I’ve started to grow rather fond of these little city simulation games, each of them bringing a different bent on the same genre. Looking back over my gaming history it seems to have started with Anno 2070, a game I never would have played if it wasn’t for a gentle prodding from a good friend of mine. Since then I’ve played quite a few of them (even an Early Access one, breaking my rule!), usually getting to my first victory until I moved onto greener pastures. It’s rare that one manages to bore me into not wanting to play again which is unfortunately what Surviving Mars managed to do.
The premise of the game is simple enough, you’re part of a mission to establish a colony on Mars. You’re given a base set of infrastructure, a truckload of cash and a set amount of time to build the colony up to a respectable level. Mars isn’t a particularly hospitable place though, devoid of much of the resources that you’ll need to keep your humans alive and happy. At the same time you’re still at the behest of your supporters who are keen to exploit the natural resources of this yet untapped world.
Now I’ve never played any of the Tropico series or other titles that Haemimont Games is known for so I don’t have much of a baseline to compare it to. On first glance I thought it had a little bit of that Unity engine feel to it but they apparently have their own, custom built engine which was upgraded for Surviving Mars. It has a similar visual style to that of Cities Skylines with heavily stylized visuals including simple textures and bright colours. There are some cool bits of visual flair like vehicles, buildings and infrastructure all getting dusty after being around for a set period of time. Whilst the simple visuals are necessary, due to the game’s heavy simulation load and potential for a lot of items on screen, they’re certainly not one of the game’s negatives. I only wish the game gave you a little more reason to enjoy them up close (more on that later).
Surviving Mars is a colony building simulator with all the essentials you’d expect from such a game. You’ll be given a starting location and a set of infrastructure to get you started but beyond that you’re left on your own. Initially you’ll just be commanding a drone army, one that needs little more than a stable power source to survive the harsh martian terrain. You’ll use that to build up the minimum set of infrastructure required to start bringing humans down which in turn leads onto bigger and better things. Along the way you’ll research new tech, explore new terrain and grow your colony further. Your win condition will depend on which nation you align yourself to and it could be something as simple as reaching a colony of 200, building multiple domes or researching enough tech. There’s certainly a lot to do and, in true simulation fashion, it may take some time to get to the next thing you want to do. For some that’s part of the charm but unfortunately, for this writer, it was what ended up killing it.
Getting started in Surviving Mars is a bit of a struggle as even the quick game option doesn’t really give you a lot of direction to start off with. It gives you a few basic instructions here and there but unlike other simulation games, which usually give you a simple mission which will help you establish a basic colony, Surviving Mars does no such thing. This leads to maybe an hour or two of screwing around to figure out what you should do, in what order and what each of the mechanics is best used for. I believe this is intended, mostly to keep some mechanics a bit vague in order to generate those desperate moments when you forget to do something and suddenly your colonists are running out of food or something. Whilst I’m all for emergent gameplay elements like that, indeed one of my favourite stories is trapping all my colonists inside their first dome in Planetbase with no oxygen and no power to get out, forcing them takes away much of their charm. Still most of them are easy to avoid even though there’s no base overview panel or similar to keep a track on all the colony’s key stats.
Building up your colony can be done relatively swiftly if you make good use of the resupply mechanic, allowing you to spend capital to get resources from Earth. The limiting factor there will be your research however as the small domes you get at the start are too small to be useful. Making you colony self sustainable is quite the challenge as the specialised buildings you’ll need to fabricate the different resources (like polymers, electronics and machine parts) all require specialised facilities, most only built inside domes, and the requisite resources. Both of those will require colonists and the greater the number and mix of them you have the harder it will be to ensure they all have everything they want. This is somewhat easier in the later stages of the game when you have access to bigger domes of course but it does mean that the first few hours of a game are usually a bit of a struggle. From there though it starts to drag a bit as you get into a repetitive cycle of: ordering new resources from Earth, expanding as much as you can, waiting for some tech to research and repeating until you’ve had enough.
Indeed that’s what killed it for me in the end. I was definitely making progress but I still didn’t have a fully, self sufficient colony that I could depend upon whilst I focused on the higher order things. I did have domes producing each of the resources but the rate at which they did was so slow it was barely enough to keep everything going. So instead I’d be focused on the resource depots (since there’s no page to say you have X units of metal or anything), figuring out what I needed where, ordering enough from Earth and then ensuring they all got transited to the right places. Strangely it feels a lot like one of Paradox’s other games, Stellaris, where you end up getting bogged down in the minutiae of running everything rather than having fun with the big picture.
