Four years seem to be making a lot of difference in the real American political landscape, but things haven't changed all that much in the virtual one created by Stardock. The Political Machine 2008 is nearly indistinguishable from its 2004 predecessor, with the same board-game-style mechanics, fast pace, and charming personality. Although it may be a bit disappointing to see that the new boss is pretty much the same as the old boss, the basic turn-based gameplay remains as catchy as ever, and new features such as alternate-world scenarios and an in-depth candidate editor freshen up this familiar face.
Sort of. If you didn't like the original Political Machine, or grew tired of using it to beat up on Dubya during the past few years, there isn't much here to draw you back to the table. Core game mechanics haven't changed at all. You still take the role of a U.S. presidential candidate with 41 weeks to go before election day. You still zip around the country like a lunatic during each turn, building campaign headquarters, giving speeches, raising money, and approving ad campaigns until your cash or your stamina points run out. And you still work hard at earning the endorsements of groups including the gun lobby, and hiring political operatives who spin the issues and smear opponents.
The one somewhat significant alteration is the addition of PR clout, earned by the construction of new buildings called Outreach Centers. However, all this does is replace political capital as the currency used to purchase endorsements from lobby groups, so it doesn't require much of an adjustment to your playing style. Instead of a single stream of resources used to buy endorsements and operatives, you now have to deal with two. If you played the original game, you'll be able to sit down here and start blazing a trail to the White House without even a glance at the tutorials.
Nevertheless, this isn't a carbon copy. The old 2D map has been replaced by a full 3D one that is much easier to read, and the comic-strip candidates have been swapped out for rather creepy-looking bobblehead dolls. Consequently, the game at least looks strikingly different and much more modern. Many issues from the front lines of the campaign have been pulled from today's headlines. Pressing concerns include high gas prices, withdrawing from Iraq, addressing climate change, and other political talking points that you've been hearing nonstop on the news during the past year. New candidates are also featured this time around. Obama is the star, of course, but lesser lights such as Bill Richardson and Mitt Romney are also on the docket, along with oddball choices such as Lord Kona, a genocidal Drengin supremo from Stardock's Galactic Civilizations franchise. (Lord Kona unfortunately looks like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle here in bobblehead form.) A detailed new candidate editor allows you to make your own bobblehead presidential wannabe, too, and allows you to customize everything from appearance to smarts to political leanings.
Four new scenarios have been included for quick solo play or competition online against human presidential wannabes (unfortunately, you can't play them in the ladder-style single-player campaign). The scenarios range from the 2008 and 1860 US elections, to an across-the-pond election that takes place in a high-school student's Europe with misnamed countries and extra nations, and a Drengin election on the evil aliens' homeworld. (That Electoral College system really gets around.) These liven things up with some new issues, but the mechanics that you use to address them are largely unchanged.
Although all of the new features add breadth to what was a somewhat limited package four years ago, they don't lend the game a great deal of depth. Gameplay is still fairly formulaic and repetitive. Whether you're battling for leadership of the USA, a Europe that includes Japan, or the home planet of the murderous Drengin, you still start off every game by laying down campaign headquarters in key states that have loads of electoral votes, then move on to fighting for winnable battleground states with ads, political operatives, and speeches. You don't have a lot of room to experiment because the game doesn't give you a lot of credible options, especially when starting out in a new election campaign. If you don't get your buildings on the ground right away to lay the foundation for what comes later, you'll have to buy a ticket to the inauguration in January. This is certainly true to life, but it does limit your choices and ramp up repetition.
All in all, there is a real same-old, same-old feel here. Many of the issues that you're debating seem pulled from the 2004 game. Granted, such concepts as lower taxes, gun control, and abortion sure haven't gone anywhere in the past four years. But it's still a little dreary to be dealing with them again, in the exact same way as you did in the previous game. The same can be said for lobbying groups, which also don't vary much. Alternative scenarios actually cut the number of these organizations down to six each from the default 10, and they're all generic groups with goofy names like The Lethargic Workers Union of Europa and Concerned Parents for Galactic Domination. Even those funny, random interviews on TV talk shows are pretty much identical no matter what scenario you're playing, with robots on Drengi, and shows like Boxcar Charlie's News Romp replacing the standard Barry King Live broadcast in the 1860 US.
With all that said, you get a lot of game for a budget $20 price tag, and most of these gripes are more along the lines of nitpicking an elegant design that can easily turn into a compulsion. Everything remains incredibly appealing, and matches move along at such a fast pace that it's unlikely you'll ever get bored. You're more apt to get hooked and play game after game trying to crush all of the opponents thrown your way (who doesn't like smacking around Jimmy Carter?), or to fixate on attempting to run the table by turning every state the desired red or blue. If you're into European strategy board games, which generally rely on the same simple-yet-addictive fundamentals, you'll find it awfully tough to pull yourself away. Every game also develops its own storyline, which usually focuses on the fight for a battleground state. One election might come down to the wire in Illinois, with your decision to hammer on lower taxes giving you a last-minute edge. Another might revolve around the impact of TV ads in Ohio or center on the role of political operatives swinging the vote a few percentage points in California. Repetition or not, The Political Machine 2008 provides nail-biting drama in the final weeks of every campaign, especially when you're competing at higher difficulty levels against an opponent that really knows how to make use of his or her resources.
Even though it partially coasts on past glories, The Political Machine 2008 is one awfully addictive game. The easy-to-learn, tough-to-master style of play will draw you in, despite the vague feeling of being let down by the similarities between this new game and its four-year-old predecessor.