Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Political Machine 2008 Review

The Political Machine 2008, developed and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Fairly straightforward strategic gameplay, lots of issues, flexible custom candidate editor and a bunch of real-world candidates, competitive AI on higher settings, easy to join multiplayer, use of negative ads is improved
The Not So Good: No core gameplay changes from the four-year-old original, only one historical scenario and no map editor makes the game repetitive, redundant map views, non-interactive tutorials
What say you? One election later, the political simulation returns with new graphics and not much else: 5/8

Apparently, there is a presidential election coming up. Yeah, I know, they hardly ever mention it on the news. Along with a new election comes new computer games about the election, and the more casual The Political Machine has returned with a 2008 version for your campaigning enjoyment. While there are certainly disturbingly in-depth simulations available, The Political Machine series has tried to broaden its audience with colorful graphics and more straightforward voter manipulation. How has four more years treated the series?

Clearly, the area that has gotten the most improvement in The Political Machine 2008 is the graphics. The game is now rendered using all three dimensions, from the base map to the characters and various things you will place in each state. There is a cartoon atmosphere to the game as exemplified by the character models: big heads, small bodies, and exaggerated features show that The Political Machine 2008 certainly does not take itself too seriously. The game does look better than its predecessor, and being able to zoom in and rotate the map makes finding the elements in each state a lot easier, especially since it can get quite crowded at the end of the game with ads, activists, and operatives. Overall, I am pleased with the graphical upgrade and the game looks much better than the more hardcore political simulations on the market. While the sound effects are minimal at best (just some small celebrations when you give a speech) and none of the in-game interviews are voiced, the game music is catchy and goes along well with the graphics. The Political Machine 2008 does deliver at least $20 worth of value in the well-done presentation.

The goal (obviously) of The Political Machine 2008 is to win the presidential election by accumulating the most electoral votes across the fifty states. The campaign model from before is intact: choose any of the initially unlocked candidates and progress through six increasingly more difficult opponents. Making your way through the campaign unlocks additions characters (once you defeat them), so there is a point. All of the campaign games use default values, but you can customize the game through the quick play mode. The game length, starting funds, and overall difficulty can be customized, in addition to choosing one of four maps: the 2008 U.S. election, the 1860 election, a unification of Europe, and a fictitious planet based on the Galactic Civilizations universe. This is certainly more content than the previous game (which only featured one map, if I remember correctly), but having more historical scenarios would be a good feature. Why have Bill Clinton if you can’t play any of the elections he was actually involved in? It seems like shifting electoral votes around and changing the important issues would be relatively easy to do, so it’s surprising that The Political Machine 2008 doesn’t offer more historical content. Having more maps, especially the United States from the 18th or early 20th centuries, would be cool, but The Political Machine 2008 lacks a lot of maps and doesn’t feature a map editor so that you can create your own. This means you will use the same exact strategy each time you play the same map, focusing on the same states. In addition, The Political Machine 2008 doesn’t have a primary system, even with the extremely long (121 turn) scenarios. It would be cool to have several Democrats and Republicans playing in the same scenario (this would also allow for more than two competitors in multiplayer), but, again, four addition years of development did not add very many new features.

However, one new feature is the custom candidate editor. Before, you could alter a text file and import a bitmap image to add new people to the game, but The Political Machine 2008 lets you do this in-game now. You can choose the name, party, and home state, in addition to a number of characteristics that will impact the game: stamina (the number of actions you can perform per turn), wealth, fund raising ability, charisma (for ads and speeches), comeliness (TV appearances), credibility (for negative ads), experience (cost of endorsements), and intelligence (number of responses for TV). You are limited in the number of total points you can allocate, so you cannot create a super-candidate. You can also set your initial stance on a variety of issues; since you do not know exactly which issues are going to be most important, it’s somewhat of a stab in the dark. The Political Machine 2008 also offers a number of body parts to choose from to customize your look: very cool. Multiplayer in The Political Machine 2008 is the same as before: easy to join one-on-one matches using an in-game browser. Turn length settings can be introduced to speed up the action, and games against human competition are generally enjoyable.

