Category Archives: PC

#97: Civilization II

Format: PC Genre: Turn-Based Strategy Released: 1996 Developer: MicroProse

One of the great difficulties in writing this blog has been picking just one game to represent its respective series. This is especially tricky if ‘the best’, ‘the one which we played the most’ and ‘the original’ are actually all different games in the series. Argh!

I faced this problem before, when trying to decide which Resident Evil game to write about, and I’m having the same debate with myself about which Civilization game to cover. The thing is I… is love too strong a word? No, it’s not. I love the Civilization games. The late, great Sid Meier (N.B. at time of writing, not actually dead) created something very special when he came up with the idea of Civilization (it either came to him after he got a bang on the head while fixing a toilet or stole the idea from a board game, can’t remember which).

Sid Meier. My hero... Sigh.

I think I’ve played six different Civilization games over the years, and I’m not even counting the various add-on packs and downloadable content. Collectively I’ve probably spent more time playing Civ (get with it Grandad, that’s what we kids call Civilization) games than any others. Deciding which one to cover for this blog has not been easy and, again similar to Resident Evil, I put the decision off as long as I could. With only four slots left on the blog my hand has been forced and, after careful consideration, I’ve decided to write about the one I probably played the most and returned to the most often – Civilization II.

By the way, despite being English and becoming increasingly annoyed by how American spellings are creeping into general use in the UK (it must be my age), I’ll be using the US spelling of ‘civilization’ rather than the actually-correct-as-we-invented-the-language civilisation, as that’s the spelling the games use. When I was a kid and had the first Civ game on the Amiga I made a big thing about spelling it ‘Civilisation‘ not ‘Civilization‘ on the labels of the copy disks I made. I was, as has been established in several other posts, a strange child.*

The premise of Civilization is that you control a nation/civilization for 6000 years of history. It is a massive, sprawling game in which you start with the founding of a small city state, often not even having invented the wheel, and can end up with a continent-spanning empire, putting people on the moon and nuking your neighbours.

I got the first Civ game for my Amiga 1200 sometime in 1993. Despite the simple visuals the 12/13-year-old me was instantly hooked. The game’s genius lies in how it starts off relatively simply and gradually becomes complex as you play it. Initially you just have to choose the location of your city, and then decide what unit or building to make. Easy.

The first Civilization. Looks like the German's are doing well.

After a couple of hours’ play you might have adopted a monarchy, hit the middle ages and have six or seven cities. Suddenly there’s a lot more to worry about. What’s your tax rate? What technology are you going to research? Do you change political systems? You’ve just met the Russians, should you attack them or try to build an alliance with them? Hang on, the people in one of your cities have started to riot! Do you send in the troops or build a temple to try and make them happy?

Five or six hours later you’d have become a republic and have a dozen or more cities. Your civilization has grown but now you’re in the middle of a nasty war with the French which you seem to be losing despite your new musketeer unit. By the eighth hour you’ve defeated the French, turned Communist, cured cancer but lost the space race against the aggressive and technologically advanced Zulu Empire.

Still, unlike the real world, if it all goes wrong you can start again and try to get it right. Before you know it you’ll be shouting at your pixelated army “Repel the Mongols you cowards” and renaming the recently conquered Berlin after youself. Ianstown does have a ring to it…

Early in the game. Looks lonely for the English.

One game could last days, and the sheer complexity of Civilization meant that each time you played it the experience would be slightly different. Wiped out by an invading Aztec army in 1457? Simply start again and try to get it right.

1996’s Civilization II took all that was great about the original and added so much more. Graphically the game was obviously vastly better, with an isometric viewpoint and a much more intuitive interface. The world map became larger, with lots more civilizations to play as (ever wondered who would win in a fight, the Vikings or the Egyptians? You can see in Civ II). The military side of the game is also much better. In the original Civ you occasionally had tanks beaten by archers and other slightly ridiculous things like that. Now units have ‘firepower’ and ‘hit’ points. Y’know, just like in real life!

