With America on the brink of its most important election since the last one, Kalypso’s The Political Machine arrives just in time for you politics fans (anyone?) to take part in your own fantasy election before the GOP steals the real one on Tuesday night. That’s right folks; satire is the soup du jour at Chez IncGamers. It’s cold, bitter and hard for some to swallow.The Political Machine 2008 is Kalypso and developer Stardock’s second attempt at a turn-based political strategy game and it’s clear from first glance that this is a game about balance. And we’re not just talking about the strategy game mechanics. The Political Machine is designed to strike a balance between political nuance and mainstream strategy gaming and, for the most part, it does a good job. It doesn’t get bogged down in exhaustive detail, but at the same time aims to offer enough depth to keep the politics fans (still no-one?) happy. The first order of business is to select a candidate from a slightly bizarre list of current and past “favourites”, or create your own and see if Jonny F**knuts from Incestville, Iowa has what it takes to make it to the White House. You can then choose to take part in a quick election, a campaign (in which you take on six opponents consecutively) or even take it online. For those unfamiliar with the US model of democracy, Stardock has included a series of tutorials which outline the basics. Each of the 50 US states is assigned a certain number of electoral votes and the successful candidate is the first to reach 270 electoral votes. Some states are considered party strongholds because they traditionally vote in favour of one the parties, while other states are more unpredictable and are known as “swing states”. Wasting resources on states where you have no chance of winning is a sure fire way to blow your campaign and the smart candidate must do enough to secure their traditional base as well as targeting the vote-heavy swing states.The game’s main interface screen is simply a map of the USA divided into its constituent states. A series of filters can be applied to give more information, such as highlighting the amount of electoral votes belonging to each state, or whether the state tends to vote Democrat or Republican. Once you have decided which states to target, you must start to campaign. You can choose between three types of building to create in each state: a campaign headquarters, a consulting office or an outreach centre. Each of these buildings provides you with a different kind of political commodity, be it money, awareness, political capital or PR clout. Money allows you to spend more on your campaign (e.g. advertising, buildings), political capital can be spent on special campaign operatives (more on these later) and PR clout can be used to gain endorsements from special interest groups (like the NAACP or NRA).Each state also has a number of key issues which are considered crucial to the election by its constituents. Stardock has cleverly ensured that these issues are all topical and relevant to the current political climate in the States, so you’ll come across the war in Iraq, economic crisis and social security to name a few. Your job is to address these issues but, again, you’ll need to pick your battles. There’s little point in taking on a contentious issue if your position is likely to alienate the majority of your supporters in a given state. You can address these issues, or even bring a new one to the forefront, through buying advertising, giving speeches or taking part in the game’s well-observed TV events. During the latter, you’ll be called to appear on some familiar sounding political shows (e.g. “The O’ Malley Scenario”) to answer questions on the state’s big issues. Considered, moderate responses will win you favour while extreme throwaway comments will not and it’s in these moments that The Political Machine really shines. It puts you in the shoes of the candidate for the first time, as you’re put on the spot and made to answer timed questions on complex issues. Unfortunately, this aspect of the game seems underdeveloped and it would be nice to spend more time tackling the issues rather than constantly balancing your resources.And this is where The Political Machine’s main problem lies. Obviously, being a turn-based strategy affair we expect a degree of management but it seems as if the best parts of the game take a back seat to simplistic resource juggling. Real life political campaigns are fraught with controversy and negative campaigning and Stardock really missed a trick by not expanding on this aspect of the game. I wanted to feel that War Room atmosphere, always on the back foot as you’re bombarded with dirty tricks and potential PR catastrophes. The closest The Political Machine comes to this is in its use of political operatives who can be hired to aid your campaign. For instance you could hire “the National Kook”, a Michael Moore-a-like who devotes his time to discrediting your opponent. However, it’s all handled too simplistically – for instance, all you need to do is hire a fixer and he immediately cancels out any opposing political operative in the state. If Stardock had developed this side of the game further, it would have been vastly more compelling. As it stands, when you lose an election in The Political Machine, it doesn’t feel as if you lost to a fiendish political mind, rather that you just didn’t manage your resources well enough.However, Stardock’s game is not a political campaign simulator. Whilst it would be interesting to include the primaries and nomination process in the game, it would make the game much longer and specialise its appeal. However, that’s not to say that The Political Machine is a simple throwaway affair. The game’s cartoony visuals belie what is a considered, intelligent, well-balanced game which succeeds in capturing a distinctly American feel, both in terms of presentation and content. Any fans of US politics (seriously? Just me?) will understand what’s going on and those who haven’t got a clue might just learn something. It’s just a shame that so much of the game is concerned with money, resource management, avoiding answering questions and delivering the same speech over and over again. But then, I guess, that’s just US politics. Oof. Satire 1 America 0.
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