In between games of Madden 17, I need something to tide me over until the release of Civilization VI consumes my life at the end of October. As such, I did what I usually do in these situations, and I dove into my Steam backlog to look for something that's been sitting around, unplayed, for a couple years. Usually, I try to find some short games like This War of Mine or Papers, Please. I try to avoid the bigger games because they can end up consuming more of my time than I want them to, and if I jump to something else, then I may not go back to such a game to give it a fair chance. Sorry, Master of Orion, Endless Legend, and Endless Space 2, you'll all have to wait until after my upcoming Civ VI bender before I can give any of you a fair chance. That being said, I decided to take a risk and try out a city-builder that I've had sitting around for awhile. I love city-builders, and so this could easily have dragged on for weeks or months, but I hoped that the narrow scope of this game would mean that it wouldn't take as long to get my fill of it.

Banished is a game that offers unforgiving tough love. I feel like this game is the "Oregon Trail" of city-builders, and it's enjoyable as a challenging game of resource management. Unfortunately, it isn't exactly the best at explaining itself, and so it requires a lot of trial and error in order to get going. There's a lot of cycles of cascading success or failure, so you'll likely be restarting your games multiple times before you get anything remotely close to a sizable village. I would also advise that you try to keep multiple save states for your early cities so that if you make a small mistake that starts to spiral into catastrophe, you can reload and fix it without having to restart the entire game.

The tutorial explains a lot of the basic functionality of the buildings, but it never really addresses how to get the most out of these buildings. This results in an unnecessarily high learning curve and bar of entry as you try to stumble upon the optimal placements and uses of buildings. I kept making little mistakes that had big repercussions that forced me into restarting my very first game multiple times - even going so far as to save the random map seed so that I could restart in the same map and try different approaches to some things.

Banished - sub-optimal settlement
I had to iterate through some sub-optimal building placements before stumbling upon a viable city.

An example of a small misstep that crippled a game was that I built a farm that overlapped slightly with a single tree in one corner. Normally, farms are created as soon as you finish zoning them, and you simply have to select which crop to plant and assign workers to work it. But if there are any rocks or trees, then you must first remove them in order for the farm field to be built (like with any other building). So while I waited for some laborers to come chop down the trees (uncertain why nobody was bothering to cut down that one fracking tree!) spring passed and the window for planting closed. So the farm went un-used for the rest of the year, I had no crops saved up, and several adults and children died, leaving my village under-staffed for the following year. So I restarted and placed my farm entirely in an open field, planted during the first spring, and collected a healthy reserve of wheat to keep all my villagers fed through the winter...

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A few months ago, I wrote a blog piece about suggestions to expand Madden 16's feature set to make the game a deeper, more realistic depiction of the management of an NFL team. This year's Madden game has proven to be a much better game than the previous few years, and I actually have found myself playing it well into the new year. As such, I've also been coming across new, nagging annoyances, and new ideas for features and enhancements. Most notably, I finally got to play through a complete off-season, and I have several ideas for how offseason can be improved in future years of Madden.

So I've decided to write a follow-up piece with more suggestions for future games. This article will focus on off-season activities. In order to keep things clean and concise, I've also made a few changes to the original post as well. I wanted to keep specific topics grouped together. There's also less to talk about in this new post, so I've moved the "Little Things" section from the original post into this article in order to shorten the original post and pad this one out to about the same length. I've also made some small revisions and clarifications in the original post, so I highly recommend re-visiting that post to see the changes.

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I've been really dismayed by the focus that EA has placed on its Ultimate Team feature in the past couple years of Madden releases. I've made my distaste known in my reviews of both 16 and 15. With the NCAA football series dead due to the revocation of the license, Madden is all we have. I feel like the best thing for me to do at this point is to just give up, since it seems that EA has no interest in appealing to the small demographic of simulation die-hards to which I belong. Instead, they want to keep their model of annual releases that force people to have to give up their established decks of Ultimate Team cards so that they can spend more money on micro-DLC to buy the credits necessary to rebuild their collection.

But as cynical as my reviews can be, I don't want to give up on football gaming. I love football, and I love gaming, and I want to continue to be able to enjoy the union of the two. And right now, Madden is the only way that I can do that.

