Civilization VI review

Civilization VI may look very similar to Civilization V at a glance, but once you start playing it, you're going to notice a lot of subtle differences. One of the most immediate differences will be the changes to unit-movement rules with respect to terrain. Units still travel on hexes, and terrain such as hills and forests still slow down movement, just as in the previous game. But this time around, the cost to enter a tile must be paid before entering that tile! This is a small, but significant change of rules that may force you to change the way that you explore the map.

The rewards of exploration are many, and finding these rewards is key to a good start.

Efficient exploration is key to getting off to a good start in Civilization. And a good start is key to success at higher difficulties and in competitive multiplayer. This is still true in Civilization VI. First and foremost, exploration will reveal valuable real estate for settling your first few cities, including resources, coast lines, and natural wonders. An efficient explorer will also be likely to uncover more tribal villages (i.e. "goody huts"), which will grant tech boosts, extra money, free units, or a head start towards founding your own pantheon. Efficient exploring will also introduce you to more city states, and you'll be more likely to be the first player to meet the city state. Being first to meet a city state will grant you a free envoy. This will grant you an immediate bonus depending on the type of city state, and it will put you one step closer to unlocking additional bonuses and becoming the suzerain of that city state.

So now that we've seen the rewards and benefits that await our exploration of the map, let's take a look at those new movement rules and how they'll impact our early exploration...

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No Man's Sky

After experiencing some annoying performance issues on the PS4 version of Dark Souls III (including a framerate capped at 30 fps), I decided that I'd hold out the extra three days for the PC version of No Man's Sky. I assumed that the keyboard and mouse controls would be more comfortable, since the game is half shooter, half flight-sim. I assumed that the PC version would perform better and look better. And I figure that the game will eventually enjoy a vibrant modding community that is likely impossible to spring up on the PS4, since (as far as I know) the PS4 does not support modding in any way. I, once again, may have been wrong in my choice of platform

In addition to having to wait three extra days for the game to release on PC, I've read a lot of reports of severe problems with the PC version of the game at launch. It simply won't run on certain machines with certain graphics cards. Many rigs have consistent performance issues. My PC is a few years old, but it more than meets the system requirements for the game, yet I've been stuck having to run it on medium graphics settings. Upping the settings to high only results in the game becoming unplayably slow whenever I step into the cockpit of my ship. I'm talking, like half a frame per second, and the game dropping all my inputs. The final insult is that the game breaks when you alt-tab out of it, which prevents you from alt-tabbing back into it. If you alt-tab out, you'll have to kill the process in task manager and restart the app - which, of course, will cause a loss of any progress since the last autosave. So despite having a dual-monitor set-up, I can't alt-tab out to open up podcasts or play some tunes while I warp around the galaxy.

Most of these problems will likely get fixed at some point (and some of them already have), and hopefully I'll be able to run the game at high graphics settings. But in the meantime, if you're interested in playing the game, then the PS4 version is probably the technically superior one right now. Apparently, the PS4 version also has numerous performance issues, including crashes.

Sadly, technical problems are only the beginning of my complaints with this game.

Betraying the naturalist within

Instead of being a game about exploring strange new worlds and discovering exotic wildlife and natural wonders of the universe (as I'd hoped), No Man's Sky turns out to be quite the opposite: a game about conspicuous consumption. The core game loop does not consist of landing on an alien world to explore and catalog the local flora and fauna. Instead, you land your ship in a vibrantly-colored patch of minerals and plants, and you begin strip-mining the site clean. You harvest the raw materials that you'll use to refuel your space ship so that you can warp to the next planet to strip its resources for more fuel.

No Man's Sky - cataloging alien life
The incentives to catalog alien life feel extrinsicly-imposed and not a natural part of the core game experience.

Actually seeking out and cataloging the local wildlife takes a backseat - if you even bother to do it at all. The game isn't about that. There's nothing in the core gameplay loop or narrative that actually sets the game up to be about cataloging alien life. The only reason that the player has to even bother with scanning and analyzing is because you're rewarded with in-game currency for scanning stuff, even though there's no in-game reason (that I could discern) for why you would be getting paid to catalog alien life or who it is that's putting the money in your account. It all feels so thoroughly divorced from the rest of the game, and the money feels like an extrinsic incentive that is imposed from outside the scope of actual gameplay. In fact, I don't know why the game would have an in-game reason for why you would get paid to catalog stuff. After all, these planets are all already known by somebody in the game universe - they have space stations in every star systems and colony modules and trading posts on every planet long before you ever get there to "discover" them. So not only does cataloging life feel like an extrinsically-imposed mechanic, even this process of "discovering" feels completely fake and artificial...

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Last time, I discussed what I perceive as a problem in the way that most open world games (specifically, sandbox games) design their maps and use the space that the maps offer - or fail to use that space, to be more specific. So many open world maps end up feeling less like actually playing the game, and more like a convoluted mission-select and collectible checklist screens. This problem is especially bad in the Ubisoft model of design, and is also a problem (to a lesser extent) in Bethesda's open worlds. Due to the popularity of these developers' franchises, many other developers have been cloning these styles of games to one extent or the other, to the point at which Ubisoft's open world model seems to be the go-to template for any developer trying to make an open world game. These games aren't necessarily bad. They just aren't very good at making the space of their maps feel meaningful in its own right.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate - zipline
Many open world games have large, expansive maps that mostly feel empty and pointless,
as the player rushes through them simply to get to the next map marker or checklist item.

