Civilization VI: Rise and Fall - title

When Civilization V first launched back in 2010, it was in a pretty ugly, incomplete state. The game was buggy, was very slowly-paced, was completely missing any sort of espionage mechanic, and had other gaping holes in its design. It took about six or eight months' worth of patching and updating from Firaxis before the game reached a state that I would consider "adequate". Its first expansion, Gods & Kings basically came off as a fan wishlist, as it re-added (and re-vamped) many of the features and systems that had been removed between Civ IV and Civ V (religion and espionage). That expansion also addressed a lot of core complaints with the game by dramatically improving combat balance and A.I. intelligence. The second expansion, Brave New World, almost completely re-invented the game and added a considerable amount of innovation in the form of trade routes and the new great works and artifacts systems. It also added an exceptional, robust roster of new civilizations.

Civilization VI launched with most of Brave New World's innovations still in place (though culture seems to have regressed a bit), and also added its own new innovations in city management. It felt like a much more complete game at launch than Civ V was. At the time, I was blown away by Civ VI, but as time has gone by (and I've increased the difficulty level), my enthusiasm for the game has diminished a bit.

I really enjoy the game when I play it on the King difficulty level (the "easiest" of the "hard" difficulty levels, in which A.I.s only get very slight bonuses). As soon as I up the difficulty to Emperor, I start to get frustrated, and the game becomes much less fun. The problem is that on the difficulty that I enjoy (King), the A.I. puts up very little resistance, and the game (though fun) is generally too easy. I can play the game on Emperor (I haven't experimented much on Immortal or higher in VI yet), but the stacking of the deck makes the game less enjoyable because I often feel that I'm blocked out of many early-game strategies that I want to try (such as early religion or wonders). It's all possible to accomplish, but it's prohibitively so, and the game often pushes me too far in the direction of militancy.

Doesn't address core game issues

Nope. Still no build queue...

In summary, while Civilization V's first expansion filled many of the gaping holes and addressed many of the flagrant flaws in vanilla Civ V's design, VI's first expansion mostly just stacks additional mechanics and features onto an already-complete game, while leaving many of VI's annoyances, quirks, and genuine flaws un-resolved. Let's get these complaints out of the way first.

Rise and Fall does little to address complaints with shallow unit upgrade paths. There's still generally only a single unit of a given unit class every other era.

Rise and Fall does very little to improve the combat systems in general. Units still die far too easily (in my opinion) (though this seems to be due in large part to the disparity in unit upgrade levels mentioned above), and imbalances between melee, ranged, and mounted units are still prevalent.

Rise and Fall does nothing to address complaints that I've had with the maps feeling very crowded and claustrophobic.

Civilization VI back-loads most of its culture, tourism, artifact, and great work systems into the second half of the game, and Rise and Fall does very little to make these feel like game-long engagements the way that Brave New World mostly did.

It does very little to make the late-game victory march feel less like a slog, or to make the early-game feel less rushed (especially on higher difficulties).

It does very little to address complaints with how the A.I. agendas can make them very erratic and schizophrenic. A.I.s are still far too willing to agree to joint wars against their own friends, allies, and trade partners, and joint wars in general still feel like a cheap loophole that lets warmongers bypass the casus belli system and warmonger penalties. Further, while the expansion does allow for deeper alliances with mutual benefits for the civs involved, it does not expand alliances to the point of allowing for shared or cooperative victories. So dipomacy in general still feels like a zero-sum-game with every civ acting to the exclusion of all others.

There's still no icon or indication that a unit has experience bonuses from barracks or buffs such as "Spears of Fion", or to indicate which abilities or penalties a given unit has by default.

We still can't assign military units to escort traders, nor can we see the path of any particular trader after it's started a route. And Trade routes themselves still don't generate reciprocal profit by default, meaning there's no reason to want other civs to send routes to you (other than getting a free road out of it, which isn't all that rewarding).

There's also still no build queues for cities!

Religion was overhauled in a patch last year, and religious units occupy their own layer.

