Sunday 22 September 2013

Getting Along With George - My Special Relationship in Civilization V

"The people of the United States of America welcome you. I trust you are a friend to liberty?"

Mr Washington greeted me with these words. They rang disarmingly true and I immediately liked him. We would get on rather well.

One day I noticed Americans settling close to my northern border. The city of Atlanta was soon founded and I wondered if Mr Washington was testing me. I let him build his city and we maintained good relations.

I let him build his city and we
maintained good relations.

With America to my North-West, Persia in the East and Rome creeping towards city-states Venice and Rio over the barren Northern lands, I was content to build my infrastructure and work the profitable fishing bays of London on the Southern coast with only York to the West, and Hastings and Canterbury founded on atolls across the bay. Soon I noticed Washington founding several other cities – New York, Boston, Philadelphia. Watching his army deployed at strategic points along my border (and inside, thanks to our treaty) made me nervous. Should his benevolence falter, I would be driven into the ocean and the British Empire, such as it was, would cease to be. I was troubled but outright war seemed costly and foolish.

So I looked across the ocean to the South. An island consisting of the city-states Singapore on the Northern coast and Warsaw to the South offered an excellent way to expand my empire without warring with the superpowers. I began assembling troops in the unoccupied middle ground of the island. I had learned the hard way the difficulty of besieging a city and I could not afford to fight on two fronts. So I hatched a plan to buy off Singapore with gifts of gold while I attacked Warsaw. They weren’t on the best of terms anyway.

Infantry, archers, horsemen and catapults in place, the bombardment commenced. It worked beautifully and soon Warsaw was burning, but mine. Singapore were over the moon and the British could finally lay claim to an empire. However, relations with Washington quickly soured. Trades were cancelled, treaties revoked. He withdrew his troops from my territories, which only increased their number along the border. Although relatively weak infantry troops, their presence was intimidating.

I had never once attacked him directly, our research agreement was still in place and after checking Singapore’s ally status, I was confident he would respect my nation-building. It was nothing more than he was doing with the Romans, founding Seattle on their doorstep, ruffling their legion helmet feathers. What’s a little annexing here or there between friends?

On the morning of the attack against Singapore I received the following communiqué:
"Your wanton aggression leaves me no choice. Prepare for war!"

I had no quarrel with George; I simply wanted a piece of the pie. His territory was increasing each turn, every new city supplying him with more, more, more. I prepared defensive troops in London, and once Singapore had fallen I returned to the mainland and destroyed his infantry along my border.

What’s a little annexing here
or there between friends?

But that wasn't enough. He had angered me. The initial twinge of doubt when he first founded Atlanta along my border centuries before coupled with my irritation made the decision to take the city from him, though churlish, natural. It would teach him a lesson.

Atlanta was taken and transformed into a defensive stronghold. He soon came crawling for peace and, satisfied the message had been understood, I accepted.

Centuries passed. Treaties were signed and signed again. He built walls. I built roads.

As Alexander and Ramkhamhaeng quarrelled over the New World, Caesar was busy expanding. He had taken Seattle and marched on Rio. If Rio fell, he would have clear sight of London. I had never trusted Caesar. Every word sounded calculated and inauthentic. I devised to defend Rio from the Romans and then take advantage of its weakened state by annexing it myself and setting up a defensive post similar to Atlanta. George would be thankful for an ally against the Romans, no?

I plied him with gifts and generous trade agreements just in case.
I vanquished the Romans.
I lay siege to Rio.
America declared war.

And that was it. Washington possessed numbers, but I had the technology. I sent tanks against him. His musketmen were obliterated. I chased his general down and watched him fall before taking Boston and Philly. An armada levelled New York. A brief respite from war was broken by simple geography when I couldn’t move troops to N.Y. without entering his territory. And so George lost Washington.

