Civ 5: Brave New World

Brave New World Title

It’s a brave new world (but not for the Civilization franchise)!

Civ has always interested me because it’s such an anomaly.  I can’t think of any other series of games that is utterly disinterested in trying to do what everyone else is .  It’s refreshing in some ways, and maddeningly frustrating in others.  Civ V,and it’s recent expansion pack, Brave New World, continue the franchise’s weird Galapagos-esque evolution.  Although Civ V seems to be the best Civ yet, it also carries a legacy of problems along with it that aren’t addressed and haven’t been for over a decade.  That being said, a review of Civ V could easily double as a review of Civ 4 or Civ 3.  Strong points are consistently challenging and nuanced gameplay.


Civ V generally looks pretty good.  It also definitely doesn’t look great.  I would say the world map looks essentially the same as in Civilization 4, but unit animations have been cleaned up.  This is especially noticeable in combat.  The actual city centers feature all the buildings constructed, and on the borders wonders and other improvements.  Unfortunately, the rest of the map looks bare.  Without towns, or suburbs, the maps frequently look like the Midwest.  Maybe there needs to be a mall or subdivision improvement available in the modern era to fill in some of that farmland.

Some other fit and finish isn’t there.  Loading the game initially seems to take forever, and the load screen features a static picture, whereas in most games a slideshoe of several stock photos would be rotated in and out.  Fonts and menus are themed in an Art Deco type font that just seems out of place.  This isn’t BioShock and the styling choice doesn’t make any sense in the context.  Menus and option screens are often filled with an incoherent layout.  In some instances, such as conducting World Congress votes or founding a religion I was confused as to what I needed to do to select an option.  Menu location itself is somewhat haphazard.

The music isn’t bad, but is consistently underwhelming.  The one exception here is the title screen which gives some gravity to the game.  Because the pace of a Civ match is so plodding, it would really be a good idea for Firaxis to invest in some composition to increase the tempo.

The interaction with other civilization leaders has always been fun, and it still is in Civ 5, where the animated cultural avatars speak their native language and act with passion.  It functions largely the same as in Civ III or Civ IV.


What’s missing in Civ V is a lack of true innovation; the game suffers from exactly the same limitations as all of its prior installments.

Most critically, in order to make this game better, the turn-based system needs to be discarded in favor of something more responsive.  It’s made the franchise unwieldy and just isn’t defensible anymore.  Even under the fastest game settings, a single match takes 4 or 5 hours to complete.  It simply doesn’t work as something accessible to most players.  Turns move quickly at the start of the game due to the fact that most of the players don’t have much that can be done.  But the amount of decisions and actions that need to be made later in the game quickly becomes overwhelming.  Wars take a huge time investment because each unit needs to be moved one by one, and both sides need to move their units during their own specific turns.  This is also coupled with the fact that the computer will frequently gang up on you if you’re military is seen as weak.  The amount of time it takes to play spirals out of control, even on the accelerated settings.

The turns don’t even make sense.  It takes 50 years for a worker to walk 10 miles east of a city?  Another 50 years to build a farm?  A good fix might be to make the maps twice as big and let the worker move twice.  When at war, the middling pace of the game, and moving each soldier one tile at a time to advance in a line is excruciating.

I have never been into hardcore multiplayer games, but from experience, most matches take 20-40 minutes to play.  It’s such a massive deviation from the norm here, and it’s the same with Civ III and IV.  Civ 5 is too time consuming as a single player game, nevermind multiplayer.  I’m apparently not alone in being intimidated by an extended match online.  Note how the Steam post also mentions that there are not really any significant numbers of public matches at any given time.  If online is the future, not achieving a baseline critical mass means failure.

Other features of Civ V seem arbitrary.  The costs of connecting cities with roads is prohibitively expensive now.  That seems counter intuitive.  The game also for some reason doesn’t feature any type of upgrade for paving or constructing highways, which makes modern era cities look out of place when connected to each other with dirt roads.  The tech tree itself seems more nonsensical than ever.

The “happiness” metric is also problematic.  Happiness is necessary to generate a “golden age,” and also any sort of growth in major cities.  That seems fair, but what isn’t is the inability of the player to really do much to change this function.  Conceptually, the happiness measurement makes sense.  Cities which have been conquered and are being ruled by a foreign occupier would naturally be generating unhappiness.  That’s fine, although maybe after having Carthage Novo as part of my empire for 1500 some of those people protesting the occupation would have died.   My problem with the system is that occupying cities isn’t the source of most of the unhappiness that’s typically generated.  Most of the happiness in most civilizations seems to come from either large populations in cities, or unhappiness from the NUMBER of cities.  I can understand the first part, I am at a complete lost for the second.  High population means congestion, higher costs, traffic.  Ok, I get that those could be negative factors.  But I’ve never once thought to myself, “you know, this sure would be a much better country if we had less cities.”  There isn’t much that can be done to increase happiness either, as computer opponents are reluctant to trade luxury resources in almost any circumstance, and buildings that generate happiness never seem to generate enough.

Bright spots include the cultural and religious features.  Both of these are greatly modified from the based game in expansions (in the case of religion, it wasn’t in the base Civ V from what I understand).  The importance of these stats really is what separates Civ from an average empire building or RTS war game.  Given the time commitment it takes to even execute and plan for a war in Civ V make playing for other types of victories especially appealing.

