Archive for the 'Strategy' Category


Freedom Force: Prestige and Perfection

I describe myself as a completist. This is a matter of habit, and the habit was formed when I was a child and didn’t have the disposable income to buy a new game whenever I wanted one. Scouring a game for every last crumb was a way of extending the experience. But while it extends, it also dilutes. I can’t deny that completist habits can interfere with the enjoyment of a game, dragging it out past the point where it has anything to teach you. But then, sometimes failing to go for 100% means you see only half the content. It all depends on the game — some are calibrated for completism, some are not.

If a game designer wants to encourage completism, it’s easy to do: just tell the players what they have and have not accomplished. Freedom Force does this at the end of every level. Every primary and secondary objective is listed — if you’ve completed the level, you have by definition executed all the primary objectives, but secondary objectives can wind up with a big X of incompletion next to them. Also, every type of enemy you encountered is listed, with the number defeated out of the number available to be defeated, like “Thug with bat: 11/12”. Any completist looking at that will want to hunt down the twelfth thug with bat. Which is a problem, because it’s not really worth it, in terms of entertainment or in terms of gameplay mechanics. The real point of this summary screen is not to encourage completism, but to tell you where your Prestige Points are coming from. Prestige is kind of like XP for the whole team, but its sole effect on gameplay is unlocking optional heroes, and the quantities of prestige needed for this are large enough that picking off a few more thugs won’t make a difference.

It seems like the designers of the game were aware of the problem, because there’s a pair of levels that are positively designed to break the completist mindset.

First, there’s “Prehistoric Panic”, a level in which a dinosaur-emitting portal opens up in the middle of the city. (It’s not yet clear why this happened. Presumably Energy X is involved somehow, because that’s the explanation for everything else in the game, but if I meet a scientist named Kirk I’m gong to hit him very hard.) There are a number of set encounters here, but there are also additional dinosaurs that simply come out of the portal over time. Allegedly in the original version you could exploit this to get as much Prestige as you wanted by just standing by the portal and trouncing the dinosaurs as they came through, although a later patch capped the prestige bonus at 20 of each type of creature. Either way, this is the first occasion where the number of enemies is not fixed. You’re required to defeat every dinosaur that appears, but regardless of how many that is, the Prestige report treats it like completion: “Raptors: 6/6” if that’s how many there were. Knowing that the maximum can vary makes it seem less important somehow.

This is immediately followed by a level involving giant ants destroying the city. Once again, the number is not fixed, and you can stand there and farm prestige if you really want to, but the goal is to destroy the holes they’re emerging from. In fact, the ants simply vanish when you destroy their holes, so you can complete the level without harming any ants at all. The key thing about this level is that it is impossible to completely avoid prestige penalties. That’s another thing reported between levels: collateral damage in the form of civilians harmed and buildings destroyed. Usually, it’s not hard to keep that section of the report clear, as small items like cars and lampposts aren’t counted. But here, even if you did everything perfectly, there will be buildings destroyed when the ants create holes directly under them.

The interesting thing is that this time around I knew what was coming, but still felt the need to try for perfection in the levels before these two. I suppose it’s due to the content. Up to this point, the level goals were generally to prevent chaos and destruction. For example, when a villain called Nuclear Winter (basically Mr. Freeze as a soviet agent) tries to detonate a stolen atom bomb, you have no choice but to prevent it from going off. But in these levels, preventing chaos is not an option. Chaos has already begun. You’re there to stop what has already started, and anything that delays you in this errand is a bad thing, even if it does net you a little more Prestige.

Freedom Force: Combat and Character

So, let’s talk mechanics. In any mission, you have up to four characters, controllable independently. Clicking on stuff lets you assign actions like moving, talking to NPCs, picking up and throwing environmental object such as crates and automobiles, and most importantly, attacking the various thugs, monsters, and supervillains that try to stop you. All actions are performed in real time, although you can pause the action at will — in fact, bringing up the action menu automatically pauses the game. The whole UI is very well-designed, but I’ll get into that more fully in another post.

Now, every hero has a distinct set of powers, which are mostly attacks of various sorts. There are melee attacks and ranged attacks, ones that simply do damage and ones that do elemental damage and ones that cause status effects — in short, your usual assortment for a modern CRPG. Since this is a game that takes place in a three-dimensional space, knockback from attacks can be a significant factor, especially when you’re fighting near a cliff or atop a tall building. In general, specific attacks can be made stronger over the course of the game as the characters level up.

