Dragon Age: Inqisition — Bioware, Why Did You Do This?

I’ve talked about Dragon Age: Inquisition before, but not here. In fact, I don’t think any of those articles still exist anywhere, but that’s just as well because now, I think three years later, I really have to tear into this game.

I bought Dragon Age: Inquisition the day that it released, only to learn that Bioware’s Minimum Specifications actually meant something this time around, and that the game absolutely would not even launch on a dual-core CPU, even if it was technically capable of running the game. This infuriated me, but I bit the bullet, ordered a new motherboard, a new CPU, and new RAM. About fourteen days later, everything arrived and was installed, and I finally was able to sink my teeth into this game that I had eagerly awaited since the end of the phenomenal Dragon Age 2.

I was so unbelievably disappointed.

Prior to that, Bioware was the last developer that I trusted, the last big name developer from whom I would buy a brand new game at full price. Everyone else had betrayed that trust with non-working titles that routinely crashed, were extremely unoptimized, or bore misleading specs. Dragon Age: Inquisition destroyed my trust in Bioware, not just because of the dual core thing, but because the game itself is an abject trainwreck, and I honestly find it hard to believe that anyone likes it. So what’s wrong with it? Well, get comfortable.

Dragon Age: The Single Player MMO

I hate Quest Systems. I hate them so very, very much. They were designed for use in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games to allow players to fulfill tasks while making no changes to the world beyond character-specific boolean flags and dialogue options. They were necessary, because no MMO can handle fifty different characters running around and doing stuff that actually permanently changes the world state.

For example, in Final Fantasy VI, the player goes to the Floating Continent, and the world is basically destroyed. If this was a multiplayer game, only one player could do that, and every other player would be trapped with the consequences. Obviously, this won’t work. To get around this, two things were done: quests and respawning enemies. It does other players no good if Player A receives a quest to clear a cave of kobolds, does it, and then no one else can ever do that quest, because the world state has changed, and that cave no longer has kobolds. So each player is able to do the quest, and the kobolds respawn indefinitely. The world never changes. Only dialogue options do. A level 100 character can return to the cave and wonder, “Why in the world are there kobolds here? I killed them all when I was level 2.”

This is an acceptable break from reality for MMOs. It’s a clever way of handling an enormous problem. However, it is a bit cheap. Various MMOs have done different things to get around this. Blizzard disastrously attempted “phasing,” which was implemented rather poorly and turned entire zones into basically single-player areas.

But then something even more disastrous happened.

Lazy developers realized that they could take the same system and put it in single-player games, which would allow them to create basic templates that consisted of a few variables, fill in hundreds of possible variables, and simply write dialogue for the variable combinations. Basically, they realized they could take one “Who,” one “What,” one “How many,” and one “Where,” and generate hundreds of different answers for each one, stringing them together with short, boring, generic excuses.

Lord Tyrennius wants ten bears killed in the region of Alcren.

Lady Merian wants one silver necklace.

Game design made easy.

Then all they had to do was create a few dozen generic titles or other statements from NPCs that would give the illusion of an adaptive world. After killing the bears for Tyrennius, there would be a 3% chance for an NPC to say, “Hey, didn’t you kill those bears?” Even though the bears probably respawned, it gave the player the illusion that they had changed the world, that they have achieved something. Again, for MMOs, this is fine, because actually changing the world isn’t an option.

Some games even took this as far as creating an infinite number of quests, like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. There is no greater example of quantity over quality than a game that has an infinite number of generic quests. And oh yes, they are generic. Procedurally generated worlds and quests sounds cool in theory, but the result is something totally non-descript and generic.

Take Minecraft for example. If you’ve seen one Minecraft world, you’ve seen them all. Sure, you can create billions upon billions of worlds that are different from one another to varying degrees, but after just one of these, players have seen everything there is to offer. The same is true of Skyrim‘s quests–once the player has done one of them, they’ve seen everything the game has to offer, and after that it’s just a matter of how many times they can repeat it until they get sick of it. This is why I have never completed Skyrim, and probably never will. Invariably, I get tired of doing the same freaking quests over and over, with only slight differences. Oh, I’m clearing this cave for the Companions instead of the Blades. Oh, yeah, that totally makes it different…

To be fair, Dragon Age 2 also utilized a quest system, but there are a few things to note. First, every quest was hand-crafted by the developers, and it shows. Every bit of dialogue in that game is expertly done, and expertly acted. Beyond that, though, even with areas being repeated ad nauseum throughout the game, the story changes enacted by the quests (which are far more sweeping than people will realize until a second or third playthrough) are large in scope. Beyond that, the quest system was built directly into the overall plot. Hawke needs 50 gold to pay for the excursion into the Deep Roads. It’s an excuse plot, but it’s better than just “Oh, there’s a quest, I need to it, because it’s a quest.”

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

It should be alarming to people that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning actually began development as an MMO, and was converted into a single-player game when the developers began running out of money, and yet its gameplay is identical to the gameplay of Skryim and Dragon Age: Inqusition. You go from one area to the next doing quests, and only dialogue changes. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning at least had the self-awareness to lampshade this by weaving a repetitious cycle of fate into the plot. With Skryim and DAI, it’s just there. It’s just lazy.

Skryim maintains its excellent because it does have a lot of possibilities for players to get into totally unscripted things–emergent gameplay, it is called. Like when I accidentally wandered into a keep of bandits and got my horse and Lydia killed, whereupon I turned into a werewolf, killed everyone, and ate them. I didn’t have a quest for that. I didn’t need one. The game itself created the circumstances and motivated me to do it by giving me attachment to Lydia and my horse. The game didn’t have to tell me with some generic ass quest, “Go eliminate the bandits in this keep.”

Something almost similar happened when I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition not long after its release. I came upon some templars who trapped mages inside a house, and then set the house on fire, killing the mages inside. Furious, I pounded the templars into the ground and killed them all. And that was it. That was the end of the encounter. I couldn’t bury the mages, I couldn’t seek out and punish templars (because they’re randomly spawning). I couldn’t interact with the encounter in any way except by killing those four or five templars, and then it was over. It was so limited that I think it was probably a randomly generated event, to be honest.

That’s freaking bad game design. You can’t put me firmly on one group’s side–and after the events of DA2 (we’ll get to this in a moment), I’m absolutely with the mages–and then hand me a freaking tragedy like that, and then shrug and continue on, because there’s no quest for it. It’s like Egoraptor said in his Ocarina of Time video. I don’t need you to give me some asinine story reason why my character wants to go up Death Mountain. I want to go up Death Mountain. It’s what I want to do. That’s why I’m playing the game, because I want to go on an adventure and explore stuff. But no, Ocarina of Time had to grind to a freaking halt until Link had the right motivation to want to go up there. My motivations don’t matter.

Isn’t Dragon Age: Inquistion supposed to be a role-playing game? If that’s the case, you would expect that my desires, as the player, would be my character’s desires. But no. That’s not the case. My character needs quests, plot reasons. My character can’t find and decimate the templar stronghold because they burned some mages alive because I’m outraged by it and trying to role-play the game as my character. Instead, my character has to wait until someone gives her a freaking quest that makes her want to do it. And if no such quests exist, then my wants go unfulfilled.

Give us dynamic worlds. Give us the chance to role-play in role-playing games. Stop spending obscene amounts of money on graphics, and stop adding in hundreds upon hundreds of generic, basically identical quests. Instead, spend that money on creating a living, breathing world that I can actually impact. Not one where I trigger the next cutscene by doing the right Story Mission. Screw that. Don’t take me on a fucking tour; let me play the game.

Plot

But my biggest problem with Dragon Age: Inquisition is the plot. Oh, man, what went wrong here?