A lot of this is born out of the lack of quality of life features that would make the game a lot more fun. For example drones have no idea about anything outside of their control zones, meaning that if there’s resources in one zone that are needed in another (even if those zones overlap) they will never get transported there. This makes setting up new areas a real chore as you have to manually transport everything there. The lack of a colony health or overview page makes checking up on resources a real pain with the only indication of a problem being the alerts when things are on the brink of disaster. Worse still the normal notifications like “We have an oxygen shortage” are usually inaccurate, actually meaning that a dome you just built (that doesn’t have people in it yet) hasn’t been connected yet. The research trees are hidden unless you discover it in an anomaly or research up the tree which means there’s no driving motivator to push you along one path or the other. Also there’s no drag to select a bunch of units, a real pain when you want to reallocate a bunch of drones between zones.
All of these things, combined with the dreadfully slow pace of research in the early game, make it really hard to keep going past a certain point. Some of Surviving Mars’ negatives are easy enough to deal with, like the lack of tutorials or quality of life mechanics, but when it takes so long to do so little with so much effort I just end up getting bored. It’s a shame as there’s obviously a good amount of mechanical depth in Surviving Mars but at 6 hours play time I felt like I had been playing for 30. I didn’t even get to check out the “individually simulated” colonists, not that I think that would’ve made much of a difference in anything.
Surviving Mars is a game that feels like it left beta just a little bit too early. The core tenants of what the developer wanted to achieve are there, a colony simulator with a Mars bent, but the things that would make the game actually enjoyable to a wider audience are missing. Perhaps this is par for the course with the developer and the game is perfectly built for their fans, I wouldn’t know as this is the first title I’ve played from them. Still considering their pedigree I had higher expectations for what would amount to their 9th game in the genre. Given that the game has mod support and DLC to come it’s entirely possible that these issues will go away in due time but that wouldn’t be enough for me to recommend the game as it is now.
Surviving Mars is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $39.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours playtime and 12% of the achievements unlocked.
If you cycled back a decade or two the generally held definition of what constituted a game was fairly rigid. Today that definition is far less defined with the indie explosion bringing us all kinds of experiences that dance on the edge of what could reasonably be called a “game”. Whilst I’ll leave that debate to one side (nestling it close by the “are games art” discussion) the games which have kindled that debate are undoubtedly some of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a gamer. Everything, which comes to us care of the developer of Mountain, is an exploration of the idea that everything is connected and how we define nebulous concepts such as self and identity.
You are something, but so is everything else. How do you define what is you and what is everything? The definition of you can change at any time as you journey through space and time. Wherever you go there is always something which is made up of something else. The worlds you explore are infinite, built upon and under one another. If this is all sounding incredibly nebulous then you’re right, it is, but that’s the beauty of the story that Everything tries to tell. As you explore you’ll be many things and each of those things will give you a new perspective on what this world is.
Everything uses a stylised, low-poly, simple texture aesthetic. It’s a procedurally generated game with various different biomes defined covering everything from lush forests to galaxies to 1D sub-atomic structures. Whilst this does meant that that there’s not much variety within a biome there’s enough of them to keep you interested in exploring for hours on end. For the most part it runs very well however once you get a bunch of entities together on screen performance starts to take a noticeable dive. That’s mostly of your own making though so it’s easy to avoid performance issues if you don’t go overboard. All said and done whilst Everything’s simplistic visuals are a nice backdrop to the game’s music, narration and core game play.
Exploration is the core mechanic of Everything as it puts you in a large world for you to explore. The mechanics of how you do this are a little esoteric and not all of them will be available to you at the start. Initially you can just move around and see the thoughts of other things as you walk past. After a while you’ll be able to become other things and then explore the world from their perspective. From there you’ll then learn about ascending and descending, essentially exploring the next “layer” in the realm of existence. There’s also a bunch of other mechanics in there like herding, dancing and a few other things but they’re essentially distractions from the main exploration mechanic. In terms of an overall objective there’s really none as Everything is meant to be experienced more than played, as evidence by the inclusion of an auto-play system which turns Everything into an overgrown screensaver.
