james debate
james debate

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Developed by Firaxis Games
Published by 2K Games
Genre Turn-based Strategy, 4X
Platform PC

As the newest entry to the famous Civilization series, Civilization V surprises many with drastic changes to core gameplay mechanics. But has it paid off?

civilization v

Civilization, of course, is the series that defined the genre of turn-based 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) gameplay, way back in 1991. The basic idea remains the same today, you control a civilization and guide them through the trials of history from cave men to the space age, seizing world dominance by whatever means you deem necessary. To do this, one trains units, builds city improvements, and researches technology.

For the first time in a long while, this entry to the series makes big changes. Civilization has now switched to a hexagon-based map as opposed to square tiles as before. This is actually a much bigger change than it sounds, as it completely changes how units move and explore the map, as well as engage in combat.

The other major change is that only one unit at a time can be in a single map tile, which means that the old tactic of piling units on top of each other in order to overwhelm the enemy no longer works. This forces the player to be much more tactical when thinking about unit placement and movement, as well as when choosing a unit with which to protect a city.

Other less fundamental improvements include the addition of 'city states', which are essentially single-city civilizations with special attributes that the player can either befriend in order to receive resources and military support, or oppose and risk a confrontation with their allies. These add an interesting new strategic element to the game, but one that frankly seems designed to compensate for weak diplomatic elements elsewhere in the game.

In addition, Civilization V has improved support for modification, supposedly even able to plug certain user mods into an existing save-game, hypothetically extending the lifespan of a game indefinitely should you desire. Unfortunately as of yet this feature has not really been used, so I am unable to include it in my review.

These big changes are welcome ones and a definite improvement to the old Civilization formula, but unfortunately beyond that there is not much in the way of progress from Civilization IV, and in fact in many ways this game seems to be a step backwards.

Not many people remember that there was in fact a Civilization game between Civilization IV and this one, it was called Civilization Revolutions and it was released on consoles. The idea behind this game was to 'streamline' Civilization, which Firaxis took to mean 'dumb down' by removing most of the strategic and micromanagement elements. The game was a critical and commercial flop and I think I can safely say that most fans of the series had hoped that Firaxis had gotten this urge out of their system so that they could return to what they do best: rich, deep civilization titles. Sadly they have not.

Religion and corporations have been taken out of the game completely, an element that, while slightly superficial, is undeniably an extra dimension to the politics of the game.

The ability to alter tax rates and funding for scientific and cultural development is also completely gone, the importance of which can not be overstated. This was previously the pivotal choice for players in deciding how to develop your civilization, and removing it takes out most of the non-combat strategy which existed in the series, as well as destroying any semblance of an economy which may have been present before.

Each civilization only has one leader to choose from, where the previous game had several each with different attributes, and the game hasn't shipped with any of the scenarios that have been so popular in the past. Several important elements of diplomacy are gone as well, including the ability to trade technology.

The result is that while the combat has certainly been improved, there's very little else to do in this game. Beyond choosing which improvement to build there is very little strategy involved in running a civilzation as with previous games, diplomacy is still very shallow and largely irrelevant with poor AI for other nations' leaders. It's nowhere near as addicting or rewarding as before. Unfortunately Civilization V is a game with little of the magic that has so epitomised past games by Firaxis. Why Alpha Centauri, a game that's more than ten years old, still contains deeper and more advanced features than this game is simply hard to understand.

Ultimately Civilization V is a game that has been severely dumbed down into what I suppose Firaxis would describe as a 'streamlined' experience, but the rest of us will likely describe as disappointing.

Updated graphics
Combat has greater strategic depth

Many features removed
Little in the way of real improvement
Very little to do in this game beyond combat

Saturday 9 October 2010

Directed by David Fincher
Written by Aaron Sorkin, Ben Mezrich (novel)
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake
Release date(s) Out Now
Running time 121 minutes

On the surface this film has everything; massive hype, a great writer/director team, and a subject matter that is both timely and pivotal to the chronicle of the current generation. The Social Network promises many things, but does it achieve the vaunted "classic" status to which it aspires?

the social network

The Social Network tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg, socially inept Harvard boy genius who comes up with Facebook, an idea that changes the world and makes him a very wealthy man. But the script focuses less on the achievement and glamour (though there is a fair bit of that at least in the early stages) and more on the infighting and drama behind the scenes which led to a number of court cases and big money settlements.

