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.
The Civilization series is one of the most popular games to ever grace Steam. It consistently holds a spot in the top concurrent player list, beaten only by giants of the platform like DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike. The series has a long history with this year marking some 25 years since the original Civilization was released. Over those decades the core game has evolved considerably, culminating in the latest release: Civilization VI. With this being the Civilization game with the longest development cycle to date, a total of 6 years, anticipation was high but it seems that this iteration has fallen a little short of the bar that was set with Civilization IV.
The story of Civilization VI is, as always, what you make it. The historic figures representing nations are back with their traits and behaviours heavily influenced by their real world counterparts. You’ll take control of one of them, setting out on a quest to achieve victory by one of several means. What path you choose will have a dramatic effect both on how your civilization develops as well as how others percieve you. You’ll need to employ careful strategy to ensure that your path to victory is achievable whilst your opponents is not, a balancing act that unfolds over multiple hours of game time. Indeed the narratives that build out of civilization games are as interesting as the core game itself, giving you war stories to share with your fellow Civilization brethren.
Compared to its closest predecessor (Beyond Earth) Civilization VI has improved both in terms of overall graphical quality and aesthetics. The maps are much more detailed with the various landscapes, structures and units lavished with additional polygons and higher detailed textures. The bright colour palette is a welcome change as Beyond Earth would feel a bit dreary after a long session. The models for the other leaders are a bit incongruous with the rest of the game, sitting in that weird spot between too realistic and not realistic enough. It’s clear that they’re meant to be caricatures but they’re just not stylised enough, sitting firmly in the uncanny valley. The UI has also been overhauled once again making things slightly more discoverable although you’ll still need an hour or so of clicking to figure it out.
The base game remains largely the same as it always has in Civilization games with the noted addition of a few more mechanics and a reworking of some others. Instead of all your improvements being built in the city centre you’ll now build districts for things like military, science and culture. These districts house their own improvements and have their own adjacency bonuses, making their placement a little more strategic. Units are now able to be stacked in a limited fashion, making it a little easier to handle larger armies. Tech advances can now be boosted by completing certain activities, reducing their research time by half. Culture victories are now a viable route to victory with their own tech tree called Civics, opening up a set of advantages that aren’t available elsewhere. Other than that the core game will be familiar to those who’ve played the series before, ensuring that one more turn always turns into more.
If you’re like me and only¹ play Civilization or similar games every so often then you’ll likely be as overwhelmed as ever when you start out. Thankfully it’s pretty easy to get going with Civilization presenting you with a quick start game right off the bat. However even selecting “I’m not familiar with the Civilization series” in the tutorial options still leaves a lot to be explained, requiring several trips to the Googles to help out. It’s probably best to learn by doing and failing as attempting to theorycraft your way to victory can be a torturous exercise, especially when you don’t know the right questions to ask. I think it took me about 4 failed attempts before I settled on a game which looked winnable and maybe 12 hours of total game time. For someone who hasn’t played a civilization game in 2 years I don’t think that’s too bad!
Once you’ve set your sights on a particular victory condition it becomes easy to figure out what you should be prioritising. Like all strategy games running for the victory condition as hard as possible will likely see you fail as the other empires can outplay you quickly if you’re only focused on a single tactic. Thus the early game usually revolves around striking a balance between your preferred victory condition and ensuring the others don’t get ahead of you. This means you’ll usually have a smattering of various different victory paths going at the start before you can really dig your heels in and charge for the goal. I had (predictably) set my sights on the science victory and spent the entirety of my 20 hours in the game figuring out how best to achieve it.
Whilst this particular victory condition does give you a few notable advantages (like better units and buildings long before your opponents) it is incredibly vulnerable to things like spies and religious attacks. It’s also probably the one that takes the longest to achieve overall as you not only have to research all the required tech but also construct it. Each of the components takes around 20 turns to complete, more if you don’t have a great person to boost your output or a heavily upgraded industrial zone. In the end I think I won at turn 450, just shy of the game’s time limit of 500. Had that time come I would have still won just on points, but that would’ve felt hollow compared to achieving an actual victory.
As I mentioned before some of the mechanics of Civilization VI are a little esoteric, requiring a bit of searching to understand them completely. Amenities, which is the replacement for happiness, is influenced by numerous things that aren’t made readily apparent. Early game it can be quite frustrating as there aren’t many ways to get them, especially if the AI isn’t extremely friendly with you (a near impossible feat it seems). Veterans of the series will likely have an easier time understanding what’s going on here than I did but for new comers it can be a little off putting. If you’re lucky enough to have dual monitors (like myself) then it might be a non-issue, just make sure you’ve always got a blank tab ready to go.
During my play through there were numerous design choices which drastically reduced player quality of life when playing. Spies had to be constantly set to guard whatever resource you wanted to protect, meaning every 6 turns would be spent sending them back to where you came. The AI is as illogical as ever with long time allies suddenly declaring war on you for no good reason. Worse still the AI will constantly denounce you for anything you do to them but has no qualms about doing the same back to you. Strangely, and I’ve not found out if this is a bug or not, cities that had been ceded to me would often result in the other empire denouncing me as a warmonger (even if it was from a war they started). This wouldn’t be an issue if it happened once or twice but it’d usually happen every 6 turns or so.
Civilization VI is another great instalment in the series, even if it doesn’t live up to the high expectations that it’s predecessor set all those years ago. The updated visuals are great, ensuring that the long hours spent staring at units and buildings don’t get stale as quickly as they used to. The core mechanics revitalise the core game play ensuring that Civilization VI isn’t just a new coat of paint on an old engine. There’s a few rough edges, some of which I’ve heard have recently been patched out, but the overall quality of the game is still high. For long time fans of the series Civilization 6 is sure to keep you coming back for turn after turn, the hours ticking away as you build out your empire once again. Newcomers will also find a lot to like, if they can make it past the wall of bewildering choices early on. Overall Civlization 6 is a solid title in this series and that will likely be reflected in its continued popularity long after release.
