Version tested: PC
We Want Some Crockery
Having colonized America in the first Cultures, the sequel sees young Bjarni and his tribe of Vikings scuttling back across the Atlantic to Europe in search of allies, after a terrifying vision suggests that the end is quite literally nigh. But despite this impending apocalypse, there's no real sense of urgency to the game. You have no time limits, few real goals to achieve beyond gathering X units of resource Y, and once you've completed one of the vaguely defined missions you're free to continue playing for as long as you want.
At its heart Cultures 2 is really a toy box, leaving you free to build up a Viking village and advance its inhabitants at your own glacially slow pace. Each time you start out you generally have a handful of Vikings and (if you're lucky) one or two buildings at your disposal. Your men start out as plain civilians who can be assigned a simple job such as scouting, resource gathering, hunting or building, but as they gain experience in that job, new options open up for them. For example, after a while digging up clay a young Viking can climb the job ladder to become a potter, at which point you can build a potter's shop for them where they can make bricks. Eventually they will gain enough experience at this to progress to building tiles and eventually move on to .. crockery.
The resulting technology tree is far more complex than it initially appears, with the various branches all intertwined. Constructing one building often requires you to upgrade another first to produce the appropriate materials. Complex components such as tiles and marble can only be made by more experienced workers, who in turn need more advanced workshops to produce those goods. At first this can be somewhat baffling, especially as the computer doesn't bother to warn you if you start building something that you don't have all the necessary components for. Instead your builders will get part way through erecting it and then down tools, firing off warning messages that they can't continue because they can't find resource X. Having said that, workers will down tools at the slightest provocation anyway. Every Viking requires food, sleep and "entertainment", and as soon as one of the status bars tracking these needs gets too low, they will stop whatever they're doing and wander off. Even in the happiest and best organised of villages your actions will be thwarted at every step by lazy Vikings going home for a snooze, while people constantly stop work and chat to each other to satisfy their social requirements.
You Are Feeling Sleepy
The biggest gossips of all are, naturally, women. Luckily, this being the dark ages, Viking women have nothing else to do except cook dinner and make little baby Vikings. While the men are off working, it's the women who gather food, furniture and other goods from bakeries, shops and storehouses to keep their menfolk entertained when they come home after a hard day's work. And if you feel you need a bigger population, married women can be ordered to produce sons or daughters on demand, although they can only raise one child at a time, and it takes some time for them to grow enough to start working alongside their parents.
As you may have gathered by now, Cultures 2 is an incredibly complex and time-consuming game. Even something as simple as building a house can take several minutes to achieve, and although you can run the game at anything up to three times normal speed, even then it's pretty slow. There's also the added frustration of the pathfinding AI, which has an unnerving ability to get lost. Scouts can put up signposts to increase the area which your citizens can find their way around, but people can still get lost even when they're standing a couple of pixels from one. When obstacles such as mountains, buildings or defensive fences are added to the equation things get even worse, and it's not unusual to find a little cluster of lost Vikings starving to death on top of a hill.
The AI doesn't really put up much of a fight when you're competing against other tribes either, and often you find the streets of rival villages packed full of people just standing around chatting to each other. If you decide to put them out of their misery, combat is clumsy and imprecise. You can assign different weapons, armour and equipment to each individual soldier, but once a fight begins it's impossible to gain any control over it. Normally this isn't a problem, as fights are few and far between, but some of the campaign missions include vast adventure sub-sections where a handful of your men vanish into a cave complex to complete some task, and you end up spending the next half hour wandering around a maze killing wolves or hostile French soldiers. This really isn't what the game is good at, and these (thankfully rare) sections are a horrific waste of time.
If you have the patience to put up with the plodding pace, convoluted technology tree and AI problems, Cultures 2 does have a lot to offer. There's a long single player campaign to enjoy, in addition to several free play maps and a multiplayer mode, although you'll be lucky to find anyone to play against. Personally I found the whole thing a bit too sedentary, but your mileage may vary.
6 / 10