So I'm going to take some time to write up a wishlist of the kind of features that I want - no expect - a modern football game to include. Some of them are new features that football games have never attempted. Others are ones that previous games just never got right. And still others might be things that were present in earlier games, worked just fine, but have been inexplicably removed to make room for less worthwhile features.

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One of the most glaring problems with Madden for many years now has been the passivity of offensive receivers. They've been completely unwilling to make any effort to track the ball in the air and go up and get it. Often, underthrown balls would be easily intercepted because receivers would mindlessly run their route and never make an effort to come back towards the ball to catch it. This, combined with defensive backs who always had eyes in the backs of their heads, lead to a lot of interceptions and a very frustrating experience in the passing game. This year's Madden finally makes some effort to address this problem, and I honestly thought that this might finally be the year in which things started to really come together for this series. I wasn't expecting Madden 16 to suddenly be the NFL 2k5 of our generation, but I was at least expecting to see a product that felt more complete, in which all the areas of on-field action seemed - at the very least - to be competent.

Madden NFL 16 - catching
Long-standing problems with passing, catching, and pass defense were points of emphasis this year.

But as the summer went on, and all I ever heard about was some silly new "Draft Champions" mode that sounded like a half-assed fantasy football season, I really started to lose any hope and excitement that I had. Normally, I'd buy Madden used in order to keep my money out of EA's greedy hands. Fortunately for EA, the first two stores that I went to were sold out of Until Dawn, so I decided to go ahead and splurg on Madden so that I'd have something to do that weekend.

The mandatory tutorial featuring a hypothetical Super Bowl 50 rematch between the Steelers and Cardinals is an absolute train wreck. A handful of players recorded unbelievably cheesy dialogue for this sequence that seemed to imply that this year's Madden was going to put some emphasis on the personalities of the players and include some smack talk (the kind of thing that Madden '05's "Storylines" feature was going for). I thought it was weird that I hadn't heard anything about this in any of the promotional material or previews. It seemed uncharacteristic for Madden and contradictory to the NFL's careful regulation of the public image of the league.

The tutorial proceeded to force me through a series of intolerably-scripted plays and highlights of its fictitious Super Bowl in an attempt to clumsily introduce me to its new passing and catching mechanics. This tutorial is ugly to watch, painful to listen to, is terrible at teaching the new mechanics, and is blatantly unrepresentative of the actual game content.

I hadn't even finished the tutorial or made it to the game's main menu yet, and I was already suffering buyer's remorse.

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Madden NFL 16 - drafting Randall Cunningham
Historic players can be drafted.

Ultimate Team fantasy draft

My feelings of buyer's remorse only grew as I looked through the new features and menu options.

There seems to be a bigger and bigger push towards Madden being an elaborately-crafted system of fantasy football. I already thought that Ultimate Team was trending painfully in that direction. As silly as I think that feature is, Madden players seem to love it - so much so that EA has decided to add another fantasy football-inspired game mode: Draft Champions. As always, all EA's efforts seem to be in trying to make Madden as "game-y" as possible instead of making any efforts to emulate the deeper strategy and nuance of real football. Ultimate Team, and now Draft Champions, are the ultimate expression of that.

Draft Champions is a modified 15-round fantasy draft in which you select from one of three available players in each round. You start by selecting a coach, which grants you a specific offensive and defensive play style for you team, and so you want to try to get players that best fit into those schemes - if you're lucky enough to be offered any. In the final round, you also get to chose one of three Hall of Fame historical players, such as Randall Cunningham or Rod Woodson. Once the draft is done, you play a sudden-death "season" of three games. One loss, and you're done.

I complained about the rushed pacing of games in Madden 15, but the "games" in Draft Champions are only half that time! Three minutes in a quarter is not enough time to play football at all. The game even taunts you by forcing you to have to chose a coach and team style in the first round, and you'd have to be masochistic to chose anything other than "long pass" or "medium pass". Chosing "ground and pound" was barely viable with six minute quarter; it's virtually pointless with three minute quarters. A twelve minute game isn't long enough to establish any kind of "pounding" running game. All you have to do is listen to the commentary to hear how screwed up such a fast game is. Every game, the commentators talk about how it's been a "defensive battle" going into the two-minute warning or halftime - because one team had the ball for the entire half! It's nonsense!

