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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Developer: 11 bit studios
Release Date: April 24, 2018


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PC Preview - 'Frostpunk'

by Thomas Wilde on July 5, 2017 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

A steampunk-themed strategy game on a frozen world, Frostpunk asks what choices you would be willing to make and how far could you bend morality to stay alive.

In Europe, 1816 was known as the "Year Without A Summer," when a couple of recent volcanic eruptions caused a slight worldwide temperature drop. The result was a famine in the Northern Hemisphere and a period of time that's sometimes called the Little Ice Age. (It also led to the rainy summer that caused Mary Shelley to spend all her time indoors, where she would end up writing Frankenstein.)

In the world of Frostpunk, the "Year Without A Summer" never ended. The entire world is locked in endless snow and ice, which has led to an embrace of coal-fired steam power, not just for electricity, but also for heat.

You're the leader of a group of survivors who have ended up crashed and marooned in a snowy crater somewhere, far from civilization or help. Your people have managed to get a generator going, which provides a narrow band of habitable temperatures around it, but you need to keep finding coal to power it. Worse, if you intend to survive, you'll need to use your limited available manpower to construct shelter, erect buildings to expand your settlement, and potentially make some very harsh choices.

Frostpunk is set across 30 to 40 days' time, at which point its story will come to an end. As the leader, you get to juggle limited resources, manage your population's available workers, and build a settlement in a circular radius away from the massive generator that's barely keeping your people alive. From the word "go," you'll be trying to keep your people alive by any means necessary, balancing their Hope against their Discontent, as evidenced by the red and blue bars on the center bottom of your screen.

You can be pragmatic — attempt to cure sick workers with experimental techniques, exchanging some Discontent for more available manpower and fewer unproductive citizens — or abandon civilization's tenets entirely in the name of getting a little more done, or stretching your food just a little further. It's all a question of whether you want to be a paragon of civic virtue with a half-full graveyard, or a small tyrant in the making with well-fed, healthy citizens who are a stone's throw away from violent revolution; the game asks you to balance productivity against humanity, in the name of figuring out what you will and won't do in the name of survival.

The part of Frostpunk that struck me as funny, in a sort of black-comedy way, is how you can shape your society's laws. At the start of the game, you're leading a bunch of refugees without a real nation, but you can begin to write down strictures for them to follow, with a new stricture becoming available every so often as you play. This is to determine your society's mores; is it okay for children to work, and if so, where? Is cannibalism ever acceptable? Should you try to stretch your food supplies by adding sawdust to everything? It's a sort of ethical tech tree for passive buffs to your town, and none of them come without an attached drawback. There are no easy choices.

The productivity angle is to keep your villagers on their feet. You need them to mine for coal, build structures, and research further technological improvements. The first roadblock, at least in the E3 demo, was building a signal tower, with an attached hot-air balloon for your scouts, so you can expand your operation to nearby areas. You can extend roads to distant resource nodes like coal mines to make it easier and faster for your villagers to get to and from them, build mess halls and medical tents to keep your villagers on their feet, and gradually end up with an organically constructed steampunk Victorian village. There are currently plans for a sandbox mode, so you can spend all your time going SimCity on your snow crater, but it might not make it in by the game's launch.

Frostpunk, as I didn't find out until later, is by the same studio that created This War of Mine, and I feel like I should've realized that earlier just from context. It's got a touch of the same bleak atmosphere, and the same preoccupation with making difficult choices, particularly those that balance your basic humanity against your desire to survive. At the same time, however, when you see it in motion, it reminds me of the resource-gathering/base-building phase of an RTS, just stretched out and balanced with the challenge of keeping your citizens both acceptably happy and reasonably productive at the same time.

Basically, it's like this: If you like the idea of building a potentially oppressive pseudo-Victorian steam village at the end of the world, where you will carefully judge the merits of child labor and ritual cannibalism, then you have found your game. If nothing else, Frostpunk has a certain air of deliberate melancholy that I've found hard to shake.

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