When I first saw a demo of Everything I honestly thought it was a joke. The animations are laughably simple with animals rolling around and the various “thoughts” you come across are typically nonsense cobbled together using an algorithm. However there’s something strangely relaxing about it all, watching a big herd wander across a landscape with the soothing backing music playing away. Once you get a handle on the ascend/descend mechanics then the game starts to take on a sense of purpose as you look around you environments for new places to explore.
If I had one gripe it would be that the exploration mechanics of Everything are so obtuse, even after the tutorial, that it can be hard to feel like you’ve got a sense of control. Initially you’re limited in what you can do, which is fine given the broad scope of the game. However even after unlocking all the mechanics it can still be a bit hard to understand how to ascend or descend, what certain UI elements mean or how to direct yourself to the place you want to go. Of course you could avoid all this frustration by just letting the auto-play do its thing but, realistically, I think that’s really only meant for when you’ve become tired of doing the exploration yourself. Still if you can get past this initial barrier the experience of Everything is quite rewarding.
The story, if you could call it one, is to listen to Alan Watts‘ lecture on his theory that everything is connected. The ideas are presented in a highly consumable way and often enough that you won’t go long without stumbling across another audio log to listen to. Whilst I’ll leave the philosophical debate to the reader the ideas presented are interesting and wholly in alignment with the ideas the game wants to present. I’d be interested to know how this particular lecture played into the creation of Everything as the developer has noted that in creating Mountain he saw the potential to represent more of the world through an experience like this. Either the game was somewhat inspired by the ideas presented or they were retrofitted into the game afterwards. Either way it would be interesting to know the creator’s perspective on this.
Everything is a brilliant exploration of ideas through the use of simple graphics and mechanics. Whilst they’re a little obtuse on first glance after a while they start to make sense and that’s when you can truly take control of your journey through this game’s procedurally generated world. After slogging my way through numerous AAA titles and text adventures of late it was great to be able to sit back and simply explore without a goal to achieve. It’s not a game for everyone but, if you’re suffering epicness fatigue from the last couple months barrage of AAA titles then this might just be the unicorn chaser you need.
Everything is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 44% of the achievements unlocked.
I have many fond memories of the hours I wasted in the Tycoon style games. Most of those hours were spent trying to build my business empire in Transport Tycoon but, every so often, I’d take a break for something more…cathartic. That’s when I (and I’m sure many other gamers) turned to Rollercoaster Tycoon, a game which could satisfy that sadistic need every child has to wreck mayhem on unsuspecting NPCs. In the years since though I hadn’t gone back to the various incarnations in that franchise, my attention drawn elsewhere by shiny AAA titles. However you’d be hard pressed to miss the fervor that has surrounded Planet Coaster the latest incarnation of Rollercoaster Tycoon to come out of Frontier Developments. It’s an impressive game however I think the good ship nostalgia has long since set sail on these types of games, at least for myself.
Planet Coaster is your typical business management game; putting you in charge of the day to day tasks of managing an amusement park. You’ll build attractions, rides and design your own rollercoasters to delight and terrify your park guests. There’s numerous variables to fine tune that ensure your park stays clean, enjoyable and above all profitable. Depending on the mode you select you can either pit yourself against a set of objectives, race the clock or simply set yourself free to do whatever you feel like. As someone who hasn’t played any of the intervening instalments in this franchise since 20 years ago Planet Coaster feels like the modern equivalent of that game I lost so many hours on.
The look and feel of Planet Coaster takes inspiration from The Sims franchise, favouring stylized models, a clean UI and a similarly styled sound track. The level of detail is impressive, especially when you see that all the models are constructued from different parts that are available for you to use. Occaisionally there are performance issues which seem to stem from menus not rendering properly but otherwise everything runs well, even at full speed. Considering Frontier Developments’ pedigree this level of polish should come as little surprise as they’ve been invovlved in Tycoon style games for some 13 years now, having developed expansion packs for RollerCoaster Tycoon 2.
There are 3 main game modes in Planet Coaster: campaign, challenge and sandbox. Campaign sets you against a pre-established park with a number of goals that you need to work with and serves as a decent introduction for Planet Coaster’s main mechanics. Challenge gives you a blank slate and a limited amount of funds in order to establish yourself as a self-sufficient park. Sandbox is, as you can probably guess, the creative mode that allows you to do whatever you wish. Depending on how you like to play these kinds of games one of the modes will likely suit you better than the rest. However I’m sure most people will just head straight for creative so they can start building the death-coaster of their dreams.