Brave New World

I was only able to play Civ V, bundled with the first expansion, Gods and Kings, for about two weeks before I upgraded to Brave New World.  Brave New World introduces some new major concepts like a World Congress and trade routes.  These innovations expand and refine other aspects in the game, but primarily Brave New World feels like a patch.  I would say a pretty good patch though.  In particular, the expansion puts an emphasis is on economic development, which previously didn’t seem that significant.  The result is that it is much easier to accumulate enough gold to actually spend it on things.  It also adds flexibility to centralizing production or opening up trade with foreign civilizations or city states.  The trade route system implemented is relatively easy to understand and can add a good deal of options to expanding influence, either through trade or the spread of religion.

Final Thoughts

What Civ V has going for it is that it is strangely addictive, and has a punishing learning curve.  Even though you have plenty of time to make decisions, it doesn’t make Civ any easier.  I just wish I could get more out of the incredible amount of play time being invested.

I remember before Fallout 3 was released reading a lot of press about how Bethesda didn’t see any way to do a turn-based game, but still wanted to preserve the strategic aspects of the original series.  Some stinging comments from readers were dropped below those columns.  Die hard Fallout fans were pissed.  And, Fallout 3 is sort of a weird mix of strategy and skill that is pretty unusual for an FPS.  But it doesn’t feel like work to play Fallout 3.   It would not work if you had to wait 20 minutes during a firefight for a bunch of super mutants to all take their turns.

Granted, I understand the hesitancy to move to real time.  The risk is that Civilization, which is a game about expanding one culture globally through careful management with other societies would turn into Warcraft.  I can get why that is a bad thing.  But going RTS is the only thing that will make Civ manageable.

GTA 5: Expectations

Will Michael and Rockstar pull off the biggest gaming job ever on September 17, 2013?

Will Michael and Rockstar pull off the biggest gaming job ever on September 17, 2013?

My last post had a lot more views compared to other ones I’ve had recently, so I decided to get a poll going.  So, what does everybody think GTA5 is going to do in September?  Is this game going to be break Rockstar’s long streak of outdoing itself?

GTA 5: Returning to San Andreas With High Expectations

I’m really impressed by these three mini-trailers that were just released this past week.  No doubt that there is a strong correlation here between the impending release of GTA 5 and Rockstar parent, Take-Two Entertainment’s, stock price in the past nine months.

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

What’s most impressive about the three character approach is that it’s obviously meant to remedy deficiencies in the story-telling of GTA’s San Andreas.  San Andreas is a great game, but the narrative struggled with developing an identity for the main character, CJ.

This problem is partly due to the RPG and customization elements in the game that give the player the choices to make CJ look like a gang-banger, a CEO, or a construction worker (also there is that weird S&M outfit…).  San Andreas is such a big place, that after the first act, CJ just sort of feels out of place.  The entire San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas) portions of GTA: San Andreas feel aimless.  CJ’s story starts and ends in the same place, his hood.  That’s the point.  After a very long detour at the end of the first act, the final mission takes you back there to confront characters you haven’t seen 100 hours of play time.  It’s incoherent.  Fortunately, the meat and potatoes in between are a lot of fun.

If San Andreas is 3 times bigger than it needs to be, why did Rockstar bother making all that extra stuff?  The answer appears to be an obsession with attention to detail.  San Andreas is LA, San Francisco, and Las Vegas because it’s trying as hard as possible to capture and satirize the Southern California 90’s zeitgeist, even if CJ’s world is naturally a little bit smaller.

I remember seeing GTA3 and just being completely amazed by the size of the game.  In the past 10 years there have been a lot of knock-offs of the GTA style of creating huge worlds, but all seem to suffer from the same flaw of confusing physical space with scale.  What you won’t really appreciate until you’ve run down every alley looking for hidden packages is that a gigantic portion of every GTA game is hand-made.  There is not a lot of 3D modeling copying and pasting.  There are no identical city blocks.  GTA4 even features a huge fake-internet.  It’s the attention to detail that separates GTA from every other massive game world.  Other developers just don’t do this, not even Bethesda.

Venice Beach?

Venice Beach?

GTA4 marks a big evolution over San Andreas, even if it isn’t as large and vast as its predecessor.  The major difference in GTA4 is the emphasis on social perspective, and I don’t mean multiplayer or or Twitter.  GTA4 lets Liberty City be defined through the eyes of its characters.  Activities open up depending on who you’re hanging out with and what you’re planning on doing.  And engaging with the people you’re working with is part of the experience as opposed to just getting a cell phone call and showing up.

And GTA5 promises to be somehow significantly larger yet again.  The obvious approach to reconciling South Central gang warfare, with pot growing up in the red woods, and the glitz of Beverly Hills is to tell the stories of those places through the eyes of separate characters.  GTA4 maximizes the story of Liberty City the same way, through different characters, albeit only through downloadable content, but the premise is the same.  The world of Luis Lopez, and the club scene of Liberty City is very different from Niko’s darker struggle to get revenge.  To tell the story of a heavily satirized California it is necessary to have many different perspectives, in the same way the DLC tells a broader story about Liberty City through its three characters.

This obsessive attention to making everything perfect is exactly why concerns about juggling three separate characters are likely to be unfounded.  Three times the characters makes three times the amount of narrative scope, and three times the opportunity to force interaction with a gigantic world.  It’s a very deliberate choice that is clearly a response to maximizing the incredible amount of content GTA5 will offer just because, well, it’s Rockstar.  I can’t think of any other series that is virtually guaranteed to get better with each installment, other than GTA.  Given the additional PS3 and XBox console penetration compared to 2009, GTA is again going to be breaking its own sales record come later this year.


SimCity: Broader Implications

So I read this and it’s wrong.

First An Update

A month after launch SimCity is still broken.  Initially, frustrated users were unable to login, or were periodically booted out of the game.  Now a more malicious problem has appeared; cities aren’t saving.  SimCity is clearly not the first game to require a persistent internet connection, but the problem was that on EA’s side is where all the technical issues were occurring.  What is this 1995?