The plot of DA2 was incredible. Bioware took me on the Hero’s Journey, where Hawke had the role of hero thrust upon her mostly without her intention. A series of events lead to another series of events that lead to another series of events, and it culminated in one of the greatest and most underrated role-playing games of all time. Never before have I been so firmly in a character’s shoes. Never before have I loved a character so much. And the plot, how it built so slowly, and then exploded in this extraordinary climax…! Damn. I was on the edge of my seat through all of Act 3. I flew through Act 3 in a single night, anxious, nervous, itching to see how the rest of it played out. And I was not disappointed.

The Mages Circles were dissolved. Ferelden fell into chaos. Mages rebelled. The Chantry fell apart and created Seekers. It was full-blown war, and it was easy to see, once the name “Inquisition” was announced, what was going to happen in the next game.

The game would fix almost entirely on the Mage/Templar war, and the Chantry would be undertaking an inquisition to round up and kill all of the mages. The player would probably select one of the sides throughout the game, and fight slowly to restore order, either culminating in the freedom of the mages or the return of the Mages’ Circles. It was going to be epic, filled with religious symbolism and making callbacks to the Spanish Inquisition, with people being drowned to see if they were mages…

And then Corypheus happened. The entire plot of Dragon Age 2 wrapped up in a single quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition while the game was instead shifted into yet another “You’re the Chosen One–Jesus and Mohammad rolled into one. Now go and save the world from yet Another Big Bad with questionable motives who wants to destroy the world.”

It’s so heavy-handed that I have to wonder if Bioware, angry at the fans for their reaction to Dragon Age 2, trollingly said, “Oh, you guys want to be yet another chosen hero, saving yet another fantasy world from yet another big bad who wants to destroy it? Fine. You’re literally the Chosen One in this game. The freaking Herald of Andraste. You want that? Then we’re going to give it to you, dipshits.”

Because that’s what Dragon Age: Inquisition is. It is almost immediately derailed by the player literally being the Chosen One. They call her “The Chosen One” in the game. I’m almost positive I remember being called “The Savior” a few times. “The Herald of Andraste,” certainly. Several times.

There’s no way to identify with such a character. It’s not possible. I don’t have a glowing thing in my hand that makes me special out of everyone on the planet. I’m not literally the one person who can do something. See, Hawke wasn’t either. Hawke wasn’t special. She was the one who did the things, but that was just circumstance. She wasn’t destined to do those things. She wasn’t the Chosen One. She was just some person who happened to be there when it happened and who did whatever she thought was best. She was just trying to survive and lift herself up. We can all relate to that.

None of us can relate to honest-to-God Chosen One.

Instead of being what anyone expected of “an inquisition,” the entire game devolves into being about the Chosen One using her Chosen Ability that literally no one else has to be the Chosen One and save the world from a Big Bad who has some godlike aspirations. The Inquisition isn’t about the Mage/Templar war that was interesting, relatable, and unique for a fantasy setting. It’s about putting together an army to close these Magical Rifts that the Big Bad created.

It could have been so much more. Instead, it’s a series of generic quests through regions that are identical to any MMOs–in fact, you’ll notice that the starting areas have a huge concentration of quests (just like MMOs), while later areas have far fewer quests. This is entirely typical of MMOs, as well, because more players will play the starting areas more often. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they originally planned for DAI to be an MMO, because it’s identical to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning in every conceivable way. And the plot, instead of being this awesome, relatable thing with a newly relatable character, was another generic Save the World from another Big Bad.

So how could anyone like this crap? It represents everything that is wrong in modern role-playing games. It sacrifices role-playing in the name of the Quest System. It sacrifices a dynamic world for lots of generic, boring quests through non-descript and uninteresting locations. It cast aside the masterful and amazing setting that it had crafted through the previous game and instead became identical to the plots we’ve been seeing since Dragon Quest on NES. It sucks.

Score?

1 Dragon Quest out of 10 Dragon Age 2s.

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Skyrim Special Edition Review: Shallow & Pedantic

What can be said about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that hasn’t already been said? Probably not a whole lot, but bear with me, because I’m going to try to give my perspective anyway. Much of this review naturally applies to the non-special edition, or, if you prefer:

  • Skyrim: The Mundane Edition
  • Skyrim: The Unfinished Edition
  • Skyrim: The “We Could Have Done Better” Edition
  • Skyrim: The Fuck You Edition
  • Skyrim: The Purchased Piecemeal Edition

One has to marvel at the audacity of re-releasing Skyrim in Fallout 4‘s graphical engine as a new product, but here I have to give Bethesda credit that they wholly deserve: the Special Edition of Skyrim is (was?) available for free to everyone who owned the PC version and all its DLC. What can I say? Bethesda knows where its customers are, and this is no small thing. I was a bit irritated when I learned that Skyrim was going to be re-released in Fallout 4‘s enhanced engine, and was supremely and pleasantly surprised to learn that it was going to be available at no cost to anyone who owned the original game and its three pieces of DLC. That’s shocking.

Kudos, Bethesda. In an age where publishers and developers are cutting their games into bits and pieces to squeeze every penny out of customers that they can, your actions stand in stark contrast, and I can’t praise you enough for this decision.

Now, all of that said, my review of the Special Edition is actually going to be pretty brief.

Skyrim: Special Edition

Why would anyone in their right mind go back to unmodded Skyrim? Maybe this is less of an issue with console players, but I can’t imagine any circumstances wherein I would choose to go back to playing Skyrim without the nine million mods that I’m accustomed to. It’s here that the Special Edition falls flat, and will continue to fall flat. The people who made the Skyrim Script Extender have stated they have no intention of releasing one for Special Edition, which severely limits what mods can do.

Additionally, the makers of SkyUI have stated they have no intention of porting their mod to the Special Edition, and all of this is certainly understandable. These people made these things for fun and as personal challenges to themselves. They’ve been there, and they’ve done that. They’ve climbed Everest and see no reason that they should climb it again. While they are willing to allow others to port their mods to Special Edition, it is looking increasingly unlikely that anyone is going to step forward to do it, and I can’t say that I blame them–not when Skyrim is as old as it is. That’s a lot of work to be doing on a game that is very old and not particularly exciting these days.

Without the SKSE, SkyUI can’t function. Without SkyUI, the Mods Configuration Menu can’t function. Without that, things like Warzones, Simple Multiple Followers, Companion Overhaul, Relationship Dialogue Overhaul, and many others either can’t function or can’t be easily changed. Moreover, I have to question Bethesda’s decision to make the mod menu much more like Civilization V‘s, in that it seems to happen primarily from the menus within game instead of externally. Maybe it’s because I’m a PC player, but I prefer to be in charge of the mod installation process. While I’m sure this is still possible, as it was for Civilization V even with its built-in mod browser and installer, it’s a questionable decision nonetheless to include this console feature on PC. It may be elitist, but if you can’t figure out how to Google and learn to install mods for Skyrim, then you probably shouldn’t be playing the game on PC anyway.

Take a good look at that image. It’s at the very beginning of the game, when Ulfric and Rolaf are about to be executed. This is the scene that is presented to the player. This is it. This is Skyrim: Special Edition. There’s a fucking horse’s schnoz taking up half the screen. And, needless to say, this is unmodded. This is the sort of slap-dash thing that can be expected from Special Edition–things added and implemented without much forethought or testing put into them. This image sums up better than anything I could say the entire Skyrim: Special Edition.

Back to Skyrim: Mundane Edition

So because anyone who has played Skyrim on PC before likely finds the idea of playing the game unmodded about as appealing as a root canal, and perhaps just as painful, I found myself almost instantly returning to what I’m going to continue calling Skyrim: The Mundane Edition. Why not? It’s not the Special Edition. What’s the opposite of special? Mundane. It’s a tacit admission from Bethesda that they released a mundane version of the game, isn’t it? Just like the Komplete Edition of Mortal Kombat 9 is an admission that they initially released an inKomplete version.

