Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Prediction: Bioshock Infinite Is Gonna Blow

Bioshock Infinite looks like the biggest piece of shit since Star Wars: The Old Republic. What I don't understand is why the fuck are people getting excited for this kind of shit again. Ken Levine is literally ruining games. Am I exaggerating? Maybe, but there's a lot to be said about how Bioshock Infinite has already failed as a game, and how it is moving dangerously close to the realm of an interactive narrative. Levine was even stupid enough to brag about the amount of dialogue that his First Person Shooter contains. This comes almost immediately after he admitted that dialogue is the "least effective way to tell a story". Good job, you fucking jackass, you filled your game to the brim with something you admit is not effective.

It almost seems like he's more concerned with making Bioshock a game that is fun to watch, rather than fun to play. What he doesn't realize is the fact that the dialogue and plot in his games are not deep, interesting, or entertaining in any way.

Let's take a look at Elizabeth first.

oh man i love her and just want to protect her

When I first saw this screenshot, I thought it was a joke. How can a person seriously model, texture, voice, and display the character of Elizabeth with any level of sincerity? On an entirely superficial level, she's a fucking joke. Disney figured out a very long time ago how to make a character seem cute, innocent, and naive in order to make the audience want to care about the character, want to protect it, and want to see it succeed. You have to give it big, wide, inviting eyes, and a large, disproportionately sized head. You have to make it 'beautiful' by having an even face and pale skin.

The problem is that Bioshock does this to such a degree that the result is fucking disgusting. Look at those tears, don't you just wanna dry them up and hold her in your arms until the bad men go away? What I really want is to find out why the designers thought elephantiasis was an adorable trait: her head is about twice as large as her fucking torso, and her eyes are about as big as an orange. Her neck is so fucking thin that if she turned her head quickly, it would snap right off. The design is so awful that I just want to cry.

Her personality is pretty much the par for female characters in video games. She's cute, and bubbly, and innocent, and naive, and funny. She wants to do the right thing but she needs to be protected. Most important of all, she loves you: the player. She loves you so that you can pretend for a fleeting second that you aren't alone in the world, that you are worth being loved, and that you didn't just spend $60 on this shit.

Here's some of the dialogue, taken straight from the fifteen minute E3 demo.

Elizabeth: "Promise me."

Booker: "I will stop him."

Elizabeth: "No. That is an oath you cannot keep.
*verge of tears*

But promise me that if it comes to it. 
*slowly holds Booker's hand, and then forcefully wraps it around her throat*

That you will NOT let him take me back."

Booker: "It won't come to that, alright"

i need to protect her, she's my wife

Oh man, I can feel the great emotion just oozing out of this scene. Almost as much emotion as the previous scene in which Elizabeth spends around a minute of game time whimpering and crying and hiding because she's weak and needs to be protected.

The next scene she's comforting a dying horse because its in pain, for some reason. She gets really emotional about it, because I assume no one at Irrational Games has ever talked to a girl so they just assume all girls get really emotional and cry a lot. I suppose this scene is also meant to elicit sympathy from the audience, but it just comes off as extremely haphazard and out of place, especially the fake "option" to euthanize the horse that disappears as the game forces you to watch Elizabeth fail to use her power correctly. Also the horse disappears making the scene entirely pointless. Fuck you.

so sad! this is so sad and i am feeling sad emotions pouring out of my eyeholes. 

What about the gameplay? Well, I can't imagine the core mechanics will be that bad. It's a First Person Shooter, and those are nearly impossible to fuck up. The most concerning thing is the fact that it takes over eight minutes in a fifteen minute gameplay demo to actually partake in the core mechanics. That is to say that over half of the demo is spent just walking around, getting a bunch of dialogue that you don't care about spouted at you, and NOT shooting anyone. Dempster66 put it about as well as I could ever hope to:

dempster66 and me are on the same page

The core mechanics are pretty boring, to say the least. Standard First Person Shooter affair; you have your pistol, shotgun, submachine gun, sniper rifle, machine gun, rocket launcher. Nothing new or exciting there. I don't know a lot about the health mechanics, but they seem almost pointless as the person playing the demo just runs around with little care of self-preservation, barely getting damaged by any of the enemy's weapons. The entire encounter seems absolutely void of any tension at all, save for the artificial one produced by the massive blimp shooting a million rockets that all miss you and don't damage anything. Or the artificial tension produced by jumping from rail to rail at massive heights, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure you can't die from it unless you can't press a button.

The enemies are some of the dumbest things I've seen in a long time. However, the developer videos of Ken Levine and Shawn Robertson awkwardly trying to explain how the new enemies are totally different are actually pretty funny. Ken Levine starts out by explaining that they wanted enemy types with a "more imaginative range of powers". He proceeds to introduce the Motorized Patriot, an enemy that... shoots at you. I sure as shit have never seen that before, asshole.

"Couple of things make him really special... one is that he's, unlike most of the enemies, he's completely fearless. He doesn't have a sense of self-preservation. So he'll just keep coming at you, coming at you, coming at you." - Ken Levine

The above quote is absolutely wonderful because it implies that the AI in any of his games have ever done anything other than walk at you in a straight line while shooting at you. For fuck's sake, in the fifteen minute gameplay demo that's exactly what most of the enemies do.

My favorite part of the video is Shawn Robertson looking entirely unenthusiastic about it. He looks like he just wanted to get the work over with and not have to deal with Ken's stupid fucking ideas anymore. Shawn talks about the Motorized Patriot as an idea that ""Everybody saw it and said, okay, we can- we can roll with that..." He goes on to say that it was an idea where everyone felt that "let's just move forward with what we got" complete with eye rolling and looking down at the floor.

insert penis. too easy. 