One nice touch was the videos of advisers telling you what to do. The help they gave was minimal, pretty much asking you to concentrate on whatever area they represented (military advisor asking for more military units, economics advisor asking for more banks or market places), but for a game that in many ways was so serious, it was good to have some amusing (well, amusing the first couple of times you saw them) bits. I especially liked the Elvis guy, and the way the advisers’ costumes changed through the ages. When your Civilization was in a state of anarchy they even argued:

One innovation that Civ II introduced, and that all subsequent Civ games have had, is having different ‘scenarios’ – WWII, Fantasy Kingdoms, etc. Civ II also allowed you to create game scenarios and soon there were hundreds of fan-made ones online. My favourite was a steampunk one where you could control the Anglo-French Empire and take on the ‘Evil Society’ led by Fu Manchu. There was even a War of the Worlds-esque Martian Invasion half way through the game.

The Civilization series is the crack-cocaine of games, with a ‘just one more go’ aspect that I’m sure has led to all sorts of missed appointments/late homework/failed relationships. This is despite some pretty slow loading times. Civ II wasn’t so bad, but the original Civilization? Towards the end of the game, when your Empire would be pretty big, you would sometimes have to wait nearly 10 minutes between turns.

The games are especially appealing to people like me with a God/Napoleon complex. If only humans had always had this game, I really feel it would have saved our race a lot of bother. All those dictators and mad men who have caused so much misery because of their lust for power… If only they could have played Civ II, they would have just sat in their bedrooms, living out their power-crazed fantasies virtually.

Half the fun was creating an entire alternate history for the world. Remember the great Greek Empire across 19th Century Europe?

I sometimes worry that without this game I would end up seizing power and MAKING EVERYONE PAY. Ahem. Don’t worry though, even if this does happen I’m a pretty good ruler, conquering the world as a communist before creating a worldwide democracy. Doesn’t sound too bad does it? See my Syndicate post for more evidence of my disturbing dictator tendencies.

I got a good 8 or 9 years of play out of Civilization II. Not many games you could say that about. I bought Civilization III but it seemed overly complex to me, and I returned to the simple elegance of II. It wasn’t until I got Civilization IV in 2006 that I felt ready to leave it behind. I’ve not played Civ V, though my brother has and he’s not impressed, so I’ll probably stick with IV for now.

If you treat the series as one game then I would say it’s the best game ever. Really. It’s addictive, has incredible depth, and has taught me all sorts about history and ancient civilizations (I first learnt about what happened to the Aztecs, the Manhattan Project and Ironclads from Civilization). It also manages to realistically reflect real-world politics. For example, in Civ IV I often found myself starting wars because I wanted access to oil a rival had in its territory. They should play it in schools! Though it might lead kids to think Cardiff had pyramids…

Taken from Moby Games (http://www.mobygames.com/)

To finish, here’s a description of a particular game of Civ II I played years ago, taken from an old blog of mine. Enjoy!

I dug Civ II out the other day on a whim. I decided to be the Japanese and play on the ‘real’ world map (as opposed to a world the computer randomly makes up). I didn’t do very well. I made some elementary mistakes which meant that I fell well behind in technology compared to other civilisations (especially the Greeks curse them). I ended up having a pointless war with the Chinese which gave me a bad reputation with the rest of the world, then accidentally angered the Greeks who conquered half of my territory with frightening ease. I gave up when it became obvious that I was on the brink of becoming a 4th rate power in the world, appeasing the massive Greek Empire and their Chinese lapdogs. I refuse to live in a world like that!

I named one of the Japanese cities on the Asian mainland after Lewis (Lewisville?). It was one of the first to fall against the Greeks. I blame him and his cowardly city on my eventual defeat. I will make him suffer for your betrayal.

ALL HAIL IAN!!!

