FROM THE ARCHIVE: Battlezone – A Retrospective Game Review

“Let them have their ticker tape parades, their ‘space races’ and their commemorative packets of dehydrated ice cream. While Von Braun takes credit for his Redstone bottle rockets, I am finalising plans for an inter-planetary fleet that could plant an American flag on every rock and pebble in this solar system by the end of the decade. I will be watching the sunrise from Olympus Mons long before NASA takes their first steps on the moon.” – Dr. Wilhelm Arkin, Battlezone

Battlezone is a 1998 PC-format first-person vehicle shooter/real-time strategy, developed and produced by Activision. Despite the innovative “field commander” concept, the ambitious and impressive gameplay, and the interesting and various range of settings, it remains an obscure title to this day.

The story of the game starts in 1952, when an investigation into a meteor shower near the Bering Strait leads to the discovery of a strange extra-terrestrial material, soon dubbed “bio-metal”. Further investigations of this material lead to the discovery that weapons can easily be fashioned from it, weapons which appear to be derived from some sort of “memory” of the material to reshape into its previous form. These weapons systems, shaped into vehicles resembling the tanks of Earth, have very promising properties, like the ability to counter-act gravity, to redistribute damage over their entire bodies, rather than taking damage at any specific point, and a single ammunition source for every sort of weapon.

As both the Americans and the Soviets have both acquired samples of this bio-metal, it is clear that both of them will have discovered the material and investigated its properties, and with its properties being so promising, it is also clear that both sides will compete for the bio-metal which is believed to exist in the solar system. With the bio-metal at their disposal, either side could drive through their opponents’ cities with impunity, ending the Cold War with a single stroke.

In order to collect this bio-metal, Dwight Eisenhower establishes a secret space organisation under the control of the National Security Agency, named the National Space Defence Force, or the NSDF. Recruiting under the auspices of NASA, the NSDF, with the overpowering weapons constructed from the bio-metal at their disposal, set forth to set up a lunar outpost, and thus begin gathering as much of this strange alien material as possible.

However, the NSDF are not alone in space. The Russians have earned a substantial lead with their technical advantage in developing space technologies, and their Cosmo Colonist Army, or CCA, outnumber the NSDF contingent, with superior weapons systems. With the Soviets overpowering the NSDF, the commanders of the American forces must quickly make up for their slow start.

But many questions remain about this bio-metal. Where did it come from? What relation do they have to seemingly alien structures located around the celestial bodies the NSDF and CCA pursue each other over? With all of these questions and more, the future of humankind rests on the secrets of bio-metal.

The plot of Battlezone is not necessarily the strongest I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely in the upper echelon, told exceptionally well through the game and the manual – which comes from the days when games came with a substantial manual in the box. I’m especially enamoured by the connections with the space missions undertaken by the Americans and the Soviets during that point in time, and I’m glad to finally see a space conspiracy which doesn’t suggest that man ever landed on the moon. The angle of having a secret space war raging while the American and Soviet populaces remain occupied with the political concerns of the era is also interesting, and overall, it gives the game a nice political and military angle.

During the game itself, the plot is never made too elaborate, with little snippets of details coming from the player character’s reminiscences during the loading screens, and the general feed of information coming through the game. The plot never interferes with having a good time in the game, which is an imperative of action game design.

Speaking of game design, the gameplay is a great strength of this game. The first-person shooter and the real-time strategy are not necessarily genres that you would expect to work very well together, but Battlezone manages to meld the two genres together very well, through the process of making the player a field commander instead of a rear-echelon general. As such, the amounts of forces that are available are limited, and the clever commander will have to use those forces in the most appropriate fashion.

BZ1
All of the commands can be accessed using a small selection of keys.

Battlezone is first and foremost a first-person shooter, with the player taking control of a number of the bio-metal constructed vehicles, bringing them into combat versus the enemy forces. These vehicles, due to their anti-gravity, have a large amount of momentum, presenting them as moving targets at all times, and makes first-person strategies such as strafe-running still viable in this game.

Due to the concept of “one ammunition source for all weapons”, there will never be any logistical problems where you lack ammunition for any weapon in particular, and logistical requirements are quickly resolved by the production buildings in the game. This sort of unrealism is acceptable in a game which never claims to be anything less than fantastical. Another feature of unrealism is the concept of equally distributed damage, or EDD, armour, which renders the real life tactic of flanking obsolete, and generally simplifies the game.

The gameplay isn’t limited to vehicles either. It is possible to hop out of vehicles and transfer to others, or to bail out when your vehicle is destroyed, progressing on foot, although infantry are far weaker than vehicles. To balance the game when the player is on foot, it is possible using a high-power sniper rifle to take out the pilots of other vehicles and commandeer their weapons against them. This generally improves the survivability of the player, although there is a mission during the campaign where it is necessary to use this technique of commandeering enemy vehicles. Unfortunately, this mission doesn’t use this game device particularly well, and I prefer using it as a matter of expediency rather than a necessity to progress through the campaign.

The other section of the game, the real-time strategy, takes a back-seat to the action, but is necessary to proceed, because the odds will definitely be against the lone-wolf. The central unit in this part of the game is the Recycler, the fundamental construction unit from which all other units are derived. It is imperative to the game, and if it is destroyed, the game is lost. The Recycler creates the most basic units in the game, including the Scavenger, used as a resource collector in the game, and also produces the Factory, responsible for building advanced units, the Armoury, which produces weapons systems and provides long-range logistics, and the Constructor, which builds bases, and is also used as a resource stop-off point.

The other creator units all come into their own roles nicely, with the Factory making everything from tanks to rocket tanks up to the Walker, a huge and extremely slow but very powerful attacking unit which can steamroll over the enemy if used correctly. The Armoury delivers replacement weapons systems, allowing players to customise their vehicles appropriate to different situations, and also delivers repair and ammunition units to any spot on the battlefield, but the further from the Armoury, the longer the delivery takes. The Constructor takes care of the process of base building, providing power plants, fixed emplacements, and supply and repair facilities.

The resource unit in the game is the unit of bio-metal scrap, gathered by the Scavenger. The game goes to long lengths to make sure that the player will never get bogged down in the standard real-time strategy process of “peasant watching”, by making the Scavenger units relatively autonomous and able to find scrap supplies easily by itself.

Another way in which the game makes sure that you don’t get bogged down in the more monotonous aspects of many real-time strategies is by restricting the numbers of any various type of unit to ten for each type. This means that not only is your population not dominated unnecessarily by resource collectors, but the “Zerg Rush” idea that plagues most real-time strategy games is removed, replaced by a concept of tactics which transcends throwing everything you have at the opponent and hoping for more kills on your side than theirs.

