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Democracy 4 First Impressions – Early Access

Democracy 4 First Impressions – Early Access

A lot of political simulators find ways to take the insanity of the government and condense it down into easy-to-digest, overly simplistic casual games that don’t force the player to use their brains enough to warrant playing it. Democracy 4 took a swing at better representing the unapologetically complex systems at play in western democracy. While what they have achieved has every right to go down in history for its attention to detail and overall design, they managed to burden players with the exact opposite issue that’s at risk when developing political simulators.

 

Democracy 4 Gameplay

 

The minute you get past the character creation phase of the game, you’re bombarded with at least four dozen buttons you can click and an onslaught of tutorials that all would give the most detailed research papers a run for their money. Positech Games thought of everything, but they skipped the step where they weed through the content that’s just filler. Designing a game is a lot like writing a best-seller: you have to have the ability to 1) recognize what isn’t important so you can throw it out, and 2) take what is important and make it as concise and condensed as you can.

 

Because of the sheer number of things to consider and juggle, the game is a bit of a developmental marvel. However, if I can successfully complete a full playthrough of the game while avoiding 60% of its content, how necessary was all of that effort? At what point do the extra elements on your peripherals stop aiding the experience and begin harming it? This is simply an indicator of flawed design, and such flaws can end up costing a studio quite a bit of money without actually improving the final product.

 

Democracy 4 Gameplay

 

However, if you manage to look past the unnecessary complexities, the technical and stylistic aspects of the game are truly on par with some of the biggest developers and games in the simulation genre. Animations and transitions are seamless. Great care has been given to provide ways to limit the number of things on screen that you need to pay attention to, which drastically increases the readability of everything. Want to know all of the different elements that a policy is affecting in your government? Simply hover over the policy and follow the helpful graphics. Want to see how you can improve your rating with a certain group of the population? Same process. While the game is a bit too complex, they surely found the optimal ways to simplify it all as best they could.

 

When it comes to the details, Positech did their due diligence. It’s incredible the vast array of systems and elements they integrated, but if my experience with games has taught me one thing, it’s that the fact that pretty much all of the elements work without flaw is even more astounding. There are a few small things that could use improving. For example, I found a recurring bug that rendered the GUI unusable, and the only solution was quitting the game entirely and opening it back up. Pictures of that bug below. The tabs at the top of the main game screen also deserve some labels instead of just pictures. Until you’ve played around quite a bit, it’s not entirely obvious what each one does.

 

Democracy 4 GUI Bug
GUI bug in Democracy 4

Other than that, it’s rare to see such a finished and functional project as a Steam Early Access game. At this rate, the game should be ready for a full release in no time. While there are certainly some questionable decisions in the design process, if you enjoyed previous Democracy games or don’t mind the overflow of content, this game is a hard-hitting example of what is possible when developers take time in their development cycles and put the necessary testing into their games.

 

This first impressions article is based on the Early Access, PC version of the game. A code was provided by the publisher for this purpose.

PAX Online – Alien Hominid Invasion First Impressions

PAX Online – Alien Hominid Invasion First Impressions

Even confined to a virtual environment, PAX is always a conduit for hype, and for this year’s PAX Online, there was hardly a studio I was more excited to check in with than The Behemoth. Even as someone whose childhood was partially defined by trying to beat the opening stages of Alien Hominid over and over, I can happily say that The Behemoth have evolved far beyond their Newgrounds origin. The team returning to their foundational IP with eighteen years of additional experience was an enticing offer. Having just played the demo for Alien Hominid Invasion, I am happy to report that the Alien Hominid formula is as insane as ever while promising a more refined experience that could end up being The Behemoth’s most accessible game yet.

