Civilization V: One year on

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Civilization V
The eve of my invasion of the Aztecs

 

Last night, I sat down to play Civilization V for the first time in most of a year. There have been a lot of patches in that time, and I’d grown pretty rusty. How well does it stand the test of time?

 

What happened during the game

 

I played as Siam on a Tiny map (four players, eight city-states), Continents, on King level. As it turned out, the other three players all ended up sharing the main continent while I had a large island/small continent to myself (big enough for three of my cities plus one city-state, and I could have shoehorned another city or two in there if I really wanted to).  Throughout the game, I followed my classic Civ play style by building a small but rich and technologically advanced nation, and eventually won a diplomatic victory.

 

However, my game wasn’t wholly peaceful. Montezuma, just across the sea from me, spent the game slowly gobbling up the other civs and city-states on the main continent. He knocked out Japan and one of my allied city-states, as well as grabbing some territory from Russia. So in the modern era, I decided to do something about it. I somehow made my way to Electronics (which allows mechanised infantry) when all the other AI players were around a generation or two behind militarily, so after training a small force of mechanised infantry and constructing a few battleships, I invaded the Aztecs*.

 

And I pulled it off. Between my technological superiority, the Aztec army being at the wrong end of the continent fighting the Russians, and my city-state allies gnawing at the Aztecs’ flanks, I went through Montezuma’s heartland like a hot knife through butter. Mounting unhappiness from my conquests, and the need to rest the troops,  made me settle for a peace treaty in which I took all of Montezuma’s cities except for the ex-Japanese Kyoto; that spiked my unhappiness even further, so I donated several of the Aztec border cities to my ally Russia. With the exception of a second, brief war later on that saw Russia gobble up the Aztec remnant, after that it was pretty much just a countdown to the diplomatic victory.

 

My observations

 

The naval AI really is broken: No invasions, no colonisation, minimal fleets. This meant once I had wiped the barbarians off my continent, I could safely neglect my military until it was time to invade the Aztecs. When that occasion came, I encountered absolutely no naval resistance…

 

… but I wouldn’t be so quick to rag on the land AI: My ground war didn’t last long , and mostly consisted of me besieging cities defended by entrenched artillery rather than fighting Montezuma’s armies in the field, so I can’t comment on how good the AI’s unit deployment is. However, judging by the large, artillery-supported armies I saw the Aztecs and later Russia pushing around, their sheer weight of numbers would have given me a much harder time if I’d spawned on the main continent.

 

Improved build times: Even on Quick speed, IIRC it took ages to build anything in the earlier versions of Civ V. In contrast, build times feel very reasonable now.

 

At first glance, I like the use of empire-wide happiness as a check on conquest: … although this really is only a first glance, since it only arose for me towards the end of this game and I don’t remember it being much of an issue when I originally played.

 

Diplomacy still feels rudimentary, but it has its moments: Russia and I were best buddies for most of the game, but once the fall of the Aztecs left the two of us sharing a land border as the last civs standing, Catherine’s attitude cooled very quickly. Shades of the Cold War…

 

My overall conclusions haven’t changed. Civ V was decent to start with, and it’s better than it was a year ago, mostly due to the faster build times. But while I had fun, I still don’t consider it a great game. Even without the dysfunctional naval AI, the patches have done nothing to address my fundamental gripes with the game. In particular, diplomacy and the lack of religion make it feel more soulless than Civ IV or even Alpha Centauri (note, for example, this podcast discussion on the importance of faction personalities in that game). Back onto my Steam shelf it’ll go for now, I think…

 

* Appropriately enough, the  great general who spawned after my first couple of victories was named “Hernan Cortes”.

Anime review: Last Exile

“It’s the dawn of the Golden Age of Aviation on planet Prester, and retro-futuristic sky vehicles known as vanships dominate the horizon. Claus Valca – a flyboy born with the right stuff – and his fiery navigator Lavie are fearless racers obsessed with becoming the first sky couriers to cross the Grand Stream in a vanship. But when the high-flying duo encounters a mysterious girl named Alvis, they are thrust into the middle of an endless battle between Anatoray and Disith – two countries systematically destroying each other according to the code of chivalric warfare. Lives will be lost and legacies determined as Claus and Lavie attempt to bring peace to their world by solving the riddle of its chaotic core.”  – official DVD blurb

 

After eight years, I recently re-watched Last Exile – one of the first anime I saw, back when it originally ran in 2003. Since then, I’ve watched a lot more anime before drifting away from the medium; steampunk has become the “hot” subgenre of speculative fiction; and the show itself has a brand-new sequel. How does the original hold up?

