Cities: Skylines: Snowfall

I described Cities: Skylines' first expansion, After Dark, as " just tak[ing] the Cities: Skylines canvas, and offer[ing] the player a few more colors to optionally paint with." That expansion didn't really do much to change the way that the game is really played, but rather just focused on adding further specialization options for any city that you care to build. I wasn't too upset because the core game is still a phenomenal foundation to build upon, and the expansion just gave us more to play with within that same phenomenal foundation. Snowfall, however, is even more narrow in scope.

I got really excited when I loaded up Steam and saw the title of the new expansion. I had written a wishlist blog in which I specifically asked for the next expansion to offer seasonal weather changes and more recreational and transportation specializations suited to those different seasons. On the surface, Snowfall seemed to provide that. There's now a winter, and snow, and you can build a specialized winter wonderland. But that's the extent of what this expansion provides, and that's disappointing.

Snowfall doesn't provide a full season system or any real changes to the game's core economic loop. Instead, it has a few snowy, winter-themed maps in which you can build snow-themed cities. Those winter maps are always snowy, and the non-winter maps are never snowy (although they can see occasional rain and fog). Note: I'm going to get real tired of saying "non-winter maps", so henceforth, for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to them as "summer maps", even though summer isn't really a thing (yet). Your city doesn't progress from springing to summer to autumn to winter (or even just from summer to winter) and then back again, and you don't have to manage your economy so as to maximize profits during your tourist season and find a way to maintain employment and revenue during the off season. Depending on which map you select, it's either always winter, or it's always summer.

I complained about After Dark feeling like I had to go out of my way in order to use the expansions new features and specializations, but at least those features and specializations were available in all cities, and they could be applied to my existing cities from before the expansion. You have to go so far out of your way to use the Snowfall features that you have to start a whole new game on a specific subset of maps. It makes After Dark look like a broad game-changing expansion by comparison.

Cities: Skylines: Snowfall - snow maps
Only maps designated as "winter" maps will have snowfall, and they aren't very different from existing maps.

Disconnected from reality

The actual functionality of some of these winter buildings is also questionable. One of the first snow buildings that you'll unlock is the "snow dump", which is a landfill for snow. Snow plows in this game will drive around the city similar to garbage trucks, actually collecting the snow off the streets, and then taking them back to the snow dump building, which (according to its description) melts down the snow to make room for more snow. It seems like they just took the garbage truck functionality and copy-pasted it to apply to snow, only without the need for a separate incinerator building.

Cities: Skylines: Snowfall - plowing snow
Snow can slow traffic and must be plowed.

The really weird thing is that there is also a new general road maintenance office that keeps the roads in good repair and traffic flowing smoothly. If you don't bother to build the road maintenance office, or build the snow dump or plow the snow, it will slow down your roads and eventually make them unusable. Why did these need to be two buildings? Why couldn't the road maintenance office also be the depot for snow plows?

And then there's the ski buildings, which also don't seem to work in any way comparable to real life. The ski resort is an artificial ramp that you build on flat ground. Again, that's not really how ski resorts work. Typically, a ski resort would be built high up on a mountain, where there's a natural slope and a lot of snow. The game does include a separate ski lodge building, which you could build up in a mountain, but it wouldn't work all that well. It seems to me that the Ski Resort shouldn't be a ramp, it should just be the ski lift that you build on inclined terrain, and the Ski Lodge should be built nearby and should enhance the functionality of the resort. In fact, the new snow maps don't even include mountainous terrain on which to build a more realistic ski resort and lodge. So this all seems to be a result of the game's underlying framework not having very good support for building on slopes, and Colossal Order didn't bother to design a system to allow such niche buildings like a ski resort to be built on a slope.

I may live in a desert, but I'm pretty sure that this isn't how snow plowing or ski resorts are supposed to work...

Look, I live in the desert of Las Vegas, where it was 80 degrees by mid-February, and air conditioning is not an "option" for a car. Maybe it's not my place to tell a development team in Finland how ski resorts and snow plowing are supposed to work, but I'm pretty sure that this isn't how ski resorts and snow plows work!

