Alright, that pun could have been a lot better, but sadly the same can easily be said for the Windows Phone ports of what were, in their original forms, two excellent games. For those of you not in the know, the excellent fellows at 2K games recently ported two of my all-time favourite titles to Windows Phone, namely the empire-building Civilization: Revolution and swashbuckling Sid Meier’s Pirates!.
Those of us who are eager spectators of the gaming industry may know these two games as the brainchildren of Sid Meier; grandfather of the immensely popular Civilization series (of which I am a self-confessed fan), as well as a variety of other entertaining gems, including the one-shot wonder, Pirates! and the brilliant Alpha Centauri. Since both titles were released simultaneously, by the same developer and sadly suffering from the same underlying problems, I have decided to review both of them in one convenient package. So, for such a promising background, where did it all go wrong for the pair?
From Stone to Steel
First up on the list is the somewhat tardy port of Civilization: Revolution, a game that, since its initial release in 2008, has become the go-to turn-based strategy game for just about every platform that isn’t an old fashioned PC. The premise of the game, like its predecessors, is simple; you take the leadership of a fledgling band of nomads, and through research, conquest and discovery build them into a mighty, nuke-wielding empire.
Whilst the general idea is pretty basic, the series is known for being notoriously difficult to master; almost every aspect of your civilization has to be managed, from intricate diplomacy and carefree warmongering right down to the feeding of your filthy citizens.
It’s no surprise then that developer Firaxis decided to take a more user-friendly approach to Revolution, releasing a game that was a lot more accessible overall whilst still keeping the main motifs of the series intact. For the most part, this strategy (coupled with some awesome visual design and other nice bits) was well-received by an arguably more casual console gamer base, and Revolution was a critical success, bringing hardcore turn-based strategy to a wider and probably less patient audience.
Consequently, I was thrilled when I found out that publisher 2K Games had decided to branch out to mobile platforms for Revolution, first porting the game to the Nintendo DS, then the iPhone, and now to Windows Phone. I can’t say that the idea behind this isn’t praise-worthy; long have I been waiting to see a full-fledged turn-based strategy game come charging, sword in hand, to the mobile space. Now we have it, and how excellently should it have paired with Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform; with a minimum level of hardware for all devices and the excellently-implemented Xbox Live integration, it’s understandably hard to imagine how such an esteemed title fell flatter than a chariot without wheels.
A Rusty Blade
So, what happened? I could make a nice long list of all the minute, individual reasons for why I found Civilization: Revolution to be a disappointment, although it would take more than a single article to do so. Instead, I will summarize all the problems under one banner, namely wildly inconsistent presentation, and an overall lackluster impression.
Revolution‘s sketchy visuals begin right from the title screen, and sadly are persistent throughout the entire game; practically every game sprite (of which there are many) is noisy and rough-edged, with a few even displaying some hideous scars in the form of seams. These visual flaws would just about pass for the old, lower-resolution screens of the iPhone or DS, but they sadly make the Windows Phone experience nothing short of ugly. What’s more, about 90% of these images (mainly terrain features such as mountains and forests) actually hide when one is panning the view, most likely for optimization on older devices, but yet again this is a corner-cut that just shouldn’t be present on this generation of smartphones.
There is, however, one rather interesting visual gem amongst the visual mediocrity; when I fired up the game and trained up my first Warrior unit I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sword-wielding brute popped out as a rather colourful, detailed and lively 3d graphic, a pleasantry used on all the game’s units.
Sadly, whilst this detail is more than welcome, by itself it only serves to make the rest of the game look even more sullen and disappointing, especially when I first led my gallant troops into what turned out to be a hideous and jerkily-animated 2d combat sequence which made absolutely no use of the aforementioned 3d-ness. It would have been excellent to see this feature used for more areas of the game, as it would have not only added a more polished sense of consistency, but also have done the title a lot more justice for the platform
Now you’re probably wondering if Revolution at least plays well as compensation for its miserable presentation. After all, better graphics do by no means make a better game. I’ll safely on that front that it is actually, for the most part, gameplay solid. Almost all of the Civilization motif has been diligently preserved in crossing over to the mobile space, and everything you could possibly need is there, right down to directing the efforts of your cretinous underlings.
