Emperor: Battle For Dune

Get that darn’ grit out of your teeth, boy! – It’s time to go a-ridin’ the Worms. Yeeehaw!
What have men with beards ever done for us?

Well they’ve brought us great advances in science, art, philosophy, medicine and in, erm… Science Fiction. Bearded sci-fi king George Lucas is to be thanked for the greatest space opera ever to be perpetrated in the form of Star Wars. A similarly hirsute hero of sci-fi is to be found in the profoundly different sci-fi author Frank Herbert. Herbert wrote the politically convoluted mystic-weirdo-sci-fi Dune series – made notorious by being an absurdly pretentious Dino De Laurentis film, and latterly by being the father of the modern game genre now grown so fat and ill – real time strategy.

Dune is one of the most intelligent and intricate sci-fi worlds and if you haven’t been pleasured by film or book, then you should make it your business to. Immediately. Either that or sit in front of your PC waiting ponderously for the next evolution in strategy gaming – a game which could well be Emperor: Battle For Dune.

Forget for a moment that Cryo made the first Dune game – a peculiar adventure epic which left a metallic feeling in the mouth. Instead remember Westwood’s almighty RTS game Dune 2, and in it’s mildly better descendent Dune 2000. This was the game that gave us Command & Conquer, the Red Alerts and Tiberian Sun. It was good, very good.

So with that in mind the Las Vegas based strategy impresarios Westwood Studios are looking to the future with Emperor, their first ‘proper’ 3D strategy engine. And it’s a gorgeous return to Herbert’s universe.

For the most part it’s going to be a straight step towards prettiness from the tradition of C&C and Red Alert – with bases and multiple units, resource collecting, researching and all the mod-cons we immediately expect from our RTS games. It’s going be good looking and FMV heavy – as we’ve come to expect from the Westwood studios. It’s storyline appear epically gothic, with appearances from the darker members of the Dune cast, such as the spacing guild – Westwood are going to drag in much of Herbert’s dune mystic to spice up the mixture.

But there are a fair few in game delights in store for salivating desert fighters – and that’s before we get to the graphical splendour and riding mile-long space worms. The game will enable players to fight right across the surface of Dune, pushing their armies back and forth – as in Shogun. A lost level will not mean Game Over, rather you’ll be pushed out of that territory and be forced to make gains somewhere else. This means you could battle your way across the desert planet of Arrakis and take the fight to your enemies – landing on their homeworld for the final conflict. But then they could do that to you, too.

Westwood promise a game full of martial variety game: a huge diversity of units from all the different factions involved – everything from stealth units to massive air power will be in evidence.

There’s also a plan afoot to make this the best multiplayer RTS yet seen. Westwood are working hard to make the Net-code and game interface perfect for our multiplayer demands. They also intend to enable players to play together co-operatively, to the point where one could handle air power while the other talks tanks. Or alternatively one chap could be busy micro-managing the base and handling production, while the more militant partner goes off to do some high-powered killing.

Frankly we’re very interested in Emperor. It lays to rest a whole arm of 2D gaming that went just a bit awry. With games like Ground Control and Shogun making the RTS genre look really good, it’s time that the original gangsters of real-time strategic tomfoolery took the high ground.

It’s just a pity that it won’t have Sting in a wing-shaped pair of pants… Oh just go and watch the film fer’ chrissakes!

Cultures – The Discovery of Vinland

By Thor’s hammer: an RTS-meets-The Sims, dipers ‘n’ axes historical romp in which you spend as much time marrying off Vikings and making babies as you do sending them into battle. Good, eh? Push, Freja! Push! It’s a boy!
Cultures is not just ‘another strategy game’ then.
Indeed not. And as we’ve intimated at the top, it’s completely bonkers.

But then, the Germans seem to have a special touch with strategy games, don’t they?
How right you are. They’re so good at trading and building games, and with Cultures – which Settlers devotees should delight in – they seem to have done it again.

