Author Archive

Premature Evaluation: Parkitect

After a couple hours of tinkering and revising, I’ve almost got a decent amusement park in Parkitect, Texel Raptor’s pseudo-remake of Rollercoaster Tycoon. Most of the rides are full or at least half-full, I have a cool rollercoaster or two that are drawing a lot of customers, and I’m turning a handsome profit every month. It’s a good-enough park, and the customers who walk back out through the gates feel like they got what they came for, but with a little more care and convenience it could be great. Not unlike Parkitect itself.

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Premature Evaluation: Meridian – Squad 22

Perhaps a slow decline into niche-status is just what the RTS genre needs. No pressure to include a fistful of cutscene sugar in order to make the gameplay medicine go down, no expectations of lavish artwork and massive unit lists. We can just play more RTS games that aren’t at odds with themselves and their intentions, and we can maybe calibrate our own expectations a bit better around the present state of the genre, and not hazy memories of a golden age.

On the other hand, I’d hope that a retreat to the highlands of creative obscurity would allow RTS games to clamber out of the shadow of StarCraft, a place where Meridian: Squad 22 [Facebook page] seems resolutely determined to stand.

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Premature Evaluation: The Solus Project

It's a pretty skybox, until you realize that the meteors can actually hit you.

Few sci-fi games embrace the menacing strangeness and indifference of the universe as you find it in Kubrick, Tarkovsky, or even Scott’s original Alien. Space, and the far future, tend to be familiar analogues to the everyday conflicts we see around us. The aliens are never too alien, and new worlds are never too new.

The Solus Project maroons the player beyond the outskirts of comprehension. It’s a survival game with a little more guidance and sense of purpose that you’ll find in the million other survival games jostling for attention on Early Access. It’s also about a hundred times more polished, which is fitting for a game fast-approaching its full release. But its gorgeous graphics and clever diegetic interface are all in the service of a story of isolation and suspense on a deserted alien world.

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Wot I Think: Total War: Warhammer

Watching the Greenskins approach from a dusty brown hilltop with the remnants of the High King’s great Dwarven army, I knew I was probably going to lose this battle and, with it, the entire Blood River Valley that I’d spent most of my game trying to conquer. I’d already defeated three other Orc armies in the last two turns, but this made one unstoppable horde too many. Hours of effort and progress were about to be erased as my greatest army was swamped by the seemingly endless tide of Greenskins.

I was thrilled: this kind of heroic, doomed slaughter is what I signed up for with Total War: Warhammer.

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Premature Evaluation: How to Survive 2

A helpful still from Kovac's How to Survive TV series for children and zombies. It's realy troubling if you think about how he makes these.

Survival games seem to break down into two broad categories. On the one hand, you have the survivalist games, where the focus is on an endless battle against the elements, a hostile environment, and resource scarcity so severe that even basic needs like food and shelter are hard to satisfy.

Then there are survival games like EKO Software’s How to Survive 2, where some survival elements have been added to a rather conventional game design in order to make progress a little more meaningful, play a little harder, and your rewards a little less secure. In a word, you’re still an almost unstoppable badass able to impose your will on the world around you… but sometimes you need to stop for snacks and juice.

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Premature Evaluation: Starpoint Gemini Warlords

Every week, Rob Zacny heads into the uncharted systems of Early Access in search of new cargo to bring back to the mothership. This week, Starpoint Gemini Warlords [official site].

Starpoint Gemini Warlords is admirably straightforward in its Steam Early Access statement, warning-off potential buyers with an upfront admission that the game is currently an early alpha with only the most basic systems implemented. The problem is that it’s so basic that I’m having a hard time discerning what is going to set Warlords apart from both its immediate predecessor and the growing field of space-freelancing simulators. It calls to mind games like Privateer and Freelancer… but also games like Elite: Dangerous and Rebel Galaxy. The stripped-down work-in-progress comes across like a nostalgic throwback that remains blissfully unaware that a revival has taken place, and these kinds of open-ended spaceship adventure can be bigger, more ambitious, and more exciting than they were fifteen or twenty years ago.