I can attest that this morning I logged in to discover I had lost approximately 2 hours worth of improvements in a city I was working on.  I decided to trudge ahead again and in about 25 minutes later, I received warning that the city was not syncing properly with the servers and I was given two choices; rollback the city to a stable save point, or abandon it altogether.  I selected rollback, but I have no idea what the implications of this are.  I just hope I don’t have another dead city in my region that won’t ever load again.

The extent and the severity of the technical issues is just baffling.  Progress in SimCity takes time, and crafting a city is always an iterative process.  Some sort of stability or baseline consistency is necessary for this to work.  What’s really crazy though is that there is absolutely no indication as to when the game is actually saving your work.  I though yesterday it was saving fine only to discover about two hours of work crafting and expanding were flushed down the drain.  There is no save button.  There are no save or sync options.  There is no indication when you logout that all your work might be gone.  It simply doesn’t work and there’s nothing you can do about it.  I have never seen this happen before.  And because it’s not on my hard drive  there is only one obvious party that I can blame here.  Upon login, a ticker on the bottom offers you to do some multiplayer activities.  “Join FUCKEA (this apparently is a pretty popular player created group) and play with others.”  Indeed.  Key point is that I don’t want to play this game anymore if I can’t get some sort of higher level of assurance I can actually progress.

Broader Implications

Anways, back to the Tech Dirt article.  The conclusion of the article couldn’t be more wrong.  This game is EXACTLY the reason gamers need a Bill of Rights; especially a Due Process Clause.

Granted, the issue here isn’t that I’m locked out of SimCity for being some sort of EULA deviant.  But I think not being able to access content raises the specter of who has the control here.  Even if I did own this content, I can’t possibly access it without EA.  The fact that we’re in a new world now is really starting to sink in.  The reason I’m so pissed off isn’t because I can’t login; it’s because I was able to build up a foundation for a bunch of great cities and now can’t access them.  I want MY city.  I want MY content.  It’s entirely too easy to say that if it’s a bad game, don’t buy it.  Sure, there is always a level of caveat emptor whenever you buy something new.  That’s a risk.  But after 100 hours of building cities and crafting an intricate region, does the metric change?  What about 10,000 hours over a decade accumulating loot in World of Warcraft?  You’re locked out of your account with no recourse?  At some point of user investment that can’t be the right answer.

And SimCity plans to foster more user investment.  Although modding is not available at launch, Maxis and EA have indicated it will be in the future.  I can remember downloading a user-created World Trade Center replica in SimCity 4 from the Maxis website.  Back in 2005 this was a more culturally significant event for me.  Who’s going to own this content?  It seems pretty clear the persistent online requirement isn’t so much about anti-piracy as control of the forum here.

For SimCity, the problem might actually be as simple as the Tech Dirt article states.  The press has been so bad with this game that I don’t think the hardcore super-users will want to stick around to start modding.  If things don’t improve soon I definitely won’t be trying to finish those great works.


SimCity 2013


Saying bad things about a game that you’re admittedly addicted to sort of feels like cheating on your significant other.  As much as I complain to the world how bad our relationship is, I know where I’ll be at the end of the night.  At least until I finish my fourth “great work” that is.  That being said, SimCity (2013) is another example of a major opportunity that EA has bungled.  A great degree of anticipation was met with an initially problematic launch.  I can report that roughly two weeks later, although the game is clearly playable, it isn’t working up to its full potential.  Key game mechanics are either flawed or actually nonfunctional.  And the problem extends beyond problems playing the game; I have a dead city in my region that can’t be accessed or deleted, permanently taking up space due to some sort of corrupted server/sync issue.  You only have 16 of these spaces, however, so it’s a big problem to have one that’s just permanently out of commission.  Moreover, it’s completely unacceptable to have a game that forces you to use cloud-based storage that doesn’t work correctly.

Unfortunately, the DRM and technical problems with SimCity seem to have masked a lot of thoughtful analysis on whether this game is good or not.  It is, in many respects.  SimCity (2013) clearly has improved upon SimCity 4.  But that game came out in 2003.  That was a long time ago.  In some other ways, SimCity is a step back.

Just How Bad Are the Technical Issues?

When you have NFL players complaining about your game on Twitter, you know it’s a big deal.  Because SimCity is persistently online, high demand caused EA’s servers at the launch to crash.  This meant people who bought the game couldn’t play during peak hours, even if they never intended to do any multiplayer activities.  It also meant if you were playing that you might get kicked out for server issues periodically.  Blizzard wouldn’t have let this happen.  Steam wouldn’t let this happen.  But EA did.  That being said, if you’re making game with significant design towards multiplayer use, extensive modding, and a pretty probable stream of DLC, who cares if the first week people were inconvenienced (just think about all the kids who spent time with their families two weeks ago because they couldn’t play old SimCity)?  Well, the issue I have is that the problem wasn’t really solved…

The servers are supposed to mediate relationships between cities.  I suspect the way EA has really eliminated a bunch of the technical flaws that marred the launch is by scaling back the interaction players have with the servers.  It’s pretty well known at this point the game works pretty well when the tethered connection is separated.   But this breaks the game because certain computations aren’t being made.  These computations are made even if you’re in single player mode.  A city that’s making money should be instead updating problems.  Your progress in building a city then becomes a sort of fantasy.  The end result is that because the game isn’t updating itself as it’s supposed to be doing, figuring out periodic income and expenses are flawed.  As the game resets, there are huge budget swings, or unpredictable resource demands that make any type of long term planning impossible.