 

It certainly feels like a culmination of The Behemoth’s previous titles. The Metal Slug-indebted, run-and-gun gameplay of Alien Hominid, the XP and upgrade system of Castle Crashers, and the nimble movement of BattleBlock Theater shine through complete and utter chaos. In contrast to the original Alien Hominid, where you always progressed left-to-right through the same series of setpieces, Invasion frees you to maneuver all around its procedurally generated mayhem. Your task is to collect intel from the FBI agents that flood the screen by virtue of dodging their fire and returning it tenfold. A few well-timed laser blasts decimate a mob of enemies and bring you closer to the finish line. Alien Hominid Invasion chiefly contrasts its predecessor in its punched-up stage design rather than gameplay.

 

 

With that in mind, Alien Hominid Invasion counteracts the simplicity of combat encounters with sheer enemy quantity. Progressing a bit like a run-and-gun Rampage, enemies spawn from all sides in gradually tougher waves. The more you destroy in quick succession, the better you can avoid the helicopters and agents with jetpacks eventually firing upon you. This encourages a speed-run-like mentality that fits perfectly into the twitch shooting inherent to Alien Hominid. In contrast to the original’s infamously sadistic difficulty, Invasion gives players ample progression opportunities. Enemies are always encroaching but never become overwhelming, despite arriving in much larger waves than the game’s predecessor. Despite my personal affinity for it, I wouldn’t exactly call the original Alien Hominid rewarding. The methodical difficulty curve present here is far superior.

 

With an intricate upgrade and character customization system, players are meant to be playing Alien Hominid Invasion for the long haul. Unlike the arcadey setup of the original game, where a two-hour length was buffered with punishing difficulty, I could see myself logging tens of hours into InvasionWith incredibly agile movement, enticingly vulgar visuals, and a greater emphasis on player progression, the only hangup I have with Invasion is a potential lack of variety. Up until a closing boss battle pitted me against a stronger airborne menace, each stage I played in Invasion revolved around the same core objectives: collecting data, annihilating agents, and destroying technology as fast as I could. A greater objective variety would allow Invasion to transcend its Neo Geo influences, but then again, how many run-and-guns allow you to ride the head of an FBI agent like a bucking bronco.

 

I greatly enjoyed my time with Alien Hominid Invasion, and though its release date is as of now a mystery, the game is already a blast that is merely in need of more content. Long-term fans will be pleased to hear that the game features The Behemoth operating at peak idiosyncrasy (including in-universe crossovers with their other games), and those interested in modernized run-and-gun action ought to keep their eye on the title. Alien Hominid Invasion will eventually be available for PC, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One.

 

Undying — Alpha First Impressions

Undying — Alpha First Impressions

Despite their dominating popularity in respective media industries, The Walking Dead and survival games haven’t yet converged into one, all-together satisfying product. You had the Telltale adaptation that is commonly touted as the IP’s magnum opus, but it’s also a game fixated on a linear, narrative-focused path. The freedoms of pillaging and crafting goods are left out of the experience. Less successful tie-in games like The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct loosely resemble a survival experience but come up pitifully short. Independent releases like Project Zomboid have come much farther in terms of crafting a gratifying zombie survival experience, but it’s Vanimals’ Undying that unfolds as if it’s leapt from The Walking Dead’s graphic novel pages. The franchise is a professed influence on the game, and though Undying has a long way to go with balancing and mission variety, its presentation and performance are in solid form given its projected release year of 2021.

 

Like Mother, Like Son

 

Most reassuringly, this incarnation of the game already runs at a locked 60 FPS with no instances of stuttering. For an isometric survival game where combat encounters are distributed sparingly, the framerate is more than sufficient. The cel-shading of the game makes shadows prominent and an otherwise muddy color palette much more vivid. NPC behavior in each environment is static but dictated by the game’s day and night cycles. Many humans will temporarily disappear from 12 AM to 6 AM while the zombies remain active all day. As you meet more characters in a broadening environment, trading becomes imperative to your survival. Amongst whatever errands you are incidentally running, it is a constant goal to acquire enough resources to survive going home for the night.

