“US and THEM” is Icehole’s attempt at developing a turn based strategy game based on the Cold War. You get to choose to play as either the Capitalist United States or Soviet Russia. Your goal is to deploy special agents to the various countries around the world and, through various acts of subterfuge, sway their governments to your particular political ideology(Communism if you’re playing as Russia and Capitalism if you’re playing as the US.) When your special agents are deployed, they can perform a wide range of nefarious acts ranging from carrying out assassinations, stealing technology, sabotaging a nation’s economy and inciting revolts. Various historical “heroes” appear such as Che Guevara and Henry Kissinger and each have their own unique special abilities to help their respective sides. The player has to manage their financial income, vaguely defined “resources” and technological abilities. The game features a decent tech tree featuring tools that make your agents more effective, the space race and nuclear arms development(no, you don’t get to actually use nukes at any point.) Grainy Cold War era propaganda videos add to the game’s atmosphere and serve as both your introduction to and reward for a game well played. Altogether, it makes for a very intriguing concept if executed properly.
Unfortunately, it’s in the execution where “US and THEM” starts to fall apart. The game’s major problems stem from the user interface and some design choices range from questionable to downright horrible. For starters, the world map that takes up more than half of the screen can be neither scrolled nor zoomed. In a game where your interaction heavily relies on clicking various nations, this becomes a problem. While larger countries like Canada, the US and Russia are easily accessible, smaller nations require pixel perfect accuracy to interact with. Try clicking on Cuba, Ireland or Hungary and you’ll find yourself maniacally clicking shades and outlines and a handful of visible pixels in the area of these countries in vain hope that the game will acknowledge your actions. The developers attempted to reconcile this problem by including a drop down menu with every nation listed, for quick and easy navigation. Unfortunately, the ONLY way to place units into nations is by clicking the nation on the map.
The agents themselves pose problems as well. When you first try to get a grasp on the agents at your employ, you begin to realize that this game desperately, desperately, desperately needs the implementation of tool tips(desperately.) Agents are divided into 6 classes: Spies, Assassins and Political, Resource, Financial, Military and Tech Experts. They each perform duties that are pretty self explanatory, but for any inexperienced player it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the classes from each other. When you view your roster of active agents, they’re sorted by class. However, they’re not labeled by name, but rather solely by character portrait. While you can go to the purchase units screen and see the class’s name that each portrait represents, new players will need either amazing memories or a few hours of gameplay before they’re positive which are which.
On that same roster screen, you have the ability to “train” any agents not in a foreign country. To do this, you click an oval to the right of the agent’s name. So what happens when you click the oval? Does it get a check mark? Does it display the words “in training?” Nope. The oval simply changes color from orange to green. Or was it green to orange? Either way, you better remember which means “in training” because there is no other distinguishable way to tell which agents at home are training. This again could all be fixed with a simple tool tip, but they simply don’t exist. Even better, the game SHOULD automatically have inactive agents at home go into training rather than just consuming a salary every turn until you remember to do something with them.
The most glaring problem with the interface happens every time you click “end turn.” First, you’re met with individual pop-up news boxes displaying all the actions your opponent took against nations under your control. That’s fine. That’s important information. You need to know what areas your opponent is targeting so you can adjust your strategy accordingly. What ISN’T important information, however, also pops up. Bundled in between the important information are morale updates for every agent you have deployed in a foreign nation. These updates go one of two ways: 1) Your agent is having a “great time” in whatever luxurious nation you sent him or 2) Your agent protests having to be stuck in some miserable place. As you play the game longer, you naturally end up having more and more agents in the field. As things heat up, you can have upwards of 2-3 dozen agents working in foreign nations at any given time. A separate window will pop up that you HAVE to click through for each.and.every.one. Each.and.every.turn. It’s beyond monotonous and incredibly unnecessary. To rub salt in the wound, you have the option of adjusting your “news” settings. Frustratingly, however, while you can turn off notifications for enemy actions, random events and the like, you can’t do anything about the morale updates. Apparently your opponents actions are trivial and optional information, but reading the same more updates 20-30 times in a row is so absolutely vital that the option to turn them off isn’t included.
There are other gripes to be had with “US and THEM”, including but not limited to the inability to save your preferences(they reset to default upon EVERY reboot), an almost intentionally inaccurate RNG(you’ll find yourself failing tasks that display a 75% + success rate far too often), nations randomly deciding to revolt on their own and failing(and potentially killing every agent you have in that nation in the process), horribly implemented “features”(such as the ability to “name” your individual agents: Here, the game DOESN’T turn off hotkey functions while you type, so a plethora of letters can’t be used, such as “C” and “T”) and certain “heroes” being far, far too overpowered(for example, sending Che Guevara and a Political Expert into any enemy nation guarantees a revolt in your favor in 2-3 turns.) Even these complaints seem trivial when compared to the final stab in the eye.
The game simply lags far, far too often. When playing other strategy games, it’s acceptable if the game hangs up momentarily from time to time. Games like Crusader Kings are processing actions of over a hundred AI’s in real time, so it’s to be expected. Games like Civilizations V have comparatively advanced graphics including waving flags, hammering workers and wavy oceans, so it’s ok if it doesn’t scroll as quickly as you’d hope. However, when this game lags, it’s absolutely unforgivable. The game occasionally lags during routine clicking during YOUR turn. While this is going on, the software has absolutely no other processing to do. There’s only one AI and it’s completely inactive during your turn. There are no immediate effects of placing a unit, clicking the word “cancel” or any other user operation that warrant any type of system hang up. The lag is reminiscent of what you see on an old computer system during a windows update and it happens often enough that I’ve found myself wondering if the program is doing something on my computer in the background that I really don’t want it doing. It’s completely unacceptable.
The saddest part is that almost every one of these problems could be fixed with a decent patch. Don't expect one from this developer though(look at their website, this game came out in 2010 with no updates.) So save your money.