james debate
james debate

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Developed by Frontier Developments
Published by Frontier Developments
Genre Theme Park Simulation
Platform PC

planet coaster videogame review roller coaster tycoon world parkitect

The "theme park" genre is one of those strange niches in gaming that has proven surprisingly successful. Hardly the most obvious of subjects for the classic "tycoon" business simulation treatment, and yet from its debut with Bullfrog's classic Theme Park to arguably its apex with the Roller Coaster Tycoon ("RCT") franchise the genre has developed a broad and devoted fanbase.

After three RCT games in the first five years of this century, the genre has since fallen from the commercial limelight. Yet throughout this time the popularity of the games has remained strong, so it comes as no surprise to see them making a resurgence, with no fewer than three prominent theme park simulation games coming in the next year. These include the independently developed Parkitect, inspired by the older 2D Chris Sawyer games that started the Roller Coaster Tycoon franchise, as well as the newest entry in that franchise, Roller Coaster Tycoon World ("RCTW").

Those of you with keen memory might remember this blog doing a preview of RCTW at the start of this year in our 2016 Hot List. Well part of being a good observer is recognising when you have made a mistake, rare though it may be. So let's get this out of the way early and warn you that RCTW is a cynical cash-grab and a poor game, featuring none of the original production team, and packed to the rafters with bad ideas and worse design.

Fortunately in an uncanny repeat of the 2013 Sim City debacle, where a poorly conceived sequel to a well known franchise ended up losing out to a much better made underdog in Cities Skylines, there is a plucky young team of upstarts here to save the day with a completely new IP. Do not buy RCTW. Instead, buy Planet Coaster. Here's why.

Let's begin by saying that while Planet Coaster may not have the name-brand recognition of Roller Coaster Tycoon, it does have developers who previously worked both on RCT2 and RCT3, and therefore a much stronger link to the original games that built the genre. But this review isn't going to be a side-by-side comparison to show why Planet Coaster beats RCTW, instead it's going to celebrate the game on its own merits, of which there are plenty.

The gameplay will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has played the genre in the past, particularly RCT3, from which Planet Coaster borrows heavily in the look and feel of its 3D engine and camera. All the staples are here: hiring entertainers and staff, building rides and roller coasters, paths and queues, shops and restaurants. You can change ticket prices, customise the balance of ingredients in food and drink, research new products and constructions, and spend money on marketing campaigns to bring in additional business.

It might appear that not much has changed. In fact, while the number of roller coaster types shipping with vanilla is impressive, the number of non-roller coaster rides and shops is actually surprisingly limited compared to the original RCT games. But here's the first masterstroke of this game: modability and expansion.

Frontier have designed this game to last far into the future, and will continue to roll out additional content. There's already an update due this month featuring a bunch of new rides, along with the usual patch notes and tweaks. Perhaps even more intriguingly is the addition of Steam workshop, which allows players to make their own designs based on the templates provided and share them with others. Even now at this early stage there are thousands of downloadable designs for rides, shops and scenery that can be quickly and easily accessed at the click of a button. Going forward, it's additionally planned to release full modding tools for players to create entirely new types of content. And the best part is that all of this slips seamlessly and instantly into your game, you won't even have to start a new park to be able to build that ride you just downloaded.

Which brings us on to the true shining light of Planet Coaster, its creation tools. Old games in this genre have always had an extent of being able to raise and lower terrain, plant trees and place certain standard decorations, but there has never been a game which offers such powerful tools for player creativity as Planet Coaster.

The landscaping tools are remarkable and allow the sculpting of just about any shape or configuration of terrain you can possibly imagine, all seamlessly in real time. But even more revolutionary are the building tools, which consist of the base components of buildings and other structures that players can piece together like Lego to form, again, really any kind of building they can imagine. The potential output of these tools is near limitless, and already there are some astonishing creations by other players. None of these are from pre-built templates, these are completely bespoke, using the basic building blocks Frontier have provided. And the beauty is that even if you aren't creative, or if you can't be bothered, or simply don't have the time to get into all this detail, you can just download other players' creations from the workshop as above, providing a theoretically limitless supply of new high quality content.

The result of all this is that Planet Coaster is a theme park simulator which affords a simply unprecedented level of customisation, creativity, and potentially endless expansion. The things you can do with this game are impressive enough now, and it's still early days. This is a game we could feasibly be playing for many years to come without running out of content.

Visuals and Sound Design
This is a game which oozes charm. The artistic style is well balanced between realism and cartoon without being either too dry or too silly, the in-game brands and characters are well designed and will draw you into the world, and the entire interface is just clean and pleasant to play around with.

