Aven Colony – review

In a forward-thinking act of organisation that’s made my wife suspicious I’ve been replaced by a Pod Person, I’ve made a To-Do list for my week off work. Because nothing says ‘I value my free time’ like a To-Do list.

It ranges from the fairly important personal projects (‘write a pilot script’) to actual scheduled slacking off (‘knock off my Netflix queue’). I must confess that I’ve made the list partly to avoid the inevitable; checking out the No Man’s Sky update on PS4. You’d be amazed how long I’ve spent on this game since it launched without deciding whether it’s actually been worth my while, so probably best not to waste more time trying to find out.

So, to get my sci-fi gaming fix I’ve been playing Aven Colony, a modest city-building sim from Team 17. Early impressions give me a vibe that’s very much Tropico-in-space, so it’s fair to say I’m intrigued.

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Aven Colony gameplay

Aven Colony takes place on what’s presumably a planet called Aven, a planet of varying climates and conditions. You play the leader of the colonising forces, as you rise through the ranks to oversee ever more difficult settlement situations.

Starting with the lander module, an outpost or two and some basic utilities, you’re tasked with expanding your colony to support a larger population, which starts to be shipped in once you’ve met some of the basic targets.

It’s pretty easy to get going, and runs just like your typical city-builder, as you adjust staffing levels, mine for resources and turn them into nanites – the currency which is used to have your construction drones 3D-print your base’s next addition.

Meet your colonists’ needs for things like Air Quality and Morale, with the appropriate installation of air vents and bars, and make sure their daily commute is easy with enough interlocking tunnels between their home and their work. (This is ridiculously important to them – but if you lived in a hermetically-sealed series of tubes on some alien planet you’d probably feel the same way too; a win for realism if not game mechanics.)

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The planet has a few of its own natural defences which add some intrigue; time is divided into seasonal periods, including winters which freeze the ground and make your farms less efficient. If the food quality and quantity drops, so does colonists’ morale. On top of that there’s lightning storms, toxic gas emissions and even the odd space-plague to contend with.

And then there’s the Referendums – the 50% approval rate which you must exceed in order to stay on as the colony chief.

Step up your colony’s survival stats and you’ll grow enough to explore the rest of the planet – with ancient ruins to be uncovered and new colonists to rescue from their planetary problems.

Replay value

It’s all quite good fun and fairly immersive, but the main issue I’m having with Aven Colony is just how arbitrary it all is. Tropico 5’s far more complex system – one which still has me going back to tinker with the roads and distribution routes every now and then – offers high replay value. Here on Aven you’re presented with a set of overlays to denote happiness, air quality and commute times across the colony. Sad face? Add a park. Air quality alert? Build an air filter nearby. And that’s about it – random catastrophes aside, but even those are fixable provided you’ve got enough nanites to spare and some space to build in an affected area.

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Having the resources to fix these issues as they crop up does admittedly take some degree of careful planning – to build on the colony you need nanite generators, and to open mines for which to fuel their generation. If there’s not enough workers and enough housing evenly spread across the complex then they stay closed. Conversely, you’ll be all out of nanites if you get too construction-happy, and that leads to various power outages, random blowouts and steep drops in morale. And so to that end, there’s a fair bit of juggling required before you can start shipping in new colonists.

However, if you’re at all familiar with the city builder you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly, and disappointingly, as the story beats take their time to play out. The dreaded Referendum mechanic didn’t actually worry me at all (on Normal difficulty setting) – at this point of the game I’ve had no fear of dropping under even 70% just because I haven’t neglected any of the urgent pop-ups which…pop up to tell me there’s a problem with housing or air quality.

There’s little variety to proceedings – while the main construction objective is a staple of the city building simulation, be it a Space Program or in this case, usually an Expedition Centre, there’s usually more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. But here it’s a frustratingly endless extension of long-running tunnels, interrupted by the odd housing block and a workplace.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the story progresses – there’s alien secrets to be uncovered and some potential sabotage/espionage going on from within. And given the lo-fi indie value of the game I’m always impressed when a non-AAA title provides so much good stuff. Aven Colony provides some good game time, but it’s far from the best city builder I’ve played.

Tropico 5 is a delightful dictatorship simulator

The dictatorship sim Tropico 5 was another PS Plus offering, and one of my favourites so far.

I used to be obsessed with The Sims. Absolutely obsessed. I pored over every little detail of those guys’ lives – and I know that’s the whole point, but really.

And like Chuck Klosterman in his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, I sometimes thought about how easy it was to be pure evil to these Sims, if you really fancied it. The ability to choose your own moral alignment was a relatively new feature in games back at the turn of the millennium, with limited work previously done by the likes of the Ultima games in exploring how the decisions you make can alter your path.

Making the tough choices is one of the biggest challenges you face in simulation games, which is why I really enjoyed playing Tropico 5.