Hmmm, writing that reminds me of this bit from Red Dwarf…

Ian

*[Lewis puts on his copy-editor hat and attends the lecturn.] Actually, ‘-ize’ endings have been in use in British English since the 16th century, and are derived from Greek (whereas ‘-ise’ comes from French), so they’re not merely an ‘Americanism’. Also, the OED usually lists ‘-ize’ endings first, although it takes great pains to point out that ‘-ise’ is an “equally correct, alternative spelling”. Having said all that, I still prefer ‘-ise’ endings, even though I spend all day at work changing them to ‘-ize’.

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Filed under 1996, MicroProse, PC, Turn-Based Strategy

#47: Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2

Format: PC Genre: RTS Released: 2000 Developer: Westwood Pacific

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 is not only the greatest C&C game but one of the finest RTS games ever made. Yes, you read that correctly. Stick that in your non-Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 RTS pipe and smoke it!

Box Art for PC version

Ok, before I justify such a bold statement (I’m sure there are literally… 6 furious people right now) a bit of background. C&C: Red Alert 2 is a sequel to, unsurprisingly, C&C: Red Alert, itself a spinoff to the original Command & Conquer games. The C&C series are real time strategy (RTS) games. Essentially you build a base, collect resources, build an army then attack. A simple idea but when done well RTS games are as fiendish and tactically minded as a game of chess (note – I don’t play chess).

Set in a more or less separate universe to the first Command & Conquer, Red Alert depicts a world where Hitler never rises to power (somehow he’s stopped by a time travelling Albert Einstein – no, really). Instead of WWII we get a war with Stalin’s USSR. The suggestion is the people of the world just really wanted a war in the 1940s. Good thing there was another totalitarian one party state led by a psycho with a moustache. Otherwise we’d have just got bored. You play as either the Allies, pushing back the massive Red Army and defending freedom, or as the Soviets, bringing the revolution to the capitalist pigs of Western Europe.

Red Alert 2 is set a few years after the first game (in a world where the Allies won) where the Soviet Union still exists under the rule of Allied puppet leader friendly to the West. Except he’s not! He’s just pretending you imperialist idiots, and before you can say Fyodor Dostoyevsky there are Zeppelins in the skies above New York and Soviet tanks rampaging through Texas. The Cold War just got Hot.

I’ve always loved the C&C games. I was there at beginning, getting the very first C&C game on, slightly bizarrely, the Playstation (alright, I know technically Dune 2 was first but I never played it so it doesn’t count). One of my all time top gaming moments is the end of the NOD campaign where you get to decide which famous monument to destroy (for patriotic reasons I always went for the Palace of Westminster). Of course the gameplay is great, yadda yadda yadda but C&C games are known for their full-motion video (FMV) cut scenes.

FMV was already a bit of an oddity by the time of Red Alert, with most games preferring to use CGI intros and cut scenes. It was cheaper and I’m sure many designers probably felt they were less jarring than video scenes. But the FMV makes those games. In Red Alert 2 they are over the top, bombastic, ludicrous and hilarious they totally bring you into the games. Just watch the intro above. How can you not love a game which opens with an American President talking to an intern who looks suspiciously like Monica Lewinsky?

The C&C games which, to me, have been the weaker entries to the series are C&C: Tiberium Sun and C&C: Generals, and I put this down to the lack of/poor FMV. Generals dispensed with FMV cut scenes entirely and while Tiberium Sun still had them, the characters in them did not talk directly to ‘you’. For me at least it really made a difference. It made  playing the game a strangely detached experience.

Red Alert 2 also has the most finely balanced sides in the game, each with corresponding strengths and weaknesses. Being the Allies or the Soviets isn’t just window dressing, you really do play the game in a different way depending on which side you’re playing as.

An Allied Base. Quiet. Maybe too quiet...

There are just enough units to make the gameplay varied and interesting, but not too many to become overwhelming. I’m working my way through Red Alert 3 at the moment and while it’s fun they seem to have dispensed depth for variety. Though Red Alert 3 does have a lot more women with big boobs in it than the last ones. Swings and roundabouts.

