Reviewed: September 16, 2001
Released: July 24, 2001
Real time strategy (RTS) games have certainly evolved over the last few years. Only a few months ago I was certain that nothing could ever surpass Tropico in complexity and interactivity and now Funatics brings us an even more intricate "life simulator". This time the designers of the popular Settlers 2 game have focused their creative attentions on Norse Mythology and the lifestyles of the Vikings of old.
While a game such as this doesn't necessarily require a story, Cultures offers a great tale told through an amazing opening movie that details the plight of a Viking village that has been cast into darkness. Then one day a meteor streaks across the sky breaking into several shards. One of these shards lands at the village elder's feet and the rest disappear over the horizon. Seeing this as a "sign" the villagers pack up what's left of their town and go off on an epic quest for the remaining shards.
Now that you have an excuse to travel the world you will visit several foreign lands setting up camps, and expanding your group of adventurers as you explore and search for the pieces of the "sun" that have fallen from the sky. Cultures plays like any other RTS game where you begin each level with minimal resources and must carefully allocate these supplies to insure the safety and propagation of your clan.
The complexity of this simulation is unparalleled in RTS gaming history. Even after the excellent tutorial you will still find yourself referring to the 70-page manual frequently to figure out what to do and how to do it.
A typical mission has you landing on the beach with an assortment of male and female Vikings. Your ship contains a few items necessary to get you started, but you will need to implement some basic survival skills as soon as possible. The first thing to do is secure food and shelter. Constructing various structures allows you to assign occupations to your Vikings. By building a hunting tent you can turn one of your men into a hunter who will then go out and gather food.
You will also need to build personal lodging for your people. Using the intuitive pop-up icons for each Viking you can easily select a task for each person and have them start gathering limbs from the forest and other supplies from the hunting tent to create a residence.
With no female rights activists on the island your women are reduced to horny baby-making machines. As soon as possible you will want to click on the women and put them into "man hunting" mode. They will scurry about looking for an ideal mate and when found will move into their designated lodging. Now that they have a man they naturally will want kids. Since natural reproduction is the only way to increase the population you will probably want to drop an aphrodisiac in the village water supply so you can have as many Viking couples "knocking boots" as quickly and as often as possible.
Seriously, the only requirement to have a junior Viking in this game is that each home must have five food units in storage. As soon as you express your desire for a child mom will run out and begin gathering food. You get to choose whether the offspring will be male or female - apparently the Vikings have some secret to baby making that eludes us even today. Your child will be given a cool Viking name (my firstborn was named Bork) but you can feel free to rename anyone in the game as you see fit. This is pretty nice and it lets you become attached to your population on a personal level.
There are over 30 various occupations that need to be filled to create a successful society. Since it takes awhile for your offspring to grow-up to an age where they can learn and work your male Vikings will have to double-up on some jobs. As each character performs a task they can eventually master that task then move on to another. Building a school will allow your youngsters to learn these skills more quickly and become productive that much faster.
As your village gets larger it becomes increasingly difficult to manage every aspect of everyone's lives. The AI does a remarkable job of handling the basic day-to-day tasks but you will often find yourself scrambling to micromanage many citizens when you want to accomplish a defined goal.
Perhaps my biggest complaint with this game is the speed at which you play. The only thing slower than this game is perhaps life itself. When you click on a Viking and tell him to build a hut you then have to watch him go into the woods and pick-up every branch used to build that building. When you have Olaf go hunting you watch him shoot or trap his prey then pick up the carcass and carry it off to the hunters tent before going back out for more. While I am used to slow and tedious tasks from other RTS games these other games have always offered a time acceleration mode. There is no such option in Cultures, which means you will spend a lot of time just watching your Vikings live their lives.
The goals for each of the 13 missions vary in their type and complexity. Your main goal is always to secure the next piece of the "sun" and this may require military action. Cultures doesn't pretend to be a tactical simulation, but it does offer a variety of warriors like archers and swordsmen. Unlike other RTS games where lost troops are quickly and easily replaced usually by spending resource points, if you lose a Viking warrior in battle you must breed a new one from scratch. This takes considerable time and will make you think twice before rushing into combat.
Thorough exploration of the land is very important. Eventually your hunters will exhaust the nearby wildlife and have to venture deeper inland. Turning one of your Vikings into a scout is the quickest way to survey the land and reveal the black parts of the map. You may encounter other villages and wish to establish a trade relation with them. In order to do this you need to setup a series of signposts to create a trade route. Just like all other function in the game, walking is tediously slow and it could take you hours to fully explore any given map.
The graphics range from cute to mediocre. The opening pre-rendered movie was excellent quality and once in the actual game I was immediately impressed by the blowing trees and tall grass that sways in the breeze giving the entire map a life of its own. All sorts of ambient wildlife like bears and butterflies populate the maps along with plenty of creatures available for hunting. The various Vikings are unique and have their own cute little animations, although the baby Vikings resemble a pink squid with a human head.
The animation routines are exquisitely detailed. If you tell a Viking to do something you really see them do it and any prerequisite tasks required to achieve the main goal. Hunting was one of my favorites. When an arrow/spear strikes an animal (like a rabbit) it immediately turns into a skinned piece of cooked meat that looks like it was just pulled off the campfire spit.
The game plays at just about any resolution your video card supports and while you may be tempted to play at ultra-high resolutions you could lose out on a lot of the subtle details and animations if you make your citizens too small on the screen.
The first thing you will want to do is turn down (or off) the annoying music. It's good music but it get very repetitive very fast, and the default sound mix drowns out all the excellent sound effects and voices in the game. Speaking of voices; I thought it was interesting that our Viking narrator had a distinct British accent. I thought that stereotype was reserved for balding French Starfleet captains.
The box declares "over 200 hours of absorbing in-depth gameplay". Even though the game only has 13 missions I can easily see how the game could last this long assuming anyone has the patience to finish it. Out of that 200 hours you will probably spend half that time just watching your vikings "act out" your commands.
In today's age of increasingly shorter games I hate to criticize any game that offers this much gameplay, but when that gameplay is repetitive and tedious it no longer becomes a feature. Each of the 13 missions requires you to basically start from scratch and build-up your Viking village from the barest of essentials. This means that all of that hard work and struggling you did on your last mission will have to be repeated just to get up to the point in the mission where things start to deviate and get interesting.
Cultures offers multiplayer gaming for up to six players over a LAN or the Internet. You have your traditional Deathmatch mode where the last Viking standing is the winner, or you can choose the Eco-match that rewards the player who best utilizes their resources to build the best village.
Combat RTS games seem better suited to multiplayer than sim/civilization games. Apparently I'm not the only one to think so, as I was unable to find a single person available to play this game online. The game has been out for almost two months, so either the game has had it's moment in the "online gaming sun" or it never did.
While the mystique and romance of the Viking mythos is a great premise to build a game from, Cultures doesn't use it to any sort of advantage. You could easily replace the Vikings in this game with any group such as Indians and it would play out the same.
Cultures is a bold concept that is poorly implemented. The gameplay is painfully slow and will tax the attention span and patience of even the most devout RTS gamer. The missions are long and the initial preparation for each map is virtually identical giving this game a "been there - done that" feel after your second or third mission.