Beware - this glitz-free government sim from lone coder Cliff Harris may alter the way you think about politics. This morning I started the day the way I always start the day - in the company of the Today programme's tireless truth-seekers. The first story to crawl inside my earhole concerned a plan Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has devised to give free English lessons to vulnerable immigrants. Instantly, I found myself visualising the policy through the filter of Democracy 2. There was the 'Free English Lessons' icon nestling among the other welfare policies. There, emanating from it, was a red dotted line ending at the 'patriot' vote and a green dotted one ending at the 'liberal' vote.
If you played this game's predecessor you'll be familiar with the system, and understand just how ingenious it is. By representing policies, crises and key national stats as small disc-shaped icons, and using mouse-over to show how these discs inter-relate, Harris manages to cram a ridiculous amount of useful information onto one screen. In the midst of the shoal of icons is a bank of thermometers displaying the moods of 21 different electoral groups. At a glance, you can see what the socialists, or the smokers, or the motorists, or the socialist-motorist-smokers (voters can be part of more than one group) think of your government, and, more importantly, why they think that way.
One of us?
Almost as inspired as the interface is the elegant 'political capital' concept. Introducing a new policy or adjusting an existing one costs capital, a resource generated each three-month turn by your seven cabinet ministers. The more loyal the minister (their support levels vary depending on how closely your policies accord with their personal beliefs) the more capital they put into the pot each turn. To make laws, especially controversial ones, the cabinet (and by implication the party) must be kept sweet. The only slight problem I have with the realism in this area is the failure to acknowledge majority size as a factor. To simulate administrations operating on a minuscule majority there really needs to be some linkage between the margin of the player's last election victory and capital generation rates. I call it the Sunny Jim effect.
Despite the odd overly abstract abstraction (foreign policy and economics are drawn with extremely broad brush strokes) Dem2 rarely feels dumbed-down. Solving problems is never as simple as clicking on a new policy and walking away. Budgets must be periodically tweaked, savings made, resentment caused by one set of decisions offset by other decisions. It's a gloriously tangled rats' nest of causes and effects, a stark reminder of why our political heroes frequently fail to deliver. Anyone that attempts to play this game using their own real-life politics as a rudder is likely to hit the rocks pretty quickly. Instigating a rapid green revolution or zero-tolerance police state might make you feel all warm and righteous, but in all likelihood you'll be ringing up Pickfords the day after the next election. To succeed consistently the player must forget all 'isms' except pragmatism.
Some of the trickiest decisions revolve around the single-issue dilemmas that pop up at the start of most turns. The consequences of introducing a new policy or adjusting an existing one are indicated with helpful green or red bars, but with these random yes/no issues results must be guessed at. Will a fox-hunting ban have any effect on my fragile liberal following? How will relaxing green-belt laws play with the proles? Only Cliff, and those willing to meddle with the extensive mod tools, will ever know for certain.
Unlike Democracy, Dem2 doesn't try to simulate real countries. Instead its nine pleasingly customisable scenarios (adjust aspects like term length and electorate composition) bear names like Bananistan, Mexilando, and Gaiatopia. The intention was obviously to give the flavour of different continents and government set-ups, without having to model specific systems. What's actually happened is we've ended-up with a set of ersatz nations that all feel disconcertingly Western European. With no issues, events, parties, or ministers specific to each country, no unique graphics (besides flags) or sounds, running Zambeezie or Malaganga isn't nearly as distinctive as it should be.
Given the gaggle of mini-games in Positech's last offering Dem2's interpretation of elections is also rather disappointing. After choosing a couple of manifesto promises from a strangely stunted list (failure to deliver on those promises will tell at the next election) and ensuring your party membership is healthy (more activists means more of your supporters are persuaded to turn out) there's nothing left to do except watch your bar on the results graph rise inexorably towards victory or defeat. Where's the baby kissing, the televised debates, the battle buses, and the dodgy campaign funding deals that come back to haunt you years later? Where's Jennifer's ear? [On the side of Jennifer's head? - Anatomy Ed]
A few more minor complaints before I conclude with something along the lines of, "If you know the name of your MP, voted at the last election, and are still angry about the Dodgy Dossier, buy Dem2." It's a shame, though not a huge surprise considering the size of Positech, that foreign policy is represented so crudely. The wider world consists of a GDP-influencing global economy assessment (boom/recession/stable) a handful of inter-connected stats and polices such as 'foreign aid' and 'international trade', and occasional events like embassy bombings, famines and invasions. It all feels pretty random to be honest. Hopefully in Dem3 there will be greater definition.
Hopefully there will be a few more laughs too. Slough-based life sim Kudos proved that Cliff has a great sense of humour and a keen eye for human quirks. Sadly, there's little sign of wit or warmth in Dem2. Despite plentiful opportunities for satire, none of the in-game text or images raise a smile. Example: when one of your ministers gets involved in a sex scandal the picture that illustrates the message shows a couple snogging rather than a goat in crotchless panties. Unforgivable.
The faint odour of carbolic and machine oil that hangs over Dem2 means that I can only really recommend it to those gamers that know the name of their MP, voted at the last election, and are still angry about the Dodgy Dossier (see, I told you I'd say that). Those of you that don't fit this criteria can use the GBP 13 that you didn't spend on the game to emigrate to somewhere like Burma or China. Democracy is wasted on apathetic folk like you! Your grandfathers didn't fight fascism so that you could etc., etc., etc.