23 January 2013

#2LR Civilization Review Gala - Civilization III

  I've held off posting about Civilization III for a while.  Partly, this is due to my rather insane schedule recently, which finds me in places such as St. Louis, Rockford IL, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge in the space of about two weeks.  Finding the new job has not been elusive per se, but it certainly has forced me to extend resources and time that I would not have ordinarily spent if this hadn't happened.

  The other part though is that I wanted to at least run a couple of playthroughs of Civilization III in order to refresh my memory.  It is a very odd situation, in that I remember playing Civilization III rather extensively years ago, but the intervening time has seen more Civilization sequels, much less other games, and gaining a perspective on what makes a game tick requires at least a bit of familiarization to make sure that my memories aren't just invented.

  Civilization III was the first of the main Civilization games with country borders, which marked a very major change in the series.  No more could another player note that there is unused territory and march their settler/defense unit to the unused territory... for the most part.  This also meant that you couldn't just station your own army only three squares away from a rival player and do a bum-rush sneak attack on all their cities... only their border regions.  This allowed players even more information as to the weaker points in their defenses and players could use this information as necessary.

  Civilization III also introduced Culture to the series, as well as the Cultural victory.  Culture could be gained via buildings such as temples, libraries, and cathedrals.  Wonders could also boost your culture, and the size of your borders would be defined by the amount of culture your cities generated.  If you wanted, you could build temples and libraries everywhere, or endeavor to make one city into a sparkling Wonder-riffic jewel of dominance.  This actually helped gameplay in a couple of areas, as it allowed a player that may have had a bad start spot (very little territory to expand to) a way to still pull out a win even with more territory-grabbing players about.

  Culture also allowed civilizations another avenue to conquering cities.  If the citizens of a town are overwhelmed by the culture of another civilization, they could choose to flip allegiances.  This comes as a complete shock sometimes, and if you are going on a military path that requires you to double-check your military resources.  A flipped town would come with defense, but only just barely... if you decided to play culturally, you still had to defend your towns, even the newer ones with very little defense.

  Civilization III also introduced the concept of resources.  Some resources were just bonus tiles resulting in a couple extra food, trade, or production.  Other resources on the map were luxury resources and would generate extra happy faces.  Still others were strategic resources, having possession of these resources would allow you to build units using the resource, such as swordsmen needing an iron source.  The borders were more important than ever, because a resource had to be within your borders and connected to the capital via road to be useful.  (The designers also made allowance for "colonies", workers you could send to a resource outside your lands.)

  Another concept that was introduced to the Civilization series was siege.  This was touched on somewhat in the Alpha Centauri discussion previously.  Now, catapults and other ranged weapons had an offense number and a siege number, and you could request these units to fire and they wouldn't take damage for battle.  Siege was used a bit differently within Civilization III than in Alpha Centauri, as a unit could not be killed via siege, only brought to their last hit point.  As well, stacked units would not suffer collateral damage, only the first defending unit could take damage.  The siege concept was a way to be able to bring down heavily-defended cities if building dozens of military units was out of the question, though siege units still needed major protection.

  Of course, there are still issues that needed to be addressed.  One I can think of immediately was with the borders.  On a playthrough, I forgot one of the most annoying things that would happen with Civ III... I had built my capital city and tried to keep the area clear of other towns so that I could grow it.  There was only tundra land to the south, not really conducive to a city, and I had a resource connected three tiles away that I quickly absorbed through culture.  Another civ ended up sneaking a settler to the south of this city, bought a temple to ensure that the city wasn't susceptible to culture takeover, and grabbed the resource that had previously been mine.  On top of that, they used the road that I had built to my capital as an invasion route.  I am glad that in subsequent games (Civ V specifically) that they had addressed both issues, and remembered how much that I disliked having both of those happen in Civ III.

  All of these concepts made the game more complex, but I like to think that they also added more to the experience.  How often are wars fought over resources, for instance?  How many times are border towns almost like exclaves of another country?  Just as Civilization II was an improvement over I, Civilization III was a great improvement over Civilization II.  Quite admittedly, I do not play Civilization III anymore, but it was still a game very worthy of praise and time when it was released.

  To be reviewed are Civilization IV as well as Civilization V, including the most recent "Gods and Kings" release for Civilization V.  Please continue to bear with me as I put these up, especially as I try to figure out exactly how much time I can devote to playing games/watching videos and writing about them through the next little while.

14 January 2013

#2LR Civilization Retrospective Gala - "Alpha Centauri"

Continuing with the Civilization retrospective is the second game developed outside the Civilization series, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (hereafter, "SMAC").  Alpha Cen is pretty much the progenitor of the modern Civilization series, introducing more than a few of the game changes that have endured through the most recent title... much like the setting, the game feels very futuristic even now.  It also feels like they wanted to see what concepts would work in a turn-based setting and what concepts may not work, and to do it without the possibility of "ruining" one of the games of the Civilization series.

