While computer games have attempted to simulate everything from theme parks and railway systems to futuristic cities and legendary fantasy realms, Republic: The Revolution may be the first that attempts to simulate an entire nation. The mythical country of Novistrana is like many other small, Eastern European nations. It is inhabited by nearly a million citizens, each with his or her own responsibilities, opinions, and desires. The recent fall of the U.S.S.R. has blown winds of change across Novistrana; some believe that a revolution brews just beneath the sunny surface of the small country's peaceful political landscape. A strong leader with a unifying cause could be all it takes to spark a revolt.
Each of the Novistrana's citizens exists as a unique individual. Their behaviors are designed to realistically follow the flow of social and cultural factors in the game. Members of the population may celebrate, riot, or simply carry on the status quo, depending on how their ideologies coincide or conflict with the politics of their surroundings. Their support is the key to victory.
The player begins as a barely noticeable speck on the nation's political landscape, running his or her faction's underground operations from a tiny headquarters in one of 30 small villages. The goal is to build a foundation for the player's political movement, gaining supporters through clever propaganda, political pandering, and even bribery and extortion, eventually winning enough followers to overthrow the government and instate the player as high ruler. Competition for this position exists at all levels, coming from the administration currently in power as well as from over a dozen other upstart factions vying for supremacy.
Republic: The Revolution was designed by prodigy Demis Hassabis, who first gained recognition at the age of 16 for his work on Theme Park with industry icon Peter Molyneux. Hassabis also spent time working on Molyneux's showcase Black & White before heading up his own Elixir Studios and devoting his focus on Republic.
Elixir Studios has managed to make a fairly entertaining video game out of a premise where the most the exciting action players will undertake for much of the game is simulating a political conversation over dinner. That basic premise places the player as a citizen of Novistrana, a splinter republic left on its own since the breakup of the U.S.S.R. Novastrana's President-for-Life, Karasov, a former KGB agent, is responsible for the "disappearance" of the main character's parents, lending a personal motive of vengeance to the political one of freedom for the people.
The player starts in his home town of Ekatarina and begins building up a dissident political movement. Through a variety of both positive actions (rallies, talking to the populace, and gaining support from important citizens), and negative ones (planting dirt on political opponents, vandalism, graffiti, and outright assassination), the player's faction must build up a base of support. The faction can then use this support to take over Ekatarina, then a second larger town, and finally the capital, culminating in Karasov being deposed.
To do this, the player will recruit a group of henchmen, each with their own RPG-like characteristics, ideology, and a set of actions that they can perform. These decisions are among the most important a player can make, since the three types of ideology (force, influence, or wealth) affect everything else in the game. Recruiting a former police captain, for example, will give you a lieutenant whose actions (such as intimidating a citizen or vandalizing a district) lie mostly in the force area and are most effective in the easily frightened influence districts. In order to win, you'll have to take everyone's ideology into account when performing actions and canvassing for support. Confused? You're not alone -- it took me the first three hours of playing the game to figure out that much.
Getting to the enjoyable portion of the game means fighting your way through one of the most diabolically obscure interfaces I've ever seen in a video game. Summary screens are practically nonexistent. The 2D map of the city, where you'll spend most of your time, does a remarkably poor job of transmitting exactly what's going on in your city. Setting up actions takes five or six clicks that bring up obscure screens full of bewildering symbols that are mostly unlabeled and have no help screens to go with them. A tutorial? Forget it. The misleadingly labeled tutorial button only brings up static screen captures filled with text outcalls. The best advice I can give anyone playing this game is to keep the poorly written manual close at hand, because you'll be referring to it frequently. In fact, I can easily say that this game is almost impossible to play well without it.
As your henchman and avatar travel about Novastrana, their doings can be followed in a much-ballyhooed 3D representation of the city. These detailed graphics are admittedly spectacular, with plenty of citizens walking about who can be spoken with, traffic in the streets, and buildings that can be clicked on to bring up details about their operations. Unfortunately, this part of the game is simultaneously frustrating and poorly integrated into the game as a whole. It's frustrating because the camera controls are rather wonky. From the rooftop view, it's really tough to get a good angle to watch the proceedings on the street or follow characters you need to. The close-up view is too close on a particular character to be more than a decent vehicle for cutscenes, and the street level camera is beyond useless. What the game really needed was a free-floating camera that could be positioned on the fly.
The 3D view is poorly integrated, because 90% of the time the game can be manipulated from the 2D map. Watching your characters perform their tasks makes for some interesting on-the-fly cutscenes, but eventually you'll find yourself skipping over them. You can change the style with which they perform a particular task from that view, but I found that function had a negligible effect on gameplay.
There are basically only two times it's important to be in 3D mode. The first is when the one of the player's followers must investigate a portion of the city to discover something important needed by a scripted event -- such as the mission to find an underground printing press.
The player can click on buildings until they find one with an "investigate further" icon. Clicking on this will bring up new information when that portion of the day is over -- although it would have been nice if we could actually have seen a character investigating right then, maybe with another cutscene. It's called immediate feedback, people! Give us an indication that we've discovered something! This is also the portion of the game that will have gamers pulling out their hair at the inadequate camera controls.
The second time is when play descends into a "conversational mini-game." You get this when trying to recruit new members, or convince a particularly important person of some political point, or strengthen the resolve of your members. This mini-game plays out like a duel, Magic: The Gathering-style. Each player has a pool of "conversation points" and various conversation tactics they can use, each of which cost a certain amount of points to use. The object is to win more conversation points than your opponent to win the argument. The problem again is the obscure interface and lack of a tutorial. It took at least a dozen tries and an explanation from our own Managing Editor (who had the benefit of playtesting this part of the game at Eidos a few months back) before I figured out what was going on.
The worst part about the Mount Elbrus-sized learning curve is that once you get past it, there's a really enjoyable game in here. The strategy is quite deep and logical, reminiscent of a really good business sim or Tycoon game -- except instead of collecting rubles, you're collecting political influence. The scripted story is quite good, although the cutscenes that illustrate it don't carry much dramatic impact.
There are a few puzzling lapses, though. Why, for example, in a game so dependent on conversation and political intrigue, would you choose to not utilize the conversational mini-game more (and make a better conversational mini-game?) For that matter, why would you have that mini-game and yet have absolutely no diplomacy screens? There's no way to directly communicate, co-opt, or make deals with any rival dissident factions or sections of the government -- everything's fought out in the streets, something anyone with the slightest historical sense knows is ridiculous. This is a game that could have benefited greatly from the diplomacy engine and AI of a game like Galactic Civilizations..
More importantly, the game doesn't sport much in the way of replay value. Once you figure out how the system works, it's entirely possible to dominate a city before any of the scripted events take place. Indeed, you'll very often be waiting for a certain event to occur only to find out there's no way of ending the day. While time can be sped up, there's far too much dead time waiting for the clock to move. I'd have given a fist full of blinis for an "End Day" button.
Republic: The Revolution is a game we've been following for a long time, one that we had high hopes for. It has a wonderful premise and it's tremendously original. The music and sound also deserve special mention as the wonderfully moody faux-Russian score really underscores the feeling of oppression. The Russian sounding gibberish characters speak also helps set the tone.
Between the atmosphere, originality, and rock-solid gameplay, diehard strategy fans and determined folks with lots of time on their hands will find a lot to like in the game. For the rest of us, though, Republic: The Revolution will fall into the realm of another Russian classic -- War and Peace. We know there's good stuff in there, but geez, it's hard to justify the effort needed to enjoy it.
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