Updates from other cities frequently don’t register.  Let’s say I gift one million simoleons (Sim Currency) to a neighboring city to give a boost.  I have no guarantee that the money will ever make it there.  I’m serious too.  I can attest that I had trouble registering the shipment of resources to the construction of an international airport.  A few hours after shipping the necessary resources, the progress on the resource I was sending froze.  I switched to another city and eventually it updated, indicating the objective was 100% complete.  I switched to yet another neighboring city, and my progress was under 100% again.  What exactly is going on here?  We’re all working on the same airport, right?  This is a pretty basic question that you often can’t answer at any given time.  This type of uncertainty makes playing the game unpredictable and frustrating.  There have been large updates to this game almost every day, but these core problems haven’t been addressed.

Cloud saves are cool, but not when they’re buggy.  Getting booted off a server when you’re on a single player game is equally puzzling.  I get the distinct feeling that the bugs are not only not ironed out yet, but won’t be anytime soon.  This is discouraging if you’re planning on this being your obsession for the week/month/year.

Actually Playing

If you love freedom, you’ll hate SimCity.  Well, sort of anyway.  SimCity brings challenge of the classic 1989 version back.  It does this by eliminating the renaissance landscape of SimCity 4.

A significant number of achievements in SimCity are premised on the development of city “specializations,” of which three are premised on the development of industrial raw materials.  Players with crude under their hamlets can build oil fields, then a refinery to develop higher value petroleum products, and then eventually use those products to construct consumer electronics and massive “great works” projects which provide benefits to all cities in the region.  Creating a successful mining, drilling, or electronics empire requires significant transit and utility logistics.  High tech industry is dependent upon skilled labor.  The list of needs, coupled with the scarcity of available space is challenging and fun.  But SimCity was always about understanding and building the conditions needed to develop a successful city.  These raw materials can be exported to the broader market and will provide immediate cash upon delivery to the city coffers.  I can remember playing the original SimCity on Super Nintendo and bulldozing low-density residential slums.  No poor people in my city!  Obviously bulldozing doesn’t solve the underlying problem, either nobody could afford to live there or that nobody wanted to build a nice house like 3 tiles from a nuclear power plant.  Having the city itself own and invest in mines, oil fields, and electronics factories sort of seems a little socialist.  You don’t own the businesses in SimCity, you’re supposed to be establishing the conditions for them to thrive.  Although this feature is sort of cool, it seems to be fundamentally anathema to a key feature of the game; SimCity is about governing and not capitalism.  Not that reasonable incentives can’t be given to encourage particular developments. Maybe a state owned mine makes sense, but a state owned factory to make computers and TVs?  That’s not a core governmental function.  Maybe these SimCities are being built in the Peoples Republic of China where that sort of thing goes.

One thing that SimCity does, much to the chagrin of SimCity 4 players, is significantly limit the amount of space available to develop a particular city.  I suspect this is done intentionally.  With a low density, poor road design, and clumsy placement of key civic buildings, your city can quickly be out of space.  This is in contrast to SimCity 4, where players were presented with the opportunities to establish custom-terraformed mega-cities with thousands of tiles.  You can easily accomplish the many objectives of SimCity 4 with unlimited space.  In the new iteration, the lack of space forces some real decisions to be made.  This is a switch back to the classic SimCity style of playing, where getting to the Megalopolis was a real test in governing.  Each city in the region needs to be contributing not just something to the region, but something needed in a big way.  It’s a lesson in interdependedness, and also forces differing play styles.  My only gripe is that extreme density, or extreme specialization, seems to be the only way to proceed in the game.  SimCity 4 offered multiple objectives.  I think this is a good feature because it adds some serious challenge to the planning aspects.  Building a town in SimCity 4 based on agriculture unlocked unique rewards.  Agriculture is gone now.  SimCity 2013 is all about heavy industry and high technology.  So, although the core challenge is back, so is the linear nature of the objective.

Other design features have been dumbed down.  All structures not require roads to be built before being plopped down.  Although this prevents issues in other SimCity iterations where you would have buildings that no one could get develop or access, it also can be a pain to place large buildings in a small confined area.  Roads also now are a fiat for all civil service connections; a road is a power line, water line and sewage line, thus eliminating a lot of tedious additional construction.  I can’t think of any reason to complain about this; it eliminates a tedious aspect of prior volumes that never really served any type of purpose.

The scarcity of space is really apparent here too.  You have one highway connection leading out of your town.  This might be in addition to a train track or a waterway, but not necessarily.  That means you have to be careful to avoid gumming things up with traffic.  The point of this is to make region access, and transportation management, paramount to building.  And it’s how cities actually work too; there are basically  three highways in my state.  I would imagine 50% of the people living here take these roads to work every day. This is another way the difficulty has been upped.

Graphics are good. They are not simulated 3D but actual 3D, which can be scaled and rotated without breaking.  Music isn’t bad, but it doesn’t accelerate with the pace of the game and repeats too quickly.  Developers, take note.  If you want people to play a game for a hundred hours or so make more than 15 minutes of in game music.  Or at least try to encourage people to import from their iTunes or something.