However, there are two rather major gameplay features that are strangely absent from this port: the first is the obvious, I dare say compulsory requirement of multiplayer, which is almost insultingly absent from the game menu. The second is the even more needed Civilopedia; the game guide which, throughout every Civilization game, has been an invaluable reference to the endless intricacies of unit statistics all the way to technology benefits. To see it not only removed, but replaced with a shallow, nigh-on useless tutorial is nothing short of tragic.
A Chest of Gold
As disappointing as it was, Civilization: Revolution only makes up one of two of 2K’s Windows Phone endeavors. The second is none other than a revamped version of the 1987 classic, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, an admittedly more polished and much more riveting adventure on the high seas. Pirates! places you at the helm of a rickety, barnacle-infested ship at the height of the 17th century ages of piracy, sugar canes, and posh dinners hosted by fat governors, all in the swashbuckling setting of the Caribbean.
This all sounds quite enthralling, and one would hope so from what is perhaps one of the best hybrids of strategy, action and roleplaying about. Pirates! puts you in the shoes of a hopeful young man who has come to the newly-settled islands of the Caribbean to seek his fortune. After a brief (as well as visually excellent) in-game cutscene, you decide on your pirate’s strengths and pledge your loyalty to one of the four major powers active in the so called ‘Spanish Main’; namely the French, Spanish, British or Dutch.
After signing up, you are whisked away to another short interlude, this time your valiant aspiring pirate has been set to perform tedious menial labour aboard a ship, contrary to his more heroic expectations. After a brief incident with the malevolent captain, your young swashbuckler leads a heroic mutiny and wrests control of the sloop, claiming it and setting sail under a banner of your choosing.
From this point onwards, the game is almost completely open-ended, and you are free to go where you wish and do as you like, from conquering the Caribbean to conquering the daughters of local governors, although discretion is best used lest you are reduced to a pile of driftwood by marauding galleons. Trading, in the lieu of games such as Port Royale comes full force in Pirates; you are free to buy and sell lucrative goods such as sugar, rum and textiles at different ports in the new world, then to sell them at other colonies for a juicy profit (or loss). You can use the money acquired to buy bigger ships, hire crews, acquire three wonderfully violent varieties of cannonball, and if need be, bribe your way out of a dingy jail cell. In between all this, you’ll be gracefully navigating the high seas with what is undoubtedly an excellent control system, with not an emulated physical button in sight.
Of course, Pirates is by no means a game of pure economics; although a clever business sense is more than helpful in establishing your stake in the New World, another part of the pirating experience is of course good old fashioned pillaging and plundering. Whenever you are close to a rival ship or a port you can opt to fight for riches and glory! When attacking a port the results are automatically calculated based on your relative strengths, but against another vessel you are whisked away to a battle map, where you can manually steer your ship (with the grace of the wind) into combat.
During this spate of bravado you have two basic options for defeating the enemy ship: you can either whittle it away with one of three different cannonball types, or choose to board and meet in gallant swordplay. The former will rely on your maneuvering skills and the timing of your shots, opting for the latter will pit you in a rather detailed duel with the enemy captain; where your various thrusts and parries are performed with gestures on the touchscreen, creating a rather innovative combat system that would otherwise be a dull button-mashing bore.
Unfortunately, the words ‘dull’ and ‘bore’ can be aptly used to describe a rather large gaping hole in the side of an otherwise impeccable ship. To be precise, Sid Meier’s Pirates sadly suffers from some chronic inconsistencies in presentation; namely a hideously-textured, bland game map and menu buttons which sadly adopt the traditional ‘text bar’ format common to PC games which are irritating to use and simply dull to look at. That said, any ‘close-up’ scenes in the game, namely in-game cutscenes and the sword-fighting minigame, are vibrant, detailed and are a good example of what the standard for the platform should be.
For these two games, both with a staggering reputation preceding them and the honourable brainchildren of one of the best game designers around, one would expect their Windows Phone debuts to be suitably brilliant, and perhaps even set a new standard for the platform. Sadly only Pirates gets anywhere close to achieving this, whilst Civilization is left as a flailing, half-finished and half-hearted port with few redeeming features.
If you’re looking for a good, polished strategy game for Windows Phone, then you are best off looking at Sickhead Games’ Armed!, as you won’t find anything better here for £2.99. That said, if you are in the market for an engaging and depthy RPG/simulation hybrid set on the high seas, Pirates fits the bill perfectly, and I can only wish that the same amount of attention was given to its failed sibling.