As I trundled towards Chicago, his last remaining coastal outpost, he visited me. "We must not let war define who we are," he said, "The time has come to make peace." Sorry George. I drove him off the map and his civilization was gone.
"The time has come to make peace."
Sorry George.
I drove him off the map and his civilization was gone.

I had tried to play 'nice', to be 'good'. I liberated Venice from the Romans, and they were grateful for a time, but while I was busy with the Persians in the East they got themselves conquered again. So I returned, defeated Caesar once more and annexed the city. They couldn't be trusted to defend themselves and I was forced to play colonialist. Caesar and Darius were capricious and impossible to get along with. God, if only Honest George were here!

In fact, he was. The tiny island of Los Angeles still existed in the middle of the ocean. For several years it went unnoticed until Washington popped up once more asking for peace. And I refused. Why? He would only end up causing problems and, as irrational and stunting as it is, there’s nothing like a good grudge.

Friday 6 September 2013

Down and Out in Liberty City

My Animal Crossing: New Leaf village is more fun than GTA IV’s Liberty City. Here’s why...

Animal Crossing has changed little since its Japanese debut on the N64. You answer a few questions to determine your identity before arriving friendless in a tiny village. There are no relatives to help you find your feet in Bell Air or Dibly or Camelot (you can name your town what you like, though an irritating 8 character limit prohibits the likes of Hill Valley or Crinkly Bottom). From Day One you’re in debt to miserly raccoon Tom Nook and forced to live alone in a dank house while clawing your way up the property ladder.

a talking blue wolf or multicoloured sheep in
clown face is bound to stick in the mind longer
than Bit Part Mobster #39

GTA IV sets you up similarly as a recent arrival in a new town. Besides Roman (the irritating cousin you can’t kill) I have forgotten most of the characters. Dimitri was the main guy I was chasing but the rest of the cast escape me. Perhaps comparison is unfair - a talking blue wolf or multicoloured sheep in clown face is bound to stick in the mind longer than Bit Part Mobster #39. But beyond generic characters there is a bigger issue, an inherent frustration, at the core of GTA. I’m talking specifically about IV, although I’ve played San Andreas and a little of III and it’s the same story. Liberty City’s problem is not escalating crime, it’s boredom. The number of interactive systems hasn’t grown at the same rate as the environment. Player agency is restricted to the same handful of interactions we’ve had for years - the sandbox expands, but you only have your old bucket and spade to play with.

GTA does some things very well. The city is a technical triumph, the cars feel fun and the radio stations hit a perfect satirical sweet spot. Cruising the highway with an 80s classic on the radio feels great. I have two main issues with the game: 1) I’m given nothing compelling to do outside of the tired fetch/deliver/whack-a-guy missions; and 2) the gunplay is lumpen and doesn’t match the quality of the driving. In GTA cars and combat are your core mechanics – your bucket and spade – and there’s something wrong if one is unsatisfying after this many iterations. GTA IV fails to make combat, a fundamental component, enjoyable.

Compared to the breathtaking scale and fidelity of Liberty City, Bell Air is far less imposing. I could run the perimeter in a minute and there are only a handful of houses dotted around the place. But from the moment I arrived it offered me something Liberty City didn’t - variety. I could pick fruit, plant trees, go fishing, collect fossils, hunt bugs and chat with people. I could enter all the houses. Animal Crossing isn’t tethered by a strict narrative. There’s no real story, no ending besides paying off your mortgage. After that it’s just something you do. UK:Resistance put it best:
It's like keeping a diary, or remembering to have breakfast. Animal Crossing is just asimple little thing you have and do every day… It's simple, but you'd be fucked without it.

Sea shanties!                                                                     Catchphrases!                                                                          Innuendo!