Some major game upgrades have already been made available via post-release patches and DLC updates, and I'm grateful for those. New resources and wonders have trickled in since launch. One of the best improvements came in an update last year that allowed religious units to exist on their own layer, so that swarms of missionaries don't block your own units' movement in your territory. And the religious system in general was improved. So the game, overall, has improved a little bit since release. It just hasn't improved as dramatically as Civ V had improved in its first year. Though, to its credit, Civ VI didn't have as much room for obvious improvement.


Assassin's Creed Origins - title

Hey, I actually managed to play and review all of this past holiday season's big, Triple-A releases! Hooray for me! I mean, sure it's the end of February, and I'm just now reviewing a game that came out last October, but at least I did play it.

Since the refreshing exceptionalism of Black Flag, the Assassin's Creed franchise has been scarred by mediocrity and controversy. As such, I opted to buy the game used off of eBay so as not to support Ubisoft. This is after I had enjoyed Black Flag so much that I happily bought a retail gift copy for a friend and recommended the game to yet another friend. Heck, if the save file could have been transferred over, I would have gladly traded in my PS3 copy of Black Flag for a PS4 retail copy.

Even Ubisoft realized that the series was growing stale, and stopped their cycle of releasing two or three games per year. It's been two full years since the last full release (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate in 2015). The extra time certainly helped elevate Assassin's Creed: Origins above the chaff of the rest of the franchise, but not quite enough to propel it to true greatness.

I played Origins on PS4, which means that I avoided the frustrations that many gamers reported involving Origins' multiple layers of DRM slowing down their computers. Wait, isn't Ubisoft the company that, years ago, publicly stated that DRM doesn't work, and that they "don't want to punish a paying player for what a pirate can easily work around"? This same company is now putting not one ... not two ... but three separate DRM applications on a single game? One of which is their own proprietary distribution service, U-Play? Is the company lying, or are they just scatterbrained and can't make up their mind? Or is the management just incompetent?

Would exploring tombs and temples by torchlight become a common mechanic?

Well, when I started up the actual game, I was pleasantly surprised that it starts off pretty damn strong. Even Black Flag was mired by an opening act that stranded players in a tedious, bog-standard Assassin's Creed sandbox city for a couple hours before opening up the seas by giving us our own pirate ships. Origins, however, has a very strong, distinctive opening chapter that eventually gives way to a more bog-standard gameplay experience.

After an admittedly-silly and confusing opening cutscene that utterly fails to establish the setting or characters, Origins throws the player into a one-on-one duel to highlight the new combat mechanics, then hands main character Bayek a torch and asks the player to explore and escape from a derelict Egyptian temple. Then we head off across an intimidating swath of Saharan desert to the oasis that is Bayek's home town. Here, we have some open-ended exploration, hunting, rescue, and assassination missions. During this, we are introduced to the game's shining star: its setting and environment.

Classical Egypt is magnificently brought to life in this game. The map is vast and spread out, with large swaths of barren desert and sand dunes separating some of the game's regions. Small farming settlements and market hubs dot the environment, and each feels like a necessary part of a functional society. Best of all, Bayek isn't stopping every ten steps to pick up some random, meaningless collectible, and our map isn't cluttered with icons representing all this meaningless garbage.

Egypt feels vast, is beautiful, and is brimming with life and energy.

Not only does the map work well with its sense of physical scale, but it also excels at representing the temporal scale of Egypt. Even though we are playing in antiquity, the game world is still dotted with tombs and abandoned settlements, some of which are thousands of years old. Remember, ancient Egypt is one of the longest-lasting civilizations in the history of the world, having been a world superpower for over three thousand years! The time span between the building of the Great Pyramids in Giza, and the life of Cleopatra is longer than the time span between Cleopatra and our lives today. Assassin's Creed: Origins completely nails that sense of living in this ancient kingdom...


Call of Duty: WWII - title

I haven't played a Call of Duty game since World At War on the PS3 almost 10 years ago. I really liked the first two CoD games on PC, but after Infinity Ward stopped developing the games, they increasingly focused on spectacle rather than any attempt to accurately portray war. After throwing back more enemy grenades in the first mission of World At War than were probably ever manufactured in all of World War II (I'm exaggerating a little bit), I got sick of that game and basically gave up on the franchise.