This quality extends to the sound design and in particular the musical score, written by Jim Guthrie who some of you might know from having performed in a variety of bands including Islands. It's rare that I even notice a musical score in a videogame, much less comment on it, but this is quite possibly one of the best videogame scores ever written. It's not something you necessarily notice right away, but play for a little while and all of a sudden it will hit you how much you're enjoying the music, and you won't be able to get it out of your head. Extremely high quality stuff.

Bugs and Flaws
Despite all these very positive things, there are clearly a number of areas where this game still needs work.

As mentioned, the amount of shops and non-roller coaster rides is a little underwhelming. At the same time, the management side of the game is even more thin, with only rudimentary business options which often provides even less depth than games which came out over a decade ago. Staff management is based around finnicky, clunky menus, and the staff themselves ridiculously temperamental and prone to quit for no reason. Perhaps most unfortunately of all is that the game just isn't that challenging. Once you have a decent stream of income coming in, that's it, there's little strategy and not much depth.

Then there are the bugs. The path building tool follows a free-flowing analogue design similar to the road tool in Cities Skylines, as opposed to a simple grid system. This allows for much more organic, better looking park design, but the tool itself is incredibly fussy, and often just plain refuses to connect.

Worse still is difficulty in building underground. The 3D engine and impressively craftable terrain allows the player to build some extremely detailed and gorgeous looking underground sections, which is simply a must for anyone trying to match the theme immersion of a Walt Disney (I mean how many Disney roller coasters can you think of that are simply out in the open? None, they're in mountains and other themed structures). The problem is that the camera is wholly inadequate for this function. Getting the camera down underground is a massive headache, and keeping it there nigh on impossible. The camera can and will randomly shoot back above ground or bug out in some other way, making the construction process a much longer and more tedious process of wrestling with the camera than it really ought to be.

But these problems are far from game breaking. If, like me, you mostly spend these games designing the park rather than actually playing, then you won't even mind the lack of business simulation, while there is every indication that the current bugs and annoyances will inevitably be fixed, fleshed out, and streamlined further in the weeks and months to come.

So at the moment Planet Coaster is very much on the creative/design focused side of the genre. The design tools are inarguably the best ever made, but undermined by tycoon elements that are disappointingly shallow, as well as a few extremely irritating bugs.

The good news is that despite these flaws, I can honestly say that Planet Coaster is some of the most fun I've had in gaming for a long time. The genuine love and care that has gone into every single detail of Planet Coaster is plainly evident from the first moment, and the effortless charm is impossible to resist, even for a bitter old sod like me.

Add to that the innovations and potential for expansion and it's clear that this is a game by true fans of the genre, for true fans of the genre. They've made a highly impressive start, but I foresee even greater things in its future.

Monday 7 November 2016

The final curtain is approaching for what has surely been one of the cleanest and most civil Presidential elections in US history. America is torn between two beloved and upstanding individuals, really either one of whom would be a fine and capable President. But enough about the series finale of The West Wing, we're fucked.

clinton trump election 2016 forecast final predictions polls

On Tuesday night, the final ballots will be cast, and we will hopefully know who the next President of the United States is going to be. The stakes are high: President Obama has stated in no uncertain terms that the fate of the world is in the balance, while Republicans have continued the doomsaying that they've been peddling basically since the 1990s. So going into this final day, who has the upper hand?

The media, as it predictably always does, has been working hard to play up the horse race, making this election look as close and exciting as possible in order to drum up viewers. The truth is that Hillary Clinton is the most likely winner. She has consistently and comfortably led in the polls throughout the entire election, and her state polls have almost always shown enough safe electoral votes to guarantee victory.

Now let's be clear, Donald Trump definitely has a chance, but there have been so few polls at any point in this election showing him in the lead that at this point it would certainly require a significant polling error. And not just one polling error, polling error across the many dozens of pollsters than have been producing numbers this election. The fact is that polls in American elections are generally very accurate. A lot has been made of polls missing the Brexit vote, but it's simply not true. The poll of polls showed Leave winning for most of the run up to the vote, with Remain only just eking ahead in the final days. The bettors got Brexit wrong, not the polls. If anything Brexit serves as a golden example of why not to argue against polls just because they seem unlikely. In order to predict a Trump victory, you once again must argue against the polls, and that's rarely a winning argument.

But let's get to it then, read on below for our forecast, including a full electoral vote state map, and further analysis.