The Soviets Invade! Bye, bye Pentagon

There is a sense of joie de vivre which can be seen and felt throughout Red Alert 2. Considering it’s a war game it doesn’t take itself to seriously, in fact in so many ways it’s stupid. You’re talking about a game where one of the military units at your disposal is a giant squid. Yet Red Alert 2 is a properly satisfying gaming experience.

Now, if you forgive me, I need to dig out my Russian hat and turn the Eiffel Tower into a giant electric weapon again. Or maybe fight for freedom and try to stop the Commies from blowing up the Statue of Liberty. ‘Incoming Transmisson’…

Ian

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Filed under 2000, PC, RTS, Westwood Studios

#34: Commandos: Beyond the Call of Duty

Format: PC Genre: Real-Time Tactics* Released: 1999 Developer: Pyro Studios

I’m not even sure if I actually like this game or not, but I feel it deserves inclusion for the simple fact that it dominated my life for a week or so in early 1999 or thereabouts. Whether it made my life better or just scarred me for life is up for debate…

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty Box

In early 1999 I was in the first year at university, and one of my friends in halls had a one-level demo of Commandos: Beyond the Call of Duty on his PC (incidentally, the game is a standalone expansion pack for Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, which was released the previous year). The idea of the game is simple – you control a squad of commandos (sniper, driver, spy, green beret, etc.) and the aim is to sneak around behind enemy lines performing various acts of sabotage and assassination. However, the actual execution (if you’ll forgive the pun) is mind-numbingly difficult – if you’re spotted by one of the enemy troops, it’s pretty much game over, which means you have to plan every single move in excruciating detail.

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty screenshot 1

Before moving anywhere you have to scope out the patrol paths and lines of sight of all of the enemy guards to ensure you don’t end up wandering across any wayward Germans. This generally equates to crawling around painfully slowly and hiding behind bushes – as you might have guessed, this definitely isn’t an action game. In fact, shooting anyone is practically committing suicide, as the sound of gunshots draws in every German from the surrounding area, resulting in a quick death for Johnny Englishman. The only way to really progress safely is to sneak up behind each enemy and dispatch them silently before hiding the body – no mean feat when the level I played was approximately the size of Normandy (you can see why it took me a week to complete one level).

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty screenshot 2

The cautious nature of the gameplay and the massive penalties for detection meant that I had to save the game after practically every move I made, and there were several occasions where I had to backtrack to a previous save point and redo a whole section of the level because I’d gone the wrong way or found myself in an impossible situation. God knows where I got the patience from.

However, as they say, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward, and the sense of achievement I felt on completing the demo was utterly amazing – somehow the elation of triumph over adversity overshadowed all the hardship and frustration. I imagine it’s the same kind of feeling as being trapped down a mine for a week and then stumbling, squinting and bewildered, into the sunshine, safe in the knowledge that you can happily get on with the rest of your life.

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty screenshot 3

That makes it sound like the game was a chore to play, but that’s definitely not the case – frustrating and difficult it might have been, but it was also extremely rewarding, not to mention very pretty to look at (I reckon the hand-drawn graphics still stand up pretty well today). Then there’s the fantastic sound effects, the speech in particular. The green beret (I think it was the green beret anyway) said everything in a wonderfully sneering tone, and ordering him to move anywhere would elicit a sarcastic “Yes… sir“.

But does the game stand up today? The inspiration for this post came from seeing Commandos 2 on the PS2 for a ludicrously low price in a game shop over the weekend. I couldn’t resist picking it up for nostalgia’s sake, but I was bitterly disappointed when I got it home – after less than an hour I’d become utterly frustrated with the glacial pace of the gameplay and the constant restarts. Perhaps this game is best regarded as a fond memory. Or at least as a worthwhile exercise in endurance.

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty screenshot 4

Although having said that, the PS2 conversion was utterly dire – the attempt to map the various controls to a joypad resulted in probably the least intuitive control system I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience. Plus it had the most tedious tutorial I’ve ever seen in a video game, but I had no choice but to sit through it because the controls were so damn complicated that I didn’t have a hope in hell of playing otherwise.