Civilization VI is available right now on PC for $69.95. Total play time was 20 hours with 16% of the achievements unlocked.
¹ I initially wrote “old” here (accidentally!) instead of only but I think the sentence works either way 😉
4X style games aren’t the kinds of games you start to kill an hour or two, they’re the ones you start when you want to kill days. I can remember whole LANs that were lost to games like Alpha Centauri, whoever was “dragging the chain” on their turn ridiculed endlessly until they were done. Indeed when I first spun up Stellaris, the latest game from Paradox Interactive, I recieved a message from one of my friends saying I wouldn’t have time to finish it. As the unfolding hours showed he was 100% correct as even 9 hours with this game feel like you’re barely even scratching the surface. Still I can see the appeal but unfortunately Stellaris tends towards repetition very rapidly, making longer sessions more of a chore than anything else.
You’re the leader of a young civilisation that’s just discovered the miracle of space flight. Like all good civilisations your first task is to set about exploring the universe in the hopes of finding other planets and solar systems ripe for exploitation. Along the way you’ll likely encounter other lifeforms (some more or less advanced than you), relics of civilisations of the past and all sorts of celestial phenomena. The tools you’ll have at your disposal will vary widely each time you attempt this and will greatly impact the way in which you expand into the universe. Whether your civilisation thrives or perishes is up to you and the decisions you make in your journey across the great black.
Like most games in the 4X genre Stellaris errs on the side of simple graphics without too much flair. Since you’ll be spending most of your time zoomed all the way out this doesn’t come up too often, although the lack of detail becomes glaringly obvious for things like the ship designer. Of course these low-fi graphics are a deliberate choice as most of your rig’s horsepower will be focused on churning through the simulations required. For the most part this works well however there are some rather glaring issues with the simulation system which can make your experience far more frustrating than it needs to be (more on that later).
The core game of Stellaris is your typical 4X affair, centred around finding new planets, colonising them if you can and repeating that process ad infinitum. Stellaris shakes things up a little bit by taking a different approach to the upgrade/technology tree system, dividing all upgrades into 3 categories. Each of these categories can be researched by a scientist but what they can research is random. This means that you could, potentially, go the entire game without getting the technology required to build colony ships. Armies, rather than being pre-defined types, are all fully customisable. This means that there’s another element of randomness when it comes to combat as you can never be quite sure how well your army composition stacks up against another. Finally since your aim in Stellaris is to be a true galactic empire there’s a system to add planets to “sectors” which are then controlled by an AI for you. There’s still more to Stellaris however even summarising them all would take longer than I have to write and you to read, I’d wager.
Starting off Stellaris is a daunting prospect as there’s just so much thrown at you that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The tutorial system does a pretty good job of walking you through everything however it’ll probably take a couple retries before you get the hang of the basics. Once you get past that point however the early game can be quite interesting as you try to pick out the best upgrades, figure out where to best place your outposts/colonies and how you deal with the hostiles getting in your way. Indeed I think my favourite part of Stellaris is the early to mid game as it feels quite varied, progress is consistent and there are no major issues getting in your way. It’s once the game starts to creep past the 2 to 3 hour mark that things start to turn south, usually for a variety of different reasons.
Typically you’ll spend the first part of your game defining your borders and trying to cordon off sectors that you can exploit later. Past a certain point though all your territory will be exploited and your borders brushing up against numerous potential foes. It’s at this point you have a tough decision to make: either start preparing for total war with someone (although you should probably do that anyway as it’ll likely come for your eventually) or start attempting diplomatic relations. The latter is, honestly, a total crap shoot as it seems most alien races aren’t willing to do anything unless you lavish them with resources. The former is the option you will be forced into at one point or another as there’s simply no way to expand your territory otherwise. Worse still if you do want to play pacifist there’s every chance that another race will simply not take a liking to you and completely decimate you, something that happened to me on several occasions.
The sector system, whilst a good idea, does little to reduce the burden of ensuring that your system is running as well as it can be. Sure you can set goals and whatnot but issues like a mixed species population, developing factions, etc. will all keep drawing your attention. As your empire grows these problems become more and more frequent making it incredibly draining to run an empire that spans more than a few sectors. Indeed I abandoned a couple games simply because they became too tiresome to continue with, instead wanting to try my hand at starting again to see if there was a better way to set myself up. In the end I didn’t find anything which is probably why I didn’t play as much as your average Paradox Interactive fan does (around 30+ hours, according to the data I have available).
There are also some niggling issues which need to be addressed. The fact that achievements can only be acquired in Ironman Mode is something the game doesn’t make obvious to you and is honestly a pain to get working. It took me more than 5 hours of game play to realise I hadn’t gotten a signle achievement and then another 30 minutes of getting the cloud save feature working so I could actually start a game with achievements on. Worse still the Ironman Mode saves every month, something that freezes your game session every minute or so if you’re playing on fastest. Honestly it’s more frustrating than its worth which is why I think most simply don’t bother. This isn’t to mention some quality of life improvements that are required, like being able to filter planets you’ve scanned by say habitable status, or your colonies by the type of shipyard you have and so on. Essentially a lot of it relies on your memory or simple brute forcing, something which takes much of the joy out of the experience. Indeed I’m not alone in thinking this either as many of the threads I read whilst trying to find these things led me to other players looking for the same features.