The game further allows for the survival of the units under your control by allowing them to use the same repair and ammunition resupply facilities that you, yourself, can use, and allows a commander to re-organise their army by recycling units for their scrap value, thus ensuring that you should never be left with units that are no longer of any use.

BZ2
The Recycle option makes up for that restrictive population limit.

I found this gameplay to be refreshing, and still do, especially after being crushed by the likes of an army of Zealots and Dragoons in the original StarCraft, but you can’t really appreciate the full complexity of the game in single-player. Unfortunately, due to lack of internet at the time of playing the game, I never played the multiplayer, but I did investigate it, and it seems like an ideal multiplayer experience for those looking for more tactics than evidenced in most first-person shooter, while not moving over to the hardcore difficulty of looking after every unit as evidenced in many RTS games.

For those looking for a quicker thrill than the strategy-based main game, there is a more traditional deathmatch style multiplayer mode, but the real meat of the game is definitely in the strategy game, and most of the multiplayer maps are set up with that in mind.

Unfortunately, this game isn’t perfect, and there are quite a few flaws lying around the place. It is a particularly buggy game, and is somewhat incompatible with modern operating systems. The most obvious bug that I found was an inability to get the hardware 3D renderer operating properly – no matter what system I tried it on, the game crashed. Windows 98, Windows Me – well, of course it was going to crash there! – Windows 2000, Windows XP – all afflicted with this 3D renderer bug, meaning that I had to run the game in the decidedly inferior software rendering mode. I tried this on a multitude of graphics cards as well, and every one of them decided to choke up when the hardware rendering was on.

This doesn’t render the game unplayable, and I was rather glad for the software rendering in an era when I only had a 1MB 2D graphics card and I was running Windows 95, but it is a disappointment, because the software renderer creates quite a few jaggy and grainy images, particularly noticeable on the pylons in the training area and on some of the vehicles.

This isn’t assisted by the low maximum resolution. 640×480 was acceptable when I was running Windows 3.1 on my first computer, but it’s not exactly what I want to play games at in this day and age. System Shock played at 640×480 four years before this, and Half-Life went 1024×768 and above that very year. I don’t normally complain about graphics, but it does seem a bit ridiculous considering that other first-person perspective games that year could go to the sort of resolutions that I typically use. Again, I wasn’t complaining when it was a matter of expediency with my ancient S3 graphics card – which, incidentally, I still own – but with the gift of hindsight, I can see that they left little room for posterity.

To be honest, though, it doesn’t matter that much. Battlezone is fun, it’s original, it’s clever. Gifted with a great plot, fantastic and intelligent gameplay and bringing new ideas to the world of first-person shooters, Battlezone deserves far more attention than it received.

A General’s View – Complete Game

Author’s Note: I mentioned in my last post that I had been working on my final year project for college. Just wanted to share what I came up with in the end. The project is a two-player game based on A General’s View, the tabletop strategy game that I designed in 2015 and is written using the Allegro 4 game library. The game is not particularly sophisticated and there are a few interface bugs that need to be ironed out, but it works and could be used for the basis of a more sophisticated game in the future.

The game is played by two human players with the following controls:

Map keys

Up, Down, Left, Right – move cursor

Enter – enter menu

Menu keys

Up, Down – move cursor

Enter – select menu option highlighted by cursor

For full rules and objectives of the game, please see A General’s View: Rules (Alpha Version). Please note that in this version of the game, at most one unit from each player can occupy a tile at once.

The game (in both Windows executable and source code forms) can be downloaded from the following link: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_lGPZTjA4fzbHN4YVExelBEejA&usp=sharing

unit_moving

Screenshot_20160229_200035

Elite: Dangerous – A Gaming Review

Author’s Note: Hey there, first post in a few months – I was busy with my final-year college project and didn’t have the time to write up anything else. Now that I’m free again, I’m planning initially to move back to a monthly update schedule at first and investigate the possibility of a fortnightly schedule in the future.

Until recently, the space combat simulator genre of video games seemed to be moribund. Following the genre’s golden age of the 1990s, where such games as the Frontier series, the Wing Commander and Privateer titles, the Descent: FreeSpace series and the variety of Star Wars space sim titles enjoyed commercial success, the genre had descended into a niche where a few games kept the genre on life support, most notably CCP Games’ space MMO, EVE Online and Egosoft’s X series. Over the last few years, though, it appears that there has been a renaissance of the genre, with several very high-profile games currently in development. This includes the return of two of the masters of the genre during its golden age: David Braben of Elite and Frontier fame and Chris Roberts, known for Wing Commander, Privateer and Freelancer. Braben’s company, Frontier Developments, has returned to the space sim market after almost twenty years with Elite: Dangerous, while Chris Roberts has established Cloud Imperium Games with the purpose of making Star Citizen.

Star Citizen, known for its phenomenally successful crowdfunding campaign, is still in alpha, with a full release scheduled for this year. On the other hand, David Braben’s Elite: Dangerous was released commercially in December 2014 and has recently received its first expansion pack, Horizons. (As I own, but have not yet played Horizons, this review will focus on the base game.)

Elite: Dangerous follows from the previous game in the Elite series, Frontier: First Encounters, set in the year 3300, in a Milky Way where three major factions, the Galactic Federation, the Empire of Achenar and the Alliance of Independent Systems, vie for control of the galaxy. In the midst of this, the player takes the role of a spaceship commander, who was recently, out of the blue, provided with a Sidewinder spaceship and 1,000 Galactic Credits with which to make one’s fortune by whatever means they desire.

The gameplay of Elite: Dangerous, as with its predecessors, revolves around three main aspects: Trading, combat and exploration. With trading and combat, it is possible to make money through both legal and illegal methods, with smuggling and piracy providing opportunities for those so inclined. One of the objectives of the game is to appropriately use your spaceship to make as much money as necessary to buy new spaceships or upgrade existing ones as to best deal with the challenges of the game and achieve success at trading, combat or exploration. The measure of one’s success is calculated by a number of ratings. The combat rating system, where a player starts off as Harmless and attempts to reach the exalted rank of Elite by defeating other spaceships in battle, returns from the previous games, while similar ranks for trading and exploration have been included in Elite: Dangerous.