The above is an actual enemy type in Bioshock Infinite. The Boys Of Silence, when they hear you, will open their mouth to screech and attract nearby enemies. I shouldn't have to explain why it is a bad gameplay concept (this exact same enemy type was dropped from the Valve game Left 4 Dead before release). And I really shouldn't have to explain why it is a bad design. I mean, I just really cannot make fun of this thing. Am I going to make fun of a clown for having a big, red nose and silly shoes? The fucking thing wouldn't be able to get through a door. The stupid thing would probably fall over the second it tried turning around. I suppose I can only assume the second point, but it is a fair assumption considering the fucking thing has about half a ton of copper balanced precariously on its neck.

If one person comes in here and tells me that I shouldn't judge the game based on just the demo, or gameplay videos, I'm going to fucking snap. I'm sure you'd rather I shore up the $60 to find out if I should spend $60 on the game. That makes a lot of sense. Demos and gameplay videos are clearly a different game entirely and in the months between E3 and release the developers will have fixed everything!

This game is going to fucking blow.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stories in Games Fucking Suck

You unbelievable assholes wouldn't know a good story if Charles Foster Kane broke into your house and trashed the shit out of your room. I cannot believe in this day and age shit like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, and every other fucking game that gets released receives praise for having a good story. I understand that you idiots didn't pay attention in English class, and that you don't read books, and that you've cut yourself off so thoroughly from the rest of society that you literally are unable to recognize what passes for an actual conversation, but that's no fucking excuse.

not a writer

Take Bioshock for example. Oh wow turns out the guy helping you was the bad guy, and you were controlled by some secret phrase, and Andrew Ryan is your father. Please excuse me while I yawn so hard my jaw snaps off and I bleed to death. Even if you manage to ignore the fact that they ripped the entire plot from System Shock 2, it's still a boring story. It works as a motivation for a game, in that you have a reason to go from point A to point B, but as plot it is still as bland as ever. Why the fuck is Ryan trying to keep control of a city he knows has died? Why the fuck does Fontaine want control of the city? Why does the Nazi scientist want the Little Sisters to stay alive? They never bothered writing any of these characters deeper than their intial characterizations, so ultimately the player doesn't really give a shit about them or about what happens in the stupid city. It has a 'cool style' or some shit so stupid nerds fall over themselves to praise it.

not a writer

Metal Gear Solid's plot is stupid, doesn't make any sense, and I'm all but certain Hideo Kojima didn't bother thinking about how any of the events connect to each other. In fact, I'm pretty sure he wrote the plot for each of the games as a series of notes on separate napkins and reciepts, jotting down whatever he though "mite b cool" knowing that stupid losers with nothing better to do will fill in the blanks.

definitely not a writer

Mass Effect is so fucking awful I want to fucking cry. Why do I feel like the only person that bothers to have standard for characterization, plot, and voice acting? Why do I feel like I'm the only person with standards for anything? Tali Zorah is a poor excuse for a naive, socially awkward, and ultimately shallow character for nerds to fawn and obsess over. All of the other characters are either extremely boring, or poor caricatures of old Jungian archetypes. The story itself is flimsy at best: another save the world Bioware classic with all the great cliche's of RPG storytelling. I really shouldn't have to fucking explain this. This shouldn't be a huge shock to everyone. The very fact that no one is making fun of Bioware for their awful, clunky dialogue is almost frightening. Is this really what passes for a good story now?

someone who has never talked to another human in real life

For fuck's sake, the ending to Mass Effect 3 is ripped straight out of Deus Ex. You can either bring the Illuminati back to power, join them and rule the world (Take control of the Reapers). Or you can plunge the world into a second Dark Age by destroying the global communications hub and prevent anyone from taking over the world (Destroy the Reapers and all synthetic life). Or you can merge with Helios to rule the world as benevolent dictator with infinite knowledge and reason (Initiate synthesis between organic and synthetic life).

not a writer

As an aside, if you have ever cried at a video game story, please go outside. You are such an embarassment to everyone around you that it is a wonder you haven't killed yourself yet. I'm not even joking anymore, this shit is serious. You seriously have something wrong with you if something as shallow and poorly written as a video game story or character makes you cry. I honestly wonder what your reaction would be to watching something like Schindler's List.

a huge racist

Okay, perhaps I'm being too harsh on the plot itself. Realistically any story can be interesting, it just depends on how you tell it. Unfortunately it just so happens that video games aren't the correct medium to tell a fucking story. Video games require the player to be doing something; they are an active medium. But when you are being told a story, you have to stop and listen so that you can understand and bond with the characters and the motivations. This doesn't fucking work in video games because of how jarring it is to do something, then stop, and do something else, and then stop again. It's like driving on a backed up highway: it isn't fun.

The closest thing you'll ever come to games telling a story would be an open world game that presents the player with a setting, and the ability to do many different things with no set path and no clear goal. The player will then actively create their own story as a byproduct of the gameplay. 

a good story

There is no reason to create a deep story in games, and, likewise, there is no reason for anyone to bother caring or praising a story in a video game. I cannot understand the insistence of losers everywhere to "play games for the story". At that point you aren't playing shit you fucking idiot. Not to mention the fact that you just spent $60 on what you could essentially get for $10 from a movie, or like $15 for a good book. But the next time you think a story in a video game is good, just shut the fuck up and watch Casablanca or Schindler's List. Once you finish, compare the movie to the game. If you thought that the video game story was still better, consider whether or not you have aspergers, and think about whether or not that might affect your judgement.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Role Playing... Not Game?