Superficially my village offers far less than the sprawling L.C., but writing a comparative list of activities on offer reveals New Leaf as the clear winner in terms of variety (skip to the end for a quick, non-exhaustive comparison). What can I do on a Saturday night in Liberty? Well, I could plough through some missions, but the janky combat controls make that too much like work. So what else is on offer? How about some polygonal sex with a prostitute before running her over to get my money back? Hmm, that got pretty old the second time. So let’s head to the, ahem, 'gentlemen’s' club! To its credit, the game does a fabulous job of recreating that why the fuck am I here? feeling of a real strip joint. But, hey, it’s cheaper.

Afterwards I can catch Ricky Gervais at the comedy club. Hope he’s not repeating last night’s three-minute show. After a hot dog I’m running out of things to do. And fuck hot dogs - what if I want to buy an apple? Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I plant a tree or build something or go inside the building next to my house? I found myself genuinely wondering why I was playing at all when I could just put down the pad and go outside, take a drive into town, window down, radio on, and grab a coffee or something. Maybe even an apple.

I wanted things to do besides trudge through the dreary, monotonous narrative but the mayhem simulation that most other players revelled in left me cold. Rockstar presented unprecedented scope and freedom of movement but nothing meaningful or satisfying to do with it. I liked the pigeon shooting best.

Beyond the basics, filling the world with engaging systems should be the main developmental drive next gen. Creating a traversable photo-realistic cityscape is achievable, almost a given, but there’s little point expanding the playground if you’re only going to fill it with the same old swings and roundabouts. It’s a colossal undertaking to add hundreds of disparate mechanics to satisfy my every fruit-eating, tree-planting whim, but simply expanding the world area is not the answer. In terms of diverse and satisfying experiences in a coherent world, the tiny village on my 3DS cartridge offers more choice and more opportunity for self-expression. Bell Air’s a playground on a much smaller scale, but with a focus The Big Apple lacks. Every season brings new festivals and accessories and visitors. I can shoot balloons out of the sky and go beachcombing and send letters and buy wallpaper and breed rare flowers and design clothes and make Jay say S’up Holmes? when we meet and visit other towns to trade fruit and make a killing on the turnip market to get that swine Nook off my back. Village chores and mundanities trump the car chases and schoolboy titillation of the metropolis by sheer breadth. You’ve got to water your flowers and complete your gyroid collection and call on KK Slider every Saturday night. The explicit reason you do so becomes vague amongst the day-to-day of it, like visiting your family. You’re not really just dropping off a card or watering the plants or having a cup of coffee; you’re keeping in contact – checking your favourite residents aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon.

In terms of diverse and satisfying experiences in a coherent world,
the tiny village on my 3DS cartridge offers more choice and more
opportunity for self-expression.

It will be interesting to see how Rockstar deal with further increased scale in GTA V. I’m sure Los Santos will be as technically impressive as ever, and they’re opening up the seabed for exploration. Will I be able to collect shells and urchins from the ocean floor? Will I be able to fish? Or will it be merely a vast setting for a couple of coke shipment fetch quests and a James Bond tied-and-dragged-behind-the-boat homage? I hope not. Otherwise they should just revisit Liberty City and let me buy my damn apple this time.

                    Things to do in Bell Air                                               Things to do in Liberty City
                    Shoot balloons/UFOs                                                        Shoot people/pigeons
                    Plant trees                                                                          Steal and drive vehicles
                    Pick fruit                                                                             Engage in high-speed chases
                    Go fishing                                                                           Listen to the radio.
                    Collect fossils                                                                      Visit a comedy club
                    Hunt bugs                                                                           Visit a nightclub/strip joint/prostitute
                    Accessorise!                                                                        Eat a hotdog
                    Go on a boat trip to an island retreat                                                            
                    Give people catchphrases                                                            
                    Visit a nightclub                                                            
                    Work/drink in the café                                                            
                    Breed flowers                                                            
                    Go diving                    
                    Decorate my house                                                            
                    Play the turnip market                                                            
                    Design clothes/signs                                                            
                    Build public buildings/projects                                                            
                    Name your town Bell Air or Tauntown or Bumjuice