Musical Monday: “Roll Me In” (Katamari Damacy)

Fittingly for such a unique game, Katamari Damacy also had some rather unique music (complete with rolling-themed lyrics).  This is one of my favourite pieces, smooth and listenable – enjoy!

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Author Q&A: Django Wexler, author of The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library

The Thousand Names UK coverI am pleased to present my first author interview. Django Wexler is the author of the Shadow Campaigns, a “gunpowder fantasy” series where clashing armies echo the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while magic-users wage a covert war in the shadows. After reading the first book, The Thousand Names, I was hooked. His other works include The Forbidden Library, a young adult series.

Read on for more:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site!

 I’d like to begin by asking about your journey as a writer. You got started via an interest in table-top RPGs, then wrote a number of novels before bursting onto the scene with The Thousand Names in 2013. How has your writing developed, during and since?

The state of my writing is a very hard thing for me to track from the inside, as it were.  The first thing to realize is that I wrote a lot of stuff that never has (or will be) published, so by the time Memories of Empire, my first small-press book, came out, I’d had a lot of practice with trunk novels or fan-fiction.  The Thousand Names was another three or four novels later, and close to five years, so it’s quite a jump!

One thing I’ve definitely observed is I’ve lost my taste for grand, over-complicated plots.  I had a real yearning all through my gaming years to do something enormously epic in scope, and at one point I actually tried writing it — it was going to be nineteen books long, with huge continental maps and oceans of backstory, and one of those timelines that starts with “0: The Gods Create The World”.  Fortunately I was dissuaded after only one novel from going on with it, because it would have been impossible to sell, but the further I come the less I really want to do something like that.  I have too many different ideas to spend twenty years on one of them.

However!  Nothing is every truly wasted.  The whole Shadow Campaigns series actually came from one minor thread that was supposed to be woven into this mega-project, and another thing that I’m working on came from another.

 

How would you describe your current books? And what can you tell us about the other project that you’re working on?

The Shadow Campaigns is a fantasy loosely based on the Napoleonic Wars.  It originally began as a project to do a fantasy retelling of the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, inspired by S.M. Stirling and David Drake’s The General series, which is the story of Belisarius.  After I started writing it, though, it changed a lot, so it’s now only very vaguely a historical analogue.  I pitched it as “A Song of Ice and Fire with guns” — a military/political fantasy set in the age of muskets and cavalry charges.

As for the next project, I have to remain fairly close-mouthed about it.  There are quite a few on the horizon, though!  More when I’m allowed to say.

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Shield of civilisation: Thoughts on Total Warhammer

Total Warhammer - the emperor strikes backI am the shield that guards the realms of man. When the Vampire Counts marched west into the fragmented, bickering human principalities, it was the recently crowned Emperor, Karl Franz, who came to the rescue. And when the battle hung in the balance, the weary human warriors struggling against the Vampire Count himself, it was the Emperor who charged up on horseback to deliver the final blow.

When the forces of Chaos swept south and west, razing all before them, it was the Empire that rallied resistance. My first pitched battle against Chaos was Pyrrhic, as charging Chaos monsters trampled my infantry. Only weight of numbers saved the day. I rebuilt, and with help from the free peoples of the world, my new, improved armies – bristling with greatswords, knights, and artillery – defeated the last Chaos hordes.

And finally, when Chaos was no more, and the orcish hordes to the south were beaten back, it was time to settle the final score with the Vampire Counts.  An uneasy peace had prevailed in the face of the common enemy, Chaos. Now it was the Vampires’ turn to experience the power of the human war machine. Sandwiched between me to the west, Chaos to the north, and orcs and dwarfs to the south, the Vampires had lost their chance to expand, so my campaign was anticlimactic. My troops swept the Vampires aside, fought off an orc army eager for a rematch, and occupied the last settlement required to win. Victory!

Game of the Year contender. A triumphant fusion of theme and mechanics, Total War: Warhammer is intense, challenging, and often spectacular1.  From the early game, when I plotted how to bring a wealthy city-state into the imperial fold, to the mid-game, when I juggled human and inhuman foes, to the late game, when I led a Lord of the Rings-style alliance that saw armies marching from the far corners of the earth to help fight Chaos, Total Warhammer cast me as the star of a fantasy epic about uniting humanity against the coming darkness. This was the experience promised before release, and wow, did the game deliver.

More detailed thoughts below:

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  1. I played on Hard campaign difficulty, Normal battle difficulty.
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Do you like written LPs and AARs?

If so, I’d really appreciate your help filling in this survey. I love reading and writing After-Action Reports and Let’s Plays, and I’d like to start a spin-off website collecting them (effectively, Twitch for the written word). The survey will only take a couple of minutes and will help me refine ideas for the website. Results so far can be seen here – thanks for your help!