The more I think about Role Playing Games, the more I start to feel that there is something not quite right about them. I've already discussed why I find most contemporary RPGs boring, but the more I play them, the less I feel like I am partaking in a traditional gameplay experience. I feel like I am no longer playing a game, or rather that Role Playing Games are not actual games. While there are exceptions, Role Playing Games generally fail one of the four "rules" that I previously proposed as a requirement for a game: they require no skill, present no challenge, or contain no goal, or lack several of these defining characteristics.

i got my character sheet already guys, let's play

Before we delve deeper, let's take a closer look at my personal definition for a game. I believe that games are a form of entertainment that people play in order to preoccupy themselves and have 'fun'. In order for something to be defined as a game, I believe it must fulfil all of the following:
  1. Have a set of rules -
    Games are always structured environments. There are always actions that a player can, and cannot do, that are defined by the game world. You cannot pick the ball up with your hands in soccer. You can shoot at the monsters in Doom with your available weapons. You cannot jump in Bulletstorm. If games did not have these definitions they would cease to be games because distinguishing a winning condition and a losing condition would be impossible.
  2. Present a challenge -
    Why do games challenge players? There are a multitude of reasons, but I believe that a game's difficulty is there to provide some sort of mental or physical stimulation for the player. People play games to have 'fun' or receive a positive reinforcement from overcoming a particular challenge, either by thinking actively or performing a physical action. Being challenged allows you to learn from the encounter and grow as a person, which is a generally enjoyable experience.
  3. Require a skill -
    A game does not have to be very difficult, or require a lot of practice, but it must have a set of skills that players can acquire and improve within the game world. Soccer has a very low "skill ceiling"; the minimum required skill being the ability to walk. It does, however, have a strict set of skills that the player can improve upon to become better at the game, like ball control, speed, and accuracy. Games without a skill involved would be shallow, because with nothing to learn or improve upon the potential excitement is greatly reduced.
  4. Contain a goal -
    This is what separates traditional games from 'sandbox games' or toys. The player needs a clear goal to work towards, something that will give positive reinforcement when the player is doing well, and negative reinforcement when they are doing poorly. If you were to remove goals from games, then there would be no point in playing them. If scoring more goals than your opponent does not cause you to win, then why score goals, or play the game at all? Sandbox games may be more suited to 'gameplay without goals' but because games are defined by their rules and challenges, they ultimately require a quantifiable outcome. 
I am certainly not alone in defining games. Here are just a few examples:

some people are actually boring enough to write about games

"A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." - Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman

"A game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context." - Clark C. Abt

"At its most elementary level then we can define game as an exercise of voluntary control systems in which there is an opposition between forces, confined by a procedure and rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome." - Elliot Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith

So we've defined games. Then why are Role Playing Games not games? Well, I'm afraid to say that Role Playing Games violate rules 2, 3, and 4 at a fundamental level. In essence the 'gameplay', the feature that defines an RPG as a game, is either non-existent, or borrowed from another game system to give the illusion of being a game. Take Mass Effect: it is repeatedly described as an RPG, but what exactly makes it an RPG? The actual game system (the challenge, the skill, and the goal) are all within the realm of Mass Effect's third-person cover based combat. Everything else is fluff. So while Mass Effect is a game, it is so because of the combat mechanics, not because of the role playing choices.

To take it further, what separates Gears of War from Mass Effect? The obvious difference is that Mass Effect has the standard role playing mechanics: you can make decisions regarding dialogue that shape your character, as well as the standard number progression of RPGs. Neither of those things, however, defines gameplay. What makes a Role Playing Game unique to other game systems fails to make it an actual game.

Role Playing Games lack any real challenge. Looking at the core mechanics of shaping the player character, it is impossible to lose; or rather it is impossible to make the wrong decision. This is obvious, as 'role playing' is all about shaping a character unique to the player, a system that explicitly requires that there be no optimal play. Role Playing Games are usually characterised by their story, the narrative, the dialogue, and the choices shaped by the player. They have about as much challenge as a movie, or a book.

this might surpise you, but i play games in order to play the game

While a lot of Role Playing Games might have actual challenges within the game, those challenges are not part of the role playing system. The skill and challenge in Mass Effect comes from the third-person shooter gameplay, but wouldn't that make Mass Effect a third-person shooter game, instead of an RPG? Dragon Age: Origins was a game that I enjoyed very much, but not because of its RPG elements. I enjoyed the tactical nature of the gameplay and the difficulty presented by correctly wielding your party's abilities to overcome obstacles.

When an RPG has actual game mechanics that are represented by playing a role at the player's discretion, the game mechanics are artificial. That is to say that any success or failure that exists in a Role Playing Game is not defined by a player's skill, but whether they had invested enough time, or whether they had known what to do in advance. Most of this difficulty can be seen in games like Pokemon, and MMORPGs, where if you fail you simply need to invest more time. Or perhaps you now know what is coming and can actually prepare for it.

This leads me to my next point: RPGs require no skill. Look at the game systems that are unique to Role Playing Games. For something like Star Wars: The Old Republic, there is no identifiable set of skills that a player can learn and improve at: you either know what button to press when, or you do not. You cannot improve your reflexes, or your strategy, or your problem-solving abilities. Your ability to win or lose in SW:TOR is defined purely by the amount of in-game hours you have invested compared to your opponent.

rpg grind, not quite as good

I do not have a problem with investing time to improve one's skill at a particular endeavor, but unfortunately that is not what happens. Instead what takes place is a "mindless grind", a process that requires no skill and presents no challenge with the ultimate outcome of making your equipment improve. You haven't become any better at the game, or learned any new strategies or abilities; you've simply increased the numbers associated with your character, making you 'stronger'.

