Dawn of Man - title

From what I've read, Madruga's indie management sim Dawn of Man has proven to be far more successful than the developers had ever imagined. The game made it onto Steam's top-sellers list the month that it released and was a surprise hit. I've actually had the game on my radar for quite some time. I saw a preview for it back in mid 2018 in a YouTube video about "upcoming strategy games for 2019". I watch those from time to time to see if any new games are coming out in the niche genres that I enjoy -- like city-builders, strategy games, and horror games.

My two favorite PC games are the Civilization games and city-builders like Cities: Skylines, so a management sim / city-builder set during the stone, bronze, and iron ages seemed right up my alley.

A prehistoric city-builder is an idea that is right up my alley!

Like any good management sim or city-builder, Dawn of Man has a "one-more-season" addictiveness that kept me playing into the wee hours of the morning trying to balance my food stockpiles and finish that next set of construction projects before saving and quitting. I'd tell myself that I'd play it for an hour or two, then switch to Sekiro, or work on a Civilization strategy guide, but five hours later, I'd be building palisades and watchtowers to protect my little neolithic farming village from plundering raiders, or sending an expedition halfway across the map to hunt one of the last few remaining wholly mammoths.

Learning by doing

You start the game as a small group of 7 paleolithic humans (half of which are children) living in a handful of animal skin tents. You hunt animals, gather sticks and stones, pick berries and nuts, craft simple tools, and eventually expand your handful of tents into a bronze or iron age city -- complete with walls and an army.

Your progress through the eras is governed by the accumulation of knowledge points. These knowledge points are gained by completing certain tasks or milestones within the game. Your people effectively learn by doing, and through repetition. Each "first" within the game will earn a knowledge point. Build your first hut: gain a knowledge point. Hunt your first deer: gain a knowledge point. Craft your first composite spear: gain a knowledge point. Plant your first crops: gain a knowledge point. And so on.

You accumulate knowledge points by
completing in-game tasks or milestones.

After that, you gain further knowledge points by repeating certain tasks or stockpiling certain resources. Crafting 10 bows will be another knowledge point. Drying and curing 100 units of meat would be another knowledge point. And so on.

You're constantly and gradually earning new knowledge. You can turn in lump sums of these knowledge points for new technologies in a technology tree.

I like this mechanism of "learning by doing". There is no place-it-and-forget-it "research" building or school that passively accumulates knowledge points like what you might see in other strategy games like Civilization. Learning is an active process for your little simulated people, even though most of your knowledge points will come from activities that are automated anyway.

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Observation - title

It's real refreshing to come across a science fiction game that isn't just about shooting aliens with laser guns or blowing up space ships. If you're in the market for a thoughtful, well-presented science fiction experience, then I highly recommend that you check out Observation. If you're also into horror, then even better, because this game definitely has some horror elements as well. They're much more subdued, but this game does do a fantastic job of creating a building sense of tension and intrigue as its over-arching mystery is slowly unfurled.

The gimmick here is that you play as a malfunctioning artificial intelligence on a near-future orbital research station. The game is presented as a sort-of found-footage narrative (think along the lines of the Apollo 18 horror movie) told entirely from the point of view of the on-board A.I. Something goes wrong, the crew are all missing and possibly dead, and you help the sole survivor try to find the remaining crew and piece together what happened to the station. Think along the lines of playing as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Kevin Spacey's character in the [fantastic] movie Moon. You do this by jumping between different surveillance cameras (a la Five Nights at Freddy's, but, you know, with ambitions of being more than just a random jump-scare-generator). Through the cameras, you interact with various technology and station systems within your line of sight. You'll occasionally be asked questions or given commands by the surviving astronaut, and you chose how to respond.

You are an unreliable A.I.?

From the start, there's a certain degree of unreliable narrator going on. One of the very first actions that the game asks you to do is verify the identify of the surviving astronaut via her voice print. You are initially told that her voice print does not match, and you're given the option to accept or reject her voice print. If you reject, she'll repeat her authorization code, and you'll be told that it matches this time. Is she not who she seems? Are your own systems providing you with misleading information? Are your systems merely damaged? This creates an immediate sense of distrust. You (the player) don't necessarily trust the survivor, the survivor doesn't necessarily trust you, and you can't even trust your own perception and judgement.

From the start, it's unclear whether you can trust Emma, or whether she can trust you...

This immediately creates a dense atmosphere of intrigue and mystery and sets a level of tension that persists through the entire game.

