Review: Cities: Skylines

It’s hard to start a review of this game without a look to the past. Cities: Skylines wouldn’t exist, or be as great as if is unless it paid homage to the venerable franchise that made the city-building genre itself: SimCity. And I’m melancholy that, with its last iteration, the SimCity franchise didn’t just falter; it totally crashed and burned (rightly so, as that game was awful) but also pleased that with Cities: Skylines the mantle has been passed to a fitting successor.

Cities: Skylines

Cities: Skylines is my first dip into city-building in a 3D environment. I was initially sceptical, mainly through a lot of what I’d seen of the 2013 release of SimCity; trade-offs had to be made? I was pleased to find that my concerns that the city-building genre would have to make compromises in the transition to 3D were unfounded.

The game takes an initially-worrying amount of cues from SimCity. A small square tract of land to start with with one highway connection that everyone uses? Tilt-shift effects? Heck, even the clinically-white overlay layer borrow a lot of influence from the most recent and disastrous SimCity. But it would be unfair to judge Cities: Skylines solely with comparison to SimCity, as Cities: Skylines works as a game in its own right. This game succeeds not just because SimCity failed, but instead almost despite SimCity‘s failure. There’s plenty of detail and depth that’s introduced gradually, and seeing a city mature from a township into a bustling, sprawling metropolis, with each area or district adopting a distinct personality, with highways and transit interweaved intricately between is intensely rewarding.

Cities: SkylinesI’d say the first faults I had with Cities: Skylines came from my own play style; I came to the game a veteran of the excellent but aging SimCity 4; where play styles and layout ideas from the old title don’t really work in the newcomer. But part of the fun of my first few cities was to try out all the new options and learn something new from e ach iterative town I played.

There are a few weaknesses and curious choices in Cities: Skylines – quite a lot of building homogeny, which I can only guess comes from the development team’s small size. But what they have made is full of character and charm – the “Banhammer Bank” being a firm favourite building of mine. There’s some nice complexity in there, slowly unwrapped as one progresses, though the addition of crematoriums and graveyards as functional buildings is an interesting addition. I don’t want to say it’s positive or negative… but a brave choice.

A rewarding break from my SimCity 4 days definitely comes from the transport/road building system – I felt spoilt for choice when it came to freeform roads and highways! The traffic model isn’t perfect, but trying to work around kinks in a system of your own design, as it outgrows it’s original purpose adds a sense of constant refinement and history to a game. I really appreciate the mass-transit granularity; in SimCity, one would place stations and join the dots, where then commuters would magically join trains or buses to where they wanted to go. Cities: Skylines makes a logical step forward where the player defines the routes mass transit takes, allowing for finer-grained control and customisation. It’s nice.

Cities: SkylinesWhere the game lacks content or refinement, it’s an astounding achievement to see the modding community come together to enhance the base game in Cities: Skylines, proving the ingenuity and imagination this game has inspired.  There’s a great, disparate collection of items that go from enhancing the tools available to the player, giving a new perspective on the game (the FPS camera mod is amazing) and enhancing the game’s appearance in a lot of different ways. The Cities: Skylines modding community is definitely an exemplary example of why I love PC gaming. The additions other, creative players have made to the game go a long way to shoring up any shortcomings.

Cities: SkylinesBut above all this, there is a sense that Cities: Skylines has a developer and publisher that seem engaged and ready to enhance their players experience with this lovely game. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a game I look forward to sinking more and more time into. I’m still hurt over what happened to SimCity, but with Cities: Skylines it hurts a lot less knowing that game’s legacy spawned this impressive and charming game.

Buy Cities: Skylines on Steam right now!

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Review: Rogue Legacy

Rogue Legacy

I complained before that Rayman Origins was “too difficult to complete“. Recently I’ve had the pleasure of playing through platformer Rogue Legacy, and it’s a game where the inverse is absolutely true – it’s a game of challenging difficulty that just keeps you coming back!

Rogue Legacy

The game’s title is extremely apt. Rogue Legacy is a rogue-like platformer in which the arenas you play in are randomly generated each time a new game is started, but instead of death being the end of the game, the player picks up as one of the descendants of the previous character. It’s a quirky but innovative twist with hilarious results. Each descendent can be of a certain class that steers toward certain play styles – the Knight being a good all-round bruiser apt at soaking up damage whereas the Mage is more of a glass cannon – and have traits that vary from purely visual (Nostalgic puts the game in sepia) to game-changing (Vertigo inverts the playfield). The random nature of the permutations of classes and traits adds a lot to the game’s replayability and appeal.

The story of the game is lightweight, though a game like this needs nothing but a cursory narrative. Each stage in the game ramps up the difficulty considerably, with new enemies to develop tactics for and evolved versions of previously-encountered foes. The game is linear in the sense that the stages are clearly defined in terms of which you’re supposed to progress to but there’s a refreshing element of exploration, tied in large part to the random arrangement of rooms, that empowers the player to be a little foolhardy and explore these new and dangerous areas.