Finally, the GlassBox Engine is cool, and when it’s working right.  The real cool thing about the engine is that the game is supposed to be taking a literal approach to the agents in the economy.  If your coal power plant needs coal, a truck from a global market or coal mine needs to physically drive it over.  No coal means no power.   Unlike before, where congested roads made noise and air pollution, and just made people less happy, inadequate transit can literally cripple your economy.  Power plants stop producing power, export warehouses get jammed up with goods.  Oil refineries stop producing petroleum products.  Fires burn out of control (although this is dumb because the police and fire trucks shouldn’t have to wait at red lights).  Mass chaos.  But when you can’t get from point A to B that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Unfortunately, other aspects of the algorithms in the game need some serious work.  For example, every new municipal building has a demand for workers when it opens.  One problem, though, is that once a sim person has a job, it won’t switch.  So, police station you just laid out 85K of simoleons for sits empty because there is no labor.  That doesn’t really make much sense.  I shouldn’t have to build new housing because my economy added a few jobs.  Sometimes new construction begins because the service you’re adding makes the area more desirable  but it’s frustrating to see a building you just plopped down idle because of the lack of employment.  Another big issue I have is the lack of express information regarding specific population and other metrics for buildings.  Some parts of the process are sort of obscured, although the game generally gives you a lot of cool graphical data to analyze all sorts of metrics (fire coverage, police, health).  The agent approach also is flawed with respect to power, water, and sewage services, especially when purchasing from a neighboring region.  Power comes on instantly, it doesn’t move around slowly stumbling from building to building.  What a dumb model.

End Thoughts

The region system was available in SimCity 4, however, and although it didn’t really work that well in that game.  Despite being the major update feature in the new SimCity, it somehow works worse.  I suspect the real purpose behind the persistent online experience is not so much about combating piracy, but rather is based on control of an online experience EA is banking on.  The control of the modding community certainly features into this.

Much like building a SimCity though, the first rule of developing a community is laying the ground work for a reliable infrastructure.  People want power, water, sewage, and gaming when they need it.  If they can’t get these things in a reliable fashion, you won’t have any growth.  Perhaps Electronic Arts could learn a few things about developing online games from it’s own products.

Ultima 7: The Lost Gem? (part 2 of 5)

I wanted to finish up this series of posts months ago, but I got bogged down with a bunch of “real life” stuff.  Hopefully I can finish these up and move onto Assassin’s Creed 3 before anything I have to say about that becomes too dated.  Hiatus aside, I’m still not done talking about Ultima 7.

Design Choice 2: Size and Scale

I used to be easily impressed by big games.  I wouldn’t say this is necessarily the case anymore, but I think it’s an understandable response to be awed by a massive amount of content.  Ultima 7 offers that essential RPG experience of developing a character by trying to maximize the amount of choices the player can make.  This is the precursor to the sandbox age; the spirit of creating a simulated world with complex rules based on the environment instead of some abstract objective like jumping or shooting.

Physical terrain

As stated in my first post, you have a lot of access to most of the game map and content in this game pretty early on.  Ultima 7 isn’t the size of a Bethesda Softworks masterpiece (probably due in part to 90’s PC hardware limitations), but when considering the amount of interactivity each little location offers, it becomes clear that Ultima 7 doesn’t just look big, it IS big.

Like Ultima 6, there is no world map; one scale of perspective runs consistent from start to finish.  Consequently, although the world of Britannia doesn’t feel like its own continent, the fact that everything is in one scale has the effect of making exploration more challenging.  After all, the zooming in and out is just a method to funnel a player into specific areas.  It has the effect of making the game environment seem larger than it is by propping it up with empty content.  As I stated in the first post, U7 doesn’t do funneling.  Consequently, the map doesn’t want to give away to the player what’s important and what isn’t.

This approach makes exploration feel more organic.  Take the town of Yew for example.  Yew is supposed to be a town populated by forest dwelling rangers, loggers, and recluses.  Consistent with this design, the houses are set deep into woods, often away from the main roads and paths.   Rural Yew is like any other rural town; it has ill-defined borders.  Naturally finding a cabin in Yew should be as difficult as finding a real remote cabin in a real forest.

On the other hand, it’s really frustrating to miss a key location because it’s literally 20 feet off the beaten path.  Navigating a town should not be as challenging as navigating a complex dungeon or vast forest, but in U7 it is.


Not only is the size of Ultima 7 large, but also the level of interaction with the environment is meaningful.  Bales of wool can be spun into thread with a spinning wheel, bread can be baked, and swords can be forced at a blacksmith.  There are hundreds of items filling houses, dungeons, and secret passages.  If you want to count your party’s total gold, you’ll need an abacus.  Locating yourself requires map and a sextant (which will only work if you’re outside).

Maybe more impressive is the level of NPC interaction available.  Text trees are detailed and can often lead to long and detailed conversations.  A townsperson doesn’t just tell you about what they know about a something, but what they think about it, what their opinions are on other people in the town.  Sometimes you’ll get an entire life story.  Touching inventory or murdering a civilian prompts any witnesses to call the town guard.  Guards will either arrest you or force you to pay a fine.  That’s assuming that the NPC is awake, which is not always the case as most have set sleep patterns.  During waking hours, NPC’s don’t just stand in their own homes, they go out into the world and work their fields, spin thread on a wheel, make weapons at a forge, and hit up a pub at the end of the day.  Often the fiercest critic of the player’s behavior comes from inside your own party.  Party members will leave or renounce you in the event that they aren’t being fed or witness unethical behavior.

Although all this detail is really cool, like the lack of a world map, it often just serves to complicate completing a pretty standard objective.  Having to constantly feed up to seven different party members is frankly annoying.   Being policed for ethical violations by your own party is logical considering the emphasis in prior Ultima installments on morality, but you NEED to break some rules in this game (this theme is more evident in Ultima 8 and is supposed to tie into the conclusion of the series in Ultima 9). and there’s not any meaningful way to reconcile the disagreements here.  And the abacus weighs like 5 pounds…  There’s something appealing about needing arrows to use a bow, or people needing food to live, but not so when it fills up 50% of your inventory.