This atmosphere is helped by the richly-detailed near-future space station that you inhabit. The visuals are immaculately detailed, and the station looks and feels like it could be modeled after the real-life International Space Station. The spaces are tight and claustrophobic. Accessories and stationary are strapped or velcroed to the walls, floors, ceiling, and desk surfaces in order to prevent them from floating off in the zero-gravity environment. Everything is believable.

The game further builds its atmosphere with its immersive U.I.. Every button press, command, and interaction has some in-universe context behind it that helps to keep you in the mind-space of your A.I. character. The U.I. is mostly easy to use, and most actions feel intuitive.

This game hooked me in with its setting and atmosphere, and I just had to keep playing to find out what happened and where this would go!

The space station and U.I. are believable and immersive.

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I was inspired a few weeks ago by a Twitter post from Ryan Moody (@ShutdownSafety), who asked why people are being so negative about football video gaming, and why people aren't making content. Well, I decided that I'd make some content sharing some of my optimism about the future of football video gaming in the next few years. I posted a video to my YouTube channel, but loyal blog readers can read the full transcription here.

YouTube: Will 2020 be a good year for football video games?

Football video games have been in a rut for a while now. The exclusivity deal between the NFL and EA didn't only kill NFL 2k series, it also may have killed the NFL Gameday, NFL Fever, NFL Blitz, and other series as well, some of which had game releases as late as 2004. All Pro Football 2k8 is now eleven years old. Backbreaker came and went nine years ago, leaving EA as the only major publisher still making football video games. EA's own NCAA Football series is now in the fifth year of its hiatus (the optimist in me still prefers to use the term "hiatus" instead of "cancellation"). This has all left football video gamers with nothing but mediocre Madden releases for years.

EA's NFL exclusivity may have put the final nail in the coffin for other games besides just NFL 2k.

All that being said, I am actually very optimistic about football video gaming come 2020 or 2021.

New indie games on the market

First and foremost, Madden's 5-year complete monopoly on consoles was broken this year with the releases of Canuck Play's Maximum Football 2018 and Axis Games' Axis Football 18. For the first time since 2013, there are football games on consoles not called Madden, and for the first time since 2009, there are football games on consoles that are not published by EA.

So why do I still consider football gaming to be in a rut?

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Axis Football 18 - title

This is the one indie football game that I was most looking forward to. Unfortunately, it is also the one that ended up being delayed almost to the point of irrelevancy -- at least on consoles. The game did see a PC release on Steam in September, but the console versions had to wait until much longer. The XBox One release didn't make it out until after Thanksgiving. The PS4 release had to wait even longer, not seeing a release till after Christmas! I was trying to hold out for the PS4 release, but the college season was coming to a close, the NFL was well into its second half, and I was jonesing for some football gameplay. I ended up buying the Steam version when it went on sale (only a couple bucks off) for Black Friday.

Many football fans probably gave up on the season long before Axis Football showed up on storefronts.

If they want to be successful in the future, Axis is going to need to make sure that they get their game out on time! In fact, they should probably follow Canuck Play's Maximum Football and try to release before Madden hits shelves, and thus capitalizing on the period of greatest excitement and anticipation for the football season. Being delayed until after Thanksgiving on consoles surely hurt Axis' chance at success. I'm sure Lions, Bills, Raiders, and ... yes ... UNLV fans have long-since given up on the football season and may have also lost interest in playing football video games.

I still hope that Axis sees decent sales on all platforms. Hopefully, Axis has learned lessons about the certification and release process so that they can get their game out on time next year. Hopefully they can also spend less time going through certification, and more time working on ironing out the rough edges on this game. Axis is definitely a more feature-complete product than its direct competitor (Maximum Football), but its on-field gameplay might lag a little behind Maximum in some areas. And both games are light-years behind Madden.

Third and long

There's a screen-shake to accompany tackles and make the action look more visceral. It's ironic, however, when this shake accompanies a tackle animation in which the tackler didn't actually collide with the runner. Simply grazing a defender can often cause the runner to fall to the ground. This can sometimes happen with a couple yards of separation between the tackler and runner, and sometimes even with the tackler on the opposite side of a blocker. I also see defenders shift through blockers, such that the blocker is behind the defender, yet the blocking animation continues as normal.

Runners are frequently tackled without actually colliding with a defender,
or the defender phases through the runner and misses the tackle.

