Humankind - title

It's going to be virtually impossible to review Humankind without frequently comparing it to iterations of Sid Meier's Civilization. Civ has absolutely dominated (and almost completely monopolized) the historical turn-based strategy genre. There have been plenty of space and sci-fi-themed 4x strategy games, ranging from Master of Orion, to Galactic Civilizations, to Stellaris, and even Amplitude's own Endless Space; but not a whole lot in the more Earth-bound sub-genre. I've also been a huge Civ fan (as the readers of my blog can no doubt tell), so it's hard for me to look at any game in this genre and not partially judge it through the lense of comparing it to Civ.

So I'm not even going to pretend to judge Humankind strictly on its own merits, in a vacuum. I simply can't. I'm not sure if anyone can. Amplitude, as a company, clearly looked to Civ for inspiration, took lessons from the successes and failures of its previous strategy games, and said "hey, we want a piece of that pie too." But despite the surface-level comparisons to Civ, Amplitude takes a very different approach to game design. While Civ has always been very firmly rooted as a "digital board game", Humankind takes a much more story-driven and "simulationist" approach, akin to the sort of thing that you might see in a game like Crusader Kings. I think this approach works, and it does a good job of separating Humankind from Civilization.

Culture wars

Perhaps the biggest deviation that Humankind makes from Sid Meier's Civilization is the way that it handles the game's civilizations themselves. In Humankind, you don't play as a single civilization throughout an entire campaign. Instead, each era you have the opportunity to select a new culture from a list of era-specific cultures. I like this concept a lot in principle, but also have some misgivings about the way it works out in practice.

Empires transition into a new culture at the start of each era.

On the one hand, it's great to see a game like this recognize the fact that civilizations aren't singular, monolithic cultures that exist forever, unless they are conquered or die off completely. That gaming paradigm (which Civ has always embraced) ignores the reality that cultures change and evolve over time. They change with the times, and blend elements from other neighboring cultures. And even if a nation or empire falls or collapses, it doesn't just disappear off the face of the planet overnight. It's people get absorbed into whatever nation or empire replaces it, and those people continue to influence the development of that new culture.

But this isn't exactly how Humankind works. The cultures of the game don't gradually transition or evolve due to social, economic, political, or geographic pressures and influences. Instead, at arbitrary points throughout the game, each empire completely changes its culture in a single game turn. And you aren't locked into choosing a related or similar culture either. You can pick any culture that is still available from the given era, no matter how separated that new culture might be from your old culture -- whether that be geographic separation, ideological separation, or even racial separation. I can be Greek one turn, and then suddenly be Aztec the next, and be Khmer the following era.

I was hoping for a system in which players would have to select from a list of related cultures when transitioning into a new era. For example, I was imagining that being Classical Romans means that, when the medieval era hits, I would have to chose between a related culture like Byzantine, Holy Roman, Ostrogothic, Franks, or Papal States. Then, depending on which I picked, my culture would continue to shift to another related culture in the following era. For example, if I picked Byzantine as my medieval successor to Rome, then my early modern culture choices would be things along the lines of the Ottomans or Orthodox Rus; whereas, if I had gone with the Papal States or Holy Roman Empire, then my choices would be things like Venetian, German, or French.

Changing cultures each era is no more silly than ancient
Abraham Lincoln leading ancient America in a bear-skin hat.

Instead, these transitions from one culture to another over the span of a single turn can be very jarring in Humankind. But I guess it's no less jarring than seeing an ancient era Abraham Lincoln leading America in 4000 B.C.E. while wearing his silly bearskin tophat.

I hope that if Humankind gets expansions, that those expansions will modify this culture-changing mechanic so that there are more cultures available each era, but your choices are limited to cultures that are related to the one you were playing in the previous era. Maybe it costs influence (or maybe even fame) to change cultures, and changing to an un-related culture costs more than changing to a closely related one. I know it can be difficult to find such examples of related offshoots for every possible culture, especially for cultures that were conquered or died off in real life, but I think it's a solvable problem.