Notably, the game focuses more heavily on exploration than its predecessors. In Frontier: Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters, the extent to which you could explore was limited by the possibility of critical components failing on one’s spacecraft, while the lack of incentive to exploration other than personal satisfaction meant that it was not explored as much as possible. In Elite: Dangerous, there has been a concerted effort, which appears as if it will continue into the future, to expand and give more purpose to exploration by providing financial incentives and a rank system based on the earnings from exploration, with a colossal game universe that expands on that presented by its predecessors.

Elite: Dangerous continues to use the same sort of first-person, cockpit-oriented perspective as with its predecessors, but updates it for the modern era. The game includes a wonderfully responsive diegetic interface, where holographic screens pop up around the cockpit as the player turns their head and a variety of options can quickly and relatively unintrusively be selected during the middle of travel and combat. Unlike the Frontier games, but like its earliest predecessor, Elite, the game steps away from Newtonian physics and uses a model more like a flight simulator, with a maximum velocity that can be achieved in normal flight and combat, but a Frame Shift Drive which allows for considerably higher velocities when travelling between different astronomical objects in the same system or between different star systems.

The game does, however, retain the model of thrust vectoring that existed in the Frontier games, allowing you to fire thrusters to the left or right for horizontal movement along with thrusters on the top or bottom for vertical movement. This provides a bit of unpredictability in combat, with an experienced pilot able to take advantage of these features to attack from unexpected angles, while also being necessary in order to successfully dock at the game’s space stations.

Combat in Elite: Dangerous is also unlike its immediate predecessors in that the spaceships are a lot more resilient to damage than in the Frontier games, resulting in generally more tactical battles which take longer to resolve. Combined with the flight sim-esque flight model (although this can be deactivated to some extent by choice), combat feels more like a traditional dogfight rather than the jousts that often occurred in Frontier: Elite II or Frontier: First Encounters, along with being more friendly towards newer players as they aren’t sitting ducks until they significantly upgrade their spaceship. As well as this, losing a combat is not punished as harshly as in the previous games, as there is an insurance policy implemented that allows one to buy back a spacecraft of the same specifications as the one they had for a fee of a few percent of the total cost of the spacecraft, or to buy a basic Sidewinder with the same specifications as they started the game with.

Elite: Dangerous takes the first steps in the series towards multiplayer, with an MMO structure and a persistent universe populated by a mixture of AI NPCs and human player characters. It is possible to play the game in a single-player mode or a private multiplayer group, but as various elements of the game will still be dictated by the actions of other players, the game requires an internet connection along with a persistent connection to the game’s servers. That said, because of the size of the game universe, along with the low player count compared to most MMORPGs, it is usually not that detrimental to jump into the multiplayer aspect of the game.

There’s also a mode of the game for those who prefer to get up close and personal in combat rather than exploring the universe. The CQC Championship mode is structured more like a traditional first-person shooter in terms of multiplayer, with a maximum of eight players engaging in Team Deathmatch, Deathmatch or Capture the Flag with a variety of spaceships and equipment that gets unlocked as you gain experience and ranks. The ranking system in this game mode is separate to the combat ranking in the main game, which means those who prefer not to engage in that sort of game mode are not unnecessarily disadvantaged.

As with its predecessors, Elite: Dangerous has a lot to do, between the multitude of activities and the massive universe. Most of those activities are also quite well-polished, with things working quite well together. However, a common criticism of Elite: Dangerous is that these activities are not especially deep and that the game is “wide as an ocean, but shallow as a puddle”. Indeed, in some respects, the game has less depth than the Frontier games, with planetary landing only available (and quite limited at present) in the Horizons expansion pack and a lack of gritty military missions like the photography missions of the Frontier games. There are plans to expand the game much further with expansion packs over the next few years – and perhaps up to ten years – but at an additional cost compared to the base game and with no guarantee that interest in the game will last that long. If Frontier Developments manage to achieve their expansive goals – bearing in mind that Frontier: Elite II took five and a half years to complete in the 1990s and the goals of the developers seem to be set out well – it will lead to an incredible game. At present, though, the game has a lot more potential for development than features currently implemented.

Speaking about polish, something that Elite: Dangerous does get very right is its aesthetic elements. I’ve already mentioned the diegetic cockpit interface, with its context-sensitive menu screens. This is beautifully laid out, but also functional and easy to navigate. The graphical polish here extends to the rest of the game, with beautifully glowing stars, elaborate space stations that look fit for purpose and a range of spacecraft designs which pay tribute to the previous Elite games by being somewhat blocky, but each achieving their own distinctive aesthetic based on their purpose. The game also manages to achieve fairly good performance despite the outstanding graphics; on my AMD R9 290, I manage to achieve 100 or more frames per second during nearly all aspects of the game at 1080p and maximum settings, although there is an issue on AMD cards which can drop performance drastically during supercruise between different planets in the same system.

Another place in which the game excels is its sound design, enough so that I think it’s one of the few places where sound in space is justified despite its lack of realism. The Frontier developers claim that the sound heard by the player is based on what is being picked up by sensors and scanners around the ship and include various pulsing sounds from the ship’s engines, whooshing sounds as the ship prepares for supercruise or hyperdrive, or when scooping fuel from a star and even muffled radio chatter when close to a space station. The sounds that are in the game are exquisite and are backed by a great, yet subtle soundtrack that plays in the background based on various events, including supercruise travel and combat events.

As it is, then, Elite: Dangerous is a solid and beautifully presented title that achieves the goals of being a space simulator in the vein of its predecessors. However, the game has a huge amount of untapped potential, especially with a universe as large as it has. It remains to be seen whether the game can live up to that potential with future development – and whether, with Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky, for instance, in development, interest can last for long enough for Elite: Dangerous to be given a chance to live up to what it can achieve.

Bottom Line: Elite: Dangerous is a solid and enormously broad space simulator which brings the Elite formula into the 21st century, but lacks depth and has a huge amount of untapped potential with expansion packs necessary to fill the gaps.

Recommendation: Despite previously giving my unreserved recommendation for Frontier: Elite II, a game that is more than 20 years older, I would recommend waiting for a sale if you’re interested in Elite: Dangerous, as you will require a $60/€54/£40 expansion to get the full potential of the game at present.

A General’s View – Rules (Alpha Version)

Author’s Note: I’ve been rather preoccupied with other things at the moment, including the Rugby World Cup and getting to work on my final-year college project. With respect to the latter, the following post illustrates some of the work that I have had to do for this project.

An industrial era turn-based strategy game for 2 players.

