Duke Nukem Forever

Despite it being 2018, Duke Nukem might soon get a film adaptation. The news comes via Hollywood Reporter, which reckons actor John Cena is "in negotiations" to star in the film, which has yet to lock in a director or writer. Production company Platinum Dunes – which is operated by Michael Bay – is producing it. T

It seems like odd timing for a Duke Nukem adaptation. Not only did Duke Nukem Forever tank miserably (because it sucked!) but Duke himself feels like a fossil of the 1990s. He recently popped up as a DLC bonus for the Bulletstorm remaster, but aside from that and the most recent in a line of Duke Nukem 3D reissues, he's not been used in any new games.

One could reasonably suspect that this film adaptation may be planned to coincide with a new game. But that's only if we're really unlucky. If there is one, it'd be published by Gearbox, who acquired the property a couple of years ago. 

Whatever the case, John Cena would probably make a good Duke – he looks the part.

The Red Strings Club

The Red Strings Club, a "cyberpunk narrative experience" about fate, happiness, pottery, and tending bar, is now live on Steam. That makes this a fine time to dive into the launch trailer to see what it's all about. 

In reality, though, the trailer doesn't tell us much of anything, except that this game is obviously cyberpunk as hell: I half expected Keanu Reeves to show up at some point with a RAM doubler and a nosebleed. Fortunately, the video description is a little more explicit: 

"The professed altruistic corporation Supercontinent Ltd is on the verge of releasing Social Psyche Welfare: a system that will eliminate depression, anger and fear from society. However, the bartender of a clandestine club and a freelance hacker don't regard this evolution as an improvement but as brainwashing. Alongside unwitting company employees and a rogue empathy android, the duo will pull all the strings they can to bring down this scheme." 

I take it for granted that the bartender and the hacker are the game's "good guys," but I'm not convinced that they're in any better position to decide what's best for humanity than a globe-spanning mega-corp. Certainly corporations are machines of avarice and ambition, but if a greater good emerges from its intrigues—even as a side effect—then is it really a moral act to reject it? What gives any individual, be it a CEO or a suds-slinger, the right to determine or disrupt humanity's direction forward? 

Ah, cyberpunk. So many questions, so few answers, such great music. We'll have a review of The Red Strings Club coming your way soon. 

SOS

A game of SOS typically ends with a violent showdown between improv groups armed with guns and skulls, like a prop comedy workshop gone terribly wrong. It's framed as a reality survival show in which 16 players have to avoid monsters, find 'relics,' and escape on a helicopter—but there are only a few seats on the chopper, so conflict is inevitable. The real goal, though, is to be more entertaining than everyone else, to attract stream viewers and get emoji reactions. Mics are always on.

It can be an absolute disaster, but probably fun with the right people—if you can find them when SOS releases in Early Access tomorrow. In the meantime, James and Tyler got to play a few early rounds today and last week. Here's how they felt about being on the big stage.

Coming up with a character

Tyler: I sure love coming up with an improv character on the spot!

James: It’s a nightmare, Tyler. During that pre-match sequence where everyone gets a few seconds to say something and wiggle their digital avatar around, I clam up. I’m worried about what the hell I’m going to say, but my bigger problem is watching everyone else fumble to come up with something.

Tyler: It can be awkward. You have to have a desire to perform and be liked, or at least be notorious in some way. You have to want attention. I can be that person—not to the degree a popular streamer is, but to some degree. It's exhausting to be a part of at times, though. You can tell who's thinking, 'Oh God, what did I do? Why am I here?' and sometimes that's you, too. 

James: Yeah, I don’t want to write it off as bad just because I’m uncomfortable with it, but it’s tiring as hell. The cartoonish reality show island motif might be too wide of a starting point for me. Maybe some prompts for characters to play as or secret goals to set for yourself would be helpful. 

Tyler: Yeah, a more specific motive than 'escape' could help. I mostly went with 'friendly Canadian man who wants some Timmies,' but I had a harder time trying to be cruel or flippant, or really pursuing the goal I was supposed to. I didn't want to kill anyone. Even though I'm acting, it feels more like it's 'me' in the game than it does with PUBG. And the prompt is basically: 'Be funny. Now.' That's probably the hardest task a game has ever given me.