The emergent stories of Stellaris can be quite engaging though, both from the perspective of how you grew your empire to the various little pre-generated story titbits that are strewn throughout the universe. One of my empires tried, with varying levels of success, to infiltrate a less developed race to prep them for our arrival. Another alien race found out about this though and accused me of enslaving them. Whilst that was partially the point on my end (it was a strategic planet) the fact that they reacted in such a way was a surprise to me. This did mean the end of my civilisation however as the other alien race was far better equipped for war than I was.
Stellaris is an adequately competent 4X game with a bevy of unique features that keep the experience fresh and interesting, at least in the early to mid game. The random technology trees, procedurally generated galaxies and random alien races means every play through will be unique. However the game rapidly becomes a burden the longer you play it, even with the AI systems that are designed to make your life a little easier. The niggling issues that are still present even a month after release only exacerbate this problem, especially if you’re someone who wants to hunt down all the achievements. Overall I think Stellaris is worth the price of admission, especially for fans of Paradox or the 4X genre, but falls short of my “must play” list.
Stellaris is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total game time was approximately 9 hours with 26% of the achievements unlocked.
For some reason the gaming community has thrived on titles that are, for want of a better word, incredibly brutal. The trend started to take root after the first Dark Souls game which prided itself on not holding the players hand, nor caring if it proved too difficult to be enjoyable. On first look such games were the antithesis to the base ethos of games: that they be fun above all else. However such games, when played well, provide a sense of satisfaction beyond those who are perhaps a little more forgiving. Planetbase is a city building game in this vein, putting you in control of an offworld colony which, if managed incorrectly, will have dire consequences.
You are the invisible hand that will guide these colonists to establishing a viable colony. Upon landing on your planet of choice, with your colony ship full of resources and a handful of aspiring colonists, it’s up to you to give them everything they’ll need to survive. In the beginning their needs are simple, oxygen and water being all you’ll need to make it through the first night, but after that you must find a way to provide them everything they need. Like all closed ecosystems though these things need to be created in balance and should that not be done you will quickly find yourself facing catastrophe. Will you be the leader that leads your colony to success? Or will you become the agent of their destruction?
Planetbase has that Unity-esque feeling that most games developed on the engine have. It’s hard to quantify exactly what it is but like Flash games before them they all seem to share a similar visual style that became something of a trademark. This is especially true for Planetbase which feels like the colonist version of Kerbal Space Program. The simple visual style is partly due to performance reasons, something which could become a concern with larger bases. The visual simplicity also helps a lot with making sure you can keep track of your base layout, something which becomes increasingly difficult as your base grows. Overall, whilst Planetbase won’t win any awards for its graphics, they are far more than sufficient and are perfectly suited to the type of game that it is.
Your goal in Planetbase is simple: you have to build a self-sustaining colony on a new world. As you click your way through the tutorial this seems rather easy, there’s a logical progression to the structures you need to build in order to satisfy the growing needs of your colonists. However once you’re in the real game it’s easy to forget a critical step which leads to the untimely demise of your entire colony (like the above screenshot, taken not 5 minutes into my first game, can attest to). Like all city building games there’s numerous resources that you need to collect, create and manage in order to ensure that everyone in the colony has everything they need. A lack of resources in one place ultimately leads to issues in other areas of your colony and, without proper treatment, life ending consequences. The game may warn you of your impending doom every so often but that can often come too late, the alarm bell serving only to inform you of the inevitable.
Getting through your first night sounds like an easy enough challenge but it’s one that’s incredibly easy to get wrong. Should you fail to build your power array and storage too late you won’t have enough to make it through the night. If you forget to build your water extractor you won’t be able to generate enough oxygen, asphyxiating everyone before they have a chance to build the life saving solution. Thankfully once you’ve figured out these challenges (which are all addressed well enough in the tutorial) surviving the first night becomes child’s play, but the game past that point still provides a significant challenge.
Past the first night your goals turn towards building all the components you’ll need for self sufficiency and that means generating many of the required resources yourself. The first two major ones you’ll need to create are metal and bioplastic which allow you to create all the structures you’ll need. For most players metal is the first roadblock that they’ll encounter as it’s the first thing you run out of and one of the harder ones to produce. There are several strategies to deal with this (and I’ll talk about my approach a bit later) however it’s likely to be the main resource which keeps you back for a long time. Once you’ve got a production line of these two resources going the pace of the game slows down significantly as you look towards planning your future expansions.
Typically the next issue most people run into is food as your colony gains more and more people. What was interesting about this though is how many factors can influence the simple problem of not having enough food for everyone and every single one can mean people start going hungry. Not enough biologists to tend to the plants? They won’t make enough food. Not enough mealmakers in the canteen? People will have to wait for meals and there might not be enough to go around. Didn’t monitor the number of colonists you have? Keeping the landing pad open to colonists constantly might not be the greatest idea as your food production might simply be unable to cope. It took me a good 3 hours to get food working sustainably and even then it wasn’t the most efficient process.
Indeed if you really want to succeed at building a colony then you have to start thinking in much broader terms from the very get go. Whilst the smaller structures are far cheaper and quicker to construct they are by and large incredibly inefficient. The greatest example of this is the biodome with the smallest one only allowing you a third of the number of plants of the largest but costing far more in relative terms. This means that, if building a big colony is your goal, you’ll have judge which buildings to build big right off the bat and which to hold off on. For me it took a good 6 hours of play time before I reached this point and that’s when I was able to finally build a colony that wasn’t always at the brink of disaster.
Once you’ve got that all sorted then the final challenge you’ll face is getting the layout of your base right. Whilst this isn’t as impactful as the other resource challenges I’ve mentioned before it is something you’ll need to consider as your base grows in size. Placement of things like oxygen generators, processing plants and high traffic areas like bunks and canteens can radically impact the efficiency of a single colonist. If you get the layout wrong most of the time it just means progress is a lot slower than it can be but can sometimes lead to base destroying issues. One of the best examples I had of this was having one of my bunkers too far away from an oxygen generator which, when it got full at night when people went to sleep, meant that it ran out of oxygen.