 

From the start, Last Exile’s greatest strength is on full display: its world. Antigravity battleships soar through the skies, courier pilots scoop up message tubes marked to indicate the danger of the mission, men march to their deaths in pointless ritual combat. Dukes fill their fountains with the purest water, while those same couriers scrimp and save for water of the “third grade”. It’s a world very different to ours, a world where Han Solo would feel right at home but with the space opera traded out for steam/dieselpunk. And it’s a world both imaginative and richly brought to life.

 

Unfortunately, a cool premise and imaginative worldbuilding can only take you so far. The greatest flaw of Last Exile is that the further along you get, the less sense its plot makes. And it doesn’t help that the show is light on exposition, which is fine for worldbuilding but a real problem when it comes to plot. What was the point of that elaborate scheme? Where was X during all of that? How did those guys warp from point A to point B? Why is a certain character so stupid? Most damagingly, and repeated several times: what just happened, and why? This isn’t so much of an issue in the show’s first half, but it weighs heavily on its later half, enough to cripple my suspension of disbelief by the time the curtain fell. That said, the writers can plot satisfying individual episodes – these tend to be the ones that highlight an aspect of daily life in the skies. (As such, Last Exile would probably have worked better as an episodic show with the odd plot episode, a la Cowboy Bebop or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.)

 

The characters aren’t especially deep, but they’re passable. Hero Claus is a generic milquetoast, but heroine Lavie has enough personality for both of them. Along the way, they encounter a familiar cast of characters: friendly rivals, a not-so-friendly stiffneck and her sweeter sidekick, a Captain Nemo/Harlock wannabe, a salt-of-the-earth mechanic crew, and more. Few of them are worth writing home about, but they all receive their fair share of endearing moments – and the supporting characters also get some of the show’s crowning heroic moments.

 

In the end, Last Exile could have been so much more, were it not for characters who are merely fair-to-middling and an overarching plot that’s downright weak. But with its fascinating world and its individually cool moments, the show is still well worth a look for a speculative fiction fan.

 

You can buy Last Exile from Amazon here (or, if you’re in the US, just watch it on Hulu).

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

New trailer for Sherlock Holmes 2: Game of Shadows

I don’t remember being that impressed by the first trailer for Sherlock Holmes 2: Game of Shadows, but the second one is a different story:

 

 

For my part, I liked the first movie not just for its camerawork and action, but also for its vivid characterisation of Holmes as the fallible genius who lived for the intellectual fulfilment he could only find in difficult cases, and Watson as the long-suffering sidekick. Looking forward to the December release!

Demon’s Souls: Progress, progress, progress

This is part 2 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

In a game as unforgiving as Demon’s Souls, I have no pride. To me, there is no such thing as a “cheap” or a “cheesy” tactic in Demon’s Souls – either it works or it doesn’t. And in a game this unforgiving, there is no such thing as a “spoiler”. In search of advice, I will watch videos; read forums, walkthroughs, and wikis; gladly bypass trial and error.

 

It was those forum threads that led me to the Shrine of Storms, a ruined cliffside stronghold, in search of its fabled loot. I wasn’t too worried about the opposition – until then, I’d never met a trash mob I couldn’t handle with my starting spell, Soul Arrow. Sure, I’d be in trouble if tough foes survived the first couple of Soul Arrows and closed into melee range, but they were slow enough for that not to happen very often. The player character’s strength is his/her agility, and I was grateful for it.

 

The Shrine of Storms loaded up. I advanced. A skeleton sprang to its feet. I lobbed a Soul Arrow. And to my horror, the skeleton rolled at me – as nimbly as I could roll. “YOU HAVE DIED,” the game told me soon afterwards.

 

Bad enough that the skeletons were strong enough to survive a couple of Soul Arrows, and fast enough to close the distance. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) Bad enough that my rapier was about as effective as poking them with a cotton bud. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) The icing on the cake was that my reliance on magic meant I’d never properly learned the game’s melee combat system, and thus, I had a tendency to panic and button-mash when foes got too close. “Fear is the mind-killer,” says Dune, and in Demon’s Souls, that makes it a player-killer as well. As such, I soon grew used to the aggravation of watching the skeletons turn and swagger away* while “YOU HAVE DIED” burned on my screen.