I started off playing in campaign mode figuring that it would be the best way to get introduced to the game’s mechanics. If you’ve played these kinds of games before you’ll be able to figure most things out and the pop ups on the left hand side will be able to fill in the blanks. However for new comers it’d probably take some getting used to as there’s no clear direction on how to go about the rudimentary tasks that the game assumes you know how to do. As things start to get a little more complicated, like when you’re trying to figure out your finances, this is where the tutorial system starts to break down and you’ll likely be off to the Steam forums searching for advice. This is not a bad thing per se, however it does show that Planet Coaster is still polishing up some of the rough edges left over from its Early Acess days.
I have to admit though that after playing the campaign for a couple hours I simply lost interest in playing. Back in my younger days I can remember having lots of fun building all sorts of wild and whacky coasters. Now though? The idea of building a coaster just didn’t have the same sense of joy it used to, echoing the feelings I had back when I played Contraption Maker (the spiritual successor to The Incredible Machine). I’ve been told that challenge mode is a far better way to play the game and I’ve been meaning to go back, really I have, but the drive to do so just hasn’t been there. It’s a shame really as Planet Coaster seems like an objectively good game, one that does its heritage justice, but it just didn’t tickle me in the right way.
Looking at the stats of Planet Coaster though I can definitely see that I’m in the minority, with the average play time hovering around 13 hours.
Planet Coaster brings with it all the things that captivated many of us in our younger days: the freedom to build the amusement park of our dreams, the thrill of designing the perfect roller coaster and, of course, unleashing untold destruction on your park’s denizens. For this old gamer though the magic just wasn’t there, the couple hours I spent with the game just not hitting the nostalgia buttons hard enough to make me come back. Planet Coaster is an extremely well built game however, one that is likely to provide many hours of entertainment for those who love games like this. Maybe one day I’ll find the drive to go back and change my mind but, for now, it’s going to be sitting on the shelf.
Planet Coaster is available on PC right now for $44.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.
Journey was one of my favourite games of its release year, blending together many well-crafted elements into an enthralling experience. Long time fans of Thatgamecompany weren’t surprised at this though as the developer had a history of delivering atmospheric titles with brilliant sound tracks. For me though it was the multiplayer aspect that made Journey shine; the co-operation through minimal communication a truly inspired mechanic. However Thatgamecompany’s usual release cycle of every 3 years has come and gone without another release, leaving us wanting for the kind of experiences that they were known to deliver. In the mean time however former art director for Thatgamecompany Matt Nava has formed a new games development house called Giant Squid Studios and their first game, ABZU, has just been released.
It’s easy to see Matt Nava’s influence in ABZU, the main character sharing similar stylings to the main protagonist of Journey. Indeed the setting, whilst being the polar opposite of Journey’s desert, shares a lot of the same elements. After a short cut scene, which obviously holds some significance to ABZU’s plot, you’re dumped in a massive underwater world and set forth to explore. The how and why of everything are left up to you to figure out as there’s no dialogue nor walls of texts to explain anything. The only helping hand you’ll get is a few screens that fade in to let you know what the controls are, after that you’re on your own.
Borrowing yet again from it’s spiritual predecessor ABZU has the same highly-stylised, almost cel-shaded like aesthetic. Unlike the barren wastes of Journey ABZU is a world that teams with life, schools of fish and other sea creatures dancing about as you explore. These visuals are then accompanied by an incredible sound track done by Austin Wintory, the same composer behind Journey. I’ll endeavour to stop making comparisons between the two but calling it “Journey but in the sea” seems like the most apt description of what ABZU is on first glance.
ABZU is an exploration game, one that makes full use of the underwater environment to provide you with much more freedom than traditional platformers do. You’ll be dropped into a gated off area, one that you must explore in order to find your way out. Along the way you’ll find various collectibles, unlocks and various items that are used to unblock/unlock your way through to the next section. There’s no combat to speak of however, the game preferring to gently remind you that there’s a better way than throwing yourself head on at every problem. Overall it’s a very simple game but as we’ve seen before simplicity in game mechanics doesn’t mean it isn’t a sophisticated experience.