U7 is a great example of what can be done with a huge amount of effort into programming an environment.  The sheer volume of content though stands in the way of actually letting the player accomplish anything.  Constantly feeding party members, rearranging equipment, and moving items back and forth is a chore.  Nothing is ever fast or convenient because there is so much detail here and each bit needs to be navigated separately.  It just feels like you’re falling all over yourself doing anything.

The problem with adding so much stuff in, and forcing the player to manage a huge amount of information is that it obscures the actual objective.  Is U7 a detective game?  Sort of.  Is it a sort of medieval Oregon Trail?  Sure.  Is it an action game?  It’s in there, but not so much.  The main take away is that the more that is added, the less the main point of the game is clear.  Ultimately solving this game has more to do with shaking down leads and enduring a lot of seemingly useless conversations than battling dragons.  I’m not sure if that makes a lot of sense.  The lesson learned should be that, before you go and develop a really massive game, you should pick what the core mechanics are first.

This is still a problem in newer games as well.  Ask yourself this, does Assassin’s Creed I really need to be a sandbox style game?  Does that add anything when there are basically only a few missions to accomplish and where there are essentially no benefits from the free-roaming experience of wandering around Acre?  Contrast this feeling of estrangement with the original Tenchu, which takes the same stealth kill mechanic and challenges the player to hone their craft and achieve a higher level of score and mastery.

Syndicate [2012] (PS3) – SINGLE PLAYER CAMPAIGN

Picked up a new game, but only for blogging’s sake (separate budget from the wedding/house planning, so it’s ok).  I wanted to get a post out so I haven’t had a foray into the multiplayer yet on this one.  I understand the online play is considered the best part of this game from reading other reviews.  I promise to actually try the multiplayer this time also (as I’ve gotten older, I tend to shy away from game commitment).  Long and short of the single player campaign though is; middle of the road.  That’s becoming a difficult proposition for a game that retails for $60 and isn’t being stocked at local Walmarts/Targets around here.

Any sort of sequel or title referencing another source material will always draw comparisons to the original.  Syndicate [2012] preserves some of the dark motif of the original 90’s series.  The non-aesthetic elements of those games has not been preserved though.  First, get a feel for what the first two games were like.  The 90’s was a long time ago.  Remember how awesome Sound Garden was?  I’ve found some YouTube clips of the games below, so I can spare you from having to read another 5000 words of rant.

I’ll confess, I liked the first two Syndicate games a lot for some reasons I’ll get into later.  At the time though, I knew they were not for everyone.  The core of the game’s theme was amorality.  The games also suffered from some terrible flaws in AI and controls (you MAY have picked this up if you actually watched the first YouTube video).  You couldn’t really go inside buildings and getting into cars was frustrating and possibly suicidal.  It was VERY difficult to play Syndicate Wars on PSOne.  I also understand completely that a 2012 game with an isometric overhead view and bad controls clearly can’t be a blockbuster.  Syndicate [2012] resurrects itself as an FPS.  Given the success of games like Skyrim, Deus Ex, or Modern Warfare, it’s clearly an adequate perspective to support great action and immersive story and gameplay.  So, I’m not going to gripe on the perspective change.


First off, fifteen years is a long break between installments.  Resuscitating IP that old is risky, because it’s possible your fan base will no longer care or remember the original.  And true die-hard fans might not respond if you change something major, even if you’ve done a good job in making something new (I have to play as this blond teenager?!? WTF! #MGS2).  So I wonder why EA attempted to bring this franchise back?  I suspect what happened is that some new ideas for a shooter were developed, and someone found something in the IP vault that reminded them of Syndicate, and then the two were melded together.  “Oh, you’re coming up with some futuristic shooter, cool cool.  You know that sounds a lot like this other futuristic game we have the rights to…”

The original story has apparently been discarded from what I can tell, but the world of Syndicate has essentially been preserved.  In the future, there are mega-corporations that are so big and powerful they have displaced governments and nation-states.  They fight each other in brutal proxy wars and engage in violent espionage.  These corporations control the population thoroughly through brain implants, and turn their “agents,” into cyborg slaves devoid of free will.  Their product is control.  In Syndicate, you were the bad guy.  There was no doubt about it.  Your missions were to assassinate rival scientists and leaders, and “persuade,” which of course, was not through delicate means.  The goal was to conquer the world one country at a time by displacing local and rival syndicates.  One aspect of the original franchise was that you were clearly NOT the agents on the field, but an executive controlling these living puppets remotely.  I tend to think that acknowledging the player’s existence is a neat narrative trick.  Syndicate has you feeling like an honest to goodness entrepreneur.  After all, it’s just business.  Human life, meh.  In these isometic view games, it also explains the rationale of why the perspective is the way it is.  You’re not Link running around with a sword, you’re watching your agents from a satellite or airship located over the terrain.  Truly you are “roleplaying” here.   I love these old 80’s and 90’s games where they had to create a story where the player was actually being sucked into the game.  Aside from being able to hack pedestrians and turn them into drones, you also could customize your own operatives with metal skeletons and bionic implants.  Fine tuning of combat performance could be achieved by administering reservoirs of narcotics which increased speed or weapon accuracy, but also could cause your agents to go on an unintended killing spree.  Metal Gear had the balls to insinuate drugs could be used to make you shoot better, a concept Syndicate did earlier times 100.

Syndicate [2012] has you taking the reins of a Eurocorp agent, and not that of an executive.  Presumably EA has re-imagined these agents as having somewhat more autonomy.  The brain implant is back, and now is the primary source of your amazing FPS ability to survive thousands of rounds of automatic weapon fire.  The brain implant is the source of the main abilities of your character.  You grow through extracting (physically) other brain implants from dead agents.  Your chip lets you hack remote devices as well as enemy chips.  This is the principle puzzle-solving element in the game, moving an elevator up or down or opening an access door locked from the other side (although it is underutilized).  The drug-use aspects of the game has been removed (ages M for Mature…??), and replaced with a Dart6 Overlay, which essentially is like a cross between some sort of futuristic meta-vision and the Max Paine “bullet-time” function.