Don't get me wrong, these buildings are all functional, and they all work within the game's existing mechanic set. It isn't like they are broken; they're just not very realistic, and they have a disappointing feeling of sameness to them, since they don't feel functionally distinct from buildings and features that already exist. For games like this, I tend to lean towards wanting more realism whenever possible, but that's a subjective personal preference. I understand that this is just a game, and certain amounts of abstraction and creative license need to be taken...

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Dark Souls title

While the player character in Dark Souls can be in a "hollow" state, the player never truly does go hollow. At least, not in the sense that NPCs and enemies have gone hollow. According to Dark Souls' mythology, the undead are condemned to repeatedly wander Lordran in search of a cure, being unable to permanently die. But for virtually all such undead, this quest is futile. An undead can temporarily stave off hallowing by absorbing souls or infusing themselves with the humanity of someone else. Eventually, an undead dies one too many times, or is worn down by the daily grind of collecting souls, and loses the will to go on. When this happens, that undead becomes hollow, loses his sanity and free will, and continues to wander the world as a mindless zombie attacking any un-hollowed that it encounters on sight.

It is unknown how many "Chosen Undead" are brought to Lordran, but the Crestfallen Warrior at Firelink tells us that many have come before you. Is it possible that all hollows in Lordran were at some point "Chosen Undead", tasked by Frampt to retrieve the Lordvessel and re-kindle the dying flame? Probably not. A great deal of the hollows that you encounter in the game were likely former residents of Lordran, and there was no need to select a "Chosen Undead" until Gwyn's power faded to a "cinder", and the fire began to die. This presumably took a very long time - a whole "age", to be precise.

Dark Souls - crestfallen warrior
The Crestfallen Warrior informs us that we are not the first "chosen undead",
and suspects that we won't be the last either.

Avoiding hollowness with purpose

Many undead adventurers wandered into Lordran (or were abducted and taken there), and they struggle to hold onto their precious humanity for as long as possible, fighting for their lives in the fear that they, too will go hollow. Some, like the Crestfallen Warrior, resign themselves to the inevitability of hollowness, and find a sense of purpose in warning other new arrivals that they, too, are doomed. Others pursue some seemingly impossible goal or objective in the hopes that the journey will provide them with the sense of purpose necessary to avoid (or at least delay) hollowing. And yet others have taken up crafts or vocations such as blacksmithing, vending, or guarding something in order to keep them focused and avoid hollowing. Keeping such a goal may help keep an undead partially lucid, but they also seem to begin to forget everything else, and only the knowledge of their quest or craft remains.

Going on "one final quest" seems to provide adventurers with enough focus to hold back hollowing.

But hollowing isn't just a thematic element reserved for non-player characters; hollowing is also a mechanic in the game that affects the player. Whenever the player character dies, you are reborn at the last bonfire in a hollowed state, unable to summon help from allies until you restore your humanity through the consumption of someone else's humanity. In Dark Souls II, hollowing further handicaps the player by cummulatively reducing your total health each time you die, and only restoring your humanity can refill your health meter. In both these cases, the player is not truly hollow; you are only in a state of partial hollowing.

It's unclear whether non-player characters are able to die and restore their humanity, or if deaths contribute to an irreversible progression towards hollowness. There are, after all, apparently hollowed NPCs such as the undead merchant in the Undead Burg and blacksmith Lenigrast in Majula who are sane enough to have kept their shops open. The presence of NPC summon signs hints at the possibility that they, too, are capable of restoring their own humanity through the same mechanisms that you can, but the game itself justifies this with ambiguous appeals to "time distortion" and parallel realities that obfuscates the matter - particularly where Solaire and Lautrec are concerned.

Dark Souls - summoned NPC
Summoned NPCs may recover humanity as you do, or they're from another time or dimension, or both.

Solaire's dialogue refers to "heroes centuries old phasing in and out.". Solaire may be using the words "world" and "time" interchangeably. This seems to be the game's justification for how summoning works: you may be literally summoning someone from a bygone era into your own time period. Anytime, you are summoned to someone else's world, you are also being transported to another time (past or future, depending on whether or not you finish the game). Solaire and Lautrec seem to somehow come from another time or dimension, but other characters definitely seem to exist within your world and time: Andre, the Crestfallen Warrior, Rhea and her companions, Big Hat Logan and his apprentice, and so on are all undead who have seen many other "Chosen Undead" come to Lordran seeking their destiny.

