Broken Escalators: Washington DC’s Metro System in Tom Clancy’s The Division 2

Standard

Video games set in real-world locales often lean on public landmarks to sell the setting. No private entity owns Times Square, for instance, so it’s an easy addition to a game, lending verisimilitude to all the nameless, generic streets running nearby without necessitating rights payments. The soon-to-be-released—and awkwardly named—Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (Ubisoft, 2019) places its open-world third-person “loot shooter” in contemporary Washington, DC, a city replete with a unique and recognizable street structure and tons of public landmarks to help situate the player.

All the big buildings and monuments you’d expect are there, in a very faithful recreation of the city street grid. Having spent some time with the game’s open beta (a glorified demo, more or less), I was pleasantly surprised when I walked—well, ran, being chased by some post-apocalyptic wanna-be with a mohawk—around a corner and saw Pennsylvania Avenue, properly wide and grand and angled, with a vista towards the Capitol I’d seen hundreds of times in real life. The DC of The Division 2 feels right, with the trademark low skyline and restrained architecture of the Federal core recreated as much in detail as in broad strokes. None of the private buildings were real, of course, with far more parking garages than the city actually has, but the public fixtures, the historical markers, the street signs, hew close enough to the real to provide the illusion of the city.

But then I saw this map:

The DC Metro Map in The Division 2

It’s almost an exact replica of the actual WMATA Metro map (.pdf), with the WMATA website listed, the planned Silver Line extension out towards Dulles, even the rush hour routes. There are a few differences, as it looks like they re-drew the map rather than simply pasting it wholesale, but there’s not a resident of the DC area who wouldn’t recognize the map in a second.

Add to that the very faithfully recreated Metro station mezzanines and, as one of my gaming buddies noted, the all-too-familiar broken escalators, and you’re left with the one of the most realistic depictions of a real-life subway system in a video game to date. Only Persona 5 (Altus, 2016) comes close.

To be fair, Metro's escalators don't really break that often

Oddly, the farecard machines are nothing like the real things, none of the stations seem to have names, and the entrances from the street lack the proper pillar signage. These slight variations from the real feel puzzling, given the otherwise painstaking attention to the details of the actual subway system, and actually pull the gamer back out of the scene if she or he knows what the real system is like. As the beta only provided a limited portion of the game to explore, I’m uncertain what the actual platforms look like, but if they’re shown, I would imagine they’ll likewise be a mostly accurate representation.

Minus the graffiti, a near-exact replica of the real thing

The last game set so firmly in Washington, DC, Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008), also featured the Metro system, but it used a highly stylized version of the map that bore little resemblance to the real thing. The station in Georgetown sort of gave it away…

I haven’t been able to discover what, if any, arrangement Ubisoft came to with WMATA for the use of the map and “look and feel” of the subway system. Other city infrastructure and signage comes close to the prototype, but it all stops just short, as with the two stars between bars shown on Washington, DC, flag presented in game; the real thing has three stars atop two bars. Whether Ubisoft feels the Metro system falls sufficiently in the public domain or WMATA granted a license or something in between remains unclear. Given the system’s slightly parlous finances, I do hope there’s at least a bit of a payment involved.

Regardless of how the DC Metro system came to be in The Division 2, I applaud its inclusion. The system’s striking architectural and design aesthetic deserves attention, and this fairly faithful replica honors the real thing. Shame I’m not sold on the gameplay, which feels like yet another open-world Ubisoft game full of map icons to diligently track down, but kudos to the art team at Ubisoft for their sterling efforts here and with the feel of the city as a whole. It’s the rare game world that I can navigate using entirely real-world knowledge.

Time Flippers: Doctor Who Pinball Table

Standard

Some three years after Doctor Who’s ignominious cancellation in 1989, a pinball machine based on the series appeared in arcades and bars, a time-bending feat only this redoubtable series could achieve. Thanks to a recent Kickstarter project (well, not all that recent, but only recently fulfilled, in the way of most Kickstarter projects these days), a faithful digital recreation of this 1992 Bally/Midway table has surfaced as part of the Pinball Arcade collection (on most major computer/mobile/console platforms), bringing the sullen face of the Master, the pepperpot pastels of the Daleks, and, of all things, the Whomobile to life once more.

