Back in 1997, a game was released by Acclaim on MS DOS and then ported to Playstation in 1998. It was a very difficult game, which took on a life of its own with a dedicated following that enjoyed its sense of humour, its challenge and, probably most importantly, its playability. This game was Constructor, developed by System 3 and it was one of the first games to successfully make the leap from PC to console in the strategy market (apart from real time games like the Command & Conquer series and possibly Sim City on SNES).
The aim of the game was simple. Build houses, get tenants, compete against the computer players (or friends on a LAN) in building more and gaining control, whilst your tenants become more unruly and moan… A lot. The game had a little bit of the dodgy dealing cockney kind of 1960s feel about it. You’d probably get the sense of the camaraderie from the original Guy Ritchie movies like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrells, but it probably owes a lot more to the late George Cole’s Authur Daley from the Minder TV series. The problem with the game was that it was incredibly difficult. The dedication you’d need to keep any semblance of control, keeping tabs on the thugs, builders, tenants and the opposition whilst everything potentially crumbles around you, was immense. Of course as video gamers, we loved it and lapped it up like cats with a saucer of milk.
But of course it isn’t 1997 anymore. It’s 2015 and the original game, re-released a few years ago on PSN and GOG, has certainly aged. The humour and style is still there but the years have not been kind to its 256 colour palette, its very close view or its steep learning curve. And in this age of remasters, forgotten classics and current generation accessibility, the game is going to return. Recently announced by System 3, Constructor HD is coming to PC, Xbox One and PS4 in 2016, in the hands of original developer John Twiddy. Why? Well in his words “of all the games I’ve done, this is probably the one I enjoyed the most.”
It hasn’t been for the want of trying though, as John told me after seeing the game at Gamescom “I know it’s taken a long time to get around to it, but it was never the right time. We always planned to do something.” Over the years of course the technology has moved along so that System 3 can improve on the game and give the fans, and hopefully new converts, something they’ll enjoy. A lot has certainly changed to make it more accessible, and I’m not just talking about the however many million more colours there are.
Firstly, the game itself is exactly the same. Same premise, same enjoyable caricatures of British or more London stereotypes, same neat animations and unique ways of dealing with problems. Thugs can still be deployed to take over a property to intentionally piss off your tenants. Or repair men can fix, or cause, any issue that the ever more demanding occupants of your properties may come up with. You’ll have local mills and cement works ready to give you the tools and supplies you need to build your property empire. All of them though are lovingly upgraded from the original drawings to the new HD era. But the best thing though, by far, is the upgrading of the user interface.
On the face of it, it’s exactly the same design as it was in 1997. A right sided tool bar with a ticker up top and the game being displayed in a window. But now, thanks to screen ratios and better design tools, the toolbar is much more free. It’s a part of the game window rather than your game window being a part of it. The essential information is now conveniently positioned on the sides of the screen, so as to allow more game space. The biggest improvement in this though though is in the map and view itself. as you can zoom out much further and see much more of the maps that you are playing.
One of the biggest cruxes of the original game was the limited view that you had. Another crux was that the sub-menu screens dominated the whole playing area. When you clicked to see about a house or move tenants in or any kind of sub menu, it literally took over and was a bit clumsy. But now, these menus fit on the same screen and are mostly opaque so you are never fully taken out of the action of the game. And, thanks to the original simple design of the menu, the controller works perfectly with them. There are some that still need you to go deeper like selecting individual houses but for the main part of your game, construction and assigning your workforce, you’re never away from the map.
“Because the original Playstation version was a straight port of the PC version, it never really worked that well. It was always a bit slow,” John tells me. “Where as now, with the shortcut keys I actually find it easier to play with the controller than I did with the keyboard and mouse originally.” Back in the PC/PSX days, you could have a keyboard and mouse controller, which was alright but never spot on for the PlayStation. But as John told me, the use of the controllers now allows for very quick and easy accessing of various options and submenus. Something that is a lot easier thanks to the bigger screen, easier controls and very fluid shortcuts. Of course the biggest part of all of these improvements is that game retains what it originally had, which was fun by the bucket loads.
And it has. The demo we were shown allowed us to flood an enraged tenant out of their apartment. Another allowed us to have a Young Ones-esque perpetual house party, much to the annoyance of the occupants. The wooden fences went up around an empty lot that we selected and a team of builders came in and erected a house. We made someone else happy by giving them a rather garish iron fence around their property. The metro system allows for super fast travel and the yard, your base of operations, still has that backwater hut feel about it. The kind of trailer that you’d see at the back of a scrap yard and be impressed that there’d be a fax machine in it, regardless of whether it was plugged in or not.
The game looks great of course as the original material was cartoonish and comical enough that it kind of transcends its age. In fact the only thing that really dated Constructor was the technology and graphics. So Constructor HD really doesn’t have that much change in its design. The only thing it really has changed is the aspect ratio and the easier, less intrusive sub menu system. Although the game has had some modifications to its famously unforgiving difficulty.
It’s all about rebalancing the game, John tells me. “People got overpowered by the complaints, so we’re reigning that back in to give more balanced gameplay. For the story, similarly, we’ve got new tutorial modes because it is quite a difficult game to get in to. So we’re trying to make it for a more modern audience who want a bit more ‘pick-up-and-play’ and try and improve it for them.” But they are keeping the masochistic difficulty level. “You have to make it difficult to give someone a challenge,” according to John.
Of course it might well be the right time to start looking at strategy games on consoles. It’s not been a popular genre for the twin analogue stick machines, but Zoo Tycoon is a pretty decent game. Civilization Revolution was a fantastic game on console and the Tropico series seems to have made the leap superbly. There probably hasn’t been a better time, especially with the announcement of Halo Wars 2, for a strategy IP to make a comeback. Constructor HD will probably irk the more casual gamer and if it does, then expect the boys around to trash your house and get you to move out, you complaining tenant!
Constructor HD is due for release in January 2016 for PC, Xbox One and PS4.