In any case, it's not until an undead "gives up" that the hollowing process becomes complete. What do we mean by "giving up"? For an NPC, it means that they gave up on life and went hollow, and the player typically ends up putting them down. For the player, it means that you stop playing the game. As long as you continue to play the game, then your character will continue to hold onto a sliver of humanity and maintain his or her sanity for a little while longer. When you put down your controller for the last time, you have condemned your character avatar to finally succumbing to hollowness, whether you recognize it or not...

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Civilization: Beyond Earth: Rising Tide

I'm starting to feel like quite the prognosticator. Earlier this year, I started tossing around the idea of Nomadic civilizations for future Civ games. Around the same time, Creative Assembly announced Attila: Total War. They had apparently come up with almost the same idea independently at the same time. Well, now the teams at Firaxis have also implemented a variation of my idea for their new expansion to Beyond Earth, called Rising Tide.

This expansion seeks to remedy several of the core complaints with the Beyond Earth game. In my original review for Beyond Earth, my two biggest complaints were that the game and its leaders lacked the personality and variety of Civilization V, and that it just didn't feel futuristic enough. Both of these complaints ended up being the major focus of the first expansion, which definitely helps to make Beyond Earth stand out a little bit from its more realistic counterpart.

So we sailed up to the sun, till we found a sea of green

One of Beyond Earth's biggest failings was its lack of creativity in using its futuristic setting to innovate gameplay. The game felt very much like a reskin of Civ V rather than a new game. A big part of this was that the map posed many of the same sorts of restrictions on players that the Civ V map did: mountains, canyons, and oceans were all obstacles either impassable by units or uncolonizable by cities.

Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide - aquatic civilization
Aquatic cities and civilizations help to separate Beyond Earth's futuristic setting from Civilization's historical roots.

Well now one of those restrictions has been lifted, and civilizations can build floating cities in the oceans. Such cities can even be moved in order to claim new tiles or to act as mobile military bases. This opens up some interesting (and sometimes silly) new strategic possibilities, but the whole mechanic feels a bit contrived to me. Moveable cities is something that I think can work very well in Civilization, but I just don't feel that Firaxis gave us much reason to ever need to move cities in this game. My proposal for nomadic civilizations was two fold: such a faction could mobilize its entire civilization right up to an enemy's borders during war; and it could also move in response to changing map conditions (migrating animal resources or climate change) during peace. Beyond Earth hits that first point by turning cities into massive aircraft carriers, but there aren't any mechanics in place to make the map a factor.

Fish and other harvestable sea creatures don't migrate, and other resources don't move. So if you aren't using your aquatic cities as mobile military bases, then there's never any real need to move them. And if you're not playing as the North Sea Alliance faction, then the cost to move a city can feel prohibitively expensive. The people at Firaxis seemed to have recognized this, and so they made it so that aquatic cities don't grow their borders based on culture. Instead, you must either buy new tiles or move the city itself in order to acquire adjacent tiles. But since moving takes valuable production time away from the city, I rarely find myself moving a city, and instead I just buy any tiles that I want.

Aquatic cities can be moved, and can act as mobile military platforms and aircraft carriers.

There are other pros and cons to aquatic cities, such as health benefits, faster virtue acquisition, and more profitable trade routes. You can also move the cities around to temporarily acquire resources that allow you to build specific resource buildings, but at the cost of possibly temporarily hurting your city's growth or production (and maybe even starving the city if you move away from food-generating tiles). So there's a lot to think about when build an aquatic or nomadic civilization, but it all feels kind of like ad hoc mechanics in order to make the mechanic seem more meaningful than it actually is. That isn't to say that mobile cities is a bad feature in Beyond Earth. It's perfectly functional, and can be fun to play around with. It just feels a little gimmicky.

Just look at the world around you, right here on the ocean floor

It certainly helps that the oceans themselves are a much bigger part of the game. The ocean isn't just divided into coastal tiles and empty ocean anymore. There's a whole host of new aquatic resources, and even the sea floor itself has different features. This definitely provides some incentive and reward to building floating cities, since the ocean can be a rich source of resources. The ocean tiles themselves can even be improved with a variety of new improvements (including basic farms and mines).

Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide - marine life
The oceans are alive with life and resources, giving reason to found aquatic cities.

Aliens are also active in the oceans. Sea creatures will build nests (just like their land counterparts), and there's a new alien creature called Hydrocoral that is stationary but which spreads across the ocean surface if left unchecked. Resource pods, artifacts, and quest triggers can all also be found in the ocean. So there's plenty to do in the water now, oceans feel more like a genuine part of the map rather than just dead space between continents, and the variety of features and resources in the ocean helps to make the world look more alien.

...

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Cities: Skylines: After Dark

It's been a very long time since I've had a city-building game that I really enjoy. So it was a real treat to find Cities: Skylines last year. It was the first game to really capture the magic of the classic SimCity games and make them work in full 3-D, and managed to achieve the goal of abstract population agency that the SimCity reboot failed so horribly at. But as much as I loved Skylines, I was also very aware of many of its limitations. It didn't have as much content as you might expect from a game coming from a larger publisher (like EA), and there were certain elements of its abstraction that felt a little shallow or weird. The game's first expansion, After Dark, tries to address these limitations, but it doesn't really succeed.

The free update is a nice gesture, but ...

First and foremost, I have to clarify exactly what the expansion encompasses, since Colossal Order has created a bit of confusion on this topic. They launched a free update for the base Cities: Skylines game in parallel with the release of the After Dark expansion. This update included some of the core feature upgrades that the expansion's content depended on. Most notably, a day/night cycle, new zoned buildings, and upgraded crime systems. If you have Cities: Skylines, then you get these features as a free patch, and have probably been playing with them for months.

Cities Skylines - day / night cycle
The day/night cycle is a free upgrade to the core game, but makes the core game feel somewhat incomplete.

While I applaud Colossal Order for the good will they foster by being willing to give away new functionality for free, this does kind of put players of the vanilla game in a strange situation. You get some of the new features, but not any of the ploppable buildings or city policy options that make them work. You get more crime, but not the prisons in which to lock up and rehabilitate criminals. You get the day/night cycle, but not the fancy new leisure and tourism zones that make nighttime mechanically relevant. In some ways, it takes the core game that felt very complete on its own, and suddenly makes it feel incomplete in subtle ways.

Fortunately, the menu gives you the option to turn the day/night cycle off, which helps to preserve the integrity of the original game. But then you don't get the new feature.

The update won't harm any of your existing save files though - with one major exception. If you made the unfortunate mistake of creating a city that was completely dependent on solar power, then the day/night cycle will screw that city over big time! In the core game, this was actually the most optimal way to go. Solar didn't pollute, wasn't dependent on depleting resources, and money was easy enough to make that the cost wasn't a big enough deterrent to using solar. But with the day/night update, once the sun goes down, all those fancy, expensive solar panels completely stop working! This can lead to your entire city going into a blackout as soon as you boot up your save file. Suddenly, not only is solar non-optimal, but it's practically useless since it doesn't work for half the game. And this isn't something that you can fix by just increasing solar power funding or building more plants; the power output drops to zero!

Cities Skylines - solar-induced nightly blackouts
Solar power plants stop working completely during the night, leading to massive blackouts.

Fun at night, and in the sun

I did complain somewhat about the lack of a day-night cycle in the base game, but the implementation that Colossal Order gave us is a bit uncomfortable and awkward. The rapid progress of a "day" in the game means that they couldn't transition from day to night in a single game-day, or else the game would just be constantly flickering between day and night. The developers apparently didn't want to slow down the game-day either, since that would probably upset many elements of the game's economic and agent systems. So instead, your cities get about a month-and-a-half of day, followed by about a month-and-a-half of night. Individual citizens seem to go about a daily cycle within this time. They aren't bound to it though. I've seen some citizens go back and forth between home and a near-by job several times during the day-time, then spend the whole night out at a restaurant or nightclub; and other citizens can spend the entire daytime commuting to and from work only to spend most of the night sitting in the office. They start their cycles at staggered times during the day; thus, sparing us from the annoying pathfinding and gridlock issues that plagued SimCity (2013). It all ... works ... at a very abstract level; it just feels weird...