Let's go back to soccer as an example. Say that, instead of spending your time practicing the applicable skills (ball control, speed, accuracy, passing), you could win the game simply by pressing the number one key on your keyboard over and over. You haven't really become any better at the game, you've simply created a situation where the amount of time invested is more than the other player.

My final point is that role playing games do not have goal-based gameplay, beyond finishing the plot or making your numbers higher. The level of gameplay is on par with reading a book, or working on an Excel spreadsheet. This is not a bad thing, it just means that RPGs are more comparable to sandbox toys like SimCity or Minecraft. However the RPG elements’ lack of a win or loss state is important, because feedback that consists solely of rising numbers means that the player has no motivation for playing (beyond some form of autism or obsessive compulsive disorder).

this is a good game

So Role Playing Games aren't games. All along I’ve been playing with a device specifically built to give little challenge, in order to maximize the emphasis of the narrative and the choices the player makes. I suppose this is a better explanation of why I find them so dull. This kind of false labelling really hurts me because I have certain expectations when I play a game, and to have those expectations subverted in such a polarizing fashion makes me wonder why games have moved in such a direction, or why people choose to partake in such mindless exercises.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Games Journalism At It's Finest

Erik Kain is a fucking hack. It seems like a harsh statement, unless you have read his theory on why Mass Effect 3 has received a storm of poor user reviews on Metacritic. The article reeks of ignorance, and although he has since posted an updated theory, I still struggle to understand how exactly someone can be so stupid. Shit, his second article is titled:

"What's Behind The Puzzling Vendetta Against BioWare And Mass Effect 3?"

Man, what is with this vendetta against Bioware? Why are these game enthusiasts so angry at Mass Effect 3? I mean, all the game reviewers gave it a great score, that must mean it is a great game! So then, that means that clearly there's something else at work here. Some kind of conspiracy. It cannot be because it is a bad game. I know, it must be because of homophobia! 

dragon age: origins was a game that contained homosexual relationships. and gamers apparently liked it? 

"The reason so many people are giving such a low rating? You guessed it: the gay sex scene. I won’t dignify the reviews with a quotation, but they’re telling and sad and infuriating all at once."

Ugh. Okay, to give him some credit: 'Gamer Culture' is certainly filled to the brim with homophobes, misogynists, racists, and other absolutely disgusting, hateful assholes. There were undoubtedly people who were disappointed at Bioware’s decision to include homosexual encounters in their game. However I doubt they let it ruin their experience, because gamers are apologists at heart. They are willing to ignore balance issues, bugs, bad graphics, poor game mechanics, shitty dialogue, plot holes, and much more. The suggestion that homosexual content, above all else, was responsible for ruining the average person's experience doesn't make sense. 

Did Erik even think about what he was saying? Or was his motivation simply to rile people up? He did not even address the fact that most people probably didn't play a homosexual character, and might not have known, much less cared that the scenes were even in the game. He also neglects to consider that perhaps the Games Reviewers that gave Mass Effect 3 such a great score may possibly be wrong, or might have been insincere in their review (perhaps because of other motivations). 

yeah, it was the gay sex scenes, and not because this game is awful. 

"Paul doesn’t think that 'Bioware intended to make a political statement with this creative decision. They are simply reflecting reality when designing their game.' And CVG notes, that 'BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk told Kotaku that the move was in response to requests from Mass Effect fans for even more choice in the game.'"

I can't believe I'm actually reading this. According to the founders of Bioware, Mass Effect 3 apparently included the choice for homosexuality because it was so wildly demanded. Thus, there were a lot of people that wanted this choice, enough for it to get included in the game. Perhaps we can even go as far to say that these people are not homophobes. Perhaps the backlash was against, amazingly enough, the game itself! Perhaps people actually thought that the game mechanics were not enjoyable, that the story was poor, and that the writing was awful. What a fucking crazy idea. 

Now, as I said before, this idiot had the gall to post a new article. He finally admits that maybe it was not homophobia that caused such a large outcry towards Mass Effect 3, but not before he received a ridiculous amount of comments calling him an idiot. And not before he gave a parting shot, labeling many of those commentators as homophobes. 

okay, great. 

And then Erik writes one of the dumbest things I have ever seen put to paper:

"Daniel writes, “However liberal their capitalisation, these fans cannot turn back the giant, and no matter how many fiercely they flame, the heat they generate will continue to dwindle. We no longer live in an age of dragons, after all.”

No indeed. We live in an age of trolls."

Fuck you! No, really, fuck you. It is frustrating enough living in an age where good, well designed and thoughtful products are scarce, but the fact that any criticsm towards shallow, broken, and shitty products is immediately labeled as disingenuous and insincere is just enough to make me sick. Criticism is a necessary thing. It helps someone understand their faults, to see where they went wrong and, if they accept it, to be better for it. Not according to Erik. 

This is why the article offends me, and why I express so much vitriol towards the poor man. Mass Effect 3 is apparently not a very good game, and the consumers are attempting to let the company realize this. They do this because they care: they want to see Mass Effect 4 or whatever new product Bioware releases to be better and more enjoyable. There is no homophobic agenda. People are not just writing these reviews for kicks. They are upset that a product they once enjoyed has turned into something else, or that the product was left unchanged and they want something new. 

this is actually in the game. bioware made this, and then put this in the actual game of mass effect 3. 

Erik emphasizes his complete and utter ignorance with this point:

"So a word of advice: if you do have it out for BioWare, and you want to convince people that their games just suck no matter what, don’t take it so far. Give out mediocre scores – a 5 or a 6 or even a 7. It’s more believable. What’s going on right now doesn’t seem real – even if everyone participating has a legitimate bone to pick."