It's easy to come up with possible successors to the Roman Empire, because every culture in Europe and Asia Minor seemed to claim succession from Rome. It's a lot harder to come up with related successors to culture like the Aztecs or Maya, and it would seem insensitive or outright offensive to limit the choice of succession to the colonial European cultures that had conquered or massacred them in real history. But there are options. In the case of the Maya or Aztecs, successor options could include cultures like the various Pueblo or Navajo cultures, but I admit that's kind of a stretch.

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I don't think that Capcom and Naughty Dog realized just how topical their 2020 releases of Resident Evil 3 and The Last Of Us Part 2 would turn out to be. Both games were released in the spring and summer, as a strange novel coronavirus (believed to have jumped from Chinese bats to people) began to spread within the United States and the rest of the world. Both games are about zombie apocalypses, and were released at a time in which large portions of the global economy had been shut down, and residents were expected to essentially shelter in place in their homes for weeks or months to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The 2020 pandemic (which is still ongoing 18 months later, despite the widespread availability of multiple vaccines), provided me with some unexpected context on these two games.

Check out the video essay version of this post on YouTube.

Both games are zombie apocalypse games, and zombie fiction is often based around fears and anxieties of societal collapse in one form or another. The original Night Of The Living Dead channeled the anxieties of nuclear Armageddon, and filtered them through the lenses of both McCarthy era Communist witch-hunts and a degree of racial tension. George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead channeled fears that consumerist culture would lead to toxic behavior that is not only self-destructive to the individual, but also to society at large. Zombies in other fiction might represent anxieties about racism, sexism, socialism, technology gone amok, and so forth.

Zombie fiction is usually inspired by contemporary fears surrounding societal collapse.

Video game zombies are no different, and they can represent any of those anxieties from a simple narrative standpoint. Because games are an interactive experience, zombie games can even explore anxieties about a loss of individual autonomy in ways that non-interactive media would struggle to approach. But I'm not here right now to talk about zombie games in general. I want to talk specifically about the pare of blockbuster zombie games that released last year, during the height of a real-life pandemic.

Both Last of Us games express concerns about the increasingly myopic "us and them" mentality in American culture and politics and the apparent inability of many people to empathize with others and see their point of view -- or even their humanity. And Resident Evil, as a series, channels anxieties about the self-destructive nature of the corporate desire to make profit at all costs, and then use their vast wealth and lobbying power to cover up their unethical activities.

Regardless of the messages intended by the developers, playing both of these games in 2020 made it really hard for me to not look at them both through the lenses of my own anxieties about the contemporary pandemic situation that we saw (and continue to see) ourselves in. It was a situation that neither game's developers could have foreseen (even though scientists, public health experts, and futurists have been sounding the alarm bells for the inevitability of pandemics in our increasingly globalized world). Anyway, since neither Capcom nor Naughty Dog could foresee that the games would launch in the middle of a real-world pandemic, they didn't really design their games around the ideas and anxieties of a real-life pandemic, and I think that shows through clearly in both games.

Neither REmake3 nor The Last of Us 2 are really about the pandemics of their settings.

After all, it would be so much easier to deal with a pandemic if we could clearly see the spread of the disease in the way that characters can in Resident Evil and The Last of Us. It would be so easy to isolate and quarantine individuals if infection caused their skin to almost immediately start rotting, or if we could see with our naked eyes the little coronaviruses coming out of people's mouths and noses when they cough, sneeze, or breath. And it would be so much easier if the disease itself were only transmitted between people through invasive physical contact such as a bite. But none of that is true in this real-life COVID pandemic. In light of a real-world pandemic, it seems almost silly that the fictional pandemics of Resident Evil and The Last Of Us could possibly lead to such widespread societal collapse, and the pandemic itself is of little concern to the player.

To be clear, what follows represents my personal contextualization from playing Resident Evil 3 and The Last of Us Part II during the COVID pandemic. These impressions do not represent my opinions on the actual quality of the games on their own merits. You can check out my reviews of both games, or check out my video on the "Lessons Capcom Learned for Resident Evil 3". I understand that neither game is about the pandemic. All I'm saying is that having played them during a pandemic highlighted just how not about the pandemic they actually are.