Presidential Election Verdict: Hillary Clinton Elected President

election 2016 clinton trump electoral map forecast "Safe" Democratic Party electoral votes: 278
"Safe" Republican Party electoral votes: 185
Key States to watch: MI, PA

The map is pretty self explanatory. The data all comes from poll aggregator Pollster, with blue states being those where Hillary Clinton has a significant and consistent lead, red states where Trump has a significant and consistent lead, and the grey states are the current battlegrounds, where polls are closest. The diagonal lines denote states where individual electoral votes are awarded by Congressional district, two of which are considered toss ups. Each state has a certain number of electoral votes, as determined mainly by population. It takes 270 electoral votes to win.

As you will see from the current polls, the "safe" blue states already put Hillary Clinton over 270. This is a very strong position with which to be heading into the election. This essentially means that she can afford to lose every single grey state there, all the toss ups and battlegrounds, and she'd still win the election. Donald Trump has to win every single one of them, and even then he has to take one or two blue states.

So while certain polls may be suggesting this to be a close race, it is very much an uphill battle for Trump, with only very few real possible routes to victory. Even assuming he wins all the battleground states, which is in itself unlikely, Trump can really only win if one of the following happens:

  • Trump wins Pennsylvania
  • Trump wins Michigan
  • Trump wins both of Nevada and New Hampshire

The key states to watch on Tuesday are going to be Michigan and Pennsylvania, and I'll get into why that is in a moment. For now though I think it's important to highlight the state of Nevada.

Nevada has been polling quite close this election, and for a long while even appeared to be favouring Donald Trump. Winning this state would open up a very plausible route to victory for Trump by taking New Hampshire, which has also been close, but does not in itself have enough electoral votes to swing the election unless combined with another blue state.

Nevada is a strange state though, in that most of the population actually votes before election day. Some 60-70% of Nevada has already voted, and the numbers from that early vote are so strong for Clinton that many pundits are starting to suggest that the state might already be beyond Trump. Nevada is a notoriously difficult state to poll, but the key discrepancy here appears to have been an underestimation of the Latino vote. This potentially has a wide ranging impact on the election, because if polls are underestimating Latinos in Nevada, it suggests that we may see a similar effect in other states with large Latino populations like Florida, Colorado and Arizona, which would doom Trump.

So based on this information we're going to put this state in the blue column, but err on the side of caution and assume that this is a phenomenon isolated to Nevada.

With Nevada out of reach, that really only leaves two plausible routes to victory for Trump: win Pennsylvania or win Michigan. If we're very generous towards Trump and say he wins all the grey on that map, that leaves him with 260 votes to Clinton's 278. Now Trump actually only needs 269 to win, because in the event of a 269-269 tie, the election gets decided by the House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Republicans. In other words either of Michigan's 15 electoral votes or Pennsylvania's 20 would be enough to give Trump the win in this scenario.

There has also been discussion about whether Trump could also take Wisconsin or Colorado, but we're going to stick with these two on the basis that a) those states have been polling pretty consistently for Hillary and have a strong recent track record of voting Democrat, and b) that if Trump really wins those states then probably he's also winning Pennsylvania or Michigan anyway.

At the same time, one could of course say that the battleground states are all key, seeing as if Hillary wins even one of them she will almost certainly win the election. Polls show her leading in Florida and North Carolina and competitive in Ohio. If any of those get called early in her favour then the race is essentially done. The distinction though is that Clinton can afford to lose all these states, so if Clinton wins them yes the election is over, but if Trump wins them the race is still on. On the other hand, Michigan and Pennsylvania are likely to be determinative in either event. So while the winner of Florida may not tell you the winner of the election, the winner of Michigan and Pennsylvania probably will. Whoever wins those states will almost certainly win the Presidency.

So yes, the key states to watch are Michigan and Pennsylvania, once they have been called we will probably have a good idea of who will be President. But how likely is Trump to prevail there? Difficult to say. The polls have generally been close, but consistently in Hillary's favour. Both states' large population of white working class without college education makes Trump a strong contender, but Democrats have typically been able to rely on the much more diverse voters of Philadelphia and Detroit to carry these states.

So in summary, Trump's most plausible route to victory lies through Michigan or Pennsylvania, but he's behind in the polls in both states. As we said before, this election will require a significant polling error for him to win.