No one has it out for Bioware, despite their recent history of creating awful, broken games (Dragon Age II and Star Wars: The Old Republic come to mind). But besides that, why give mediocre scores? An average user score of 7 or 6 isn’t going to send a message to Bioware. They'll believe that most reviews were positive, except for a couple at the bottom dragging down the average.

It is just unbelievable that Erik refuses to believe that Mass Effect 3 is actually a poor game, that there must be another reason for the current backlash. The thought that the game itself might not actually be enjoyable to play never seems to cross his mind.

erik. it's time. it is time for you to enter the shame cube. 

He ends his article with this final piece:

"A commenter elsewhere has reminded me of a time when I was in very similar shoes as those the old fans of BioWare’s games are in. It’s a useful mirror to hold up to my own face right now. Since I wasn’t a player of the original ME or DA games it’s especially useful.

I’m a big fan of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, but when his latest, A Dance With Dragons, came out I was sorely disappointed. And yet! All the big literary reviewers were calling it the best book so far. It was widely lauded with perfect scores and glowing reviews.

The only problem was that the book, by and large, was terrible. Okay, that’s only half true. Half the book was brilliant and the other half was just awful. So I wrote my review partly in protest of the big literary reviewers who I felt were dishonestly representing the book as a triumph when it was anything but.

Now, for me Mass Effect 3 was a fine game. It did what I thought it should do, but I didn’t play Mass Effect 1 so I don’t really understand where original fans of the series are coming from. That’s my fault. In any case, the rest of my critique stands, but I want to say that I do understand where you’re all coming from."

What an arrogant asshole. The game met his expectations; hence it is good, end of story. He conveniently ignores the fact that his judgement of the game is subjective, and that other people could have a different opinion. But this is unsurprising, because after reading his articles, you understand that he is completely unwilling to consider a perspective that is not his own. And that is why Erik Kain is a fucking hack.

Erik Kain,

Congratulations, asshole. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Let's Play Civilization 4!

Since the expansion pack, Civilization 5: Gods and Kings was announced for late Spring, I thought it was a good time to revisit Civilization 4. If you didn't know, the Civilization Series is an excellent, well made collection of games about building an empire to stand the test of time. Unfortunately, after a highly anticipated release, Civilization 5 turned out to be a messy, broken turd. I won't go into too much detail for why Civilization 5 failed in literally every aspect of it's gameplay, considering that there are already some people who have done it far better than I could ever hope.

Instead, we're just going to take a look down memory lane at a far superior game. I'm going to take you on a journey with the Dutch Empire as it attempts to create a great empire. This is just going to be a basic game, although I am playing with the BAT mod to make things a little more interesting. I'll also be taking a look at what Civilization 4: Beyond the Sword did well, and where it failed. The settings for this game are Vassal States off, RandomMapScript, and Monarch difficulty level.

(Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword has the ability to be modified through Python Code, as well as XML code.  The Civilization Community has worked hard, and they have created many great modifications for the game.  Unfortunately not all of these mods are compatible with each other, and require a lot of time and effort to merge these mods together, without causing errors.

The BAT Mod makes changes to the cityscapes and units, to make each civilization more ethnically diverse. Several other small graphical changes have been made as well. These additions add flavor to the game, and complete the game appearance. There is no way to make these mods optional, so to use the mod you will need to use the mod in its entirety.)

I am going to be Willem Van Oranje of the Netherlands for this game. Willem is Creative (+2 Culture to each city per turn) and Financial (+1 commerce to each tile with 2 or more commerce). Both traits are extremely powerful, with Creative giving you a lot of leverage in the early game and Financial picking up the pace right around when Creative loses a lot of its luster.

Creative is probably my favorite trait in the game, since it allows me to bypass buildings to expand borders, saving me a lot of production time and also giving me border pops that allow me to grab a lot of land. Financial is even more powerful, but I was never really a fan of how passive it was. Almost all traits required you to specifically use them to your advantage. For example, you wouldn't get a lot out of Spiritual (No anarchy when switching government) by staying in one government the entire game, nor would Organized be useful (-50% civic upkeep costs) using civics that had Low or No upkeep costs associated with it. With Financial, however, you could kinda stick it into any situation and get a lot of mileage out of it.

I really like Willem's starting techs, Fishing and Agriculture. The most ideal starting techs would probably be Mining and Agriculture (allowing you cheap and fast access to Bronze Working and Animal Husbandry, probably the game's two most important technologies.) The reason I'm so partial to Fishing/Agriculture, though, is that it is a food heavy beginning and really allows you to take advantage of landlocked start and a coastal start.

The Netherlands unique unit is the East Indiaman. Ever since Civilization 3 I've been a bit wary of Naval Unique units, but Civ4 has done a fairly good job with its naval warfare. The East Indiaman is probably the single most powerful unit on Archipelago maps, especially with its ability to pass through enemy borders without an Open Borders agreement.

The Dike is my favorite unique building, although it's not the most powerful. It comes a little late in the game, but the production values that you can get out of it are insane. I'd wager that the Dike is the most powerful building on Archipelago maps, where production is really scarce, but it's ability to turn any fishing village into a viable production outpost is great.

With that said, let's actually look at our start:

This is a very powerful start. Two food resources, a happiness resource, and marble for cheap wonders. 9 grassland tiles surround Amsterdam, 3 of which are on rivers, and 4 hills will make for very good production. There is also a huge abundance of forests in the area, which would allow me to chop out a lot of settlers and wonders, or make an easy rush if there's nearby copper or iron. 