So let’s tear into the game.

Graphics

Unmodded, Skyrim is pretty. Modded, it can be among the most breathtaking games anyone has ever played. 4k retextures are common, and one of my all-time favorite mods adjusts the lighting so that it’s absolutely necessary to wander dungeons with a torch or the Candlelight spell. The mod I’m using for Serana makes her one of the most beautiful people in any video game ever.

Not to mention that I use a mod that causes snow to accumulate on clothes and bodies–because it only makes sense–and a mod that causes us to leave footprints in the snow.

There’s Serana in her Forsworn Armor–because what else would that gorgeous woman wear?–acting rather more naturally than companions do in the base game. I’m also using a mod that replaced PC skeletons so that females run and walk more like females. I even downloaded and installed a mod that served no purpose other than to put pigeons in Whiterun. I also use a mod that allowed me to marry Serana, because she’s probably the best crafted NPC that Bethesda ever made. Who wouldn’t want to marry Serana?

To be clear, neither I nor Serana continue to wear Forsworn Armor. Instead, I’ve used a mod that makes female armor a tad more revealing–Chainmail Bikini in full effect. My only gripe with it is that, as the Dragon Age: Origins mod that I use did, it went way too far. I think the Forsworn Armor should be used as a guideline as the most revealing piece of armor in the game. Instead, these mods take it and run with it, making the Forsworn Armor look positively conservative. I like half-naked women, I will not lie, but something has to be left to the imagination.

All that said, between the plethora of mods available and the naturally good graphics–although they weren’t really that much better than those of Gothic 3, which released long before Skyrim did–the graphics in Skyrim aren’t just great: they’re whatever the player wants them to be.

Aural Experiences

The default sounds of Skyrim, like the graphics, are good. It’s easy to get pumped up by some of the music and find yourself charging headfirst into a dragon, only to be bitten in half like the guards who once adventured until they took an arrow in the knee stopped adventuring. However, mods again come to the rescue and turn the Skyrim: Mundane Edition into the Skyrim: WHAT IS THIS EVEN HAS ANYONE EVER BEEN SO FAR AS DECIDED TO EVEN GO LOOK MORE LIKE Edition.

From sounds in the wilderness to lightning strikes during storms, wild animals, and ambient creepy noises in dungeons, mods take the ordinary Skyrim experience and turn it into something that borders on marvelous. In fact, Skyrim: Mundane Edition comes off more like a community-made game by the end of it, with Bethesda doing little more than providing the framework for everyone to add their own things to it. Sure, Skyrim: Special Edition has a better base to work with–in theory, at least–but the best have already moved on. I can’t belabor that point enough. There will never be a SkyUI for Special Edition. It’s not “in the works.” It’s not “check back in a few months.” It’s not happening.

All in all, Skyrim: Mundane Edition does a fantastic job of communicating information to the player. This is the job of graphics and sound, after all, and everything from distance detail to surrounding enemies to atmosphere are conveyed adequately and expertly. There’s not much to complain about. Everything else, however, takes a sharp plummet into shoddy territory.

Gameplay A: Quests

I hate Quest Systems. They were invented by MMOs in order to give the player something to do while minimizing the effects of the player’s actions. That’s what they were designed to do, and that’s what they do. The advantage is that the player can do a task for someone and be rewarded; thus, the player will feel as though they have achieved something. Additionally, the limited nature of the quest means that the only thing that changes is that NPC’s dialogue. It’s easy to see why MMOs need this: we can’t have players in MMOs all actually being the Chosen One and saving the world, after all. If players could impact any sort of meaningful change to the world, then the server would be horrifically unstable as it tried to figure out which of two players actually did something, and tried to adjust the world accordingly. Besides, if the game world changed, then those ten kobolds that Player A killed would mean that Player B would never be able to do that quest.

Blizzard has attempted to solve this problem with phasing, a point I bring up only to highlight that it is a problem with the Quest System. Players never see the impact they are having on the world. No matter what they do, those kobolds will respawn. The player is incapable of having any meaningful effect on the world, and the Quest System is the reason why. In MMOs, this is both important and critical. That single-player RPGs have borrowed it is nothing short of lazy and tedious.

If I took it upon myself to clear out every Bandit keep in the game, it wouldn’t matter. Skyrim would never react to my having done so. No NPC would ever remark that there don’t seem to be many bandits running around these days. Not only will bandits respawn–another feature typical of MMOs–but some of the keeps can’t be permanently cleared. There is an infinite number of quests in Skyrim, in fact–questing for a Jarl in a hold will ensure that a dragon or group of bandits is always respawning, and that the player can never actually do anything to change the world.

*Spoiler Warning: Dark Brotherhood*

Skyrim takes this and runs with it, becoming the most shallow game I’ve ever played. After going through the Dark Brotherhood questline and killing the Emperor, nothing happened. And I mean: nothing happened. The Emperor died, but that was it–it was no different from killing any other NPC in the game. While fighting the Civil War with the Stormcloaks, I, the mighty Dragonborn, killed the freaking Emperor! Talk about an instant victory in the civil war, right? No. Nothing happened. I don’t think that it was even mentioned when we wrapped up the civil war. It was like I hadn’t even done it. A few NPCs remarked from time to time about the Emperor’s death, but contrast it to the Emperor’s death in Final Fantasy VI to see what I mean. That had consequences–huge, incalculable consequences. The game world changes in Final Fantasy VI rather drastically as a result of Emperor Gestahl’s death. In Skyrim, nothing changes as a result of the Emperor’s death.

*End Dark Brotherhood Spoiler*

Nowhere is the shallow nature of Skyrim more evident than with marriage, another reason that I choose to marry Serana: by the end of the Dawnguard questline, she and I have forged a genuine bond. We’ve stood together and fought together, and even the most jaded of players will probably have to admit that there is genuine chemistry and emotion between Serana and the Dragonborn. Yet canonically Serana can’t be married; it takes a mod to fix that ridiculousness.

Generally, marriage in Skyrim works like this. You do a quest for someone, and then you go the Temple of Mara in Riften and tell the dude there that you want to get married. He sells you an amulet. You wear the amulet and talk to the person for whom you did the quest, and this gives you the dialogue option to propose to them, regardless of their sex or your sex, because everyone is bisexual–which I’ve talked about before. They say “Yes” and you’re married the next day. That’s it.

The official guide lampshades this by saying that, because of how dangerous life is in Skyrim, people tend to live for the moment and are eager to get married and have a partner. The Hearthfire addon adds the ability to adopt children–but one can’t actually have children, presumably because getting pregnant and spending 9 months with an avatar that is gradually growing larger was too much depth for Bethesda, even though even The Sims has managed to do it without much complication… And that could really add an interesting dynamic, especially if the Dragonborn is the one pregnant, since the Housecarl and allies would then be critical in protecting the Dragonborn while she was seven months pregnant. So many possibilities.

Adoption is also shallow–awkwardly and embarrassingly so. If players see a child they want to adopt, and the child is eligible, the dialogue goes like this:

Dragonborn: “How would you like to be adopted?”

Child: “That would be great!”

Dragonborn: “Well come along, daughter/son.”

Child: “Yay, momma/daddy!”

That’s seriously it. The hamfisted way that the Dragonborn says “son/daughter” toward the end of the dialogue is so awkward that I’m genuinely embarrassed for whatever poor sap wrote it. Not only is it painfully expositional–and stupidly so, since we literally just adopted the kid and probably haven’t forgotten that already–but it happens way too quickly.