James: Yeah, it’s like a hardcore flight simulator, but for comedy. 

Meeting other players

Tyler: One guy noticed I was infected, said, "You have AIDS," gave me a syringe and then shot me in the face. That wasn't a great experience. How'd it go for you?

James: I didn’t meet anyone quite as rude, but my time with SOS hasn’t been too surprising. Most of the people I meet are either as naturally quiet as I am or they’re just doing an impression, mostly bad Russian and Italian caricatures. No grand betrayals or tense standoffs so far. Some YouTube-sounding guy pulled me aside and told me I was beautiful, after which we starting making kissing noises for a minute. 

Tyler: That last thing actually sounds pretty great.

For every bizarre and cool interaction I have, I experience a dozen more awkward misfires.

James: It was funny! But it was also totally random. I had fun playing along, I just think everyone is trying to find their improv legs, even people who would otherwise never dabble. For every bizarre and cool interaction I have, I experience a dozen more awkward misfires. That’s to be expected—not everyone is natural comedian, including myself. It’s just painful to be a part of.

Tyler: I like the challenge of making our own fun, the game acting as a framework for social comedy—but that framework is going to determine a lot about the comedy. It's not just the players. I loved Friday the 13th for a while because I was playing with funny, giddy people, but I think the violent, predatory structure invited a lot of assholeish behavior as it grew, and it became less fun. SOS could be a real shitshow depending on who it attracts, and the behavior it encourages. For now, I wish it were a bit sillier.

James: Yeah, I mean the only expressive tools are your mic, a few emotes, and the objects you can carry. And the majority of those objects are weapons and healing items, which communicate cooperation or death. I want more pointless props, but pointless in that their only purpose is to be played with.  

Tyler: I'd love that too. I threw a piece of fruit, and then a knife at my partner while pretending they were just slipping out of my hands. But I couldn't think of many other jokes to make with what's provided. We're not professional comics. We need prompts, scenarios and objects that naturally create opportunities for comedy.

James: Skulls are one exception, I suppose. You bet I roleplayed Hamlet for a bit, pausing over the corpses of dead players to consider whether I knew them once or not, Horatio.

Tyler: I wish I'd been there for it. My best moment was throwing skulls and papaya at some unsuspecting targets. I died pretty quickly in most of our matches, but I followed you for a bit. Looked like you were in a squad of dancing streamers. I watched you guys declare my former teammate the most beautiful man in the world before slaughtering him. That was kinda funny. Again the props and premise didn't really lend themselves to anything but violence. When it gets to the end of a match, you've got to start killing if you want to 'win.' You got pretty close, actually.

James: Yeah, it was pretty startling. We had two relics and the chopper was just about to come down, so we started dancing. Well, I didn't have the dance emote equipped so I just held down the OK emote. Then, right before we’re about to dip out, gunfire rains in from all directions. I died right away, too surprised to react properly. Most matches climax like that, but I wish they were less inclined to. With only three seats on the plane, bashing someone over the head is a quicker route to victory than bartering. Then again, the audience can ‘react’ to your performance, which has the potential to propel you into first place, even if you die. I got second after that match. That time I said hello to my teammates must’ve put me over the top. 

Tyler: Dang, was I trying too hard? I goofed off for a bit with a guy because we couldn't figure out how to get into a base, and we were punching locks, trying to climb over each other, and all that. But eventually you have to go, 'OK, for real, we're not getting anywhere. We need to progress here.' The urgency can undercut the comedy.

James: The urgency is always there too. It makes pulling a trigger a much easier choice than spending anymore time than you have to with some guy doing a bad Rocky Balboa impression.

Being streamed to the world

The first moments in a match remind me of those awkward workplace icebreakers, where you need to wander the room in search of a partner for some goofy game.

Tyler: In a bad round of PUBG, you land, find nothing good, get sniped after wandering alone for 10 minutes doing nothing. But having a bad round of SOS is worse. It means not clicking with whoever you run into, not enjoying their sense of humor or finding any rapport, or being uncomfortable around them—like a guy who made a homophobic joke when I ran into him. We just disconnected right there. We couldn't be friends. A bad round can be humiliating, because you know nearly every player is streaming and you become complicit in their jokes, a prop for their audience to laugh at. Even if you try to outshine them, you're just helping them and their stream. So I just retreated. The highs of SOS are probably real high—a perfect comedy rapport—but the lows are disappointing as hell.