Despite all these challenges though Planetbase managed to grip me in a way that few games have, tapping into that part of my brain that needs to know how this complicated system works so I can exploit it. Indeed whilst it took me 8 hours to reach 100 colonists I barely realised I had spent that much time in it, forgetting myself for hours at a time whilst I watched my little puppets go about their daily lives. There were some frustrating moments of course but they are the kinds of stories these games thrive on, those moments where a lapse in concentration or missing component ends up having unintended consequences. It may not be for everyone (unless a brutal version of Sim City is your cup of tea) but for those of us that thrive on challenges like this it’s definitely worth playing.
Planetbase is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 25% of the achievements unlocked.
I have something of a love/hate relationship with 4X style games. Usually at the beginning I hate them, the complicated web of variables that needs to be balanced properly usually irritates me to no end, especially when I figure out I’ve backed myself into a corner. Whilst that might make put them down initially there’s always that voice at the back of my head that tells me I should try again because this time, it says, you’ll get the balance right. And so the cycle goes until I look at the clock and its 1am…2 days later. The Civilization series has long set the benchmark for the 4X genre and with its latest instalment, Civilization: Beyond Earth, it seems set to keeping setting the standard by which all others will be judged.
Earth lies a ravaged husk of its former self. 600 years into the future humanity made a terrible error, The Great Mistake, that is slowly rendering the planet unliveable. Thus all the great nations of the world put their resources behind a desperate plan: they’d send their best and brightest across the galaxy to find new worlds, to start fresh and save humanity from its certain death. It is now up to you, dear traveller, to restart humanity on worlds that are not of our own. Will you remake humanity in it’s own image? Or will you craft a new kind of civilization, free from the bonds of its past? The world is yours to craft.
Having not played Civilization V it’s hard for me to comment on how the graphics compare to its predecessor although perusing through some screenshots shows that there’s been some improvements, not least of which comes from the form of a better UI. Like most 4X games Beyond Earth tends towards a more simple graphical style mostly because the screen ends up littered with hundreds of objects in no short order, able to bring even a respectably specced machine to its knees. That being said it’s not an ugly game, especially when you’re zoomed out, indeed it’s probably the best looking 4X game I’ve played.
Like all other Civilization games Beyond Earth has a bewildering amount of things to do. It’s enough that, at first glance, you almost feel like you need to read a novel to make sure you know what you’re doing before you click the start button. However, just like other games in this genre, the best thing to do is to simply plonk yourself down and attempt to hammer your way through it, figuring out how each different mechanic works. There’s a semi-helpful AI who’ll pipe up every so often to let you know when something’s happening or there’s a mechanic that needs explaining, which helps a little bit, but the larger overall strategy is still left entirely up to you. With so many options available to you, along with the routine 6+ hour per game play time, you have a recipe for an incredibly addictive game.
Unlike Civilization games of years past Beyond Earth allows you to craft your own history by making a few choices. Your opponents are no longer historical figures, instead they’re representatives of the various factions of Earth that have been sent to settle this planet. The tech tree that we’re familiar with is gone, replaced with a tech web that sprawls out in numerous directions, opening up several different paths to unlocking technology. Beyond Earth also brings with it a system called affinity which sets the overall tone for how your settlement behaves in this new world. With technology trading removed it’s nigh on impossible to research everything in one sitting, ensuring that Beyond Earth will keep you coming back for several more play throughs.
Perhaps the most fundamental thing to understand in Beyond Earth is what all the resources are, what they’re used for and how you can generate the required amount of them in order to unlock the things you want. In my first game I heavily prioritized science which, unfortunately, meant I quickly found myself in an energy hole from which there was little escape. The second time around however I figured out that building out certain resources first were far more advantageous, as was the low hanging fruit in the tech tree. Indeed Beyond Earth, like most 4X games, rewards players for planning out a strategy and then executing it, rather than rushing for the best technology first and hoping your opponent doesn’t get there sooner.
One of the things that I don’t think was explained terribly well was trade. It’s a completely optional thing to engage in, however it quickly becomes one of the largest sources of resources that you’ll have access to. Indeed my energy-first strategy often allowed me to fully kit out a new colony with a trade depot and 2 convoys the second it came online, dramatically increasing its capabilities and growth rate. There are downsides to trade, of course, like your convoy getting eaten by native fauna or picked off by an angry neighbour but trade still seems mightily powerful when compared to the alternatives.
I’m not sure if it was the difficulty setting I was playing on but the AI seems to have some strange quirks when it comes to reacting to what they perceive as a threat. My blue neighbour, who was my biggest trading partner by far, declared war on me twice for nothing I could clearly discern apart from maybe my huge stockpile of energy. The thing is though that they needed me far more than I needed them so the second they broke all trade with me they lost all means to produce additional units. It didn’t take long for me to whittle them down and get a juicy peace treaty as a result but it still felt like the AI should’ve understood the situation it was getting itself into, rather than attempting to bully me with its puny force.
There’s also a few rough edges here and there, like you can see in the first few screenshots in this review. For the most part the innocuous, just seeming to be glitches in certain parts of code that either fail to display something or display it more times than it needs to, but it happened often enough that it did become a little irritating. Since I was coming into this game a little late I usually expect these little rough edges to be gone by the time I get to it so it was a little disappointing to see. That being said the rest of the game runs perfectly so it’s a very small mark on an otherwise smooth experience.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is yet another great example of why Sid Meier’s series is considered the best in the 4X genre. The staggering amount of mechanics, playstyles and strategies that the game puts before you means that there’s always something new to discover or try out, providing nigh on endless hours of entertainment. Like all of the previous Civilization titles it demands a heavy investment of time in order to get the most out of it but should you commit the experience that you’re rewarded with is simply unmatched within its genre. It’s not a perfect experience, lacking a good introduction and having a few rough edges, but it’s still a solid overall experience, one that’s sure to delight Civilization fans all over.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is available on PC right now for $49.99. Total game time was approximately 8 hours with 20% of the achievements unlocked.
