Inside Pulse 12

Review: The Political Machine 2008 (PC)

Bobble, Bobble, Bobble.
The Political Machine 2008
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Developer: Stardock
Publisher: Stardock
Release Date: 06/17/2008


The upcoming 2008 American Presidential election is undoubtedly the most important in a generation and will perhaps go down as one of the most pivotal ever. The possibility of the first black president, a sea change in the political climate in America and staggering issues like terrorism, climate change and the Iraq war all make for a meaningful contest, but now that The Political Machine 2008 has been released we know it’s going to be truly historic. You simply can’t call an election truly significant until it inspires a budget PC game starring bobble-headed versions of the candidates.

The Political Machine lets you play out any number of scenarios; simulate the big Obama/McCain showdown, swap Hilary in if you’re a bitter Clinton supporter or if you’re a 15-year old message board poster who doesn’t know the first thing about practical politics you can try to lead Ron Paul to the Oval Office. Now personally being a cynical misanthrope who breaks out in an itchy rash when in close proximity to hope I decided to create my own character…

He feeds on puppy blood and human souls.

…Dr. Magnus Wolfblood, supervillian extraordinaire, crusher of hope, destroyer of dreams and notorious double-parker. Will I succeed in my diabolical quest to derail the Obama hope express, and more importantly considering this is a video game review, will I have any fun doing it?

1) Modes

The Political Machine provides a fairly deep field of gameplay candidates. You can cast your vote for Quick Play, which lets you to customize and play a single game. You can pick your candidate, your opponent and one of several scenarios (including real-world ones like the Election of 2008 and the Race of 1860 or fantasy scenarios like The Emperor of Drengi which challenges you to become the democratically elected leader of a race of treacherous reptilian aliens). The scenario selection is a bit thin, with the ones based on actual historical events being more compelling than the purely imaginary ones, but Stardock promises that you’ll be able to download new scenarios between now and the November election, so hopefully we get a few more scenarios based on historically significant Presidential races.

Next on the ballot is Campaign mode. This disappoints somewhat as I would have liked my candidate to have to climb through the levels of government, having him become Mayor, Governor, President then defending incumbent President, but instead you simply play through a series of unrelated Presidential elections. You start off against pushovers like Jimmy Carter and Ulysses Grant and eventually face legends like Abe Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson (all the opponents you beat will be unlocked for use in Quick Play later). Campaign is fun enough, but it’s something you pretty much could have created yourself in Quick Play.

Finally there’s the not to be forgotten Multiplayer, which worked quite well, or at least it did on the rare occasion I could find a match (clearly my reputation as a master political strategist proceeds me and the lobby emptied in fear when I arrived). Unfortunately there’s no option to simply take turns playing on the same computer with a flesh-and-blood friend, so you can’t put that insufferable first year poli-sci major in their place unless they also buy the game, drive home and get online.

So there’s a decent array of stuff to do, although that “aw, I wish I could do _______” feeling crops up fairly often. If this was a full-priced game I would be less than impressed, but for a 20-dollar budget title The Political Machine provides enough to satisfy.

Modes Rating: Above Average

2) Graphics

About 90% of your time with this game will be spent staring at a map of America done up in a pretty blue-and-red colour scheme. It’s not particularly exciting but the map is clean and functional (although it can get a little cluttered towards the end of a game). The game does have an animated intro and occasionally while playing you’ll get to take a break from studying the map to take part in an interview, which adds a little visual excitement (very little). The visuals in this title get the job done, but that’s about it.

Graphics Rating: Mediocre

Well gee, this looks a bit familiar.

3) Sound

As you might expect the game contains typical pomp and circumstance filled Presidential themes, but they also mix in some more upbeat tunes as well. I actually caught myself humming some of them after I finished playing and really that’s the only test a game’s music has to pass with me. Unfortunately there’s no voice acting in the title, which seems like a missed opportunity. I’m sure they could have found a bad George W. Bush impersonator in their price range at the very least.

Sound Rating: Enjoyable

4) Control and Gameplay

Despite the goofy bobble-headed presentation The Political Machine has some real depth to it. Your goal is to jet set around the map, winning voters over on a state-by-state basis. Winning a state depends on your awareness level and your position on the issues that matter to the people of that state.

Every state you visit will have issues the voters there are most concerned about and your candidate’s position on those issues is pretty much set at the beginning of the game. In other words you can’t give a speech in New York saying you’re pro-gun control then fly down to Arkansas and hand out free sawed-off shotguns from the back of a flatbed truck. What you can do though is raise the importance of key issues. For instance let’s say you’re a Republican trying to achieve the impossible and win New York state; now your views on the environment, abortion and the Iraq war aren’t likely make them fall in love with you, but your position on the economy and gas prices are compatible with the voters there. Your job is to make sure those two issues become the number 1 and 2 issues in that state and that abortion, the environment and Iraq get buried. The other piece of the puzzle is voter awareness as your position on the issues won’t matter if none of the voters know who you are and thus don’t turn out to vote come November. Raising voter awareness and boosting the issues you’re strong on can be achieved in several ways.