Saturday 5 November 2016

As the 2016 Presidential election comes to a close, it's time to start looking back at what we have learned over the past several months, about our politics, our government, and indeed ourselves as a nation. The Ephemeric will publish a more in depth final forecast before election night, but for now I'd like to get the ball rolling on this.

hillary clinton hate conspiracy ignorance trump election 2016 apathy

Does this false equivalency make me sound cool?
If there is one thing I am sick of hearing, it's people who say things like "what a terrible election, both candidates are horrible!" or asking "they really couldn't find anyone better than Clinton and Trump?", and accordingly deciding that they won't vote this year, or will vote third party.

One of the strangest themes of this election has been how fashionable it has become to speak of Hillary Clinton with the same tones of revulsion as one discusses Donald Trump. This is a woman who had previously been one of the most popular politicians in America with sky high approval ratings. Wife of a very popular former President, a distinguished career in the Senate and as Secretary of State. On paper one of the most qualified candidates of all time, and someone who has dedicated a career to social progress. What has changed?

Clinton is more truthful than most politicians, but voters refuse to believe it
The numbers are pretty clear: Hillary Clinton has a trust problem, with polls consistently showing that voters trust her even less than Donald Trump. Yet it's hard to see how this image has been cultivated. After all, the fact-checkers show Clinton to consistently be one of the most honest politicians in America, with 73% of statements rated true, while her opponent has by far the worst record, with an astonishing 70% rated at least mostly false. Of course, simply being better than Trump doesn't make her good, but for comparison, Clinton's record is more honest than both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, and better than every single Republican who ran for office this year.

So even setting aside her opponent's horrendous record for a second, Hillary Clinton is objectively more honest than just about any politician in America, and yet people don't believe it for some reason. This reputation hardly seems to be supported by the facts, and yet it's proven to be one of those deeply held beliefs that are hard to shake, to the point where I've seen people make some absurd excuses in order to dismiss information that appears to contradict that belief. When news broke this week of actors within the FBI leaking information on ongoing investigations to the Trump campaign, I actually heard someone defend them with "wow, Hillary must have done something really terrible to justify that".

To understand what in the world is happening, I decided to look deeper into why people dislike Hillary Clinton. I've spoken now with people of various backgrounds whose views range from "she's a murderer" or "sex pervert" (somehow) to "she's hiding something" or "she's a liar".

Let's get one thing straight from the off. Hillary Clinton is not a murderer. This website doesn't peddle in baseless conspiracy theories. She hasn't committed anything that could come close to being actions of sexual abuse or perversion. When pressed further on the vague "she's a liar" type statements, invariably the response comes back "something something emails".

Something something emails 
Very few people actually seem to know what Hillary has apparently done wrong with regards to emails. They just know she's done something bad... with emails.

So, a little background: Hillary Clinton was accused of using a private email server to store classified information, something which is in itself not a crime if not done with intent to leak information, but would clearly show poor judgement if true. The FBI decided to look into this, and requested access to her emails. The FBI then ruled that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing, but her accusers have alleged that Clinton deleted a large number of the requested emails, with the implication being that she was trying to 'burn the evidence' as it were. This story has received a huge amount of media scrutiny this election, and indeed it seems to be the genesis of much of Clinton's trust problems.

There's just one problem, it's all nonsense. A complete non-scandal that has been fudged by her political opponents and blown way out of proportion.

Hillary Clinton did have a private email server, but did not store any information on that server which was deemed classified at the time of storage, although some of it was later classified after the fact. Clinton did not delete a whole bunch of emails requested by the police, and no official source has ever alleged as much, rather these were emails that were deleted over the course of her tenure, well before any investigation was ever started. I've deleted several emails today, not to hide anything, but just because that's what any sane person does with an email they don't need.

This most recent revelation that broke the news this week is even less substantive, a notification of new emails that weren't even sent by Clinton, were not stored on her private server, and may not even contain any relevant information.

Ultimately the FBI ruled that there was no evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever, and that "no reasonable prosecutor could possibly move forward with a case". No fact-checker or watchdog has ever endorsed these conspiracy theories, and even when these missing emails did leak (from the FBI's servers, ironically), there was ultimately nothing illegal in them. There remains absolutely zero evidence of any wrongdoing, and barely even the suggestion of any particular carelessness. The apparent contradiction of Clinton's accusers suggesting that she risked leaking information from her insecure server, while simultaneously complaining that these emails are hidden and unobtainable as a result of her tight security measures, seems to be lost on these people.

The political party who cried wolf
You might ask, why did the FBI even investigate something which isn't a crime, especially with such scant evidence? The investigation started, unsurprisingly, in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Hillary Clinton's political opponents, the Republicans. They, who have every incentive to accuse Hillary of wrongdoing, accused her of wrongdoing, and voted to open a full Congressional investigation.