The biggest and best of the new concepts is the concept of country borders.  There was no such thing in Civilization 1 or 2, or Colonization, though the only concession they made to this was to set a minimum number of tiles that cities could be built from rival civilizations.  (I have SEEN games, even as recently as Civ 3, where the cities rub up against each other like a virus).  In Alpha Centauri, borders existed and were actually important.  If you crossed a border and were found, there's consequences if the other civ so chooses.  The borders are a set number of squares away from your city, unless of course you're coming up against another civ's borders.

While Colonization introduced the idea of giving different advantage bonuses to each different civ, Alpha Centauri is the game that took this principle and ran with it.  Each civilization has very personalized bonuses AND personalized weaknesses.  In some ways, it gives you a very good idea of the best pathway to winning, whether to go military quickly or if you should defend and lever up through technology.

The bonuses and the weaknesses are all in the form of pluses and minuses to specific levels, such as "Planet" (pollution), "Energy" (governing the amount gained that is spent on money/luxuries/knowledge), "Support" (how many units need to have shields spent from the home base) and many other levels.

The game's backstory has seven (fourteen in the expansion) 'factions' that were in stasis on a spaceship, but when the leader of the expedition passes, the factions all break away to become the rival civs in the game.  Since they are coming to an alien planet, this means that there are no barbarians that you would be used to in the Civ games to cause trouble mostly in the beginning.  The programmers had to think of something else, and that ended up being the planetary fungus and the mindworms.  On every map, there are pieces of map colored red that units may or may not be able to enter.  Randomly, if a unit tries to enter the red planetary fungus square and is denied, there's a chance that a mindworm unit will be spawned in that square as a result.  Some civs that have a good Planet score can attempt to capture the mindworm unit and therefore use it as one of their units (a new feature!) or if you kill them, they contain the currency of the planet.  Of course, if you had attempted to send a worker or settler unit in there, it's very possible that they may be toast (though not always).

The game treats the fog of battle far more realistically, and even has an option that you can use to turn on "fog of war" so that you know what areas of the map you once had information about but do not currently.  You can also have your worker units build sensors so that you can keep tabs on all of the goings-on of your empire... the sensors even add an extra 25% to your defensive units.

Another aspect that is very different is the technology tree.  This is a futuristic game, so you've already learned pottery and the wheel.  The game designers worked to figure out quite a few technologies that were far enough in the future to sound strange and unique.  The tech tree has another wrinkle too... you can't specifically direct research (unless you change the settings).  You can direct your scientists into specific paths, such as military, or building, or knowledge links, etc, but it's deliciously random as to what you'll get.

This brings me to the units, and one of the most revolutionary (yet sadly dropped) aspects of Alpha Centauri.  In this game, you have to pay 1.5 times the number of shields for a "new unit"... if you discovered Level 2 armor, the first unit off is more expensive because it's a prototype.  The good news is that it'll be leveled up two times (levels go "Green" -- "Experienced" -- "Veteran" -- "Commando" -- "Elite", with appropriate percentage bonuses and "Elite" units getting extra moves).  The more interesting part is that you can mix and match units in this game.  If you decide that you want a unit to have L3 armor and L6 offense, you can.  You can build this unit to be effective against vehicles or effective against airplanes.  You can decide that it's too expensive to keep the L3 armor and use L2 armor instead.  It's a whole vista of customization... granted, it's not needed in 85% of the situations, but devilishly fun to use if you find yourself getting pounded by specific units.  One of the aspects that this game introduced and kept for subsequent Civ games is the idea of "siege" units, where it's a unit that's incredibly weak on defense but can fire multiple squares distant to damage fortified units without taking damage on the firing.

There's so many other innovations in this game that didn't make it into subsequent games.  A player can decide to build ocean cities rather than on land, and you have worker units specifically used to improve ocean squares.  There are "satellite" units that add either food, commerce, or production to all cities as well as satellites that can knock them down out of the air.  The government types are also quite a bit like the unit workshop, in that you can mix and match the governments to get the level numbers you're looking for (supporting soldiers or technology, primarily).  You can use worker units to raise or lower land, one very fascinating way to either find new land for your own city building or to really screw up another civ (if you're willing to make war with worker units).  There are units that work like planes, others that work like helicopters, and at the end of the game one unit that works like a plane but does not need to "land" (end one of its next two turns in a airbase/city or be eliminated).  And, for the first time, there's another victory condition other than "beat everyone else" and "run out of time".  At the end of the game, it is a possibility to build a Wonder that is an automatic game ender and winner for the civ that builds it, but of course it can only come after all the technology is discovered.  Taking over a city can be accomplished conventionally or through the use of mindworms, where the defending unit's level rather than its armor rating is used.  And lastly, they have different "engines" for units, which up their hit points and make them harder to kill unless you're at the same technological level.

