Master of Orion (2016) - title

The 2016 reboot of Master of Orion kind of shoots itself in the foot a bit with its own subtitle: "Conquer the Stars". When I play 4x games, I like to feel like I'm really building an empire, managing an economy, and conducting diplomacy. All of those things are present in Master of Orion, but I've gotten a pretty distinct feeling that this is yet another strategy game that falls victim to military rushing being the optimal strategy by far. Master of Orion doesn't really want you to build a civilization and colonize the galaxy; it firmly wants you to do what its subtitle tells you: conquer the stars.

Master of Orion III was kind of shit (it was boring, ugly, and completely lacked personality and substance), but at least it made some effort to be new and interesting. Most noticeably, the galactic map was actually three-dimensional. Sure, this was a navigational and UI nightmare for the human player, but it required players to think differently about how they approached expansion and warfare. At a more fundamental level, MoO3 sought to be a game about macro-management, asking the player to manage a vast galactic empire rather than just a collection of a dozen or so planets. The meat of the game, thus, was intended to be in the mid-to-late stages, as developed empires engaged in epic battles for survival, rather than all the fun and challenge being front-loaded in the early rush to colonize all the nearby planets. It didn't work, but at least it was trying to genuinely innovate the 4x genre.

The new Master of Orion isn't anywhere near that ambitious, and seeks instead to simply bring the original Master of Orion concept (in its simplest form) into the age of high-resolution 3-d graphics. It's a scaled-down, bog-standard space-4x game that borrows heavily from Endless Space and Civilization V. But it is at least a competent one!

Conquer the Stars isn't as big, complex, or ambitious as Master of Orion 3, but at least it's competent.

The galaxy itself isn't very big this time around. Depending on the map's size, there's only a few dozen stars, and most of them only have two or three planets. Unstable star lanes and space monsters can lock you out of exploring certain systems until you research certain technologies or grow your military sufficiently large (respectively). Other than that, exploration is over fairly quickly (especially once you start performing map trades in diplomacy).

Planet-management is also fairly easy. You can assign population meeples between one of three different types of output: food, production, and research. Meeples of different jobs and races have different icons, and unhappy meeples on strike have icons that sit down holding a picket sign. It makes it very easy to see what your population's current status is at a glance. There's just not really much to do with them. You don't have to assign them to work specific buildings, and with only 3 outputs to manage, balancing or specializing isn't that difficult.

All the buildings in the game are also one-time builds that don't serve much function other than to provide flat points of one of the three outputs, or to modify the efficiency of meeples in a particular output category. Buildings that have unique functionality (such as the Spy Center, Gravity Generators, or Interplanetary Administration) are few and far between. The only other thing that you do with your planets is to occasionally terraform them in order to boost your max population and unlock additional slots along each of the output tracks.

Master of Orion - conquered planet
Each point of population is of a specific race, which affects the morale of conquered planets.

The tech tree also feels kind of bland and linear. I would much prefer a tech web along the lines of Civilization: Beyond Earth. Master of Orion kind of goes in this direction a bit by including some techs in which you have to chose which of two different items you want to take when you research certain techs. You can then trade for the other via diplomacy if you want to. It's kind of like the leaf nodes in Beyond Earth, but only some techs have them, and I rarely had to think too hard about which one I wanted...

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Sid Meier's Civilization

In my last post, I ranted a little bit about some of the major frustrations that I have with the way that Civilization games have historically dealt with difficulty levels. In summary, I identified three problems that I feel make it less enjoyable to play the game on higher difficulties, even if the lower difficulties still feel too easy. The three problems are:

In this post, I'd like to provide some more constructive criticism by discussing some of the thoughts and ideas that I've had for possibly resolving these three problems. These ideas include providing a wider range of options for customizing the difficulty level and game experience to suit the individual player's tastes and style, and to provide a wider (and more open-ended) set of game-long challenges.

Alternative solutions to game difficulty

So what could the developers do about these problems?

Well, the problem of game pacing could possibly be solved by inverting the handicap such that instead of speeding up the A.I.s' progress through the game, the player is slowed down. This could be accomplished by slowing down the human player's tech and civic progress, and by negatively handicapping some of the human player's yields. This would allow the A.I.s to progress at a more historically-appropriate rate, and overall game length would remain similar across all difficulties.

Civilization VI - Ship Building to Cartography
Padding out sparse areas of the tech and civics trees could mitigate the ability to beeline to later eras.

Rapid era progression could also be somewhat mitigated by padding out the tech and civics trees a little bit more. Beelining to the Renaissance via the "Cartography" technology is common for civs like England and Norway. There's a few ways to limit this. One simple way would be to simply make "Cartography" require either "Education" or "Military Tactics". Another way would be to have a technology between "Ship Building" and "Cartography" -- such as an "Optics" technology that unlocks an upgrade to the Scout, or a "Lateen Sail" technology that unlocks a medieval naval unit like the Cog, Hulk, Junk, or Galleass (or move the Caravel up to "Lateen Sails" but don't give it ocean-crossing abilities until "Cartography").