The story centers around discovering your origins, a covert resistance group fighting the corporations, and ultimately revenge.  There are really only like 4 characters.  None of them are very interesting or sympathetic.  You are predictably thrown into very long action sequences that don’t really escalate in difficulty and are pretty darn easy because of your awesome chip.  The campaign moves nonstop from action sequence to action sequence without any noticeable breathers or reflection.  There are technically breaks in missions, and the game separates chapters by giving you score recaps and statistics on performance, but the theme is noticeably devoid of control and options.  I guess that is the life of an agent after all, but you were never the agent in the original Syndicates in the first place.

The environments are generally futuristic corporate facilities.  You know the type, glass lobbies with a lot of cool lighting and access tunnels and elevator shafts.  Although there are pedestrians and civilians caught in the cross-fire of these escapades, once they are alerted to your presence they usually just lie down and hope to not get shot.  Certainly this is a rationale response, but what is missing is the open-ended worlds you could walk around and the careful plotting you could do while  looking for ambush points.  The gameplay quickly feels redundant.  The strategy and plotting aspects are gone, as are the open ended city exploration (which to be honesty was barely utilized in either of the original two games).  You are funneled through installations which are comprised of ventilation shafts and lobbies.  The cities of Syndicate are gone in place of something that looks cool, but has been done before.

The brooding synthesizer music in the first two Syndicates (think Blade Runner) no longer permeates the environments you’re roaming.  Some cool techno is in this game, but it’s only noticeable in a few points.  I can’t say for certain that there is no music in the rest of the game, but if it was there, I didn’t notice.  I think maybe some corners were cut at the end of development.  More would be welcome here.  Afterall, a lot of music for a video game is like 25 minutes.  It’s not that much effort honestly (explain to me why a game like Starcraft where the developers know people are playing for literally 1000’s of hours only has like 35 minutes of music?).  There is a chance here to really make ANY game better with more and better music that was passed up on.

One especially irksome thing I find about this game is how big parts of the story and environment are hidden in a menu available data-dictionary.  You pick up an item in a stage and it updates an entry in a little in-game encyclopedia.  Talk to a character, and their life story is loaded up there.  Complete an objective and you sometimes learn about something unrelated.  This is just frankly lazy writing. If the developers want me to understand the motivations of the CEO of Eurocorp, they can develop it through narrative or some sort of actual in-game event instead of trying to story board with stupid footnotes.  When you’re constructing a sci-fi world, naturally there are going to be a lot of elements that aren’t explained fully.  The important ones to the plot need to be explained in the plot.  I’m not going to pause a game that is non-stop shooting to go read a bunch of crappy Wikipedia entries.  This was a stupid and annoying concept in the Xenosaga series, and it was stupid in Final Fantasy 13, and it’s still stupid now.  Granted, I don’t want all these extraneous details in a Metal Gear type 45 minute cut scene where someone is talking, but perhaps an interactive database could be prepared.  A mission briefing screen that reads these elements to you in the form of a history lesson.  The interface for this encyclopedia menu itself is clunky too, it’s actually kind of tough to read the text and the font is relatively small.  In the future they forgot how to make Kindles?  I didn’t read most of these little updates, and I think consequently the story didn’t make a lot of sense.  Please, figure out a way to explain what’s going on by showing me what’s going on, or having me somehow interact with it through what the characters are saying and doing.  Don’t make a bunch of text and hide in a menu.

If you find the futuristic thing interesting, try Deus Ex 3 instead.  That game deals with the issues of technology and social control on a much more cerebral level and is a more complete experience.  The most shocking thing about the story is how short it is.


This isn’t a bad shooter, but the mechanics and balance elements haven’t been thought out that well.  There are cool and diverse weapons that all have a feature that separates them from just another assault rifle or machine gun.  There is a gun that goes around corners, a gun that penetrates light cover, a sniper rifle, and of course the awesome mini-gun (a Syndicate favorite).  Been there, done that. These have all been done in other games already.

The hacking skill is neat, but generally most of the puzzles setup require you to either hack a remote switch to open a door, or hack an enemy armor to cause it to lose invulnerability.  I think there is potential for this option to be used more here, but that would require more interactive environments.

The Dart6 Overlay is neat, but it can be used too frequently and is overpowered.  Your Dart powers regenerate with time, making most encounters that of patience, rather than skill.  The Dart mode increases damage resistance, can increase health, can increase the damage you cause, and also starts with the bonus of slowing down time.  They might as well call it Jesus mode.  It recharges after about 30 seconds from being completely depleted.  So does your health, which will only be depleted if you take too much damage in a short period of time (think Call of Duty).  I’m not naturally good at these shooter games, but this was just way too easy to exploit.

Actually,while we’re talking about other games, come to think of it, think God of War too.  Certain doors or metal grates that need to be opened prompt the player to either hold the square button, or tap it repeatedly.  This is clearly borrowed from the God of War series, where you had to interact with massive pieces of stone or repeatedly bludgeon somebody by ferociously tapping a button.  This works really well in God of War, because it links the feats of strength and endurance of the player with the feats of the avatar, the God of War, Kratos.  Most importantly, if you fail, the stone you’re trying to push or the monster you’re trying to decapitate will punish you.  Here, the “feats of strength” come up infrequently and are really just a distraction.  Why do I need to tap square repeatedly to open a door?  My character can snap a metal chain and padlock with his bare hands.  It just doesn’t make sense and is inconsistently applied.  But there it is every time you open a certain door or lift up a certain grate.  There also is no punishment and these never really come up during actual action or tension scenes.  They merely add a very plain interactive element to areas where swarms of enemies aren’t flooding and trying to blast you.  It’s in the game because it worked in another game that was popular.  Arkham City had something similar.  I hardly believe Batman would have trouble removing a ventilation duct cover.  Although it works in God of War, it feels tedious when it’s half-hazardly applied.

