Half-Life Uplink is, for those of you who aren’t aware, the classic demo for the original Half-Life. It is also the first taste of Half-Life that I experienced some ten years ago or more when I came across the demo on an old demo CD that came with a long-gone PC magazine.
Archive for October, 2009
Imagine a game where you can create a city then go online and visit the creations of others. Well you don’t have to imagine as Cities XL does just that, you would think then that it is would be a brilliant game, unfortunately it isn’t, it is a game which is at times extremely infuriating.
If we look at what happened to me very recently you will see what I mean. My single-player city was going strong, I had nearly 400,000 in the bank and a slowly expanding population which was approaching 20,000 citizens. My city had two distinct areas, the first, and largest, was home to my city hall, vast amounts of housing, offices and industry which was clogging up the air with filthy smog. Down the long winding road I had a smaller area located on fertile land full of farms and a small smattering of my beloved rectangular housing zones.
Things were going well until I took the big step of expanding a new settlement near some newly constructed oil pumps. The residents in this small off-shoot of the city were missing vital amenities like leisure and education. I knew this because my advisor was informing me that there were problems for some citizens. I used the handy overlay to see where the problem areas were, with the housing zones turning red I knew I had to take action to prevent citizens leaving the city.
The imaginery construction workers came in and built a school, medical centre along with a couple of other amenities which, unlike housing and industrial zones are placed one by one. Once I had done this I proceeded to build some zoning for Executive families, they are more needy that Unqualified and Qualified workers, but I felt confident that I could manage to bring them into my city. I placed some high-tec industrial zones and waited for what I thought would be a triumphant flood of new citizens.
That wasn’t to happen, I glanced at my balance and realised I was losing money hand over fist, my advisor informed me that I had to act quickly to prevent the city falling into debt. I scrabbled around the financial menus and saw that those new amenities for the oild workers were costing me thousands upon thousands of dollars to run. They had to go, a decision which would leave the residents illiterate and at risk of boredom without any bowling alleys to go to.
It is a simple economic problem that services that the citizens regularly demand cost so much to run, each and every building of this sorts regularly costs you money and the first ones that you purchase only cover a very small area. The point that I described above where I started to go bankrupt has happened to me at the same stage in all of my cities I have managed, it feels like the pacing of development at this stage of city development is slightly broken.
An intriguing aspect to come in the future of Cities XL are the ‘GEMs’ or Gameplay Enhancement Modules which, when released, will add a level of micro-management as you take control of your own business. At the moment it is confirmed that there will be Ski and Beach GEMs. It seems that when you link these to your city they will have positive effects on factors such as tourism. What is important to take note of is that GEMs will be available at a reduced price to those who subscribe to the Planet Offer which is the MMO aspect of Cities.
With the Planet mode you get to chose a planet to set your own city in, planets are seperated according to languages and locations, though you aren’t forced to follow go to a British planet if you don’t want. Just don’t expect much response on a French planet if you are speaking English. Planet mode enables players to visit each others cities as well as to trade tokens. Tokens are general resources in the game, if you have a lot of farms you will have spare farm tokens which you can trade with the evil Don Madalff or with other players on the planet either in exchange for more money or other resources which your citizens require.
Blueprints are the final dimension of the online mode, when they are introduced to the full version of the game (they were present in the beta) you will occasionally find one on your profile page on the Cities XL website. If you want to use the blueprint you can then create a megastructure, so if you are lucky you can place the Houses of Parliament along with Big Ben in your city or even the Eiffel Tower. To create a megastructure though you will need the help of others through trading your tokens.
Prroblems arise with this though, there are often times when the servers don’t respond to your instructions, both when it comes to trying to trade and when doing more menial tasks like saving your online city.
It becomes clear after playing for a few hours that the game is missing a level of depth and involvement that will come with future updates to the game and the GEMs that are due to arrive. The city building is good despite the issues I have with it during some stages of city development and it is really fun to zoom right in on your city and watch your citizens go about their business or follow a car driving around.
People interested in the single-player component should be aware that you won’t get all the updates to the game that those who have subscribed to the Planet Offer will receive and they will have to pay full price for GEMs while subscribers receive a discount.
If Cities XL was only single-player it would be a miss, however the online component does add a new dimension to the genre and it is a great experience to visit someone elses city and see what they have created. Give it a try if you are interested in city building games, otherwise wait to see what the GEMs add to the game.
After seemingly hours spent fighting my way through Combine Metro Cops and manhacks I was glad to see those cute little headcrabs launch themselves up towards my face. It was something of a relief to see these, the most basic of alien life form you find in the Half-Life universe. By the time they made their first appearance in Route Kanal I was tired of the usual Combine tricks of throwing exploding barrels at me and sending manhacks down tunnels to cut me up.
I was starting to feel that I was stuck in a world inhabited purely by Combine, humans and the occasional enslaved Vortigaunt. Of course the barnacles don’t really count, they are the most impassive of enemies you are likely to encounter in a game, by the time I came across my first headcrab, and almost immediately after my first zombie I was relieved. I knew that I was still in the Half-Life world and that I wouldn’t have to spend the remaining ten or so hours of the game fighting those bloody robotic Combine and their manhacks!
Going back in time to the original Half-Life I noticed things unravel in a similar way, just this time you go from fighting headcrabs and zombies to fighting the marines who are probably some of the best enemies in any FPS yet. You will always remember the first time you come accross the marines when you witness one gun down a helpless scientist. That is an awesome moment. Like with Half-Life 2 I always feel relieved that I am done fighting just one type of opponent.