James: The first moments in a match remind me of those awkward workplace icebreakers, where you need to wander the room in search of a partner for some goofy game. Who you end up with likely determines how much fun you’ll have. Except there’s no immediate penalty for being an asshole, and the viewers at home might actually reward those assholes for toxic behavior. How the ‘humor’ is moderated will be a big task for Outpost Games, and the team will need to set a strong precedent early on. 

Tyler: There is a well-written set of rules that appears when you first launch the game, so hopefully those are enforced. For now, I'm still looking for that brilliant moment when I get someone and they get me, and we make it amazing. I think it can happen in SOS, but I expect it to be a pretty wild scene which it launches wide tomorrow—you know every streamer is going to be picking it up. It's perfect stream material.

James: And therein lies the hope. With enough of the better Twitch performers showing their audiences how much fun simple roleplaying can be, I would like to think that SOS can find an audience that wants to play along rather than throw cold joke spaghetti at the wall. It’s on Outpost Games to enable and encourage more ways to roleplay than loud ethnic impressions through garbage mics—not everyone should feel like they have to be funny—and our time with the Early Access build feels like a promising dress rehearsal.

Tyler: At least anyone who isn't sure about it—and I'm not sold—should have plenty of streams to watch. If it can be anything like Steven's experiences roleplaying in ARK, then it'll be a delight. That's my benchmark.

Far Cry® 5

bear just hungry you no shoot plz

With Far Cry 5's gun-toting trip to Montana now just a couple of months away, Ubisoft has announced the PC system requirements and a rough estimate of the performance you can expect from various benchmark configurations. The short version is that you're going to need a fairly beefy system if you want to run it well. 

The longer version is below.

The Minimum (720p, low settings): 

  • OS: Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8.1, Windows 10 (64-bit versions only)
  • CPU: Intel Core i5-2400 @ 3.1 GHz or AMD FX-6300 @ 3.5 GHz or equivalent
  • Video: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670 or AMD R9 270 (2GB VRAM with Shader Model 5.0 or better)
  • RAM: 8GB 

The Recommended (1080p, 60 fps, high settings):

  • OS: Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8.1, Windows 10 (64-bit versions only)
  • CPU: Intel Core i7-4770 @ 3.4 GHz or AMD Ryzen 5 1600 @ 3.2 GHz or equivalent
  • Video: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 or AMD R9 290X (4GB VRAM with Shader Model 5.0 or better)
  • RAM: 8GB

The 4K-OK (2160p, 30 fps, high settings):

  • OS: Windows 10 (64-bit version only)
  • CPU: Intel Core i7-6700 @ 3.4 GHz or AMD Ryzen 5 1600X @ 3.6 GHz or equivalent
  • Video: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 or AMD RX Vega 56 (8GB VRAM with Shader Model 5.0 or better)
  • RAM: 16GB

The 4K-Wowzers (2160p, 60 fps, high/ultra settings):

  • OS: Windows 10 (64-bit version only)
  • CPU: Intel Core i7-6700K @ 4.0 GHz or AMD Ryzen 7 1700X @ 3.4 GHz or equivalent
  • Video: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 SLI or AMD RX Vega 56 CFX (8GB VRAM with Shader Model 5.0 or better)
  • RAM: 16GB

Officially supported Nvidia cards at launch:

  • GeForce GTX600 series: GeForce GTX670 or better
  • GeForce GTX700 series: GeForce GTX760 or better
  • GeForce GTX900 series: GeForce GTX950 or better
  • GeForce GTX10-Series: GeForce GTX1050 or better

Officially supported AMD cards at launch:

  • Radeon 200 series: Radeon R9 270 or better
  • Radeon 300/Fury X series: Radeon R7 370 or better
  • Radeon 400 series: Radeon RX 460 or better
  • Radeon Vega series: any Radeon Vega series

The PC version of the game will include a benchmark feature and video memory meter to aid in performance tuning, support multi-GPU setups that will "significantly improve performance," and feature brutal ownage of James—although that part is actually multiplatform. It comes out on March 27. 