Dart special abilities, which let you hack enemies and cause general disarray, are primarily limited to affecting enemy bots.  The potential here is not really developed.  Although you can force a suicide or persuade enemies to fight each other, these elements aren’t used in puzzles or any type of level design.  Perhaps there could be an infiltration mode where you have to move from target to target to force them to open doors for you.  Instead, there is just gun battle after gun battle.

There are moments where you’re operating in a sort of stealth mode, at least according to your chip’s narrator voice (think of it as a pro-murder version of Siri).  I get the impression that the point was to make infiltration, and it’s close friend discretion, seem like they are part of this game.  They are not.  Granted, in the original Syndicates, you couldn’t really do covert missions due to the AI, the game tries to make you feel like you’re sneaking when you’re not.  You’re forced to fight the same enemies no matter what, they know where you are all the time, and they’re going to swarm you just the same anyway.  Why ISN’T there a stealth mode in this game?  The classic Syndicate agent, and your character in this installment, always sort of looked like ninjas with their face coverings, so it’s only natural to expect that, right?  Basically these stealth modes just serve to break up the action.  There’s no suspense because you can’t blow your cover early, and there is no penalty, because you can’t blow your cover.  It just sort of happens.  Why not just shoot everyone when you’re coming in to kidnap someone instead of just shooting everyone when you’re coming out?  It’s nonsensical from a design perspective, as the “chip” and “hacking” concepts that are supposed to be imbedded in the game logically should support some sort of stealth or meaningful trojan-horse-play.  There are definitely missed opportunities here.

Gameplay, due to the overly awesome chip modifications, is pretty easy.  Gripes I have about this game I generally have about all other shooters; enemies have too much life.  Headshots are valued as a statistic and do more damage, but this isn’t exactly Metal Gear where certain areas react differently to gun fire (tranq in the leg vs. the head for example).  Little details like this are appreciated when someone plays a game enough.  The extra mile effort is simply not here.  Enemies have different skins and designs, but ultimately all have the same weapons as you do.  Combat seems repetitive with exception of the boss fights which are all pretty good.

Choice and Final Thoughts.

What is really lacking in Syndicate [2012] from earlier Syndicate games is the lack of choice that you have.  Again, if you’re an agent, this does thematically make sense.  But it’s not satisfying from the player’s perspectives.  The first two Syndicate games did not really have good balance as far as weapons and upgrades, but they did give you some control over your destiny.  You had the choice of what missions to choose, what equipment to bring with you, what mods you wanted to implant on your agents, and finally, what you actually wanted to do once you got to the mission (knock off a bank in en route to your assassination maybe…??).  It made you feel entrepreneurial (mentioned above).  In this story, there is no real choice.  I think if you want a good Syndicate feel, the right game is probably Deus Ex3.  Hey, maybe it’s not $60 anymore.  That’s what’s really missing here.  Or if the illusion of free will was supposed to be a part of the narrative, why isn’t it as good as it is in BioShock?

SPOILER ALERT (not really….).  The game ends with a question, “what are you going to do next?”  Aside from it being a confirmation that you’ve earned your freedom, this ending is presumably an invitation to go online and murder a bunch of strangers.  If you liked the game, you’ll like playing with your friends, or other randoms from all corners of the internet.

I doubt that though.  Competitive and healthy online play only come about from there being a healthy community of people who want to play the game online.  It’s called the network effect in economics.  It’s the theory that the value of a good or service is dependent on the number of other people using the good or service.  Nobody wants to play a game that isn’t a blockbuster.  I think this aspect of online gaming is frequently overlooked.  You need to have a REALLY good game to get a lot of people online to create a critical mass.  Otherwise it will be a flop.  Think of the vacant lobbies of Syndicate [2012], but only instead being empty lobbies of multiplayer mode.  I will have to test this theory on my own when I decide to use the multiplayer.  I think I’d want to play a Halo or a Call of Duty before I’d want to jump into a niche like this.  Without being a perfect 10 game, developers are really asking a lot out of their audience to commit to the massive amounts of time it takes to get good in an online environment, potentially filled with out of work super gamers and other ace players (like my totally cool friend Erik Lawson).  It’s especially insulting to make a crappy single player mode for a franchise that nobody probably remembers, and then expect people to just jump online.  If I’m disappointed in the mechanics of the game, why would I want to play it with a bunch of hopped-up super teenagers who will call me a noob incessantly?  The single player mode it seems is an add on to EA’s intended multiplayer modes.  Again, I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I heard these were good.  But the correct approach is to totally blow a player away with the game as opposed to expecting them to just go online.  Convert me to the religion of Syndicate; don’t expect me to just read the bible of my own (the bible of the Church of the New Epoch maybe?).

The real question I’m left with is exactly what EA is attempting to accomplish here?  The product is a relatively run of the mill shooter that only sort of innovates.  It’s derivative and not daring.  On its surface, Syndicate appears to have the same dark-themed dystopic  potential as the earlier Bullfrog games.  An hour or so into the game dashes these hopes though.  The critical heart and soul of Syndicate, and its 1996 sequel Syndicate Wars, has been removed though, ironically much like the series signature “agents.”  EA, please, please, try and come up with something daring.  It may involve characters using drugs and controversy though.