Total Annihilation was probably one of my favourite games when it was first released 17 years ago. It wasn’t the massive swarms of units, or the epic scale of the battles, no I loved building up the superpower units that could decimate an entire army in one fell swoop. I’d spend hours crafting the perfect base, one that no one could break through so I could sit there crafting my doomsday weapon. I even downloaded TAUIP to give me even more units and a better AI, sending me further down the TA rabbit hole. It’s spiritual successor, Supreme Commander, was also one of my favourites, even if the sequel fell short. You can then imagine my excitement when I saw the Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter which I couldn’t back fast enough. Here we are, 2 years later, and Planetary Annihilation has finally launched and I’ve spent the last week playing through it.
Humanity has long since left this universe. You are a relic of a war that has long since past, a machine built with a single purpose in mind: to annihilate everything that stands in your path. You will travel to the far reaches of space, seeking out new technology that you’ll incorporate into your unrelenting war. However your foes have the same goal and they will stop at nothing to ensure that you are wiped off the face of this universe permanently. Do you have the strength and skills to beat them before they get the better of you? Or will you fall to the same unrelenting fervour that you are a slave to?
Visually Planetary Annihilation is definitely a step up from its predecessor (for the sake of argument I’m going to say that’s Supreme Commander 2) although the art direction now tends towards the stylized/cartoony. Considering the purpose of Planetary Annihilation this isn’t much of a surprise as one of the long running problems with any of the Annihilation series was that performance often suffered the longer the game went on. Suffice to say that even with the slight improvements it still manages to remain quite smooth over the course of longer games. The interface is also much more streamlined, making it far easier to get acquainted with everything than it was in previous titles.
Like previous installations in the Annihilation series Planetary Annihilation puts you in charge of a single unit, the Commander, to start off with and then lets you loose upon a world to build an army to destroy your foes. However you’re now no longer constrained to just a single planet, escalating the potential warfare to planetary levels. This introduces a whole host of new mechanics like orbital units, teleporters and whole planets which can be used as weapons. Notably absent from the game however is the inclusion of a single player story campaign which has been replaced by a procedurally generated series of AI skirmishes called Galactic War. Finally there’s multiplayer to be had which is likely where most people will be spending their time, although it’s done in the older style of “find a lobby to join” rather than the newer style matchmaking.
Long time fans of the Annihilation series will be instantly familiar with the core gameplay of Planetary Annihilation as all the units are essentially the same with your standard air/vehicle/bot/naval choices immediately available from your commander. The tech trees have been reduced from 3 tiers to 2 which significantly reduces the number of units you’ll have at your disposal. However this is made up for by the inclusion of the new types of units and was probably done because you’ll likely be splitting your concentration across multiple planets with multiple warfronts. The same mechanics are at play, you’ll need metal and energy in order to be able build things, however they have also been streamlined with only 2 types of energy generators and metal extractors. So overall the gameplay is largely similar but streamlined with a few mechanics thrown in to elevate the combat to a planetary scale.
However unlike previous Annihilation titles there’s no factions to speak of so all the units are exactly the same for every player. For me this was one of the defining features of the Annihilation series as it meant that each race had it’s own strengths and weaknesses and different strategies were needed to cope with each different race. In Planetary Annihilation that’s not the case however and all you really need to do is figure out what kind of units your opponent is building and make the counter to them. This, especially when competing against the AI, means that the game favours those who rush their opponents with swarms of a certain mix of units early, even more so when you’re on the same planet. Indeed there are very few opportunities to craft super units that can devastate armies, a trademark of the Annihilation series, thus eliminating much of the strategy that I came to love about these games.
In fact I think this is reflected in one key metric: the length of each game. Games in Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander could easily go on for hours as everyone tried various tactics against each other, all the while hoping to build that one unit or structure that would give them the upper hand. In Planetary Annihilation most games will go for 20 to 30 minutes before it’s obvious who’s going to win. Again this was something that I loved about the Annihilation series as it always felt more strategic rather than tactical and was the primary reason many disliked Supreme Commander 2. The planetary scope had a lot of potential to recapture that feeling that so many previous Annihilation titles had but it unfortunately fell way short of the mark.
This is only exacerbated by the incredibly lackluster single player campaign. Whilst the idea behind Galactic War sounded good on paper in practice it’s not much more than one AI skirmish after another, ones that are either easily won within the first 10 minutes or others which are an uphill battle due to the fact that the AI is given a head start over you. It’s made worse by the fact that you can get shoehorned by the technology that you collect during the various missions, sometimes putting you in a spot that’s nigh on impossible to bypass. Like, for instance, if you’ve got all naval and air tech but the enemy starts on another planet you’re likely sweet out of luck as you won’t be able to use the teleporter to get them across. Instead you’ll have to rely on shooting nukes over there and hope that they haven’t got more anti-nuke facilities than you have missiles.
There’s also some niggling issues around the game itself. If you start an AI skirmish or Galactic War there’s no way to restart a battle if it isn’t going your way so you’ll have to quit and restart Planetary Annihilation in order to start over again. I can somewhat understand that not being in the Galactic War (if it’s meant to be a Roguelike experience, although I have no idea if that’s the case) but for AI skirmishes it seems like a really glaring omission. Things like that are supposed to be about testing builds or trying out units that you haven’t seen before and so restarting the battle quickly and easily is key to that. Having to boot the game over every time you want to do that is a right pain in the ass and not something I expected from veteran developers like Uber Entertainment.
