Star Trek: New Horizons

Here's something that I've never done before: a review of a game mod! I don't play mods very often. When I play games, I usually want to play the game that the creators created in order to get a feel for what their intent might have been. For some of the more sandboxy PC games that I play (like Cities: Skylines or the like), I might try some small mods.

There has yet to be an official game quite like Microprose's 1999 release, Birth of the Federation.

For this one instance, however, I'm making an exception because this particular mod fills a very specific niche desire for me that has gone unfulfilled for around 15 or 20 years. The "New Horizons" mod for Stellaris is finally allowing me to play a full 4-x strategy game set in the Star Trek universe. I haven't been able to do that since Star Trek: Birth of the Federation, developed by Microprose for Windows 98!

The creators seem to have been inspired by BotF.

Yes, there have been other Star Trek mods for other games in the past, and there's even some community projects to create spiritual successors to Birth of the Federation (such as Star Trek: Supremacy). The problem is that I've yet to ever see one of these get finished. "New Horizons" for Stellaris is still a work-in-progress, but it is mostly functionally complete and fairly robust. Since Birth of the Federation holds such a special place in my heart, I'm going to take a stab at reviewing "New Horizons" and see how it compares to my personal favorite [official] Star Trek game of all time.

Built on the back of Stellaris

"New Horizons" is, of course, a mod for the PC game Stellaris (developed and published by Paradox). Because of this, it takes advantage of most of Stellaris' strengths, but it is also hamstrung by many of Stellaris' faults.

"New Horizons" makes excellent use of the massive size and scale of Stellaris' maps by featuring a detailed recreation of the canon Star Trek galaxy, and including a surprisingly exhaustive roster of Star Trek races and factions -- all of whom are playable. Yes, of course, the big players like the Federation, the Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, Dominion, and Borg are all here. As are all the expected ancillary empires like the Gorn, Tholians, Orions, and so forth.

The playable roster is surprisingly vast and exhaustive.

It doesn't end there, though. This mod also features a crap-ton of "aliens of the week" as fully-featured, playable empires. They aren't "minor races" like what we had in Birth of the Federation or the city states of Civilization V or VI. They don't just have one planet and a handful of ships just waiting for a "major faction" to conquer or absorb them. The obvious choices like the Vulcans, Andorians, Bajorans, are all there. The game also features empires like the Sheliak, Anticans, Selay, Caitian, Cheron, Dosi, Hirogen, Kazon, Krenim, Kelpian, and more! If you have a favorite space-facing civilization from any episode of Star Trek (including Gamma Quadrant aliens from DS9 and Delta Quadrant aliens from Voyager), there is a very good chance that it's a playable faction in "New Horizons"...

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Cities: Skylines: Parklife - title

Parklife is perhaps the single Cities: Skylines expansion that I have most looked forward to. That is because the focus of the expansion seems to be pulled almost verbatim from my own "Great Outdoors" wishlist. I'm not going to take credit for having designed this expansion for Colossal Order, because I posted that wishlist in February, and the game is releasing in May, so unless Colossal Order is supernaturally efficient at creating expansions, there simply wasn't enough time for them to design and implement Parklife after reading that wishlist. It seems like someone in Skylines design is thinking along the same wavelength as me. But who knows? Maybe somebody did see my wishlist and incorporate some elements of my ideas into the development in progress? It's certainly one heck of a coincidence!

Cities: Skylines - amusement park mods
Much of Parklife's content seems inspired by mods.

In any case, it should seem pretty obvious that I'm pleased to see this expansion incorporate so many of my own ideas and suggestions. While Parklife still isn't going to offer the same degree of freedom and creativity that you can get from mods, having these more free-form park-creation and decorative tools should be a welcome addition for anybody who enjoys adding a little more personal flavor to their city. And honestly, is there anyone playing a city-builder who doesn't enjoy making their city look pretty?

A walk in the park

One of the strengths of Cities: Skylines has always been the way that the game utilizes its space and the natural environment. The mechanical limitations of the terraforming tools means that you rarely (if ever) have the money and terrain available to make wholesale changes to the geography of the map. Even if you have a billion dollars saved up in your city's coffers, the fact that every cubic meter of dirt that you excavate has to go somewhere, and every cubic meter of dirt that you dump has to come from somewhere, means that you can only do so much to modify the map. Starting out with a limited budget, small pool of unlocked buildings, and a relatively small plot of land means that young cities often have to work around environmental and natural obstacles, which made those obstacles part of the character of your city. Well now you can actually formally use those obstacles.

Cities: Skylines - resource options
I now have a more meaningful choice of how to utilize this resource-rich mountain.