Anyone who has been following politics these past eight years won't have been at all surprised by this. After all, this is the same Republican party that has conjured up frivolous scandal after frivolous scandal, seemingly every other week, to throw at their opponents, most prominently Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Acorn, Solyndra, birth certificates, death panels, Benghazi... The Republicans have spent years, and millions in taxpayer money, pursuing a seemingly endless series of baseless "scandals" against their opponents, and unsurprisingly every single one has proven untrue, and gone nowhere. It's important to remember these things, because the Republicans are counting on you to forget. This is the boy crying wolf for the thousandth time, and yet somehow Americans keep paying attention.

Lesson #1: Voters are apathetic and dependent on the media
This cuts to the real issue in this election. Most people simply aren't switched onto politics. Voter apathy is high, and being interested in politics is not "cool". People only tune in for the Presidential election years. Millions of voters are paying attention for the first time in years to find headlines about Hillary's emails all over the news, but without having the essential context that this is simply the latest in a long series of empty "scandals". For them, this is the first time hearing the boy cry wolf, so they don't appreciate that it's just noise.

Lesson #2: The media is obsessed with false equivalency
The media deserves a fair amount of criticism here. Clinton's emails have received the largest amount of media coverage this election cycle. More coverage than Trump violating federal law to break the Cuba embargo, more coverage than the dozen or so accusations of sexual assault against Trump, which Trump has been recorded on audio admitting that he did, more coverage than Russia's concerted effort to install Trump as a puppet leader, more coverage than Trump embezzling funds out of his charitable foundation, more coverage than Trump calling for his opponent to be jailed, or calling for his opponent to be assassinated. Each one of these are many orders of magnitude more serious than anything Clinton's been accused of.

Perhaps most damning of all, amid all this hyperbole over a Clinton case which doesn't even have enough evidence to go to court, the media has somehow completely ignored the fact that Trump has already been charged with fraud and racketeering, and will be in court defending himself a mere three weeks after the election. You would think the fact that a Presidential candidate is currently awaiting trial for fraud would be newsworthy... but then again something something HILLARY HAS EMAILS??!

It's a problem of false equivalency. If a news network reports a disproportionate number of negative stories about one candidate, they'll be accused of bias, and lose viewers, even if it's completely justified. News networks are therefore incentivised to create this false equivalency where they have a roughly equal amount of positive and negative coverage for each candidate, regardless of the reality.

So you really can't blame apathetic voters for tuning in, seeing both candidates portrayed in an equally negative light, and coming away with a somewhat warped view of the election, ie that both candidates are terrible. In particular, when they only have one negative Hillary scandal to run, but dozens for Trump, it stands to reason that Hillary's one story will get a lot more coverage than any single Trump scandal, so no wonder it's been a bigger issue for more people than Trump's much worse charges.

Of course comparison to Donald Trump does not vindicate Hillary Clinton, the weakness of the case against Clinton, as we have already outlined, does that already.  But still, it needs to be pointed out repeatedly that Trump's scandals and alleged illegality are unprecedented in American politics, and yet the largest share of media coverage has been for a story which only exists due to rank partisanship and abuse of power by the Republicans, where Clinton has already been cleared of all wrongdoing. That is shameful.

The truth is, Hillary Clinton is about as clean a candidate as one will find. The strong fact-check ratings and the fact that this weak email nonsense is the best and only attack line her opponents can come up with after decades of vetting are proof of that. It's frankly a fairly unremarkable "scandal". What she did is nothing even vaguely unusual. President Bush did the same thing, Governor Bush did the same thing, Barack Obama did the same thing, and no doubt many other politicians did the same thing. Donald Trump, ironically, did the very thing of which he has wrongly accused Clinton. Frankly, in any other election this wouldn't even be a newsworthy story. Make no mistake, if this was Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders as the nominee, they'd just have cooked up a different scandal. They'd be harping on about Sanders having had pro-Soviet views in the past, or Biden doing something untoward while Vice President, or god knows what. You're fooling yourself if you pretend otherwise.

If this election teaches us one thing, it's the danger of voter apathy and a media that is incentivised towards sensationalism and false equivalency. When people don't pay attention to politics, they're more dependent on what they see in the news, and the news is increasingly incentivised to present a more "marketable" view of reality, rather than an accurate one. This inherently leads to the high level of misinformed voters that we are seeing this year. A lot of young people seem to think that rejecting both major candidates somehow makes you smart or informed, it doesn't.

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