Neverdark's curious blend of influences make it just as much about winning 'hearts and minds' as it does territory control

By Ian Boudreau 29 Mar 2019 0

Simteract was showing their upcoming cyberpunk strategy-tactics hybrid Neverdark on the expo floor at GDC last week. After several days of prowling around downtown San Francisco, I was eager to get a closer look at the urban-focused game, which Slitherine announced in the inaugural Home of Wargamers livestream early this month.

Unfortunately, messaging discipline being what it is, the Simteract folks didn’t have a hands-on demo of Neverdark available to try at the show, and they weren’t ready to offer many new back-of-the-box details about their upcoming game. But after talking with product director Miki Majka and Simteract CTO Greg Ociepka a bit about the inspirations and aspirations for Neverdark, I came away with a better understanding of the game’s scope and how it’ll play.

To bring everyone up to speed, Neverdark is a pausable real-time strategy game set in three major cities immediately after an event that shuts off the world’s electricity grid. People from outlying areas have sought sanctuary in the cities, but rival factions with sinister intent are vying for control. There’s a pausable real-time strategy layer that includes the city you’ve chosen - Paris, New York, or Tokyo - and then a turn-based tactical layer for resolving encounters and missions you pick up as you try to win over the local population, which is collectively huddling in the dark.

You’ll be working to set up military depots and barracks, forage for resources, and compete for territory control with other factions. And you’ll be setting policies for the zones you control. This is where Neverdark sets itself apart - your goal isn’t necessarily to brute-force your way through a darkened city centre, it’s ultimately to gain the support and (potentially) trust of the population. Neverdark will let you approach this problem from a number of ways, and an AI director will be watching your choices and creating appropriate reactive events. The choices you make in terms of policy and action - am I going to rule with an iron fist, or seek out peaceful solutions first - will ripple across the city, impacting both you and your computer-controlled opponents.

Speaking of opponents, Neverdark takes an interesting if simple approach to diplomacy. Rather than the kinds of diplomatic dialog boxes many of us have become accustomed to in the Civilization series and basically anything made by Paradox, Neverdark’s diplomacy is entirely governed by the AI’s reaction to what it actually sees you doing. This might dismay some players who like striking (and breaking) bargains with the competition, but in the grim darkness of the electricity-free future, there is no enforcement mechanism for treaties.

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However, you will be able to establish friendly relations with other factions by sending one of your ‘specialists’ for a parlay. Neverdark’s specialists are your primary means of managing the strategic situation, and they’ll have skills that can make them good at negotiation, combat, reconnaissance, and more.

What I found perhaps most interesting was that in Neverdark, you’re primarily competing for influence among the population. While there are several victory conditions, it’s not square yardage that generally matters most. And together with its basic premise of establishing a faction in an inhabited city, Neverdark sounds an awful lot like a counter-insurgency game.

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The near-future post-apocalypse setting makes for a perfect testing ground on which to explore the ideas of COIN, without taking on the political and historical baggage of real-world military occupations. Winning “hearts and minds” is central to COIN doctrine, and while Neverdark does have a cover-based tactical combat system, it’s as much a game about exerting influence over a social system. As your influence grows, either by capturing city real estate or responding to emergent events, you’ll find that your little community becomes increasingly difficult to manage - and here, the designers say Frostpunk is a helpful comparison.

We have yet to see what the turn-based tactics portion of Neverdark looks like, but the glossy pamphlet Simteract handed out at GDC contained some promising morsels - such as riot shield troops who can act as mobile cover for your other soldiers. The troops you have on hand in an encounter will be somewhat determined by how you’ve repurposed nearby buildings, which creates another interesting wrinkle in the Like-XCOM-but blueprint.

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The last important point I’ll bring up is that while Neverdark’s specs might make you think, as I did, that it was a long-session affair like Europa Universalis or Total War, the developers told me that each game of Neverdark should run from one to four hours, depending on the size of the map you select at the outset. It’s a game that’s meant to be played repeatedly, and you should be able to complete a single ‘campaign’ in a session or two. That’ll be disappointing if you were hoping for a new grand strategy-style experience, but personally I appreciate the more focused game Simteract is going for here.

Taking what we’ve learned so far together, Neverdark is shaping up to be a very interesting title, and one that’ll be particularly worth keeping an eye on if you’re an XCOM fan who’s been thinking about making the jump into grand strategy. Neverdark may end up serving as a handy bridge to span those worlds. I still have questions about the tactical layer, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Neverdark’s social systems and policy decisions interact and play against each other. It’ll be out sometime this year.

Neverdark will be available from Steam & the Slitherine store.



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