This is also actually the perfect start for my starting techs. Fishing will allow me to take early advantage of the clams, and Farming will allow me to get that corn to work. The classic early game decision is whether to research Animal Husbandry or Bronzeworking. As I said earlier, they are pretty much the best technologies in the game. Both reveal a strategic resource that can be used for early game aggression (Horses for Horse Archers, Bronze for Axemen). Animal Husbandry allows you to build pastures which take advantage of Cows, Pigs, Sheep, and Horses, resources that are extremely powerful in the early game (Cows and Horses provide a nice hammer output, and Pigs produce a whopping +4 food surplus). 

Bronze Working, on the other hand, provides huge dividends for the researcher. It allows you to chop forests with worker, speeding up the production of the nearest city by an absurd amount (So absurd, in fact, that they had to patch the original Civilization 4 by halving the output of production gained by chopping forests until you research Mathematics). It also unlocks the games first civic: Slavery. As horrible as slavery is, it is the most powerful civic in Civilization 4. By allowing you to convert food (which is represented as population growth) into hammers, and rush the production of units and buildings it can produce momentum so extreme that you'll never have to look back.

Which is the point of Civilization. It is a game of momentum. The actions that you pursue in the early game can have drastic consequences down the line, either putting yourself in a winning position or making you dig yourself out of a hole. Since almost everything in Civilization can be viewed as an 'investment', you want to pick the best investment that will get you the greatest amount of growth.

Here I decide to go with Mining -> Bronzeworking. I don't have any Cows, Sheep, or Pigs. I do have Gold (Mining), Marble (Mining -> Masonry), and a lot of forests in my surrounding area (Mining -> Bronzeworking). Lastly I can see some Jungle to the North West of Amsterdam, which is going to require Mining -> Bronzeworking -> Iron Working to chop if I choose to expand in that direction.The only logical choice is to begin with Mining and start exploring. 

I pop a hut and get a map. I can see my first neighbor and judging by the color it looks as though it's Pacal II of the Mayans. I'm torn on this feature, and the entire feature of AI personalities. On the one hand, it's cool to see a color or an AI, know what's there, and know what to expect. Gandhi will be peaceful, Mansa Musa enjoys trading, Montezuma is aggressive, etc. On the other hand, predictability can lead to boring games where you know exactly what will happen. I suppose Civilization 4 did a good job by providing a wealth of leaders, all with a fairly unique personality where playing a new game can mean you play with completely new personalities. 

Eventually I make contact with Pacal II to the West (as predicted) and Brennus to the Southeast. Pacal has already discovered Buddhism. It's not really that surprising, considering he begins with Mysticism and is Financial. For now I keep a wary peace with them, aware that I have to be careful not to get squished by the two. 

Finished the worker, start farming and begin on a warrior. Barbs have already started popping up so I don't want to make the rookie mistake of having an undefended capital getting captured within the B.C years. The workboat will have to wait, which is fine considering I only plan on growing to size 3 before beginning to build Settlers.

Bronzeworking and Iron Working eventually fall. There only source of Bronze is far up North but two sources of Iron spawn fairly close, thankfully. Iron and Bronze are essentially interchangable as far as strategic resources go, though Bronze cannot build Swordsmen. 

This is my first time playing with the BAT mod, and I fucking love it. Dotmaps were always a pain in the ass for me and I'd have to kinda eyeball a lot of it. BAT's dotmaps allow me to readily see and divide my planned settling territory. This is my current tentative dotmap, with the red dot being the most pressing dot. I really, really want to get the cows and ivory, since it would make for a really powerful city site. Ivory would also lead to war elephants, a powerful early unit (Strength 8 when the second most powerful is only strength 6. Their counter, spearmen, get a 100% bonus and still only match strength 8 for a 50% chance at winning). The other great thing would be to deny this spot to the Maya, and gain some early breathing room.

It doesn't take long (you can see in the other screenshot I only have about 3 turns left on the settler so I was pretty sure I'd win this position out). Utrecht is founded, and the basis for the great Dutch Empire begins.

After a little more exploring I discover another beautiful city site. The purple dot there can either be a great commerce location (2 gems, 7 river grassland tiles) or a good production site. If I can nab it, I think I'll end up turning it into a commerce force, just for the fact that there isn't any food in the area and something like this would be hard to grow until Biology, which is a long way off.

This I found kinda amusing. The BAT mod spruces up all the events giving them a cute picture. It also does the same for National Wonders, giving them their own little movie. A lot of things are going on here though. The truffles are a nice boost turning that particular grassland tile into something really good (3 food 2 commerce untouched). However you can see that I've met Shaka of the Zulu Empire with his ridiculous city location that is only 3 tiles away from my capital! I'm not entirely worried, since I'm already a cultural powerhouse and should easily be able to push him back. What I am worried about is the fact that Shaka is a very aggressive AI personality, and further down the line he might try something especially when he's bunched up so close to me.

I've also founded the city of The Hague, which is going to be a beautiful production city down the line. Rice, floodplain, and lots of grassland will allow me to support about 4-5 hills, one of which has iron! I begin building a barracks in preparation for churning out units. The majority of my units would end up coming from The Hague, in fact.

I've got to say that while it is simple and intuitive, I'm not the biggest fan of Civilization's method of production and recruitment. It's as if all soldiers are automatons, built piece by piece and that they don't actually require part of the human population. Production and Food are the same way for me, it seems off that a city with hundreds of thousands of people are unable to actually build anything just because they aren't next to a hill or a mine. If I were to change it, I would represent the population as a more flexible number, and allow you to allocate a portion of that population to recruitment or labor. Food kinda pisses me off because I have to sit and watch a city starve to death because my other cities are too fucking stupid to send their surplus of food over all the roads I built to help a city out. Civilization 5 had global happiness (the dumbest mechanic ever) when it really should've had global food, something that you also allocate, spend, and stockpile.

We meet Asoka of the Indian Empire, who isn't on the same continent as us. Also he looks like a scrub.