Section 1: Play Rules

  • The game is played between two players, one who is identified as the red player and the other who is identified as the blue player.

  • The game is played on a square grid, called the battle map, where each square on the grid has one of three states of ownership: neutral (or no ownership), owned by the red player, or owned by the blue player.

  • At least 2 of the squares on the battle map are identified as –city– squares. The same ownership rules apply for these squares as any other squares.

    • Each player starts with an equal number of the city squares on the map, where the number of city squares owned by a player at the start of the game is at least 1.

    • A player wins the game when all city squares on the map are owned by that player.

  • The game is played in turns, where one of the two players acts and is referred to as the acting player, with the other player referred to as the opposing player. At the end of their turn, the current opposing player becomes the acting player and vice versa.

    • Before the game begins, both players roll a 6-sided dice. The player who gets the highest value on the dice chooses whether they wish to act first or second. If the value rolled on the dice by both players is the same, the players reroll the dice until the values that each player receives are different.

  • The ownership of the squares on the map is contested by units controlled by each player.

    • A unit is a single game entity representing a company-sized group of 100 soldiers of a specified type and represented by a single game piece.

    • A unit possesses several characteristics which will be discussed in more detail below: ownership, cost, attack value, defence value and movement points.

    • Units may be put into play on a player’s turn. In order to put a unit into play, they must pay the specified cost for that unit type and then place that unit on one of the city squares which they own. The player who put the unit into play is its owner.

  • Each player starts with a predetermined and equal amount of gold, which is called their total gold value.

    • Gold is used to pay for new units, with the cost of each unit specified in gold and subtracted from the total gold that a player possesses when that unit is put into play.

    • If the cost of a unit is greater than the total gold possessed by a player, they may not put that unit into play.

    • Each city square on the map has a specified gold generation value which is determined before the start of the game. This is used during the gold collection phase of a player’s turn, discussed below.

  • Each player’s turn is composed of four phases: Gold collection, unit movement, attack and cleanup.

    • During the gold collection stage, the acting player adds the sum total of all of the gold generation values of the cities which they own to their total gold value.

    • During the movement phase, the acting player may move any number of their owned units (including zero units).

      • A unit may be moved a number of squares adjacent to each other horizontally and/or vertically across the battle map. The number of squares that a unit may be moved is determined by the unit’s movement points, which represent a unit’s movement capability in a single turn. For each square that a unit is moved, 1 point is deducted from the unit’s movement points for that turn if the square into which the unit is moving is either not owned or owned by the acting player, while 2 points are deducted if the square into which the unit is moving is owned by the opposing player. A unit may move any number of squares horizontally or vertically until they do not have enough remaining movement points to move into any adjacent squares. These rules are illustrated in Figure 1.1.

 unit-movement

Figure 1.1: For a unit with three (3) movement points, the green squares represent squares into which the unit can move during one turn if the squares are either not owned or owned by the unit’s controller. The squares marked with yellow crosses represent squares into which the unit can move if the squares are owned by the opposing player. The red squares represent squares that are always outside of this unit’s movement range for this turn.

      • If a unit moves through a square which is not owned by the acting player and which contains no units owned by the opposing player, the ownership of that unit is transferred to the acting player.

      • If a unit moves through a square which contains one or more units owned by the opposing player, the unit may move no further squares during that turn.

    • The attack phase involves all squares in which units owned by both the acting and opposing player are present.

      • For each square containing units owned by both players, the acting player selects the unit in that square which they own with the highest attack. The opposing player selects the unit in that square which they own with the highest defence. If two or more units owned by either player has the same attack or defence value respectively, they may choose any of the units with that value.

      • The attack value of the acting player’s selected unit and the defence value of the opposing player’s selected unit are added together. This value is referred to as the reference value.

      • A suitable random number generator or fair pseudorandom number generator is used to generate an inclusive integral value between 1 and the reference value. If this value is below or equal to the attack value of the acting player’s unit, that unit wins and the opposing player’s unit is removed from the battle map and from the game. Otherwise, the opposing player’s unit wins and the acting player’s unit is removed from the battle map and the game.

      • If the acting player’s unit wins, the opposing player selects the unit in that square which they own with the next highest defence. Otherwise, the acting player selects the unit in that square which they own with the next highest attack.

      • The above steps continue until all units remaining in that square are owned by a single player. If that player does not own that square, the ownership of the square is transferred to that player.

    • During the cleanup phase, 1 supply point is subtracted from all units owned by that player and not currently receiving supplies as per the supply point system, described below.

  • Each unit when created starts with 3 supply points, representing ammunition, provisions and other military supplies.

    • A unit receives supplies every turn if there is at least one adjacent square owned by that unit’s owner and if, from that square, an unbroken, direct line can be drawn in horizontal or vertical steps from square to square in a manner similar to unit movement to a city owned by the unit’s owner. This is illustrated in Figure 1.2.

resupply-control

Figure 1.2: In the first example, there are two squares adjacent to the unit which are owned by the unit’s owner. From both of these squares, one can trace a direct line in horizontal or vertical steps from square to square to a city owned to the unit’s owner. In the second example, there is one square adjacent to the unit which is owned by the unit’s owner; however, as one cannot draw a direct line from this square to a city owned by the unit’s owner, it is not supplied through this square. Similarly, the squares to which direct lines can be drawn from the city are either not adjacent to the unit or are not owned by the unit’s owner and therefore the unit is not supplied through these squares.

    • A unit that does not receive supplies at the end of the unit owner’s turn subtracts 1 from that unit’s current supply points until the number of supply points for that unit is 0.

      • A unit which has 0 supply points is treated as having an effective attack and defence value of 1 rather than its usual values until it receives supplies again.

    • A unit that receives supplies at the end of the unit owner’s turn does not subtract from that unit’s supply points and if that unit has less than 3 supply points, it adds 1 to its number of supply points.

Section 2: Unit types

  • Militiamen: Poorly armed and poorly trained, this unit represents an impromptu group of irregulars, such as a volunteer town militia or a set of conscripts pressed into action.

    • Cost: 50 gold

    • Attack: 2

    • Defence: 2

    • Movement Points: 5

  • Line Infantry: The core of an early industrial era army, line infantry represent a significant step up from militia, being drilled to stay in lockstep along rectangular formations designed to present a coordinated line of fire to the enemy. With their discipline and morale, they present a strong defensive line.

