City building games are a lot like open world and sand box titles, as whilst they might contain some form of over-arching narrative much of the true story of the game emerges from your interaction with it. I’ve avoided the truly open ended games for the most part, primarily due to their seemingly endless beta states, but that’s not to say I haven’t been intrigued by the stories they generate, far from it. Thus when the tales of people’s experiences with Banished started to percolate through the Internet I was intrigued as the punishing mechanics led many to give up in frustration, only to come crawling back the next day. I feel much the same way and the lack of a pre-determined win condition only made it worse.
Exiled from your home town you find yourself in charge of a group of villagers who need to make a new life for themselves. You start with little more than a pile of resources, somewhere to store them and a desire to not die in the first winter that will come soon enough. Over time however the challenge shifts from simply surviving to keeping your town functioning, making everyone happy and ensuring they have everything they need to keep subsisting. The longer you play the more intricate and delicate the equation you need to balance becomes as a mistake in one area can have effects that ripple far beyond where you think they did and, if you’re not well prepared, devastate your town.
Like most games which have a tendency to generate a lot of on-screen elements as they drag on Banished’s visuals are a relatively simple affair although they do look particularly nice when zoomed all the way out. Many of the buildings have a very similar look and feel about them, even though there is a bit of variation in the house models to break it up a bit, which can lead to some confusion when your town is tightly packed with numerous structures. It’s relatively easy to remember where you placed important buildings though and often you won’t need to hunt around for them anyway. That being said there does seem to be some notable slowdown when you’re scrolling around, even in the early stages when there’s not much on screen. This may be due to my preference to playing on 5x speed, however, although I neglected to test that out.
Banished is a city building game, one not unlike Anno 2070 where you’re on a never-ending quest to find more resources in order to grow your population so you can…get more resources. Compared to other city building games that come with tech trees and other intricately layered mechanics Banished is actually quite simple, mechanically speaking. You can essentially sum it up as needing to provide life’s basics to a group of people (food/water/shelter) and doing so in a way that allows the town to grow and prosper. Typically this revolves around finding ways to overcome particular resource shortages with the most forgiving of which just prevents your town from getting bigger whilst the worst could see everyone dead within a few short years.
In the beginning you’re focused on 2 primary resources: food and firewood. Building enough houses usually doesn’t take you too long however getting up a store of firewood and establishing a renewable food supply is one thing that’s likely to kill your town in its first winter if done too late. There are several methods to getting this done although my favorite was by far the quad placement of a forester, herbalist, hunter and gatherer which provided a bevy of resources that kept coming in continually. After a while however you begin to notice that the amount of resources required to build other buildings, the ones that will enable you to do more things, can’t simply be gathered anymore and you start needing more people to accomplish certain tasks.
This then pushes you towards the dangers of increasing your population at a rate that you can’t currently sustain, quickly showing any flaws you have in your city planning. Typically the first hurdle you’ll face is food as the surplus you generated over all those years starts to quickly evaporate. Then, not too long after, your workers complain of their tools breaking and they start to become inefficient at performing their assigned tasks. Considering one of these tasks is making more tools this can have devastating consequences down the line, wiping out a good chunk of your population because it was all predicated on things getting done in a certain time frame. Once you’re past those initial hurdles though the problems you’ll face become much subtler and can easily go unnoticed for decades of in game time.
Indeed my first town that made it past the 20 year mark, which suffered all of the problems I described above, seemed to be struggling to make use of the vast resources I had put before them. No matter how many more people were born I just couldn’t seem to provide enough of everything for them, the parable of Sisyphus running through my head. A quick bit of research showed that my entire town was uneducated and thus would be incredibly inefficient at performing any of their tasks. Including a school now wouldn’t solve the problem for years to come and, with an aging population and a declining birth rate, it was unlikely that would even save my poor town. Sadly I closed that game file and started again.
What followed has been a mildly successful town, reaching 300+ citizens in under 50 years with a surplus of food at almost all times with maximum happiness and a mostly educated population. The same problems propped up again of course however this time around I was able to head them off before they became too much of an issue. However new problems arose simply from the size of the population I was now dealing with and small decisions or events, placing a house in the wrong spot or a teacher dying, had effects that I couldn’t fathom. There are solutions of course but these are the sorts of things that you just don’t think about when you’re starting out and solving them can sometimes be more costly than just living with it.
For the most part Banished avoids some of the more major issues that have plagued other city building games however there still seems to be times when things go awfully wrong for no apparent reason. The screenshots above shows one of my population (one of many, unfortunately) taking a trip down to the bottom right corner of the map for no particular reason. This wouldn’t be an issue, tyipcally, however many of the people who embarked on this trip would come back cold, hungry or simply die on the way. Additionally whilst you’re able to dictate a number of people to a job you have no control on who does what job, sometimes leaving you with people travelling long distances to do work. You can fix this by removing all your workers and re-assigning them every so often but it feels like a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist.