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Humble beginnings

Your job is to build a dynasty of rulers on your very own tropical paradise. Starting off in the Colonial Era, you’re tasked with constructing the various facilities, residences and industrial buildings on each island, while improving citizens’ happiness and quality of life. On top of that it’s your responsibility to negotiate trade agreements with other nations, and best your political rivals through canny use of your natural resources.

Aside from the Tutorial there are three game types to play: the Campaign game is a full single-player narrative involving international intrigue, considerable strategy and all-out war. As you move through the different eras from Colonial times to the Modern Age you must suck up to the right people and prove your prowess as a fearless island ruler.

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The Mission (and I assume there was more than one available on the online store but hey ho) is a fun contained story involving the vital production of cheese, and your quest to defy the Crown in becoming the worldwide leader of said cheese production.

The Sandbox is the real test – and where it most closely resembles its forebears; Sim City, The Sims, Sim Hospital…anything with Sim in it basically. And just like these games, the tongue-in-cheek humour is one of Tropico 5’s most appealing features.

Making difficult decisions

But when you’re faced with some of the tough choices, that’s where things really get interesting. You can alternately piss off the Allies and the Axis; the USSR and the USA, even as far back as choosing what’s best for your citizens who are fiercely loyal to the King, or to the Revolutionary cause. When the King’s representative asks you on a whim to ship him all the milk you have available, rather than make it available for islanders, do you cut them off or risk the wrath of the Crown?

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There’s always a workaround for these things, but as your island grows more sophisticated the logistical and strategic solutions can be costlier, more inconvenient or simply a massive pain to try and organise. That’s where the real challenge lies, and aside from the odd arbitrary blip the makers of Tropico 5 have managed to strike a pretty good balance in most aspects of the game.

Before this instalment I wasn’t even aware of the series, but thanks to the PS Plus scheme (which has boosted the popularity of many a title), I’ve found what could be my new favourite strategy game.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to work out how to start a revolution.

Console Wars – Black Friday Blitzkrieg

First blood to Microsoft as XBox takes top two spots on Black Friday

Here in the UK we don’t do Black Friday, mainly because we’re not all spent up from having a made-up holiday the day before. (Just kidding.) But gamers and retail analysts alike have been all of a tizzy waiting to see which of the new consoles would emerge victorious from the retail rush of Black Friday – the first real post-release test of both Sony’s and Microsoft’s latest offerings.

XBox One Black Friday

The results are somewhat surprising. Not only did XBox One claim the 2013 spoils according to InfoScout, but Sony’s Playstation 4 was beaten into third place by the now last-gen console, the XBox 360; with the two Microsoft consoles together accounting for three-fifths of total console sales in two top US chains.

Playstations 3 and 4 both came in with 15% of total sales each, while Nintendo took only 7% of the market share for the day. That’s especially worrying for the Japanese giants as the Wii U, already struggling on the shelves, was ranked just one place above its predecessor, the now-seven years old original Wii which was apparently going for only sixty pounds in Walmart.

Even more shocking is that the top console was going for almost $500 dollars – a full hundred more than the PS4! It seems that limited PS4 availability was partly to blame for the relative no-show.

Sony PS4 Black Friday

Both consoles are less than a month old but already Microsoft has some serious leverage as we head into the season of Christmas shopping. Personally I won’t be going for either of the new consoles just yet – it’s gonna take a fair few more tasty games and at least one price drop for this big spender.

Have you obtained either of the new consoles yet? What do you make of them so far?

PS4 vs. Xbox One – Who will survive? (Or care?)

Anton shares his thoughts on the imminent release of new Sony and Microsoft consoles, and tries to dredge up the will to give a crap. Find him on Twitter @ajkrasauskas and listen to this music as you ask yourself – out of the two consoles, who will survive?

New XBOX ONE

I’ll be totally honest with you, I haven’t really kept up to date on the hype leading to the launch of the next gen consoles, mainly because it feels a lot like election time and I’m usually fairly sure that both parties are equally good – and also therefore equally terrible and equally frigging pointless. What can I say? I’m an egalitarian like that.

I made an immediate snap judgement on my hypothetical favourite console ages ago and it was only based on the fact that I really, really don’t like the direction that Microsoft are going with in their concepts, their branding, their placement and their stupid, stupid fucking name.  But then again, their list of ideas for what to call the OG Xbox was equally bizarre and ridiculous. (Microsoft Action Xperience? Fuck you.)

I have no intention to purchase either of these sleek, black, might-as-well-look-exactly-like-the-obelisk-in-”2001: A Space Odyssey” pieces of hardware in the foreseeable future, but if and when I do it will be probably a PS4. There are many reasons for this but the primary three that stick in my head are:

A ) It’s primarily marketed as a games console instead of trying to appear to be an all-in-one entertainment centre for everyone.