 

As is inherent to the survival genre, the player must juggle your character’s hunger, thirst, and energy, alongside an ordinary health bar. Letting your hunger and/or thirst bars dwindle to zero means your health starts to deplete next, while your energy bar hitting zero causes you to pass out wherever you are, killing you then and there. Added to the mix is an AI partner with the same constraints, albeit with much less survival experience. As opposed to the character dynamic guiding The Last of Us, Undying focuses on the bond between a mother and son, giving a degree of player control to both of them.

 

You play as Anling for the alpha’s entirety, in search of your missing husband while your son Cody comes of age. Cody is not a playable character, but as an AI partner, he follows you loyally and becomes eminently more useful as the days go by. Interestingly enough, Anling starts the game fully experienced and it is instead Cody who you gradually get to update. His crafting, combat, and survival skills are awarded XP separately as you perform different skills in front of him. Soon enough, he’s able to craft items for you, dodge enemy attacks, and find previously unseen resources. The game simply transfers a protagonist leveling system to your companion, but ideas like this help justify Cody’s presence.

 

Gameplay still of Undying showing the protagonist standing in front of an upgraded crafting bench

Bring Out Your Dead

 

Instead of grinding to upgrade your skills, you spend the opening stages of the game looking for planks and metal to fix your house’s crafting and cooking stations. This requires you to immediately immerse yourself into zombie-occupied territory, sans an intrusive tutorial. With metal pipe in hand, you quickly head into the city and get your first combat experience. The deliberately restrained speed of melee combat in survival games is a challenging balance to strike. Allowing players the speed of hack-n-slash combat negates the feeling of surviving encounters by the skin of your teeth. However, many survival games have succumbed to making melee combat so lumbering that it no longer resembles a stylistic choice as much as it does broken gameplay. Happily, Undying strikes the right balance here. You won’t be stringing together combos with your crowbar, but inputs are responsive, and the zombies are slow enough to suit the combat’s rhythm.

 

So far, the zombie behavior is painted in broad strokes, but their AI is attentive enough to pose a challenge. As you inevitably brush past zombified individuals, they are all eager to pursue you, gradually aggregating into a rampaging horde. Cody is slightly slower than you and will every so often need to be freed from a zombie’s grasp by a swing of your weapon. Weapons deteriorate quickly but have a vast attack radius, allowing you to hit three zombies at once with one swing and do roughly the same damage to each. Encountering hordes with any intention of taking them all out is a fool’s errand, though. It is in your best interest to knock them away and run, perhaps taking out an individual where it is necessary.

 

In the game’s current state, the supermarket errand offered about two-thirds into the alpha ends up being pretty close to impossible, even as stiffly animated shopping carts can be pushed around to distract the undead. Smaller combat encounters beforehand thankfully go off without a hitch. Your moments spent with a handgun are fleeting but another testament to Undying’s solid core mechanics. Aiming is quick in 360° isometric fashion, and every bullet lands like a headshot, even if this means that zombies take two or three headshots before departing. When your melee weapons and handguns break, you are always allowed to disassemble them back at home and recoup some resources. Wood and metal resources are a constant necessity in order to cook, craft weapons, and build ramps.

 

Amidst a map that ranges from urban storefronts to private camping grounds, resource distribution is a bit of a mixed bag. A smart (albeit slightly immersion-breaking) advantage the game gives you is letting you position every new area on the map before traveling to it. You expel more energy and waste more time walking to areas that are further away from you, and as I replayed the Alpha’s campaign, I was able to tactically put areas with wells of water closer to my home and less substantial areas farther away. You start the campaign by choosing an emphasis on combat, survival, or crafting, although the only strong benefit visible between the three was my survival campaign, bringing more food my way.

