Wednesday, March 13, 2013


A long time ago … a really, really long time ago, before Windows 95, when most computers were running DOS … I bought full versions of Apogee Games on floppy disks in a small music store in my home town. Apogee, DOS, the floppy disks, and the small music store are all gone by now, but memories remain. Memories of a store where you could get or at least order unusual CDs (or games). Memories of DOS, which was more difficult to handle, but in hindsight at least was working correctly. Memories of floppy disks that stored a huge 1.44 MB of data. And memories of the early Apogee games: Commander Keen, Crystal Caves, Word and Math Rescue (good enough platformers for math and language training), and Secret Agent Man.

Lately, Apogee games have turned up at GOG, first of all the Duke Nukem games (which I didn’t get), then Hocus Pocus (which I got the day it was released), now Secret Agent Man (which I will get after my Sims-induced game diet). Now, if GOG gets the two Commander Keen episodes I don’t have from Steam (Aliens Ate My Babysitter and Keen Dreams) and Alien Rampage (also known as Halloween Harry), I’ll be a very happy platformer.
One thing is sure about the old platformers: they are hard. Chances of dying are high, which means a lot of tries to master a level. Especially the early Commander Keen games and Secret Agent Man have a high difficulty. Your character can jump unrealistically high … and usually lands just where you don’t want them to land. Saving is only possible outside levels on the overall map. If you don’t have to start up levels several times when you play the game for the first time, you’re much, much, much better than me at them.

Yet, even with their low-grade graphics, the games still are great today. They aren’t smooth, they aren’t good-looking, they aren’t casual, but they are a lot of fun. If you can stand to fail numerous times in each level, that is …

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Yes, I am one of the thousands and thousands of European customers who bought the game and had to wait a couple of days before they could finally play it. Because, surprise, a lot of people wanted to go online (as if the new SimCity gives you a choice … LOL) and start building their cities once the game was out.

On the whole, I avoid buying games that force you to stay online to play (if they’re not MMORPGs, but I don’t play any of those regularly). It’s one of the reasons (together with the high price and my less-than-ecstatic memories of the previous games) why I haven’t bought and played Diablo 3 so far. I haven’t played StarCraft 2, either, even though I love the first. I do own a couple, though, such as Assassin’s Creed 2, Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, and Settlers 7. All of those, however, I bought during sales at Steam, so I didn’t hand over full price for any of them.
Why do you have to be online just to play a game all by yourself? That is my main problem with all those online-only games. I can fully understand only allowing Multiplayer over the internet and company-owned servers. I don’t think it’s ideal, but I can understand it.
However, when it comes to single-player gaming, where is the reason? I only want to play by myself, build a city or two (or loot a few crypts, or fight a few aliens). I’m not a natural Multiplayer gamer. Take a game like Forgotten Sands or Assassin’s Creed 2. Neither of them have a real Multiplayer mode. Neither of them can be played in any other way than all alone. You can compete, sure, who finishes first, but you can’t play together. The first Multiplayer mode for Assassin’s Creed came with Brotherhood (which is Assassin’s Creed 2.3333). Until then, it was only you, the free game world, and all the people who wanted you dead or whom you were supposed to kill. Same goes for Prince of Persia. As fun as jumping, climbing, fighting, and puzzling through the palace is, you do it alone.
And from Thursday to Sunday, EA proved me right. Most people who wanted to play SimCity did indeed want to play all by themselves, like me. Which is why there is an online petition to make the single-player mode of SimCity playable offline. And even that was impossible, because the servers couldn’t handle the amount of players. Over the weekend, EA more than doubled the servers which, admittedly, is very helpful. What company officials seem to forget, though, is that not everyone has broadband internet. A lot of people all over the world can’t be online 24/7. I can, theoretically, as I have a good connection, but even my internet is not completely secure. So I pay a lot of money and then more money (for the internet connection) and I still don’t have a guarantee I can play the game? Sounds like something is wrong there.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame EA for underestimating the number of people going online to play. I blame them for creating a situation, in which not getting on a server meant not being able to play. If I buy a game with an online Multiplayer mode and I can’t go online on the first day, I can’t play online. If I buy a game with a single-player mode, not being online should not keep me from playing. There are other technical problems that might happen, such as a game not working with certain computer configurations or operating systems. That’s annoying, too, and requires quick patching, but it’s not something as foreseeable and avoidable as having too few servers to handle all players.
SimCity is a legend, naturally a new version is going to attract a lot of players. Even with the very high price, a lot of people are going to buy it. And if everyone buying a copy (digital or boxed) has to be online to play, it’s going to create loads of traffic on the servers.

So, EA, please patch the game with an offline single-player mode. Let me have my private regions to myself. (That does sound a bit strange, sorry.)