B ) Fable 3 was a big pile of arse. (The Fable series was the main reason I wanted the original Xbox and the 360, and now it’s been ravaged for all its goodness and will join the ranks of other equally flaccid franchises, like the new additions in the Gears of War and Halo series)

C ) Fuck Kinect.

            Seriously, that’s pretty much all of my entire reasoning. I’m not saying anything new or exciting here. Microsoft’s angle has seemed to be that they need to show that the console is everything. Skype and Twitter and Facebook and TV with Twitter next to it and ordering a pizza and voice commands and…uhh…oh yeah there’s a few games. To my mind, if they want to broaden their market to such an extent where everyone wants to have this fantastic all-in-one box of stylish wonderful that also plays games, they should have ditched the Xbox name altogether. People who don’t play games equate the name Xbox with the idea of nerds and racial abuse, if they even equate it with anything at all. To try and encompass all the things that these people probably already have on separate devices into one package, the name points to it being a games console. Regardless of how clever the name appears to be, to the untrained observer it is a games console and that’s all. To the gamer it doesn’t appear to be enough of a games console and so they have somehow managed to alienate both target audiences.

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            There have been a few videos on Facebook complaining of people finding issues with their PS4s on day one (such as no online facility whatsoever, HDMI problems, even The Christian Post was having a pop at Sony.) but there have been virtually no reports on the major gaming sites – nothing useful anyway.

            IGN, considered by some to be in cahoots with giants like EA, Sony and Microsoft (mainly by companies who can’t afford to be in cahoots with anyone) don’t appear to be making any real fuss of this news. What they have been making a fuss of is comparison shots of the launch games for both consoles. All over Facebook. For three weeks. Seriously. Who the fuck cares? Anyone who is going to choose on Day One has already chosen. Those with PS4s either also have the Xbox One on pre-order or aren’t going to bother with it, while those who are waiting for Xbox and don’t have a PS4 probably aren’t going to be getting one any time soon. This bullshit comparison of in-game graphics is completely pointless except as bait for trolls. I dare not even go and look at the “articles” in question because I assume that they will be overrun with trash talk and hyperbole and to be completely fair to both parties, completely pointless; adding nothing of worth to my existence.

            All in all, the only thing I am looking forward to about this is seeing the numbers. I’m sure that the major gaming press will be jockeying for position to heap praise on the winner and I’m sure that, in the words of Homer Simpson, “the loser will be taunted and booed until my throat is sore.”

            I’m going to give it at least a year. That will give them a chance to release some games I actually give a shit about.

            Teehee…Cahoots is a funny word.

E3: The non-exclusive games

What’s got us drooling at E3 2013?

Following on from this week’s previous posts about what the next-gen console makers might have in their back pockets, in case you can’t decide which one you’d rather shell out hundreds of pounds on, here’s a look at the top games which will be offered by both the PS4 and XBox One.

To limit bias in this article, here's a picture of a Wii Mini.

To limit bias in this article, here’s a picture of a Wii Mini.

Kingdom Hearts 3

Well, there isn’t even all that much to it – but once you see the dude from Square Enix introduce a trailer that’s immediately followed by a Disney logo – well, cue fanboy squeals.

It does look pretty impressive – although “in development” is by now well-known industry slang for “Pfft. Dunno.”

Wolfenstein – The New Order

Now this…this is the one I’ve been looking out for. For some reason, that image of the Nazi astronaut saluting the flag, made me go like “ooh! Those buggers!” Like some kind of indignant outraged feeling that you only get within fictional scenarios.

Although nothing more than the result of a telling off by Bethesda for pissing about too much between games, this new take on the Wolfenstein story looks pretty bloody good to me.

Metal Gear Solid V

Anyone for a game of Red Dead Redempt-SNAAAAAAKE? Big Boss returns – and this time, he’s voiced by…well, the bloke who played Jack Bauer on TV; let’s not pretend for one second that he’s real. But this got a lot of love from the community too; we’ll have to see what happens with this one.

With each of these games receiving release on both the PS4 and the XBox One, we won’t be forced to choose one over the other. With the past three days’ worth of blog posts on the subject of upcoming E3 games, hopefully we’ve helped make up your mind.

So – which is it gonna be? PS4 or XBox One?

E3 Sony Playstation 4 Exclusives

Following the announcement of the new XBox One in May, viewers were disheartened by the company’s somewhat skewed take on digital rights management. At  this year’s E3, once people had stopped bottling the stage for long enough, Microsoft was able to talk about some pretty cool-looking exclusive games. However, Sony weren’t really left with a tough act to follow. Simply by showing off some equally cool-looking games – and not being dicks about how you could play them – they scored a major blow in the first skirmish of the new console wars.

So what has Sony got lined up for prospective PS4 purchasers that they can’t get elsewhere?