Shaka of the Zulu is a classic example of how a ridiculous start can still leave you floundering. Fish, 2 Clams, Cattle and Wheat. Stone nearby to the South. Lots of grassland. If you look at the second screenshot, you'll realize exactly how fucked Shaka is. A massive desert to the south, mountains and the Dutch to the East, and water to the West. He's lucky to have gotten 4 cities before he ran out of room. I would find later that there were some islands to the North of his position that I suppose the RandomMapScript believed to make up for his lack of land, but as I'll talk about later it just won't happen.

I liked this screenshot. This barbarian city to the Northwest of Nijmegen was starting to annoy me, so I plopped two Archers down on the forest. Forest provides a +75% defensive modifier, and whenever the barbs attack they will receive -50% attack for crossing a river, making it impenatrable and keeping the city in check. Mountains require the barbs to take the long way around, giving me more time.

Man I told you Shaka was gonna be trouble. When an Aggressive AI has no room left to expand, they expand by attacking you. I finished the Great Library right when the surprise attack hit, but Amsterdam was in serious danger of falling. You can see my elephants to the south trying to move in position to defend, but it was a shitty war. My main source of units were War Elephants, but I just so happened to be fighting the Zulu, who's unique unit is the Impi: a spearmen that receives mobility bonuses. Shaka also has the Aggressive trait, giving his melee units Combat 1, a 10% strength bonus, plus most of them are coming out of cities with cheap Ikhanda's (A barracks that provides maintenance bonus). All production is rerouted to axemen, and I have to wait.

Fucking goddamn it. I had an archer in Middleburg, and I had that Impi on the run so I moved the axemen out of the city to finish him off. But the stupid fucking thing has mobility so it can move through forests and jungles and hills. He came in, won a lucky diceroll, and killed my archer. If I was playing against a human they would've raised the city and it would've fucked me over but thankfully I'm dealing with the AI here. I retake the city next turn but goddammit it if it didn't make my blood boil.

One thing that I thought was cool was the fact that, at the same time Shaka declared war on me... I think Pacal declared war on Brennus. So essentially my Eastern territory was this huge front for tons of fighting in two completely separate wars. They never spilled over into each other though (thank goodness, I would not have wanted to wage a two front war). Pacal and Brennus would proceed throw dosens of units at one another for the duration of the war, neither making much ground. It was definitely good for me, though, since I was tied up in my own war I had trouble expanding economically and technologically, and I'm sure one of these guys could've done it had they not banged their heads against a wall.

Eventually peace was declared. It required the Apostolic Palace (Confucian, which made me convert for the easy hammers) to get Shaka to stop trying to hurt me. Neither of us could do anything at the time, since it was one of those periods where defensive technology was as good as the offensive technology (you can see me researching Machinery above for Crossbows, a 6 strength unit with 50% bonus against melee units). Possibly because they were inspired by the peace, Brennus and Pacal set aside their differences on the same turn.

With peace declared, I went on a bit of a wonder spree. Most of these are for the cultural bonuses. I put the Sistene Chapal in The Hague partly because it was the only city that could construct it reasonably quickly, and partly to put pressure on Celtic culture. 

Well my Archer valiently defended the river and forest for years, but the Maya, unheeded by wars, finally took over Cirassian and eventually continued to expand North.

Damn! Check out that fuckin great beast! I didn't want to hunt it because, like, all it wanted to do was get its bone on, you get what I'm sayin? He just wanted a lil' sum sum. I'm trying to say he wanted to fuck other great beasts and make more great beasts and for some reason this gave the city of Utrecht +1 food. Nice.

This actually isn't as good as it seems (also I lost out on Notre Dame to the Mayans). Gems popped on that grassland river hill in The Hague, which would normally be the best thing to happen. But The Hague is a production city. Grassland Hill + Mine is 1 Food 3 Production. Grassland Hill with Gems + Mine is 1 Food 2 Production and then something like 5 Commerce I think? Anyway it sucked and I had to move the citizen off the hill. This is the only situation where a metal popping in one of your hills is a bad thing.

I met Charlemange and Peter of the Holy Roman Empire and the Russian Empire, respectively. Why the fuck did they put the Holy Roman Empire in the game. It's such a stupid fucking choice I really don't understand it. The Holy Roman Empire was, historically, a collection of territory between Spain, France, and Germany. We already have Spain, France, and Germany. Why do we need this again? If you really wanted to put in another European Civ then why not Poland, or Belgium, or the fucking Vatican City. I just don't get it. I really don't. Oh also he was apparently the strongest civ at the moment and had like 6 more cities than me. Fuck. 

The funny thing here? Shaka declared war on Brennus. Realistically it was the right move. Shaka had no where to expand, and he wasn't gonna win the game sitting with his pathetic amount of territory. And while it failed him, you gotta admire the balls on that dude.

Of course, Brennus asked me to enter the war. Since we were Confucian buddies I went ahead and obliged. Brennus and I were great friends the entire game, which was cool. It's one of those little things that pissed me off about Civilization 5's diplomacy, and your inability in that game to actually create lasting friendships. In Civilization 5, everyone is your enemy, which makes no sense at all. Brennus and I would even sign a Defensive Pact down the line. When the fuck would you see that in a Civilization 5 game? Never. Well, maybe Gods & Kings will fix these problems. And maybe Bioware will make a good game.

I think this screenshot looks really cool. Dutch soldiers crossing the Alps to the foreign Zululand. Traversing The Great Wall of Zululand. A Dutch caraval explorer examines the situation. I had taken a Great General and used him to create a super medic on one of my Foot Soldiers (renamed from macemen for the BAT mod) which is always useful. Well long story short, I didn't capture Nobama. The Celts beat me to it by a turn. I wasn't really bummed though, it's not a great city, and the Celts resetting the culture took the pressure off of nearby Bulwayo.

