Wednesday, June 20, 2007

PeaceMaker Review

PeaceMaker, developed and published by Impact Games.
The Good: Realistic strategic balancing between domestic and international demands, the two sides play differently, semi-random events mix things up, straightforward user interface, fast pace
The Not So Good: No history log, needs documentation and an interactive tutorial, end-game is a bit monotonous
What say you? An intriguing look at real-world peace and stability in the Middle East: 6/8

Violence and computer gaming seem to go hand in hand. I know I like blowing crap up, virtually speaking of course. While a lot of games think war is the ultimate solution to a problem, this is (thankfully) not the case in the real world (well, for the most part). Addressing the tenuous situation between Israel and Palestine is PeaceMaker, where you step in the shoes of either head-of-state and try not to piss everyone off. Think you can end centuries of conflict in a couple of hours? Have at it, hot shot! PeaceMaker hopes to bridge the gap between computerized entertainment and educational software, making you learn something about complicated international dynamics while having fun. And maybe, just maybe, we can all just get along.

For what is essentially a text management game, PeaceMaker features some nice graphics. The map of the region dominates the screen, although its inclusion is meaningless. The map never changes and it just shows where events occur during the game. All of the actions you take are done through a menu system rather than context-sensitive options on the map. The menus are nicely laid out and easy to use; this makes PeaceMaker easier for beginners or people without much computer gaming experience. All of the information in the game is presented on one screen which means you won’t have to weed through twenty pages of data to find what you’re looking for. PeaceMaker needs a history log to list events that have occurred, since I tend to forget which social measure I did last. The game also makes no indication of how often a certain action can be done, although there are obvious restrictions in the game (you can only bother the U.S. president every so often). There’s always room for improvement and PeaceMaker could give more feedback, although I guess real world leaders are without specific information most of the time. PeaceMaker fuses real images and video from the region into the game that gives the game a more realistic feel. It works well, and seeing pictures of angry or sad people makes PeaceMaker just a realistic as a game that features cutting-edge 3-D graphics. The game is presented in three languages (English, Hebrew, and Arabic) that makes the title functional for people around the world. The sound effects are limited as they only occur during events, but the background music is hauntingly nice. PeaceMaker has a decent presentation for an independent game and its simplified user interface will make it approachable for many experience levels.

In PeaceMaker, you’ll take the helm as the leader of Israel or Palestine and guide your country towards a peaceful solution. Playing as Palestine is a bit easier and recommended for first time players. The difficulty levels are very appropriate: I won my first game on “easy,” but I played on the hardest level and lost on the second turn. The two sides are different in their actions, but in either case you need to make everyone happy, from your citizens to militant groups to the rest of the world. PeaceMaker has a non-interactive tutorial that teaches the basics of the interface (which is easy to understand anyway), but the game is short on the specifics and doesn’t even have a manual. The Readme file actually says “Read Me:” funny but not very helpful. I need concrete information about the consequences of each action in the game, but PeaceMaker makes you find out the effects on your own. The advisors are of no help since they always give conflicting information (showing both effects of doing each action), but not hinting as to which action would be more appropriate at the current time. Your progress in the game is rated as a score. For Israel, your score is the aggregate relationships with your people and the Palestinians. For Palestine, it’s comprised of your people and the world. If you get both of these values to 100, you win, but if either one falls to -50, you lose.

PeaceMaker is a turn-based game: each week you are allowed one action. The actions are different for each side, but they have a lot of parallels. Your actions are divided into three categories: security, political, and construction. Each of these actions will typically please one group of people and anger another group, although their effects can be changed depending on the situation. Using the right actions at the right times to maximize the good effects and minimize the bad effects is the key to success in the game. Security actions concern police and army coverage, checkpoints, curfews, travel restrictions, border control, and extreme actions like assassinations. Political actions involve speaking to your nation or the world, negotiating with extremist groups or other nations, and granting worker permits. You can also request or grant funding for housing, transportation, medical, social services, or government construction. Your actions will affect each of the groups represented in the game: Israeli and Palestinian citizens, militant groups, and nations like the U.S. You can also access polls that access your effectiveness in several areas, like the economy, security, and cooperation. A lot of the actions in the game are very straightforward, as they will typically increase the relationships with some groups and decrease the relationships with others. You can use the areas you are strong in to bring up your deficiencies in other areas: for example, using your good relations with the U.S. to promote negotiations with Israel. PeaceMaker has semi-random events in the game that can drastically affect the peace process. If a violent group becomes too mad at you, expect some bloodshed in the streets. This makes the game a little less straightforward, and the increased difficulty levels make you keep your strategies more linear instead of spreading your actions over several different areas.

PeaceMaker is pretty entertaining and a challenging game; you can feel the tense nature of delicate negotiations and dealing with a lot of actions that are out of your control. PeaceMaker prevents the user from spamming the same actions or doing things out of context: giving humanitarian aid as you raid Palestinian villages will actually have a negative effect. PeaceMaker does a wonderful job showing just how difficult running a tumultuous country can be. The end of the game, once you’ve raised the approval ratings high enough, is a bit tedious since most of your actions will get positive feedback and it’s just a matter of time before you reach a peaceful end. Still, the path to mutual victory is generally entertaining and an interesting look at international politics.

PeaceMaker does a fine job in representing the tenuous situation in the Middle East in an approachable and entertaining game. The user interface makes it easy to learn the game, despite the lack of a manual and a history log. The core gameplay of balancing the desires of diametrically opposed factions is captivating and the semi-random events make subsequent games play out differently. There are multiple strategies to use during the game, which also increases the replay value. Will you concentrate on social plans and relaxing restrictions, or ratchet up the security and use international influence to coax a compromise? The numerous choices make for a good game, and PeaceMaker doesn’t tolerate irrational or non sequitur actions, instead requiring a plan for peace. People who aren’t interested in a game like this will be bored to tears, but everyone else will find plenty of enjoyment for a very reasonable price.