First off, in most even moderately important states you’ll want to build yourself a headquarters, which come in 3 varieties. A standard Election Headquarters raises voter awareness, brings in a bit of extra cash and allows you to campaign on larger variety of issues in that state; an Election Headquarters is crucial in closely contested swing states. You can also build a Consultants Office; these buildings generate “Political Capitol”, which can be used to hire campaign workers (called “Operatives” in the game). Operatives like Speech Writers, and Fashion Consultants will give a boost to your candidate’s stats, while others like the Smear Merchant or Fixer can be moved and placed in states where they’re most needed. Operatives are often the deciding factor when it comes to tilting a closely contested state to your side, so it’s important to have at least a couple Consultants Offices set up. Finally you can build an Outreach Center, which generates PR Clout that you can use to win the endorsement of special interest groups.

Once you have your shiny new headquarters built, it’s time to start making speeches and burying the voters in a tidal wave of advertising. Both speeches and ads essentially work the same way, with issues gaining in importance the more speechifying and advertising you do in regards to them. The only real difference between the two is that a speech is a one-off event, giving an issue a significant boost in importance while an advertising campaign will slowly raise the importance of an issue over a number of turns even if you’re not in the state. You can also give speeches or run ad campaigns attacking or misrepresenting your opponent’s position, giving you the choice of playing either the mud raking scumbag or high-road walking saint. Of course everything you do costs money, so you’ll have to stop to raise funds from time to time with the amount of money you rake in varying depending on your candidate’s fundraising skills, the wealth of the state you’re in and your awareness level there.

There’s even more to this game (I haven’t even touched on how you can recruit activists or take part in TV interviews) but I don’t want to descend into manual mode and recite every minor feature and mechanic. Suffice to say, for a 20-dollar game The Political Machine is surprisingly complex and perhaps more importantly it feels credible. The issues are up to date, the game’s clearly been developed by folks who know their politics and the mysterious formulas and algorithms that determine the winner usually produce results that feel very true to life (in some cases they’re eerily similar to that of recent elections). The game doesn’t quite stack up to the giants of the turn-based strategy genre, but it’s closer than you might expect.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Great

Say it ain't so Barack!

5) Replayability

Playing through Campaign mode as both a Democrat and a Republican should take you a solid 12 – 15 hours, and Quick play is infinitely replayable. That said, the somewhat limited scope of The Political Machine means it doesn’t have the longevity of some other strategy titles. You’ll get more out of this game than most budget games, but by the time November 4th rolls around there’s a good chance this game will have thoroughly worn out it’s welcome.

Replayability Rating: Good

6) Balance

Okay, this section is a bit tricky. The Political Machine is not particularly well balanced, but there within lies much of the game’s appeal. There’s no playing fair in the real world of politics, and this game presents the system in all its unjust wonky glory. This may frustrate some, but political junkies wouldn’t have it any other way.

Balance Rating: Enjoyable

7) Originality

I’m surprised there aren’t more games that deal directly with politics. Every time a developer creates a game that revolves around something that’s part of our every day lives like cooking, worrying about how fat we’re getting or petting our dogs it sells a boatload of copies, and yet the vast majority of games stick to the run-of-the-mill commando alien ninjas dismembering mutant zombies from hell stuff. There’s few things more obsessed over these days than the upcoming election, yet Stardock seems to be the only company to have made a serious attempt at a game based on the situation, so good on them. The actual gameplay lifts fairly heavily from other turn-based strategy games, but the premise is unique and welcome.

Originality Rating: Good

8) Addictiveness

I know a PC strategy game is good when it’s trance over me is finally broken by the sound of birds outside singing as the sun rises after an entire night of me sitting half-comatose in front of my monitor. While The Political Machine doesn’t quite pass the sunrise test, it got close. Most of the time you can finish a game in only an hour to an hour-and-a-half, so the draw to play “just one more game” is strong, particularly when you didn’t become president because of a single state you only lost by 2-points (god damn you Florida).

Addictiveness Rating: Great

9) Appeal Factor

The game is based on events everybody’s talking about and lighthearted presentation, well written manual and helpful tutorials mean pretty much anyone should be able to get into this game. Well, if they actually hear about it and can find it that is; this game’s profile is pretty low and a lot of people just don’t buy games until they’ve seen 10 thousand TV commercials for them.

Appeal Factor Rating: Above Average

10) Miscellaneous

There’s no way this game’s hardware requirements should be as high as they are. Now my computer is admittedly no graphics-processing beast, but it can run nice looking older games like Civilization IV and F.E.A.R. and yet I had to turn off special effects in The Political Machine to get it to run smoothly, which is ridiculous; this game should be able to run on a Pentium III.

That said I can’t criticize the game too harshly, as it provides for great moments like this…

VICTORY!

…what’s this you’re looking at you ask? Why, it’s a map of the election results following Dr. Magnus Wolfblood’s triumphant and inspiring victory over that Barack Whathisname guy! “Wait,” you say “but Obama won way more states and it says at the top that his support is 50% to your 44%!”

Yup, and he also beat me by nearly 12 million in the popular vote and yet I still stole the election with 273 electoral votes to his 265. Don’t you just love the Electoral College? I have a right mind to print off that map and tape it to my bedroom ceiling.

Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre

The Scores
Story/Modes: Above Average
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Enjoyable
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Good
Balance: Enjoyable
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Mediocre

Final Score: Good Game

Short Attention Span Summary

I was pleasantly surprised by this game, which is, despite appearances, is a very solidly crafted little strategy game. It’s no Civ or Galactic Civilizations, but for 20 bucks The Political Machine 2008 is a game I can easily recommend to both political junkies and strategy fans alike, but you don’t have to take my word for it…

Majestic.

President Wolfblood commands you to buy The Political Machine 2008! Also, kneeling…lots of kneeling. But once you’re done that, buy this game!

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