Sunday, August 31, 2008

Game review: Sid Meier’s Colonization

I was never much into Sid Meier’s Civilization, which is considered the one of the best computer games ever. However, I really liked Colonization, the game created by Brian Reynolds and Sid Meyer in 1994, similar to Civilization in name and UI, but quite different in game mechanics. While waiting for its upcoming remake (Civilization IV: Colonization, to be released this fall), I installed DOSBox and started playing good old Colonization again.

You play as an explorer of one of four European nations (England, France, Spain and Netherlands), who is entrusted by king to discover and colonize New World. You compete with other nations, establish diplomatic relations with them and with natives, build colonies and trade routes. The ultimate goal is to gain freedom by winning the independence war against your homeland.

User interface is simple and clean, a joy to use. Graphics and sounds are OK, but nothing special. Music is great, it’s actually one of my favourite game soundtracks. It’s basically just a collection of folk songs and melodies from colonial era, but after a while they get under your skin and you end up recalling and humming them long after you've finished the game.

What’s so special about this game is the gameplay. Game mechanics are intuitive and simple to learn, but on the other hand there’s a complex game system with many layers and possible game styles. You can play the as tycoon, dominating the New World economically, or as warlord, conquering all your enemies by brute force. You can cooperate with other European nations and indians or choose to annihilate them, each appoarch has its pros and cons (you gain wealth, but lose potential allies, and vice versa). And what’s more, all gameplay elements seem to be based on some historical fact: Founding Fathers, destroying goods as a protest against European government, conquests of indians...

Colonies are way more flexible than cities in Civilization – each colonist can do any profession, but only trained experts are really effective at it. Without experts, you can’t do any real progress, so education plays an important role (colonists can be trained in Europe, by indians or by experts in school which you have to build). Even soldiers are just colonists, so you can come to town with an army, store horses and weapons and send your troops to harvest crops, work in manufacturies or construct new buildings. On the other hand, when enemy attacks and there’s not enough soldiers at hand, you can equip farmers with muskets and send them to battle. The flexibility of professions is a great concept and it’s a shame that it’s rarely used in strategy games.

However, not everything is great, there is also a couple of shortcomings:

  • combat is too simple and it’s basically a lottery. There are just a few combat units.
  • AI of indians and other colonists isn’t great
  • micromanagement of colonists can get repetitive and boring at middle stage of the game (until you turn your nation into well-oiled machine)

All in all, Colonization is a great game. It has several shortcomings, but they cannot outweight by any chance the perfect game mechanics and well-thought UI which creates great and addictive gameplay. It’s a computer game classic, a must have for every fan of strategy games.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Book review: Robert A. Heinlein - Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers is a novel from Robert A. Heinlein, one of the most famous writers of classic science-fiction. Its story is really simple: youngster Juan "Johnie" Rico joins the army, goes through tought boot camp and then fights as Terran Mobile Infantry trooper in intergalactic war against Bugs, which is a nickname for arachnoid aliens. As you can guess, it takes place in future, when Earth is ruled by soldiers - only army veterans can vote and become politicians.

As a war story it's pretty lousy - we're not told much about the war, Rico or other characters, except how cool they are if they happen to be high-ranking army officers. This book is mostly about the process of "becoming a soldier" and philosophical musings on nature of war and duty. It seems as if author wanted to share his views on this and instead of writing an essay, he wrote a novel about it. My guess is that he wanted to influence young readers, who would rather read adventure sci-fi novel than what-if essay.

The society depicted in Starship Troopers is basically an utopia, it runs so well that it couldn't run any better. Problem is that it couldn't possibly work in real world - for one thing, it completely ignores the human factor. High-ranking officers are perfect, make the right decisions, love their subordinate soldiers and fight alongside them. These "perfect soldiers" will eventually become wise voters and responsible politicians. This is totally unrealistic, in reality there would be also ordinary, stupid and evil soldiers who would make army service significantly less pleasant for people like Johny Rico, and subsequently as politicians would probably create a more military-oriented society than democracy which is described in the book. Heinlein criticizes Plato's ideal state, but he's unable to come up with anything better.

That said, I agree with some of Heinlein's thoughts:

  • army service should be voluntary
  • every soldier should fight, non-fighting jobs in army should be done by civilians
  • only soldiers should vote and become politicians
(I agree only partially with the last one - I think that not everybody should vote or at least votes should be weighed based on one's contribution to the society.)

There's also a weird discrepancy in this book - war is quite brutally depicted, Johny scorches aliens with flamethrower and fires nuclear bombs on cities, but on the other hand, there's not a single mention of sex. Johny adores girls and is "delighted to be in their presence", but he only goes out on a date several times, he never even kisses a girl. Puh-leez! Young infantry trooper, each fight can be his last, delighted with the mere presence of girls, and all he thinks about is moral philosophy!

All in all, if you are looking for good action novel, there are definitely better choices out there - I can recommend The Puppet Masters from the same author, fast-paced action thriller with some food for thought as well. Starship Troopers is more philosophical and biased (which is always bad for philosophy), but I still liked it, so it's a mild recommendation.

And my opinion about army? Somewhere in between Starship Troopers (the book) and Full Metal Jacket (the movie).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Back to blogging

"I hope that I will publish my thoughts here regularly (let's say at least once a week)." - written by me on 1st of January. I sticked to this New Year resolution for a month and completely abandoned it a month later. I had some other things to worry about besides writing good blog posts, but I'm not going to make excuses, it's simply lazy from me to not write anything for six months. It's time for the second try.

I guess one of the reasons why I stopped blogging is because I take it too seriously. In order to not to post anything stupid I don't post anything at all. That's gotta change, after all, who am I, not a journalist or writer, just a blogger who's trying to have some fun. Also, new post every week is too restraining, my new aim is new post every 14 days.

Coming soon: game review of Colonization (the original from 1994, not the upcoming remake).