The exploration is done mostly well, the environments being full of detail that’s worthy of exploration just by itself. Unlocking additional creatures from their underwater prisons adds them directly to the local ecosystem, sometimes changing it radically. You move at a good speed, especially with boost, making it easy to get across a map in no time at all. What’s lacking however is an indication of how complete each section is, leaving you to wonder if you really did get everything or there was something left behind. I may have just missed the signal that showed you that but I remember Journey’s version of that being very obvious and if ABZU has a similar mechanic it was far too subtle for me to pick up on.
I did as instructed when the game asked me to use a controller however even then the controls felt a little janky. I do understand that there’s a certain amount of inertia when you’re in water however the way the character moves sometimes doesn’t quite line up with what your inputs are. It’s not unusable by any stretch of the imagination but it does make some moments far more frustrating than they need to be. I didn’t swap it out for the mouse and keyboard however, so I’m not sure if that might have resolved my issues.
The story is told through your interactions in the world, various hieroglyphics that adorn parts of the world and lots of cut scenes that paint a high level picture of what your character is trying to accomplish. Consequently there’s not a lot of meaning you can derive from ABZU directly, it’s all inferred from what you see on screen. This doesn’t prevent the game from having some truly impressive emotional moments however, many of which are reminiscent of Journey, but it does mean that the higher meaning of the game is somewhat elusive.
ABZU is a true spiritual successor to Journey, taking all of what made its predecessor great and applying it to a whole new setting. The visual and sound design both come from direct from those who worked on Journey and their influence can be seen throughout ABZU. Mechanically it plays largely the same with the added freedom granted by being underwater used to great effect. The controls are probably the one black mark against the otherwise solid experience, making some aspects of the game just a bit tedious and awkward. Overall though ABZU is a standout debut title for Giant Squid Studios and I very much look forward to what they do next.
That is if Thatgamecompany don’t release something before them, of course!
ABZU is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
There are some genres in which few dare to tread for fear of being crushed by the long reigning champion. For city building games there was really no comparison to Sim City, a game that had been around for decades and had captured the hearts and minds of a generation of gamers. However their last release, Sim City 4, showed that even the mighty can fall and the community began looking for alternatives. There have been others that have recieved some praise, like Banished and Anno 2070, but they never tried to beat Sim City at its own game. Cities: Skylines is a new entrant into the city building genre and it takes direct aim at the crown, going right at the foundation of what made Sim City great.
Despite its namesake Skylines is not the next instalment in the Cities series of games (which are developed by Focus Home Interactive) instead it comes to us care of Colossal Order who’s previous titles are the Cities in Motion series. Essentially these were cut down versions of what Skylines looks to achieve, being focused solely on the deployment and maintenance of subway systems in famous locations. Skylines is then a natural progression for Colossal Order, taking their lessons learnt from the mixed reviews their games received and aiming high in the wake of Sim City’s failures.
Skylines is built on the ever popular Unity engine which means, as usual, it has a very similar look and feel to other titles that have been released on it. For a city building simulator this isn’t much of a bad thing as you’ll spend the vast majority of your time at a birds eye view. That being said close inspection of my screenshots from both games shows a pretty similar level of detail with the main difference being Sim City favours a light and bright colour palette whilst Skylines is a bit more muted. Indeed comparing both of them it feels like Skylines simply directly ripped off most of the visual and interface elements from Sim City as even the order of the bottom row is identical. The layout works however so it’s hard to fault the imitation but usually it comes with just a touch more subtly.
As you’d expect Skylines is a city building game, one where you start out with nothing and have to build your way up to a grand town with thousands of citizens. The controls and mechanics will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played their fair share of games in this genre, especially anyone who’s spent even a small amount of time with Sim City. You’ll drop down roads, zone areas for certain types of development and deploy services that your citizens needs. Interestingly most of it isn’t accessible to you right at the start, instead the game slowly unlocks things as your population increases. Considering there’s no real tutorial to speak of (those hints don’t really count) this helps in understanding what each of the services does and where the best place is to place them. On top of this Skylines boasts an AI that doesn’t do the things that made Sim City 4 such a chore to play however it still has its own set of quirks, some of which are fun and others which are downright confusing.
