Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Tale of Two Civies

Two new Sid Meier's Civilization games came out recently, and like the fanboi that I am, I had to try both of them. Civilization IV: Colonization for the computer and Civilization Revolutions for the Xbox 360.

The first one I got was Colonization. Seeing this game come out was a bit of a surprise to me. I was a big fan of the original Colonization, but it was probably the least popular of the early Civilization type games that included Master of Orion and Master of Magic.

Colonization puts you in the role of one of the major European powers that colonized the Americas. You build up your colonies until you're ready to break away from your mother country in a revolution. You win by being the first player to successfully win a revolution.

My initial impressions of the new Colonization were very favorable. The game played like I remembered the original one playing right up until I got to the endgame. Simply put, the endgame revolution is far too difficult. I was pretty shocked since I started on an easy difficulty level which in Civ games usually means that you almost have to try to lose in order not to win. Not in Civilization IV: Colonization! Based on comments on the web it looks like the difficulty setting actually does nothing, or at least nothing noticeable to many players. Achieving a victory requires a very narrow and specific strategy, without any of the ability to explore options and play around at lower difficulty levels. That's not something I expect or accept in a Civ game.

Hopefully they'll fix this in a patch eventually, but in the meantime I have to rank this as possibly the worst Civ game ever, and that includes the games that didn't have Sid Meier's name on them.

Thankfully, Civilization Revolutions is an entirely different story. This adaptation of the game to the console is a great success. In simplifying the game for the console they managed to distill it down to some of its best elements. The result is a game that can be played to completion in a couple of hours from start to finish, and yet give you the same satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment as a game of Civilization IV that takes many times longer to play.

I find that the shorter playtime allows for more experimentation with strategy and tactics. I hate to mix things up in a regular Civilization game because by the time I find out if my strategy works or not I've already invested several hours in the game. The most you lose in Civilization Revolutions is an hour or two if your strategy doesn't work out. The game is also supposed to have a decent multiplayer mode, although I haven't tried it.

The simpler interface does lose a few nice things, like automated exploring, but the shorter nature of the game makes this less noticeable than it would be otherwise. One of the biggest changes veteran civ players will notice is the lack of workers. Development of the tiles surrounding cities is done through technology research rather than through workers. This eliminates a lot of micromanagement. You don't have to develop each city separately, you don't have to manage a lot of workers, and you don't have to worry about protecting your workers when war breaks out.

Speaking of war, I like the way it's handled. The engine is very similar to other civ games. Playing up through King level in difficulty the odds seem to be fairly reliable indicators of victory. The underdog can win, but it doesn't seem to happen nearly as often as it does in other civ games. This means that the infamous civ battle anachronisms are very rare. I'm talking here about tank armies being defeated by archers and other such silliness.

The diplomacy leading to war is also nice. Reactions tend to be a lot more predictable when you refuse a demand. Up to King level no one just declares war on you out of the blue. They only do it if you have refused a demand, in which case they do it immediately, or if you are about to win the game, in which case the entire world often turns against you to try to prevent your victory. Both situations are predictable, and therefore can be worked into your strategy.

Having more predictable results may not necessarily be more realistic, but they feel more realistic to me.

Overall, I think this is one of the best Civ games ever, which was a very pleasant surprise for me after the disappointment that was Civilization IV: Colonization.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

If At First You Don't Succeed...

Try another Star Wars MMOG. Lucas Arts and BioWare (unfortunately a branch of EA now... boooo), have announced a new MMOG titled Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Despite being deeply flawed, I was a big fan of Star Wars Galaxies when it first came out. It's now a completely different game, and one I have little interest in, but I could still get excited about playing in a Star Wars MMOG if done well.

There's not a lot of information out yet, but the Knights of the Old Republic games have been some of the best Star Wars video games ever done, so it's natural that they would choose to revisit that era for the new MMOG. It also has the advantage of being full of jedi, which is something that plagued Galaxies, being set in a post Order 66 galaxy where jedi were supposed to be all but extinct, yet everyone wanted to play one.

I've mostly given up on following games pre-release, but I'll probably keep an eye on this one.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Forgotten Realms in 4th Edition

Every change to a new edition of an RPG generates a lot of controversy in the fan community. Perhaps the most controversial changes to come with 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons have been the changes to the Forgotten Realms.

While I sympathize with fans who feel the changes were too much, I not only disagree with them, but I think that the changes didn't go far enough.

The Forgotten Realms were created for 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and have always had a 1st Edition mindset. They were created using the 1st Edition rules as a foundation and asking the question "if these rules were the laws of reality, what would the world look like." When they made the change to 2nd Edition AD&D they put the realms through a series of cataclysmic changes in order to explain the changes made in the rules, because they recognized that the rules defined the setting for the Forgotten Realms.

Now, with 4th Edition, they decided to do something similar. If it took a cataclysm to make the relatively minor change from 1st to 2nd, it was going to take something even greater to make the change from 3rd to 4th seeing as how the changes to the rules were so much greater. That's why we get a world where entire continents have been replaced, civilizations have fallen and risen, and the timeline has been advanced 100 years.

The problem is that they didn't go far enough. The 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide lists nine assumptions about the world. One of those assumptions is that "Adventurers Are Exceptional." That has never been true in the Forgotten Realms. Adventurers in the Realms are so common place that countries like Cormyr have laws and regulations specifically to deal with them, and sometimes construct national policy based on the presence of adventurers and what they are likely to do. This was true before, and it's still true even after the 4th Edition updates.

The Forgotten Realms does meet the other eight assumptions, and the DMG talks about altering core assumptions, but to allow the first fully supported setting in the new edition to break what is arguably the most important of the core world assumptions was a mistake.

The "Adventurers Are Exceptional" assumption is what most sets 4th Edition apart from its earlier incarnations. Playing in the Forgotten Realms of previous editions, players didn't usually feel that their actions made much of an impression on the big picture. There was always someone more powerful just around the corner. This meant that either the players never dealt with significant threats, or else there had to be a reason why Elminster, or one of hundreds of other powerful adventurers, wasn't already dealing with it.

While 4th edition has done away with a large number of the more powerful NPCs, and reduced the power of some of those that remain, it still retains the idea that adventurers are everywhere, and therefore not really that exceptional.

I think they had their reasons for doing this. The first is that they probably agree that the "Adventurers Are Exceptional" assumption is the biggest change from previous editions, and by putting out the Forgotten Realms without that assumption they hoped to provide a setting that was a little more familiar to those coming from previous editions. The second reason is that the Forgotten Realms are the setting for the first "living" campaign for 4th Edition put on by the RPGA. The living campaigns, by necessity, assume that adventurers are relatively common. They have to in order to accept that hundreds, or even thousands, of players across the US and the world are all playing characters in the same shared campaign.

Still, I would rather have seen a setting that more fully encompassed the core setting assumptions at the heart of 4th Edition, and I fear that by not doing so the design teams could lose sight of some of those assumptions. That would be a real shame.