Most powers use greater or lesser amounts of “energy” (which basically means mana). A hero’s energy naturally replenishes over time, quickly enough that you never have to wait long for it to fill up, but not quickly enough to keep you from frequently running out during fights. Making the most of your energy is thus a big part of the game’s tactics, and it always feels like a big win when you can take out enemies without using any energy at all (for example, by hurling boulders at them). You can actually choose to spend less energy than normal on a power, if you’re willing to accept weaker effects, and likewise you can spend more energy than normal for stronger effects — there are five settings, with the default in the middle four settings, two above and one below normal power, accessible through an additional right-click menu in the action menu. I find that I frequently overcharge my powers and almost never undercharge them. As in Pokémon, efficiency in this game means favoring the one-hit KO, and overcharging is key to that. Furthermore, some powers only really become useful when overcharged. For example, Minuteman has an attack that sweeps an arc, knocking back anyone it hits and doing a certain amount of damage, but not as much damage as his regular attack. At normal power, this is seldom worth it. But turn it up to max, and the knockback becomes strong enough to send normal humans sailing through the air like cannonballs, taking substantial amounts of falling damage when they hit the ground.

The thing that really impresses me is the degree to which the designers managed to come up with powers that complement the heroes’ personalities. For example, Minteman is courageous. We know this because he’s always charging into the middle of the fray and emerging victorious — and the reason he does this is that his powers are mostly short-range melee attacks and defenses that allow him to ignore the people shooting at him. His only ranged attack does a very small amount of damage, but it has a large chance of temporarily stunning its target and can ricochet to multiple foes if they’re close together. In other words, it’s basically an aid to those melee attacks, a way to make it easier to get within striking distance without getting shot. Similarly, El Diablo, the Human Torch imitation from the barrio, is impulsive, reckless even. His chief attack, a blast of flame, uses lots of energy and only affects one target at once, so it’s easy for him to run out of energy, especially if he’s fighting multiple enemies by himself — which tends to happen if you’re not careful, because his ability to fly lets him get ahead of the pack. To make things worse, he doesn’t regain energy as fast when he’s airborne. Using El Diablo effectively largely means reining him in, not letting him use his powers to their full extent lest he get himself in trouble. It takes a few failures to learn this, and it’s easy to attribute the player’s learning experience to the character.

Freedom Force as Early Marvel Pastiche

Freedom Force is definitely trying to evoke early Marvel. For one thing, most of the heroes are closely based on familiar Marvel heroes, in some combination of theme, powers, and/or personality. It’s loose reinterpretation, though, rather than strict adherence. We’ve got a Captain America-like super-patriot called the Minuteman, but instead of a soldier, he’s a former atomic scientist. We’ve got a flying fire-thrower like the Human Torch, and also like the Human Torch he’s hotheaded and impulsive, but here it’s because he’s a Latino stereotype (and, true to context, therefore a former gang member as well). I remember from my previous go-rounds that the player eventually picks up a Spider-Man-like wisecracking nerd who climbs walls, but here he’s themed around ants, and capable of spitting acid (a power that would probably be too grotesque in its effects to use in an actual silver-age comic, but the combat system here abstracts the melted flesh away.) And no one here has the same origin story as their Marvel counterpart, because they all basically have the same origin story, one involving canisters of Energy X that fell from an alien spacecraft.

It all reminds me a bit of Alan Moore’s 1963. This was likewise a fairly detailed variation on the theme of early Marvel (and, to a certain extent, silver-age DC), but with a greater emphasis on satire, on casting a spotlight on the illogical and exaggerating the already-exaggerated, carrying the pomposity and the bathos and the pointless alliteration to the point of complete ridiculousness. I draw a contrast here, but sometimes Freedom Force feels the same way. Sometimes there’s a fine line between homage and mockery.

It really comes down to this: When you want to imitate something respectfully, how do you handle its glaring flaws? Freedom Force aims to be a celebration of a style that was, when you come right down to it, pretty goofy. It wants to capture the open-mouthed childlike “Whoa, cool!” reaction, but that comes as a package deal with the flat and childish characters, the frankly stupid stories, the awkward and overenthusiastic narration. You can’t throw that stuff out, because if you do, it doesn’t seem like early Marvel any more. It becomes something else — not necessarily something better, but less evocative of that particular point in the medium’s history, with all its unpolished verve and energy. But if you include it on purpose, it becomes camp. And that’s not what they’re aiming at either.