 

But I was having too much fun to give up. I practiced my swordplay against the skeletons, ran the level again and again as a blue phantom, discovered to my joy that the Shrine of Storms is in fact a great place for newbies to farm souls. Once, as a blue phantom, I even made it as far as the boss room; the host and I took down 75% of the boss’s life bar, before I discovered the hard way that the boss could hit the ledge where I was standing.

 

I decided I’d clear out the boss later. I retrieved the sword for which I had originally come, then travelled to other levels. I killed the dragon who had previously tormented me, then took down another boss (via Soul Arrow, which turned the fight into a piece of cake; I understand that boss is a lot more difficult in melee…).

 

Beating that other boss restored me to body form and allowed me to bring in blue phantoms. And with that, I was ready to return to the Shrine of Storms.  Two blue phantoms and I overpowered the early skeletons, made short work of the level’s sub-boss, pressed on. About halfway through, I lost my first blue phantom to a booby trap; it was me who set off the pressure plate, but the resulting volley of arrows impaled him instead. There was a hairy moment after that, a point-blank fight on a dangerously narrow cliffside path, but with the help of my remaining blue phantom, I made it through. We fought our way to the boss room…

 

… and promptly died. After seeing how much health I lost to the boss’s first blow, I ran around like a headless chicken and ended up trapped in a corner. On my next two attempts to reach the boss, I didn’t even get that far – both times, I died right before the boss room. The first time, the boss’s “doorman” one-shotted me; the second time, I almost won the swordfight, but “almost” wasn’t good enough.

 

I think that is the game’s way of telling me I need to try another approach. A buff spell, one that significantly reduces physical damage taken, would be a huge help in the Shrine… and as it happens, I’ve fulfilled one of the two conditions to unlock that spell. I know which level I need to visit to meet the other condition (thanks, Demon’s Souls wiki!), so it’s probably farewell to the Shrine of Storms for now.  But I will return. And when I do, stronger and quicker and better prepared, the boss had better watch out.

 

* I’m sure it was just their usual walking animation, but at that moment, it felt like a gloating, troll-faced swagger.

TV review: BOSS

Criminals of Tokyo, watch out! The Special Crime Countermeasures Unit, led by American-trained Inspector Osawa, is on the job! There are just a few flies in the ointment. Osawa’s superiors hate her. To form her squad, she’s been given the dregs of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. And Osawa herself was previously packed off to the US in disgrace. But don’t underestimate what outcasts can do, given the chance to prove themselves…

 

BOSS is a Japanese detective show, two genres I’m not familiar with. However, I have watched a lot of anime, and in a couple of ways, this reminds me of a live-action version of the same.

 

The first similarity is plot. Generally, each episode features a new case for the team to investigate, and to my non-genre-viewer’s eyes, these are implausible but entertaining. I doubt real police officers would use the heroes’ methods, and a couple of plot twists came out of nowhere, but it’s still a delight to watch the heroes outwit the criminal of the week. Here, the show deserves credit for avoiding a formula. In some episodes, the viewer and characters have to discover the identity of the criminal from scratch; in others, the viewer knows from the start, but the characters don’t. In some, the characters must race to prevent the criminal from striking again; in others, there’s no risk of a repeat, so the tension comes from the difficulty of obtaining hard evidence. As such, it has no problem staying fresh every episode.

 

The second similarity, and where BOSS really shines, is its characterisation and its sense of humour – this despite the grisly nature of the crimes. At heart, BOSS is the classic story about the ragtag band of misfits that ends up gelling together to save the day. Osawa is hot-tempered on the job, but also brave and devious; her crew run the gamut from excessively cheerful (young patrolman Hanagata), to apathetic (forensics technician Kimoto), to scatterbrained (washed-up Yamamura), to sullen (firearm-averse prettyboy Katagiri), to deceptively gruff (gay romantic Iwai). I doubt real police officers would be as quirky as the heroes, but they’re too endearing/funny for me to complain – and the whole point of this genre is seeing how the goofballs shape up. Watching them grow, learn to trust each other and conquer their demons over the series is the slow-burning payoff to the immediate laughs they generate.