Doctor Who Pinball Table in Pinball Arcade

With a whopping 7,752 units produced, according to the Internet Pinball Database, the Doctor Who table was not some niche product in the pinball world but a substantial investment in a licensed property that, though no longer airing new episodes, still held significant cultural cachet. I’m not sure how long a pinball machine gestates in design and production before being introduced to market, so it’s unclear whether the table was approved for production/design prior to the show going off the air or not, but the enduring draw of the Doctor has to account for the pinball machine being introduced three years after the show no longer aired regularly in Britain. With PBS being the primary driver of Doctor Who in the United States at that time, this might be the only pinball machine to ever be based off of a show from the public broadcaster (unless I never paid attention to a Sesame Street table in my youth).

I’m no pinball wizard, being a mere plebeian flipper, so I can’t comment much on the gameplay as represented in the Pinball Arcade version of the table. The iconography, however, is striking for its use of all of the Doctors to date. The display of the Doctors on the back glass focuses on the most recent iterations first, with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor getting top billing, rather than putting Tom Baker front and center. Davros and the Daleks round out the rogue’s gallery behind the Doctors on the back glass.

On the table itself, each Doctor features along with a representative companion or companions: Susan and the First Doctor; Jamie and Zoe with the Second Doctor; Jo (and Bessie!) with the Third Doctor; Leela with the Fourth Doctor; Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan; Peri and the Sixth Doctor; and Ace with the Seventh Doctor. It’s an exhausting litany of detail, and the table designers didn’t merely rest on recent iterations—they went all the way back to the beginnings and worked from there. There’s quite a bit of understanding of the show’s history in this table, even if it’s all drawn in broad strokes.

The Doctor may have been gone from the screen during the lean years of the ‘90s, but his adventures were only a quarter away and are now playable again.

Compu-Krushchev: Twilight Struggle Digital Edition (GMT Games/Playdek)

Standard

If you think it’s hard to get your friends to play your complicated wargames with you, try getting a computer to do it. Playdek and GMT Games have given it a try with their digital edition of Twilight Struggle, a card-driven conflict simulation of the Cold War, originally released in 2005, that just happens to be one of GMT’s very best sellers of all time and a cross-over hit with non-wargamers.

I’ve had a chance to spend some time with the early access version of the game, which I received by virtue of backing the game during its 2014 Kickstarter campaign. I’m certainly no pro at Twilight Struggle, but while I was able to win my first two games (via Final Scoring, once each as the USA and USSR), I was pleased with the amount of resistance the Artificial Intelligence put up. The designers have provided a nice look at their efforts to teach the game to the AI, and I found the AI’s unpredictability to be its greatest asset.

Usually, against my regular Twilight Struggle opponents, I have a rough sense of their thinking process and can broadly figure out what’s coming next. Against the AI, I had zero idea why, for instance, there were influence plays into Central and South America in Turn One. (They are regions that do not score until Turn Four at the earliest, making them low priorities.) That unpredictability nicely encapsulates the experience both governments had of not entirely understanding their opponent’s intentions during the Cold War, I suppose, and I needed to play, quite happily, a much different game than usual because of it. Further iterations of the AI can only increase its strength and gameplay.

The interface gave me more of a challenge than the AI, I must admit.

Early Access Twilight Struggle Digital Edition Interface

Twilight Struggle involves quite a bit of information for the player to keep track of, and to its credit, the interface keeps most of it accessible to the player at all times. The top row of information feels cramped, though, and for a player not familiar with all of the cards, the lack of immediate information about their powers could be off-putting. There’s a real mishmash of fonts as well that can be a bit jarring. I’d have preferred a cleaner, more consistent aesthetic, using the font from the cards themselves as often as possible. The interface feel is of a tablet/phone game—understandable, as that’s the target market here. The Mac/PC port plays well enough, particularly when taking advantage of the larger screen space allowed. Too, this is still early access software, so hopefully changes will be made to clean up the interface a bit.