That’s Skyrim‘s modus operandi, though. Speed, speed, speed! No time for development! It was jarring to join the Companions the first time and find myself as the leader of their order less than one in-game week later, after doing only three or four quests for them. I hadn’t even met some of them, yet this random person out of nowhere was suddenly their leader. The Dark Brotherhood, Thieves’ Guild, Mages’ College, and everything else follows that same pattern. There’s no time to form a genuine relationship with any of the characters or organizations; before the player knows it, they’ll be totally in charge of that organization.

It’s why the Dawnguard expansion stands out so much. Being devoted almost completely to one single questline, it’s able to show off what Skyrim could have been, if Bethesda had opted for quality instead of quantity. The gameworld does change as a result of what the player does in Dawnguard–the vampire scourge that annoyingly harasses the player after nearly every fast travel comes to an end, for one. Serana’s mother returns home, and they have some semblance of a happy family again. It’s not much, but it doesn’t have to go full World of Balance / World of Ruin for the player’s actions to actually have an impact on the world.

Another good example is the main quest, which I must confess I’ve never bothered to complete. Because of the player’s actions–but only because the game is player-driven, really…–dragons begin appearing all over the place. By moving forward with the quest, the player changes the world by unleashing all those dragons.

*Spoiler Alert: Civil War*

And then the Civil War questline totally drops the ball. By far, the most disappointing part happens directly after the Battle of Whiterun–which has its own problems. After taking and defeating the center of the entire region of Skyrim, the player is told to just kinda “do their own thing.” What the hell sort of military is this? There was so much potential here to take on a sort of simplistic Civilization or Age of Empires type of thing, where the player directed military forces here and there to hold off the Empire’s counter attacks and to gain territory.

I’m almost positive there is a mod that does this, by the way, but Bethesda should have implemented it. Having to choose between dispatching a unit to protect supply lines or risk that unit flanking the enemy and cutting off the Empire’s support… None of this would have been hard to do. Instead, the player is relegated to some sort of solo strike force, attacks a few holds, and then that’s it. Skyrim gains its independence, Ulfric is appointed High King, and… that’s it. Nothing changes.

* End Civil War Spoiler*

A mod can’t fix what is fundamentally broken, and Bethesda’s zeal for quantity over quality is Skyrim’s biggest problem. Now that I’ve completed Dawnguard and Dragonborn, I find myself not really having anything to do. Oh, there are plenty of quests that I could do–hundreds, perhaps even thousands. But they’re all functionally identical. They’re MMO quests. Kill these people, collect this thing, collect ten of these, go explore this place, deliver this message…

It’s true that a few of them are sequential chests, but these, too, are shallow and ultimately meaningless. “Ooh, I found Meridia’s Beacon and need to deliver it to a temple… Holy shit! She’s a daedra! Oh. She wants me to clear out the undead in her temple. Yeah, that’s new. I’ve only done that nineteen times since Bleakfall Burrows… Oh, look, druagr. Those are new. Neat. A legendary weapon that I don’t need because I can craft better stuff. And that’s the end of the quest. Hooray.”

This is 99% of Skyrim, these meaningless, trite quests that are identical to every other meaningless and trite quest in the game. The worst offender is the Thieves’ Guild quest, which ends with the forced option to sell one’s soul to the daedra Nocturnal to join the Nightingales. Let me reiterate: this role-playing game doesn’t provide the player the option to refuse to sell their soul and take their chances fighting someone. This is indicative of Skyrim as a whole: the only choice is to do a quest or not to do a quest. Quests happen exactly as Bethesda wanted, or they simply don’t get done. That’s disgusting for a role-playing game.

Gameplay B: Emergent Gameplay

Aside from my various adventures with Serana, one of the most memorable experiences for me was when Lydia and I stumbled across a keep of bandits. This was before I was using a mod to give my followers a mount–honestly, how did Bethesda not include that in the core game? We wandered into the keep mostly by accident. Archers killed my horse. I turned to flee, knowing that we were outnumbered and outmaneuvered, and I looked just in time to watch Lydia fall to the ground, dying. I rushed to her with Healing Hands equipped, but I wasn’t fast enough. An arrow pierced her heart, and my weak healing magic was no match for the steel-tipped projectile.

I was furious. I took my Werewolf form, and I went on a roaring rampage of revenge. I killed everyone in that keep, and then I ate them for good measure. I stormed through that keep like a maniac, ignoring the arrows they were firing at me, and slashing wildly. I smacked them into walls, tore them limb from limb, and then devoured their hearts. I exacted my vengeance decisively, and when it was over I was left with a sort of empty feeling, knowing that Lydia and my horse were still gone, and were never coming back.

Revenge had felt good, but it offered no long-term satisfaction.

But the memory has always stuck with me. I felt Lydia’s death and wanted vengeance much more powerfully than I had when Sephiroth dropped in from above and killed Aerith. I think this was because Aerith had to die–Lydia didn’t. Lydia’s death wasn’t the plot’s fault; it was my fault. I was the one who brought us to that part of the woods, not the story. I was the one who chose to take on the bandits instead of fleeing the moment I realized we were attacking a defended fort. Lydia, who had been with me through many adventures, right by my side and tanking for me while I threw spells and fired arrows from a distance, was dead.

Because of me.

She died doing her duty to her thane.

That sort of thing can’t be scripted, and stories like that aren’t uncommon when people discuss Skyrim. The only gripe I have is that the Quest System puts too much script into the game, and those scripts get in the way of emergent gameplay. This is also something that developers are aware of–it’s why Notch has explicitly refused to put any sort of quests into Minecraft, which, of course, is a game that thrives solely on emergent gameplay.

For reasons surely psychological in nature, if you give players a checklist of things to do, they don’t wander off that checklist. Consider The Legend of Zelda versus The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. How many players spent any serious amount of time exploring dig caverns and side passages in Twilight Princess? If you give a player a list of things to do, then they’ll simply do the things on that list. They’ll hesitate to go into a new, unexplored area before the game gives them an item on that list to go there, because in the back of their mind, they’ll know that somewhere in the game is a person who will add that item to their checklist, and so there’s no point in exploring it now–they’ll just wait until someone tells the player to go explore it.

People like to say about Skyrim that you can just pick a direction and go explore it, and eventually you’ll find a cave or some dungeon or something. That’s true, but how many people have actually done that? And how many players actually do it routinely? I’d wager that fewer than 10% of players have “picked a direction and started walking” and that fewer than 1% of that 10% actually do it regularly. Why go and explore Cave A when you have a quest to go and explore Cave B? Why go and explore a cave of your own volition when you can talk to a few people in a town and get a quest to go explore a particular cave?

So what’s the grand result of all this? Skyrim: Mundane Edition is a great game, but it has some serious flaws with the gameplay–without even getting into how broken and unbalanced it is. Destruction magic is a joke, even with mods that make it better, and I’d venture the guess that everyone ends up playing a sneaking archer by the end of it. Meanwhile, Skyrim: Special Edition brings with it a host of new flaws and carries one major caveat that makes it look pale when compared to Mundane Edition: a lack of mods.

Skyrim: Mundane Edition – 3.5 stars

Skyrim: Special Edition – 2 stars

The (Apparently) Accidental Brilliance of FNAF, and Why FNAF2-5 Aren’t As Good

There was a mechanic in Five Nights At Freddy’s that was almost universally hated, and you already know what I’m talking about: the power mechanic. Everything the player did consumed power, including sitting there doing nothing because a fan constantly ran and couldn’t be turned off. I have to admit that I, too, initially hated the mechanic, but the more I played the more I began to see its subtle brilliance. Before we get into that, though, we have to talk about something more overarching:

What Makes Games Hard?

