sure that it will work. Double clicking units and buildings will select all of those types of units, even those out of your current vision range. This can be problematic when you’re trying to say, upgrade a wall before a horde as you could inadvertently end up selecting all the walls and upgrading the ones on the other side of the map. Crashes aren’t common thankfully but alt-tabbing did cause it to lock up on occasion and I did have it refuse to start a game sometimes for whatever reason. Finally the pathfinding on units is so bad that you’ll often find groups of your own units getting stuck on each other, soldiers getting stuck in zombie hordes that they can navigate around or even units deciding to take the most absolutely absurd path to get to where you directed them to. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if you could queue up move orders but that doesn’t seem possible currently (this also impacts patrols, which can only have 2 points currently). Of course these are the kinds of things that you expect to see in an Early Access title, and I’m sure they’ll be made better over time, but if you’re thinking about diving in now caveat emptor.
They Are Billions brings a new experience in the RTS genre that I don’t think anyone was expecting. The combination of RTS, city building and roguelike elements blend together into an experience which has quite a lot of replay value in it. I certainly didn’t set out to spend as much time in it as I did and so there definitely is something there that many will enjoy. The Early Access tag is well earned given the numerous issues that need to be ironed out, including content related things like a tutorial and the inclusion of a campaign. In its current form though They Are Billions is definitely worth it for those who, like me, have been craving a new RTS experience but have been left wanting by the offerings that have come to the table over the past couple years.
They Are Billions is available on PC right now for $24.99. Total play time was 17.4 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked. Game was played during Early Access.
The following that Bethesda games have is anything but unwarranted. Their games are some of the greatest examples of giant, open world RPGs that are packed to the rafters with detail. Their continuing support of the modding community has meant that many of their titles have had life well beyond any other similar games. They do, however, have a tendency to be released with a number of quirks, glitches and issues that dramatically affect playability. Fallout 4 continues the Bethesda tradition (and the Fallout franchise) in earnest, giving players an exceptionally large world to explore whilst suffering from some incredibly rough edges that severely tarnish this otherwise brilliant game.
Fallout 4 throws you into a post-apocalyptic wasteland based in the pre-war state of Massachusetts, now called The Commonwealth. You were one of the lucky few to be granted into one of the numerous Vaultec bunkers, protecting you from the war that raged on outside. However your bunker was not like the others, instead of living out your days underground you were instead frozen in stasis, left to dream away the years. You awoke only once to bear witness to a terrible event before you were quickly frozen again. When you awake again and find the world in ruin you have only one goal in mind: to right the wrong that was done to you on that tragic day.
With 7 years between titles you’d be expecting a large upgrade in graphics and Fallout 4 certainly delivers that. All of the expected current generation trimmings are there like advanced lighting effects, dynamic weather and scenes that are chock full of detail. When compared to its current peers though it’s a little below average, with lower poly count models and less detailed textures, however that’s likely a function of the large draw distance that Fallout 4 favours. Indeed there are many other areas that likely received a lot more focus than the graphics and, considering the mod-centric approach Bethesda takes towards their games, it’s likely something they felt would be remedied without a lot of additional effort on their part.
Fallout 4 has a breadth of detail that’s hard to do justice in a single summarizing paragraph and I’m sure there’s things in the game I simply didn’t see even with the large amount of time I spent in it. At its core Fallout 4 is an open world FPS RPG with city building thrown in as an extra distraction and progression mechanic. There’s a main quest line you can pursue if you so wish or you’re free to wander off into the wasteland, searching for hidden places or doing battle with the various inhabitants. You can barter for gear or craft your own, something which takes a rather large amount of investment but is most certainly worth the pay off. You can join factions and help them in their crusade to better The Commonwealth and bring companions along with you who provide interesting dialogue and can do certain things for you. In all seriousness there’s something for pretty much everyone in Fallout 4 as it can be pretty much whatever kind of game you want it to be.