After having a little bit of fun with EA's Battlefield 1, I decided to pick up a used copy of Call of Duty World War II from eBay. I was curious if the return to World War II would be taken a little bit more seriously by Activision. It wasn't. This is the same old stale Call of Duty that I've been actively avoiding for the past decade. The single-player campaign didn't do anything to pull me in.

A light-gun shooting gallery

Probably the biggest problem with the campaign is just how rote and repetitive it feels. Almost all of the game's missions boil down to moving from one shooting gallery to another. When you aren't in an outright combat tunnel (like a bunker or trench), you're only given about a hundred feet of lateral space to work with. The whole game feels very confined and small in scale, with very few opportunities for any tactical movement such as flanking maneuvers. Just sit behind cover and pop out to take a few shots, then repeat. It might as well be an on-rails shooter, or one of those pop-out-and-shoot light-gun arcade machines like Time Crisis. I wonder if this was maybe done to make the game work better in VR? Maybe they wanted to reduce the amount of movement so that players don't get motion sick? But it's not VR, so it just comes off as lazy and tedious.

Almost all the missions boil down to moving from one narrow shooting gallery to another.

Even when the game tries to do something a little different, it usually still finds a way to make it uninteresting, or to outright get it wrong. There are some stealth mechanics shoe-horned into the game -- because of course there's stealth mechanics. They are rudimentary and very unforgiving. It's clear that certain segments are intended to be played stealthily, but you just don't have the tools necessary to make it work, and the levels aren't designed very well for stealth. Your limited field of view makes environmental and situational awareness very difficult. It's hard to tell where enemies are, and it's also hard to tell if your'e hidden behind cover. Even if you are effectively hidden, you can't peek out of cover to monitor the enemy's position or movements.

After stealth killing one or two enemies, I almost always got caught and was forced into more shoot-outs. Many of these scenarios involve the player being isolated and usually disarmed, so that you don't have the firepower to easily deal with a shootout when it inevitably happens. Put simply, the stealth is only barely functional and might as well not even have been included.

The undercover "Liberation" mission is the only level that is actually built around stealth.

The only stealth level that worked was the undercover "Liberation" mission with the Marquis (which you mostly play as a different character). ...


As is the case with many kids who grew up in the 80's and 90's, I played many hours of Oregon Trail in the computer labs in elementary school. Some teachers even had to limit how many hours students could spend on that game, so as to make sure we were also playing the other math and language games available.

Now there is a tabletop card game adaptation of the original computer game. It's exclusively available at Target ... and apparently also on Amazon. It retails at $15, but I always seem to see it on sale for $10 or $12. So it's an inexpensive little game.

My seven-year-old proxy-daughter picked out this game for me as a birthday gift. She recognized it from the TV show Teen Titans Go!, which has an episode in which the characters act out the original computer game (and all die, of course). When I asked her what the Oregon Trail is, she responded "Everyone got dysentery.". So I asked if she knows what dysentery is, and she responded "It's where you poop to death." I guess the show has some educational value after all...

More an emergent narrative than an actual game

The game is simple to play. Each player is given a hand of trail cards and supply cards, and there's a stack of "Calamity Cards" that serve as the main challenge for the game. Players take turns playing a trail card from their hand or a supply card. The selected card's trail end must match up with the end point of the trail on the previous card in order for the card to be played. Most trail cards will require some kind of resolution. Some are river fording cards that require the player to roll a die in order to allow the party to proceed past the river or suffer penalties. Some are calamities that require drawing a card from the calamity deck and resolving its effects.

Most calamities can be countered with supply cards, but snake bites and dysentery are instant, unavoidable deaths.

Most calamities are unfortunate effects that require a die roll or a specific supply card to be played. If the effect is not resolved in time, a penalty occurs -- usually the death of the affected player. Some calamity cards (such as the snake bite or ubiquitous dysentery) will even kill a player outright, with no chance to avoid death.

The objective of the game is for the party to successfully pass 50 trail cards to travel from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. It's a purely cooperative game, so if any one surviving party member makes it to Oregon, then the entire group (including the dead players) wins the game.


Ultimate General: Civil War - title

Colbert: Total War Civil War, give it to me!