    • Cost: 100 gold

    • Attack: 2

    • Defence: 5

    • Movement: 5

  • Skirmishers: This infantry unit forms looser formations than line infantry and, armed with more accurate muskets than other units, their goal is to harry oncoming formations and break their coordination by attacking their officers. However, their loose formations can also represent a weakness, as a committed and concentrated attack can easily divide them into units too small to effectively fight back.

    • Cost: 100 gold

    • Attack: 5

    • Defence: 2

    • Movement: 5

  • Hussars: A type of light cavalry, hussars are most regularly used for reconnaissance and raiding, but can, if an opportunity arises, attack effectively against a vulnerable and coordinated foe, using their sabres to great effect. Lacking armour or long-range weaponry, hussars lack the ability to effectively defend themselves if they are outmanoeuvred.

    • Cost: 120 gold

    • Attack: 4

    • Defence: 2

    • Movement: 7

  • Dragoons: More like mounted infantry than true cavalry, dragoons ride to battle but will usually dismount when the fighting starts, forming a rectangular formation similar to line infantry and attacking with their shortened carbines. Not as effective as line infantry, but able to provide support where necessary, dragoons can, nevertheless, be used as cavalry in a pinch.

    • Cost: 120 gold

    • Attack: 2

    • Defence: 4

    • Movement: 7

  • Lancers: While the style of lancers may have changed drastically from the armoured knights of the medieval era to the altogether more lightly equipped troopers of the industrial era, the lancer has lost none of its potential to destabilise an entire front if used properly. With a devastating attack that can shatter enemy infantry formations, lancer squadrons represent the shock troops of the age, but are no less susceptible than any other light cavalry unit.

    • Cost: 160 gold

    • Attack: 6

    • Defence: 2

    • Movement: 7

  • Cuirassiers: The elite of the battlefield, cuirassiers are one of the few armoured units on the industrial era battlefield. Wearing a metal breastplate and backplate, the armour of a cuirassier does little to protect him against musket shots or artillery, but provides an extra layer of defence against sabres or bayonets. Slower and more cumbersome than other cavalry units, cuirassiers nevertheless possess an élan which can be hard to overcome.

    • Cost: 160 gold

    • Attack: 5

    • Defence: 3

    • Movement: 6

  • Artillery: The so-called “King of Battle”, artillery batteries have the biggest guns with the greatest power. Used effectively, an artillery strike can have terrifying effect, smashing through infantrymen and cavalry alike. However, its immobility – even with the use of horse-drawn limbers and caissons – means that it is particularly susceptible to attack if not appropriately protected by other forces.

    • Cost: 120 gold

    • Attack: 10

    • Defence: 1

    • Movement: 3

Why I’m not a big fan of present-day television

There’s a strong argument for saying that television is currently going through a Golden Age of Drama, with such shows as Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones becoming the office-talk fodder and media darlings of the last few years. It is interesting that this has come at a time of transition for the television industry; after a period which I would consider a nadir for TV with the rise of reality television in the late 1990s through to the late 2000s, as television executives recognised the decreased costs of these shows versus scripted drama, new technologies including streaming and new writing methodologies have forced studios to adapt to a changing television market, leading in some cases to some huge critical and commercial successes. It seems somewhat peculiar, therefore, that even with all of these critically acclaimed shows going around, I have less tolerance for television now than I might have had ten years ago, when television was going through a slump.

At present, I watch very little television and the little that I do watch has almost all been on British television stations. I watch a moderate amount of sport – Formula One, rugby union, association football, motorcycle road racing including the Isle of Man TT and some other sporting events here and there – along with Doctor Who, Top Gear (I’ll give the new formula a try as well) and strangely, Downton Abbey. Of the much lauded television shows I listed above, I have only watched a single one at all, Breaking Bad, with part of the reason for that being because as a former chemistry student, I wanted to see how the chemistry played into the story.

The majority of the television shows that have come into public prominence recently have been American, which is relevant, as there are a number of significant differences in the way that American programmes are made versus British programmes which causes me to favour British shows. Probably the most significant of these differences is the number of episodes produced per British series versus an American season and consequently, how long many British shows will run versus their American counterparts. A British television series will regularly consist of four to six episodes, with the shows often wrapping up after two to four of these series. In comparison, an American television series will regularly have at least 13 episodes per season, with 20 to 26 more common, while six or more of these seasons is not rare for a successful show. While shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Sons of Anarchy have typically stuck to a 13-episode season, this is still long by comparison to most British contemporaries.

There are a number of reasons for this disparity, including the much smaller writing teams on British shows – perhaps even a single writer for a whole series – along with the economics of syndication and advertisement space, but whatever the reasons, an American programme will regularly be more of a time sink than a British show. With considerably more content to go through and much more of it filler, I’m reticent to watch an American show until its run is up just so that I make sure that I don’t end up throwing my time into a programme which shows early promise, but trails off near the end because the writers wrote themselves into a hole and couldn’t dig themselves out. This, of course, increases the chances of being hit by spoilers.

Even in the case of the shows that do remain consistent to the end, the sheer bulk of most of the American shows makes me reluctant to face the prospect of what may be 40 hours or more of viewing unless the show is going to be a phenomenon in the vein of The Sopranos or M*A*S*H or the like. I am not a natural binge-watcher; I only have tolerance for about two hours of television at a time and that’s when I’m in a mood to watch it. Given that in the time it takes to watch an entire American show, I could complete at least one decently-sized video game, most of the time, I’d rather do that and have the sense of achievement.

The disparity between British and American television is most starkly seen when American television networks, for some reason or another, decide to remake a successful British show. For me, the most risible example of this was The Office, which in the American remake had a frankly obscene nine seasons and 201 episodes. The British version? Two series, 12 episodes plus three specials. This is an interesting case since the creators, writers and producers of the UK version, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, were heavily involved in producing the American version and while I frankly can’t fault them for being tempted by the fat stacks of American currency they must have been offered, I think this is a cautionary tale for how elephantine an American show can get even when based on a tightly written British concept.

The Office is also notable because it illustrates how much more willing the British television producers are to cast people who look much more normal and down-to-earth than the Americans. In British shows, you’re more likely to see people who aren’t necessarily conventionally attractive, while in American shows, with the exception of a few people made to look “Hollywood ugly”, if you don’t have straight, sparkling-white teeth and perfect skin, you can forget about being cast. Then again, this manifests itself in the different senses of humour in British and American television; British shows tend to be bleaker, with far more self-deprecation and dry wit compared to the more blunt, bombastic affairs on American television.