Not a bad scoring play

Overall, my qualms about the presentation aside, it’s nice to have a version of Twilight Struggle playable on computer and against a computer opponent. Throw in the ability for online play and there’s the real possibility that, thanks to this digital edition, Twilight Struggle will remain one of my most played games of all time.

The Unlikeliest Love Letter: LEGO Dimensions Doctor Who

Standard

I tempered my expectations going into the recently released Doctor Who Level Pack for LEGO Dimensions, the “toys to life” console video game. Playing through the base game (plus The Simpsons Level Pack) provided a bit of fun in seeing Homer and Gandalf running around on the same screen, bashing baddies into bricks and solving simple puzzles, and the tactile component of the game—building and manipulating the LEGO figures and objects as a part of the gameplay—filled me with some nostalgic glee. But, as a game, the experience proved somewhat underwhelming, and once I completed the campaign missions and noodled around in the various themed “adventure worlds” dedicated to the franchises I owned figures for, I shelved the game, almost forgetting that I had the Doctor Who pack on order.

I knew, going in, that each of the Doctor’s regenerations (including, sigh, the “War Doctor”) would be playable, but based on my experience with The Simpsons Level Pack, I figured there would be some minor homages to big moments in Doctor Who‘s recent history and that the playable regenerations would just be minor variants on the default Twelfth Doctor figure.

I was, as they say, wrong.

The First Doctor in the TARDIS in LEGO Dimensions

The level of attention, of detail, to the individual Doctors stunned me. LEGO Dimensions Doctor Who is a love letter to the show.

The First Doctor figure captures, broadly, William Hartnell’s mannerisms, from the lapel-pulling and slightly haughty leaning to his penchant for pulling out a magnifying glass. Even his combat move involves the signature cane (given to him, of course, by Kublai Khan). When the player enters the TARDIS in the game, the interior matches the TARDIS that the specific Doctor used—circular wall panels for the First, Victorian sitting room for the Eighth—with even the appropriate set dressings, like the sitting chair in the First Doctor’s TARDIS. The background music changes as well based on the Doctor, utilizing the dominant theme music for each.

My shock compounded when I explored the “adventure world” for Doctor Who and found one of the locations to be Telos. Yes, that Telos, home of the Tomb of the Cybermen. I can expect most casual fans of the show to recognize the I.M. Foreman scrap yard (it’s in the game), but to reach back to 1967 and the criminally under-appreciated Second Doctor for a setting demonstrates that the team responsible both knows Doctor Who and, more to the point, respects it.

The Second Doctor on Telos in LEGO Dimensions

Even the associated game objective in the area of the Tomb harkens back to “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” which ended with a lone Cybermat escaping the destruction of the Tomb. In the game, Lady Vastra (from the new series) tasks the player with destroying thirty Cybermats before they can awaken the Cybermen in the Tomb. Even though the gameplay associated with it provides no real challenge for an adult gamer, much joy comes from bashing the little cybercreatures with the Second Doctor, who wields a flute (!) as a weapon. I really don’t know that I could ask for more.

While, of course, the majority of the Doctor Who Level Pack focuses on the new series, and the middle Doctors don’t have quite as much focus as the early or late ones, I’m still smiling broadly from my experience thus far with the game. The cost for the base game and the level pack verges on the steep, but I found the experience more than worthwhile for a fan of the series.

Besides, where else can you have the Doctor offer Homer Simpson a jelly baby?