The game also lacks a robust set of catching animations for receivers, or swat animations for defenders in coverage. Many passes feel like a crap shoot because the receiver and cover man both stand there waiting for the ball, and it could be a completion, and interception, or a drop, without any real appropriate animations playing to accompany the action. Players don't seem able to jump or dive for passes. They just kind of put their arms out, and the ball either hits them (in which case, it's still random whether it's caught or dropped), or it misses.

There's also no blocking or block-breaking animations. Linemen and defenders just kind of magnetically attack to one another until the block is broken. At that point, the defender just kind of steps away from the lineman with there not really being any indication that the two of them had ever interacted at all. There's no hand-swatting, or jostling, or swim / rip moves, or anything.

Receivers and defenders don't put much effort into catching or swatting balls in the air.

More generally, the game is in desperate need of a better locomotion system. Players don't feel like they have much weight. It takes a moment for a player to get up to speed, but once at top speed, they can cut, change direction, and go in circles without much (if any) loss of speed or momentum. In general, players feel like they're skating rather than running. Axis' controls feel less jerky and more fluid than with Maximum Football, but Maximum's players at least feel slightly more tethered to the ground.

Even though the on-field play has a lot of problems, at least it is never taking control away from me in order to play scripted animations. Aside from the crap shoot that is catching passes, I always feel very in-control of my player, and most mistakes are on me.

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Maximum Football 2018 - title

We finally have some competition in the football video game sector! Canadian developer Canuck Play recently released PS4 and XBox One versions of its Maximum Football 2018 game. Canuck Play is a small, independent studio with limited staff. In fact, I couldn't find a count of how many employees or developers they have, so as far as I can tell, the whole game was developed by one guy: David Winter. The fact that he could single-handedly put together a functioning football game is, itself, a pretty impressive feat. I wish I had the time and drive to do what he's accomplished.

Maximum Football 2018 is a $17 budget title, so I went into it with pretty low expectations -- as should you. I bought it because I want to support indie developers, and I would love for Canuck Play to eventually grow into a studio with the skill and manpower to challenge Madden. I'm not going to lie though, Maximum Football is not there yet. Not even close.

How do I even play Canadian football?

Being a United States resident and fan of NFL and NCAA college football, I admit that I have only a passing familiarity with some of the rules variations of Canadian football. There was a Canadian football team in my home town for a couple years (the Las Vegas Posse), and my dad and I did attend the games. I remember the basic differences like there being twelve players on each team instead of eleven, three downs instead of four (which encouraged more passing), more generous backfield motion rules, 50+ yard field goals being worth four points instead of three, and a longer field and deeper end zone. But there are a lot of other rules changes that I don't know, and even in the cases of the rules that I do know, I do not understand the strategic nuances of playing under those rules.

Canadian football has some significant rule variation that I don't know the strategy for.

As such, I was very disappointed to see that Maximum Football 2018, which is a Canadian football game, does not include any sort of tutorial or training mode (that I could find). There is an option in the settings menu that allows the game to automatically snap the ball for you after the pre-play motion(s) are complete, but there's nothing in the game that explains how these motions are supposed to work, or how the offense is supposed to utilize them. There's no in-game commentary to possibly provide the player with any insight into the intricacies of Canadian football. Not even so much as some splash screens with some diagrams and explanations. There is a practice mode in which you can test out the playbooks, but you'll have to learn everything through trial and error.

The waggle concept allows multiple offensive players to go in motion before the snap.

To compound this issue, the game lacks explanations for some of its own mechanics and conventions. Receiver routes are highlighted in up to five different colors: red, yellow, blue, white, and sometimes green. What do these colors mean? I assume that one of them is supposed to be the primary receiver and one is supposed to be the hot receiver. So what do the other two colors mean? Are they supposed to represent the QB's receiver progression? If so, then in which order am I supposed to read them? Do they represent the types of motion that they perform before the snap? If so, then it would be nice to have an explanation of how these motion concepts work.

What do all these colors mean?

It doesn't get any better on the defensive side of the ball. Heck, it gets worse. There's no pre-snap defensive play art at all, nor is there any defensive player assist. You're stuck having to decipher the small play art that is shown in the play-selection screen. You have to remember the assignment of whichever defender you happen to select, then fulfill that job completely manually without any in-game indicator of what the player's assignment actually is. The safest options, therefore, are to always select a defensive lineman (despite there not being any controls or mechanics for breaking blocks or steering blockers), or play a safety in zone coverage (if you can actually figure out which safety is in zone coverage).

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A gamer's thoughts

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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