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No Bullshit: The Culture & Creativity Of Cliff Bleszinski’s Boss Key Productions

When we received an invite to visit the studios of Boss Key Productions, Cliff Bleszinski’s new studio, we asked Rob Zacny to represent us. He was there to play Lawbreakers [official site], a game that he approached with some trepidation but the tense multiplayer action won him over. Given that Boss Key is an entire new creative venture for Bleszinski and his team, we wanted to know more. How does the studio work? What is it like to work with the man behind Gears of War, Unreal and Jazz Jackrabbit? And how do you make a salmon with legs?

Right at the front of the Boss Key Production employee handbook is the instruction: no bullshit.

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Premature Evaluation: Kim

Every Monday, and this Tuesday, Rob Zacny settles down with his game library in search of the next great Early Access game. This week, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

An adventure game based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim [official site] is almost as strange and difficult to assess as the book itself. Like its source material, it’s full of contradiction and complication, a work at once in conflict with its goals and yet more enticing because of it. It shouldn’t work, and in some ways it very much doesn’t… but then you get caught up in it and those objections are forgotten. At least for a time.

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Premature Evaluation: Man O’ War – Corsair

Every Monday, Rob Zacny heads into the uncharted waters of Early Access in search of plunder and excitement. This week, Man O’ War: Corsair.

Warhammer is a refuge from both progress and decline. It’s a safe space where you can always enjoy a militarist’s historical highlight reel from the Late Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, where things will never get much better or worse. And Empire will always stand on the brink of collapse and annihilation, the forces of chaos and barbarism will always encroach on the margins, and there will always be a place for someone with a taste for violence and a dream.

The Golden Age of Piracy lasted less than a century before buccaneers were practically extinct, and order restored to the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes. And just a century after that, the Royal Navy’s domination of the world’s oceans was so complete that another Trafalgar or Nile was unthinkable. But in Man o’ War: Corsair, the sea will always be a bloody no-man’s land, with plenty of room for a lone captain to make his fortune and change the world in the process.

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Hands On: Lawbreakers

Earlier this month, we sent Rob Zacny to the offices of Boss Key Productions in North Carolina. The studio are working on their first game, Lawbreakers, a multiplayer action game from a team led by Unreal’s Cliff Bleszinski. Approaching with a healthy dose of skepticism, Rob spent some time playing the game and learning its secrets to see if it could win him over, and to find the answer to his initial question.

Who, I wondered, is going to give a damn about Lawbreakers?

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Premature Evaluation: Bunker Punks

After spending three hours filing my taxes last week, I wasn’t feeling very punk. Fortunately, a code for Ninja Robot Dinosaur’s Bunker Punks [official site] arrived in my inbox to let me stick it to The Man, from the safety of my (partially tax deductable) home office. Within seconds, I was shooting at jacket-and-tie wearing aliens who defended levels filled with corporate propaganda like “CONSUME” signs and restoring all the cred that tax season had cost me.

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Premature Evaluation: Poly Bridge

Every week, Rob Zacny crosses the chasm of Early Access to find a treat on the other side. Sometimes the path across is perilous, sometimes it is as sturdy as a horizontal oak.

As something rolls across a painstakingly-constructed series of spans and supports in Dry Cactus’ Poly Bridge [official site], you can see the structural elements changing color as load is added or subtracted and they draw closer to their failure point. A car followed by a heavy bus turns a set of struts and arches from a cheerful green to a neutral yellow to a wary orange to a bloody red, and it’s right at that moment the excitement of civil engineering comes to life.

If that piece can just hold, and the car rolls onto the other half of the span with its added supports and pillars, then you’ve done your job and built a useful bridge. Alternately, the piece will wobble, collapse, and dump your passengers and a good part of your bridge into a canyon or a river.