With all of this, it's still a Civ game, though with rules that are definitely different than any other Civ game.  There are concepts that are way out there, and some concepts that I wished they would have kept for newer Civ games (and frankly, there's still time).  They attempted to build a backstory and placed additional parts of the story within the game, so that there's a bit of a plot to the proceedings as well.  Alpha Centauri enjoyed a semi-regular rotation on my desktop until Microsoft screwed me over by not including backwards compatibility.  I found an online copy for $2.99 though, and I'm happily playing SMAC once again... I think that if you're a fan of the series and you haven't tried it, it's worth at least checking out.

05 January 2013

#2LR - August Rush

  We will be taking a break from our regularly scheduled "Civilization Retrospective" in order to double back to Hollywood for a change.  Just this evening, I watched the 2007 movie August Rush with my wife, and I wanted to throw out a few comments regarding the movie.

  Not that I'm sure any spoiler alerts will be necessary, but here they are regardless.  As August Rush begins, we meet orphan Evan, who lives at the Orphanareum.  He gets picked on by the older kids, which really is the Circle of Life no matter if you're an orphan, at school, or pretty much anywhere else in life where there are older people who've had the hope beat out of them.  As the new social worker comes in to talk to the kids, he seems to awaken something in Evan to want to go out to find his parents.

  In the meantime though, we get treated to a jumpcut about Evan's birth.  See, in this movie, the subtitles instruct us to go backwards eleven years to the encounter between his mother and father.  Mom's a concert cellist, and Dad's a drunken Irish rocker.  Much to the movie's credit, they didn't meet professionally... just by happenstance.  Their one encounter resulted in Mom's pregnancy, and Mom's father, evil Granddad, gives Evan up for adoption while telling his daughter that the baby passed from the accident that threw her into labor... see, a kid would gum up Granddad's ultimate plan of living vicariously through his daughter.

  While the movie gets five bonus points for acknowledging that sometimes things happen at random, like Mom and Dad meeting by chance, it gets five hundred points off for having the audacity to give me a subtitle that includes the words "years ago" without including some sort of time-travel plot.  Please, movie, let's make sure that we present a coherent storyline that flows like a river rather than backs up like a septic tank... jumping through time gets confusing after a while, and it almost feels like we should've had this Mom-meets-Dad prologue as a prologue rather than as an aside.

  Anyway, Evan manages to make it from backwoods New York to the City itself on the literal back of a turnip truck... well, it was a produce truck at least.  Meanwhile, ten years later, Dad's a high-powered executive (?!) in San Francisco while Mom's a music teacher in Chicago.  Evan shortly falls into the orbit of Robin "Fagin" Williams and the kids that live in the abandoned theater (the Park Avenue Irregulars I suppose).  In this story, Fagin Williams is a musician and can also see that Evan is a child prodigy.  So, Fagin Williams quickly moves to become Evan's manager... because, you see, Evan learns to play guitar in about three seconds.  Williams also helps Evan change his name after he sees a truck advertising vacations, to the titular "August Rush"

  Robin Williams plays a very important role in this movie, what seems to be a necessary role... he's the great reminder that good and evil often do coexist in the form of a single person (or entity).  His lessons have good in them -- music is all around and you have to learn to listen for it -- and bad, in that he tells Evan that he shouldn't listen to anyone else because they'll just fill his head with rules.  I suppose that this is also a sort of the "passion" side of music, which wants nothing more than to play, play, play regardless of the consequences.

  Williams' previous "Artful Dodger" resents Evan taking his top guitarist role and tips the police off to the missing Evan as well as the rest of the kids living in the abandoned theater.  The police raid the kids' headquarters and Evan gets separated.  His next stop is a church, where he learns the piano in two seconds as well as musical notation.  After we get more jumpcut scenes of Evil Granddad kicking the bucket after spilling the beans to Mom that her kid's alive, Mom picking up her search and her cello again, and Dad wanting to play his guitar again (and finally finding out who his one-night stand was, going to Chicago to try to meet up with her).  When we see Evan next, he's expertly playing the organ, including the pedalboards at a church.  The minister of the church comes out of his office and hears Evan playing.  Instead of doing... well, anything, to find out who the boy belongs to, the natural response is... to send him off to Julliard.  Huh.  (With what money??)