I’ve identified why I’m not particularly inclined to watching the big American television shows of the moment, yet I don’t have time for much British television either right now. While I might be more inclined here and there to pick up a new British show off the cuff, I still don’t go out of my way to find new shows on British networks either. A lot of what has made British television interesting in the past is at risk of slowly fading into non-existence. British television – on the terrestrial end at least – has traditionally revolved around a small number of stations. Two of these, BBC One and BBC Two, are run by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which is almost unique in its largely non-commercial funding system, being largely funded by British taxpayers through the use of a licence tax. There are no advertisements on BBC television; in fact, there have been – which may still apply – some very strict rules on the use of brand names and product placement on the BBC channels in the past. The other stations, including ITV and Channel 4, are more traditionally funded through ad breaks.

Recently, there has been somewhat of a public backlash against the BBC, catalysed in part because of the very licence fee that sustains it. There has been criticism of the licence fee in the past, but such criticism was difficult to sustain when the BBC were making shows which people considered worth the price. However, the BBC has been hit as hard with the reality television bug as many other networks, which has removed a lot of its unique character. As well as that, the current politics of the United Kingdom have not helped the BBC’s case; the leading Conservative Party and in particular, its leader David Cameron have been closely linked to Rupert Murdoch and his media empire, which among other things includes BSkyB, Britain’s largest commercial satellite television provider, along with several newspapers including the Sun and the Times. Murdoch serves to benefit if the BBC gets defunded. Given Murdoch’s influence over the Conservative government, this has the potential to create a vicious circle, where as the funding for the BBC diminishes, the quality of the shows the BBC can put forward diminishes correspondingly and in turn, the case for keeping the BBC publicly funded grows weaker.

I happen to quite like the advert-free structure of BBC television, which not only doesn’t have awkward breaks in between the programs, but leads to more actual content per hour as well as a place where commercial enterprises can’t apply leverage to censor content that they don’t like. This was important when it came to Top Gear, where the now-departed trio of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May could openly criticise various cars without having to worry about losing funding from automotive companies. In an increasingly partisan news environment, it would also be nice to see a more impartial news broadcaster, a role which has been fulfilled well by the BBC before and could work again given a few tweaks – as long as the BBC doesn’t have to buckle under pressure from Rupert Murdoch and his Conservative buddies.

What I can say about that matter at least is that if the BBC are forced to adopt a commercial model, whether by advertising or subscription, I will probably stop watching television altogether. The alternatives, which include overlong, filler-heavy American shows at best and a lot of things that are much worse, isn’t worth the cost of admission.

World War II Grabbag: Hearts of Iron III & Il-2 Sturmovik

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been indulging in a few of my recent purchases from the Steam and GOG.com Summer Sales. Among these have been two games set in World War II, namely Hearts of Iron III and Il-2 Sturmovik. While I haven’t played either game enough to fulfil my criteria when it comes to reviewing them (both games have a campaign mode, which I haven’t completed in either case), I’ll give you my first impressions of the games. While the two games are in very different genres – Hearts of Iron III is a “real-time-with-pause” grand strategy game, while Il-2 Sturmovik is a combat flight simulator, the games share at least one element aside from their historical setting: They are both very involving and extremely complex.

To start off, Hearts of Iron III, developed by Paradox Interactive and part of their collection of grand strategy games, including the Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis series, places you in the role of leader of a country between 1936 and 1948, encompassing the years between Nazi Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland and the start of the Cold War. World War II is an inevitability, but it doesn’t need to turn out as it did in reality and the game allows you to explore possibilities like France never falling to Germany, an expansionist United States joining the Axis – or, if you want to go really bizarre, the Comintern – and using their industrial might to take Central America, or Germany forming its Greater German Reich and holding Europe firmly in its grasp.

The game is based around three factions, the Allies, Axis and Comintern, who fight for victory points, which are based around the world map and correspond to important cities and regions. The Allies naturally attract democratic nations, the Axis naturally attract nations under authoritarian governments such as fascism and national socialism, while the Comintern attract socialist and communist nations. Through a combination of military might and diplomatic influence, the three factions attempt to attract new nations to their cause or to subsume them into their own structure, bolstering their claim upon the world. However, a conquered nation may choose to resist, forming a government-in-exile, awaiting assistance from their allies.

The world map encompasses most of the world’s surface, with the exception of Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, both of which are militarily useless at that point of time. The map is subdivided into regions, some of which are more important than others due to their population, resources, industrial capacity and so on. The most important regions are denoted by the aforementioned victory points, which, when conquered, adds those victory points to the total of the faction of which that nation is a member (if any) and also bring the nation whose region has been captured closer to surrender.

However, you can’t just declare war on whoever you like, as your ability to wage war is limited by the wills of your population, which is represented in three ways: your national unity, which represents how closely the people of the nation identify with the nation as a cause; your neutrality, which represents how willing your population is to go to war and the threat posed by various other nations. If your neutrality is too low compared to the threat posed by another nation or the threat posed by you to the other nation, you will be unable to declare war, while if your national unity is too low, you will be unable to follow political policies aimed towards military mobilisation. However, if your country is already at war, some of these policies can be put into place despite low national unity or high neutrality – and typically, when two factions go to war, all of the constituent nations of those factions will wage war against each other.

To progress in the game, you have to balance multiple different facets of your country’s policies, including the deployment and movement of your country’s military forces, looking after the industrial elements of your country, including balancing military production, reinforcement, production of war supplies and consumer goods, diplomatic engagement with other countries and espionage and counter-espionage. As mentioned above, the game is very involving with all of its various facets to be managed. This is harder for nations who have to fight on more than one front at a time, in particular the United Kingdom, whose territories overseas are at just as much risk of invasion as their domestic territories and the Soviet Union, whose expansive territories are thinly reinforced to begin with and who will have to pick their battles intelligently. I recommend starting off with either a nation who will play a small, but important role as part of a faction, such as Canada or South Africa, or a small, neutral nation who can join a faction at their will, such as Ireland or one of the Central American nations.

While the game is rather abstract in various ways, with entire military divisions being represented by a NATO-style symbol on the map, there is plenty of complexity even at that level of abstraction. Industrial capability is represented by a figure called Industrial Capacity, which affects how many military units can be produced, upgraded or reinforced at any one time, along with how many supplies can be produced to feed and arm your troops. Some of that industrial capacity has to be used to produce consumer goods to keep your citizens happy and productive. Industrial capacity can only be maintained with sufficient levels of various resources, like Energy (representing fuels like coal and peat), Metal (steel, aluminium, etc.) and Rare Materials (such as gold, rubber, phospates, etc.). Often, your country will not produce enough of these resources by itself, necessitating trading with other nations. Trading requires the Money resource, a certain amount of which is produced in the country itself, but which can be attained more quickly by trading your surplus resources to other countries.