Like all city building games Skylines has an optimal configuration for the roads, facilities, zoned areas and transportation but what that is can be a tricky thing to decipher. My first couple towns, which were centred on a main arterial with small roads coming off it, worked reasonably well at the beginning but quickly fell apart once the population started ramping up. The configuration below seemed to be the best one I could come up with, using long main roads without many intersections and having side roads come off them. The main limiting factor is the fact that zoned areas need to be next to roads so there’s only so much space you can pen in. I wholly admit that this was me trying to solve the transport problem with roads alone as once I added in metro lines things seemed to get a lot better.
There’s a few quality of life features in Skylines that makes your time a little easier, like power jumping from adjacent buildings so you don’t have to run power lines all the way through your city to get it going. The same can’t be said for other services though and so you’ll spend much of your time laying water pipes and other various bits of infrastructure to expand your city. That’s not terribly laborious however it does start to lose its lustre after a little while. It would be nice to be able to create patterns that you could stamp down, something which would form its own little mini-game of developing the best city cells to use for your larger deployments. Thankfully that’s something that might end up happening thanks to the already thriving modding community that’s sprung up around this title.
The city simulation seems fairly robust with things behaving how you’d expect them to. It’s a little more logical than what I remember Sim City being with things like the size of the road mattering when you place down a fire station or university. This adds a little more complexity to the city planning aspect of the game but it’s also far more rewarding when you manage to place a single building that then covers your entire city for that particular service. The AI actors are also not functionally retarded and perennially homeless like their Sim City brethren were, going back to the same homes each night and not taking the least cost path to everything all the time. This means that you can stack certain services on top of each other to service a particular need, something you just couldn’t do in Sim City 4.
As to whether Skylines is “the game Sim City should have been” well in all honesty they both play very similarly, Skylines just has the benefit of the hindsight gleaned from the last failed release of its competitor. The main gripes (poor AI, can’t expand, always online, etc.) have all be addressed but they were things that weren’t above being fixed in Sim City anyway. I do like the potential the modding community has though as that could extend the life of this game well past anyone’s current expectations. Indeed just looking through the mods now shows many solutions to the issues currently plaguing players and some interesting concepts for improving some of the core game mechanics.
Which, if I’m honest, are where Skylines is the weakest. Try as I might to understand why certain things are happening in my game, like below where there are dozens of buildings lying abandoned, I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s going wrong. Sim City got around this problem somewhat with the advisors, something Skylines attempts to do with the tweet roll at the top, however it’s hard to trace problems to their root cause when all the information you get is “This building is abandoned!”. I know its hard for smaller developer houses to invest heavily in tutorials or helpers like this however this was what made me stop playing as I really could not be bothered hunting around forums to figure out how to stop buildings from being abandoned, make commercial places produce more goods or the bloody lumber yards from burning down even though they had 2 fire departments right next to them.
Cities: Skylines does a great job of taking the fundamental ideas that Sim City 4 attempted and addressing every issue that the community had with it. The resulting game is something that has the same look and feel of its elder genre brethren but has many of the features the community wanted in it. That doesn’t necessarily make it the game that Sim City should aspire to be, indeed Skylines lacks any real originality or direction to where it might be going in the future. It’s a solid title, one that plays a heck of a lot better than Sim City 4 did, however it’s derivative and the onus is on the community to take it in new and strange directions to help differentiate it from its main competitor. That being said it’s still enjoyable to play and most certainly worth its current asking price.
Cities: Skylines is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.
The Steam Top Sellers chart is a rather strange place. For the most part it’s in a constant state of flux with titles popping on and off it almost daily, usually when sales of a particularly good title go on sale or a hotly anticipated game goes up for pre-order. However there are some titles that manage to secure a top spot on there for a long time, seemingly immune to the regular ebbs and flows of the market. Titles like Rust, DayZ and Counter Strike: Global Offensive are regularly up there but every so often one title manages to break into there, seemingly out of no where. Spintires was one such title attracting quite the following for a game that, to me, seemed to be little more than Euro Truck Simulator with mud. Still the videos were enough to convince me to give it a look in, even if it wasn’t a genre I’d typically play.