Planetary Annihilation feels like a game that’s still in beta mode, lacking the polish of it’s spiritual predecessors and ultimately failing to deliver on the tried and true Annihilation franchise experience. The core aspects of the series are there, the massive units, larger than life scale, etc. but the game itself just doesn’t play like the titles of yore. This isn’t a case of the game not living up to the hype, after backing the game I ignored pretty much everything to do with it until I heard of the official release, more that too many things of what made the previous Annihilation titles good have been left out and what remains just isn’t enough. I really wanted to love Planetary Annihilation but it just feels like the official launch came way before it was ready for primetime with a lot more work to be done before I can say that it’s up to the calibre of its predecessors.
Planetary Annihilation is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 6 hours. The writer backed this game on Kickstarter at the $250 pledge level.
I’ve had a few people ask me how I come across some of the games that I review here and the answer is pretty simple. If I haven’t seen something that’s been on a lot of review sites (I don’t read the reviews, but if a game keeps popping up that’s a sign it might be worth a look in) then they usually come from me trawling through the new releases section on Steam. From there I work my way through the titles, looking for something that can capture my attention with just a few screenshots and possibly a short video. Mars: War Logs was one of these although it was more for the dev story behind it as Spiders isn’t a particularly large studio but they seemed really dedicated to creating a good game.
Mars: War Logs takes place in the distant future where humans have successfully colonized Mars. A hundred years ago however there was a great upheaval which devastated the colonies and lead to the rise of two opposing factions: Aurora and Abundance. Ever since then they’ve been locked in an ongoing battle for control of the world’s water supply, by far the most valuable resource. You play as Roy Temperance, a prisoner of war who’s caught between the two factions, trying to hide from his past that continues to haunt him.
The aesthetic of Mars: War Logs is reminiscent of many current gen third person titles with infinite shades of brown and grey colouring the world. Although this time around it kind of fits thanks to the world that it’s built in even though it has the unfortunate effect of making every place you go feel a little samey. The graphics are good but not great, which becomes quite noticeable when they’re combined with the rudimentary lip synching and low resolution motion capture. Honestly I’ve seen worse from other recently released titles so I won’t be too harsh on it for that but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the many other, astoundingly better looking games.
Surprisingly though there’s quite a lot under the hood of Mars: War Logs in terms of gameplay, something you don’t usually expect from smaller RPG titles. The combat is mostly whacking other people with metal poles until they fall down with the added strategy element of blocking/dodging incoming attacks. There’s also a stealth system which allows you to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies, although how crouching down counts as stealth is beyond me. They’ve even incorporated a talent tree, crafting system and character perks allowing you a pretty decent amount of customization to how you play Mars: War Logs. This is a lot for a small dev studio to cram into a game and that unfortunately means that there’s a lot of depth lacking from many of these mechanics and some of them are still plagued by bugs that should have been picked up in QA.
For starters the combat, whilst somewhat engaging and enjoyable at certain points, varies wildly between being so easy that its almost pointless to being so hard that you’ll spend the majority of your time rolling around just so can whittle enemies down a couple hits at a time. This is because there’s no dynamic scaling of enemy difficulty and it only increases at certain points, usually at the start of a new section. The pacing of the game then becomes highly disjointed as you can be breezing through the last half of a particular section only to hit a brick wall at the beginning of the next, rather than having a gradual ramp up in the challenge. Some would argue that this is part of the strategy but in all honesty it’s just sloppy design, especially when “challenging” means that you lose the majority of your health in a couple hits.
The stealth system is a complete joke as whilst you can sneak around the benefits of doing so are minimal at best. When you’re first introduced to it stealthing up to an enemy and hitting them doesn’t take them out, it just takes away a good portion of their health. Of course that means that after doing that all the enemies close by will aggro forcing you to go toe to toe with them anyway. Now I didn’t invest any points in the stealth abilities so this could be somewhat improved by that but that tree is also the weakest out of the 3 when you consider that, no matter how well you stealth, you will eventually have to fight everything. I think Spiders would’ve been much better off skipping this feature altogether to focus more on the core of the game as it really adds nothing in its current form.
Although there’s a talent tree with 3 different styles to choose from only 2 of them are available to you from the start, with one of them being the aforementioned weakest of them all stealth one. This means that you’re kind of shoe horned into spending points into one specific tree (melee combat) and thus can’t take full advantage of the third tree (technomancy) until much later in the game. However even if you wanted to I don’t think it’d be very viable as the amount of damage output you need later in the game can really only come from charged melee weapons, unless you want to spend 20 minutes running around waiting for your fluid (mana) levels to regen.
The crafting system is equal parts good and complete crap thanks to the massive overabundance of materials that you’ll find in every area. Essentially you can craft a couple things like health packs and ammunition but the real power of the crafting system comes from upgrading your armor and weapons. Now not all weapons and armor can be upgraded so that really expensive top tier armor might look great but it’s in fact completely inferior to anything that comes with upgrade slots. This has the unfortunate consequence of making the vast majority of items irrelevant as anything that lacks upgrades is most certainly not worth it.
After the first section you’ll almost never be out of materials for crafting things you need, especially if you’re a veteran RPGer and seek out all the free stuff like I did. What this meant was that whenever upgrades became available (usually after having to run the gauntlet at the start where everything is stupid hard again) I was able to purchase them and then instantly upgrade them to their maximum. There are no rare items to be found or obtained from quests so literally the highest damage/armor item you can buy from the vendor is the best item you will ever see. If you’re low on serum there’s a good chance you have a ton of materials that you can pilfer for serum in order to get the upgrade and in fact you’re probably better off doing that then trying to convert resources as typically you’ll get more if you sell said items to the vendor then buy back the ones you need.