Assassin's Creed® Origins

The Assassin's Creed Origins expansion The Hidden Ones will go live tomorrow, taking Beyak and the gang to the Sinai to throw down with occupying Roman forces four years after the events of the main game. We covered most of what's involved last week—new weapons, outfits, and mounts, increased level cap, included with the season pass or $10 standalone—which means that now it's time to kick back, take a break, and watch the launch trailer. 

Big picture, we already know how this all works out—the Yin and Yang of Assassins and Templars dueling through the ages over the fate of humanity—but it's the journey that matters, as the saying goes, and not the destination. That's not to suggest that The Hidden Ones will tread across unfamiliar ground, but more Origins—"One of the strongest games in the series," as we said in our November 2017 review—is nothing to complain about even if it doesn't break any especially new ground. 

The launch of The Hidden Ones will correspond with some new free stuff for everyone, including a new quest for the base game, an expansion of the Heka chests item pool, and an option to sell outfits at weaver shops. Answers to more questions are available via The Hidden Ones FAQ

Rust

The multiplayer survival game Rust debuted on Steam in December 2013. Now here we are in 2018,  and wow, it's still there. Not for much longer, however, because believe it or not creator Garry Newman announced today that it will go into full release on February 8. 

Predictably, Newman said that development will continue after the 1.0 release, but the update schedule will change from weekly to monthly, to help reduce the likelihood of "rushing in features and fixes that end up breaking something else." For those who prefer to live dangerously, a "Staging Branch" of the game with daily updates will exist alongside the stable main branch. It's basically a PTR—Public Test Rust, if you like—that never goes away. 

"You can have both versions installed at the same time, so our hope is that we'll get one or two servers on the staging version that are populated all the time and help test the updates that are coming to Main at the end of the month," Newman explained. 

Despite the big step, he also very clearly wants to keep expectations under control. "Please try not to compare the game to some other finished game or some idealized version you have in your head. Compare the game now to how it was when we entered Early Access. That's the delta that we feel qualifies us to leave Early Access," he wrote. "Think of it more like we're leaving Prototyping and entering Alpha."

The full release of Rust will be a quiet affair, with no launch parties, surprise reveals, or other such shenanigans—"Business as usual" is how Newman described it—but there will be a price increase, from $20 to $35. "It sucks, it's going to cost more, but this was always the deal. And it's not like we're increasing the price to $60 without any warning," he wrote. "This is one of the main reasons we've decided to post this blog rather than quietly slipping out of Early Access, we felt like this is something you'll all want to be warned about." 

"Thanks to everyone that took the risk by buying our Early Access game. It hasn't always been the most stable, optimized, balanced experience—but we hope you don't feel like we've let you down." 

PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS

Just a few days after PUBG Corp announced its plan to drop the ban hammer on more than 100,000 cheaters in one fell swoop, a new type of cheat appears to have cropped up in Playerunknown's Battlegrounds. Instead of enabling players to kill better, this one, shared on Reddit by MagicIsBull, enables them to heal better. 

The kill cam footage shows a player reviving a fallen partner almost instantaneously, after which he immediately heals himself. Both of these acts normally take several seconds each, during which time the first-aiding player cannot fight back if they come under attack. Eliminating that delay eliminates the risk, and—as cheats so often do—throws the game wildly out of balance.  

At least one redditor replied to the complaint saying that "insta healing and res have been there for months," but cheating in PUBG has become a huge hot-topic issue, and players are not happy about it.  The timing of also comes off as rather brazen, coming as close as it does to the promised banning of 100,000 cheaters. Not that players appear to be putting much stock in that commitment: As happened less than two weeks ago when PUBG Corp apologized for problems with BP distribution, the comments have been flooded with calls for a region lock of China.  

That's the result of PUBG creator Brendan Greene admitting in December that the vast majority of cheaters are located in China, although he made it clear at the same time that he's against the idea of a region lock. Chinese publisher Tencent is taking some action, however. It recently helped Chinese authorities arrest roughly 120 people accused of making or advertising cheat software.

Human: Fall Flat

Human: Fall Flat is less dopey than it looks, though it does look very dopey. From screenshots you might think it's just a goofy physics game about gelatinous jelly people straight out of Gang Beasts who flop around castles, power plants, and train depots, but it's also a fairly smart puzzler—once you get the hang of its fiddly controls.