The premise of Spintires is simple: you’re to get a bunch of lumber from the mill to its destination, easy right? Well in between those places is a whole mess of treacherous terrain just waiting to stop you in your tracks, foiling any attempt at lumber delivery. However you have a multitude of vehicles at your disposal which you’ll need to make full use of if you want to complete that objective in a reasonable amount of time. Honestly after playing it for a few hours I feel like my initial assessment of it was quite apt as whilst the premise sounds rather dull there’s definitely a lot going on in Spintires that I’m sure simulation geeks will love.
Spintires is quite impressive visually, making heavy use of level of detail and depth of field that give it a much more realistic feel than it would otherwise. Games like this typically forego visual flair for more accurate simulation but Spintires seems to get a decent mix of both of them, being both visually appealing (if a little drab) combined with a driving simulation that matches my brief experience with driving in similar conditions. There are limits to the simulation of course which will provide joy and annoyance in equal amounts but overall Spintires is a surprisingly polished product.
As I mentioned earlier the core gameplay of Spintires is centered around taking lumber from one location and delivering it to another. Depending on what vehicles you have at your disposal (or unlocked by exploring the map) you’ll be able to deliver different loads which have higher point values, allowing you to accomplish the task quicker. However it’s not simply a matter of driving from one location to another as there are numerous hazards that will get in your way, not the least of which is the seemingly endless mud tracks that you’ll be trucking across. In some of these situations you’ll have to bring along additional help in order to get yourself out of trouble or, if you don’t plan it right, dig yourself in even deeper.
Whilst the controls are pretty easy to get the handle on initially it becomes quickly apparent that the tutorial, if you could call it that, is a little bit inadequate. The above screenshot shows you how most things work however even if you combine that with looking at the keybindings you’re still likely to find yourself wondering how to do certain things. Thankfully Oovee’s forums are filled with tons of good advice for people like me who had no idea what they were doing. Still it feels like Spintires could probably do with a short tutorial map with everything unlocked in it so you could get a feel for the game before diving into the bigger maps.
The simulation experience is pretty good and from what I can remember of the short time I went 4WD driving with my scount troop back in the day it mirrors real life pretty well. Whilst you’ll most likely be running full diff lock and all wheel drive constantly (which makes the point about it consuming more fuel mostly moot) there’s still a lot of challenge to be had, especially if you’re just exploring or trying to remove the cloaking on a map. The core game of transporting lumber is somewhat less exciting though as unless you’re transporting the long logs you’ll be doing multiple trips and that just loses its luster very quickly. Still there’s a lot of fun to be had in trying to bug out the physics engine, which I assume is part of the appeal for games in this genre.
It doesn’t take much to do that unfortunately as whilst the simulation seems to work well in most circumstances it starts to behave very oddly once it’s outside its comfort zone. Rocks floating softly up and down, vehicles having a distinct preference for being right side up (unless special circumstances are met) and ground changing it’s consistency randomly are all issues I encountered during my brief play through. There was also the issue of it crashing to desktop a couple times with one time resulting in my save game file disappearing. There’s also the issue of the camera which seems to be too smart for its own good, making moving it around an exercise in frustration. In all honesty it has much the same feeling as many other just off Early Access games do, something which I feel all developers need to take note of and avoid in the future.
Spintires is a game that I’m sure will appeal to lovers of this genre as it recreates the experience of driving heavy vehicles through muddy terrain with a disturbing amount of accuracy. This shows through in several aspects of the game, namely the visuals and the core simulation engine, something which I’m sure many will appreciate. However it still seems to be suffering from some early stage teething issues and honestly whilst I can see the attraction to these kinds of games it’s probably not the kind of title I’ll find myself investing anymore time in. So if you’re a lover of all simulators great and small you probably won’t go wrong with Spintires.
Spintires is available PC right now for $29.99. Total game time was 4 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked.
Arguing with facts on your side can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task, especially on the Internet. For the most part when I claim something on this blog I try to back it up with reputable information sources if I haven’t done the research myself and if I’m talking completely out my ass I try to make that known so you can take that information with the required grain of salt. However when people comment on here I feel obliged to reply to them, even if what they’re saying has no basis in any kind of fact or reality. This can feel like a form of asymmetric warfare at times as the amount of time taken to disprove something is usually an order of magnitude more than what it took to write it in the first place.