 

A gameplay still of Undying showing the protagonist farming for goods at a national park

The Daily Routine

 

Regardless of what perk you choose, the crowbar is far-and-away the most useful tool to keep in your arsenal, so much so that it becomes a player crutch overshadowing the virtues of different strategies. Inventory containers that need a crowbar to open them are so ubiquitous that having one in your arsenal is often the difference between life and death. This also means that since Undying currently only has one save slot (which Vanimals intends to fix), your campaign can be undermined by missing the singular means of accessing a substantial portion of resources.

 

With Undying’s closed alpha spanning 15 in-game days (or about 3 hours of gameplay), the first 9 days made for a pretty seamless survival experience. There’s a more consistent logic to how pickups respawn in the alpha’s opening areas compared to the outskirts of the map. Items I picked up around my house seemed to not respawn, naturally adding to the game’s challenge. However, the survivor’s camp towards the end of the map allows you to trade with NPCs for their same items every single time you revisit the camp. A late-game addition involves the protagonist becoming diseased and now needing to take a green herb supplement regularly. This remains an interesting concept but was diluted by my ability to get the same supplement from the same NPC perpetually.

 

The simplicity of side missions throughout the alpha is also a bit of a blind spot, as they are normally just simple fetch quests, and their stability started to deteriorate as I reached the campaign’s end. A side mission during Day 10 that involved bringing 10 mushrooms to a little girl would not resolve despite having the 10 mushrooms on-hand. The secret she promised to tell me for acquiring these mushrooms still remains a mystery as of this article. Undying’s combat, crafting, and overall performance are in sturdy condition, but many of the incidental challenges that will help diversify it haven’t followed suit. 

 

Yet what stands tall above both the strengths and shortcomings of Undying’s conventional but mostly solid survival gameplay is the potential of its story. Obvious themes of post-apocalyptic media, such as the psychological turmoil of constant fear for your life, manifest in a dream sequence that is emotionally resonant and stylistically surprising. There is also some subtext of an immigrant experience implied by Anling’s distance from her family. Your time spent battling zombies in America hardly resembles any idea of an American Dream. If Undying can mine more content out of this disappointment, it can provide a distinct zombie narrative experience. As is, it is hard to say that the Undying alpha reanimates the stagnating survival genre, but the pieces here serve as a strong foundation with some inspired details peeking out of it.

 

Bartlow’s Dread Machine First Impressions

Bartlow’s Dread Machine First Impressions

Bartlow’s Dread Machine released on July 30, 2020 on Steam Early Access. As is the case with Early Access games, it’s far from perfect. Strange design choices and inconsistencies bog down Bartlow’s Dread Machine, tainting an experience that otherwise embraces a unique aesthetic.

 

Bartlow's Dread Machine - Visuals

 

Magnificent Machine

 

The game stays true to the title. Your mission as a secret service agent to save Theodore Roosevelt from a terrifying yet unknown fate contextualizes everything, but the story is told uniquely through a machine’s point of view. Tracks limit the movement of you and your adversaries but provide just the right amount of freedom to allow for fast-paced combat.

 

Small visual details immerse you in this new reality. Upon losing health, your character gradually develops holes, sparks, and other mechanical imperfections. When you die, your body breaks into several pieces, all of which are sent scattering across the ground. As you travel, the world will be built before your very eyes. When you find health, you’re sucked below the machine and spit back out looking brand new. When you open ammo drops, a large metal bullet on a pole ejects from the crate to show you’ve opened it. The environment gets destroyed as if its all artificial. This list goes on. Aesthetically, there was a clear direction, and Bartlow’s Dread Machine nails it on the execution.

 

Bartlow's Dread Machine - Boss Fight

 

Dreadful Design

 

From a design perspective, the teams at Tribetoy and Beep Games dropped the ball in a few key areas, most of which orbit a central issue with checkpoints. The game takes on a contradictory nature in the way that it rewards and punishes you. Checkpoints are sometimes in odd places that don’t fully reward you for progressing. Additionally, punishments for failure weigh much heavier and often render your checkpoints useless.

 

Within each level are several checkpoints – some of them are physical checkpoints that you reach like flags in Super Mario Bros., and others are artificial, such as different phases of a boss fight. However, the checkpoints can feel oddly placed. There could be a checkpoint right before one section of a level, and immediately following the checkpoint is a conversation between two characters. What does that mean? Every time you die and have to return to that checkpoint, you’re forced to rapidly click through the conversation again. These strange choices extend to boss fights. Logically, each phase of a boss could be a checkpoint. However, sometimes boss checkpoints range from one phase to three phases, forcing you to repeat parts of the boss fight that aren’t necessarily the parts that you need to repeat and do better on.

 

In addition to the checkpoints, you’re given three lives per attempt. If you die three times in the same level, all the checkpoints are reset and you have to do the level all over again. While at first glance this seems like a decent way to keep combat tense, it just leaves you repeating the same parts you’ve already beaten. Designing a game in this way results in a large portion of the player’s experience and impression of the game revolving around mindlessly doing the same level several times. Simply put, the lives are just unnecessary. The only valuable thing they do is allow you to fail and use money to buy extra items to help you in your next attempt. The truth, though, is that items are expensive enough that by the time you can afford more, you’ve already played through the level enough times to beat it. If they got rid of lives and just kept restarting players at their checkpoints, that would be more than enough to make combat tense and interesting.

 

Bartlow's Dread Machine - Puzzles

 

Infuriating Inconsistencies

 

Bartlow’s Dread Machine establishes itself as a fast-paced, shoot ‘em up-style game in the first level, so it’s odd to see departures from this as you progress. In the middle of a standard level, you’ll suddenly find yourself in a situation that requires a slower, methodical approach, and it’s extremely jarring and causes you to lose health, which we’ve already established is extremely valuable unless you want to repeat the whole level over again. These slower moments are typically accompanied by some sort of puzzle. Strangely, the identity of Bartlow’s Dread Machine is clear, yet it tries to go a different direction with puzzles. When you look at some of the most popular and successful shmups, that’s often the hill that the game lives and dies on. You don’t run into puzzles in DOOM or Enter the Gungeon. Even some of the first games that could potentially be referred to as shmups stay true to this, including Asteroids and Space Invaders.

 

Unfortunately, the controls are wonky during combat in its current state, so you can’t escape inconsistencies outside of puzzles either. From what I could tell, it feels like there’s a depth issue with the game. It can’t seem to determine how far into the game you’re aiming, so you may be trying to fire straight to your right, but depending on the camera angle it may think you’re trying to fire at a deeper location, so your bullet won’t go where you intend it. Overall, it just doesn’t seem optimized very well for PC. Moving around can sometimes feel much like playing Pac-Man with an original Atari 2600 joystick; sometimes you’ll try to turn but end up continuing forward instead. Sometimes there will be two turns close to each other and you’ll intend to take one and end up taking the other. While the issue is minor in the moment, it’s frustrating in the grand scheme of the game.

 

There’s a lot of work to still be done with Bartlow’s Dread Machine, and it’s tough to say how much of this they’ll even be able to realistically fix within Early Access. However, It’s definitely not a lost cause. There are quite a few minor improvements to be made that could potentially take the game to the next level.

 

This impression is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided by the publisher.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League – First Impressions

Zack Snyder’s Justice League – First Impressions

The DC Cinematic Universe has been a mixed bag since the release of Man of Steel, with one of its most controversial entries being 2017’s Justice League. The film was met with a startling amount of indifference, considering this was the first live action outing of DC’s most popular team of heroes. It received mostly negative reviews and under performed at the box office, making only $657 million, compared to Batman v Superman’s $873 million. With such an underwhelming performance, monetarily and critically, general discussion around the film faded as DC began to pivot towards smaller scale, character focused films like Joker and Shazam!. On June 19th 2020, the HBO Max YouTube channel released a 34 second teaser trailer for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, featuring never before seen footage and voice over. This reveal has left fans of the original film wondering if this project is worth caring about, hopeful it will be something to keep their eyes on.