  So, now we have a ten-year-old walking the halls of Julliard, and getting reprimanded about doing his homework.  (Where does he sleep?  In one of the practice rooms?)  A couple scenes later, as we see Mom continue to practice her cello for a concert with the New York Philharmonic and Dad audition to a club owner for a gig in New York, Evan is called into a room with about two dozen old people and told that the composition that he's been working on rather than homework is good enough for the New York Philharmonic to play at a concert in Central Park.  Especially rich is when we hear the head old person tell him in paraphrase, "We don't ever take a first-year student's composition, especially one so young".  There's more analysis about this down below.

  At this point, Evan is now practicing his piece with the NY Philharmonic and getting instruction on how to conduct.  'Fagin' Williams comes busting back in his life and separates him from the orchestra, knowing that free concerts isn't a way to make money.  To extend the Fagin Williams = musical passion analogy above, Julliard in this movie actually symbolizes the academic, note-writing-down side of music, where there's no real passion like the type that Evan received from Fagin Wiliams.  Williams gives Evan back the guitar and the corner of street to play it on.  While Fagin Williams is using a public phone to try to line up gigs, Evan's dad randomly comes by, wearing his guitar, and we have unaware father and unaware son doing a duet together.  Dad doesn't believe Evan that Evan's got a piece of work going on concert in the evening though.  Oh, Dad... can't you feel the Hollywood Majic <TM> swirling around yet?

  That evening, 'Fagin' Williams, the previous "Artful Dodger", and Evan are all hanging around a subway platform scrounging for singles.  Evan finally realizes that he should be at the concert, as they don't ever take a first-year student's composition and he wrote it because he believes that it's the music that will find his parents.  Artful Dodger hits Fagin on the back with the guitar and Evan pulls a runner...

  ...and when next we see Evan, instead of his street clothes, he has his twelve-year-old-sized tuxedo, ready to direct as if he was around for the last three months rather than just shown direction once.  Mom already played her cello piece in the previous work... and for some reason, rather than staying backstage, decided to just wander off to the periphery of the concert.  Dad's in a taxi leaving his gig, but the deja vu is thick in the air and he decides to jump out of the taxi, especially when he realizes that Evan isn't full of it and really has a concert appearance (the "sign" is an actual literal sign).  As Mom and Dad elbow the crowd out of the way like drunken Altair ibn-La-Ahads, they make their way to the front... and see each other for the first time.  Meanwhile, Evan, full of emotion from hearing his composition all the way through for the first time, turns ever so slowly... knowing that his parents are there, and behind him.  He sees them, gathers a ginormous smile on his face and then.... the movie ends.  Not an epilogue to be had.

  There are times that Hollywood feels that it has to help along a story in order to give it the impact that it deserves.  This is like a seven-year-old worrying at a scab.  Your body will heal the open wound... unless of course you reopen the wound again, in which case the body has to work to cover it back up again.  There's a good story in this movie.  There's amazingly fantasic music in this movie too.  But the movie couldn't leave well enough alone.  It wasn't enough that the boy is a musical prodigy... he can also learn to write music in the time that it takes a normal kid to go to school.... for one day.  It's not enough that he got away from Fagin Williams... he also manages to get fitted offscreen for an impeccable tuxedo that he also managed to get dressed in offscreen while subsequently directing a concert which he only practiced with the musicians involved for five minutes.  Hollywood, stop it.  Even with all the crap you pulled up until that point, I would have had goosebumps if you had Evan show up in his shirt and jeans to direct, and people cheering him regardless.   This does not give me goosebumps.  When you keep testing my suspension of disbelief all the way up to minute 108 of 113, I will groan... and when you do all of this and NOT include an epilogue, I will do the Picard memorial facepalm.

  The story of the flashback included Mom and Dad promising to meet each other by Washington Square Arch in NYC.  When Fagin Williams' spot happened to be right there at Washington Square Arch, I thought for sure that the meeting between Dad, Mom, and son would be a heartfelt discovery between the three of them, and I was almost prepping for how emotional I was imagining that it'd be.  I was NOT imagining that the reunion would be as the son is directing the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as the closing piece of an "Art in the Park"-type thing nowhere near Washington Square Arch.  The movie has one hundred five minutes to try to make me suspend my disbelief enough to allow that last sentence to be plausible... but I just can't make that leap.

  You may think that I disliked this movie.  On the contrary... I would have never wrote all of this if I disliked the movie.  As above, the music really is fantastic... it has to be, there's a musical prodigy involved!  The characters aren't too bad, especially the humor of Dad's Irish accent.  It's almost nonexistent when he's a stuffed suit, but when he's back in the band he's almost incapacitated by it.  I would watch the movie again due to the music itself... which makes it that much more heartbreaking to have Hollywood tell the story that it did around the music.  And if your suspension of disbelief is stronger than mine, and you like music... this is absolutely the movie for you.

  Final rating: 2.8.