In the similar vein to Half-Life 2 I always feel relieved and excited to find my first enemy which isn’t an alien or a Combine. However, rather than being relieved simply because of the change in who you are fighting, I think this feeling emerges for altogether different reasons. I would put it down to a sense of familiarity.
In the first game you start without knowing what these alien creatures are, once you are told by the scientists that help is on its way you start to expect help from the military, as we all know they don’t help you one bit. But they play an important role in your enjoyment of the game because you are able to identify with one of the enemies you face.
By the end of the original Half-Life you have come in some way to accept the role of the Xenian life, you are then thrown into the world of Half-Life 2 staring up at the face of Breen, observing Vortigaunt’s being used as slaves and the dreaded Combine Metro Cops. In Half-Life 2 it is the aliens which are the creatures you identify with first having battled them back in Black Mesa, you see the Combine, a faceless entity with which you cannot relate to.
Now though, I am heading back to Black Mesa so I can fight those marines one more time.
The Russian games development scene is home to some of the brightest minds in the industry creating games like The Void and Men of War, yet all is not rosy in the motherland, the economic crisis has hit hard and developers are having to adapt to a new world. Despite the financial pressures there are still many great, and other not so great, games coming from Russia. These are challenging times for an industry which is still young and has already had to deal with one economic crisis. In 1998 financial problems in Russia set back growth of the games industry, it is only now that it seems to be getting back on its feet.
Anatoly Subbotin of 1C Company, one of the largest publishers and developers of games in Russia, feels that it is only in the last four or five years that games development has moved from being a hobby and turning into a business that is comparable to what we see in the West and that it is this which allows titles like Kings Bounty and Stalin vs Martians to be developed. Despite the rapidly developing industry, Anatoly reveals “There are still some peculiarities. Many Russian developers still put a lot of effort in the creative side of their project, many teams still want to deliver something original. This is the reason why a big number of innovative products come from Russia.” These are ideas shared by Aleksey Luchin of Ice-Pick Lodge, a developer which has created a reputation for making experimental and innovative titles with Pathologic and The Void. Aleksey thinks that “The industry here is rather young compared to the ones in Europe and America, and …since the market is rapidly developing and due to the fact that doing business in Russian is different in its paradigm, the work patterns and traditions that the Western industry has accepted and follows, are still forming here. This fact lessens the control over the development process, and leads to developers being able to experiment with the game more.”
Unfortunately because of a lack of investment in some areas of the industry many games are released in extremely buggy condition. Aleksey says “the quality of games that come from Russian is in general worse than abroad – the games suffer from bugs, strange design decisions, often hard and requiring skill to beat the game and patience to look through the flaws to see a gem.”
It is not just a lack of investment that is causing problems, the economic crisis has hit the retail industry in Russia very hard. Alexander Scherbakov of Dreamlore (Stalin vs Martians) reveals some shocking statistics about the decline of the Russian retail market: “The traditional PC market we had is almost dead. By the New Year 2009 holidays local publishers were selling half from what they expected (compared to the same period of 2007). By the end of spring, they were selling 5 times less, than during the spring of 2008. Right now (compared to Fall 2007) the publishers are selling like 7 or 8 times less.” This is not just affecting the poor quality titles, Alexander thinks that all types of games are suffering: “Yes, you can’t sell unremarkable supercrap without any unique selling point as the publishers used to, since the retailers won’t order that. But everything else is just selling bad. Even AAA titles.”
There are various factors stemming from the economic crisis that has led to the dramatic collapse of the retail market, the inflation of the rouble and wage cuts mean that consumers buying power has decreased twice over. Alexander thinks that this is leading to a rise in piracy as people can’t justify spending money on games when it is needed elsewhere. In turn this leads to a downward spiral where retailers won’t stock a game because they don’t think it will sell which leads to publishers closing projects because they won’t get the guaranteed sales.
It may seem a grim picture for the games scene in Russia, but Alexander doesn’t think all hope is lost, he identifies three ways to survive as a developer in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics. “First option is going online or successfully going online. Second, is working directly with a Western (or Eastern!) publisher. Third option is outsourcing, but this one is pretty hard right now, not much orders nowadays.” Dreamlore is looking at moving into the online world for future projects and 1C has come together with another developer, Soft Club.
Anatoly feels that joining with Soft Club is the best way to tackle the economic crisis and drive business forward. “1C is the leading PC publisher in Russia and Soft Club is strong in console games sales. Together we plan to withstand the economic crisis more efficiently and moreover develop our business in the future more rapidly.” Creating a stronger console presence is important in Anatoly’s eyes, he sees changes coming in the traditionally PC focused market with console sales getting bigger each year.
The Russian games development scene is certainly unique, without it I am sure we would never see such artistic masterpieces as The Void or games like Cryostasis which use environmental effects like few others. As the industry continues to develop in Russia there is likely to become a clearly defined split between groups like 1C which make bigger titles and start to reach to the console audience, Dreamlore which will move into the online world and Ice-Pick Lodge which will continue with artistic and unusual games. Time will tell how the industry in Russia copes with the economic climate, some studios seem to have plans put in place while others may not be so lucky as to keep going past the development of their next game. It is a critical time for developers in Russia, hopefully we will see more gems like Kings Bounty and Men of War. Indeed, the next time you see a game coming from Russia, don’t rule it out as a buggy mess straight away, you may be surprised at what you find when you delve deeper into it.
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