Combat feels very much the same as its predecessor, retaining the VATS percentage based attack system alongside the more traditional FPS style play. I had chosen to not invest points in VATS skills in order to put them elsewhere, hoping that my FPS skill could make up for the difference. Whilst that’s true to some degree Fallout 4’s combat is most certainly based around the use of VATS and I found myself relying on it more and more as I continued to play. That could be partially due to the fact that the FPS experience isn’t as polished as say Call of Duty‘s as the reticle didn’t always seem to be in complete alignment with where my bullets were going. Your mileage may vary depending on your build though as I’ve heard aiming isn’t much of an issue if you’ve built yourself a melee slugger.
Levelling up in Fallout 4 seems to come often enough so long as you’re engaging in some form of activity. Pretty much everything you do, from exploring to building cities to doing quests, will grant you some amount of XP. If you’re looking to power level (like I was) then investing heavily in INT early on is a must as I was rocketing past my friends who had a similar amount of play time. If you’ve focused your build elsewhere there are other ways to increase your XP gain, like the Idiot Savant perk. Whilst the inclusion of a respec ability or service would’ve been great the relatively easy levelling means that you were never too far off unlocking a perk you wanted. Again if you’re reading this some time after Fallout 4’s initial release I’m sure there’s already a mod that can help you in that regard.
The city building part of Fallout 4 is anything but shoe horned in and provides a very effective way to progress other aspects of your character that might be lacking. The picture below is my purified water farm out at Sanctuary, something which provided me both with a reliable supply of caps as well as a relatively effective and free healing item. Getting your settlements up to a good size, with all the right trimmings, does take some effort to get done (especially if you need to go hunting down certain materials) but the rewards are most certainly worth it. It would be nice to have a bit more clarity around what influences certain things, like what attracts more settlers or what influences raids, but after a while you start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
The crafting system feels like a double edged sword. On the one hand it’s hard to deny that the crafting system is deep and rewarding as some of the things you can craft (or mod) are really quite overpowered. On the other hand however it’s marred by the age old inventory problem, where you can never be sure what you’ll need and so you feel compelled to grab everything in sight. Whilst the tag for search system is a great addition it would’ve been nice to have something akin to a recipes book that I could consult whilst in the field. Sometimes I know I wanted to make a certain mod but hadn’t flagged the items for search before I had left my workshop. Jumping out of the quest, going to a workbench, and then trucking back in isn’t something that I’d call fun which is why I often left it. Once your settlement gets to a certain level you can get around this a bit with stores, but it’s still a bit of a pain.
It wouldn’t be a Bethesda game if it wasn’t extremely janky and Fallout 4 is no exception. In my first hour I encountered no less than 3 bugs which completely broke the game for me, leaving my character unable to progress. The most irritating one of these was when I’d go to use a console and then get stuck when I quit out of it. As it turns out this was an issue with systems that would render higher than 60fps, as the physics simulation is tied to the render rate. This meant my character would jerk out too fast and get stuck in his own body with every control proving to be unresponsive. To fix this I had to set an FPS limit on my graphics driver in order for the game to work properly. I have not once had to do that before and honestly it’s astonishing that you could have a PC that’s too good to play a game. It’s telling that my in game save says I’ve played for about 27 hours but Steam says 31 as that’s how much time I’ve lost to bugs that could only be solved by reloading the game.
It’s not just game breaking bugs either, there are some design decisions made in Fallout 4 that just don’t make sense on the PC platform. The 4 choice dialogue system, with its summaries that often don’t match up with what your character actually says, feels like a backwards step. I can understand the pip boy interface is part of Fallout’s aesthetic but actually using it on PC is an exercise in frustration. The city building, whilst brilliant in almost all other regards, lacks an overarching interface to manage many of the banal tasks like assigning resources to task or identifying new settlers. These are all things that aren’t above being fixed but it’s obvious that Bethesda’s priorities were elsewhere and a lot of the clean up is going to have to be done by the modding community.