Most of this would be forgivable however these are just some of the more obvious structural flaws that Mars: War Logs has. The interface is confused and doesn’t operate as you’d expect with fun quirks like: doors mostly requiring left click but sometimes pressing R, the attack button (left click, again) is also the loot button, pressing quick buttons for things like menus twice doesn’t minimize them and whilst you can assign 0~9 for powers you can only ever see the first 4 unless you go into the power wheel again. This is not to mention the issues with the incredibly stupid AI, both for your companion and the enemy, which routinely gets stuck on all sorts of terrain. Not only that many of their abilities are capable of friendly fire, leading to some incredibly frustrating moments where they inadvertently kill you. I’m hoping that it was intentional otherwise it’s yet another point where Mars: War Logs differs from the norm and not in a good way.
As always I could forgive nearly all of this if the story was worth anything but sadly, it’s not. Most of the lines are delivered completely flat in rapid fire fashion which, combined with the poor lip synching, makes for a jarring experience. It also doesn’t help that the characters have as much depth as a children’s pool with many of them changing their motivations on a whim. My particular love interest, Mary, went from murderous rage to sympathetic follower in less than 4 sentences and the resulting relationship could not have been anymore shallow. Indeed the game’s one attempt at invoking emotion feels incredibly cheap and only serves to anger the player.
Objectively Mars: War Logs is a decidedly B grade game with fundamental flaws riddling the core mechanics which, combined with the many other problems can make for a frustrating experience. There were times I had fun with it, especially when I got my build up to the seriously broken level, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to make up for the numerous flaws. I commend Spiders for trying, I really do, but it just goes to show that sometimes you need to cut back on your ambitions a bit in order to solidify the core aspects of the game. I totally understand where they wanted to go with this but unfortunately it falls short of that goal, leaving us with a game that feels like it was halfway towards something great.
Mars: War Logs is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation3 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty setting with 9 hours total play time and 71% 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.
You don’t have to read far on this blog to know that the relationship I have with Apple swings from wild amounts of hate to begrudging acceptance that they do make some impressive products. Indeed I’ve been called everything from an Apple fan boy to an Apple hater based on the opinions I’ve put forth on here so I think that means I’m doing the right thing when it comes to being a technology critic. Of course that means taking them, and their fans, to task whenever they start getting out of line and it appears that the latest instalment of Apple fans going wild comes care of the iOS 6 Maps application which I’ve abstained from covering here previously.
For the uninitiated Apple decided to give Google Maps the boot as the default mapping application on their handsets and tablets. The move was done primarily because their negotiated agreement with Google was scheduled to come to an end soon and Apple, for whatever reasons that I won’t bother speculating about, decided that instead of renewing it they’d go ahead and build their own maps application, including the massive back end cartography database. Now they’re no stranger to building a maps application, indeed whilst it used to say “Google Maps” it was in fact an Apple developed application that used the Google APIs, but the application was an unmitigated disaster. In fact it was so bad Apple even got Tim Cook do one of those “we’re admitting there’s a problem without admitting it” open letters pointing to alternatives that were available.
I held off on commenting on the whole issue because since I don’t use an iPhone any more I didn’t want to start trashing the app without knowing what the reality was. Plus I’m not one to bandwagon (unless I’m really struggling for good material) and it felt like everything that needed to be said had been said. I almost caved when I started reading apologist garbage like this from MG Siegler but others had done that work for me so re-iterating those points wouldn’t provide much value. However one bit of unabashed fanboyism caught my eye recently and it really needs to be taken to task over what they’re saying:
Situation: Apple cannot get Google to update its maps app on iOS. It was ok, but Google refused to update it to include turn-by-turn directions or voice guidance even though Android had these features forever. Apple says, “Enough” and boots Gmaps from iOS and replaces it with an admittedly half-baked replacement. The world groans. Apple has egg on its face. Google steps up it’s game and rolls out a new, free new maps app in iOS today that is totally amazing, I’m sure to stick it in Apple’s face… Ooops
Bottom line: Apple took one for the team (ate some shit) and fooled Google into doing exactly what Apple has been asking for years. Users win.
Time to get some facts on the table here. For starters way back in the day when Apple first wanted to bring maps to their platform they approached Google to do it however the terms that Google wanted (better access to user data was their primary concern) meant that an in house developed app was never to be. They could agree on good terms for the API however and so Apple developed their own application on the public Google API. This meant, of course, that they were limited to the functionality provided by said API which doesn’t include the fun things like turn by turn navigation (voice commands however are on Apple’s head to implement).
Instead of capitulating Apple decides to build their own replacement product which isn’t completely surprising given that they’ve done this kind of thing before with services like iTunes and the App Store. Claiming that it was done to fool Google into developing a better app however is total bollocks as if they were doing that they wouldn’t have spent so much money on in-sourcing so much of the infrastructure. Indeed the argument can be made that they could’ve bought/licensed one of the top map apps for a fraction of the cost in order to accomplish the same task. So no Apple didn’t do it to get Google to develop an application for them, they did it because they wanted to bring more applications into their ecosystem.
Google’s revamped map app proved to be extremely popular rocketing to the number 1 spot for free applications after just 7 hours of being available. I (in a slightly rhetorical/trolling way) put the feelers out on Twitter to see what Apple fans would have to say about that particular feat and was surprised when I got a reply within minutes. Whilst their arguments didn’t hold up to mild scrutiny (and I didn’t change their opinion on the matter) I was honestly surprised just how defensive some people can be of a product that even the company who developed it has admitted was bad. Especially when the replacement has been, by all accounts, pretty spectacular.
