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Clockwork Empires

Clockwork Empires

Written by Jeff Kintner on 10/9/2014 for PC  
More On: Clockwork Empires

Gaslamp Games, the developer behind Dungeons of Dredmor, is currently working on a RTS colony builder called Clockwork Empires. The Early Access teaser trailer tells you everything you need to know; you are part of a Steampunk empire that's staking it's claim in a new world that's rife with danger of both the cosmic and mundane varieties. Normally, it's my opinion that Steampunk and Lovecraftian horror are the two most overused settings in gaming (well, except for the Zombie Apocalypse), which is why I'm surprised that I love Clockwork Empires as much as I do. Thankfully, they've dropped a lot of the bloat from both genres. Steam technology isn't an analog for magic, Cthulhu isn't blatantly staring at the player from the ocean, and best of all- no unnecessary cogs spinning on people's clothing. But what I really love about it is that the whole game is laced with a brilliantly dry sense of humor. It's like Sid Meier let the Monty Python crew direct his next Civ game.

In Clockwork Empires, you are a junior bureaucrat that's been put in charge of one of Her Royal Majesty's colonies in the new world. It's your job to keep your colonists busy building fortifications and infrastructure to ensure they are safe from starvation, invasions from native Fishpeople, and the insanity that comes from peeking into the unknowable eldritch secrets simple labourers were not meant to know.

Right now, playing Clockwork Empires is a lot like building a castle in the swamp. As much fun as it is to build a functioning settlement in this new world, it's just as fun to watch it completely fall apart. I've had settlements succumb to cannibalism, slaughtered by crazed axe murderers, clubbed to death by Fishpeople, and convert en masse to unholy cults. Each time I giggled with glee as my last settler perished and started a new colony just to see how else I could fail in this harsh, unforgiving world.

The gameplay is unique because even though it has all of the trappings of an RTS game, it doesn't quite handle like other games you might have played. In a traditional RTS, you have direct control over all of your units' actions. If you aren't using them, they either stay put or keep performing whatever task you last ordered them to do. In CE, you have multiple lower-class labourers that form work parties under middle-class overseers; after you lay down plans for farms , kitchens, refineries, mass deforestation, etc., the work parties will assign themselves jobs as they become available.

The interesting part is that each member of your colony has a unique personality; some have morbid tendencies, some find the company of foreigners distasteful, while others are really, really fascinated by pigeons. And it's generally a good idea to assign them to work with people they'll get along with. They all also have the capacity to make bad decisions. I've had people be greedy and steal food from the colony's stockpile, I've lost multiple workers because the militia decided to sleep through an invading warparty of Fishpeople, and I've witnessed men tip over the edge of sanity, pick up an axe, and apply it liberally to the torsos of every person they once considered their friend. But for the most part, the colonists are upstanding, Cog-worshiping citizens. They're eager to pick up any job you need done and help settle this savage land in the name of the Queen. Basically, it's everything Sim City promised it would be.

Clockwork Empires is currently a work in progress. As of this writing, it's only been on Steam's Early Access for about six weeks. According to their Development Progress page they're about 62% through development (80% of the way through the back-end stuff, 45% done with the content that players will actually see), so it has a long way to go before the full release sees the light of day. Gaslamp's plan of action is to do one large update every month that goes out to all of the players at once; with smaller, untested updates going out every couple of weeks that add experimental patches and features to the game. You can opt in to getting the 'experimental branch' updates, or you can choose to stick to the big updates that have been battle-tested by players and developers. Personally, I don't know why you wouldn't opt for the experimental updates. Isn't that kind of the point of buying a game in Early Access? But everyone has their own preferences; so if you don't like messing around with untested patches, you don't have to.

In its current form, Clockwork Empires is mostly a sandbox game. There isn't much of a goal outside of building a colony, maintaining it, and exploring the world. A lot of your creative control comes from the fact that there are no cookie-cutter buildings. As a junior bureaucrat, you are responsible for designing the floor plans of every building in your settlement, placing industrial equipment, and even decorating them with empire-approved paintings and furniture. If you want to make one gigantic lower-class housing unit to give your workers some military-style sleeping arrangements, go for it. If you'd rather give each work crew their own house, you can do that too. The custom buildings aren't purely for aesthetic purposes either.   My settlements generally had long houses against the shoreline to act as barriers against attacks from those aquatic hooligans. Since Fishpeople can't use doors they would have to go around the buildings, giving my militia more time to rally to key defense points. I've also heard of people setting up farmland as a shoreline barrier, since Fishpeople will target crops if there aren't any colonists close by. In a recent update, Fishpeople were given weapons to expedite the process of pummeling colonists to death. So now, not only do malformed aquatic humans rise from the depths to rip apart your settlers, but they're wielding coral clubs and spine guns that suggest that they have some sort of advanced underwater society. Quite unsettling, I know.

