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The Games Of Christmas '10: Day 5

The fifth window of our towering advent calendar of judgment must be opened. Open it! There we are. What lies beyond is a game of unfathomable human drama. A thing of betrayal and backstabbing, of hope and resilience, and - if it gets really bad - of making sure you set your alarm clock. What could it be?

It's... Neptune's Pride!

Jim: This is probably one of the best real-time strategies I've played. And I want to emphasize the /real-time/. The traveling battlefleets on the map of conflict take hours to reach their target and, more importantly, cannot be stopped once they set out in their journey. If you have second thoughts then you'd better haven then in the time it takes the fleet to make its jump, or the regrets could be serious.

I allowed myself a shudder at my own snobbery after we'd been playing Neptune's Pride for a while. I thought: "Great idea, but how good can a browser game really be?" A ludicrous judgment, of course, because - well - a game is a game. And Neptune's Pride is a colossal, nuanced enormity of a game that works brilliantly precisely because it is accessible. The abiding memory of this multiplayer galactic conquest game was, for me, learning the routines of the other player's real lives, so as to better plan my tactics. "Kieron is out tonight, so he can't possibly counter-attack in time..." "Quintin won't be awake yet, time for my second prong in the attack!" And so on. Watching other players adjust their tactics in real time as I set up my fleets moving, only for me to countermand, and their counter-countermand, was a thing is beauty, and of frustration.

What's best about Neptune's Pride, I suspect, is that it keeps things simple. It facilitates the natural urges of players to ally, doublecross, or otherwise politic their way through what is a social situation. Your empire probably isn't going to survive without other people. Space bound imperialism is a social animal. As in life, so in Neptune's Pride. Play with friends for the most chilling results.

Quinns: When I wrote about Neptune's Pride elsewhere, I described it as a game of-

#2: Being a jerk.

Which I think is as succinct a summary as you'll find anywhere. The glacial pace of Neptune's Pride and the lack of anything resembling random chance (besides the chance that your opponent might not be away having a drink or burying his parents when you invade his territory) makes it a polite, noble game. Does sir understand? This is war. It is a game of outthinking, out-maneuevering and outsmarting your opponents. The decision to slide your fleets forward or pull them back is not to be taken lightly. It's a decision to be mulled over for whole minutes, perhaps with a glass of something expensive.

And yet at the same time you've got #2: Being a jerk. Despite its dignified overtones, Neptune's Pride is also a game where the most conniving, devious, hateful, lying bottom-feeder of a human being is right at home. Why do you think I did so well at the beginning of our game? But oh, then everybody else cottoned on. I'm telling you, this game should have been called Neptune's Shame. As much as it's a game for thoughtful gentlemen, there can be no turning a blind eye towards the importance of numbers. Each of you, as an individual, is comparatively weak. Together, you are mighty. And yet only one of you can win.

This mix of grace and ugliness makes Neptune's Pride a strange beast. It's ballet for bastards, it's knife-fighting for nice-guys. I love it for that.

It's just a shame that the talked-of update never showed up, the one that was meant to bring additional features and race-specific abilities. As much as I'm looking forward to Iron Helmet's next game, Blight of the Immortals, with a little bit more variety and colour I could (and still can) see Neptune's Pride becoming an obsession for many, many people. I'm still obsessed, and I only ever played one game. But then, being betrayed by your "friends" will do that to you. Oh, Neptune's Pride. Why you gotta hurt so good.

Kieron: Yeah, that one game, wrote up in extensive detail in the Pride & Falls diary. I never went back either. After those few months sleeping with a gun (i.e. A netbook with a portable connection) beneath my pillow, I fancied a break. Though I took no small pride at the game which I pushed first devoured games journalist circles. I'm a little surprised Future Publishing wasn't burned to the ground in those few months, given the amount of hatred and loathing that was crammed inside it, thanks to Neptune's Pride.

(As opposed to the normal level of hatred and loathing which is crammed inside any building that houses games journalists)

Mostly, Neptune's Pride was the closest I came to what I was looking for after stepping away from Travian. Rather than the MMO-format where mass-dynamics trumps anything else, I was looking for an online game with a smaller number of players. Like about 50. Big enough to be BIG, but not big enough to be totally alien. Neptune's Pride was a bit like that, but with the player numbers of a large boardgame. It also illuminated that problem of mass, while worse in a game with more players, is one which rests on whatever game mechanics you choose.

(I'm not surprised that they're going for Blight Of The Immortals next, which doesn't use the competitive set-up.)

Still -what Neptune's Pride pointed towards is where I think a slice of PC gaming will be headed. This is very old school PC gaming, but made accessible in the manner of the modern world. I'd love to see lots more games like this. It's where you half-hope at least part of the face-book games will go - something that's mechanically more interesting than what's generally being done. And most of all, when I think of Neptune's Pride, I think back to that late night conversation between Graham and me and laugh and shudder at what Games can do to human beings.

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