During the introductory video clip that sets up the storyline of Tom Clancy's Politika, a news reporter seeking the author's insights on the implications of Boris Yeltsin's death asks him about the stockpile of nuclear weapons controlled by the Russian military. Clancy shakes his head and lets out a sigh before saying, "There's a lot of things to worry about right now, and that's one of them."
But don't get too revved up over the prospect of flexing some nuclear muscle in your bid to become the leader of post-Yeltsin Russia: Nuclear brinksmanship simply isn't a factor in the game. That might not sound like a big deal, but take my word for it - a few thermonuclear exchanges would go a long way toward livening up this wearisome "strategy" game.
Part Risk and part Diplomacy, Politika is essentially a PC translation of a board game of the same name in which three to eight factions compete for power in Russia following the death of Yeltsin. The designers' ambitions were admirable: They wanted to incorporate the social atmosphere of board games in a PC game, using the Internet as a sort of virtual living room. The result, though, is a single-player mode that's too shallow and tedious to be engaging for any substantial length of time and a multiplayer game in which the biggest challenge is finding other players.
At the start of a game, the computer randomly places "influence tokens" representing each faction in the various regions of Russia, then each player places two representatives of his faction in unoccupied regions of the map. Once all the representatives have been assigned to regions, the computer plops three uprisings onto the map; uprisings stifle production in a region, but if you've got a representative in a region containing an uprising you can move it elsewhere.
Politika is turn-based, with each player's turn divided into five phases: production, movement, trading, challenge, and buy cards. Production is when you collect cash; movement lets you move representatives and uprisings into new regions; trading gives you the chance to swap influence tokens with and loan money to allies; and challenge allows you to compete for influence against opposing factions in a region. Buy cards adds a huge element of chance to the game; fork out some of your cash, and you receive a random card that might add the extra strength you need in a challenge - or which might be totally useless because it can only be used in a region you've already written off as a lost cause.
To make things a little more interesting, each faction has a special ability: The KGB gets to steal a random card from another faction, for instance, while the military can move any uprising without having a representative in the region. And every phase of the game - how much production money you earn, how far a representative can travel, how strong a defense to a challenge is - is affected by a host of factors, from the playing of special cards to outside occurrences such as inflation.
Gaining influence tokens is the biggest factor in achieving the ultimate goal, and to do that you "challenge" an opposing faction in a region where one of your representatives is located. Challenges are resolved by rolling dice, with the attacker buying dice and both sides playing cards that can increase the number of dice they roll. Once the last turn is finished, you're treated to a video that announces which faction gained control - and if it's a flat-out tie (highly unlikely), you learn that Russia has completely collapsed and is facing invasion from every country surrounding it. (There're supposed to be videos of "breaking news reports," but the only videos are at the beginning and the end.)
All this could actually be a lot of fun - but because it apparently hasn't been modified at all for its PC translation, it fails either to inspire or excite. The single-player game is an exercise in tedium: Phases drag on interminably even during computer-controlled factions' turns, in part because the phases are timed and you must manually skip to the next phase when the computer is finished. Is it too much to ask that the program pop up a message announcing a computer-controlled faction has finished a phase instead of forcing the player to end the move for his opponent? I don't think so.
The game screen is almost completely static, with only a few spartan animations to indicate representatives moving around the board, and an almost total lack of sound effects gives the whole affair a lifeless feel. Especially annoying is the hard-coded 640x480 display: If you choose to keep the game message box open (the only way to be sure what the hell is transpiring), several of the regions at the bottom of the map are hidden from view. If this game had been designed to utilize the entire desktop, you could keep all sorts of important info boxes open at once. Would that have been so hard to do? Again, I don't think so.
With only two view modes, it's always difficult to see what's going on - things are too tiny in the "strategic" view, and the choppy scrolling in zoom mode makes exploring the map a chore. When important messages appear - a faction proposing an alliance with you, for example - you can't move them out of the way in order to assess the total situation before making your decision. And the only way to see who's formed or broken an alliance is to scroll through the game message window and find the announcement. But even if the presentation were picture-perfect, a single-player game of Politika would still be sleep-inducing. Most of the time you'll be sitting on your hands as you wait for the computer-controlled factions to plod through each phase, then you'll plod through your phase. Alliances? Yes, you can make them, but despite the game's "sophisticated artificial intelligence" about the only thing to be gained by allying with a faction is extra dice to roll when you're being attacked: It must have been too much trouble to program the AI opponents to remember who loaned them money or to decide which card to offer in a trade.
In short, there's simply nothing in the single-player game that will bring you back to it: It's about as appealing as a bowl of day-old borscht. To be fair, though, Politika is intended as a multiplayer game, and it does provide a little more excitement when you play online. When several human players play, the trading of cards, money, and influence results in wildly shifting fortunes, with promises made and broken as the need arises. But the same problems of pacing and interface design that plague the single-player game chip away at the multiplayer mode as well - not to mention that the multiplayer game has problems of its own.
A big flaw is that the only way to chat is by signing up for a game in need of players. Come on - why should you have to enter a game just to chat? There is a Politika chat room at the game's web site, but it's silly to have someone open a web browser when a chat interface is in place in the game software. And once you do get into a game, lag can cause you to move a piece where you didn't want it to go; I know, because I sent an uprising into an ally's region because the game "hiccuped" as I was dragging the icon into position.
The biggest obstacle to multiplayer action, though, is a serious one: finding someone to play against. Every time I checked for games, there were only one or two in progress at most - and hardly any postings in the Politika forum requesting opponents.
It's easy to see how the board game incarnation of Politika could be a hoot: Gather a few friends, hoist a few vodkas, and then start wheeling and dealing your way into power. On the PC, though, Politika's low production values, simplistic gameplay, and lack of opponents render it as obsolete as the Iron Curtain.