I was really surprised by Banished as when I first looked at it I figured it would be a couple hours of fun figuring everything out and that’d be it. However the initial simplicity belies the greater complexity that lies underneath everything, something which is only revealed to you the longer you play Banished. It has its flaws and once you get past a certain stage there’s a definite feeling of “playing the waiting game” so you can progress to the next stage but it’s hard to fault Banished for that when it managed to draw me away for so long. You’ll definitely need to enjoy the city building genre to really appreciate Banished but that’s about the only barrier to entry I can think of.
Rating: 8.5 / 10
Banished is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total game time was approximately 15 hours with 17% of the achievements unlocked.
Sandbox games and I have a sordid history. Whilst I often enjoy them it’s not usually because of the engrossing story or intriguing game mechanics; more it’s after I’ve finished the mission at hand, saved my game and then promptly engage Jerk Mode and go on whatever kind of rampage the game allows me. Long time readers will remember this being the case in my Just Cause 2 review where I grew tried of having to do everything within the rules of the game and modded my way to Jerk nirvana. Still there have been some notable exceptions, like Red Dead Redemption, where the combination of certain elements came together in just the right way to get me completely draw in an engrossed in the story.
Minecraft, whilst sharing the sandbox title, has almost no elements of a traditional game in this genre. Having more in common with game mods like Gary’s Mod Minecraft throws you into a world where the possibilities really are only limited by your imagination. Over the past few months I have watched the news around it go from a single story to a media storm and I was always fascinated by the way it managed to draw people into it. Up until a couple weeks ago however I hadn’t bothered to try it for myself, not even the free version. However after watching a few videos of some of the more rudimentary aspects of the game I decided to give it a go, and shelled out the requisite $20 for the full (beta) version.
That’s a deep mine…
The premise of the game is extremely simple. You’re thrust into a world where everything is made of blocks and at night time hordes of zombies and other nefarious creatures will emerge from the wilderness, baying for your blood. The tools you have at your disposal are only your blocky hands but the world of blocks around you can be used to your advantage. By cutting down trees you can make wood which can then be converted into a whole range of tools. The race is then on to create some kind of shelter before nightfall comes, so that you might have a place to hide when the horde arrives. As you progress deeper however you’ll begin to discover other rare and wonderful materials that can make even better tools and weapons, leading you to delve even deeper underground in order to find those precious resources.
However whilst the basic idea extends to only surviving through the night there’s the entire meta game of creating almost anything you can think of within the Minecraft world. The world’s resources are pretty much at your disposal and their block like nature means you can build almost anything out of them. This has lead to many people building extremely ornate structures within Minecraft, ranging from simple things like houses right up to the Starship Enterprise. As with any sandbox game I took the opportunity for absurdity as far as I could imagine it at the time building a 1 block wide tall spire high up into the clouds where I mounted my fortress of evil.
All that’s missing is an Eye of Sauron.
The basic game mechanic of Minecraft has a dinstinctly MMORPG feel to it. You start out by cutting down trees for wood so you can make a pick axe to mine cobblestone. You then use the cobblestone to make better tools in order to mine iron. You then use the iron to mine other resources like gold, diamond and redstone. Much like the gear grind that all MMORPGs take you through before you’re able to do the end content Minecraft gets you hooked in quickly with the first few resource levels passing quickly. Afterwards it’s a much longer slog to get the minerals you require to advance, usually requiring you to dig extremely deep to find them. Like any MMORPG though this mechanic is highly addictive, leading me to lose many hours searching for the next mineral vein so that I can craft that next item.
After the first week however I started to grow tired of the endless mining that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I had dug all the way down to bedrock and had found numerous rare resources but seemed to be lacking the one mineral I needed to harvest them: iron. Googling around for a while lead me to figure out that I was digging far too deep to find much iron and that the best place to find resources was in randomly generated dungeons or caves, basically pre-hollowed out sections of the map that were always teaming with resources (and zombies). After randomly digging for a while I started hearing the distinctive zombie groan and I followed it to the ultimate prize.
Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff!
Exploring this find lead me onto a string of caves all containing the resources I needed to progress further and I was hooked again. Whilst the last few hours I’ve spent with Minecraft have focused more on extending my fortress of evil and the surrounding area I still find myself often taking a trip down into the mines in the hope of coming across another cave or mineral vein as the excitement of finding one is on par with getting some epic loots in a MMORPG. I also set about setting up a Minecraft server so that I could play along with some of my more dedicated Minecraft friends although with a server fan dying I’ve had to put that on hold until I can ensure that it won’t overheat with more than one person playing on it.
Would I recommend this game? Most definitely, especially if you’re the type that enjoys sandbox style games that allow almost unlimited creativity. I was the kind of person who lost hours in Gary’s Mod, making whacky contraptions and using them to unleash untold torment onto hordes of Half Life’s NPCs. The tables are very much turned in Minecraft’s world but it’s just as enjoyable and I have no doubt that anyone can lose a few good hours in it just exploring the retro world that Minecraft generates for you. The game is still technically in beta but for the price they’re asking it’s well worth the price of admission.
Minecraft is available for PC and web browser right now for a free trial or AU$20. Game was played on a local single player instance for the majority of game time with an hour or so spent on a multiplayer server. No rating is being assigned to this game as it’s still in beta.