The main storyline is pretty average with the clichéd opening cinematic giving you a pretty good indication of what to expect. When I was discussing it with some of my Smoothskins we came to the conclusion that if you’re looking for a solid, directed narrative in a Bethesda game you’re likely to be disappointed. Instead the real story comes from your experiences in the game, how you influenced events and what decisions you decided to make. Indeed after finishing the main questline I felt like nothing had really happened apart from being made to eradicate the opposing factions with extreme prejudice, no choice of saving them or bringing them under my wing. With that in mind I think Fallout 4’s story is best left alone and the tales of your wasteland journey take over instead.
Fallout 4 is exactly the kind of game we’ve come to expect from Bethesda: a grand sweeping world upon which you can build your own story (whilst enduring the trademark jankiness). The incredible girth of the game cannot be understated as it can be easily described as a FPS, an RPG and even a fully fledged city builder and simulator. The numerous ancillary mechanics are all well done, allowing you to really craft a character the way you want. However it’s irreversibly tainted by the numerous issues that are guaranteed to plague anyone who wants to brave the wastelands of The Commonwealth, something which can only be solved by mad quicksaving. Overall Fallout 4 is one of this years must play games but it might be best served after a patch or two with maybe a mod on the side.
Fallout 4 is available on PC, PlayStation4 and XboxOne right now for $59.99, $59 and $59 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 31 hours of total play time with 52% of the achievements unlocked.
You don’t have to look far to know what the greater gaming community thinks of the latest installment in the SimCity series. The first couple weeks were plagued with issues with many people being simply unable to play while the lucky few who got in experienced multiple, game breaking bugs. Accusations flew left and right with Maxis eventually stating it was all their fault although it was hard to deny that EA had a hand in it as well. It was so bad that EA even offered all purchasers another free game in order to compensate for it (even if you bought after they announced this offer, which I did). Still with all that in mind I tried to approach SimCity with an open mind as possible, hoping to see the game outside of all the teething issues that have plagued it relentlessly.
SimCity is, just like all its predecessors, a game that revolves around building and improving your very own city. You’re given a small amount of cash and your choice of various plots of land to begin with and after that its up to you to make it on your own. There are numerous factors that influence how your city develops, from your layout to natural resources and even how well developed the greater region is. There’s no in built narrative to speak of but the story of each individual city will be different which leads to some great conversations about how you overcame the various adversities sent your way.
Graphically SimCity is very reminiscent of other Maxis games in that they’re not exactly cutting edge but that has the advantage of running on pretty much everything. The use of tilt-shift perspective for when you’re zoomed in quite far is a nice touch although it doesn’t help hide some of the extremely low poly models used. A quick bit of searching reveals this isn’t the first 3D SimCity and its predecessor, SimCity Societies, looks pretty similar. Considering that game was released over 5 years ago now I would’ve expected a much bigger jump up, especially considering neither of those titles were available on consoles (and before you ask why they’d release it on consoles they did exactly that with SimCity2000).
You begin by either joining someone else’s region or creating one of your own. Joining someone else s has the advantage of potentially giving you a lot of benefits if they’ve got some big cities set up already, like access to upgraded buildings before you’d have the capability to build them, but like most people I chose to start out on my own. After creating your region you’re then sent to select a section of it to begin building your town in, and thus your journey begins to becoming the world’s best mayor.
From a core game play perspective there’s not a whole lot that’s changed over the years. You build roads, which now come with handy guide lines so you don’t make odd sized sections, zone them up for Residential/Commercial/Industrial and then wait for people to arrive. As more people come into your town their requirements for various bits of infrastructure increase so you’ll quickly be adding things like water towers, power stations, sewage outlet pipes and so on. Unlike previous SimCity games you don’t have to lay each bit of connecting infrastructure separately as everything follows the road which makes things a heck of a lot easier. Eventually you’ll reach a point where you want to start attracting higher wealth individuals to your town and that requires some rather careful planning.