Another Brick Blue Box: Doctor Who Revealed for Lego Dimensions

Standard

Following news earlier this year that a Doctor Who Lego set has been approved via the fan-suggested Lego Ideas brand, we now have seeming confirmation from Lego fansite Brickset that a Doctor Who “level pack” will be available for the forthcoming console game Lego Dimensions. Image via http://brickset.com/article/15231/more-dimensions-packs-revealed-in-instructions

Lego Dimensions follows on the heels of console games such as Skylanders and Disney Infinity that feature physical figures placed on a special sensor mat or base, allowing the figure to appear in virtual form on screen. Travellers’ Tales, the studio behind the highly successful Lego video games of the past decade, is also developing Lego Dimensions, so one more or less knows what to expect from the gameplay—puzzles, jumping, and bashing baddies into bloodless blocks. I’ve enjoyed their games for what they offer, and Lego Marvel Super Heroes was quite a bit more fun than it had any right to be, but they’re not excessively deep games. Lego Dimensions was only slightly on my radar. Until this announcement, of course.

The Doctor Who set would appear to include a TARDIS model, plus the Twelfth Doctor and K-9. If it’s at par with the announced level packs, retail will be around thirty dollars, with the mandatory starter pack at a hundred. To buy the set just for the pieces makes little sense, as there’s maybe five bucks in plastic involved, total. You’re paying $30 to play with the figures in the Lego Dimensions game, with animations and effects and such, plus an adventure level focused on the pieces. So this is not an automatic purchase for people who like little figures sitting in front of their computers.

The more significant take-away here is that Lego is moving forward with Doctor Who licensed products on at least two fronts, and with luck, we’ll see a wider range of Doctor Who figures, at the very least encompassing all the Doctors and many of the companions. If Travellers’ Tales can bring a level of gameplay to Lego Dimensions on par with Lego Marvel Super Heroes, the console game and its sets might be worth keeping an eye on.

Besides, there’s also apparently a Simpsons level pack in the works…

(Image via Brickset)

SuperSpaceDungeonDelve: StarCrawlers Early Access

Standard

I’ve more or less kicked (slight pun intended) my crowdfunding habit, particularly when it comes to computer games. The eager excitement of the campaign leads to ennui as update after update tells a sad story of delays and curtailed features, and by and large, you wind up paying more (and far earlier) for the finished product than the person who buys it when it releases. Sure, you’re supporting projects you ostensibly believe in, but the economics don’t always make sense.

So I’m pleased when games I backed, back in the day, come to fruition more or less on time and more or less feature complete. Take, for instance, StarCrawlers, by Juggernaut Games, a first-person, party-based space dungeon crawl game that just entered the Early Access phase on Steam. Some features are missing, the story is barely there, and there are balance issues, but I have to say it looks quite promising for an Early Access game.

Robots stand between you and loot.

You control a party of up to four space scavengers, chosen from a wide array of classes, all of whom level up and gear up through missions. You maneuver in first person, with a real-time interactive environment, but once foes are encountered (and there are a lot of them), you switch to a turn-based combat system not unlike the computer role playing games of yore. There’s no positioning to speak of; combatants take turns attacking, with each action costing an amount of time that places the combatant in a turn order. One powerful action could see your combatant placed at the far end of the turn order, with combatants who take faster actions attacking several times in the interim. The classes all have different passive and active abilities, and finding synergies between the classes plays an important role. The Solider, for instance, can taunt enemies, taking blows that would otherwise affect characters who can dish out the damage but can’t take it.

More robots stand between you and more loot. There are a lot of robots in this game.

The gameplay isn’t absurdly deep, being mostly a move/fight/loot loop, but it’s fulfilling in short bursts and ticks off the appropriately addictive loot acquisition and character development boxes. Too, it’s rare to see the dungeon crawl model applied to a futuristic setting, making StarCrawlers all the more appealing. Once Juggernaut Games fills out the storyline—for the most part, the missions seem to be procedurally generated—and adds a bit more polish, the game is going to be a keeper. For what I paid (and it wasn’t much), StarCrawlers gleams as a gem in the sea of crowdfunded dross.