Your left and right mouse buttons make you grab with left and right hands respectively. You move your arms up and down by shifting the camera, so if you look up you'll throw your hands in the air. You combine grabs and arm movements to haul yourself up ledges, press buttons, and turn levers.

It's painful at first, but soon you’ll be connecting power leads to kickstart engines, collecting coal and dumping it in furnaces, and piloting a massive freight ship. The puzzles stretch both your mechanical skills and your powers of imagination, throwing a few headscratchers your way across nine themed levels that will take you about five hours to fumble through. Best of all, most puzzles have multiple solutions, so even after you've seen mine you'll be able to find your own. Here are 15 that made me smile.

Fling yourself across the map from a catapult 

Perhaps my favorite moment in the entire game. You see the pile of rocks, you see the catapult, you see the wall you're supposed to knock down. And then the idea hits you. What if instead of rocks, I put myself in the catapult?

Yup—it works. Human: Fall Flat encourages that kind of experimentation throughout. 

A makeshift zipline 

I'm not even sure how I got up this tower, but I'm glad I did. After fumbling with the giant hook for a while I manged to sling it over the wire and ride it through the level. I smashed into the wooden house, but you can go further if you get the angle right. 

Ride a windmill 

Why make a regular jump when you can grab onto a giant windmill, ride it around and around and let go at just the right point to send you sailing across a gap?

Row, row, row your boat

Human: Fall Flat's odd controls make everything look a bit silly. To row this boat, you have to thrust your body back and forth, looking up at the sky and then at the ground. It's quite hypnotic, actually. You can row for ages, but most people will use this boat to get to a bigger one… 

Rev the engine 

And then this speedboat takes you to an even bigger one… 

 Sound the foghorn

And then this cargo ship takes you to an even bigger—actually, this is as big as it gets. It's still cool to pilot, though. You pull the levers to control two engines on each side of the boat, so you can steer from side to side. You'll be doing a lot of pulling levers in Human Fall Flat, as you'll see soon. 

Drive a bulldozer

It wouldn't be a comedy physics game without gratuitous destruction, would it? It looks simple, but the first time I tried to smash this wall over, I failed. Momentum is a big part of the puzzles in Human: Fall Flat, so you have to build it up by rocking the wrecking ball backwards before letting it loose.  

When in danger, break glass

More crumbly walls here, but I also love the amount of glass you get to smash in this game. I reloaded this level four or five times so I could throw that fire extinguisher over and over again. 

Shovel coal

Speaking of throwing stuff, the controls make aiming anything difficult. It's frustrating at times, but that means that it feels great whenever you're on target.

It's all ruined

When you're not smashing stuff, you'll probably be running and jumping. You'll see I jump with my arms raised in the clip below—that's so I can grab a ledge and then pull my body up. You'll do that a lot, but Human: Fall Flat makes it trickier by throwing in the odd platform that collapses, leading to moments of panic.  

Cheat 

If there's a jump you feel you can’t make you can always (whisper it) cheat. Perhaps 'cheat' is too strong a word, but a bit of nimble climbing will let you subvert certain puzzles and scale walls that you shouldn't be able to. 

It takes some practice, but our hero is surprisingly bendy, and will do what you want if you push him hard enough. How bendy, I hear you ask? 

Do the limbo 

This bendy. 

A big fan 

But Human: Fall Flat's levels are not always trying to crush you—sometimes they will give you a helping hand. That coal you saw me chucking is used to fuel furnaces that fire giant fans, which treat you to a free float. It's like one of those skydiving simulation machines. 

The belt line

And then there’s these conveyer belts. The game's levels have lots of moving parts, and sometimes your best option is just to cling on for dear life. 

Trapeze artist

Crossing large gaps often means swinging on something low-hanging and then timing your release to get the right exit trajectory. Swinging from objects—dangling lights, chains, wires and the like—will let you reach new areas or reveal hidden secrets. 

These are just a handful of the things you'll be doing in Human: Fall Flat. If you don't mind the fiddly controls, then it’s worth picking up, especially now that it has multiplayer so you can enjoy doing all of these things with your friends, who will absolutely co-operate and not get in your way at all. 

