The second half of 2005 has been a virtual bumper crop for distractions, none of which I’ve really had time to more than cursorily pursue. But they each — I think? — represent such a divine stride forward in this area of my interests that I feel compelled to share them with you nonetheless.
The first such offering, in all truth, was released more than two years ago — although the Mac followup (having matured in an aged sherry cask for a mere one year) was our first exposure to it. I may use some superlatives in the following paragraphs, so pregnant women and those with heart conditions or a family history of stroke may wish to come back tomorrow.
Before it gets ugly, I will say simply that Railroad Tycoon 3 is a solid accomplishment in an already distinguished series. It is very easy on the eyes, with relatively few sharp user-interface corners (although some aspects of track-laying are rescued only by the ability to undo; more on this later). It is rich not only in visual detail, but also in the detail of game play: commodities, stock markets, locomotives, cities, and people: these are the fundamental components of such a simulation, and each vibrates with the intensity required to produce lust in all but the non-living.
As an aside, if you peel back the delicate, flaky layers of the Intertron pastry, some users will reveal the dark secret that the game is prone to crash or lose its ability to make the sweet music which is otherwise a siren song worthy of any ancient tale; neither Jacob nor I experienced these ill effects, but I feel compelled to offer them as a sort of disclosure that may, in any event, fall short of full.
Where the game does not excel, however, can be summarized thusly:
Point the first: some additional explanation regarding the economic model would not be ill-received. Sometimes I think I understand it, and it makes perfect sense within my own synaptic maze. Then I connect two cities which should positively brim with commerce, the meniscus of profit straining both credibility and the physics of modern banking — only to have trains run nearly empty along this dejected avenue, little tumbleweeds rendered in exquisite detail behind the rusty caboose.
Point the second: while I applaud that nebulous market forces these past few years have awakened to the fact that we enjoy playing games with our other nerd friends on your vast internet, it is almost beyond belief how shoddily this can be executed in the year 2003, by which time we already had entire lifetimes of study devoted to this singular topic. Perhaps my social circle is somewhat unique; perhaps we are the only people who, before we finished dialing the complete contents of our respective little black books, would have harnessed enough networking intellect to reconstitute the very fabric of the medium from its component atoms. But whatever the reason, someone needs to figure out why I apparently know the only ten people on earth who can make networked applications that don’t crash or lose synchronization, can restore from a previous session, and did not shed features in the online transition as a snake sheds its dessicated skin, packed with nutrients. Put simply: the online play lacks critical behaviours found in the single player modes — oops, did you just mis-lay a $4.8 million bridge? too bad, because we couldn’t be fucked to implement undo; is slow beyond human comprehension — even the local UI grinds to a halt; and generally sucks in the same way that most other online games suck, in which you spend at least five times longer losing synchronization and not restoring saved games as you do actually playing — when you get to play at all.
Point the third:
I spent so much time and psychic energy on that last point that I don’t remember anymore. Maybe it will return. I rue the day that I bought the Mac version. As I mentioned, we bought this version first, which in most cases would make it a veritable feat of idiocy to return to that particular well again for the Windows version, the kind of folly that usually climaxes in me making fun of you for having three copies of the same album. In this case, it merely underscores the implausible degree to which we enjoy simulations of a train-related nature. It is difficult to articulate, this far into the future, precisely what it was about the Mac version that was so disquieting. But I believe it was fundamentally slow, and not in a simple go buy a dual G5 and shut your cranky-hole way, but a way that felt innate and unsolvable. Go buy the Windows version. I just rued again.
All in all, despite the highly-cathartic vitriol, I deem it excellent. You should interpret this through whichever lens you feel is appropriate, given my instinctive longing for trains and other train-related program activities.
Second in our little roundup: Age of Empires III has really been overshadowed by the third in our series, below, and as a result I don’t have a very good feel for it yet. Nevertheless, I am compelled to include it by simple virtue of how thoroughly its coming has dominated my cognition this past year.