On the battlefield, troops require supplies and fuel to be provided to them in order for them to be able to fight in enemy territory as well as to fight at their optimal capacity. This requires sufficient infrastructure to be built along the supply train so that the supplies can be delivered in a timely fashion, while enemy encirclement can cut you off from supplies apart from those that can be foraged from the region in which your units reside. However, supplies can be airlifted in using transport planes, but transport planes are vulnerable to enemy interception. Battles are waged on land, in the sea and in the air between different units, which are strong in various areas (and in the case of land units, in different terrains), but weak in others. All of this is before the construction of fortifications, radar stations, additional factories, et cetera, or the development of hierarchical military structures from divisions to corps to armies and army groups. Needless to say after the above summation, there are a lot of things to be taken care of, requiring a lot of attention and care.

While you can choose to have various elements of the gameplay controlled by the game’s AI, which does help with the complexity when you’re starting off, the AI can be inclined to make decisions that are at the least slightly boneheaded. This very style of game appeals most to the sorts of people who will find that anathematic in any case and it is that sort of person – the person who would be known as a “grognard” in tabletop wargaming spheres – that this game will appeal to the most.

Il-2 Sturmovik, while in a very different genre, also displays a level of complexity and detail which can be breathtaking in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. Designed by 1C:Maddox, a Russian developer which was a constituent part of 1C Company, one of Russia’s largest independent game developers and publishers, Il-2 Sturmovik focused originally on the Eastern Front of World War II around the eponymous Soviet ground attack aircraft, but over the course of time has amassed several expansion packs which have taken its scope way beyond its original premise, to the Finnish Continuation War of 1941 to 1944, the war in the Pacific Ocean and even to the Western Front in the speculative 1946 expansion pack, which simulates various late-war experimental aircraft that never made it to production.

While, as with Hearts of Iron III, Il-2 Sturmovik can be made easier by adjusting the options to your liking, the ultimate aim of the game is to be an uncompromisingly hardcore combat flight simulator, feeling as close to the real deal as possible with the technology available and it feels a little like cheating to deny the game that chance by turning off the simulation elements. The game is set at a time where, unlike today’s modern combat planes, whose computerised fly-by-wire systems make them relatively easy to fly and the challenge is in figuring out the avionics, even the best planes had vices and few aircraft approximated the legendary performance of a Spitfire or an Fw 190. In this game, a lot of the challenge is in getting the aeroplane to behave itself even in normal flight, let alone when you’re in a tight dogfight with an enemy plane on your tail.

The flight model in Il-2 Sturmovik is very impressive, capturing the little details which make various planes different, including the tendency for early-model Spitfires to cut out under negative G, the poor low-altitude performance of high-flyers like the P-51 Mustang and MiG-3 and the poor manoeuvrability of several of the heavier aircraft. You also have to manage the state of your plane during flight, with engines that can overheat when they’re kept on full power for too long and excessive stresses on the frame leading to handling difficulties. The planes are all modelled accurately inside as well, with cockpit visibility sometimes becoming a concern with some fighters including the Bf 109 and Hurricane variants.

While the general flight model is a treat to behold, it is in combat where the game really excels. The game really depicts the challenge of taking down even the slowest aircraft, like early-war bombers and transport planes, especially when you have a stream of tracer rounds coming at you from multiple angles. Different parts of the plane react differently when hit, with aileron, elevator and rudder controls that can be damaged, fuel tanks that can be set on fire or even made to explode and engines which can end up splattering oil over your windscreen or with their cooling systems damaged. An engine that’s been hit doesn’t just always catastrophically fail either; you can often feel the gradual loss of power and hear the whining of a failing engine as it slowly succumbs to its damage, necessitating a good deal of care if you want to get back to base in one piece. The pilot can also take damage, with injured legs and arms affecting flight performance and the possibility of bleeding to death.

While I’ve been very impressed from what I’ve seen in the game, I do have one particular complaint about Il-2 Sturmovik, in that the number of expansion packs and the dated UI make it difficult to figure out where to begin. There are numerous missions and campaigns available in multiple air forces along with a quick mission creator and a comprehensive mission editor, but the game doesn’t really direct you to any one of them at this point of time – well, aside, maybe with the title and original premise of the game.

Another minor niggle is that while everything else in the game is depicted with astounding accuracy, starting up your plane involves nothing more than a single button press, which to anybody who knows planes, doesn’t hold true for even the simplest general aviation planes, let alone World War II warbirds. I’m a little more inclined to let that slide than the UI problems, though, since given the number of different planes and the differences in starting all of these up, most people would just get exasperated trying the complex procedures to get various planes going. Il-2 Sturmovik isn’t a study sim, after all.

I’ve got about 60 hours played in Hearts of Iron III and just over 10 hours in Il-2 Sturmovik, but I predict that I’ll get plenty more hours out of both games. The complexity in both games means that I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot of potential left to exploit.

Tropico – A Retrospective Review

Developed by PopTop Software and released in 2001, Tropico is the first of the eponymous series of construction and management simulation games in which the player takes the role of leader of a Caribbean island, building its economy up from humble beginnings, all while trying to keep the population happy – or at least happy enough not to revolt. Set in the Cold War, Tropico combines its construction and management game mechanics with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and perspective on banana republics, where the United States and Russia act as mostly unseen forces who will invade if they are suitably dissatisfied and where a certain level of corruption is not only tolerated but expected – including funnelling money to your own secret Swiss bank account as a nest-egg for your retirement, whether that’s by choice or by forcibly being made to retire.

There are two different types of game in Tropico: pre-determined scenarios whereby you have particular constraints on your activities, along with a random map generator where you can set various characteristics of the island and the conditions in the game, like how strong the economy is, the political stability of the island and so on, with a corresponding bonus multiplier to your end-of-game score based on the difficulty. With the expansion pack, Tropico: Paradise Island, there are about forty different scenarios, with conditions ranging from an island of ex-convicts with little immigration and a poor reputation, to an island at the whim of a massive fruit conglomerate and to an island where you play the “third cousin, once removed” of Fidel Castro and have the objective of attaining as much cash as possible. There’s plenty of diversity in the missions, but the random map generator has plenty of mileage in it as well.