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The Swapper - title

Since I have some extra time off for this holiday season, I'm trying to go through some of my backlog of shorter indie Steam games in between bouts of Cities: Skylines and Beyond Earth: Rising Tide. One such game is Facepalm Games' 2013's sci-fi indie hit, The Swapper, which I picked up in a Steam sale like a year ago. The game has also been ported to many consoles, including the PS3, PS4, Vita, XBox One, and Wii U, and the ports were developed by Curve Digital.

Making my clones do the deadly work

The Swapper seems to owe a lot to Valve's mega-hit Portal. Both games' central mechanics revolve around the player character using a futuristic non-weaponized gun (with 2 settings) to solve platforming puzzles and explore an environment. Portal is in full 3-D, whereas The Swapper is a more traditional 2-D side-scroller. The bigger difference however, is that the gun of The Swapper doesn't fire portable wormholes; instead, it allows the player character to instantly create clones of herself, and to swap her consciousness into one of the clones. Once created, these copies move in tandem with the copy that is currently being controlled by the player. The key to the puzzles is to maneuver yourself so that your clones can reach otherwise inaccessible areas or activate switches.

The Swapper - synchronized movement
All your clones move in synchronization, making relative spacing very important for solving puzzles.

The space station is laid out in an unbelievable, but serviceable, series of puzzle rooms joined together by modest platforming sections. At first, the platforming between puzzles is interesting because it kept me thinking along the lines of solving puzzles rather than just moving from place to place. But there's a lot of exploration and backtracking, and having to navigate the corridors between puzzle rooms quickly became tedious once using the swapper gun became second nature and automatic. Fortunately, the game provides handy teleporters to allow you to quickly move to key sections of the station, so the backtracking never became as problematic as it could have been.

The puzzles themselves start off fairly simple, requiring that the player simply point the gun and clone herself in order to reach a platform or cross a gap and collect alien orbs that you use to unlock new areas of the space station. The challenge quickly escalates. Soon, obstacles start getting thrown at you, such as colored lights that prevent certain operations of the swapper gun, forcing you to have to find more elaborate ways around the lights in order to reach your destination. You have to start using careful positioning, choreographed movement, gravity, momentum, and inertia in order to successfully solve the puzzles. And all this escalation seems to happen naturally based on the increasing complexity of the levels, rather than through the introduction of new mechanics or controls.

The Swapper - difficult puzzle
About an hour into the game, I ran into a puzzle that took almost an hour of trial-and-error for me to solve.

About an hour into the game, the difficulty suddenly spiked, and I ran into one puzzle in particular that took me quite a while to figure out. I even had to leave it and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. I thought maybe I was missing some kind of upgrade or needed to learn some technique that the game hadn't tutorialized yet, but that wasn't the case. Eventually, I figured it out, and the solution seemed head-smacking obvious, but I probably spent a good hour on that one puzzle (approximately half of my time with the game, up to that point).

There are also some other sci-fi mechanics such as the occasional zero-g spacewalk, gravity inversion (allowing you to "fall" up and walk on the ceilings), and so on. These all flow fairly seamlessly into the game; although, I did feel that the gravity inversion felt a little unnecessary when it was introduced. After all, the game teaches you fairly early how to use the swapper gun to effectively fly by repeatedly swapping to clones created above you. This "flying", is, however, limited by the number of clones that you can create, and it's still subject to being blocked by colored lights. So gravity inversion felt superficial when introduced as a means of navigating the station. Once the gravity inversion was introduced into the puzzles, though, I recognized its value.

The Swapper - zero-G spacewalk
You'll also perform the occasional zero-G spacewalk or invert gravity.

Any problems that I had in solving a puzzle were purely intellectual. Every control and mechanic is intuitive and comfortable, movement is responsive, and I almost never struggled with making the character do what I wanted her to do. All in all, the game plays near-perfectly. The puzzles are appropriately challenging; although, the exploratory nature of the game means that difficulty can wobble back and forth a bit depending on which puzzle rooms you reach first...

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