Friday, August 03, 2007

Venture Arctic Review

Venture Arctic, developed and published by Pocketwatch Games.
The Good: Unique and interesting mechanics with innovative resource management, realistic balancing of populations needed to win, improved user interface
The Not So Good: Animal needs could be provided in a tooltip, no LCD resolution, slow pace
What say you? Another quality habitat simulation that’s rather different from its predecessor: 6/8

Being a teacher in Florida (that’s my day job), I get in Sea World for free (for educational assessment…of roller coasters). Because of this, I’ve spent a bit of time watching the various animals on display, and probably my favorite is the penguin display: they are quite fun to watch. Wait…penguins live in the Antarctic, and this game set in the Arctic. Dang it, all right, let’s try again.

Being a teacher in Florida (that’s my day job), I get in Sea World for free (for educational assessment…of roller coasters). Because of this, I’ve spent a bit of time watching the various animals on display, and probably my favorite is the puffin display: they are quite fun to watch. Controlling puffins would make for a fun game, and that’s where Venture Arctic comes in. In this title, you manipulate the environment to support a number of arctic species in a delicate balance of nature. This is the second nature game from this developer: the first was Venture Africa that was released about two years ago. Now, they could have just swapped out animals and slapped on a new name in an EA Sports-like move. Did they?

The graphics of Venture Arctic are very similar to those of Venture Africa and they are less spectacular the second time around. The environments look good and convey a good sense of the area the game simulates. There is some artistic license taken with the animals, rendering them as a sort of caricature of their real life counterparts. The textures look better from far away, as they tend to get blocky up close. The biggest gripe I have with the graphics is the inability to display the game at the standard LCD resolution of 1280 by 1024 pixels (that goes for any widescreen display, too: the highest is 1280 by 960). Because of this, the text looks a little off and the game is just not as clear as it should be. The sound is pretty typical: animal sounds and background music that reminds me of Rise of Nations for some reason. Venture Arctic looks good but not great, and support for a wider variety of resolutions would fix some of the inconsistencies in presentation.

Venture Arctic takes place over five environments surrounding the Arctic Circle. In each environment, you are given as list of goals (one at a time) for specific animal populations that you must meet. This is the same as Venture Africa, but the procedure of Venture Arctic is quite different. The game progresses in real time, and each year (which takes about five minutes to pass) is divided into four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. During each season, you only have specific tools available (three for each season) that can have unlimited use of until the season changes. This is a really cool dynamic that makes you plan ahead; Venture Arctic has far more strategy than previous games. You don’t directly control the animals in Venture Arctic, but you do manipulate the environment. During the spring, you can impregnate adult animals (although they will do this on their own) and plant shrubs for specific herbivores. During summer, you can melt snow to create new grassland or plant trees. Autumn brings death and plankton, while winter brings the wind and snow (needed to make new grass during the summer). The tools unlock when you gain access to new locales. All of the tools are very intuitive and the game gives you great control over your environment.

Resource management in the game is done through spirit points. Each of the twenty animals in the game, including cod, salmon, foxes, sharks, killer whales, puffins, seals, and wolverines, belong to one of the four seasons, and then they die spirit points can be collected that will allow you to spawn new animals of that season, unlocking new tools or animals, or use tools out of season. It’s a neat dynamic and, depending on your current goal, will shape your strategy. You can use the sickness tool to eliminate animals belonging to the same season as your goal, so that you can spawn more goal animals, for example. You can also keep spirit points in reserve for emergencies, like a snow/sun cycle to quickly grow new grass. There isn’t one set way of playing the game, and the different viable strategies give Venture Arctic high replay value. The user interface is much improved. Finding animals is easy, as the selected animal will be the only one that shows up on the minimap. I would still like to have a spreadsheet listing all of the current populations and sometimes I forget what a particular animal eats, but in general Venture Arctic is easy to navigate.

The gameplay is challenging because you must balance predator/prey relationships during the game. Although you only really have to worry about one animal population at a time, you still have to make sure their food and their predator are adequately balanced. Since the game is played in real time, you really have to plan ahead in order to be successful. The game areas are large enough to sustain and good population of animals while requiring a reasonable level of attention to each area. If you ignore areas for too long, the plants will die, the herbivores will die, and the carnivores will die, required a lot more work down the road when one of those particular animals are your current goal. The game offers climate change (which randomizes the length of each season), extinction, and deforestation options to increase the difficulty. Venture Arctic’s slow pacing may bore some players, but usually there is enough to attend to. The game does become repetitive after a long period of play, but what game doesn’t? Venture Arctic offers enough unique gameplay to feel fresh and continue a strong lineage of simulation titles.

Venture Arctic shows how a sequel should be done: the game is similar to the original title while still offering different gameplay. The number of tools and animals available to the player keeps the game fresh over time, and the mechanics allow for some interesting strategies. Venture Arctic allows for just enough manipulation to give the player control while not making the game trivial. The user interface does a decent job giving information to the player, but there is always room for improvement. I like the resource management in the game and the division of animals into groups that can be manipulated to meet your current goal. There are enough animals and tools in the game to keep most everybody interested throughout the game. While the game is not for everyone due to its slow pace, Venture Arctic is a very good simulation with unique focus.