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Musical Monday: “Faster than Light (instrumental)” (Stellaris), composed by Andreas Waldetoft

This is one of my favourite pieces of music in Stellaris, embodying the game’s – and the science fiction genre’s – spirit of exploration and discovery. At its start, it’s understated and almost ethereal; it takes on a questing, inquisitive tone around 0:45; and finally blossoms into liveliness at 2:40. Enjoy!

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Clippings: Civilising the Kaldwins

2016 looks to be a bumper year for strategy games, based on the release of XCOM 2 (my current pick for GOTY), Banner Saga 2, Stellaris, Total War: Warhammer, Hearts of Iron IV, and now Civilization VI. While the Civ 6 previews all seem to be based on the same briefing, PC Gamer has also conducted a follow-up interview.

In other news:

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Space Opera, Act I: Thoughts on Stellaris

Stellaris ESS startHumanity triumphant! My first game of Stellaris was a short one, as my fledgling humans were ground to dust by a nearby computer player. My second was more successful. Under the banner of the Empire of the Shimmering Stars, humanity spread out from the Deneb system – befriending the pre-spaceflight Immathurans, bringing more species and more worlds under its sway.

Stellaris - Immathurans encounteredSome of humanity’s neighbours turned out to be friendly, or at least benevolent neutrals. I signed migration treaties, allowing us to populate one another’s worlds. Some were hostile. When my first spacefleet was destroyed in a bid to protect my Immathuran proteges, I built a second one, the Remembrance Fleet. The Remembrance Fleet went on to turn the tables, and the would-be aggressors became first vassals and then subjects.

On and on the human tide rolled, until finally I stretched too far. The Ubaric Progenitors, an ancient “Fallen Empire” (ornery precursor races populating the Stellaris galaxy), objected to my colonies near their borders. The Remembrance Fleet fought them off – just. I attempted to take the war to the Ubari capital, an ancient ringworld. It was a disaster: the combined Ubari forces crushed mine. In the ensuing peace treaty, the Ubari forced me to abandon a swathe of colonies, and to add insult to injury, assassinated my leader.

Fortunately, the Shimmering Stars had the size and strategic depth to recover. Rebuilt newer and stronger, my Grand Fleet fought off an extra-galactic invasion (one of Stellaris’ “late-game crises”)… and returned to unfinished business. Once again, a human fleet, supported by allied and vassal contingents, appeared above the Ubari ringworld.

Stellaris grand fleet 2This time, the allies outgunned the Ubari several times to one. One by one, the Ubari warships and starbases winked out. The Ubari leaders surrendered. The bronze eagle flag of the Shimmering Stars flew over a ringworld that was already old when the first humans rubbed sticks together to make fire.

Stellaris defeated UbaricHumanity now presides over the galaxy’s dominant empire. No threats remain. The empire itself is home to many species, most co-existing happily, and its highest offices are open to leaders from all species. That, for me, is victory!

Stellaris end mapGood game, 1-2 expansions away from potential greatness. Stellaris’ appeal rested on two promises: (1) a vibrant science-fiction universe, and (2) blending Paradox’s specialty, the grand strategy game, with the established space 4X genre. It delivers on the first; I am not convinced it delivers on the second, as its limited internal politics feel more like a traditional 4X. I suspect players will enjoy it to the extent they’re looking for an interactive science fiction epic rather than a crunchy GSG. Overall, I enjoyed my 20 hours with Stellaris, and I look forward to playing again several patches down the road. (Update: the developers have posted their roadmap for the next few updates, which look great! They address many of my issues with the game.)

Below, I elaborate:

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Musical Monday: “Brothers in Arms” (Mad Max: Fury Road), composed by Tom Holkenborg

Welcome back to Musical Monday. To celebrate the release anniversary of Mad Max: Fury Road, I present my favourite track from the movie. An action theme through and through (it plays during the canyon sequence), it begins all clash and discordance, before working up to the more hopeful note at 3:00. Enjoy!

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Clippings

The next month will be busy with strategy releases – Stellaris, Total War: Warhammer, and Hearts of Iron 4. Look forward to my Stellaris coverage once the game is out next week!

Further out, Relic has announced Dawn of War 3 – details at PC Gamer.

Interesting times for console games, with Nintendo confirming the NX for 2017 (do check out this Q&A from Nintendo’s FY16 earnings announcement), and Sony and Microsoft rumoured to be working on refreshed hardware. This retrospective on 2006 – when the PS3’s US$599 price was revealed – makes for an interesting comparison.

The Banner Saga 2 is out to a positive reception (Metacritic score 83 at time of writing). I like IGN’s and PC Invasion’s reviews – be warned that they contain spoilers for the first game.