Rogue Legacy

Certainly, there’s incentive to keep diving in to try to do a little better each time; the player can elect to permanently unlock new abilities, upgraded classes and find equipment and spells with which to further augment the character. There’s a definite sense of progression – unlocking a new piece of armour or spell, or getting enough gold to upgrade one’s critical damage – that keeps the player not only striving to unlock these abilities but also to carry on to another play through where they can experiment with them. It’s a game where the player will find themselves grinding away at enemies to both improve their abilities and tactics and also farm enough gold to play with new toys but rare in the sense of being a game where grinding through levels is part of the fun, and not an accepted chore.

Rogue LegacyI found Rogue Legacy’s pseudo-8-bit aesthetic to be charming and a really authentic throwback to the retro era it aims to emulate, with a certain Castlevania feel with a modern twist. The game is colourful but also atmospheric and with personality. It’s slightly cartoony and whimsical but with enough detail and variation to keep interest. Some of the more visual character traits play with the aesthetic too, adding to the game’s innate charm.

Another key part of the game’s appeal is its excellent score – again harking back to the glory days of 2D platformers but with enough personality and tunefulness to stick in the player’s head. It’s an accomplished soundtrack that really personifies the “feel” of the game and I, for one, really loved it.

Rogue Legacy

One thing I’d have liked to see, and maybe will in a sequel, is some form of co-operative or combative multiplayer; the former especially with a game like this. But overall I was thoroughly impressed with Rogue Legacy and I’ll be keeping an eye on the developer’s further titles and for more games like this. I’ve rediscovered a love for platform games of Rogue Legacy‘s ilk and Rogue Legacy is only the first barrage against the itch!

Buy Rogue Legacy on Steam here; also available on GOG and other good online storefronts, as well as PS4/Vita.

Review: Rayman Origins

Rayman OriginsNostalgia is a great thing, especially when it revives an interest in something I’d not experienced since my childhood. A good friend of mine recently recommended platform game Rayman Origins to me and I jumped in – Rayman was a franchise I’d not dipped into since the original game for the PlayStation. I expected good things and wasn’t disappointed.

As a pure, old-school platformer, Rayman Origins features a simple premise: Rayman (or the character you elect to play as; a selection is unlocked as you progress) must free as many Electoons from their cages as possible to restore the balance of the game world. These cages are usually hidden in secret areas of levels or amongst elaborate traps and puzzles. Additional Electoons can be freed by completing each stage to a certain degree of competency measured in the number of “lums” collected; I frequently called the lums “tings” in error in a nostalgic callback to my time playing the original game.

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Rayman Origins is not a perfect game, but gets a lot right (and a lot wrong, but I shall discuss that later). Artistically, it’s a standout title that I can’t commend highly enough. The graphics are joyous and  whimsical, slightly cartoony and giving the impression almost of a “kids game” when it’s anything but. I really enjoyed experiencing some truly beautifully sculpted levels. The cel-shaded animation style is refreshing, crisp and engaging. Vivid colours and exciting effects drew me in and kept me playing, as traversing frankly beautifully layered levels was simply enjoyable. Standing out for me was the “Gourmand Land” levels that are a juxtaposition of ice-cold and red-hot, but avoid the typical snowman and lava tropes in an inventive, whimsical and fun way – instead of dodging lava monsters and snowmen the character glides through levels filled with dragon waiters, lemons on forks and giant chilli-fuelled heat streams. One overall theme I didn’t really approve of was the overall raunchiness in the design of the fairies that granted additional powers.

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Review: Rise of Nations Extended Edition

When it comes to gaming, a lot of my joy comes from nostalgia and rediscovering gems from my youth. Rise of Nations ticks all the boxes there so discovering Microsoft (in a rare display of doing something good in the gaming sphere) was planning to re-issue the revered strategy game in a remastered format I was jumping at the bit to experience the game again!

Thebes falls to the mighty Bantu impi.

For the uninitiated, Rise of Nations is a real-time strategy game that pits the player as the omnipotent deity that is guiding a fledgling civilization through history, from the Ancient Age to the Information Age with the tasks of building cities, setting up industry, conducting research and building armies to wage war against neighbouring states. Released originally in 2003, the game combined gameplay elements from Civilization, Age of Empires and Risk to form a truly compelling strategy experience. Indeed, the Civilization cues are by no co-incidence given that Rise of Nations’ lead designer was Brian Reynolds, who designed the legendary Civilization II in 1994.

What made Rise of Nations special was it’s ingenious use of turn-based 4X strategy tropes in the real-time plane. There is still a tech tree to climb and epochs to advance to, but this is heavily simplified as to not detract too much from the faster-paced gameplay and add an appropriately-linear progression. The standard RTS “base” was decentralised around city centres the player could build around the map and construct resource-gathering buildings around; these cities also formed the main part of the conquest victory condition. World Wonders, of which only one can be constructed per city, bring unique and powerful benefits to their owners, and Civ-style Wonder races remain as common and infuriating as they are in Civ! Cities also brought the notion of national borders into real-time strategy, opening up an additional facet to tactics, claiming resources and winning the game.

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