BattleTech

Dekker has fallen over. His 30-metre-tall mech is prone at a desert crossroads, flanked on two sides by canyon walls that do not—it turns out—prevent him from being shelled by artillery. I’d sent him in because his mech is the most armoured: his job was to tie up enemy firepower while my quicker mechs flanked through a lowland forest to the south.

I’m commanding a lance—a squad of four mechs—featuring designs and loadouts that’ll be familiar if you’ve ever played a MechWarrior game. BattleTech pulls the series back to its tabletop roots, focusing on strategic combat between mercenary outfits who dip in and out of star-spanning future wars to turn a profit. In this specific instance, I’ve been tasked with blowing up valuable buildings in two separate locations. As Dekker and another heavy mech approach the gates head-on, I’ve set up a flanking strike to eliminate the power generator sustaining the base’s turrets. At least, that’s the plan. 

A bit of faulty reconnaissance on my part means that I didn’t realise that the enemy base defences don’t need line of sight to open up on my heaviest mech. Similarly, while years of MechWarrior games have left me wise to the dangers of overheating, I didn’t consider stability. Dekker’s armour repels the worst of the missiles that rain down on him from the far side of the hill, but their explosive impact is enough to send him off balance and, ultimately, crashing down to the floor. 

It’ll take a two-part plan to save him. In the forest to the south, my two flanking mechs really need to take out that power generator. And Dekker’s wingmate—no small mech herself—needs to take out the enemy mech that is acting as a spotter for that distant artillery. Neither of these things go quite to plan.

Although you have a degree of real-time control over your mechs as they explore the battlefield, contact with an enemy causes the game to shift into a turn-based system based on each pilot’s initiative. In each phase of the fight you can choose a mech to activate and perform a move action followed by an attack. It’s a little like XCOM, but much more granular in a way that feels like a tabletop game. I choose one of my flanking mechs and instruct her to use her jump jets to reach a higher vantage point, risking her heat sinks in order to take the shot that might save Dekker. She opens up her medium lasers on the entirely stationary, very large generator—and misses.

Dekker takes another round of fire and loses his mech s left arm. He stands and opens fire with all of his remaining weaponry, tearing chunks out of the enemy walker but overheating in the process.

Dekker takes another round of fire and loses his mech’s left arm. He stands and opens fire with all of his remaining weaponry, tearing chunks out of the enemy walker but overheating in the process. The next round of artillery fire incapacitates him—he has a chance to crawl away from the wreckage alive, but I won’t find out until the end of the mission (had I chosen to eject him rather than attack, I could’ve ensured his survival). 

In response, Dekker’s wingmate charges the enemy mech and performs a melee attack—a first for a BattleTech game. Mechs don’t have melee weapons, and there’s nothing elegant about ramming them into each other—this is a sprinting shoulder-charge that smashes catastrophically into the enemy. I get lucky—the enemy pilot is killed, and their mech collapses. The artillery opens up again, but it won’t get to fire after that. I move another mech into a flanking position, and this time they can hit the broad side of a power generator. 

There’s loads to like about BattleTech as a purely tactical game: you’ve got a lot of control over your squad’s positioning and weapon options, and achieving an advantageous position means carefully paying attention to altitude, heat and, yes, stability. This single combat encounter is a straightforward example of the drama that the game generates on the fly. Later on, I discover the thrill of using jump jets to deliver fatal drop attacks on tanks like an expensive metal Mario, and conduct the rest of the mission in this manner.

It’s the broader strategic layer that has me excited for BattleTech, however. The events of this mission are shaped by—and shape—a much bigger and more open-ended attempt to earn a dime as a mech-commanding space mercenary. For example: while Dekker-the-pilot was unable to escape the burning wreck of his mech, the mech itself was not completely unsalvageable. Yet the specific damage it took will need repairing, and if there were any expensive guns bolted to that left arm—well, it’s gone. That’s a potentially expensive loss that’ll need accounting for when I decide to take on my next mission. Also, you know, Dekker’s dead, and that’ll probably have an impact on morale.

Each of your pilots has a randomly-generated personal history, which influences their outlook and connections.

Back on the ship (initially a small Leopard-class dropship, later a massive upgradable hulk called the Argo) there are loads of decisions to make. Each of your pilots has a randomly-generated personal history, which influences their outlook and connections. You’ve got your own baggage too—you create your main character through a questionnaire at the beginning of the game that reminds me a little of the Mount & Blade series. 

These factors influence the types of missions that will be made available to you beyond the confines of the story-led critical path. When you take on a mission, you can choose to emphasise payment, salvage rights, or forego either to make factions like you more. Salvage rights are deliciously specific, too—what you get depends on the outcome of the battle that is subsequently fought, so if you’ve chosen to take your payment in the form of scrap then you’d better be sure that you only blow the bits off enemy mechs that you don’t want to keep. 

You might choose to take missions in tundras or wetlands where the environment can be used to keep your mechs cool and able to sustain their firepower for longer, or head to the desert with a more lightly-armed contingent that can exploit the temperature to their own advantage. You might try to curry favour with one of the great houses of the BattleTech universe, or slum it with pirates and steer clear of interplanetary war.

You’ve got loads of freedom to refit each mech to your specific needs, but these changes take up both money and time. A week-long refit will be broken down into subtasks, and if you choose to interrupt work to get a mech into the field in a hurry you may find that your engineers have finished fitting the new gun but not, say, loaded its ammo. As time passes you’ll occasionally be presented with shipboard events, mini choose-your-own-adventure digressions with consequences for morale. And morale, in turn, influences your pilots’ performance in battle. 

There’s a lot of XCOM to this structure, but unlike XCOM the stakes in BattleTech aren’t quite as high. Certainly your employers would like you to succeed, but you’re not trying to save the world—you’re trying to make a living. Taking heroic risks (like, for example, wandering your biggest mech unsupported into the line of fire) isn’t always the right call. To reflect this, missions don’t have a straightforward success or failure state: if you choose to retreat from a mission with only half your objectives completed, that’s not necessarily an outright disaster. Depending on exactly what you managed to achieve, you may come away with partial payment and a slight knock to your reputation but—crucially—a ship full of pilots who are still alive and mechs that don’t need expensive repairs, which is its own form of success. 

This feels like underexplored space for this type of game. I’m really taken with the idea of a campaign system that discourages save-scumming by giving you more freedom to make the best of a bad situation. And the detailed links between BattleTech’s galaxy-spanning ‘sim game’ and on-the-ground combat are something I’d like to see much more of—being a good space-war businessperson isn’t just a matter of making the right macro-scale decisions, but of optimising your efficiency on the battlefield, too. There’s loads of potential for interesting stories to come from these systems—and, yes, like XCOM, you can rename all of your pilots after your mates. And apologise to them in person when your bad decisions result in them falling over and exploding.

Sid Meier’s Civilization® VI

One of Sid Meier’s most frequently quoted musings on game design is that games should be a series of interesting decisions. Civilization VI: Rise and Fall, the latest game’s first big expansion, feels like a reinforcement of that philosophy, restructuring each era—from ancient to modern—around big choices and important events in the history of a civilisation. 

It's a real shake-up of a system that's normally tied to technology, with each civ independently moving from era to era depending on the pace of their research. Now every civ reaches new ages at exactly the same time, but there’s still a competitive aspect. During each era, civs get points for historic moments, like recruiting unique units or founding a new religion, and at the end of an era these points determine whether the next one is going to be a normal, Golden or Dark Age. These moments can also be viewed in an illustrated timeline of the civ that shows some flavour text and the total number of points they added to the era score.

So when you bid farewell to the ancient era and slide into the classical period, you’re not simply getting a notification that you’ve moved on and some new techs to research. Depending on your achievements in the first era, you’ll be able to pick a number of ‘Dedications’ that net you major buffs for the entirety of the next era. As the Cree, for instance, I decided that I desperately needed more builders so I could construct a Mekewap, the Cree’s unique building that adds extra production and housing to a tile. I selected the Dedication that allowed me to spend faith points on civilian units as well as religious ones, giving me another route to recruit some diligent builders.

Despite getting a Golden Age at the first opportunity, my Cree nation didn’t fare as well when it entered the medieval era. Some problems with barbarians and a couple of lost wonder races left the civ’s notable moments somewhat diminished, ushering in a Dark Age, a period of turmoil.

It s possible to spread loyalty to your empire among other civs, seducing their citizens to your side and increasing the chances of the city defecting.

The biggest problem introduced by Dark Ages is the deterioration of loyalty. Every city now has a loyalty meter, reflecting how happy its citizens are with being part of the empire. Low loyalty can lead to lower yields and thus slow growth and production in the suffering city; worse, it can ultimately cause revolts, with the city joining another empire or simply declaring its independence. 

Loyalty can also be exploited, however. It’s possible to spread loyalty to your empire among other civs, seducing their citizens to your side and increasing the chances of the city defecting. It's a lot like culture flipping from Civilization IV, and to a lesser extent V, where a unhappy cities could revolt and join the civ with the most culture. In Rise and Fall, cities automatically exert loyalty pressure on nearby cities, so even when you’re not focused on it, your propaganda machine is still ticking away.

Dark Ages aren’t all bad. Nobody wants disloyal citizens, but there are some advantages to slumming it. Unique policies can be activated, for example, that give powerful bonuses but with high costs. Choose the Inquisition policy and you’ll beef up your religious units but at the cost of science. When being good at chemistry can get your burned at the stake, you’d probably pick a different career too. If the costs seem too great, you can ignore these policies entirely, but they’re a great way to keep up with the other civs if you’re willing to specialise.

It might even end up being worth dealing with a Dark Age just so you can overcome it. If you get enough points to make the next era a Golden Age then you’ll enter a souped-up version known as a Heroic Age. There are consequences and new challenges, but hitting a Dark Age isn’t a failure. And if you’ve assigned some governors to your cities, you might barely even notice any disloyalty. 

A governor, in a 4X game, is typically just another name for automation. You can set their focus and then just forget about them. Rise and Fall’s governors have definitely grown out of that mechanic, but now they’re characters with progression trees and predilections. Not only can they foster loyalty amongst the citizenry, they can evolve into powerful tools that are able to transform cities into capitals of culture,  industrial powerhouses, and stalwart citadels.  

Deciding to take advantage of the Cree’s handy trading abilities (more gold and food with every trade route, more trade route capacity, and a free trader when pottery has been researched), my first governor was Reyna, ‘The Financier’. Not surprisingly, money is her sphere of influence, and hiring her also made it easier to buy tiles and expand faster. With her influence and my trade routes, cashflow wasn’t an issue. 

By the time I hit turn 150, the end of the preview build, I’d managed to hire three governors and promote them all. When you are able to hire a new governor, you can also choose to promote an existing one instead. You level them up by picking and unlocking new abilities, just like you would a combat unit. There are seven governors in total with six abilities each.

For my 150 turns I decided to take a friendly, diplomatic approach, knowing that the loyalty system gives my opponents new ways to screw me over and steal cities. Alliances have been given a makeover in Rise and Fall. Civilization VI unstacked cities, and now it’s unstacking diplomacy. Instead of just becoming buds with the civ of your choosing, you need to pick a specialised alliance connected to each of the game’s pillars: cultural, research, military, religious and economic. Within these specialised alliances are different tiers that represent how close you are to being total BFFs. You progress through tiers by earning alliance points. These are generated every turn an alliance is maintained, and there are ways to increase the yield—by sending traders to your ally's city, for example.

The result isn’t just that diplomacy feels more varied, it’s now more proactive. Since you can only have one of each specialised alliance on the go at the same time, you need to make sure you’re picking the right civ for the specialisation. Who wants a military alliance with a chill pacifist who prefers missionaries over warriors? It’s worth finding out more about your potential pal, then, before you start pursuing them. 

Lamentably, the final new addition to the series, international emergencies, didn’t appear in my first 150 turns. Emergencies are big crises that can be solved by civs working together. It might be that a city state has been taken over by a civ, or maybe someone naughty is playing with nuclear weapons. Emergencies have objectives that must be completed before rewards are doled out and if those objectives aren’t reached then the civ that the emergency is targeting gets rewarded instead. Firaxis warns that it might not be worth the risk if the other civ’s reward is too great.

Rise and Fall makes a lot of broad changes that fatten up existing systems with more interesting decisions and consequences, and in practice it feels more cohesive than the list of features suggests. But with a game as large as Civilization VI, 150 turns is just the tip of the iceberg, we'll have to wait and see how Rise and Fall's multitude of changes affects the entirety of a campaign when the expansion comes on on February 8. 

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