A lot of things happened in the following turns but none of them are really important. Suddenly, WAR!

I had actually been planning on attacking Maya for a longass time. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Pacal declares war on me! Well, it's his grave, but I suppose I can understand. See, there's a ton of Cavalry right now, but a couple turns ago when he declared war I was still researching Rifling. Pacal just happened to declare war right at the moment I was upgrading all my war elephants and knights and whatever. So he just kinda shit the bed here.

Like I said, it's his grave. 

During the war I was getting a ton of unhappiness and war weariness. Way more than I should've got for what was essentially a 'defensive' (I was declared on) low casualty (I barely lose any cavalry or riflemen) war. And then I looked closer at Uxmal. The fucker has Statue of Zeus. SoZ is a really powerful wonder that increases the war weariness of a nation that you are fighting by 100%. Uxmal just became a priority target, I need to take that SoZ out of play as soon as possible before WW gets too bad. Notre Dame would definitely help too, as neither Wonder becomes obsolete.

Guest appearence by friend Luffles. Who is playing a far shittier game than Civilization 4. Steam Power is a really big tech for me. I get coal, dikes (the Dutch UB), but most importantly I get Ironclads. Ironclads are a funny 'period' unit, like musketmen where you usually research the next technology fast enough that you're never able to use them with any force.

I'm not kidding when I say that Ironclads were my most produced unit this game. This entire war with the Maya went fairly easily, with the exception of the navy. The Maya had tons of Frigates and ships harassing my costal waters, starving my cities and cutting off trade. And it was ridiculous because I started building more and more Ironclads, but no matter how many Frigates I destroyed, there seemed to be too more to take its place. It ended up being probably the biggest naval battle I ever fought in Civ4, and Ironclads were perfect for the job. 

This is always a welcome surprise. Popping resources from mines is always been one of my favorite parts of the game. You can also see in the screenshot that I managed to nab The Statue of Liberty, which is important (provides +1 free specialist to each city on a continent). The Holy Roman Empire still had more cities than me, and if he got that he could really leverage it into some furious extra production. So I beelined Democracy and put Amsterdam to work.

While I killed Pacal, Peter and the Russians were getting toasted. In this screenshot he loses his capital. But unfortunately the game was biased against Peter at the start. While it looks like he has a fairly solid capital, he's stuck on an island. While everyone else can focus on expansion and economic technologies, at his best Peter would have to focus on seafaring technologies and get off of the island as quickly as possible to establish a beachhead on the continent. He gets a couple cities there, but he gives up far too much room to Asoka and Charlemenge, and it shows as they become two of the most powerful civs and Peter is left for dead.

First time I actually won the Apostolic Elections, and you can see my war here with the Maya is going smoothly as ever, except...

No dice. You call down the thunder, you reap the whirlwind baby!

Eventually the Mayans are destroyed, as are the Russians. I really have to hand it to Burgundian though. That barb city managed to last the entire game. I left it alone because they seemed pretty chill. I feel like at some point barbarian cities should just kinda become city states or something of that sort. But then Civilization 5 did the concept of city states so poorly that I'd rather forget about it.

The Dutch Empire after the great Mayan war. I attempt to hold a Diplomatic victory the next turn to see if I can win.

I end up really close, but no dice. Obviously no one is gonna vote for me, but then they barely had enough of a vote to matter. Oh well.


I really have to address this point. Culture expansion in Civilization 4 is fucking retarded. Okay, first of all, when's the last time you heard a country taking away land from another country because they were more cultured? If Civilization 5 got one thing right, it's that territory should be static (although I also hold the belief that you should be able to negotiate deals and settlements for tiles and land, just like in real life with The Treaty of The Hague and the Louisiana Purchase). But even if it isn't realistic, it doesn't make any fucking sense. I'm losing tiles to cities that I have more culture than. 

Maastricht itself as over 10,000 more culture than Georgovia, and yet I've already lost three tiles to the city. It becomes absurd later on when Maastricht hits legendary culture status, while being culturally choked by a city that cannot compare culturally. Maastricht lost about 3 population points because of this stupid shit. 


Eventually I launched the space ship and won a space race victory. I was leading all the AI's by a lot of technology at the end, which made me wonder what was causing them to lag behind. And then I looked over at Asoka's cities and saw that he had built a corporation, Sid's Sushi to be exact.

While Sid's Sushi (provides extra food for each food resource you have) is ridiculously powerful in the hands of the player, it like all corporations that Beyond the Sword added, cripple the AI. They simply do not know how to deal with its maintainence costs, or how to make the most of it. From the looks of things, I didn't win this game because I outplayed the AI, but because the games mechanics caused the AI to collapse on itself.

For the record, John Shafer was one of the leader programmers and designers for Beyond the Sword expansion pack. He was also the lead designer for Civilization 5. I'm not shocked at all.

This is the starting situation. Zulu and Russia are fucked, with barely anywhere to expand. Holy Roman Empire, India, Maya, and myself had lots of nice fertile regions to move into and we obviously ended up running away with the game (until I took out Maya and India built a corporation). It's a pretty cool map, but I wish the map generator did a better job of providing land for Russia and Zulu.

Despite all of my complains, Civilization 4 remains my favorite game just because of the layers of depth it has, especially in comparison to any contemporary game. I could've played this game with a focus on specialists, or conquered absolutely everyone, or been religious and diplomatic. On top of it all, this game is wildly unique in that, though I may try the same strategies, face the same opponents or use the same civilization, I won't really be in this kind of situation again due to its unique nature. And that is why Civilization is the best.