Monday, April 21, 2008

The Political Machine

It may be a bit late to be casting my votes on The Political Machine, seeing as it's been out four years, but this is a PC game, and quite frankly it's taken me that long to work out how to download and install the damn thing.

The Political Machine is a game from Stardock Entertainment, the same folks responsible for Sins Of A Solar Empire, and much like Sins it has the feel of a boardgame that got too complex for dice and tokens.

The game claims to simulate the 2004 United States election, and it does a pretty good job of it. You pick out a candidate from a list of real-life possibilities and sit down for a protracted session of bamboozling the American public. Candidates range from the realistic (John Kerry, George W Bush) to the "what-if" (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Condoleeza Rice) through to the patently ridiculous (Chloe Sullivan from Smallville). A raft of extra candidates are unlockable as you play. You can also draft up your own by choosing a portrait and assigning points to a variety of traits, allowing you to play as Adolf Hitler or Julius Caesar.

Once you've secured the Democrat nomination for Candidate Hitler, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty of cheerfully hijacking the electoral system. Over 41 weeks, you'll undertake such tasks as building headquarters, holding fundraisers, giving TV interviews, and launching advertising campaigns.

You'll soon discover that the US only has six or seven "useful" states, and by "useful" I mean large electoral college representation and buckets of sweet, sweet war chest cash. Old Adolf will find himself hanging out in Texas, California, Florida, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, while secretly plotting how best to send the worthless populations of Wyoming and Montana to the gas chambers.

Most of the game revolves around managing issues. You need to determine what the issues are both nationally and in the key states, and appeal to them. Of course, sometimes you're stuck on the losing side of an issue, so if you want your "death camps for homosexuals" plan to fly in California you'll have to talk up an alternate issue, such as "fighting crime" or "quelling internal unrest" until it's the only thing the public cares about.

All this malarkey is a heap of fun the first few times you play it, but you'll soon realise that the game's got a bit of a one-track mind. Every election is the 2004 election. It doesn't matter whether your opponent is Hillary Clinton or Richard Nixon, the key issues on the national mind are the War on Terror and the War in Iraq. It gets old real fast.

Theoretically there are a whole bunch of "endorsements" you can win by building social capital. These range from the Christian right to the Blue Collar left, but because of all this fixation on well-armed men in turbans, most of these endorsements are more useless than a VHS video library. You'll race to grab Foreign Policy and the Environmentalists while repeatedly giving the Women's Movement a one-fingered salute.

The game does feature a "fantasy play" option where you can change the key issues, along with other factors like "international tension" and "national unrest", but there's no real structure to this mode, and it'll leave you asking why you're bothering. The real action is in the campaign mode where you can unlock new candidates, but if you want a piece of it you'll need to love 2004 because that's all you'll be seeing.

You can play the game multiplayer, which is a blast, but you'll need two computers (there's no hotseat play), and there doesn't appear to be any way of chatting to your opponent outside of the pre-game lobby. Without communication, the line between a flesh-and-blood antagonist and an artificial intelligence can grow mighty thin.

While it may seem I've got nothing but whinging and spit for this game, the truth is it's actually reasonably decent considering (a) the game sells for about $25 AUD by direct download, and (b) there's really no other games in the genre to compare it to. If you want electoral gaming, this is the summit, and it's yours for a bargain price. Also, what The Political Machine occasionally lacks in pure fun it makes up for in educational value - you will genuinely learn something about US elections from playing.

The sequel, focusing on the 2008 election, is apparently just around the corner, so there's a good chance that the next iteration will featuring the fine tuning that this one was lacking. And in the mean time, hearing Adolf Hitler tell George W Bush to "kiss his democratic butt" is good for a laugh every time.

No comments: