Rogue State PC Review
As it turned out, the goats weren’t enough. I thought I’d rescued Basenji’s grossly mismanaged economy with a masterstroke of political savvy: I’d called up the Prime Minister of the country next door and offered him an incredible deal on livestock.
But all the goat-money in the world couldn’t save me at that point. With my economy deep in recession, riots were breaking out in the streets. With mounting debts and plunging public support, it wasn’t long before my brother marched me out office at the end of a gun. Mercifully, I was ‘only’ sent into exile – after all, I’m family.
So ended my first game of Rogue State – a game of strategy, diplomacy and leadership set in the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Basenji. The country has just seen its corrupt monarchy swept away in a glorious revolution, and the player takes on the role of the newly installed president.
This, in fact, is Rogue State’s first interesting design decision. Whereas most strategy games see you taking on a kind of abstracted ‘spirit of the nation’, in this game you really do play as the president.
Sure, you spend your time buying and directing military units, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and conducting diplomacy – but all the while, your character is actually depicted moving around the presidential offices in the manner of a point-and-click adventure, consulting various charts, catalogues and advisors.
It’s a striking decision – the first of many interface and design quirks which delight and infuriate in roughly equal measure. Initially, it’s rather charming, lending your actions a sense of real weight and consequence. But it quickly becomes a frustration, and although you can skip the walking with a mouse click, you still have to watch the start and end of each animation sequence. It doesn’t help that these are rather stiff – graphics aren’t a strong point here, although it does sometimes achieve a cartoonish charm. Eventually, you find yourself wishing for the ability to switch between menus and screens with a single click.
Unlike many strategy games, Rogue State’s main objective isn’t territorial expansion or military conquest. Instead, the goal is merely to cling to power for 60 turns in the face of immense and often overwhelming odds.
To do so, you’ll need to develop Basenji’s infrastructure and dictate social and economic policy. You’ll need to maintain the support of various social factions – patriots, capitalists, fundamentalists and liberals – as well as the entirely self-interested political class. Naturally, decisions that favour one group tend to upset at least one of the others, so you’ll spend a lot of time on the Policies screen, tweaking the various sliders in a delicate and ever-changing balancing act. Get it wrong and let your support drop too far, and you can expect your malevolent brother to conduct a military coup.
One day, the fundamentalists will be unhappy – so you might ban alcohol to cheer them up. But this riles the liberals – so you throw a few more dollars into education or the welfare state, and all is well. For now.
Getting the balance right is a real challenge, and one that punishes complacency: you really do need to be watching your support levels and managing your policies every turn. But sadly, this leads to the feeling that you’re never really shaping the values of a fledgling nation – you’re always responding to some kind of internal threat rather than building a utopia of your own design.
Better are the multiple-choice decisions you have to make at the end of every turn. These offer various tricky dilemmas for you to adjudicate on, and your decisions carry serious economic or social consequences. These are varied and well written, bringing real character to the game – although your decisions are still usually guided by pragmatism.
After every 12 turns – a year of in-game time – you pop up on telly to deliver a speech to your nation. Get it right, and you can enjoy a much-needed boost in support. Sadly, though, this is another mechanic that seems really exciting at first, but doesn’t quite come off. You build your speech phrase-by-phrase from multiple choices – but oddly, the game tells you in advance which will have the greatest impact on the audience, and there’s no reason whatsoever to choose otherwise. What’s more, the phrases don’t vary from year to year. It all just feels a little half-baked.
And another thing: this game is hard. The in-game tutorial is almost knowingly inadequate: it ends by telling you to figure the rest out for yourself. There’s a manual, too, but it’s a rather superficial and leaves many key mechanics underexplained.
In the end, you proceed by trial and error. Eventually, you begin to discover a challenging, engaging strategy game – but you’ll have to be pretty persistent to get at it. This is made considerably more difficult by the game’s tendency to throw insurmountable challenges at you seemingly at random. From time to time, your economy will simply crash or your ministers will make impossible requests, and the consequences can be disastrous.
But here’s the thing: in spite of it all – the janky UI, the somewhat-broken mechanics, the tyranny of the random number generator – I still ended up having a great time with Rogue State.
Campaigns are short, so your losses never feel truly devastating – and despite the often inconsistent difficulty, it is possible to improve your understanding of the rather opaque mechanics from game to game. And for me, that process was a lot of fun, even with the occasional unfair wipe-out.
A lot of that comes from the game’s character: there’s enough flavour and emergent narrative to paper over at least some of the cracks. The overall tone is more ‘Cold War’ than ‘Arab Spring’, something that’s compounded by the generally old-school design. While there are plenty of opportunities to decry Western imperialism or pay lip service to the UN, it shies away from any real social or political criticism, which is probably for the best – compared to the very real problems facing the region today, it’s almost escapist in its sanitised depiction of dictatorship. Happily, it also avoids crude ethnic or national stereotypes.
It’s an ambitious, idiosyncratic game – and for me, it sits alongside gloriously broken menu-driven political strategy-thrillers of yesteryear like Sid Meier’s Covert Action and Floor 13.
That said, it won’t be for everyone. It demands significant patience while you gradually learn the ropes, and certain mechanics remain frustrating even at the best of times. Others will be put off by the strange UI decisions, including a steadfast refusal to cater to widescreen resolutions. But for those able to overlook its quirks, there’s real pleasure to be had here.