October 2012

The future is sandbox, and I can’t wait. The announcement that Everquest Next will be a sandbox confirms what many of us in the blogging game have been thinking for some time; the era of the theme-park is over, let the time of the sandbox begin. I have been following the Pathfinder Online game development closely, and this announcement from Everquest just confirms that Pathfinder were correct to get their foot in the door early. As Ryan Dancey the CEO of Pathfinder Online said on their forum today;

“… From what Smed says, it sounds like they’re at least two years out, minimum. He’s promising that next year they’ll show work in progress but they don’t have anything to show this year.

That’s about what I expected when I first pitched Pathfinder Online to Lisa last year; that there’s a window open right now for a great fantasy sandbox MMO but it won’t stay open forever.

I think the net effect of more companies coming into the space is more awareness getting raised about why sandboxes are a fundamentally better way to play an MMO than the Theme parks were. And that does nothing but help us, so that makes me pretty happy …”

I’m quite certain that other companies will jump on the bandwagon as well. While I couldn’t possibly tell you which game I’ll end up playing, what I am hopeful of is at least one company getting it right. Whether that turns out to be WoW huge or niche game market, either way it’s good for me.

It’s been a few weeks between drinks on the blog, and that’s due to the fact that I haven’t been playing games much at all, apart from the fortnightly get together with my nerdy chums for our Pathfinder gaming session. The break is mostly due to the fact that I’ve been working rather diligently on getting the first draft of my book finished. That was done last week, and now I’m having a little break before I must face the horrible proposition of revising 120,000 words.

However, and much to my great shame, I have been spending a little bit of time on the Civ V expansion, Gods & Kings. Yes, this is after my total bombastic broadside on the sheer awfulness of the latest incarnation of the Civilization series. What can I say? Firaxis know that us old Civ fans will buy anything in the franchise. I mean, they could wrap up a giant dog turd and we’d probably download that …

I was hoping that Gods & Kings would be what Beyond the Sword was to Civ IV. This was a misguided delusion however, as Beyond the Sword merely improved an already great game. Gods & Kings would need to move mountains to save us from the awfulness that is Civ V. The good news is that it comes close, it really does. And in my first few games I was actually succumbing to the good old “just one more turn” disease. Gods & Kings reintroduces some earlier Civ features that should have never been taken away in the first place, namely religion and espionage.

The religious aspect is a little more well thought out than its earlier incarnation in Civ IV, and gives the player the power to shift direction from science and gold to faith, a new measurement of advancement in the game. This lets you construct religious buildings as well as generate missionaries to spread the word of your religion, as well as inquisitors to undermine your rivals and get you back on track if they undermine you. I found this out the hard way when those sneaky Ethiopians sent a great prophet to my capitol and converted it.
Espionage is less interesting. It basically amounts to you putting a spy in a rival city to steal technology. That is unless you’re leading the science race, in which case you’re far better off leaving your spies at home to protect your secrets. It does have a small effect on diplomacy, but not enough to save that lemon.

The worst aspect by far of Civ V was the woeful AI opponent. The game designers made the game strategic with their awful one hex per unit idea and then gave the AI the mental abilities of a four year old with ADD and a bad case of the stupids. The good news is that the AI has been beefed up in Gods & Kings. The bad news is that its now eight years old instead of four. There is no challenge here at all. I could never beat the old Civ incarnations on the hardest difficulty. On Civ V I regularly kill it on Diety without even trying. Well, I don’t actually kill it as I get bored of waiting five minutes at end game for the AI to finish its turn. Yes, the game engine is still unbelievably slow. And this all goes back to one unit per hex. I laugh when I read interviews with the game designers where they justify their decision to make the player pay gold per turn for road and rail upkeep with the justification that the maps were getting ugly with them being covered with transport hubs. Oh yeah? Have they seen what a map looks like when you need to cover every square inch of it with military units? And try playing on islands. Most of the time I have my military sitting in the ocean as there’s no other place to put them.

I’m embarrassed that I succumbed and paid $50, (fuck me that’s an expensive expansion), for this. Oh sure, there are new civs and units and stuff. The Dutch finally get a mention after all this time which is nice, though I’m fucked if I can understand what the Celts are doing in there. But all this expansion really does is underline the god-awful mistakes that were made with Civ V. Hopefully on the next release they will go back to what worked before. Just keep the hexes, that’s about all that is good with this piece of nothingness.