My blog has been rather neglected of late, and there are two reasons. One is the new project I’ve been working on, regarding the serious issue of Vampire Hedgehogs (read my post about it, or go straight to the website). But the thing that has really taken up my time is playing Civilization V.

Civ (in all its versions) is quite simply the most addictive game I’ve played. In fact, given that I don’t smoke or take drugs, it may just be the most addictive thing I’ve experienced in my entire life. It eats up every evening and then eats several more hours when I really should be asleep.

The addictive element lies in the turn-based nature of the game. And this takes you by surprise because you’d think it would be slow, with natural breaks where you could stop playing, certainly compared to the high octane excitement of a shooty game. But a FPS has levels that you finish, and then happily go to bed. Civ is fiendishly constructed so that the end of every turn is like the end-of-series cliffhanger for your favourite TV show. You crave to find out how the other nations will react to your troop movements, whether your units will survive the counter-attack. You know that one more turn will see the completion of your latest war machine, which is sure to turn the tide of the war. And then once the computer has processed the other nations’ turns, its so tempting to do the first couple of tasks in your turn, get that new unit into action to see how much it kicks ass, and before you know it your mouse is hovering over the Next Turn button once again.

The shortness of the turns is another issue. Particularly at the start of the game, turns take a minute or two at most, and taking ‘just one more turn’ doesn’t seem like a big deal. It becomes a habit. But in the endgame, when you have ten-plus cities to monitor and fifty military units to coordinate, a turn can happily take half an hour – especially when there’s lots of fighting and, if you’re anything like me, you need to carefully work out the order that your units act in. No wonder those two hours from midnight to 2am seem to disappear so easily.

I realised the other night that during periods of ‘peacetime’, the game really isn’t that exciting, but the addiction keeps me clicking, biding my time and building my strength for the next big war.

Now I’m reaching the end of my grand campaign, and have finally constructed a Giant Death Robot. This is the most powerful fighting unit in the game and the only fictional one (it’s one of the few new elements in Civilization V, which is mostly simpler than Civ 4). It is rampaging across enemy territory just as I’d envisaged.

Only three more turns till I finish making another one.

I just got my hands on Civilization V. There’s a big change in how combat works, but other than that everything is pretty familiar – a few tweaks here and there. Much the same as a new edition of Warhammer or 40k, they haven’t changed the core gameplay that everyone knows and loves. So I was settling down for an enjoyable but not particularly novel few weeks of civilization building when I spotted, hidden away in small print on the huge lists of tech and units, three little words: Giant Death Robot. I now have but one goal – conquer the world with huge stompy death machines. I really hope they have death ray eyes.

I’ve just finished playing through Alpha Protocol ‘the espionage RPG’. Straight away I have to wonder why they chose such a meaningless title that a sub-header was needed before anyone would know what the game was about. I suppose they were going for an ‘Ipcress File’/‘Bourne Identity’ kind of vibe, but it just ended up sounding bland. A bad day in the marketing department, and not the only one on this game…

The game has a second subtitle: ‘your weapon is choice’ which in my head can only be followed by “Tea or coffee, sir?” “Ow, no, that hurts!” “Sugar?” “Aaaaaaah!” Fortunately the trailer makes this idea a lot more exciting. It shows the lead character, a standard spy/action hero type named Michael Thorton, interrogating a bad guy by dangling him upside-down off the roof of a tower block, only to spot henchman reinforcements arriving in the road below, followed quickly by the appearance of a helicopter gunship. The trailer runs through the various options available to Thorton: 1. Charge down the stairs and kick the goons in the head. 2. Throw smoke grenades into the air vents, triggering a fire alarm and escaping in the crowd of civilians. 3. Drop the original bad guy to his death, stuffed with grenades, onto the henchmen’s car below. Finally, we go with option 4: the helicopter lands on the roof so the co-pilot can get out and check Original Bad Guy, who is now tied to a chair. Then the gunship takes off – Thorton has his pistol to the pilot’s head, and forces him to fire missiles at the co-pilot and OBG.

It’s a cool trailer. The trouble is, the only one of these choices you actually get to do in the game is kicking people in the head. There’s no dangling people off rooftops, no stealing helicopters, and no civilians anywhere to blend into. Your choices in the main content of the game really boil down to shooting or sneaking. Now don’t get me wrong, it was certainly entertaining enough making these decisions. On the whole I ended up skulking around, taking down guards with my silenced pistol until I got spotted and had to finish off the rest in a fire-fight. There were frequently different routes possible, but this felt like a token effort to give an impression of freedom – they were always small detours to the same chokepoint, keeping you on a fundamentally linear path through each mission. I felt all the more restricted by the fact that there is no way to jump up onto anything, so my elite super-agent was regularly fenced in on the ‘correct’ path by a knee-high cardboard box that a 3 year-old could have got over.

Conversation with other characters is likewise no more full of choice than most RPGs these days, with your options pretty much being nice, nasty or smug. Your interactions lead to gaining different handlers talking in your ear during missions, occasionally different enemies to kill and allies to lend a hand (well, their clothes had changed). However, the missions themselves are never substantially different, and while there is some choice about the order you complete things, it doesn’t seem to have much effect – you play through all the missions eventually.

I wouldn’t want you to think I didn’t like Alpha Protocol. It’s an entertaining spy-thriller romp, with good action and a suitably twisty-turny plot, and I’d recommend it on that basis. No, my gripe is with the marketing that made me expect so much more – a game where you had some genuinely inventive freedom. When the product doesn’t live up to the hype, you are just left feeling a bit disappointed.

Oh, one other little peeve: why, when the main character is sneaking, does he have to look like he desperately needs to urinate? Play it and you’ll see what I mean.

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