There are two types of difficulty: fake and real. Fake difficulty is heavily reliant upon trial and error. Anyone who has played I Wanna Be the Guy has taken a primer course in Fake Difficulty. Much of I Wanna Be The Guy is also genuinely difficult, but it’s Fake Difficulty when a Delicious Fruit flies up to kill you, or when Dracula in a cutscene kills you by throwing a goblet at you.

Most specifically, I want to talk about the primary difficulty: resource management. There is resource management in a lot of games that may surprise you. RPGs, in their current state, are nothing more than resource management games. It’s all about swapping out a number in the MP column to do a number of damage to the enemy to earn enough Experience to gain a level and have a higher MP pool while also earning enough money to buy an MP restoring item. This is precisely why RPGs are notoriously harder at the beginning and become increasingly easy as progress is made: the player acquires not only more resources, but more types of resources.

At early levels, a player may swap out 4 MP to do 75 damage to an enemy with 150 HP that gives 5 gold, while a healing item that restores 20 MP costs 10 gold. As you can see, if there were no other factors, the player would have to kill two of those enemies–burning 16 MP–to earn enough money to buy one MP restoring item. That leaves one extra spell cast, and that’s not much room for screwing up. Later in the game, though, the player is using 45 MP to do 4,320 damage to an enemy with 3,000 HP and earning 150 gold for doing it, while an item that restores 250 MP only costs 125 gold. The ratios become more and more balanced as the game progresses until the scale tips firmly in the player’s favor.

Even more specifically, I want to talk about Resident Evil 2.

You see, Resident Evil 2 had finite resources. The number of bullets in the game never changed. Enemies didn’t drop bullets, and if the player exhausted their supply, that was it. There were no more. At all. While there were more than enough bullets to cover the game, that didn’t change the fact that a trigger happy idiot with terrible aim would have an extremely difficult time beating the game until they learned to conserve and save ammo. This was real difficulty, and it could result in a game that was practically unwinnable because the player was extraordinarily careless and… bad at the game.

Yes, a player who runs around emptying an entire clip into a single zombie is bad at Resident Evil 2, and the game is going to severely punish them for that. They’re going to die, and there’s no way to recover those bullets. The only way to undo it is to start over and git gud. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the finite amount of save points that were in the game. That’s correct: the player could only save the game a certain number of times, because each save used an ink ribbon, and there was a limited number of them. Not only could the player burn through their ammo, but they could back themselves into a corner where they had to navigate the last 20% of the game with no saving and very little ammo. No room for error. They had to buckle down and give it everything they had.

When that failed, they had to restart the game, putting what they had learned to use, and improving.

FNAF

My experience with Five Nights At Freddy’s went exactly like this.

I died on the first night. I burned through my power because I had my cameras up constantly. This is what initially earned my ire about the game. It was fun to be creeped out watching the cameras, but the power mechanic punished me for doing it; the power mechanic punished me for having fun. However, it was so much more brilliant than that, and I just hadn’t grasped it yet. I naturally ran out of power.

Or I was killed by one of the animatronics. I don’t remember any longer, but I didn’t know that I could just not check the camera and would still live.

Regardless, the first time I completed the first night, it was with very little energy remaining. I died on the second night. A few attempts later, I survived the second night with very little energy remaining. Now that I’d gotten a decent feel for it, I made it through most of the third night until I ran out of power at 3 AM. Shit! Then 4 AM. Damn! Then 5 AM. Fuck! Then I finally had the clock roll over while I was out of power.

It wasn’t accidental, of course. Each time I played, I got a little bit better at conserving power and doing what was necessary without going overboard. The fourth night played out exactly the same way. Foxy really screwed me over for a while, because I wasn’t checking the cameras enough, and man… When he bangs on that door, it murders your remaining power. So I ran out of power early. Then I made it a little further, and then a little further. Then I was again saved after losing power by the clock rolling over.

This happened again on the fifth and sixth nights. It didn’t happen on 20/20/20/20, because the movement formula for that is so precise that there isn’t any room for individual variance, but there was absolutely no doubt. Each night forced me to get better at the game. And it worked beautifully. I not only mastered Five Nights At Freddy’s, but something else became apparent.

The Brilliance of FNAF

Because of the power mechanic, Five Nights At Freddy’s literally forces players to do nothing. It forces players to sit on the edge of their seats, almost biting their fingernails, with their hearts pounding and their tension high, and doing absolutely nothing to defend themselves or even watch out for the animatronics. Those moments of doing nothing are remarkable, because they’re necessary.

This is a game where things are constantly coming to kill you, and the game forces you to sit there and do nothing about it at regular intervals. These periods of doing nothing feel like they last forever. Have you ever heard someone doing a livestream or a YouTube video say, “I have to force myself to wait 5 seconds before doing anything else” and then counting off to five? Their “seconds” are never seconds. Most of the time only 2 or 3 seconds elapse while they count to five, because their heart is pounding. Those moments of doing nothing are extremely intense, and at literally any one of those milliseconds an animatronic could pop its head into the door.

And the player won’t know it because the player can’t know it, because the player must sit there in silence and darkness or will run out of power. There’s nothing like sitting there for five “seconds” doing nothing and then attempting to check a light, only to hear the buzzer that means an animatronic is inside and that death is inevitable.

That is what made Five Nights At Freddy’s so amazing. It wasn’t just the jumpscares, although I’ll admit that, for the first few times I played, the jumpscares themselves were very well done. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. What is truly terrifying about Five Nights At Freddy’s was the one mechanic that everyone loved to hate: the power mechanic. The one that forced players to sit there helplessly, knowing full well that things were coming for them.

FNAF 2-5

This is also the element that has been missing from every Five Nights At Freddy’s game since, though FNAF3 came closest to imitating it with the machinery that intermittently breaks down. Unfortunately, the actual mechanics of FNAF3 were so convoluted and unexplained that the malfunctioning equipment becomes little more than an annoyance. The wind-up box in FNAF2 was another attempt to do the same thing–force the player into a helpless position–but we all know why that was such an annoyance.

Don’t even get me started in the tedious Sister Location that only upped the complexity and made the stages longer and more annoying. FNAF 2 and 3 both had the right idea; Scott knew that the forced period of helplessness was what made the original so terrifying, even if the average player didn’t. However, he handled them in poor ways. The second game saw the wind-up toy and an overabundance of animatronics. I may be atypical, but I don’t think anything more than the original 4 were really necessary… I never paid much attention to which was which between Chica and Bonnie.

Forcing the player to constantly open the camera to wind up a toy was an interesting reversal of the first game and how it forced the player to constantly put down the camera. Since frontal and side assaults were the biggest threats, rather than Freddy, it worked, even if it was as criticized as the first game’s power mechanic. It was a clever way of doing the same thing without pissing off players with the same power mechanic.

In the first, of course, failing to look at the cameras would send Foxy down the hallway to either kill the player or drain power by banging on the door. Additionally, watching Freddy through the camera would lock him in place and prevent him from moving. However, while the player was looking through the camera, Bonnie or Chica could come in and kill the player as soon as the camera was lowered. This is almost certainly what killed everyone the first few times they played Five Nights At Freddy’s.

In the second game, however, failing to check the hallway in front of the player or the vent lights to the left and right would result in certain death, and the only defense was donning a Freddy mask quickly. Foxy or Mangle regularly popped up in the hallway, requiring the light to be shone down them, and the cameras became completely useless. In fact, they became worse than useless, as they blocked your view and meant that you weren’t checking the hallway or the vents. The solution was to force players to open the cameras, and so the remote wind-up box was added, forcing players to make themselves helpless.