While scenarios will typically start you off with a pre-constructed island, the random map game type starts you off with just about enough infrastructure to start making money, with a few farms, a dock, a teamster’s office and a construction office, along with your palace and a population living in shacks. The farms begin by growing corn, which is good for feeding your hungry population, but is not particularly lucrative, but can be set to grow other products, including pineapples, tobacco, sugar and bananas. Some of this produce takes a long time to grow, but is particularly lucrative once it is being sold, while other crops have particularly harsh conditions on their ability to grow. Once the crops have been grown and harvested by your farmers, they’ll be picked up by your teamsters and brought to the dock, whereby your dockworkers will load the produce onto incoming freighters which bring out the fruits of your population’s labour and bring in immigrants to expand your workforce. Other basic resource gathering activities include mining and logging.

Once your activities start making a profit, you can start to diversify your economy by building factories which will take the produce from your farms, mines and logging camps and reprocess it further into a more valuable commodity, or start building hotels and tourist attractions to make your island into a tourist paradise. However, factories require more educated workers and can take quite a long time to become profitable, while Tropico‘s tourists prefer locations away from your farmers’ and labourers’ activities.

While you’re busy building up the economy of your island, you also have to keep the population satisfied by providing them with various facilities and satisfying their needs. Different members of the population have different needs, but in general, your citizens desire better housing, to be sufficiently entertained, to have a nice environment to live in, their religious and healthcare needs met and so on. Meanwhile, there are various factions on the island who favour different approaches to how the island is run; for instance, militarists favour many soldiers employed on the island, while environmentalists favour an environmentally friendly approach to economic activities and the religious prefer to have plenty of churches and fewer pubs, cabarets or casinos as part of the entertainment facilities on the island. You also have various characteristics for your character which can increase or decrease your favour with some of these factions as well as setting the democratic expectations for your character as part of the way you were installed into power. In a scenario, these are already pre-selected for you, while in a random map game, you have a choice, with several pre-prepared templates representing real-world dictators and revolutionaries – as well as, bizarrely, the mambo singer Lou Bega, who was then particularly popular for his version of “Mambo No. 5”.

Unfortunately, while the concept is very good at creating a challenge for the player in balancing the needs of the citizens with the desire to make money, most of the frustrations in the game come from dealing with the population. There is very little in the way of micromanagement in the game, with your interactions mostly coming from choosing which buildings to place and where, along with the pay for the workers or price of services at various buildings, which I quite like, but this can sometimes lead to boneheaded decisions with the AI which add fake difficulty to the game. Construction of new buildings can be mildly annoying, as the pathfinding AI of your workers is poor and this can keep them from constructing a necessary building as quickly as you might need it. Furthermore, before a building is constructed, the ground on which it will stand needs to be flattened and cleared of obstacles, which becomes more difficult as you move away from the relatively flat coasts and move inland. The frustration comes from the fact that it is often difficult to determine the gradient of a certain building plot since it isn’t very obvious from the graphical style of the game.

Considerably more frustrating is the requirements for keeping a good standard of healthcare and religion on your island. While the other needs might be expensive and time-consuming to upkeep, they are at least sensible once you get the buildings constructed. On the other hand, both religion and health care require a lot of buildings for the population, require educated workers who are at a premium at the start of the game and don’t get much more common later on and provide no economic benefit once they are fulfilled.

What’s more, even when you have got appropriately educated workers, there’s no guarantee that they’ll work in the religious or healthcare facilities, even when the pay for the roles is generous. In one game, I spent more than $30,000 – or in other words, enough to buy four or five apartment complexes which will satisfy housing needs for up to 60 citizens – trying to entice workers with college education to become doctors in my clinics, only to find that when they arrived, they immediately decided not to become doctors after all, but instead go into farming or construction despite the fact that my healthcare needs were sorely lacking due to the lack of staff and that the doctor jobs were set to pay more than three times as much as the jobs they were taking.

Nevertheless, putting aside these concerns, the rest of the game works very well and there is certainly a satisfaction to be derived from seeing profits rolling in from your farms as your teamsters draw the crops out to the docks to be loaded onto the freighters, or from seeing tourists flooding into your hotels as your tourism market expands.

At the same time as dealing with your own population, you must deal with the concerns of the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which take an interest in your activities from afar. The US favours a capitalistic economy, with free elections, while the Soviet Union prefers communism, with little income disparity. Much of your early-game income will come as foreign aid from these superpowers, with the amount increasing as the countries’ favour increases. However, if you have a particularly bad relationship with one country, they may send a military force to depose you – and as their favour is tied to some extent to the happiness of the capitalist or communist factions on Tropico, you can’t afford to ignore either of these factions. You can also slowly improve your reputation with either or both countries by building a diplomatic ministry.

As you play, you will also have the option to pass various edicts which will influence policy on the island and with the superpowers looking over your shoulder. As you build more buildings, you have options like enticing tourism with a Mardi Gras festival, funnelling a bit of the building cost of all buildings to your Swiss bank account or holding a book burning at the behest of your religious faction. On a more personal level, if you identify somebody who may be particularly troublesome, you can bribe or imprison them, or, to the horror of your population, even have them eliminated by your own soldiers. This provides the potential for a bit of extra control to the game without sacrificing the aforementioned lack of micromanagement in the game.

Graphically, Tropico was never that impressive, with isometric sprite-based graphics which weren’t a tour de force, even at the time. Nevertheless, aside from the previously mentioned issues with determining gradient, the graphics are good enough for the job, although the age of the game does rule out any options for widescreen resolutions. On the other hand, the music is a particular highlight of the game, with catchy Latin-style tunes which suit the game very well.

The Tropico series is now up to five entries, with most of the entries building on the setting and gameplay of the original. As a consequence, it’s tempting to skip the first game and just go on to play one of the sequels, but at the same time, the first Tropico did build a very good foundation for the games to come. Despite the occasional frustrations with construction, religion and healthcare, the game is built around a very strong concept and executes it very well. At present, Tropico is available on both Steam and GOG.com along with its pirate-themed sequel, Tropico 2: Pirate Cove, for less than Tropico 3 costs on its own and since the games in the series are frequently on sale through both platforms, if you’re looking for an inexpensive entry-point to the series, the original isn’t a bad place to start.

Bottom Line: Tropico combines strong construction and management fundamentals with a subtle, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and a very catchy soundtrack, but does have some frustrating elements in managing the population in-game.

Recommendation: Given that the series is frequently on sale at several online distributors, I’d wait for a sale and then snatch it up in the Tropico Reloaded package which includes the sequel.

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