Customization, options, and difficulty settings

As for resolving the other issues presented by high difficulty levels, my preference would be for the developers to add more customization and tuning options for players so that we can tailor the gameplay experience and challenges more to our liking.

Civilization VI - advanced settings
Civ VI has limited customization options.

Having independent sliders or settings for things like Player Handicaps, A.I. Handicaps, AI Temperament, Barbarian Spawn Rate, Barbarian Aggressiveness, Barbarian Tech Level, City State Aggressiveness, and so on would all go a long way towards allowing the player to customize the game's challenge according to their own strengths and weaknesses. Handicap settings for players and A.I. can even be further divided into different sub-categories along the lines of: Tech Handicap, Culture Handicap, Production Handicap, Gold Handicap, Growth Handicap, Happiness / Amenity Handicap, etc.. So if you find that you are consistently out-teching your A.I. opponents, but you feel you have parity with the A.I. in other areas of the game, then you could specifically buff the A.I.'s tech handicap, weaken yours, or both.

This would certainly make some of the game's code more complicated, but I don't think that it would be prohibitively difficult. The difficulty settings already make adjustments to these very same parameters, and I believe the game's own .ini files allow modders to customize many (if not all) of these attributes. I don't see any reason why such settings can't just be in the game's settings menu, and the difficulty settings (deity, emperor, king, settler, etc.) could just use some pre-configured arrangements of those values.

Other genres use similar paradigms for their difficulty settings. Sports games are a prime example...

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Sid Meier's Civilization

Obviously, I love the Sid Meier's Civilization game franchise. I've been playing it since Civ III, and even own the Fantasy Flight board game (which I also really like). This game series has kept me up, one-more-turning, into the wee hours of the morning on many occasions. Despite my love for the games, this series can also really grind my gears sometimes.

One of my persistent frustrations with the Civilization series of games is the way that it handles difficulty levels. Granted, this seems to be a common issue in all strategy games, so Civ is certainly not unique in this frustration. Basically, the higher difficulties don't make the A.I.s play better; rather, it just gives them free stuff at the beginning of the game, and buffs their production, research, and so on. The free stuff includes (depending on the difficulty level selected): extra settlers, extra military units, free workers/builders, free technologies, extra gold, extra population in its starting city, and so forth.

There's three key problems with this design paradigm:

  • It front-loads the challenge in a game that is supposed to have very long play-sessions
  • It limits player options
  • It rushes the pace of the game

The front-loading of frustration

Giving the A.I.s extra stuff at the beginning of the game only makes the game harder by giving the A.I.s a handicap - a head start. It doesn't make the A.I.s better - or the game harder - in the long run. The A.I.s still chose crappy locations for those extra settlers to plant their cities - often putting them in un-productive locations, or (in the case of Civ VI) putting them so close together that they can't fit enough districts in. The A.I. doesn't plan ahead regarding where its districts will be, and it often places those districts in sub-optimal locations. "Sub-optimal" being an understatement.

Civilization VI - A.I. free settlers
The A.I. starting with extra settlers on high difficulties doesn't make the game harder in the long run.

Those free extra units aren't used more effectively either. Even with a few extra warriors, the A.I. still can't plan or execute a city siege, as it's generally inept at handling the one-unit-per-tile, hex-based combat, and they rarely bother to escort their civilian units. The developers can't be completely blamed for this, as A.I. for tactical combat is a very difficult problem to solve. Most games that have A.I.-driven tactical combat either don't have any grand strategy at all (as in Panzer General), or the grand strategy is separated into a completely different layer of gameplay (as in Total War).

Once the human player can get his or her cities up and running, get a sizable military built, and start conquering the A.I., all these free starting units become moot. These extra units can even backfire. A.I. cities can usually easily be captured by the human player. Since the A.I. gets buffs towards population growth, production, and other yields, those cities tend to grow faster than the player's cities anyway. So if they're conquered, then the human player gets better cities than they could have founded on their own, and gets them sooner than if they had spent the time to build their own settlers.

Civilization VI - capturing A.I. cities
It's not hard to capture A.I. cities, which are often larger and more developed
than any city the player could have founded within the same amount of time.

These early hurdles aren't that difficult to overcome, and once the A.I.'s starting advantages have been neutralized, they don't pose much of an increased threat long-term...

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Thursday, November 10, 2016 02:08 AM

Civilization VI nags and nitpicks

in Video Gaming by MegaBearsFan

Civilization VI review

I already gave a pretty glowing review of Civilization VI. I did neglect talking about some of the problems and annoynaces that I have with the game. This is because most of these problems feel like relatively minor, nagging issues, rather than game-breakers, and the review was long enough as is without diving into nitpicks. So I decided to dedicate an entire post to these little nagging issues, nitpicks, and annoyances. Remember that I love the game! So the items listed here are not deal-breakers by any stretch. They are just small blemishes on an excellent game, and problems that I would like to see fixed in post-release patches.

