Monday, March 28, 2016

Video Game Slush Pile: The Political Machine (2004)

As a Steam using Over Man I constantly have flat-pocket and distressingly limited free time thanks to the amazing quality and quantity of amazing PC strategy games it delivers like a morphine drip. It also means I've always got my eye out for the latest updates to franchises I was able to derive enjoyment from and hold back the crushing despair of existence with, which led me to purchase the latest Political Machine game on deep discount, having played the original over a decade previous.

Suffice it to say the new version is a massive disappointment, from the terrible graphics (What is with this trend of strategy games? You want terrible looking semi-3D, right strategy gamer?) to the shallow game-play that hasn't been significantly updated and has actually regressed in many ways. No primaries, no third parties, little in the way of random events, no campaign mode and a general sense that this was just a cash-grab aimed at people like myself who would buy it based on the title. Well, mission accomplished. Being able to play as Lord President Trump was small consolation.

The overall experience was so deflating it got me questioning whether this series was ever good to begin with and here we are with this Moon Landing tier event of finally inducting a PC game into the Video Game Slush Pile.

The cover art is just a reskinned version of the game "Vulture Wars."

 The concept of the game is simple enough: pick a candidate and win the now infamous 2004 "Anybody but Bush" election. The game offers a decent assortment of non-indicted criminals to chose from, including several individuals who, strictly speaking, aren't eligible to run (The Terminator Robot? Bill Clinton term three???). Each donor-controlled meat puppet is rated across several categories and, presumably, the ones other than "starting money" and "fund raising" have some effect on the game, although it was difficult for me to discern.

Once underway that game is a builder's paradise, assuming you don't mind having only one building and various commercials as options. Campaign Headquarters generate money and raise general awareness, while television, radio and newspaper advertisements can build up your issue ratings or attack your opponent on specific issues.

We ran out of budget and couldn't afford female pronouns.

There's a good range of issues to battle over. More controversial topics are more important to a majority voters while safe drivel like "More Jobs" or "Less Crime" won't hurt your support with anyone but also are lower tier in value. You win endorsements and hire specialists to further refine your image and even participate in amusing but largely useless interview mini-games. Beyond this the key to victory is to dominate the hot button issues with commercials, spread awareness and energy with your ground game and focus on key battleground states.

You can play through an entire campaign, unlocking defeated opponents from American history and facing an increasingly insane difficulty curve. I wasn't able to complete the campaign but I did reach the eighth candidate of ten (it was Ronald Reagan) which wasn't a bad run considering how much the odds are stacked against you at higher levels. 

Sort of like those Mortal Kombat towers but with more malaise and less beheading.

Graphics: The cartoon style on display here is superior in every possible way to the unaesthetic gunk offered up this year. Really.

Controls: You wouldn't think fast-twitch would be much of an issue, and you'd be wrong. To gain random campaign operatives you must be the first to fly to a state with a question mark in it and the AI is pretty brutal at getting there first at high levels. Sometimes you end of selecting multiple things, especially in smaller states on the default map size. Overall, it's good enough.

Depth: There's a full campaign, complete with unlockables. Each candidate should play slightly differently, at least in theory. You can create your own character as well, although this mode is fairly limited.

Overall: As an experimental title it's well worth a play. The same can not be said, obviously, of the garbage new version.

Aaron Zehner is the author of "The Foolchild Invention" available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.

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