The lessons Capcom learned for Resident Evil 3.

Needless to say, there will be some minor spoilers for Resident Evil 3 (remake) and both Last of Us games. There will also be some spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V and Death Stranding. Reader discretion is advised.

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Madden NFL 22 - title

I knew it was a bad sign when the "tutorial" demo game for Madden 22 did not explain or tutorialize any new gameplay features at all. The reason is probably because there aren't any new gameplay features in Madden 22 -- at least not for the current-gen systems. If you want the advertised "home-field advantage" and momentum features, you need a PS5 or XBox Series X|S. Apparently, EA said this would be the case, but since I didn't pay too much attention to pre-release news, I wasn't aware of this fact when I bought my used copy of Madden 22 off of eBay a couple weeks after the game released. I remember reading that the "momentum" feature would not be in last-gen versions, but I thought that was a different feature from the Home-Field Advantage. I guess not. I still don't have a new console, so I'm stuck playing the inferior last-gen game.

I honestly don't see any technical reason why home-field advantage and momentum couldn't be included in the last-gen versions. It doesn't seem like it would be a technically demanding thing to include. I would be willing to bet that, since people complained about last year's next-gen game being identical to the last-gen versions, EA decided to just withhold features from last-gen this year in order to make the next-gen look like a legit improvement.

The heavily-promoted Home-Field Advantage feature was withheld from the last-gen versions,
even though I see no technical reason for why it couldn't have been included.

What EA failed to realize is that the complaint wasn't really that the next-gen games wasn't different from last-gen; the complaint was that EA wasn't doing anything with the hardware that they couldn't do in last-gen. Simply withholding features from last-gen that are perfectly possible to include from a technical standpoint does nothing to address the fundamental complaint that the next-gen game does not feel "next-gen" in any substantive way.

Personally, I actually thought that last year's next-gen version did have noticeably better player movement and overall game pacing in the one match that I was able to play on a friend's PS5. The higher framerate and more precise movement gave me a much greater sense of control. The improvement was most noticeable on inside running plays, in which I found it much easier to squeeze into the gaps for positive yards, instead of just ramming into the asses of my blockers, or right into backside pursuit. The problem was that the animation system and A.I. looked identical to last-gen, even if some of the physics and locomotion were better.

Frustratingly, many users seemed to complain about last year's next-gen version feeling "too slow", so I wouldn't be surprised if all of those subtle improvements were stripped out from this year's next-gen version. I guess I'll find out if / when I get a chance to play this year's next-gen version. If I do get to play the next-gen version, and notice that it does feel substantively different in any way, I'll be sure to update this review, or post an additional review of the next-gen version. So be sure to check back for that...

#FixMaddenFranchise movement finally forced token upgrades

Thankfully, the new Franchise features at least made it into the last-gen version; otherwise, there would be absolutely nothing new in the game at all. EA finally did make additions to Franchise, but the effort feels limp, and it came at the cost of removing some of my favorite features from this past generation of Madden Franchise modes.

Axis Football has been offering full coaching staffs (including position coaches) for years now.

Adding offensive and defensive coordinators has long been considered to be the bare minimum that EA could (and should) do to improve Madden's Franchise mode. We only get a head coach, offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator, and some abstract "personnel" manager. If you were expecting a full slate of position coaches, as has been offered in Axis Football for the past few years, then you'll be disappointed. There's not even a special teams coordinator. Let alone a team doctor / medical staff or talent scouts (at least not when the game released).

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Axis Football 21 - title

Axis Football is still a tough game to review. It's a very playable game that I support and recommend, but without Maximum Football to make Axis look better by comparison, it's a lot harder to overlook Axis' flaws, limitations, and lack of large-scale improvement. There's forward progress and noticeable changes, but still so many long-standing issues. The slow rate of progress is much more forgiveable than Madden, however, because the developers at Axis Games do not have access to hundreds of programmers and animators, or billions of dollars in cash. Progress is slow and steady, and that's pretty much all we can ask for given the company's limited resources.