Fan of the genre or not, if human blood courses through your veins, you are obliged to agree that AOE2 was a giant among men, an opus among mere songs. Having spent years meditating on this fact, honing my love as one delicately hones a fine sword of folded steel, I was rent by this very love upon release of the deplorable Age of Mythology. As I do not acknowledge even the existence of this heretical installment, we will not speak of it again.
So keep in mind that, as far as I’m concerned, this series has been effectively stalled since 1999′s Age of Kings, a game which I’ve probably purchased no fewer than three times for a variety of platforms and people. It is for this reason that I am on the very brink of disappointment, doing my best to hold my crestfallen feelings at bay, having managed to convince myself that AOE3 is, in fact, awesome, I just haven’t played enough of it yet. Sadly, deep down inside (where I am soft, like a woman) I do not believe this.
I believe that another ten or twenty of your Earth hours worth of gameplay will show me that it is the very good-looking — but ultimately still reheated and glazed with preservatives — pressed sweepings of AOE2. So far, cards or no cards, I am not finding it anything more than Age of Kings in a slightly different setting, with better animations. If I’m not careful, I catch the darkest recesses of my mind, where even I dare not to trod, finding it less.
We will see if I ever discover these aforementioned hours, perhaps in some kind of temporal repository buried in the frozen earth of my quaint New England “lawn”. If so, I shall report on my overdue findings.
Last, but most certainly not least — indeed, carefully formulated to leave the reader on an upbeat Sunday trajectory — we come to Civilization IV. Click on that link, and read the powerful green box. Do you see? Universal acclaim.
And do not be confused by the univeral acclaim also heaped upon Civilization III, as so much garbage is heaped upon other… garbage. This is the real deal.
Permit me to set aside my typically flowery — some would say overwrought, but one assumes that those idiots are no longer reading — prose and be direct: the game is beautiful. I speak of breathtaking beauty, exceeding even that of the train game — which, to be fair, it should: it had two more years to slow-roast inside the patented self-basting bag that is Firaxis Studios, steaming in Sid Meier’s very juices. Although one must make a number of small cuts in the top of the bag to prevent it from exploding, I can assure you that this nod to kitchen physics compromised neither the succulent all-white breast meat, nor the more flavourful and tender dark meats in any way. I like to protect the delicate breast from burning by covering it with bacon until the final browning, a trick I learned from Beard. It is unclear whether this method was employed in the making of Civ 4, but I like to think that it was.
The gameplay has been precisely tuned, passed through a fine sieve to remove any distasteful elements left from the failed experiments of Civ 3. The in-game abortion that was pollution control has been stripped as if it had never been; automated workers dispense with their unsavoury chores in a manner that is very pleasing; the need for micromanagement of research and production has been substantially reduced by carrying extra points over to your next turn; and so on.
The online play appears to have taken a similar, if not greater, leap forward, first and foremost by actually being included with the product when it shipped, rather than sold as an add-on a year later. But more fundamental game mechanics, such as allowing everyone to play the turn simultaneously, a thoroughly delightful permanent-alliance / team structure, and worlds of breathtaking size, make online play a perfectly splendid experience.
However, in another of the infinite demonstrations that game developers never actually play their own games before they ship, it contains aggravating, obvious flaws: too many modal dialogs, during which you miss critical parts of the action, and can’t find the information you need to make the best decision; an overly-busy city management interface, which you can usually avoid via the aforementioned modal dialog, but not if you need to look something up before choosing; a civlopedia that, in lacking a coherent index, borders on uselessness; and as always, lest we find cause for celebration that the 21st century is indeed finally upon us, multiplayer games plagued by synchronization problems — although at least save and restore appear to work reliably. I also share Rob’s frustration with the barbarians, although I offer a diffrent compromise: an option that would preserve barbarian cities and units produced therein, but eliminate the random spawning of units in fog-of-war-hidden squares. The former are predictable game elements against which a strategy can be devised; the latter are just irritating.
All in all, it deserves each and every one of its accumulated superlatives, for which it will no doubt win some phantasmagoric number of awards.