Useability issues

While the game's UI is generally very minimal and clean, there are a number of frustrating issues with the user experience design.

Stop jumping around to different units!

Civ V had this same problem as well. The one-unit-per-tile rule means that after one unit moves, the game can't just skip to the next unit in the stack. Instead, it has to pick a unit somewhere else on the map. The logic for this doesn't seem to even bother trying to find a nearby unit or a relevant unit, and so the camera is constantly whipping around from one end of the map to the other. When trying to manage a large army during a war, this can get very annoying very fast.

Civilization VI - unit needs orders
There's already a "Unit needs orders" prompt, so there's no need to jump around the map selecting units.

If suitable logic can't be implemented to make this unit-cycling work a bit smarter, then players should be given the option (via the options screen) to disable it entirely. This is especially true for multiplayer. There is already a "Unit needs orders" prompt, so it's easy enough to just use that to jump to another unit. Otherwise, the game should just wait and let the player actively click on the next unit that I want to move. Heck, even if smarter unit-cycling logic is written, the game should probably still provide the option to turn it off.

Allow us to disable tutorial tips that we've already seen

Each tutorial tooltip dialogue should come with an option to "don't show this tip again". Civ games are long, and they often aren't played through to completion. So when learning the game, I end up restarting often. And since the game is still new, I still have the tutorial tooltips turned ON. I do this so that I can be reminded of how the newer features work (particularly the late-game features that I haven't seen as much).

In order to see the late-game tutorials [RIGHT] for mechanics that I don't understand yet,
I have to sit through the tutorial messages for early-game mechanics [LEFT] that I fully understand.

Leaving the tutorials on, however, means that I have to sit through all the early-game pop-ups as well. I already know how a district works and what a city state is; I don't need to see these tutorial messages again! But it is nice to see the messages for late-game stuff like national parks, archaeology, and corps, since I still don't have much experience with those features yet.

As such, I should be able to turn off the tips that I've already seen and know, while leaving on the tips that I haven't seen, or don't yet know...

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Civilization VI review

Firaxis has given me a belated birthday gift by releasing Civilization VI. They've also ensured that I don't get very much productive done during the months of October and November this year, since I've been sinking a whole lot of time into "one more turn"-ing myself late into the night. I've barely scratched the surface of the newly-released Dark Souls III DLC, my Madden franchise has fallen behind, and I haven't even bothered buying recently-released games like the new Master of Orion. My board game collection has been collecting dust, and my Dungeons & Dragons campaigns have been on hiatus. I'll get back to all those things after one more turn.

Oozing with production quality

The first thing that stood out to me upon entering my first game was the artwork. It's a pretty stark contrast from Civilization V's visuals. Civ V favored a semi-photo realistic quality. Many screenshots of the game's map look like satellite photos, and units (though exceedingly large) looked and animated realistically. This created a lot of pretty screenshots (still images), but the game looked kind of static, washed-out, and dull in motion. VI, on the other hand, goes for an exaggerated, vibrant, and more cartoonish look that reminds me a lot more of Civ IV and Civ Revolution.

Civilization VI - informative graphics
The graphics are vibrant and highly informative. Everything that you see on screen genuinely means something.

What I really like is how utilitarian the visuals are. Almost everything on the game map is communicating part of the state of the game to the player. You can see every piece of infrastructure in and around a city, as well as exactly which tiles are being worked, all without having to open a separate screen and without having to clutter the screen with extra UI icons. There's even different graphics to represent the different phases of a building or wonder's construction that tells you exactly what that city is currently constructing, and how close it might be to finishing that wonder. It's attractive, but it's also clean and informative.

The fog of war is also wonderfully functional and neat to look at. This game renders the fog of war with the style of a hand-drawn map on canvas (similar to Total War: Shogun 2, which I loved). Heck, there's even an animated day/night cycle that was seemingly added because ... why not?

Improvements have different graphics for when they're un-worked [LEFT] versus worked [RIGHT].

The rest of the game shows similarly high production quality. There's actual cinematics for the win screens instead of dialogue boxes with a static image. Finishing a wonder results in an in-game cutscene of that wonder's construction. It isn't quite as pretty as Civ IV's pre-rendered wonder movies, but makes up for it by providing a sense of context that makes me feel like I'm seeing "my Oracle" instead of just the Oracle. There's more historic quotes, all of which are narrated wonderfully by Sean Bean. Firaxis even brought back composer Christopher Tin for some of the music. The new theme music, "Sogno Di Volare" ["The Dream of Flight"] isn't as immediately catchy as "Baba Yetu", but it's still an uplifting, memorable track that stands out more than the menu themes of Civ V. Put simply, this game just looks and sounds terrific...

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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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