Still, these days I prefer my gaming in bite-sized chunks – I just don’t have the time to play games like this anymore. Anything that requires me to play a level for an hour or more – let alone a week – just doesn’t get a look in. Aaah, to be 19 again, with acres of spare time spread in front of me…

(This is actually a video of Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, but you get the idea.)

Lewis

*Bit of an odd genre this – Commandos was an early example of a real-time tactics game, but Cannon Fodder (which will be appearing on the list soon) was one of the very first. A list of RTT games can be found here.

(Screenshots from http://www.gamespot.com)

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Filed under 1999, PC, Pyro Studios, Real-Time Tactics

#23: Sam & Max Hit The Road

Format: PC Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure Released: 1993 Developer: Lucasarts

Believe it or not, I didn’t actually own a PC until 2007 (which is why there are precious few PC games on this list), although during my teenage years I would often nip over to my PC-owning friend’s house to rattle through the latest point-and-click adventure. Day Of The Tentacle was a definite highlight of this time, but my favourite was Sam & Max Hit The Road.

Sam & Max Box Art

Point-and-click adventures, particularly the Lucasarts ones, are perfect for playing with two people: you can collaborate on solving tricky puzzles and neither one of you feels left out if you’re not in control of the game (after all, you’re just pointing and clicking, not taking down helicopter gunships with your bare hands). Most importantly, the jokes always seem funnier when there’s someone else there laughing along with you; and Sam & Max was very funny indeed.

Sam & Max Screenshot 1

The game follows the adventures of the self-styled ‘Freelance Police’, a duo that consists of Sam, an anthropomorphic dog, and Max, a psychotic rabbit. At the beginning of the game they’re called upon to investigate the disappearance of a frozen bigfoot from a carnival freakshow, and it just gets weirder and weirder from then on in. The pair’s investigation soon takes them to all sorts of random tourist attractions and bizarre slices of Americana, such as ‘The Mystery Vortex’ and my personal favourite, ‘The World’s Largest Ball of Twine’ (complete with a restaurant on top), and the humour never lets up along the way.

Sam & Max Screenshot 2

A sardonic quip, wry aside or visual gag is inserted at every opportunity, and some there are some cracking lines, such as:

Sam: “Where should I put this thing so that it doesn’t hurt anyone we know
     or care about?”
Max: “Out the window, Sam.  There’s nobody but strangers out there.”

Or:

Sam: “Now what are you doing?”
Max: “I was just waving at some toddlers in the next car. They’re crying now.”

Or:

Sam: “Don’t you just love stopping for breakfast when you’re on the road?  I
do… and so does my hairy little friend. And Max does, too.”

Sam & Max Screenshot 3

One of this game’s greatest innovations was the method of conversation – rather than selecting a line of text from a conversation tree (the method featured in previous Lucasarts games such as The Secret Of Monkey Island), the player clicks on an icon that represents a topic of conversation, which then generates a line of dialogue from Sam. This has the bonus of keeping the dialogue hidden until it’s read out, as in the words of developer Michael Stemmle, “nothing would kill a joke worse than reading it before you hear it”*. The CD version of Sam & Max was also one of the first point-and-click games to use actual voice actors rather than written dialogue, and, unlike the dodgy CD-i interactive movies that debuted at around the same time, the acting throughout was generally excellent.

Sam & Max Screenshot 5

As I remarked in my Beneath a Steel Sky post, it’s good to see that point-and-clickers are making a bit of a mini-comeback, and I recently found out that Sam & Max: Season One is now available on the Wii (does this mean that point-and-click adventures are now mainstream again?). Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a trend: I’d love to see games like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango (or even sequels to them) making it onto the Wii, and I was particularly encouraged by the announcement of a Secret Of Monkey Island remake for X-box Live Arcade.

Long live the point-and-click adventure!

Lewis

*’The Making of: Sam & Max Hit the Road’, Retro Gamer March 2006

(Screenshots from www.mobygames.com)

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Filed under 1993, Lucasarts, PC, Point-and-Click Adventure