It’s a Viking job, you say?
Yes, though historical accuracy has been quite understandingly dumped in the interests of fun. After all, why let the truth get in the way of a good game?

Just so.
Set 1000 years ago, the 13-mission campaign tells the story of Bjarni, a cute young Viking lad who, together with his clan, discovers America.

My, that is taking a historical liberty.
You ‘aint heard it all yet. Bjarni and company don’t sail all that way merely to say “hello” to the President, oh no; they’re off to find the six pieces of a comet that they spied from their Greenland home. They believe that only once all the pieces are recovered will their gods be appeased and prosperity restored to their home village.

And this involves rape and pillage, surely.
Well, Vikings will be Vikings, and your quest to find all the comet means you must expand across America, forming new villages and defeating viral tribes you come across – Mayas, Indians, the lot. However, to succeed in Cultures you must concentrate not on raping and pillaging, but on the well-being and growth of your cute tribe (none of the Vikings in this game, by the way, are as hairy and fearsome as tradition has it). That means you must ensure your people are healthy, well fed, have a roof over their heads, have jobs and grow wealthy through trade with other nations. You also have to love, thus springing children into the world. The multiplayer game is all about building yourself up specifically to ‘deal with your neighbours’, but even then you must make your side happy and prosperous if you’re to win.

Mate, Cultures sounds like a great laugh.
It really is. Somehow you become more emotionally attached to your tiny empire in Cultures than you do with many other strategy games, which too often these days are spectacular and massive, but lacking in humour and empathy.

With you there. So it’s not a dull game?
No it isn’t. And yet Cultures is not merely a ‘comedy-strategy’. The game has depth, and all the traditional elements of a tricky strategy are in place. To succeed you must balance the individual needs of your Viking families with your wider strategic aims, and herein lies the cleverness and immersive nature of the game. Soldiers, craftsmen, and a whole range of characters are needed to allow a successful community to flourish, and each of these characters must be kept happy. In this respect, Cultures is a little like Theme Park World – all the chaps have to be looked after – but in Cultures every character has their own unique personality – they act and ‘live’ by themselves and must develop – just like the people of The Sims.

Interesting. And it certainly looks cheerful.
The graphics and animations are very colourful and quirky. Each individual has their own dress, face and hair and goes about his or her daily and nightly business on their own (you can keep track of them with a couple of clicks). As for the environments, they are busy and diverse.

Is Cultures easy to get to grips with?
The interface has been thoughtfully put together, and the tutorial and instruction booklets are quite helpful. You’re up and making baby Vikings in no time, really.

How many people can play the multiplayer game?
You can play Cultures with up to five people in multiplayer mode via LAN, or on the net using the Cultures Online Server.

Marvellous. Do you think this game could catch on?
We’d like to think so. We haven’t played the full campaign yet or even scratched the surface of the bugger, really, so you’ll have to wait for our full review; but certainly we’re able to say that Cultures looks an exciting game that pushes the strategy genre forward in a way we like. Keep tuned for more, and we’ll keep making the babies.

Hay Day – Retrospective Preview 2015

There are a lot of farming simulation games out there right now, and while most of them do a lot of things right, Supercell thinks they’ve put the whole package together. Hay Day features more options, more facilities and an entirely new engine. Players will be able to experience better farming elements. With single player missions, extensive multiplayer and an excellent farm editor, Earth 2150 looks like it may be the shiniest farming game ever.

The first thing that most players will notice is the excellent 3D world in Hay Day. Although the textures are tiled, the terrain effects are outstanding with subtle gradations between smooth, flat terrain and increasingly rocky crags. Even better, the environmental effects actually effect gameplay. There are also day and night effects and weather conditions that players can use to their advantage.

Since the game employs a 3D hardware engine to present all the action, the camera needs to be agile and informative. Fortunately, Hay Day employs a simple system where players can rotate, scroll, pan, and zoom in and out with just couple of buttons. Even better, the screen can be divided up into a main window with three interchangeable sub-windows, each of which can be easily repositioned with gestures. This allows gamers to keep one eye on the main action and another eye on vital — or vulnerable — placements.