If you're looking for a remarkably different game, then you'll be disappointed. Axis 21 feels largely identical to Axis 20, which felt largely identical to Axis 19 If you like Axis Football and are OK spending $30 to play more of it, then you'll get your money's worth.

Axis Football 2021 still looks and feels very similar to previous years.

Customization is the focus in 2021

The primary focus of development for Axis 21 seems to have been in its customization options. Previous iterations offered only limited options for customizing teams and uniforms, but Axis 21 has a much more extensive customization suite. Team uniforms and logos can be edited, and whole new uniforms can be created. Team playbooks and play-calling tendencies can be edited. Even the field is customizable.

About the only things that are missing from this customization suite are the ability to create or modify stadiums, and a playbook editor. Maybe we'll see those next year.

The customization suite is much more extensive this year.

This more advanced customization suite should hopefully draw in some of the crowd that got left in the dust when Maximum Football was canceled. If you're a fan of customizing teams and uniforms, and you haven't played Axis Football before, then 2021 might be the year to hop on the Axis Football bandwagon.

Another nice inclusion in this year's customization suite is the ability to update team rosters, which means I could modify my roster to match my roster from several seasons into Axis 20's Franchise Mode, instead of having to start over with the same initial roster that I've been using since 2018. It's a lot of work though to modify every player on my team (let alone the entire league), and I opted instead to just randomize my roster and go from there. Randomizing the roster is, I think, also a new feature in this year's game. I wish Axis would include the ability to import last year's Franchise rosters so that I can have a sense of continuity and progress between releases, without all the tedious busy-work on my end. Being able to import team customizations from year-to-year would also help reduce the prep work required by the user, and allow us to get right into enjoying the game.

Using the roster editor, I can re-create my team from last year, but it's a lot of busy-work.
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12 Minutes - title

It may have taken almost 20 years after Majora's Mask, but it looks like time loop games have suddenly become an emerging fad. Not that it's a bad thing, per se. Outer Wilds has, after all, become one of my favorite games ever. Twelve Minutes is much more scaled-down and far less ambitious than Outer Wilds; it takes place entirely within a small, one-bedroom apartment, and the individual loops average 5-10 minutes instead of the 22-minute loops of Outer Wilds.

12 Minutes has a high-degree of responsiveness to player actions.

12 Minutes is also a much more straight-forward point-and-click puzzle-adventure game in a vein much more reminiscent of classic Lucasarts games. There's only a handful of interactive objects in the apartment, and each one has a variety of different uses. In this way, 12 Minutes rather explicitly telegraphs the solutions to puzzles, since there's only a handful of things that the player can even try. The options available to the player lead the player down the path to progress, and if you ever get stumped, idle conversation will often provide clues as to what you could maybe try next.

Although the seams in the facade do become evident if the player gets stuck repeating a particular loop too many times, I did find myself impressed by just how naturally reactive 12 Minutes is to player interference. The wife and cop will react believably to many things that the player might do, including some off-the-wall things. The wife might comment on weird or rude behavior by me, or the entire time loop may go in a completely unexpected direction because I chose to do something slightly different. It's a surprisingly wide and robust possibility space.

The short duration of time loops, and the relatively small amount of intractable objects really encourages lots of player experimentation. Screwing up any given loop doesn't lose a whole lot of progress, so there's very little penalty for trying some seemingly-crazy solution on a whim, and sometimes, it will even reward the player with some new piece of information that you didn't have before, or a clue to how you might proceed.

12 Minutes provides lots of subtle clues for ways to proceed.

12 Minutes is also quite good about providing clues that are subtle enough to not be obvious spoilers of what to do next, but which might still make you facepalm in retrospect "of course that's what I should have done!" What makes these clues work without feeling like they solve the game for you is that there is often multiple ways to go about testing them. The wife making an off-hand comment about needing to clean the closet is, in retrospect, an obvious clue that the player should check the closet. There is a useful object in there, but its usefulness isn't necessarily immediately obvious. What might also not be immediately obvious is that there's another way that the closet is immediately useful, it just has nothing to do with the object you found there.

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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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