Apple’s trademark secrecy about its plans and intentions is what feeds into these kinds of wild theories about their overall strategy for their products and their highly dedicated fan base too often falls prey to them without giving them some routine fact checking. I don’t blame them in particular however, it’s hard to see fault with a company you admire so much, but this kind of wide-eyed speculation doesn’t do any good for them. Indeed give it a couple weeks and no one will care that there’s yet another map application on iOS and this whole thing will get filed alongside antennagate (remember that?).
I’m something of a collector of failed MMORPGs. Every since my addiction began with World of Warcraft it seemed I was forever doomed to roam the genre in search of that same feeling that World of Warcraft inspired in me. Let’s just say that in my travels I’ve seen nearly everything, from inventive PvP systems to epic grinds that required almost more time than I had invested in World of Warcraft just to reach the end game content. Over time I’ve started to notice the patterns of what causes some MMORPGs to carry on whilst others struggle to keep their users just months after release. The answer is quite simple but it seems some academics might have a different idea.
Take Ramin Shokrizade, a self proclaimed virtual economy expert who’s latest piece takes aim at Star Wars: The Old Republic’s decision to convert their MMORPG into a free to play model in order to try and get people back into the game. Whilst he does make some good points regarding how TOR felt like a massively single player game (as the campaign was arguably the best thing about it, even though it was a lot more fun to do with friends) the main point of his article, that the monetization strategy was the primary cause for failure, is ultimately only a side issue to the bigger issues at hand.
Shokrizade makes the point that the value players generated, judged by looking at auction house prices and the cost of purchasing credits from real money trading sites, decreased rapidly over the first month. He lays the blame for this specific decline at an instance reset exploit that allowed users to generate quite a lot of credits and whilst this might be a factor in the decline his analysis also fails to include the fact that in any new MMORPG in game currency attracts a high premium at the beginning, usually due to the fact that there isn’t that much of it in circulation. Indeed if you tracked the same statistic for other virtual worlds you would see identical declines as the currency generating capacity of the wider player base and the gold farmers increased significantly. This is not a new phenomena as I’ve seen it happen in nearly every MMO that I’ve played to date.
He also makes the mistake of saying that “As combat in SWTOR was balanced for PvE, PvP combat balance was never attainable”. Nearly all MMORPGs tend to focus on one of these two aspects in order to attract players to the game. SW:TOR focused heavily on the PvE aspect as that’s where BioWare’s strengths are and indeed by all accounts they succeeded at doing so. Whilst the PvP wasn’t as balanced in the beginning saying that because of the PvE focus PvP balance was unattainable is laughable as balance is an ongoing process that evolves with the game. Indeed when I left the PvP balance was far better due to the 50 only arenas, more people having better gear and vast improvements in game code to make the world PvP areas much more playable. The items were comparable to their PvE counterparts however they had PvP stats on them which meant for guilds who were tackling high end content on the hardest difficulties they were unfortunately useless as you couldn’t achieve the stats required.
However Shokrizade’s biggest blunder is when he lays blame at SW:TOR’s monetization scheme for its current troubles. He posits that the unlimited model, the one where you pay a monthly fee and get access to the entire game, encourages people to pay through all the content as fast as possible before dropping it for the next game. Now whilst I won’t discount the fact that there were many a hardcore friend of mine who took time off work to reach level 50 in the space of 4 days or so this was by far not the norm with many players taking at least a month to reach max level (I would know this, I was among them). Even then those who did reach max level would usually roll another character straight afterwards to level with the others who were still catching up mostly because the single player lines for each archetype are unique. He then goes on to peddle his ideal solution and then decries that the monetization scheme is the ultimate factor in deciding a MMORPGs success.
This is as far from the truth I’ve seen anyone get. Anyone who’s played MMORPGs knows that there’s one thing and one thing only that decides whether a game in this genre will be successful or not. That thing is the content.
Of all the failed MMORPGs I’ve played over the years the reason that they struggled can always be tracked back to problems with content. Age of Conan is probably the best example I can think of as it promised a large world, shaped by your actions, with content all the way up to a staggering level 80. This would have been all well and good except the fact that once you hit level 50 there wasn’t any content to speak of until level 80. Warhammer Online had the same issue as people quickly tired of the warzones and many servers locked themselves in a stalemate for the end game PvP, leaving them to turn away. Indeed the biggest problem that SW:TOR had was the fact that the end game content was just so gosh darn accessible, meaning that within the first month or two anyone could see the entire game if they were so inclined.
This was the exact reason why so many people decided to leave SW:TOR when they did. My guild mates and I managed to blast through all the end game raids in just under a week once we were all level 50 thanks to the normal level of difficulty which made the encounters quite easy by end game standards. After that point it’s hard to motivate people to redo content they’ve done before especially when the rewards are only incremental upgrades. Then the only thing left is to grind PvP or flash points in order to get better gear and only the hardcore will keep on doing that after a month or so.
So why does Shokrizade believe that monetization, above all else, is the key to MMORPG success? At the risk of stumbling into ad-hominem territory the reason seems pretty obvious: he’s a self proclaimed expert on virtual economies even though his only experience in economics comes from playing EVE Online (and I’m struggling to verify his claims of leading a 5000 strong corporation in there). It’s then prudent to take what he says with a grain of salt as he has a vested interest in saying things like this, even if they don’t gel so well with reality.
MMORPGs are hard things to create and maintain and it’s a testament to companies like Blizzard and BioWare who’ve managed to actually release one and not go bankrupt in the process. Whilst SW:TOR might be struggling to keep people going so are nearly all MMORPGs, even the mighty World of Warcraft is back to 2008 subscription numbers (is their monetization strategy the problem, Shokrizade?) and that shows just how hard it can be to get people coming back time and time again. The one secret though is the content and there is no doubt that Blizzard has mastered that art and for all it’s successes with the campaign missions BioWare unfortunately missed the mark and they’re paying the price for it now.