The actual gameplay will be familiar even to a casual simulation game fans. Construct a farm as quickly as possible, start gathering resources, build some machines, then go use them. Although we didn’t get a chance to test out the massively multiplayer experience, we did discover that standard rush tactics can be easily thwarted with a few basic maneuvers.

In an intriguing addition, Hay Day introduces subterranean to the mix. Along with the addition of air and sea forces, the game is definitely going to make realtime players think about every surface in the game.

Finally, SuperCell has included a very convenient Hay Day cheats tool for user-created farms. Along with the basic size of the map, players can customize the terrain with surprising detail. There are dozens of textures and an easy “brush” tool that can be modified to raise, lower and smooth the terrain. Although the water table is at a fixed level — so floods would occur instantaneously when land is deformed — it is possible to create lakes at differing altitudes.

Although the simulation field is pretty crowded, Hay Day does make an admirable attempt to set itself apart. Polished graphics and unique features are nice.

What’s The Problem?: Buying the Right Computer Guide

As the Q&A Editor for this very website, I receive hundreds of emails every week about various computer problems. Sometimes it’s a video card problem, sometimes a sound card, sometimes an upgrade and sometimes it’s something I can’t possibly begin to answer. However, the most common questions come from those who have prefab computers. By this, I mean that they went to their local computer store and bought a preassembled machine off the shelf. As convenient as this is, it’s often the source of the problem as well.

Obviously, everybody cannot be expected to know how to buy their own parts and put everything together properly. It takes technical know-how, some experience in electronics and a willingness to experiment, and many just don’t have the time necessary for this. That, however, is not the point of this column. Instead, the idea is to educate the consumer on a more general level. What features should the consumer look for? What should be avoided? How can one avoid being suckered into something that will be a $1500+ doorstop in under a year? Read on and learn how to buy a machine that has lasting value and future upgradeability.

First, never buy a computer because of an in-store instant rebate that forces a two-year commitment to something. Circuit City, Radio Shack, Best Buy, CompUSA — most major stores have deals like this. Avoid them. Computers offered in promotions like this are usually underpowered machines that would go unshipped otherwise, taking up warehouse space somewhere. If that weren’t bad enough, the two-year commitment is usually to something like AOL, CompuServe or Prodigy. From a game player’s perspective, these are three evil words. Content providers like this use proprietary software for their connections to the Internet that automatically route data through their servers before hitting the Internet. While this may be okay for the occasional browsing and some email, it’s the kiss of death for online games but not Clash Royale on clashroyalehack.fr.

Next, do not sign up for a deal whereby payments are made for a few years with some option to upgrade after that initial commitment. Again, this is typically an underpowered computer, and now it’ll be around for 24 months or longer. As most game players know, there’s usually a required once-a-year upgrade to keep up with the latest technology. Sometimes it’s more memory; sometimes it’s a new video card; sometimes it’s additional hard drive space — there’s always a part of a computer to upgrade or expand over the course of a year if playing the latest games is a priority. Computers with “upgrade deals,” including PeoplePC, Gateway, E-Machines and others, typically sell consumers a middle-of-the-road machine that cannot be upgraded for 24 months. (The upgrading of most of these machines is prohibited in the contract.) It would take a bleeding edge top-of-the-line machine to last a full two years without longing for an upgrade. Keep Moore’s Law in mind here. It states that every 12-18 months, the future top-of-the-line machine will be twice as fast and half as expensive as it is now, and this has held true for at least the last decade. This translates into today’s $1000 1GHz chip leading to a $500 2GHz chip in 12-18 months. Is that 500MHz machine with 64MB RAM still a good deal for two years?

Finally, avoid “closeouts” or “discontinued” models. These are computers, not toasters. While last year’s toaster will still brown bread for years to come, computers advance and evolve like nothing else. Their lifespan is usually extremely short (2-3 years), but their usefulness is ever expanding. Buying a closeout or discontinued model is asking for disappointment. Its useful lifespan, at least as far as games are concerned, will probably be six months or less. It may provide some instant gratification, but in the long run, it will lead to disappointment.