I've asked on numerous occasion for Creative Assembly to build a Total War game based on the American Civil War. I thought for sure that Total War: Shogun 2's second expansion Fall of the Samurai -- with its focus on industrialization, trains, telegraphs, gatling guns, and ironclads -- was setting the series up for a Civil War game. Sadly, that wasn't the case. Creative Assembly decided to move onto Rome II, then to Attila, before diving into all-out fantasy with -- not one, but two -- Total War: Warhammer games!

I've heard that the Total War: Warhammer games are actually pretty awesome, but I have zero interest in Warhammer, so I skipped them entirely. I'll admit that part of that was also because I was a bit bitter that I still hadn't gotten the Total War: Civil War game that I had wanted. Maybe Creative Assembly, being a studio based in the U.K. simply isn't that interested in the American Civil War? Or maybe they felt that Empire's American Revolution campaign already focused enough on the United States?

Addressing Gettysburg

But even though Creative Assembly isn't giving my that game [yet], there's no shortage of Civil War games from other developers. A few years ago, a little indie dev studio called Game Labs released one such game on Steam: Ultimate General: Gettysburg. It was a $15 budget title exclusively about the battle of Gettysburg. Not the entire Civil War, not battles surrounding or related to Gettysburg. Just Gettysburg. The game was praised for its simple UI, its historic details, and realistic, competitive, and highly-customizable A.I..

I played the game very briefly last year, but never actually finished the single battle provided, nor felt that the game was substantive enough (or that I had played enough of it) to warrant a full review. I was fairly impressed with the difficulty and challenge that the game provided, as well as the way in which it presented the actual history of the battle, while still leaving many individual tactical decisions up to the player.

If I had any complaints with that game, it probably only would have been that its narrow scope made it feel a bit overpriced at $15. I had bought it during a sale, so I didn't feel cheated, but I could easily see other people being upset by paying $15 for (basically) a tech demo of a single battle. $10 or less probably would have been the sweet spot.

Well, it turns out that Ultimate General: Gettysburg was basically a tech demo (and a financing plan) for Game Labs' larger, more ambitious project: Ultimate General: Civil War. The new game's scope encompasses the entire Civil War and includes a full campaign. It also sports a cleaner interface that clearly displays your objectives, better controls, and other improvements.

Ultimate General: Gettysburg - Seminary Ridge
UG: Gettysburg labeled historical points of interest on the map.
When it says, "Fall back to Seminary Ridge", you know exactly where that place is.

Oddly enough, UG: Civil War isn't a strict upgrade from UG: Gettysburg. There's a few features from UG: Gettysburg that have strangely been removed. The original Gettysburg game had some very pretty battlefield artwork that displayed the names of the various locations on the map. Hills, ridges, forests, and even some individual buildings and roads were all labeled with their real-life names! McPherson's Ranch, Culp Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and more are all here. It was an excellent way of providing a sense of place to the player, as well as some historic context. Sadly that feature has been removed from the full Civil War game. I wonder if the developer just didn't have the time or resources to research that level of detail for every battle included. Or maybe it's just because the smaller skirmish sites of battles like Bull Run, Shiloh, and Antietam aren't as infamous as the sites in Gettysburg? Or maybe there were licensing issues with some of the sites, and they decided that if they couldn't include some names, then they'd rather just not include any?

Ultimate General: Gettysburg

The maps of UG: Gettysburg also had a stylized, polished look to them, the movement arrows were bigger and stood out more (and they stayed on screen to remind you of where the units were headed, and to give the game a textbook-like appearance), elevation and line-of-sight were a bit easier to determine, and so on. This isn't to say that UG: Civil War is a particularly ugly game to look at. If you can get past the simplistic unit sprites, then the game still looks fine. It's just that UG: Gettyburg looked noticeably better!

A House Divided Against Itself...

The campaign of Ultimate General: Civil War will take the player through most of the major battles of the American Civil War. Not just Gettysburg. It also includes some optional smaller skirmishes and situations. In between battles, you'll be tasked with spending money and character prestige to replenish your troops, recruit new and larger regiments, equip your troops with better weapons, and assigning officers to command your corps and divisions. As you win battles, you'll be awarded experience levels that you can spend to upgrade your custom general in several different categories. Upgrading your economy skill will lower the cost of troops and provisions. Increasing your organization skill will increase the size of your army. Increasing your training skill will improve the fighting ability of your regiments. And so on...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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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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