I’d venture the guess that the wind-up boxes is hated a little less than the power mechanic because opening the camera to wind up the box is doing something, while putting the cameras down and sitting in silence was not. Though it was probably better received, it also wasn’t anywhere nearly as terrifying. Sure, the player is frantic and rushed while pulling up the camera to wind the box, and is every bit as helpless while doing it as they were while doing nothing in the original, but there’s still a large psychological difference between “doing something” and “doing absolutely nothing.”

Winding up the box is frantic, panicked, and rushed.

Sitting and waiting is terrifying.

FNAF3 forced helplessness by having the equipment randomly stop working–except it wasn’t really random. I think the voice player broke after three uses or something like that. I’m not really sure, because I loathed FNAF3. The mechanics were too complex for a game like that. There are five nights, each of which lasts ten minutes, and dying a few minutes from 6:00 AM on the third night leaves players not having any idea what they did wrong. Or maybe the ventilation just stopped working at the worst possible time. Who knows? The game is too poorly explained for mechanics that complicated.

That was FNAF3’s biggest problem: the helplessness was unpredictable. The player couldn’t just improve their management and make progress, because there were too many variables and too many things that at least seem luck-based. When I die in Five Nights At Freddy’s 1 or 2, I know exactly why, I know what killed me, and I know what I should have done better. Often, I know that I’m dead before I die. This was even true before I mastered the game; to be fair, now when I die, I know exactly why, without fail. Even before that, though, I knew it was my mistake, I knew what I’d done wrong, and I knew what to do to fix it. This was usually “consume less power.”

That meant “Take on more helplessness.”

That meant intentionally putting myself in a state of helplessness.

That’s terrifying.

This was rarely the case in Five Nights At Freddy’s 2. I don’t think that I’ve ever been killed by the Puppet, and I suspect that this is true of most people. And because we’re engaged in the act of doing something–looking through the camera and winding the box–we don’t feel helpless. We just feel annoyed.

Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 was better, as I said, because it was true helplessness. You had to reboot the systems, and that took a while. During that time, it was very likely that Springtrap was going to get very close to you. And if he was already close to you, then you were probably looking at a death. This time, however, the powerlessness was beyond the player’s control. It happened when it happened, and there was nothing that could be done about it. While this could have been scarier, it’s not, primarily because it was forced upon players.

Players making themselves helpless and dying because of it is one thing. The game making players helpless and then killing them is another thing entirely. Players were forced to be helpless, instead of forcing it upon themselves. I lack the expertise to explain why the latter is so much more intense, but it absolutely is.

FNAF4

Then Scott decided that musicians shouldn’t be able to play his games any longer. Look, my computer is run through a Sony surround sound system that cost me about $700 back when I worked at Harrah’s. On top of that, I purchased two supplemental speakers, each of which contains a 15″, a 6″, and a 2″. There’s a reason that it’s my primary device for music. It sounds amazing. And with the enhanced subwoofer and rear speakers, it gets louder than most people would guess.

Yet even turning it to full blast and cranking up gain on everything, I cannot hear the opening crickets of Five Nights At Freddy’s 4. Irritated, I unplugged my sound system and plugged in headphones. What happened? I still couldn’t hear the crickets. I attempted to play the game, but never heard anything that could be described as “breathing.”

I’m a rock musician. From 18 to 27 years old, I stood in front of 8 twelve-inch Celestion speakers in a Marshall cabinet playing guitar. I’m not hard of hearing by any means, but my hearing is certainly not what it should be. Five Nights At Freddy’s 4 relies entirely on sound cues. I heard something while listening at the doors, but none of it could have been described as “breathing.” There’s too much ambiance noise for a child’s bedroom. There shouldn’t be music at all, if that’s what he’s going for. How am I supposed to listen for breathing anyway, if the music swells in random places? Are you kidding me? That’s terrible game design.

And it’s all in the name of jump scares, isn’t it? That’s the trick. Make the player listen real closely to every little squeak and sound, every tiny, low-volume noise, get really quiet, and then RAWR SCREAM REAL LOUD IN THE PLAYER’S EARS.

“Scary” right?

“Bullshit” would be more accurate.

Sister Location lost me midway through the second night by adding even more complexity than FNAF3 had. These games are made in Clickteam Fusion, or something like that. They are not suitable for complex game mechanics. They’re simple games made in simple programs using simple concepts. Adding in a bunch of complexity isn’t a good idea, and I would have thought FNAF3 would have taught people that. One of the FNAF YouTubers I like got to Night 4 in FNAF3 without having any idea what he was doing or what he was supposed to be doing. When he died, he had no idea why, or what he had done wrong.

More to the point, though, the fear is gone. The terror is gone.

It wasn’t the jumpscares that made Five Nights At Freddy’s so nail-biting. It was the player-forced helplessness. It was knowing that you were in a dangerous situation, yet knowing that you had to sit there quietly and doing nothing if you wanted any chance of surviving. Five Nights At Freddy’s was brilliant for that, but the follow-up titles make me think that it was accidental brilliance. I’d love to see the series return to its initial glory, not chase after complexity and whore-ish jump scares.

Don’t make me strain my ears just so you can randomly blow a horn in my face and startle me.

Terrify me.

How To Fix Civilization 6

civilization_vi_cover_artI’m absolutely shocked by the extremely positive reception that Civilization VI is receiving. Those familiar with me know that I have a long history with the series, and have been playing since Civ III–apparently, whenever you attempt to criticize one of the games, you must point out how long you’ve been playing the series, and if you can’t at least claim to have started with 3 then your opinion becomes invalid. This is rather like how people can’t criticize Final Fantasy X unless they started with Final Fantasy VII or earlier–on that note, I started with Final Fantasy. No number. Beat that.

I am doing a full review of the game for Cubed3, and I’m going to post what I have so far here, but I’m going to be a bit more honest afterward. Anyway, here’s the yet-to-be-finished review. Please ignore the BBCode:

[i]Civilization VI[/i] is a game where players attempt to build cities while a psychotic AI declares war on the player, marches its troops up to the city centers, and then politely stands there while its army is bombarded to death. Much has been said about the awful AI, but given that diplomacy is such a critical part of the game, it’s nothing short of disgraceful that the AI-controlled players seem to have no idea how to play the game.

 

It’s not uncommon to hear complaints that, before the one hundredth turn, every single civilization on the player’s starting continent had declared war on the player. In a few games, enemy civilizations were [i]introduced[/i] to me—they hadn’t yet been discovered—by declaring war on me. “Oh, hello there, Brazil. It is a pleasure to meet—[i]we have had enough of your insolence![/i]” None of the games in the series have had intelligence that could remotely qualify as “intelligence” by even the most under-achieving programmer’s standards, but this reaches absolutely remarkable levels of [url=http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArtificialStupidity]Artificial Stupidity[/url].

 

Diplomacy as a gameplay mechanic is such a cool concept, but it continues to elude Firaxis on how to implement it. Not only is the AI horrendously stupid, but the only options presented in diplomacy are trade deals and war declarations. This is such an enormous step backward from the ability to tell rival civilizations not to build so closely, not to send their missionaries, and things of that nature. Again, the Community Patch Project rightly expanded the options of the predecessor, such that they were as extensive as those found in Civ IV, but [i]Civilization VI[/i] represents a gigantic step backward from even vanilla CiV.

 

It’s difficult to convey, but in one game I built a second city to claim a natural wonder I’d found. The very next turn, England contacted me to request that I not build cities that close to them. That was no problem, as I generally expand empires circularly, as opposed to growing in one direction. Everything seemed fine—diplomatic crisis averted—until the next turn, when Victoria declared war on me, saying that she could not tolerate my behavior any longer, and sent almost one whole warrior to conquer my capital. She proceeded to send an entire warrior to punish me for several turns, at which point I grew tired of her nonsense, surrounded London with archers, and eliminated her from the game. As my archers rained doom upon her city, she contacted me just about every other turn offering me a peace deal, and there was still no button to say, “You brought this upon yourself. Now die with dignity; I’ll not receive your diplomats again.”