Ok, now a few first impressions of the game, away from the annoying technical online question that has overshadowed the game itself.
Once you are online and have successfully created a region and successfully picked an area for a future city, the good old ‘SimCity fever’ is back. Maps are awfully small, but apart from that, the game is fun. You create connections to the outside world, you build roads, map out zones (residential, commercial, industrial) and watch houses being built, small U-haul cars arriving, and people moving in. And once they have moved in, companies and industrial areas come to life. You have to take care of electricity, water, sewage, of schools, police stations, fire departs, hospitals. You have to make your inhabitants happy, manage to attract various levels of wealth, from the poor workers over the middle-class citizens to the rich. You need to keep your eye on the budget, you need to decide on specializations (mining, high-tech, tourism, gambling, trade). You have to listen to your citizens, who will have tasks for you to perform, too. Sooner or later, you will start a new city in your region, specialize it differently, work with new tasks. Cities can help each other out, providing there are free capacities.
Balancing the budget can be a bit difficult, but that’s the point, isn’t it? There is always the question do I go for ecology or money? Do I do things the easy way (which usually means pollution) or do I go the hard way? Do I boost the worth of the lots, so I get higher incomes (which means higher tax income for me)? Do I keep the city mostly in the hand of the lower incomes, so it will provide basic services for other cities in the area (that works, actually)? Do I want high density at any price or do I want a nice, low density environment?
One thing I’m definitely missing in this game is a real manual. Sure, there is a digital one online, but having something to sheave through while I’m playing full-screen would be nice. I remember the good and often funny manuals for earlier games (let’s exclude the dreadful SimCity Societies). They were one reason why I played the games for so long, because the provided me with new things to try out.
Yet I can see the game will provide a lot of long-time amusement for me, too. The core of the series is still there. The fever that makes you play ‘just another five minutes’ that turn into five hours. The way you can just watch all the bustle in the city (and now all the better, as you can zoom in and see a lot of things happening in real time). The way constant demands of the cities keep you working and figuring things out.

Thanks for the new SimCity, EA and Maxis. Thanks for a game that will keep me up late and provide me with a good reason to play. After all, my citizens need me.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Casual Corner February

I know I’m late again for the casual corner. I have two excuses for that: I was immersed in a Team Challenge at Challengers and there weren’t many good casual games out in February. Impire came out, but it’s no casual game, neither in price, nor in length. Adelantado Book 2 missed by a day. I played a lot of HOGs for the Team Challenge, but they were older. I bought some HOG CEs in a sale, but they also had been out for a while. So, what is left?

With Outta this Kingdom and Ballad of Solar, Alawar released two similar, but nevertheless good TMs. Both seem to be based on the same engine as Way Out West, which was released by Alawar last year. Sweet Kingdom, on the other hand, is a nice mixture between Royal Envoy and Farm Frenzy (although the only thing from Farm Frenzy it has is production chains).

Outta this Kingdom has a fun fantasy story in which you find yourself stranded in a fantasy world with your cat. Soon you meet a guy to whom that happened a few years ago and you start a trip through the world to find a mysterious wizard who could send you back home. The gameplay includes stages that are more MKFTP-ish and stages that are definitely builders. The game levels are split into two or more stages (which also goes for Way Out West and Ballad of Solar), each of which has its own timing, meaning you don’t lose the level just because you miss the expert time on one stage. I like the whacky story, the cartoon graphics, and the overall gameplay, which is why Outta this Kingdom is pretty high up my list of ‘bestest games ever.’

Ballad of Solar is based on the same game engine, as far as I can say, but it’s a lot more MKFTP-ish. You don’t build houses in this game, you only repair them. And even though the ‘evil sorcerer has conquered the kingdom and imprisoned the princess’ story isn’t innovative, the game has a nice enough background story to work with. The various stages of each level vary between cleaning the way and trading with various NPCs. As with Outta this Kingdom, the stages are separated, so there isn’t an overall level time. Unlike Outta this Kingdom, Ballad of Solar has frozen stages, where there is no time to beat (if you play in the normal adventurer mode). The game has a nice cartoon look and is a lot of fun to play.

Sweet Kingdom was a surprise last month. The gameplay is that of a builder on the whole and reminds me of the first Royal Envoy. However, the game has production chains, which is rather unusual in a casual game and especially in a builder. The difficulty is rising fast, but you can finish the levels even after you run out of time. The graphics are bright, the story is mere background. To be honest, with the interesting gameplay, the story is not that interesting to me.

If you like TMs, you might want to try out those three, as they are fun and will give you hours to play and enjoy yourself. However, in my opinion, February wasn’t a good month for casual games.