If you ask me, Freedom Force errs on the side of camp. I remember that when I first started the game, Treyarch’s Spider-Man was still fresh in my mind. This had a strong sense of goofiness as well, but it somehow contrived to seem much more sincere about it, more like an actual Spider-Man comic. Freedom Force is handicapped by its wannabe status from the very start.

Freedom Force

Freedom Force is a game I’ve started several times over the past eight years, each time with the intention of seeing it through to the end. Somehow it’s never quite worked out. Something about its highly episodic structure makes it easy to abandon in the middle.

It’s a game about superheroes, which is something that actually used to be pretty rare. Sure, there have been superhero games for a long time — The Marvel “Questprobe” illustrated text adventures by Scott Adams 1That’s “Adventure International” Scott Adams, not Dilbert Scott Adams. and the Atari 2600 Superman come to mind as early examples — but they didn’t form a genre that you could rely on seeing every time you walked into Gamestop. Hollywood changed this: once superhero movies became staple summer blockbusters, superhero movie tie-in videogames became inevitable, and by now it’s a sufficiently established genre that companies are comfortable devoting major resources to superhero games that stand on their own — one of the best-regarded A-list titles of last year is a Batman game that isn’t linked to a movie at all. But this only started happening after the wave of movies inaugurated by 2000’s X-Men, and even then, it lagged behind the movie industry somewhat. Freedom Force, released in 2002, was something of an anomaly.

It’s also anomalous in other ways. For one thing, it takes the Astro City-like approach of making up its own roster of heroes and villains rather than licensing them. That’s actually not so weird under a broad understanding of the word “superhero”. Plenty of games have original super-powered protagonists — like Prototype and Crackdown, to name a couple of relatively recent examples from the Zero Punctuation archives. (Even the player character in venerable Doom is arguably superhuman, seeing how he can run at about 90 miles per hour while not only lugging a chain gun around but actually firing it.) But games not based on pre-existing heroes usually stray pretty far from what we usually understand to be the superhero genre in other media. (Even the licensed heroes sometimes have problems sticking to genre norms when they’re plunked into a game. Treyarch’s unjustly-neglected 2000 Spider-Man gave the player every incentive to throw policemen off of tall buildings.) Freedom Force, on the other hand, is not only about super-powered characters, it’s conspicuously superhero-styled. Or, to put a fine point on it, comic-book-styled. More specifically, the style of Marvel comics from the early 1960s. There’s a mention early on of someone working on the Mahattan project “twenty years ago”, which definitely fixes the setting between 1962 and 1965, but even without that detail, the game goes to great lengths to establish the style and zeitgeist of that era. I’ll have more to say about that later.

The final major strangeness that I’ll note before signing off is that it’s not an action game. It’s essentially a hybrid of RPG and squad-based tactical combat, with something like a streamlined Baldur’s Gate interface (complete with pressing the space bar to pause the action so you can give new orders to the entire team). I’ll probably have more to say about this later as well. It’s not the only non-action-oriented superhero game, of course — for starters, there’s the aforementioned Questprobe adventures. But those at least still provided the fundamental draw of the superhero game: the appeal of putting yourself in the superhero’s shoes, of having superhero experiences. Freedom Force actively interferes with identifying with the characters. It’s impossible to play without being constantly reminded that you’re acting on the gameworld from outside. For one thing, you have to play the whole team at once, juggling their actions. For another, the default (and most useful) perspective is highly elevated, looking down on your heroes like they’re toy soldiers, or possibly action figures. Which, I suppose, at least jibes with the affectations noted in the previous paragraph. This isn’t a real world that you can walk around in. It’s a brightly-colored, highly artificial comic-book world. It exists to be played with. The same is true of most games, but this one isn’t even dreaming of being anything other than what it is.

Well, except a Marvel product. It really, really wishes it were written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby.

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1. That’s “Adventure International” Scott Adams, not Dilbert Scott Adams.