 

AI lunacy knows no bounds this time around, and that’s not getting into the glitches, bugs, and other oddities that gamers have now come to expect from new, expensive video games. Perhaps the most interesting of these is when Gandhi is contacted by Gandhi to declare that Gandhi will no longer put up with Gandhi’s aggressive behavior, and that Gandhi thereby declares war on himself. For bonus points, this can happen with any civilization, and to the player, though there appears to be no in-game effect. Aside from that, it’s not uncommon to end a war and immediately be contacted by the loser stating that they’ve noticed the army on their borders, and they’d like to know if this means war. The best cases are when a nation on the other side of the world declares war on the player, and then offers a peace deal a dozen turns later offering up a bunch of gold. It’s bad in ways bizarre and embarrassing.

 

The focus is said to be on the multiplayer experience, but it was notoriously prone to desyncs and crashes upon launch, and the game, for this reviewer, has always been best single-player. Maybe the AI doesn’t always offer the best challenge, but there are few things more rewarding than starting a new Civilization game on a lower difficulty—to get accustomed to the new systems—and gradually work back up to King or Emperor. For years, I was stuck at Lord difficulty in [i]Civilization V[/i], and then I made the breakthrough of managing my city specialists; the next thing I knew, I was up to Emperor.

 

1UPT (One Unit Per Tile) worked very well in this game’s predecessor, although there were some flaws that had to be ironed out. It was up to the Community Patch Project to fix the civilian traffic jams that irritated everyone, but this time around the civilization traffic jams appear to be there by design, not by accident. Missionaries and apostles are the worst offenders, though there were many occasions throughout the reign of CiV that it was necessary to declare war on someone because their missionaries stood blithely in the way. Given the religious fervor on display by nearly all the world leaders, it’s sure to be a problem through every playthrough.

About to get my head kicked in on CiV.

About to get my head kicked in on CiV.

 

One advantage the predecessor had with 1UPT was that movement costs were clear and easily understood. Planning an attack against a city surrounded by jungle on one side and mountains on the other took tactical work, and it was fun for that reason; it was a genuine and fairly real-to-life representation of why the United States didn’t stand a chance in Vietnam. Building roads across the empire didn’t just connect cities; it was crucial to allow armies to get where they needed to be in a reasonable time frame. Much has been written about the changing of Workers into Builders, how roads are constructed by Caravans, and other gameplay changes, but there were always going to be such changes to the formula; it happens every game. Remember when each city was a mess of roads because every tile had to be connected to the city for its resources to be used? Change is fine. The real problem here is that it’s almost guesswork, moving armies across the world and over various terrains, and the caravan-constructed road appears to have no effect on movement cost.

 

It was once feared that culture and policies were doomed to become an alternative technology tree and that, based on the trends of [i]Civilization V[/i], everything was ultimately going to “become a technology tree.” Civics policies certainly did so, and each civic gives the player a few civic policy cards that can be activated. Government types have returned, too, and different government types, in addition to providing their own bonuses, allow for different combinations of cards to be used. For example, the Classical Republic government allows for two Economic Policy cards, but no Military Policy cards. It’s a neat, modular system that provides lots of ways to ensure that the government is maximized for the land and people.

 

Cities no longer occupy a single tile, and this is certainly a change for the better. It’s “the” feature of [i]Civilization VI[/i], just as 1UPT was “the” feature of CiV. Rather than simply building a Barracks, one must select a tile within the city’s borders and build an Encampment upon it, after which a Barracks can be built in the Encampment. As a nice touch, units then constructed by the city then appear on the tile that contains the Encampment, rather than the City Center, which makes tile selection all the more important.

Graphics have changed from the realistic style of V to a cartoonish style heavily reminiscent of [i]Civilization IV[/i], largely regarded as the apex of the series. The UI is the best yet for a Civilization game, though information can be a bit hard to find. Whether one likes or dislikes the style will be a matter of preference, but the Fog of War is absolutely terrible. Rather than lowering the brightness on tiles not currently within view of a unit, here they are colored brown and bereft of distinguishing details, a look that is drawn from medieval maps. It looks absolutely [i]terrible[/i] to have a sea of brown wash over the land like it’s [i]Dragon Age: Origins[/i].

mess

 

The terrain is more important than ever. It became extremely important with the advent of 1UPT, but now it’s of critical significance—[i]the[/i] deciding factor in the game. Placing districts upon a tile obviously means that tile cannot have a refinement constructed by a builder, and there are interesting ways that the districts and improvements work off each other. A bit of logic is all that’s really needed to take advantage of this, though. Don’t throw an Encampment right in the middle of a bunch of Farms, for example. Rivers, it has been noted, are important once again, instead of simply being the early game movement hindrance they were in the last entry; in Civ IV, of course, rivers were vital for forming free trade routes between cities. In CiV, they were an irritant that slowed movement through the early game and then dictated whether the city could build a Water Mill. That’s basically what they do here, except it’s more complex than the Boolean question of whether the city center is on a river.

 

The district concept doesn’t change the gameplay nearly as much as 1UPT did, and the result is that this feels like the sort of addition that would come via an expansion. Whether the player builds a Barracks or designates a tile to be the military district and [i]then[/i] builds a Barracks isn’t very different from simply building the Barracks. It’s a cool idea, and the synergies between the terrain, districts, and improvements offer plenty of possibilities for maximizing productivity, but it doesn’t actually represent a fundamental departure from how cities are constructed.

In fact, the whole District thing is pretty much the meat & potatoes of the game. Beyond that, it’s just Civilization V with worsened AI and changes to city-states and religion. Well, I say “changes” to religion, but it wasn’t really changed; the only difference is that you can now only construct religious units like missionaries in a city where you’ve made a religious district and plopped a temple or something there.

It was when I was building my third Commerce District that I realized what was going on. This isn’t anything even remotely new; it’s just a slightly different way of doing it. See, in ages past, it was always best for the player to have a few specialized cities: one that focused on culture buildings, one that focused on economic buildings, one that focused on military units, and, most importantly, one that focused on production. There’s an obvious flaw in the system here, isn’t there? That’s right, because Production is a generic resource that is used to build economic buildings, military units, culture buildings, and pretty much everything else except missionaries. And that is where Civilization 6 screws up.

The only way they could have made this District system truly shine is if they added a few new currencies to the game. Why not? There are already several: Science, Production, Food, Culture, Gold, Faith, Great Person Points, and probably some others I am not thinking of at the moment. The obvious flaw in this problem is that an industrial city–that is, a city that focuses heavily on production, subsumes all the others. Production is king, because production is literally used to build all the other things. What good will it do the player to have a bustling Cultural District if it takes 57 turns to build the next cultural building because the city’s a cultural powerhouse, not a production powerhouse?

A city that focused on culture, for example, will have a bunch of culture buildings that it has built over the last 60~ turns to produce 31 culture per turn. That’s a bit high, but whatever. It’s not important. If that city comes under attack because some long-standing ally like Genghis Khan decided to straight-up betray you–as he tends to do–and your army is going to take 5 or more turns to get there, then that city is gone. All of that culture will do nothing to cut down on the 24 turns it takes to build one freaking Crossbowman. If, however, it was  Production City, then it would be able to produce those 7 culture buildings in 35-40 turns and would be able to produce the crossbowman in 3 or 4 turns. It’s the core of how the game is designed: Production is King, because Production is literally what allows the player to increase everything else. Production is at the heart of it.