Now I don’t usually like to pick on people who make comments here, if you’ve taken the time to post here I feel it’s better to respond to you directly on the post, but some of them simply demand more attention than I’ve already given to them. The one I’m thinking of in particular is this comment where they claim that herd immunity has been debunked, something that’s never been brought forth in any research paper that I’ve been able to track down. As far as I can tell it all comes down to the opinion of a one Dr. Blaylock who’s opinions have always been radically different from the scientific norm. He’s not a scientific dissenter either as many of his claims have been thoroughly debunked by other research but the herd immunity claim seems to remain.
Whilst it would be all well and good for me to simply link to research papers which show case this fact quite well I thought it’d be better to point to something that demonstrates the point visually. The picture above is from this simulation tool which shows the results of what happens when a disease moves through a population. The first couple are interesting to get a feel for how an uncontrolled infection can spread even if only a single person is infected. The latter ones deal with some real life situations and demonstrate quite aptly why herd immunity works and why we’ve started to see small epidemics in isolated populations where they don’t vaccinated their children.
Probably the most shocking revelation I got from this simulation was the existence of Waldorf schools who’s official stance on vaccinations is “we have no official stance” but then immediately goes on to recommend parents don’t vaccinate their kids against a wide spectrum of diseases. Apart from the giant hypocrisy of saying one thing but then encouraging the other this kind of behaviour is inherently dangerous because it will mean there’s a cluster of unvaccinated people in constant contact with one another, a hot bed for a potential epidemic. It’s one thing to claim that but it’s already happened once and there was potential for another outbreak to occur due to the incredibly low vaccination rate. Considering that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world where vaccination rates are above a certain threshold it’s a timely reminder that herd immunity is real and when its broken the consequences can be devastating.
I would go on but I think I’m preaching to the choir here as whilst the number of comments I get disagreeing with me out numbers those who do I know that if that reflected reality us humans would be in a far worse state, health wise, than we are today. The fact of the matter is that herd immunity is real and works beautifully for protecting those precious few who can not be vaccinated for one reason or another. Failing to vaccinate is not only a bad decision personally it also puts others at risk and that’s the only reason I need to support the current standard of mandated vaccinations.
First up have a gander at this beautiful tech demo that uses DirectX 11’s rasterization and post-processing engine to produce some truly spectacular looking images:
If you want to have a play with it yourself you can download the demo from the creator here. The recommended specs for it aren’t exactly mainstream though so it might not run particularly well on hardware that’s a couple years old now. Whilst I haven’t had a go of it myself yet there are a couple things that I picked up on in the video that I think are interesting, mostly because they give us some insight into how we perceive things as being realistic or not.
For starters you’ll probably notice the large amount of blurring that’s present in the video with the only portion of the image that’s always clear being somewhere in the middle of the screen. In photography terms this is referred to as the depth of field of an image or put more simply the area of the image that’s in sharp focus. For the tech demo the depth of field is incredibly shallow most of the time which, whilst not being done in order to make rendering faster (it in fact makes it slower as the whole scene has to be rendered then blurred), it does have the effect of making the scene look at lot more realistic than it would otherwise.
Now I’m not completely sure why depth of field works so well for making generated images appear realistic but the research I’ve dredged up seems to indicate that it has some to do with depth of field being used by our brains as a visual cue. Since most generated images are viewed on a 2 dimensional plane there’s no real depth to any of the images (does a picture of a hallway look like it’s continuing on through the monitor?) but replicating the depth of field seems to trick our brains into thinking it’s more realistic than it is. I’d bet that the demo wouldn’t be looking anywhere near as good if the depth of field wasn’t present and I’ll have to give it a look over to see if there’s an option to turn it off for comparison.
There’s also some other sneaky tricks being used in there like the use of rigid bodies for all of the things being rendered on screen. Whilst the physics appears to be very realistic it’s probably the simplest kind of interaction to model given that a hard object on a hard surface is about as close to ideal as it can come. As far as I can tell there’s either only a single or small number of lighting sources present in the scene which would make the whole thing a lot faster to run.
All this being said however it doesn’t detract from just how good this tech demo looks. There may be a ton of tricks used to get this looking the way it does but that’s what computer graphics are all about: finding those tricks and then using them to our advantage. Whilst you probably won’t be seeing many games based around this kind of tech for a while (the system specs alone are prohibitive) it does show what current generation computers are capable of producing and should excite you about the future possibilities.