But now that I've established what I see as a problem, I want to focus on positive feedback. In this discussion, I'm going to look at a handful of games that should serve as inspirations for would-be open world developers. Ironically, some of these games aren't even open world games, but they still pose valuable lessons for how games that are open world could better use their game spaces. That isn't to say that the games discussed here are perfect. In fact, many of them have their own major flaws. But each of them has some element of design that utilizes the actual game map as a component of active play, rather than just a space in which game sequences exist. First, let's take a look at a game that was re-made recently, and use it as a "before and after" case study of map design...

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I wrote a lengthy blog late last year about the stagnant, "limbo"-like feel of most open world games' narratives. I had written that blog mostly before I played Metal Gear Solid V, and so I wasn't able to incorporate my thoughts regarding that game into the blog. But I did come to a new realization about open world gaming while I was playing MGSV. In my review of that game, I noted that:

"Even the open world itself feels constrained, as sheer cliffs prevent you from travelling too far off of the roads and serve to functionally railroad the player towards the small set-piece outposts and villages."
    - from my Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain review

I realized while playing MGSV that the game had built this large, open world (well, two large, open worlds really, but I hadn't gotten that far yet), but it didn't really care to let the player actually traverse that space or use it in any meaningful way other than scavenger hunting for collectibles. At least those collectibles felt relevant to gameplay though! Roughly half the map is dead space that the player can't even access. There was also this strange focus on using the helicopter to drop in and drop out of missions, rather than actually living in the game world, as the character had to do in Snake Eater. The map started to feel less and less like a place, and more like a convoluted mission-select screen. At first, this seemed like a strange, isolated example of an open world game that really doesn't want the player actually exploring its world. But as I thought about it, I realized that this isn't really a new phenomenon; it's actually just a very extreme example of what has become a sort of defacto state in most open world games.

Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain - restricted world map
The Afghanistan map of Metal Gear Solid V feels heavily constrained by sheer cliffs.

Think about it this way: in a linear game with rooms and corridors, every hallway and room should serve some purpose or function. In most games, this function will be some kind of skill or system mastery test. An action game like Devil May Cry will throw enemies at you to fight; a puzzle game like Portal will have a puzzle (or a piece of a puzzle) in the room to solve; a stealth game like Metal Gear Solid 3 will have a sneaking challenge or obstacle to pass; and so on. In the best games, each of these challenges will also provide a unique or novel test of skill or system mastery: unique combinations of enemies, unique puzzles, or novel arrangements of enemies and obstacles. Other games can use those rooms for thematic or narrative purposes. A survival horror game like Resident Evil or Silent Hill will usually put enemies, puzzle items, or supplies in a room, but some rooms might instead contain a scripted scare. In some cases, a room might even be left completely empty in order to build some kind of tension or anticipation, or to delay the release of already-built tension or anticipation.

So what is the gameplay purpose of an open world map? ...

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Star Trek: Fleet Captains - manual shows painted miniatures
Star Trek: Fleet Captains is an exploration and combat board game by WizKids.

Good Star Trek games are few and far between. That goes for both video games and board games. Part of the reason for this is that it's often difficult to capture the spirit of Star Trek when trying to adapt it into en existing game genre. This is why Trek-themed games end up turning into dull shooters or tactical combat games. Games about exploration or scientific discovery, or role-play are sadly uncommon in video game formats (which is what makes 1999's PC game Birth of the Federation stand out to me as an underrated Trek classic). Sure it was just a reskin of Master of Orion II, and it had lots of technical and A.I. flaws, but in a market dominated by cookie-cutter games like Star Trek: Armada, Elite Force, and Invasion, Birth of the Federation was a rare game in which "exploring strange new worlds" and "seeking out new life and new civilizations" was a primary game mechanic.

Board games and table-top games have maybe fared a bit better than video game adaptations. We have our Dungeons & Dragons-inspired role playing games, our tactical starship simulators, and then countless board game reskins (ranging from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan, and virtually everything in between). Most of these games are pretty old, but there's also a handful of newer Star Trek games that run the gamut. One such game is WizKids' Star Trek: Fleet Captains.

WizKids is probably best known for its Mage Knight and Hero Clix miniatures games based on fantasy, video game, and comic book characters. The bases for these figures include a rotating dial that allows the player to change the attributes of the character to one of several pre-set values. This can include altering their combat attack power, hit points, mana, or any other value that the specific game might require. Fleet Captains uses a similar clix system as the backbone of its starship management mechanics.

Unboxing impressions

My first impressions upon opening the box was a bit disappointing. I'm not a big fan of the ship miniatures. They're fairly well-detailed and made out of a sturdy plastic and seem like they should stand up to a lot of play, but that's the only thing that I like about them. They take up a lot of space, making it difficult to cram more than two or three ships on any single hex. There seems to have been some effort made to scale the size of the Federation ships with one another, but it isn't consistent. Voyager, for example, is almost as large as the Enterprise E, but the Enterprise A and Reliant are noticeably smaller and appear decently-scaled against the Galaxy class Venture. Klingon ships, however, seem to have no effort put into trying to appropriately scale them. Birds of Prey and classic cruisers look huge compared to most Federation ships and to other Klingon ships. The Negh'var, despite being one of the largest ships in the game, just doesn't seem as massive and intimidating as it should be.

Despite the manual showing painted miniatures in its components list [LEFT],
the actual miniatures [RIGHT] are unpainted and not to-scale with one another.

The ships are also all are made of the same mono-chrome plastic and are un-painted (even though the instructions appear to show painted miniatures in the components list). These ships are different enough in design that it's really not hard to tell them apart, and so I see no reason why they couldn't have been painted (as opposed to being the same color for ease of recognition)...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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