Parklife allows you to leverage these features of your landscape as part of your city-beautification plans. That mountain that is too big to level, and too steep to realistically build on, can now be turned into a massive park, complete with hiking trails, lookout points, and so forth. If that mountain also happens to have ore or oil resources under it, then now I suddenly have some meaningful choices to make on how to effectively utilize the resources. What used to be a near-obvious matter of "build some mines" actually has some viable alternatives.

Sure, you were always able to place walking paths in places like that, but the game (and the citizens of your city) never really recognized it as a place they can go for leisure and entertainment. If they didn't have to go to work on the other side of that mountain, they simply wouldn't walk those trails. No matter how beautiful you would make it, that mountain-side hiking trail was always little more than useless dead space.

Cities: Skylines - nature preserve
Areas that used to be dead space that was impractical for construction can now be utilized.

That's no longer the case. Every last square meter of your city can now be turned into useful park space if you feel so inclined...

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God of War - title

Vikings and norse mythology seems to have been a popular concept in games recently. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, for instance, is an excellent hack-n-slash adventure through Norse hell. I've also been playing the Wasteland-like RPG Expeditions: Vikings on Steam (which I'm hoping to review soon). I also have games like Mount & Blad: Viking Conquest and Total War: Thrones of Britannia on my short list of games I'd like to play. And there was also the Viking character in For Honor.

Now, Sony's PlayStation flagship God of War has jumped from Greek mythology to Norse mythology. Having killed all the Greek gods, Kratos has apparently settled down in the mythological Midgard with a wife and son, only for his wife to die and his son be attacked by the Norse god Baldr. This sends Kratos and Atreus on a father-son bonding adventure to spread Atreus' mother's ashes from the highest peak in all the realms, and to learn why the Aesir are suddenly keen on hunting them.

Norse mythology seems to be a popular subject in media lately.

A father-son murder team

Atreus has some of the same problems that The Last of Us has with Ellie. Atreus doesn't feel vulnerable enough to demand protection, and he's rarely relevant outside of combat, except for his running commentary about what you're doing. Because of this, the actual game rarely feels like it's about protecting or escorting Atreus. It's just about Kratos throwing axes at draugr, and Atreus occasionally shoots them or jumps on their heads to help you out. The puzzle sections rarely require using Atreus (other than occasionally shooting something with his bow or having him scamper through a small tunnel).

Atreus is basically just an extra ranged attack.

That being said, I think that God of War makes some strides in the right direction (compared to The Last of Us). The player (and Kratos) can command Atreus to attack a target with his bow, which is one of the easiest and most consistent ways to deal stun damage to enemies, which opens them up to an intant-kill attack from Kratos. It's also a strategy that is pretty much essential on the harder difficulties. This creates a much greater sense of playing in tandem with Atreus, as he and Kratos often work together to defeat foes.

Atreus and Kratos can also break each other out of being grappled or stunned. I've never gotten a "Game Over" as a result of Atreus being defeated, so I'm not sure if that's a possible fail state. Being grappled or stunned only seemed to ever temporarily take Atreus out of the fight and negate the ability to use his bow. Either way, this is an improvement over Ellie from The Last of Us, who (as far as I recall) operated entirely independently from Joel, was never at any risk, and could be completely ignored for most of the player's time actually playing the game.

Kratos and Atreus can break each other out of enemy grapples and support each other in combat.

The important take-away here is that, unlike with Ellie in the combat encounters of The Last of Us, I never forgot that Atreus was there when playing God of War...

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Monster Hunter: World - title

I've been playing Monster Hunter: World off-and-on since it was released (which was a few months ago at this point), and I'm still just not sure that I get it yet. The game just hasn't clicked for me. Maybe I haven't invested quite enough time yet. In the past, I've come around to games that initially turned me off with their tedium and/or difficulty. Demon's Souls is perhaps the prime example, as that game took a few days (almost a week) of banging my head against the walls of the Boletarian Palace before things started to click for me. It certainly didn't take months! Once Demon's Souls started to click, the game almost immediately became one of my all-time favorites.

The Demon's Souls comparison is apt. Corners of the internet keep insisting that Monster Hunter: World is a game that should appeal to the same types of players who love Dark Souls (because everybody keeps forgetting that Demon's Souls did it first and better). Well, I'm sorry, but I just don't see how the two connect.

Yeah, there's the difficulty. But Dark Souls isn't good because it's hard. It's good because all the pieces around that central challenge make overcoming that challenge feel worthwhile. It's the world-building, the lore, the way that the obtuse characters and dialogue builds a growing sense of intrigue about the world, the sense of nervously tip-toeing into a dangerous unknown, the sense of leveling your stats into a character build that perfectly suits your desired playstyle, and that ominous sense of entropic dread that permeates every nook and cranny of the game. Those things make Dark Souls good! Those sorts of things are lacking in Monster Hunter: World.

