Review: MULE Returns

By Kelsey Rinella 27 Nov 2013 0
An unambiguous demonstration of the terribleness of the AI. All three AIs need energy. Clearly, Starbucks has a growth opportunity on the planet Irata.

MULE Returns represents an attempt to bring 1983's M.U.L.E. to a new generation, a game which merits the renaissance because it introduced effective same-device multiplayer back when the device in question was an Atari computer. That it managed it using real-time auctions and without violence of any kind made it seem sort of like an overachiever in the innovation Olympics. It also has a semi-cooperative element, in which only one player can win, but it's possible for all to lose, which creates a pressure for players to make deals, which keeps M.U.L.E. highly interactive.

Sadly, MULE Returns lacks everything that made M.U.L.E. notable: it has no multiplayer, and the AI is so simple that it's almost completely uninteresting to play against. Reviving a 30-year-old game has to be a labor of love, but MULE Returns needed a little more of it.

This release is similar in many ways to a Kickstarter pitch. Successful pitches generally have a product which is already relatively advanced in its creation, allowing potential backers enough information to make a reasonably informed decision. MULE Returns has an interface which is complete and functional, the artwork and animations are done, and there's even a rudimentary AI which lets you get a sense for the basics. Between the capable work they've already done (admittedly, the style of the art isn't to my taste, but I've seen reference made to an intent to release an 8-bit graphical option) and the combination of nostalgia and historical interest, they have the basis for a pretty good pitch. By releasing now, they get an influx of cash which may help tide them over, they are assured of a release during 2013, which means it comes a pleasingly round 30 years after the original, and they'll get feedback from a wider array of both players and, likely, devices, than they could otherwise easily recruit.

Viewed through the lens of Kickstarter pitches, I can see some merit in MULE Returns. As a full release, though, it's as bad as this analogy*.

25 seconds doesn't seem like much, does it? It really, really is. Everybody's sold all their surplus energy, but there's 25 seconds left in the auction for someone to make a fantastically obvious blunder.

MULE Returns is a buggy economic game where players compete to settle the wild frontier planet of Irata. The planet has different resources that you can harvest from the plots of land that you claim, but you don't have enough resources to harvest everything, meaning you'll have to trade trading for those resources of which you're short with your competitors. Trading happens via an auction at the end of each turn.

The problem is that the AI is so poor that it avoids all of the interesting interactions. It never sells land, so land swaps to maximize production are impossible. It adopts a very simple strategy during the auctions, so there's no question of brinksmanship on prices as the time runs out--instead, auctions are almost universally concluded to everyone's satisfaction in the first few seconds. After that, nothing happens for the remainder of the compulsory 30-second auction--you just wait purposelessly, like an old man pausing to wonder where he put his car keys while holding them in his hand.

When you try to help out the AIs which have spent themselves into oblivion (or perhaps been ruined by a random event), just to improve the overall health of the colony, they can't figure out how to dig themselves out of their hole. So you grow enough food and generate enough energy to help them get on their feet, but they can't figure out that they need to liquidate something in order to buy the necessities. You can lead a MULE to water, but you can't make him play very well.

What's left is a basic economic game with vestigial elements pointing to all sorts of tantalizingly cool stuff that never happens. The AI never even competes at hunting the wampus, a cute homage to a computer gaming classic which was a decade old when M.U.L.E. came out, but a bit of a whimsical oddity in an otherwise spare set of mechanics. So you can head for the hills to collect its bounty, but there's no element of racing to get there. You can try to predict the market, but the AIs make such puzzling decisions that simply by following the most obvious, balanced approach, you'll end up better off than they and able to turn a profit. Since you can't effectively help them, you never face any tension between helping them do well enough to improve your colony but not so well they threaten to beat you.

MULE Returns is an interesting lesson in how a small fraction of a game can be crucial for all of its interesting dynamics to emerge. Once multiplayer is patched in, I can imagine this being tremendously interesting and exhilarating if played with others in the same room, or if they have audio chat built-in. There isn't enough here yet to know how well that will be implemented, though, and what is here doesn't stand on its own as anything but a basic tutorial for the real game, which is yet to come.

*I may have just discovered a new version of the Liar Paradox. I'm actually really jazzed about this.

Review: MULE Returns

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