Windows - 2000
Description of Cultures
Being a fan of city building/management games, I was quite interested in the recent Cultures release from THQ. The similarity to Blue Byte's Settlers III is hardly surprising as a number of the development team -- German company, Funatics -- also worked on the Settlers series. Cultures has been received well in its native Germany and there are already plans for a Mission CD and a sequel.
The basic premise of the game is explained during the very well produced introductory cut scene. The story is told from the perspective of a young Viking boy, Bjarni, now in adulthood. He and his family form part of a village community on the coast of Greenland whom have come upon hard times with harsh weather conditions ruining their harvest. One day, a comet comes crashing to Earth, splitting into six pieces as it enters the atmosphere. Convinced that this is a sign from their Gods, the villagers make the necessary preparations to embark on a mission to recover the six pieces in the hope that this will bring them prosperity. The story unfolds across thirteen scenarios, and during the adventure, they come into contact with several other cultures such as Eskimos, Indians, and Mayans.
Besides the campaign, there are four tutorials, a number of standalone single player scenarios (including some designed for beginners). Multiplayer is supported for up to six players across the Internet or a local area network. All players assume the role of the Vikings.
Trying to be different
As with all games of this genre, the objective is to create a settlement, develop and nurture your villagers into a thriving colony. What makes Cultures different is that success depends on balancing the traditional management of resources whilst meeting the needs of the individual villagers themselves. Each has a different physical appearance and an AI profile that models individual personality, characteristics, and talents. Villager interaction is far more significant than in other games with the emphasis placed on family and relationships. Villagers marry, have children, and learn different vocations. This makes a welcome departure from the more conventional methods of population growth we have seen, such as in Age of Kings, where it possible to produce a new villager or soldier in exchange for food and/or wood and gold. In Settlers III, the construction of a lodge spews forth many new adult villagers. In Caesar III, Pharaoh, and Zeus you attract settlers to your city by providing employment and food.
Whilst the Cultures approach is more socially aware, it's still far from realistic. You instruct couples to go forth and indulge in some nuptial hanky panky. This is symbolised by a stream of hearts rising from their home. You can specify whether the result of their union should be male or female and said infant will arrive as a bundle in the beak of a Stork. Playing cupid in this way is novel at first and quite endearing, but soon becomes a micro-management chore. Depending on your temperament, you will find this extremely rewarding or extremely tedious. It is clear that Cultures has been designed with a 'cute' factor firmly in mind. Indeed, THQ have been quite open about their aspirations to tap into the growing female gaming market. Gameplay focuses much more closely on relationships, the establishment of trade routes, and the development of a strong economy than it does on conquest or combat.
The thirty-plus buildings in Cultures follow a fairly typical technology tree with bakeries, mills, farms, wells, iron and gold mines, woodcutters, and huntsman etc. There are one or two structures of note, such as the School that provides a quick way of educating a villager with any skill that has been learned from experience. This can be handy if you find yourself needing to make a particular skill available in a hurry. There are a number of logical career paths to follow such as Farmer to Miller to Baker to Brewer etc. At any time, you can change the occupation and/or place of work of any villager to optimise productivity.
The game interface is generally well designed, provides a wealth of information resources to choose from, and is highly configurable. There is excellent online help provided directly from a menu or context sensitive to a structure. There are a number of summary screens that detail such things as occupation, marital status, health, rest, food, experience, etc. Locating your Vikings, and their spouse/home/place of work is straightforward and has been clearly thought out. This said, I would have like to have seen a number of additions such as an area of operation indicator and problem solving dialogue of some sort. One of the common - and annoying problems - is the location of a workplace in relation to the worker's home.
Good Online Help - Surely Not?
The 78-page manual is informative but seems rather fragmented with information about the same structure or game characteristic spread throughout the copy. The lack of any in-game screen shots for reference purposes is particularly frustrating. This said, the purpose of most of the controls and visual aids are fairly obvious, or become apparent as you play the game. The four scenario based tutorials are a good starting point. The online help is particularly good, explaining the relationship between different buildings and trades and detailing the requirements and technology tree path. There are also a number of pop-up hints and reminders to help (or frustrate) you during gameplay. Some of the more repetitive ones can be turned off for the more experienced player.
The graphics in Cultures are colourful and are generally of a high standard. When using the zoom feature the picture tended to be pixelated but I found little use for this mode anyway. The character animations are detailed and the developers have succeeded in capturing an individual likeness for each villager. The level of fauna and flora detail in the gaming environment is also impressive with individual plants, mushrooms, rabbits, fish, etc. Natural resources such as wood, stones, and are also modelled. Some of the effects, such as dust clouds and battle damage are average but, overall, the quality is high. The maps are fairly extensive and a number of different terrain types are featured. You won't need a 3D graphics card to run Cultures but you will need a Pentium II 266 or higher and at least 64MB RAM. This is fairly modest by today's PC specifications. My PII 450 system managed effortlessly at screen resolutions of 1024 x 768 even with a fully developed village infrastructure and fifty plus villagers. The soundtrack is varied, well produced, and complements the animations, adding to that all-important 'cute' factor.
Whilst Cultures can be an entertaining and endearing experience, it can also be extremely frustrating and needs an enormous amount of time to get anything done. The pace is painstakingly slow at times. I don't mind having to keep building a base up from scratch in a skirmish game but to have to do this in each campaign scenario is a little much. There is a game speed up toggle but whilst this is better than the F12 cheat needed to speed up Settlers III (I always press F12 one time too many and end up in some critical battle because of my impatience), it still doesn't provide enough of a speed increase. Improving the performance and effectiveness of your villagers is embodied into the game design, e.g. a shoemaker will make leather shoes to help villagers move more quickly, constructing houses (rather than tents) reduces the need for sleep, and building roads provide quicker travel. I have no problem with any of this but co-ordinating all of this together with the growth of your population by pairing up men and women all takes a fantastic amount of time. Despite the inspiration for the game being clearly Nordic, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of emphasis placed on the Viking theme. Gameplay is largely generic and, for all intents and purposes, you could be playing as any race. It will be interesting to see if Settlers IV represents the Viking and Mayan cultures more effectively.
Ultimately, Cultures is a flawed game that fails to make the most of its appeal. This is disappointing when you consider how the game succeeds in providing an alternative to the complex technology tree found in the Settlers series whilst providing more control than the largely automated SimCity games. Too much micro-management to contend with and an exorbitant amount of time to play -- the developers are not kidding when the boast over 200 hours of gameplay on their press releases -- are the primary stumbling blocks. With so many games being released in the run up to Christmas, the competition is fierce and Cultures doesn't really stand out in the crowd.
On a positive note, the production values are high and the overall quality of the interface, graphics and sound is very good indeed. The focus on trading rather than combat should be applauded as it makes a refreshing change and widens the suitability of this game to a younger audience. You could certainly do worse than buy Cultures, though I'd be inclined to wait until it drops in price before parting with your cash. Better still, wait until the release of Settlers IV in the New Year and make your choice after the reviews become available.
Review By GamesDomain
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Share your gamer memories, give useful links or comment anything you'd like. This game is no longer abandonware, we won't put it back online.
Cultures is available for a small price on the following websites, and is no longer abandonware. GOG.com provides the best release and does not include DRM, please buy from them! You can read our online store guide.
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