Need to build a Market to increase Gold? Then you need Production to build it. Need to build an Amphitheater to increase Culture? Then you need Production to build it. Need to build a University to increase Science? Then you need Production to build it. Need to build a Crossbowman to pick of Gayghis Khan’s army? Then you need Production to build it. This is the nature of the game, and, as I said, I’ve been playing Civilization since my senior year of high school. Before that I was busy playing in a rock band and dating the hottest girl at the school, so you’ll excuse me for not nerding it out with Civ 1 and 2.

With each new release, I begin at the lower difficulty settings to familiarize myself with the new mechanics, and I work my way back up to Emperor or Deity–whatever the hardest difficulty is named. I’ve got a video somewhere of me easily claiming a Domination Victory on Emperor in Civilization V, and that’s no small feat, considering the entire Happiness system of V is meant to discourage Domination Victories. Of the victory possibilities, Diplomacy is the easiest by a huge margin; without even trying, it’s easy to become Allies with most of the city-states in the game by the time the United Nations is formed, and every time the vote occurs the two civilizations who ranked highest receive 2 additional delegates; it becomes a matter of three or four more sessions, at the most, before the Diplomacy Victory is won. Cultural Victory is probably the hardest to pull off, but primarily because it’s so freaking boring and tedious.

The point is: I know how to play Civilization games, and I’m damned good at them. I love Civilization V the most because it finally added a tactical layer to the game, making it much more in-line with chess in being a combination of strategy and tactics, and yes–I’m even including Civilization IV: BTS in that estimation. I think a lot of people who say that Civ IV is the best would be very surprised if they went back to it and tried to give it another go. It’s terrible compared to V. Don’t get me wrong. BTS was perfection itself when it was in its prime, but we are a long way from that. The ridiculously overpowered religion dictating all diplomatic efforts was a particular problem, never mind the Stacks of Doom.

Civilization VI aims to prevent this problem of Production being King… by forcing players to specialize cities whether they like it or not. I still ended up with an Industrial District in every city, because otherwise build times were absolutely ridiculous. It comes back to that point above: What is the reason for having a Cultural City if it takes 25 turns to build the next Culture building, if I can specialize it in Production and take 17 turns to pump out all the cultural buildings?

There isn’t one. It’s just a broken gimmick and a half-baked idea.

The only way it could have worked is if:

  1. The new currency Conscription was added to the game. This is basically Production,but it can only be used to build military units and military buildings, in the same way that religious units can only be purchased with Faith. Valor, Bravery, Conscription–whatever Firaxis wanted to call it. This way, there’s actually a point in specializing a military city. It would produce more Valor, and since Valor is used to build military units and military buildings, it doesn’t hurt the city to specialize in it instead of Production.
    1. As an addition to this, obviously, military units could still be constructed with raw production. The Encampment District would specifically allow x per turn Valor to be generated, and additional construction of buildings could be done with either Valor or Production. Districts, of course, are built only with Production. Each Armory increases the Valor yield of the city by +2, each Barracks by +1, and so on. A Swordsman can be built with 180 Production–or however the hell much it costs–or with 5 Valor Points. The same rule would still apply that only one unit can be constructed at a time–the city couldn’t build a Swordsman with its Valor while building a Commerce District with its Production.
      1. Or why couldn’t it? Isn’t that the point of building the Districts, after all? This would actually be a fantastic way of handling it, and giving the Districts actual utility versus being boolean triggers that allow the production of specialized buildings as they are now. Why can’t I use the new Valor resource to build my Musketman while the City Center uses its Production to build a Commerce District on the other side of town? However, Production could not be split: one could not use 30% of the Production to build the Swordsman and 70% to build the Commerce District; each currency can only be used for one thing at a time. This makes the Districts far more valuable, as not only would it be faster to build a Swordsman with Valor, but using Valor to build the Swordsman also frees up the City Center to use its Production to build something. Come on, Firaxis, how did you guys not come up with this?
  2. The new currency Artistry was added to the game. This is basically Production, but it can only be used to build cultural buildings and cultural units. The game is not comprised only of Great Generals, and neither is Planet Earth. There should probably be normal Artist, Musician, and Writer units that can be used in much the same way as Missionaries, except that they generate one-time cultural bonuses or one-time tourism bonuses. Obviously, all of these units would be stackable with each other, but not with themselves. We don’t want to increase the roadblocks, traffic jams, and choke points. An Artist can occupy the same tile as an Archer and a Missionary.
    1. Similar to the above, the Artistry being produced in the city’s Cultural District could be used to build a Musician or a Concert Hall while the Valor in the city’s Military District could be used to build a Swordsman or an Armory and while the City Center could be using its Production to construct a new Holy District.

The Culture Tech Tree needs to be completely reworked so that it’s… not a tech tree. C’mon, Firaxis. This was the concern we expressed when we saw the Civic Policies of Civilization V! This is precisely what we said: “It’s cool, but we’re worried that culture is going to become just another tech tree.” And voila–the next game releases, and culture is just another tech tree, and tied strangely to government systems and civic policies. I realize that the connection between government systems, civic policies, and culture has been in place for a very long time, but it’s time to separate the things, especially now that Culture Victory is a serious thing. There is no logical relationship between a people’s culture and their governmental systems or their civic possibilities. I realize that you need a gameplay currency that allows for the progressive unlocking of governmental systems, and that it didn’t go over so well when they were tied to technology as they were in the past, but that should tell you that you’re barking up the wrong trees.

As an anarchist, I would actually argue that you’re looking at it backward, as governmental systems are the primary stifling force against cultural growth, but that’s another matter.

I don’t have an alternative system for the Civic system here in VI, but please get rid of the tech tree that it has become. That was exactly what we were worried would happen after Civilization V. I’m sure you can still find posts about it in the CivFanatics forum.

Map clutter has to go, too. Holy crap, why is the map so freaking cluttered? It is borderline impossible to tell what anything is, and I had resources sitting on my map for hundreds of years going unused because:

  1. I’m honestly not sure whether there’s even a benefit to grabbing yet another resource of tea or cows. In previous games, this information was presented clearly and unambiguously. “Build a pasture = +1 Production.” It’s a no-brainer, even if I had a billion cows already. And even though I never build mounted units, except the occasional Knight, I have dozens upon dozens of horses.
  2. The map makes it terribly unclear whether the resource has been improved or not.
  3. And never freaking mind searching the map for non-descript icons washed in the hideous brown of the Fog of War to see if there is some coal or oil I could grab. Who on the development team came up with that? “Hey, let’s wash the entire Fog of War in shit.” “What do you mean?” “I mean let’s take all the color and replace it with the color of shit.” “Wow! You deserve a promotion!”

Civilization V was a bloody mess at launch, too. It was, in fact, the last game that I bought on launch day, until Dragon Age: Inquisition came along and reminded me keenly why I stopped buying games until they’d been patched a few times. After lots of patches and a few expansions, Civilization V proved to be an excellent game–my favorite in the series, though I think I have fonder memories of IV. If you take my advice and add some new currencies to actually give value to these districts besides making them pointless gateways to other buildings, then I think Civilization 6 could go on to rival Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword. And fix the Fog of War. It’s ridiculous.

But that’s all the Districts are now: gateways that determine what type of buildings can and can’t be built in a city. They’re methods of forcing specialized cities onto the player, even though nothing was done to curve the awesome power of Production–and thus every city gets an Industrial district and becomes specialized not in Culture but Industry & Culture, not in Military but Industry & Military, and not in commerce but Industry & Commerce. It’s a gimmick that limits what the player can do, rather than giving the player new ways to improve.

And that is the very definition of “bad game design.”