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Premature Evaluation: Block’hood

One of the major selling-points of Cities: Skylines was that, unlike SimCity, its maps would let your cities sprawl for miles until they became the San Angeles-style megalopolises of your dreams (though with a cheerier, Scandinavian aesthetic sensibility and fewer killer androids. Run out of space for that next critical piece of utility infrastructure? No problem, just annex another 25 square miles of land and “bring the city to the water”, in the words of Chinatown’s Noah Cross.

Plethora-Project’s Block’hood [official site] takes the opposite approach. It describes itself as a “neighborhood builder” rather than a city-builder, and even its most generous maps limit your total buildable area to roughly the size of a postage-stamp… or one of my old apartment buildings. No sooner have you started placing buildings that you’ve run out of space to expand. In order to keep growing and developing, you only have one choice: to grow up.

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Premature Evaluation: H1Z1 – Just Survive

There’s an archetypical plot running through a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, and particularly zombie fiction, where the survivors realize that they never before felt as alive as they do in the midst of their fight for survival. World War Z has no shortage of characters who found meaning and purpose in the zombie apocalypse, a disaster that liberated them from postmodern malaise. A similar sentiment ran through a couple early issues of The Walking Dead. Several times during its run, Battlestar Galactica paused to show you just how lost and hopeless the main characters were before their world was destroyed. If only, such fiction says, something awful would come along and imbue our lives with meaning as we fight to preserve them.

In H1Z1: Just Survive [official site], I think I’ve found the cure for apocalyptic romanticism. Because its name proves to be a pretty accurate summary of what’s on offer in this Early Access build, and a reminder that sometimes survival isn’t enough. Even in a survival game.

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Premature Evaluation: Kona

Every Monday, Rob Zacny braces himself for the chilly wastes of Early Access and attempts to find warmth by the side of a worthy in-progress game.

From its opening on a park-bench at a roadside rest stop in northern Quebec, Kona tantalized me with a combination of period detail and immersive-sim mechanics. Before my character, private detective Carl Faubert, even finished his cigarette, I’d made sure to stash his extra smokes, Instamatic camera, and map in my inventory. Then it was time to hop into a carefully recreated ’65 Chevy pickup and drive up a narrow ribbon of backcountry highway, while a gentle snowfall turned into a blizzard outside my windows.

Kona is a wonderfully atmospheric game, though atmosphere isn’t hard to come by when you’ve turned the blizzard effects up to 11 and marooned the player in the wastes of northern Canada. With nothing but howling winter winds and a mysteriously deserted village for company, it’s easy to get caught up in the setting and its feeling of menacing isolation.

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Premature Evaluation: Rust

Every Monday, Rob Zacny gathers the raw materials of Early Access and attempts to survive against a world of crazed, screaming unfinished games. This week, he visits the ultra-popular survival game.

As I died screaming between a wolf’s jaws, collapsing in the snow that dusts the top of the mountains while listening to it gnaw through virtual flesh, I had a realization: survival games are fun as long as they are about the threat of death.

Death itself is underwhelming: a gateway to an ever-increasing set of chores and tasks that you must repeat in order to recover your lost progress. Inevitably, the process eventually repeats, and the to-do list gets longer and less fulfilling, which sounds a little bit like hell and a little bit like a parable about the human condition. Rust [official site], the multiplayer survival game from Facepunch Studios, seems comfortable with both analogies.

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The 4X Genre Has Grown Stagnant, Here’s How To Fix It

When Civilization II came out, I spent an entire summer playing it for several hours a day. The only check on my binging was the fact that my parents would eventually come home and force me to pretend, for a few hours at least, that I cared about things other than Civilization II.

I was a senior in college when Civilization IV arrived. I’d barely played strategy games at all for the previous four years, and “senioritis” brought with it a case of intense nostalgia. I bought it in the spring before graduation. It was still consuming my days and nights when the leaves fell later that year.

That was probably the last time my enjoyment of a 4X game was pure and uncomplicated. Lately, I’ve been wondering where that joy has gone, and why so few games seem to add anything essential to those old experiences.

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