 

A Complicated History

 

2017’s Justice League underwent a tumultuous development with several rewrites, reshoots and directorial change. This led to a film that strayed far from Zack Snyder’s original vision. The script was re-written multiple times, which is not particularly uncommon, and mostly attributed to Batman v Superman’s negative reception. Snyder and Chris Terrio’s original script contained horror elements, but Batman V Superman received such negative reviews for its dark tone, Snyder and Warner Bros. decided to lighten things up. This is the version of the script that Zack Snyder’s Justice League will be based on.

The original version was nearing the end of production when Snyder had to leave due to a family tragedy. Warner Bros. was not willing to delay the film until he was ready to return, hiring Joss Whedon to finish in his place. This induced significant re-writes and expensive re-shoots, including the infamous mustache-gate. Whedon’s take had a significantly lighter tone, adding comedy and a color grade change from Snyder’s signature greys and blacks, to a red and orange hue. This change can be seen in the first official trailer, which used footage from Snyder’s version, compared to its final trailer from Whedon’s completed film.

After release, an internet campaign began with the hashtag #releasethesnydercut. The campaign was initially spearheaded by hopeful, passionate fans and felt like a pipedream. Bigger names began to speak out in support, including Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck and, the hashtags most vocal supporter, Jason Mamoa. They rallied with fans to get the Snyder cut to see the light of day. The campaign came to a head on the 20th May 2020, when Zack Snyder held a Man of Steel watch party. Snyder invited several fans into a zoom call with Henry Cavill, revealing a poster for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, set for 2021.

 

What is the Difference?

 

Snyder has spent the last two years sharing concept art and story details that imply the film he wanted to make would have been very different to the one we saw.

Justice League was widely criticized for its villain, Steppenwolf. He was the epitome of the ‘bland, hulking, grey, CGI villain’ trope that has plagued DCEU films since Batman v Superman’s Doomsday.

Through Zack Snyder’s twitter, it was revealed that Steppenwolf was not intended to be the only villain to make an appearance. Darkseid, one of the DC Universe’s most powerful villains, was supposed to play a part in the film. Not long after this, Ray Porter revealed himself as the actor playing the ruler of Apokolips.

Considering the amount of focus placed on him in the recent teaser, it’s fair to say that there will be more than a simple cameo. Snyder has confirmed the existence of other characters that were completely removed from the theatrical release.

These include Martian Manhunter, the Atom as Ryan Choi, and even the appearance of a more well-known Green Lantern.  Nobody can say how big a role these characters would have played, but their involvement was surely intended to set up future DCEU appearances that are now back on the table.

 

Other details that are rumored to appear in the Snyder cut:  Superman in his black suit design, Lex Luthor in more than just a post-credit scene, and extended introductions for The Flash and Aquaman. Nobody can say how important these scenes will be to the overall story, but viewers will get more insight and context behind the films main characters.

 

What Form Will the Snyder Cut Take?

 

The general assumption has been that this will be an extended movie released on HBO Max. The only concrete information that has been announced is Snyder’s team receiving somewhere in the range of $20 – $30 million to finish up VFX, with no new scenes being filmed. They have been given permission to record new dialogue, which has led to speculation. One suggestion is that the project could take on the form of a TV series, in the same vein as the extended cut of Quinten Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. This would leave room for animated segments to be included for sections that were incomplete.

While they could be spliced into a film, a complete change in style would be less jarring if spread out in episodic fashion.  It is important to note that nobody can say for sure how much the Snyder cut will differ from the theatrical release, but based on everything we’ve heard, this is going to be something more than your average Director’s cut.

Zack Snyder has created masterpieces and dumpster fires. Even though I don’t trust Zack Snyder to make a 10/10 film, I do expect that Zack Snyder’s Justice League will be worth seeing as the singular vision of a director, rather than the Frankenstein-esque production that was the theatrical cut.