Now that we know what to avoid in general, here’s what to look for when shopping for a new computer. First, make sure that any included components are separate, removable parts. Avoid “on-board” items, including modems, sound cards and video cards. While it may seem convenient to have these items on the motherboard — it frees up expansion slots, right? — it limits the upgradeability of the machine. Often, especially with on-board video cards, upgrading can be a nightmare. While they can usually be disabled, that process can sometimes be more complicated than it should be. On-board video cards also often share system memory, meaning that the 64MB of RAM in the computer is actually 56MB (or less), because the on-board video card is taking a certain amount of it (usually 8MB). If that isn’t bad enough, on-board video usually means there’s no AGP slot. This is huge, as AGP is the foreseeable future of video cards. On-board sound and modem connections don’t suffer quite as badly, but they can be equally confusing to upgrade. If, for example, a game sounds great with the latest environmental audio turned on, chances are that the on-board sound will not support it. Want to upgrade that on-board modem? Better hope it isn’t part of the on-board sound card, which is usually the situation.

The next thing to shop for is non-proprietary parts. Judging from the Q&A letters I receive, the single biggest culprit here is Compaq. While a few have emailed to say that they’ve had few or no problems with their Compaqs, the overwhelming majority of email I get concerning Compaq is about upgrade nightmares and other hardware-related problems. This is not to say that an out-of-the-box Compaq will perform poorly — far from it. The problem comes when upgrading. The parts for a Compaq are usually about twice the cost of nonproprietary parts, and often off-the-shelf parts will not perform as expected. Compaq is not the only one guilty of this — HPs, Packard Bells, IBMs (although they don’t really make consumer PCs anymore), Dells, Gateways — they all do this to a certain degree. While none of these machines are complete junk, their lifespan is typically shorter than that of nonproprietary machines, mainly because of upgrade difficulties. Split motherboards, nonstandard power supplies, cases that won’t hold standard motherboards — they’re all common in these machines, and in the long run, they become upgrade bottlenecks.

So if there are all these potential problems and pitfalls, where does Joe Consumer go to get a good machine with future upgradeability? There are several online options, including Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Hypersonic, IBuyPower and Canadian system builder Voodoo. (Voodoo is in no way related to 3Dfx.) All of these companies will build high quality, custom computers, to the buyer’s specifications. If online shopping isn’t an option, then most cities have at least one local computer shop that will build to spec. Larger cities obviously have many local shops, and the prices are usually better because of the competition.

As a final aid for computer shoppers, here’s a laundry list of what to get. Note that this isn’t a recommendation of AMD over Intel, or nVidia over 3Dfx; rather, it’s a list of the basic components required for a good computer with easily upgradeable parts.

A name-brand motherboard with an AGP slot and upgradeable/flashable BIOS, along with the ability to accept faster processors in the future. These are usually about $100-$130, but it’s worth it. Try to get one without onboard parts. If the motherboard simply doesn’t come without them, make sure onboard parts (sound, video, etc.) are easy to disable and will not cause hassles.
Standard DIMM RAM. Make sure that off-the-shelf RAM will work in this machine. Do not buy a computer that absolutely requires a specific type or brand of RAM.
A standard case and power supply. Nothing’s more frustrating (well, okay, some things are more frustrating) than discovering that the recently purchased new power supply or motherboard will not fit or work in the existing case.
A minimum one-year warranty. Most things computer will last a lot longer than this, but the occasional lemon slips through.
Primary and secondary IDE controllers compatible with ATA/66 or ATA/100 standards. Without them, the computer can only handle the hard drive and CD-ROM that it ships with. The proliferation of CD-RWs, DVD-ROMs, and other drives demands more than one IDE controller, and pretty much every new hard drive will utilize ATA/66. ATA/100 is just becoming available.
128MB RAM and a 15GB hard drive minimum. It sounds like overkill, but 128MB of RAM will soon be the norm, and that 15GB will be used faster than may be thought. Many new games require 1GB or more for a full install, and that’s not going to lower anytime soon.
700MHz minimum speed. Whether it’s Intel or AMD, these chips are inexpensive enough and fast enough to be useful for the foreseeable future.