In addition to Fishpeople ruining your crops and killing your workers, the inhabitants of your colony are mentally affected by these attacks. After someone is killed, nearby colonists will have their memories flooded with the grisly sight of a dead body- whether it belongs to a human or a Fishperson. If you don't take preventative measures, your colonists will start to lose faith in your ability to lead. If they're starving, have no place to sleep, or simply have nothing to occupy their time there's a very real chance that they will don ceremonial robes and swear fealty to a dark elder god with an unpronounceable name. Cultists are sneaky- outside of catching them in the act of building a shrine, it's incredibly difficult to sniff them out. But if you let them run about, not only will they turn on you, they'll poison the minds of the other colonists to turn them as well.

I love the way Clockwork Empires motivates players. There's a constant threat of aquatic attacks, so you have to keep your militia vigilant, but there's also the more subtle threat of your colony rotting from the inside if you mistreat your workers. It encourages you to keep the people in your charge safe, but also to keep them happy by treating them humanely. It's a cordial twist on a genre where you normally abuse your workers to acquire as many resources as possible so you can eradicate everyone else on the map in the name of manifest destiny. It's a brilliant satire of Victorian Sensibilities; but in a subtle way it's also mocking a genre of games influenced by American Expansionism. It's been built from the ground up with an incredibly dry sense of humor, and I can't get enough of it.

As much as I love it, I feel that it's necessary to repeat that this game is still in Early Access. There is still a host of features that need to be implemented and bugs that need to be patched. In their dev blog, the developers are constantly referring to The Big List of things that need to happen before Clockwork Empires can be fully released. I encountered plenty of small things, like Conifer trees growing in the ocean and houses being built with a bush jutting through the floors and walls, but I also encountered some big problems that are still sitting on The Big List. Most notably, my games often ended not because I was done with my colony, but because the game crashed. Keep in mind that it's normal for games that are still being developed to crash unexpectedly, and just about every entry in the dev blog includes a list of game-crashing bugs that have been fixed; but you should know going in that as of this writing, there are still a lot of them. Another big problem for me was the layout of buildable terrain doesn't seem to have any rhyme or reason to it. When you go into the build-view where you can lay out floor plans, the map is coated with a white grid that shows you where you can and can't lay your buildings.  The problem is that outside of this build-view, there is no visual cue to tell you where you can't build. It just seems like there's random patches of land where the game doesn't want you to put your settlement. Also, there currently isn't any way to revise or demolish your buildings. When you originally construct a kitchen, you are putting in all of the ovens, tables, chairs, workbenches , and lighting fixtures it will hold. If you need more ovens in the future, you're going to have to build another kitchen. If your crops keep spoiling because you built too many farms for your colonists to tend; you can't destroy, repurpose, or stop using that farmland. The only solution is to ask for more immigrants until you can tend to all ofyour farmland. Obviously, these are problems that exist because the solutions haven't been implemented yet.As Clockwork Empires continues to be developed, I'll be posting summaries of its monthly updates. So if this is a game you are interested in playing (and you should be) but you aren't comfortable with buying into its early stages, just keep an eye out for those monthly updates until it reaches a point you're ready to jump into it.

Even though Clockwork Empires has a ways to go before it's completed, I can tell that Gaslamp Games has something special on their hands.  Their gameplay and design philosophy brings a fresh perspective to the RTS genre, and the writing for the setting is brilliant. I don't think I've ever encountered a game this serious about not taking itself seriously, and I love it. You can buy into the Early Access of Clockwork Empires right now on Steam for $30. I imagine that will be a more than a fair price for the full version, but in its current state I would only recommend picking it up if you're the kind of gamer that really enjoys playing games early in development. I've said before that their dev blog is a really entertaining read- and they're really good about listening to player feedback, giving updates on what they've been working on, and hinting at what they hope to do in the future. Even if you're skeptical about picking up Early Access games- Clockwork Empires is one you should be keeping an eye on.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've spent an embarrassing percentage of my life planted in front of a screen. I'm pretty sure I know the layout of Planet Zebes better than my own home town, and most of my social life in high school revolved around Halo 2 and Super Smash Brothers. When I wasn't on a console I was playing every ROM I could get my mitts on.

These days I spend most of my time with games made by small studios, because they tend to make what I'm interested in playing. I love developers that experiment with new mechanics, write challenging and immersive narratives, and realize that a game's aesthetics are more than it's graphics. So long story short-you'll see a lot of posts from me about Kickstarter campaigns and Early Access debuts.
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