Madden NFL 16 - Draft Champions Rod Woodson
Draft Champions might be more worthwhile if you got to keep some of the players you drafted and add them to MUT.

I'll grant this to the game: the second two Draft Champion games are very tense. The short time time frame and insta-death nature of the mode means you have to play virtually perfectly. Of course, that's to be expected when you start the game in a four-minute drill.

And what do you get for your effort? What reward is worth this idiotic waste of time? You get some PSN trohies / XBox Live achievements, and some packs of Ultimate Team cards (most of which are just redeemable for points to buy other cards). You don't even get to keep the cards that you drafted in Champions mode - just random packs. Eventually, after you beat Draft Champions enough times, you get some elite MUT cards. Oooh... [hand waving] Why is Draft Champions even its own mode on the main menu? Why isn't it just an option in the MUT menu? It's basically just a fantasy draft and preseason for MUT, but you don't even get to keep the players! So what's the point?!

The question that I'm left with is: has Madden jumped the shark? Is this the point where I have to just give up on the idea that EA will ever want to pull Madden back to its simulation football roots? Has it so completely diverged from what I expect from an NFL-licensed football game that I just can't take it seriously anymore as an NFL-licensed football game? I'm tempted to just not even bother with the rest of this review if this is the kind of trash that EA is going to waste their time with. If EA thinks that this is the way of the future for football gaming, then I want no part of it.

But, for old times sake, I guess I can go over the actual football parts of the game, give it at least one more stab at being taken seriously, so click here to read the rest of the review...

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Cities XXL - game title

So right off the bat, Cities XXL is not substantially different from its predecessor (Cities XL). In my time with the game so far, I've only encountered two new features. Everything else, right down to the buildings available and the game interface, are unchanged. XXL hardly deserves to be called a sequel or sold as a new game. It's a content patch, and not even a very good one.

But on the upside, since I never got around to reviewing the original Cities XL, I can just roll them both into one review!

Cities XL - box art Cities XXL - box art
This review will cover both Cities XL, and Cities XXL because they're practically the same game.

When I first started playing Cities XL a few years ago, I was really impressed with it. I hadn't really played any modern city-builder games since SimCity 4, and so the jump to 3-D graphics, the ability to draw curved roads, and the sheer size of the maps was enough to win me over initially. But as I've played the game more, it's limitations and weaknesses have become much more apparent and hard to ignore. This is especially true in the game's interface and controls, which are very rough and full of nagging annoyances. When compared to the much smoother and organic controls of games like Tropico 5, the modern [disastrous] SimCity reboot, and even older games like Caesar IV, Cities XL really starts to look bad.

The biggest deterrent to enjoying Cities XL is its UI and controls. There's nothing that really single-handedly breaks the game, but there's a cacaphony of small, nagging problems that gradually wear down your resolve to play the game. The first thing that you'll notice is the ugly and disorganized interface. There are buttons and widgets floating all over the screen: build icons, overlay toggles, camera control widgets, zoning sub-controls, and so on. You can customize some of the UI elements by dragging them to different places on the screen, but there is no arrangement that really feels comfortable.

Charts, graphs, and table widgets are also ugly and difficult to read or understand, so I rarely use them. There's a lot of depth of information in these widgets, but they are just so poorly designed as to be nearly un-useable. And while some info-widgets show a great degree of granularity and precision, others are oddly abstracted. For example, shops and industrial buildings say that they require a "medium" number of workers of various classes, but they don't specify exactly how many employees they require. I assume that "low", "medium", and "high" correspond to the respective sizes of the residential zones, but I don't know for sure.

Cities XXL - closed office building
This office building had to close before I found out why it was unsatisfied.

Feedback in general is one of the game's weaknesses. The "satisfaction" level of buildings are all shown as colored circles rather than actual numbers. Those colored circles that indicate the satisfaction level of a building can be highlighted to show the percentage of satisfaction, but it won't necessarily give any indicators as to what is influencing that percentage...

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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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