Another Look at Red Alert

And now, a brief interlude. For July 4, American Independence Day, I couldn’t resist temporarily resuming my role as lackey to Josef Stalin. I had left off halfway through the Soviet campaign before, and I’m one level farther along now. It seemed like a fairly by-the-numbers level: start in one corner of the map, destroy all Allied units and structures, and while you’re at it, destroy the nearby village and massacre its inhabitants, because you’re evil. (Honestly, I don’t recall any other RTS taking such pains to remind you of this in the mission objectives. In Warcraft, the mere fact that you’re commanding orcs seemed to have been considered enough.) Presumably there were some new units introduced, but after three weeks without playing, I don’t know which ones they are. Perhaps they would stand out more if I hadn’t already seen every unit in the game from the Allied side.

Coming off Tender Loving Care, I’m amazed afresh at the difference that even as little as two years made to the quality of video playback. I don’t think I mentioned before that the video content in Red Alert is interlaced with black stripes, which is very distracting until you get used to it. This sort of interlacing was fairly common practice for early CD-ROM-based FMV titles, and in retrospect, I find it puzzling. I can understand the need to keep your video at a lower resolution than the already-low-res-by-today’s-standards screen, given the CPU speeds and CD-ROM throughput of the day. But surely once you’ve read a scanline-worth of data and decompressed it, slapping it on the screen twice can’t be much more expensive than once. Copying blocks from one place to another is one of those things that computers do really fast. So perhaps they did it this way because they felt it looked better? More like the then-familiar scanlines of a TV, concealing jaggies in the unused space? I have the feeling that an answer to this would have been easier to come by back in 1996, but at the time, I think I just took it for granted that this is how video on computers looked.

Evolution: Conclusions

Somewhat miraculously, I managed to win Evolution without going any farther off schedule. My intelligent species was the Silurians Sleestaks Saurosapiens, which evolved somewhat after their time — I had managed to keep a fairly sizeable and diverse stable of dinosaurs alive after the Cenozoic extinction event, which actually doesn’t seem to be all that unusual for this game, despite the game’s arbitrary penalties on the feeding rate for for creatures that are out of their proper era. (It’s a pretty good system for keeping creatures from developing too far ahead of schedule, because getting a toehold is a struggle for any new species, but an established species that isn’t struggling any more is less affected.) But honestly, I think I could have pulled off a win even if my dinosaurs had gone properly extinct. Evolving a different intelligent species would have taken longer, but I was far enough ahead to take that time.

I think I was more or less primed for victory by my previous game, which was the first time I had actually played a game to completion. Well, not played exactly. Most of the Mesozoic era, and all of the Cenozoic, I zipped through at the maximum time scale. There wasn’t much point in interacting with the game at that point: I had failed to get a mammal population going, and the extinction event left me with nothing but a few stegasauri (more or less a dead end, good for a score bonus at game’s end but only capable of evolving into ankylosaurus and triceratops) and one single low-population dryosaurus unit. A dryosaurus can take you places — it’s a potential ancestor of both Saurosapiens and Psittacisapiens, not to mention all other bird species — but the catastrophe had left these particular dryosauri in a bad state, and they weren’t long for the world. Still, I let the game play out to the end, more or less leaving it alone once I had established triceratops and ankylosaur habitats. The ankylosaurs managed to survive to the very end, even as the virtual player named Darwin filled the world with bats and rabbits and thylacines, finally winning at the 57-million-years-ago mark by developing intelligent wombats.

The main thing I got out of watching that session was an appreciation of the degree of multitasking needed to win. There’s something in the neighborhood of 200 species in the game, which is a drop in the bucket compared to reality, but still far more than it’s easy to manage in your head if you’re in a dominant enough position to have most of them coming to you. (And yes, you do want to develop every species you can, if only to keep them out of the opponent clades.) Being the loser is relatively easy: once you start losing in earnest, you only have to keep track of two or three species at a time.

Nonetheless, it’s a lot easier to keep winning than to start winning. The classic strategy-game positive feedback loop definitely applies here. You might think that the periodic cataclysms and die-offs would put everyone on an even footing, but no. The clade that’s most widespread before the event tends to have the most survivors afterward, and also is in the best position to capitalize on any extinctions.