It’s all well and good to lay everything out in order to maximize the amount of space available for people to build on, and indeed that’s what will drive your population forward in the beginning, however you’ll eventually need to add additional services on which have circular areas of influence. This is somewhat at odds with the regular way of doing things, especially if you’re using the guide lines which can lead to some hard decisions. Early on its not too bad but later on when you’re dealing with giant skyscrapers the decision to knock one down in an attempt to make the rest of the region more desirable can back you into some painful corners. This is all part of the challenge however as your progression from a low density, low wealth town to a high density. high wealth one is predicated on how well you can make decisions like that.
Like I mentioned previously one city’s progress benefits the whole region and thus there’s really no shame in starting another town should you tire of your current one. Indeed I found my stride somewhere in the middle of my third city, one that was able to leverage off all the other upgrades my previous towns had. It’s also very clear that some locations are far more ideal than others as any place with hills in them is pretty much guaranteed to be unusable, so whilst choosing a lake frontage with mountaintop views sounds like a good idea initially you’ll likely hit its limit far faster than you would a boring, flat patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere.
Now I deliberately avoided playing Sim City until things had calmed down in the hopes that I could avoid some of the issues that causes such an uproar. I did have a few teething issues stemming from my Origin not being installed properly (although all other Origin games work fine, strangely) and the installer simply refusing to run but I was past that I was always able to login. Unfortunately I was unable to play with one of my friends due to him starting on region 2 and I on region 1, something which I thought wouldn’t be a problem but EA has locked those regions down to only those who’ve played on them before. Sure we could start over again but that’s not what we wanted to do, which was a little annoying.
Whilst that was irritating it was nothing compared to the dumb as a rock AI that SimCity uses. Now there’s been quite a bit of investigation into why this is but it all boils down to the pathfinding algorithm which is used for pretty much everything in the game. Sims, cars, electricity, etc. all use the absolute shortest path to get to a destination. Because of this you get a whole lot of really illogical, emergent behavior from various systems. The best (or worst, really) example I can come up with is in one of my towns there’s 2 garbage dumps, each with numerous trucks. However upon picking up rubbish they will all go back to the same garbage dump, even though it’s full and the other one is not much further away. The only way to get around this is to make them almost identical in length (I.E. right next to each other) which is a right pain in the ass. You’ll also find that this will affect things like buildings in certain areas (some commercial/industrial places will never get workers and be routinely abandoned). You can work around this with careful city planning but realistically you shouldn’t have to as the AI should be smart enough to apply costings to paths that would avoid those situations completely.
There also comes a time when your city has reached a certain point and there’s not much more you can do to it until you get more money or your population increases. When this happens you’re pretty much relegated to waiting out the clock which can get rather boring. Indeed I found that once I was getting around the 75,000 population mark there was little I could do to speed up the population growth as anything I did either did nothing or caused a dip before it recovered again. Now I just might not be getting it or reached the limitations of my current city design but since all my advisors weren’t saying anything productive and my approval rating was 85% I struggled to see what else I could do. Searching for some guides also didn’t really help out either, which just led to me giving up on the city and trying again.
I found it pretty easy to lose a lot of time on SimCity as the initial stages are always a fun little balancing act that drew me in much like Anno 2070 did. Still there was always a timer ticking in the background, counting down to the point where I’d be unable to see a way to grow my city further and would simply go again. I’m glad to say that the majority of the issues that plagued its launch are gone now but there are still some teething issues with the initial game process and the dumb as bricks AI can’t be updated quick enough. Overall it’s an average game which unfortunately falls short of many of the expectations placed on it, but none of them are beyond fixing. Well, apart from Maxis/EA’s reputation however.
Sim City is available on PC right now for $99.99. Total play time was 9 hours.