Version tested: PC
Never, ever put me in charge of anything even remotely important, let alone of the fate of the bally world. I have plunged Africa into violent civil war. I have caused mass famine in Europe. The US is wracked by fire and drought. The Middle East can add catastrophic disease to its many other crises. The quality of life in China is worse than anything Mao ever wrought. I've turned India into a brutal police state. The Bactrian camel is extinct. Oh God, even the camels are suffering because of me.
I was only trying to help.
Helping, it transpires, isn't easy. Helping can cause harm on massive, apocalyptic scale. If Fate of the World, a turn-based, card-based strategy game about steering the planet away from the environmental and geo-political disasters which may await it in the decades to come, is hard, it's for a very good reason.
You don't solve humanity's problems with good intentions alone. If you did, there wouldn't be a fuel crisis, the Middle East wouldn't be defined by terrible conflict, most of the developed world wouldn't be suffering brutal austerity measures and the polar ice caps wouldn't be shrinking at an alarming rate. This is a game of cause and effect, of the awful complexity inherent in making a political decision with far-reaching consequences.
In the name of making your goal even faintly achievable, Fate of the World removes most of the politics from your role. You're not the leader of a country, chasing your party's own ends – you're the head of a fictitious omni-national, independent body able to make enormous, sweeping decisions about any continent's economy and wide-scale development. You could order that the entire world stops using coal fuel; you could force Russia to adopt vegetarianism for the sake of cutting down agricultural emissions and land-usage; you could turn China to biofuels.
Your conscience will guide you, at least at first, but for every action there is an unequal and not entirely opposite reaction. For instance, take away a key part of a more industrially-inclined zone's economy – such as natural gas or heavy industry – and it's going to a) create a financial hole, b) potentially see the area adopt even more unhealthy alternatives and c) risk your unpopularity, which leads to a reduction in funding and ultimately being banned from the territory. You might be looking at the bigger picture, but from that territory's point of view, you've just wandered over with a knife and started randomly hacking at stuff they desperately need.
For a game that, in a practical sense, involves only the very simple act of choosing a few cards from a virtual deck then hitting next turn to advance the timeline by five years, it is an intense, exhausting balancing act, and one that successfully challenges your morals. As war erupted in the Middle East, I found myself funding black ops research and then an enforced regime change in an attempt to calm things down enough to enact green motions. And it's best not to talk about how I chose to stem population growth.
I did terrible things. I became a jackboot, stamping on the face of humanity... but I only did it to save the world. There are right answers, and there are answers that only feel right. While there are unquestionably effective patterns to follow, increasingly desperate fire-fighting will be the experience of so many players, with early choices resulting in later tragedy you might never have expected.
Fate of the World is split into a small handful of escalating campaigns, commencing with the relatively simple task of raising the quality of life in Africa across a couple of decades, before rapidly moving onto holding the reigns for the entire damned planet over a century in the name of slowing down catastrophic global warming. This escalation was just one way in which Fate of the World was notoriously and punishingly difficult upon its initial release last month, but a much-needed patch redresses the balance in important ways.
Foremost of these is a new campaign in between the reasonably forgiving first and the dramatically demanding second, which offers an alternate near-contemporary Earth in which climate change might be a pressing concern, but at least oil isn't horrifically scarce. It's still a hell of a lot to deal with, but the breather before dealing with a world in which absolutely everything is going to hell at high speed makes a significant difference, as do under-the-hood tweaks to the effects of mucking around with resources.
Make no mistake, though: this is an unforgiving game. While traditional strategy game thinking might get you so far, the key to mastering it really lies in research: of the extensive but awkward in-game Wiki (sadly just a long, clunky list of topics), of the oodles of graphs which demonstrate exactly what's going on in each territory, and of the sprawling but repeatedly revelatory fan Wiki. The developers seem well aware of the difficulty issues and have taken steps to adjust them, but it raises a particularly awkward dilemma for a reviewer. The game genuinely needs to be challenging to achieve what it's trying to achieve, but that it's something that either requires sucking up the punishment or doing a hell of a lot of reading first casts a shadow over it.
Personally, I lean towards admiring it for its vertical difficulty curve. It makes me take it that much more seriously, and it makes me read and think rather than bludgeon and slumber. Plus, there's a certain giddy thrill to seeing its chaos theory in catastrophic action, experiencing just how terrible things can get.
There's a twisted reward at the end of it all too, in the form of the final mission, Dr Apocalypse. Here, you're actively trying to trash the planet, but with the new complexity of trying to throw the world off the scent of your evil. With a raft of monstrous cards (gene warfare, book-burning, cheerily eating endangered species...) you wouldn't dare go anywhere near in the standard missions, it's almost a whole new game, a deliciously sadistic subterfuge that would likely support its own entire campaign. To be honest, it's a minor shame that later missions are locked until you've completed earlier ones – even though the gradual progression is necessary to get a handle on things, opening the game up from the start would perhaps make it a little less galling.
It's absolutely vital to observe, though, that Fate of the World is never anything less than compelling, despite a sometimes fussy interface that can struggle to prioritise the most important information. When something turns to crap, the urge is not to sullenly admit defeat but fight to fix it. When you lay down a card, you lay down your hopes and fears. When you pore over the graphs, you're a detective looking for clues to solve the world's biggest crime.
Most of all, when you take a deep breath and press the End Turn button, you await the list of consequences breathlessly. Are you a hero or a villain? Will war be over? Will Russia still be funding you? Will global temperatures have dodged that latest 1 degree rise, or will this be the turn that sees North America's last forests reduced to ashes, the few remaining rhinos breathing their last and Europe destroyed by drought and famine?
Probably. That's the point. You learn through tragedy. Perhaps Fate of the World isn't actually about figuring out how to save the world, or even about being a dark and smart strategy game. It's about getting behind the rhetoric and gaining a meaningful understanding of the many dreadful things we're doing to our home.
8 / 10