As it is right now, winter is popular in our part of the world. Adults have this kitsch association of a whole happy family gathered around a cozy fireplace or having romantic sleigh rides and kids dream of building snowmen and having snowball fights. Winter time also being Christmas time, there are further associations of love and peace all around. And presents! Though would you like permanent winter? Probably not.
Fiction likes to pick up on semi-realistic scenarios andtakes it from one: a group of scientists attempted to stop the Greenhouse Effect with two nuclear bombs at the poles. The controlled explosion was supposed to propel dust and steam into the atmosphere to reflect some of the sunlight. Though the calculations went wrong; the experiment went too well. With the sunlight now blocked out completely, the Earth is now caught in a permanent nuclear winter. Not such a popular scenario – because, after all, what we all like most about winter is the warm feeling we all get when it ends.
Scientific impossibilities (mammals cannot survive without at least a bit of sunlight) and obvious intrinsic contradictions in the development of the plot (probably explained by the hopeless attempt to cram material from a whole series of novels into one little game) aside, the interesting thing about the scenario is that the player takes the role of a religious cult leader. Centuries after the described event, the sun has become a legend. The mainstream scientific opinion is that it doesn't exist – only few still believe in it. Those cultists will stop at nothing to prove their belief and discover the mystic life-giving entity again.
So basically, you're playing a group of what would be called terrorists these days. The established order is represented by the Viking Union, not so much a state (those have disappeared over time), but the monopolist of the transport network. The mega trains of the Viking Union are the only thing keeping the secluded cities alive. The terrorist cult has managed to seize one such train – the– and this may finally be the means to explore, confirm the truth and convince the world.
In gameplay terms, this implies that while visiting cities is not a problem (they will talk to or trade with anyone), driving around the tracks of the Euroasian/North African continent joint through the ice is dangerous territory. Union trains try to track the prestigious stolen vehicle down and either retake or destroy it. Apparently, trains in this bleak future aren't quite what we're used to: heavily armed with cannons, machine guns, soldiers and tamed mammoths, they are equipped to withstand not only the weather conditions, but also ambushes of wolf packs or savage mole men – and the very same weapons can now also be used in train versus train battles.
One immediate goal is therefore to build up some firepower to use in the tactical real-time battles which occur on each such meeting. To buy more coaches (also of other kinds), you first have to make some money, and trading between the cities is the obvious way to go. On the way, some tracks are blocked or broken, so they can only be passed given the right (sometimes rare) repair items. And, of course, the consumes a special kind of coal which can only be mined in places appearing in random locations at random points in time on the map.
As if all of that didn't make survival hard enough already, you also have to find and follow the plot traces: find the right people to talk to, follow rumors of hidden cities or other places, find ways to cross mountains, earn the trust of key characters – all to finally topple the power of the Union by means of sabotage and battle, bringing hope to the people again. Every religious fanatics' goal, and appropriately, you employ an extreme notion of the end justifying the means: you don't just fight and mercilessly kill enemy soldiers (which would be bad enough), but just take actions like capturing and trading slaves or forcing them to do deadly manual labour for granted.
(the game) scores high on originality, from its scenario to its gameplay which defies classic genre borders without feeling the slightest bit forced. This alone makes it an instant classic. Many aspects support this status, such as the thought-out mouse interface (once you figure the hotspots out) and the gorgeous graphics (the screenshots have been taken from the AGA version, but there is little difference). On the other hand, it's just not an accessible game. At all.
To solve this game, meaning to actually beat the Union, you will need many attempts. Each attempt can take hours (if you're beaten early) or days (once you get a little more successful – but still fail in the end). So before you can even hope to have an even just remotely serious chance at success, you need to invest weeks to scout the world and slowly come to a strategy! It may still be worth it, but it's something you really have to consider before even starting.
On the way, you will notice a lot of great things, but also some design choices which may appear a little strange. Each city having only exactly one purpose, either spreading rumors and other information, trading, training and hiring soldiers or rearranging trains, is an example of the former category. While completely unrealistic (how do those non-trading cities survive?), this limitation fulfils a valuable purpose for the sake of the gameplay: it forces the player to travel more, making exploration not an end on its own, but rather an organic experience which simply happens automatically. In the same vein, capturing wild mammoths (instead of buying them for large sums) and random encounters with nomads trading special goods encourage even semi-aimless driving.
On the other hand, if exploration is the goal, the limited trade model does not support it: prices simply never change, no matter how much you buy or sell. Only the limitation of the amounts somehow saves this. And mostly, it's really the missed opportunities which feed frustration: why are the encounters with wolves or mole men handled automatically? This would have been the perfect chance to spice things up with more tactical scenes, maybe even of another kind.
Though when I talk about frustration, I don't mean the kind which you feel while playing and which would make you give up on the game once and for all. Rather, it's the kind of frustration which creeps up on you contemplating the game in retrospect. Then, you see those missed chances, the even bigger potential right there in the ambitious foundation which could have made the game even better.
It is that potential which, if it had been followed through stringently, could have avoided small slopes in the motivational curve, like the one occuring mid-game after the amazing exploration phase, but before the plot really picks up speed, which, depending on how careful the player acts, maybe stretches a bit too long. Though this is hardly uncommon in games of such epic proportions. So, to all of those whom this one slipped by on its initial release (i.e. most of mankind): give it a shot – if you have the time to really let it show its long-term strengths.