All in all, I’d say this is actually a pretty good game. Seeing it on a store shelf back in 1997, you’d probably assume that it’s just watered-down educational fare, but there’s some real game here. The main thing I’d change is the UI. The game uses a sort of MDI interface, with various components of the game, including the main view and the various information dialogs, placed in distinct windows with their own title bars, which you can drag around and minimize and so forth (all within a parent window). This may have seemed like a good idea in 1997, when people were still figuring out how to best take advantage of Windows 95, but only one of these sub-windows can have focus at a time, and that’s inconvenient — especially when focus is taken away by a modal pop-up.

Evolution: Environment and Migration

I’m still consistently losing. Or rather, consistently giving up when it’s clear I’m going to lose. I’ve started loosening up a bit with regards to deciding when that is, though. It doesn’t do to be too disheartened at the opponents beating you out to evolving a new species: in order for it to do them any good, they have to keep it from going extinct. And most new species have a bit of a handicap there, in that their ideal environment isn’t the same as that of the species that spawned it — that being more or less the point of speciation.

Environment has two components: terrain and temperature. The unit description window — the same one that indicates a unit’s population and how well it’s feeding — mentions the ideal terrain type and temperature for that unit’s species; more detailed information, including how well it survives in each terrain, is available in the species details. It’s easy to fall into the trap of paying attention only to the terrain type, because that’s highly visible: every tile on the map is decorated according to its terrain. But the temperature seems to be even more important to survival, and it’s displayed in a place that users tend to ignore: the info bar at the bottom of the window. It displays the temperature and terrain type for the tile currently pointed at by the mouse pointer — which is to say, it only starts to display useful information when you’re looking at a different part of the screen. It’s invaluable once you start paying attention to it, but I feel like the fact that the info bar is used at all, let alone for such a crucial feature, is a real sign of how new the idea of Windows as a gaming platform was. People didn’t really know how to use it, but they were willing to experiment.

So, when you get a new species, it’s a fragile thing, ill-adapted to its environment and in need of nurturing. Which is kind of the opposite of how evolution is supposed to work, but regardless, the top priority is to get it to its ideal environment before it dies out. Even once it’s there, the environment doesn’t last forever. Plains turn to desert, mountains rise, the climate changes — sometimes catastrophically, as in a major asteroid strike. About all you can do is send your creatures to as many different places as possible and hope for the best. Which you want to do anyway: you don’t want your creatures competing with each other for food. (In extreme cases, I’ve contemplated marching my obsolete creatures into the ocean to make room for the new guys.) No, you want them competing with the opponets’ creatures for food. My greatest competitive successes so far have not been a matter of out-evolving the opponents, or of fighting and killing them, but of driving them away by out-breeding and out-eating them. Which is how invasive species work in real life, so hooray for accuracy.

Spreading your population out isn’t trivial, though. In order to get a unit from one ideal feeding ground to another, you typically have to cross areas not suited to the unit’s needs at all, and while it’s crossing those zones, its population will drop. This is how oceans work, by the way. You can send any species on a trek across the water, and it’ll just walk on it like it’s a blue carpet, not even slowing down. But while it’s out there, it won’t get any food at all. Birds can colonize remote continents more easily than most creatures, but that’s not because they have any kind of in-game-modeled flight attributes. It’s because they can move faster, and thus can cross more ocean before starving to death.

Evolution: Mechanics and Strategy

Posting very late today. Playing the Cenozoic scenario turned out to be an even worse morale-wrecker than attempting a full game. Because life is already pretty well advanced, it isn’t long before the opponents start developing the immediate precursors to potentially intelligent life, such as elephants and parrots and australopitheci, all while I’m still struggling to get out of the small-ratlike-creature phase. Seriously, I need to figure out how they’re managing it. The one trick I’ve figured out so far is to send my newly-spawned creatures out to colonize new territory as soon as they’re fit for the journey, thereby lessening the demands on the land and increasing the rate at which the population increases.

To explain this in more detail: Each “creature” visible on the map actually represents a herd or colony or something — at any rate, a local population. This was not clear to me in my very first struggles with the game; I had to read the manual to really understand it. When you click on a creature, you get a little pop-up window with details on that creature, including a green bar labeled “Population”. I think that when I first saw this I assumed it referred to the worldwide population of that species, but no, it’s the population of that particular “creature”. It essentially functions like hit points for the group. It fills or empties according to how well the creature is feeding; if it fills completely, the creature splits in two. So in this way, the game is more like a simulation of unicellular life than of tetrapods.

