Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rulers of Nations - Geopolitcal Simulator 2 Review

Rulers of Nations - Geopolitcal Simulator 2, developed and published by EverSim.
The Good: Tremendously detailed, competitive online play for sixteen players, a number of scenarios, mod support
The Not So Good: Inaccessible due to data limitation and interface shortcomings
What say you? A global strategy game with an extremely high amount of unusable detail and a inadequate interface: 4/8

So, we’re halfway through Obama-Time, and I don’t follow politics enough to make any deeper observations than that. Anyway, do you think you could to better running the country? Well, do you, tough guy? While most grand strategy games cover historic times and (of course) World War II, some have ventured into a more contemporary realm. Rulers of Nations, the sequel to the imaginatively named Geopolitcal Simulator, is one of those games. This new iteration advertises a sixteen-player competitive mode, new scenarios, and more recent data than the original game. How does it stack up? And, more importantly, how often will I call it “Rise of Nations” by mistake?

Not surprisingly, Rulers of Nations takes place on a stylized globe, and the presentation is as good as you can expect for the genre. The earth is detailed, obviously taking advantage of satellite photographs, although zooming is quite slow. Each of the cabinet members and foreign diplomats has an animated portrait that advises you on appropriate policy (although the lip syncing is definitely off, likely coordinated with the original French dialogue). Most dialogue is also voiced: while its obviously repetitive because of this feature, it’s a nice touch. Unfortunately, the interface does not offer the same level of quality: it is poorly organized and makes it difficult to find pertinent information quickly. All of the data is contained across a large number of windows, but none of the information is connected (clicking on a funding level won’t take you to budget page, for example) and a lot of it is buried in nonsensical places. The data is also limited in its usefulness: you can’t see how many people will be directly affected by adjusting your budget. What the game really lacks is a list of the top issues for your nation, an inexcusable omission. Rounding out the package is appropriate sound effects and decent background music. While Rulers of Nations looks good, the interface needs a considerable amount of reorganization and increased transparency.

Rulers of Nations has an impressive roster of features. There are two main modes in the game: a simulation mode and a competitive mode. In the world simulation mode, there are a number of scenarios to choose from that offer different countries (from one to all) and different objectives (balance the budget, reduce greenhouse emissions), or a sandbox mode with no goals. Success earns points that unlock more difficult scenarios, and you can play the same scenario with different nations to earn additional points. The world competition mode is intended for multiplayer (although you can play against the computer), allowing you to choose between sixteen nations in a battle for a high score based on popularity, economic power, military power, and diplomatic power. You can adjust the game speed and difficulty level, and Rulers of Nations provides online matchmaking to search for opponents. Finally, Rulers of Nations features a lengthy, if tedious, tutorial, multiple-choice quizzes that seem out of place, and CSV files that are easy to edit for future user modifications. Rulers of Nations has a comprehensive list of features that should provide for long-term enjoyment.

Playing Rulers of Nations primarily involves adjusting the budget and enacting new laws for each aspect of your nation. There are a lot of policies you can adjust (energy, the environment, armed forces, education, health, housing, research, and sports, plus many others), and each category typically contains a very detailed assortment of individual settings (like funding for research-based education, for example). Each area has a one-to-ten scale of funding, which works better than messing with pure numbers. Any adjustments you propose have a displayed numerical impact on your overall budget. The problem is that Rulers of Nations gives no indication of which areas your people would like to see changed the most, so most of your actions are complete guesses. Your advisors occasionally request more money in specific areas, but this obviously never helps with balancing the overall budget, as they never suggest areas that could be cut. In fact, most of the feedback you’ll receive is after a change has been made: observing the number of people that protest a decision. You could theoretically change things back, but you’ve already lost approval from your constituents.

In addition to adjusting the funding, you can also propose new laws to be voted on by your legislative body. These generally have more sweeping changes than the minor budgetary adjustments you are likely to make. Unfortunately, the game gives you no indication of how likely a bill is to pass before you submit it, so like the budget, a lot is left up to guesswork. Your approval takes a hit if a proposed bill does not pass, so the lack of information in this aspect of the game is disturbing. In addition to angering your own citizens, you can go international and discuss issues with the world, at least in theory. Your options are quite limited: you can never ask what they want (like “which budget adjustment or trade agreement would be good?”), but you can offer coffee. You can trade over one hundred goods with foreign nations, but since you can’t ask them directly which goods they need, you must go through the entire list and decide which pacts would reap the largest profits: extreme tedium. Finally, you can construct buildings in your provinces, although the game never suggests which ones to build or where to build them.

Although Rulers of Nations is generally a peaceful game, you might have to enter a war where you directly order military units around the map. There aren’t very many units to choose from: just three land units (jeeps, tanks, missile launchers), two air units (jets, copters), and four naval units (carriers, two subs, cruisers). You can deploy satellites to spy on rival nations in preparation of a strike as well. Military action is obviously not a focus of the game, so simplification in this area isn’t a terrible compromise.

The biggest issue with Rulers of Nations is the lack of usable feedback. A key to the game is to make negative adjustments to the trivial issues that have a low following to balance increased funding in more important areas, but it takes too much work to find out what those respective areas are. The game organizes people into groups based on politics, religion, and the like, but their desires are never transparent. Again, the game only lets you know how you are doing after an adjustment has been made through protests and rallies, which in turn decreases your popularity: a terrible feedback loop. The AI seems to play the game well, although you rarely pay attention to rival nations since most countries have enough domestic problems to keep you busy. In the end, Rulers of Nations features a lot of feedback but none of it is direct enough to be meaningful: who cares how much money auto racing is receiving if you can’t tell how many people care about it?

Rulers of Nations might be a fantastic simulation of the modern world, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t effectively run a country because of the sporadic information it allows you to see. Want to easily see how many people will be directly affected by a budget adjustment? Too bad. Care to gauge the chance of legislation passing through Congress? No such luck. Like to see a simple list of the top issues confronting your proud nation? Sorry. All of these things that should be front and center are either buried or unavailable in Rulers of Nations, which makes this simulation a guessing game instead of a strategy game. The only way to approach domestic and foreign policy is to make small, subtle adjustments and see how many demonstrations there are after the fact. While not giving you all the available information might be realistic, it’s also not fun. And that’s too bad because there is a lot to like: the game is enormously comprehensive, giving a complete simulation of every country around the world (how many games let you set budget levels for preventing childhood diseases?). There’s also sixteen-person multiplayer, a number of scenarios to try, and excellent modification potential. But it all goes to waste thanks to a restricted interface and shroud of secrecy surrounding Rulers of Nations.