So, how do you get those precious 270 electoral votes? Essentially, you make the voters aware of your stance on the most important issues to them. Simply visiting a state, giving speeches, or placing advertisements can increase general awareness. Each state will have different issues of importance, so you can target specific battleground states or place national advertisements for nationally significant matters. The Political Machine 2008 gives you clear numbers and icons on your candidate’s standing in each state, along with the alignment of each party for every issue. National polls are less concrete as you are given percentages, the meaning of which is never clearly explained. The first thing you’ll want to do is establish campaign headquarters in key states: these will not only bring in weekly income, but they will increase your candidate’s awareness and show you the important issues for the state. You can also place consulting offices that will give political capital (used to hire operatives) and outreach centers for PR clout (used to gain endorsements). Any of these buildings can be upgraded, which brings in more income and information. Speeches will produce a large increase in your stance ratings on a specific issue, while ads will have a more gradual effect over time. You can do negative ads in the game; before, there wasn’t much difference between saying “I like cheese” and “my opponent hates cheese,” but now your credibility rating will affect the effectiveness of negative ads. More expensive advertisements (radio and TV) reach more states and should be used for nationally important issues.

You will have to fund all of these ads (and travel expenses), so fund raising rallies can be activated for a short-term cash solution. Endorsements produce a short-term, issue-specific boost to your ratings (like the NRA will affect gun control), but they are clearly separated by party lines so you are never fighting your opponent over them, which makes them not that interesting. Activists, which can be activated by visiting a state with a question mark, will provide a permanent positive or negative bonus to that particular state. You can also hire operatives, which will raise and lower stuff like awareness and issue ratings in the states you choose. There are a couple of new operatives in The Political Machine 2008, but they do not drastically improve the gameplay. You will also go on TV for interviews, going head-to-head against knock-offs of Stephen Colbert and Larry King. All of these things were present in the original game, and the same interface problems are still around: why do we need both polling data and popular vote, as they show the same thing? The map overlays could be combined better or streamlined, and it seems the developers took the easy way out by keeping information delivery the same. The overall strategy remains the same: lower opponent awareness while raising your own, and push your issues while downplaying theirs. Because of this, games in The Political Machine 2008 play out exactly the same as before, since this newer version doesn’t offer anything that changes the gameplay. Stardock has done expansions that change the game more a year or two after the original was released than this four-years-later offering. The AI is very solid (a hallmark of any Stardock game) and a good opponent that clearly understands the mechanics, but the feeling of déjà vu never disappears. When you finish your game, you are treated to the same bare presentation as before: states slowly light up with no ongoing suspense. Where are the “close calls” like Ohio or Florida? Where is the media coverage? This sums up The Political Machine 2008: a four-year wait for these underwhelming improvements?

While The Political Machine 2008 is clearly the most intuitive election simulation available on the market, geared towards a general audience, we’ve played this game before four years ago. The game offers more scenarios, but even more would reduce the repetition of the campaign. The way it is, you use the same strategy each time you play (since the same states will be most important: those with lots of votes and an even split of voters), so when you play one of the four maps once, you've played it enough. The additional operatives aren’t game changing and the presentation is definitely better, but these are minor improvements in my opinion. I do like the custom candidates and the appearances you can produce, but you could do that before with a text editor. Frankly, I was expecting much more. We get a lot of candidates to choose from, but why get Richard Nixon when you can’t play the 1960 election? Since the core gameplay is identical, you are much better off paying $5 for the 2004 version, because it’s almost exactly the same at this version (except for the graphics and new candidates). The Political Machine 2008 feels like one of those annual EA Sports games that improves the graphics and adds a new feature or two, rather than a game released four years after the original. There is room for a lot more improvement, even for a $20 price tag. Simply put, the enhancements made in The Political Machine 2008 aren’t worth it.