Having lots of creatures of a particular species isn’t good simply because it gives them a better chance of surviving. Each living creature also contributes to the rate at which its species accumulates “evolution points”, which is to say, research into development. Evolution points are automatically spent on three things, in proportions you can set on a per-species basis: improving feeding (and thus population growth), improving combat ability (against another species which you specify — predators use this to predate better, prey species to resist predation), and developing a new species (which you specify). It’s a lot easier to evolve a species that’s populous and well-fed, which seems a little iffy to me — doesn’t natural selection play a more prominent role in situations marked by desperate competition to avoid starvation? But I suppose we have to make some concessions to gameplay. The rule for strategy games is that success is rewarded with more success.

At the very beginning, it obviously makes sense to devote most or all of your evolution points to feeding. But there seems to be a point of diminishing returns there — the detailed species information has another of those green bars indicating how close to its maximum feeding-efficiency potential it is, and this bar seems to only asymptotically approach filling up completely. At some point, it makes sense to devote more and more points to speciation. I suspect that part of my problem is that I haven’t yet discovered the sweet spots for this transition. Do it too late, and the opponents will get the new species before you. Do it too soon and it cuts into the feeding points that would be otherwise growing your population and increasing your evolution point income, with the end result that, again, the opponents beat you to the new species.

You may be thinking “So what, so the opponents beat you out to a few early species. If you have the largest population, you’ll catch up.” Just one problem: When an opponent beats you to a species, it cuts you off. Each species can belong to only one clade at a time. Like the Wonders in Civilization, if someone else beats you to a species you’re in the middle of developing, the points you sank into it just go to waste. In one session, the opponents actually claimed all possible developments from one of my species, leaving it unable to develop further until one of said species went extinct and became up for grabs again.

You may wonder how it’s possible to compete at all in a situation like this, given that speciation is like a branching tree. Claim any common ancestor of all mammals, and you prevent anyone else from developing any mammals at all, right? The game has a way around this, and it’s one of the weirdest things about it in its implications: evolution in the game is what the manual calls “polyphyletic”, which is to say, any given species can evolve through multiple possible routes. Most major branches of the tree of life start out as bundles of about five or six possible common ancestors; not at all coincidentally, six is the maximum number of players. The options from these junctions aren’t entirely equivalent — for example, any of the early mammals can be developed into Miacis and and thence into the entire order of Carnivora, but only one, the Alphadon, can also give you thylacines.

But are thylacines worth it? From the point of view of someone pursuing intelligence, they’re something of a dead end — but then, so is the entire order of Carnivora. But there are strategic reasons to pursue as much diversity as you can: the increased ability to withstand global disasters, the ability to colonize more types of terrain and deny your opponents their exclusive use, even just the points it gives you at the end of the game. Moreover, thylacines and carnivores are predators, and thus have the ability to attack opponents’ creatures — something that you tend not to get on the routes to intelligence. (Saurosapiens notwithstanding — they’re descended from velociraptors.)

But that’s all quite theoretical to me at the moment. Anything I say about advanced strategy is just a repetition of what it says in the beautiful, rigorous, and oft-consulted manual.

Evolution

evolutionSometime around the year 2000, when the dot-com bubble was deflating — a period that left me in a painful state of burnout, as the reduced demand for programmers paradoxically increased the demands on programmers — I spent a brief stint working under contract to Unplugged Games, Greg Costikyan’s premature venture to put games on cell phones. I honestly didn’t know who Costikyan was at the time, or who he would later become. If I had, I might have approached the work there with a more positive attitude. As it is, I did try to learn a bit about the man’s past work by picking up a copy of Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life, but I didn’t spend long playing it. It seemed dauntingly complex, and unintuitive to interact with. My first sessions were spent thrashing about wondering what I could do and watching the computer-controlled opponents encroach on what I thought of as my territory.

Going back to it now, I think I’m doing a little better, having read enough of the voluminous documentation to understand the basic underlying mechanics. But I’m still definitely in the thrashing-about phase, capable of evolving new species but incapable of keeping them alive. The manual says that a single full game takes about six hours (and that’s a fixed length — the game is realtime and progresses through distinct phases regardless of player actions), but it’s clear that I’m going to need multiple practice sessions before I can go for a win.

