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Banished | The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Two stories of struggling to survive


Game review - Banished

Game summary: Control a group of exiled travellers who decide to restart their lives in a new land. They have only the clothes on their backs and a cart filled with supplies from their homeland. The townspeople are your primary resource. (Steam)

I used to be quite a big fan of city-building games like Banished back when I was younger (going to show my age now...), with games like Caesar III and Pharaoh getting a lot of time and attention from me. It's not exactly the biggest-selling type of game though, so new titles are are and there haven't been many others released since this game first came out back in 2014 either.

A warning to start off with: the tutorial is barely worthy of the title. It really does introduce you to the most basic concepts and little else, meaning that starting a proper game of your own can be a little overwhelming with all options available to you from the start. It would've been useful to just allow the player to continue the tutorial settlements as a full game - at least you'd have some familiarity with the surroundings.

The reason that's so important when starting is that each map in Banished is randomly-generated, and you can enter a combination of numbers yourself to generate settings for yourself. It's a neat feature as it does provide a hell of a lot of variety to the game, but it does mean some maps can be ridiculously hard from the start thanks to an awkward layout, so maybe search for some 'easy' seeds online to begin with.

Despite the tutorial not doing much to help, I do like - to a degree - that Banished just gives you every option out of the gate and lets you make mistakes. That's an important thing to note: you can - and will - make mistakes as you learn how to build a town properly, with food and housing being an obvious priority. The game's biggest problem is when things go wrong and it's not your fault.

And I'm not talking about harsh winters or other in-game challenges that are just fine and perfectly in keeping with the premise of the game. I'm talking about when the AI logic goes a bit screwy and makes everything fall apart and potentially ruin a game, which can prove incredibly frustrating. It's when this happens that you'll wish you could take more direct control.

One issue that seems to crop up semi-regularly is certain members of your population doing nothing for no apparent reason. I had chosen a location for a new house to be built, the settlement had the resources for it and a builder was available to make the thing, but a labourer wouldn't bring the materials to the site and just stood around doing nothing and held up the work.

I don't know whether this is a common bug or if it's because they were part of a group assigned to collect resources and the AI considered them part of that group and couldn't give them any more tasks until the group had finished, even if that particular labourer couldn't do anything. The population suddenly eating far more than normal and starving themselves to death has also happened more than once!

Those relatively uncommon issues aside, the only other problem I had with Banished is the limited sound design. In one respect, it's great that the music isn't particularly intrusive, but not so great when taking into account there's no dialogue and so you're left with generic sounds of people at work as the only audio details. Those details might be fine, but I just wish there was a little more substance to this side of the game.

But those are the only two things I can find to criticise about Banished, and the audio issues can easily be resolved by just listening to your own music, a podcast or an audiobook. Hell, once you've got your community stable enough early on, you could easily leave things on the 1x speed setting and get something to read while your population keep themselves busy.

And it's addictive. Oh my god, it's so addictive. I started playing and got so caught up that I lost track of time starting new settlements over and over again as I learned from my mistakes that I didn't realise how much time had passed and only noticed when I was approaching the 3.5 hour mark. The simple nature of the game really does make it an absolute pleasure to play, even if things might get a little screwy at times.

Banished is a great little city-builder, with that 'just a little bit more' feeling that will keep you playing for far longer than you think. It's simple enough to pick up and play, it looks pretty good too and has enough depth to keep you coming back and try different ways of growing your community even when it all goes wrong - even if it often feels like there's nothing you could do about it.



Movie review - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Movie summary: The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug. Bilbo Baggins is in possession of a mysterious and magical ring. (IMDb)

I know I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug at the cinema, as I did all of the Hobbit movies, but I cannot for the life of me remember what I actually thought of it after seeing it. That may well point to how forgettable it was to me at the time, which may well have been aided by the fact that people in general seemed to treat it the same way, leaving the complainers to occupy the 'critic' space and poison the well.

This isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I certainly wouldn't say it's a bad one and actually has several sequences that I enjoyed quite a lot while watching it again for this review, including a fair few incidental and innocuous moments that just made characters and moments feel a little bit stronger than they might've come across otherwise.

The problem The Desolation of Smaug has is the new material added being pretty poor, like everything to do with Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and her 'romance' with Kili (Aidan Turner), and some sequences feeling more than a little bloated and like no-one wanted to tell Peter Jackson to dial things back. Not including credits, this movie last 2.5 hours and it really shouldn't.

It's weird though, because I think the movie actually moves pretty briskly outside of these moments; when it's good, the movie is a lot of fun - it's those weaker moments that really drag it down. It helps that there seems to be a clearer view of which characters are given something to do, thankfully meaning more focus for the brilliant Martin Freeman as Bilbo and his growing relationship to the One Ring.

Yes, a number of the 'main' cast now seem like extras, but that's not a bad thing. There is also a greater divide between the twin plots of the Dwarves returning to the Lonely Mountain and Gandalf investigating the evil in Dol Guldur, meaning Ian McKellen doesn't get to interact with the others as much, but his story directly leads into The Lord of the Rings and is treated far more seriously than the Dwarf material, and is better for it.

I know that The Hobbit was written as a children's book, so it should be part-expected for a movie adaptation, but the issue I have with this trilogy is that the lighter material just doesn't fit properly with the more serious moments. It was hard to know which parts of The Desolation of Smaug take seriously when even the movie didn't seem to know, careening from deathly serious to slapstick comedy - sometimes in the same scene.

The other criticism I'd have for this movie is how poor a lot of the effects work looks, and this isn't a case of it being advances in technology making an older movie look bad either. This came out in 2013 and often looks worse than anything in the original trilogy, which ended a decade earlier! You'd think that the experience gained from the first three movies would've given them an advantage here, but apparently not.

Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy The Desolation of Smaug, even despite the ending which I do remember caused groans from the audience in the cinema for how suddenly the story stops. The cast and director seem more comfortable with the story they're telling and it's only really the issues mentioned above that bring it down - how much you like or dislike them could completely change how you see this film.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug isn't as bad a movie as many seem to think, but it does suffer hugely in comparison to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as all the Hobbit movies do. There are actually a number of really good moments here, but they are almost perfectly countered by some dreadful new material and some surprisingly sub-standard CGI work for a fictional world that set new standards for effects.




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