That’s it. Do some homework here. It may seem complicated, but a weekend spent investigating the different machines and specifications will save months of frustration. No one wants to waste money on a machine that will be worthless in a year, and the guidelines provided here should prevent that from happening.

The LOOKBACK at TGS 2001

The 2001 Spring Tokyo Game show kicks off in a matter of days, and while there are sure to be huge showings for some of this year’s most eagerly anticipated titles, don’t forget that plenty of lesser gems will be making an appearance, too. Next week, Matters of Import will report on some of the more interesting of those titles – the games too quirky, abstract and otherwise too Japanese to likely make it to these shores.
Here’s the news…

What’s The Big Deal?
Tokyo Game show is just one week away, and companies are eager to lure the fans with tantalizing tidbits of great games to come. Notable attractions among next week’s fanfare include new details and CG movies of Final Fantasy X and an appearance from Konami’s upcoming sofa-wetter Silent Hill 2 – in playable form, no less.

Capcom shipped 1 million units of Onimusha last week, a record for the PS2.

Logitech has confirmed that it will be bringing Sony’s PS2 force feedback wheel, the GT Force, to the states in June. It’s well known that this will be the wheel of choice for the next installment in Sony’s seminal Gran Turismo series; what’s interesting is that Logitech will be handing out development kits to PS2 developers, including drivers, sample code and full documentation, free of charge. The racing genre just received a much-needed boost in the appeal department.

Packing Action
Hudson’s intriguing action adventure title for the PS2, DNA – Dark Native Apostle, has been pushed back to a June release. The PS2 sequel to Atlus’ Maken – dubbed Maken Shao — has also been pushed back until then.

RPG Me, Please
Dazz will release Velvet File Plus for the PS2 at the end of March. This mech-based battle tactics sim takes place in the very near future, when an unknown force has stormed the city. Naturally, it’s up to the player and the Self Defense Force to regain control – those of you with Sony’s USB printer PopEgg can even snap your own war mementos.

Sporting And Chance
Developer Mahou will release Magical Sports: Hard Hitter for the PS2 this June. This realistic tennis sim will features sharp visuals and the now-standard character edit mode.

The king of cheap thrills, D3 Publisher, will release the 62nd and 63rd editions of its Simple 1500 Series, a value-priced lineup of clever knock-offs for the PSOne. First is The Ski, which features 12 courses, splitscreen action and plenty of tricks and jumps – it’s scheduled for an April 26 release. One week later will see the debut of The Gunshooting 2, a lightgun-compatible collection of minigames, in which up to four people may play.

All Singing, All Dancing, The Cute And The Weird
Because there simply aren’t enough rhythm-based titles already, Global A entertainment is developing Tam Tam Paradise, a new PS2 music title that comes packaged with an analog drum that measures rhythm as well as up to 256 degrees of pressure sensitivity. Sure to be challenging, but quite possibly fun.

For those of you who simply can’t get enough of Ken, Ryu, Blanka and the crew, another title featuring the Street Fighter gang has just shipped for the PSOne. Labeled Fever4 Sankyo Official Pachinko Simulation, the game features nine different slot machines, three of which are based on Capcom’s legendary series of fighters – these will feature super-deformed Street Fighter standbys performing their traditional super moves and combos. We anticipate lots of noise and colored lights, but don’t get your hopes up for Capcom’s standards of quality.

Developer Success/FortyFive will release Tokyo Bus Guide: You’re the Driver Today on May 10. This game has players earning their license and driving a bus through city traffic, stopping to pick folks up and let them off, and always following the traffic signals. Twenty-four PocketStation minigames round out this interactive masochist’s wet dream.