I was skeptical when the media first announced the existence of a Facebook movie in the pipeline, even though it was an inevitability as arguably the most revolutionary development of the internet age since Google. However when I heard the names being attached to the project, David Fincher as director and Aaron Sorkin scripting, I knew the end result would be worth watching.

Indeed from the opening scene their influence can be seen, as characters launch into lighting fast and impossibly witty exchanges, the likes of which could only be written by Aaron Sorkin, or possibly David Mamet. Fincher meanwhile produces the gutsiest work of his career to date, perfectly maneuvering around the calisthenics of the fine script. This is a film that is at times hilarious, sexy, fun, but throughout it all an aching sadness underpins the whole endeavour.

The central conceit of this film, it turns out, is the irony that someone who struggles so intensely with social issues could have created the greatest revolution in social living in a generation. The Social Network attempts to reconcile this seeming incongruity by shining a spotlight on the underhanded, scheming, and generally unpleasant behind the scenes goings on which took place.

Needless to say Zuckerberg himself doesn't come off in a positive light, driven by his own insecurities and a desire to fit in. Fincher's goal for this film seems to be to make viewers feel sorry for a multibillionaire genius, rather than envious, and he does this pretty well.

This leads on to my biggest problem with this film, the tight focus on the darker, sadder aspects of these events. Now don't get me wrong, this is a great angle for the story and it's pretty much what Fincher does best. My problem is that this really only works when contrasted with the superficial glamour and spectacle of everything that Zuckerberg achieved, all the fun stuff. While this is addressed in the film, I didn't feel it was done particularly successfully. This film seems to take all the success in an almost blasé fashion, and the sheer scale and revolution of what is unfolding on screen never really hits the audience in a satisfying way.

Ultimately I attribute this to one of two things: too much focus on the sadder aspects of the plot as I mentioned, and a simple lack of understanding among the creators of this film. Sorkin and Fincher are great film makers, but how well do they really feel the significance of Facebook? Both have admitted that they really didn't know anything about it before making this film, and the unfortunate result is that you could replace the names and the word "Facebook" in this film with some other endeavour and not a thing would be lost from the story telling. This often doesn't really feel like a Facebook movie, it feels like a standard "brainy whizkids set out on a journey, but fall out along the way" film with the word Facebook thrown in a few times.

But ultimately that doesn't really matter too much, because the film itself is masterfully done. I've already mentioned the excellence of the writing and direction, but praise must also go to the actors. Until now, Jesse Eisenberg was an actor known to me only as "that kid who looks a bit like Michael Cera and plays similar roles", well no more. Eisenberg plays the role perfectly and shows himself to have far greater acting chops than Cera will ever have. Andrew Garfield is fine as really the only likable character in the film, and does himself no harm as he prepares for the super stardom that will come with his upcoming role as Spiderman.

But the real shock of the film is Justin Timberlake who, shockingly, is not half bad. For two hours I actually forgot who I was watching on screen as he drew me into the world of Sean Parker, the (kinda but not really) creator of Napster. In retrospect it shouldn't really come as a surprise as he's hardly a real musician, 75% of what he did as a pop star was acting.

Really this is just as finely created a film as you will ever see in pretty much every aspect. It's well written, directed and acted and relates to so pivotal a topic for our generation as to make this film noteworthy, not just this year but for years to come. At times it can feel a little formulaic without really appreciating the subject matter, but the overall quality of what is on screen overrides any complaint I could have. This is one of those films that you won't want to end.

Fantastically honed production
Revelatory performances
General quality

Superficial attachment to the subject matter

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