The game content concerns the evolution of tetrapods up to the development of intelligent life. (So, no trilobites or burgess shale creatures here, fascinating episodes in evolutionary history though they are.) Note that “Intelligent life” here doesn’t necessarily mean humans. There are several possible contenders, based on what-ifs: Psittacisapiens (evolved from parrots, which are already well-adapted to developing spoken language), Elephasapiens (from elephants, which have large brains and a dextrous frontal appendage for manipulating tools 1Not to mention the fact that, like parrots, they’re one of the few animals known to vocally imitate heard sounds — although this hadn’t yet been observed at the time this game was made. ), and a few others. These, and their immediate ancestors, are the only made-up creatures in the game, and also the most significant creatures, because the first player to develop intelligence wins. Or, well, that’s not quite right: according to the manual, developing intelligent life ends the game, at which point the clade with the most points wins. Points are awarded for achieving various milestones (first dinosaur, first mammal, etc), as well as for total biomass and diversity, but intelligence is the game’s golden snitch, giving you a 50% bonus on everything else.

But that’s the ending, which I haven’t got anywhere near yet. At the beginning, all you have is a single early amphibian species. This strikes me as just about the worst place for a beginner. I have some intuitive notions about the differences between wolves and squirrels and giraffes and so forth. I even have some expectations about the mastodon, the eohippus, the tyrannosaur, etc. But when I’m given the choice of what to evolve next, I have to choose between things like eogyrinus and diplocaulus, and I have no idea what their relative merits are. But I suppose this is what makes the game educational. Still, it probably means I should switch to playing the Cenozoic scenario to get used to the game mechanics and strategy on more familiar grounds before trying to tackle a full game.

To me, the game it most clearly evokes is Civilization: it’s a game played on a world map at a large time scale (although here the time scale is large enough for plate tectonics to significantly alter the map over the course of a game), in which you expand your population and pursue a branching tree of developments, competing with a number of opponents for advancement and dominance. In fact, it reminds me a little of the Civ II “Age of Reptiles” mod, in which all your units were dinosaurs, and you researched technologies like “serrated teeth” and “bony plates” in order to build new types of dinosaur. But that was ultimately played within the framework of Civ, which meant that it was all based on your dinosaurs doing unlikely things like living in cities and tilling the soil. Really, in some ways, this game plays a lot more like a competitive version of The Gungan Frontier. Creatures roam about freely unless told not to, reproduce spontaneously if they’re healthy and well-fed, even potentially prey on their teammates.

More about the game mechanics next time.

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1. Not to mention the fact that, like parrots, they’re one of the few animals known to vocally imitate heard sounds — although this hadn’t yet been observed at the time this game was made.

1997: A New Beginning

Egypt 1156 B.C. has proved unplayable. For one thing, lines of dialogue frequently cut out prematurely — something that I’ve seen happen on other Cryo/Dreamcatcher games. The standard solution for sound problems is to turn off DirectX hardware acceleration, but that didn’t help here. Suspecting that the system speed was the problem, I also used Turbo to turn it down to 1%. This seemed to help somewhat, but there were still a lot of skipped lines.

I could probably work around sound problems in dialogue if necessary, by turning voice off and subtitles on, but that’s just the start of the problems. Opening a piece of papyrus in my inventory, I found there was no way to close it. Certain controls would blur it a little, as if it were going out of focus as part of a going-away animation, but it didn’t go away. Possibly relatedly, when I tell it to exit the game, it sits there playing music and doing nothing until I press Esc. I recall that other games by the same company behave similarly, except that instead of an empty screen, they display the credits. So it looks like there’s some sort of graphics glitch here.

Someday, I’m going to put together a bunch of obsolete hardware and install Windows 98 on it for all these recalcitrant late-1990s games. If I were smart, I would have done this already, in preparation for this stage of the chronological run-through. As it is, I wanted to play an adventure game for 1997 in the hope that I could finish it in a single week, and instead, I’ve spent a full week exhausting my supply of them without getting started.

For my next attempt, I’ve chosen Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life, an educational strategy game sponsored by the Discovery Channel and designed by none other than indie game icon Greg Costikyan. After a couple of false starts — running Egypt seems to make my system forget how DirectX works until reboot — it installs and runs successfully. That’s as far as I’ve gotten, and I probably won’t be getting any gaming in tonight, but we’ll see how it goes. It seems to be designed more or less in the general mold of Civilization, which gives me hope that I can get in a complete session over the next few days.

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