The JRPG nonsense that usually turns me off of JRPGs

Sadly, Monster Hunter: World is bogged down by a lot of the kinds of JRPG nonsense that has frequently turned me off of playing these sorts of games. While I often appreciate that JRPGs tend to be more story and character-driven (something that I often wish western RPGs would focus more on), JRPGs also tend to undercut the seriousness of the stories they're trying to tell with lots of silliness and whimsy. Sometimes it's charming or endearing; other times it's juvenile or obnoxious.

You can track monsters by following their footprints or by studying their snot and turds.

I can tolerate this game's silly little cat side kicks. Monster Hunter's whimsical fantasy setting works well enough. What is less tolerable is that the game is littered with tedious, grindy, time-killer quests: harvest so many mushrooms, investigate a bunch of dinosaur footprints and [literal] crap, kill however many small monsters, capture yet more small monsters. and yadda yadda yadda. I guess, at a certain level, these activities make a certain amount of sense. Your character is, after all, one grunt in a whole army of grunt hunters being sent out to do the dirty work of the captains. But I have better things to do in real life than to wander around a forest picking flowers for 50 minutes.

Monster Hunter is loaded with grind quests.

Some of these sorts of quests are relegated to little ambient side-quests that you can perform while you're doing other major missions. These are the ones that are tolerable. Others (like the Investigations and other tangential story quests) require you to perform dedicated ingredient-gathering grind missions, in which the sole purpose of the mission is to fight monsters you've already fought and collect a bunch of stuff. Since my character doesn't have traditional stats or levels that improve as I complete these quests, the grinding just never really feels worth it.

I was hoping that I could just power through the main quests and skip all the tedious grind stuff. No such luck. I got to a point where I had to hunt the T-Rex-like Anjanath, and got stuck...

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Stellaris - title

Last year, after my initial enthusiasm for Civilization VI began petering out (until the announcement of the expansion), I went on a bit of a space-4x bender. I spent some time with the rebooted Master of Orion. It was good, but I was underwhelmed by its limited scale and casual depth. I also planned on hitting up Endless Space 2. I played the first Endless Space briefly off-and-on, and I liked it, but kept getting diverted to other games and projects and never really allowed myself the time to get comfortable with the game.

But first, before diving into Engless Space 2, I wanted to tackle a game that's been in my library for over a year: Stellaris. This is an epic, space 4x strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive -- the same developer who brought us the infamously complex and detailed Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings series.

A gentler learning curve than Europa Universalis

I was hesitant to try Stellaris because of its relationship to Europa Universalis (and its notorious complexity), but I was surprised to find that Stellaris has a bit of a gentler learning curve. Instead of starting you out "in median res" with a developed European kingdom with armies already mobilized, alliances and rivalries already in place, and wars already in progress, Stellaris starts you out in control of a single planet in a single star system, with just a small fleet of corvettes, a construction ship, and a science ship at your disposal. You send your science ship to explore the other planets in your system, then on to the nearest star, and slowly explore from there at a much more comfortable pace that is akin to a game like Civilization or Master of Orion. Unlike with Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, I didn't feel like I needed to sit down with a history textbook in order to know what was going on at the start of my game.

You start the game with a single science ship to explore your own star system, and work your way out from there.

Don't let this initial apparent simplicity fool you. Stellaris is still quite deep, quite complex, and the galaxy that you'll explore really does feel vast. While the Master of Orion reboot has galaxies with a mere dozens of stars (very few of which contain more than one or two planets), Stellaris features a default galaxy size consisting of hundreds of stars, most with their own planets, which might (in turn) contain moons.

There's still going to be some trial and error, as you'll make a lot of mistakes and miss a lot of opportunities in your first few games. If you left the "ironman" mode disabled, then you'll at least be free to re-load earlier saves and try to play better if anything goes horribly wrong. However, Paradox throws a bit of a curve ball at players by disabling achievements if you disable ironman mode. You won't stumble into achievements in your learning game(s) or by save-scumming; you'll have to earn them in the Ironman mode!

You also won't be able to manually save while in Ironman mode. You have to wait for the game to perform an auto-save (which I think happens every few in-game months, or maybe every year?). This can be very annoying if you don't notice the "saving game" popup and don't know if the game has saved your most recent actions. It's fine to include a single save file for this mode, but they could at least include a "Save and Exit" option in the pause menu!

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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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