 

Overall, BOSS might be a fluff show, but it’s a very good fluff show – the best analogy I have is an early Lois McMaster Bujold novel. You won’t ponder its hidden meaning or debate its moral nuances, but with its rollicking plot, vividly written and acted characters, a great sense of humour, and memorable background music, you’ll have too good a time to worry about such things. Recommended.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

Demon’s Souls: Misery loves company

 

This is part 1 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

Last weekend, flush with victory over the first boss of Demon’s Souls, I cheerfully declared, “Much less difficult than I was expecting!” I suspected I’d have to eat those words sooner or later, but hey, they were true at the time.

 

This weekend, Demon’s Souls fulfilled my expectations. Over the course of a circa two-hour play session, I was repeatedly BBQed by a dragon; made it past the dragon only to be carved to bits by a waiting knight; poisoned; ambushed from behind; and blew most of my precious healing items. What kept this fun rather than frustrating was that for most of this time, I was playing co-op.

 

While every game is better in co-op, this is doubly so in Demon’s Souls. This is partly due to the usual “many hands make light work” effect, partly because of what a relief it is to see friendly faces, but also partly because the game’s penalty for dying doesn’t always apply in co-op. For background, in Demon’s Souls, you can exist either in “body” or “soul” form. Dying in body form will send you into soul form, and dying in either form will make you drop all your accumulated souls, the game’s titular substitute for currency/EXP. If you die again before retrieving your souls via a corpse run, they’re gone forever.

 

Co-op works when a “soul” player leaves a marker indicating his/her availability to be summoned by a host, “body” player. The visiting soul will then drop into the host’s world as a blue phantom – and the beauty of playing a blue phantom is that in this form, you don’t lose souls from PvE deaths, making this a great, lower-stress way to explore a new level while building up a nest egg. If you die as a blue phantom, or the host dies (which results in all blue phantoms being booted), no problem – just lay down your marker again and wait for another player in body form to wander past. (I wasn’t the only one to do this, as I ran into the same blue phantom twice.)

 

I largely played my first few hours (single-player) cautiously, methodically, keeping an eye out for sudden death, and as such, they felt like hours. In contrast, those two hours of co-op flew past, laden as they were with memorable moments.

 

There were moments of endearing etiquette, when blue phantoms or the host would bow upon arrival.

 

There were moments bordering on farce, as three “mighty” warriors huddled together, cowering just out of reach of the dragon’s flame, before sprinting for their lives. (As such, this is the most realistic dragon encounter simulator I have played. You can in fact kill the dragon with enough patience, but evidently none of us had a bow with sufficient arrows.)

 

There were moments of wordless teamwork. Once, our way was blocked by a row of boulder-flinging monsters. The warrior next to me hesitated. And I realised this was a job for my spellcaster: I stepped forward, raised my silver catalyst, and began blasting away to clear our path – just as the third player present emerged from behind the boulder-tossers and caught them between hammer and anvil. This worked both ways – as a weedy spellslinging princeling, I loved having beefy, armoured knights around who could wade into melee and draw fire from me.

 

There were  moments of high adventure: the host player and I made it past the boulder-throwers and eventually came across the level’s boss, a giant, flame-lobbing spider who blocked the far end of a tunnel. (We lost the other blue phantom somewhere along the way – did he lose sight of us and disconnect in frustration? Did an unseen demon do him in? Did he fall to his death?) It was wonderful to watch the host player at work, shooting arrow after arrow at the boss, rolling left and right to avoid fireballs, taking the odd hit but always managing to heal in time. (As far as I could tell, the host was the one doing the dangerous part of the work – my contribution was limited to lobbing Soul Arrows from the back of the tunnel and hiding whenever a fireball came near me.)

 

And there was a moment of triumph, when the giant spider finally fell. “THE DEMON WAS DESTROYED” took over my screen, and souls flooded into my possession. I gave the other player the highest possible rating (I hope he/she reciprocated!), and back in my own world, took great pleasure in spending my newly acquired souls on a shield and some skill points. I didn’t push my luck after that in single-player – with that, I logged off for the night.

 

All in all, I had a great time playing Demon’s Souls co-op. And my advice to anyone scared by the thought of visiting the Kingdom of Boletaria: try it with a group! Safety in numbers might be a relative term in this game, but you’ll also enjoy camaraderie and the spectacle of seeing other brave souls in action. See you on the other side of the fog!