Final Fantasy XV

Now I’ll happily level with you here – I’ve never played an FF game before. Don’t hit me; just know that I’m not particularly into JRPGs and the ones which have come before were always so long to play that I would’ve easily lost my patience if I’d tried to play one.

But this one looks pretty bloody good – and here’s a tip: combining gameplay with non-gameplay? Other games should’ve tried that. We’re not fooled anymore; we can see the difference between what parts we will and won’t be playing. When it comes time to make my choice, this game could be the deciding factor, such is my blown-awayness about it. (Yes, blown-awayness. It’s a word.)

The Order: 1886

More like “The Pre-Order: 1886”, ifyaknowwhatImean?

Again, there isn’t much to go on here but the makers’ claim that the whole trailer was made in-engine isn’t normally something you’d see upfront – meaning the studio must be feeling pretty darn good about what it can do with this game. I love the look of the weapons and outfits too; sort of steampunk but with a little more of The Crusades about them.

InFAMOUS Second Son

This one’s had quite a lot of coverage too, mainly because of the new main character; a young rebellious teen in the Seattle area, which can only mean sticking a Nirvana cover on the trailer – nuff said right? Well, no; and hopefully the rest of the story won’t be that lazy, but judging by the previous games’ reception we should be safe there.

So with these and other games like Killzone: Shadow Fall and family-friendly Knack ready to hit the PS4, has Sony done enough to make you shut up and give them your money?

And in E3 news…

…Microsoft got roundhouse-kicked in the face today by a rebounding Sony, whose new console the PS4 will work out at not only £80 cheaper than the Xbox One here in the UK – £349 against XBox One’s £429 – but a damn sight more affordable in the long-term too thanks to their choice to retain the used game market which Microsoft is pretty much ejecting with some dodgy excuses about publishers and DRM.

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The fact that, according to Sony brass today, the PS4 won’t require an always-online connection has done them a massive favour too; one which Microsoft are a little naive to expect all their customers to be capable of.

Microsoft didn’t LITERALLY get kicked in the face today, but Sony did land a huge burn with this video:

Which rather makes Microsoft out to be the bad guys, don’t you agree?

Social media has been quite the storm as well; with one declaration that as of today, the Xbox One has been, if you’ll excuse my language, “falcon-punched in the dick” by the resurgent Sony, while ‘dead in the water’ was also a common theme. While it remains to be seen just how this story will unfold, today definitely marked first blood to Sony.

Oh, and Nintendo turned up too, with something about a new Smash Bros. game. We’re not bothered about that though, are we?

So now we know a little more about each console, which console will you be buying (if any)?

Playstation 4 announced; not actually seen in public

Do you remember the first time that Steve Jobs came onstage, wearing his weird turtleneck and jeans, shrouded in mystery as he announced Apple’s new products? Do you remember when he showed them off to the crowd for the first time, a crowd which oohed and aahed appropriately at every turn and every press of a button/track-wheel? Magical wasn’t it?

Now do you remember last night, when the top brass at Sony came onstage and revealed the next step in gaming? The new box from which we can live out our virtual fantasies? The new Playstation 4, in all its beautiful sleek glory?

Oh. That’s right. They didn’t actually show us the box.

For all the showboating happening onstage, all the nerding out over Sony’s hot new thing, the PS4 itself didn’t actually get a look-in at last night’s mega-hyper announcement event; whatsamatter Sony, is it ugly? Does it have buck teeth and a hare lip?

Look, I never used to be this materialistic. Honestly. I never used to care for the next shiny thing on the horizon simply because I was satisfied with the things I had. It was probably the first time I ever played the Playstation 2 that, once switched off for the night, I’d have to resist the urge to affectionately pat it on the head. But as we rapidly approach what can only be described as the Singularity; when the rate of shiny thing releases gets faster and faster, sometimes people just wanna do a bit of a drool over the next little magic box.

Ever the ones to taunt and tease, and flash a bit of leg while winking without actually producing the goods – and god, that made me sound just awful – Sony have actually pulled a fast one this time out.

“Are you ready?” they asked.

“Yes,” the crowd bayed…just in time for Sony to do a Chris Tarrant.

“We don’t wanna give you that,” they smirked, instead producing what I can only hope is a work-in-progress prototype for the new controller; boxier than the last three Playstation controllers due to what’s supposed to be a mouse-like touchpad in the centre. Honestly, have you seen this thing? It’s a good job Sony don’t want the new PS4 to be backwards-compatible or else those poor controllers would be laughed out of the…whatever social area it is in which all anthropomorphic gaming accessories hang out, once humanistic qualities are applied to them.

Christmas 2013, they said. We’ll be here, we said. Waiting. And no more of that generic FPS shit, I added on behalf of my non-braindead gaming brethren. Then they showed me Destiny from Bungie and I left quickly.