Finally, fantasy and anime fans might be interested in this comparison of epic fantasy and shounen anime – one about heroes summoned by an external call, the other about heroes driven (or so argues that piece). Note that Django Wexler, who wrote the article, is the author of the crackingly good Shadow Campaigns series, a military/political fantasy inspired by the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. I look forward to the next in that series!

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Clippings

With Dark Souls III out to rave reviews, Eurogamer has analysed the lore of Dark Souls and Dark Souls II. Interesting read for series fans.

Meanwhile, Cold War board game Twilight Struggle has been ported to Steam. The original game is highly regarded and so far, the PC port has been technically solid. If time permits, this is one game I’d like to explore further.

In other news:

 

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Clippings: A Return to Mass Effect

The link of the week is Shamus Young’s incredibly detailed retrospective of the Mass Effect series – 41 parts and counting. Even with my limited experience of the series, I found it fascinating; just the two introductory posts (the history of Bioware and the difference between “details” and “drama”-oriented science fiction) could stand alone by themselves. Enjoy!

In other news, here is an interesting interview with Pixar president Ed Catmull on managing a creative organisation, while balancing innovation and risk.

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Arcadian Atlas Q&A, with Taylor Bair

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 7.50.35 AM copyUpdate: Arcadian Atlas‘ Kickstarter campaign is now live and can be accessed here.

Arcadian Atlas is an upcoming indie tactical RPG inspired by two of the greats – Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Read on for a Q&A with Taylor Bair, one half of the brother-and-sister team behind the game:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce us to yourselves and Twin Otter Studios.

I’m Taylor, the one typically found at the computer or walking my dog as I think of story details or gameplay tweaks for the game.

And Becca is the one with her graphic tablet working feverishly on art assets for our game.

We’re brother and sister living in Dallas and Austin, TX respectively, and we make up Twin Otter Studios.

 

Your current project, Arcadian Atlas, is a tactical RPG inspired by Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s classics, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. (The art and narrative themes — the choices people make in pursuit of the things they love, and the havoc it wreaks on a kingdom” — give me a particularly strong Tactics Ogre vibe.) What drew you to these titles? Were there any other notable inspirations?

We have a lot of inspirations, probably too many to count, though we definitely played Final Fantasy Tactics like crazy growing up. As kids we were pretty steeped in video games, particularly classic RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, and Super Mario RPG.

Something about investing in a character is probably what drew us to RPGs most. We love characters, and our story in Arcadian Atlas is very character centered – about how people become saints or monsters because of the choices they make and the ripple effect that has on Arcadia.

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Musical Monday: “Madrigal” (Emperor of the Fading Suns)

This week’s theme is taken from Emperor of the Fading Suns, a cult-classic 1990s TBS that I’ve previously raved about. EFS was – and still is – the defining video game implementation of “feudal future” science fiction, with a soundtrack to match. I’m kicking around ideas for a Let’s Play; until then, enjoy!

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Thoughts on XCOM 2

XCOM 2 victoryWorthy successor. XCOM 2 is game of the year material for me, building on what worked in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. I look forward to what Jake Solomon and team do next!

More detailed thoughts below:

This is how to balance a single-player game — “give the player interesting decisions” means “give the player an impressive choice of tools” 1 The punishing early game teaches several lessons: Protracted shootouts are dangerous. Guaranteed damage is better than relying on the odds. Stack the odds wherever possible. By the mid-game, we’ve unlocked enough abilities to put those lessons into practice. Every XCOM 2 class can do something cool: rangers can stealthily scout, sharpshooters can engage multiple targets on overwatch, grenadiers can choose between high single-target damage or area-wide de-buffs & damage over time, specialists can heal from a distance or inflict guaranteed damage, and psionics can do most of the above. (While XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within also had plenty of impressive tools — snipers in Archangel armour, run-and-gun plus rapid fire, using Mimetic Skin to sneak heavies in range for an explosive barrage — I feel XCOM 2 does a better job of making every class feel powerful, with psionics the big winner.) Balance is driven by limitations on what the player can deploy, not by making the player feel weak.

Successful fusion of strategy and RPG. At a tactical level, the Firaxis XCOM games revolve around choosing one’s favourite tools (equipment and especially character abilities), understanding how they interact, and applying that knowledge to solve individual problems — a description that could also apply to a well-designed party RPG. In turn, those problems involve multiple dimensions, such as the number and type of enemies, terrain, positioning, the mission timer, and the resources already expended (health and consumables, plus any abilities on cooldown) — factors usually associated with the strategy genre. That interplay gives these games their richness.

Music the biggest let-down. I like XCOM 2’s visuals — the architecture of the new human/alien civilisation is surprisingly lovely, masking the iron fist beneath. The ADVENT soldiers’ big, imperious arm gestures cement them as pulp baddies. XCOM operatives’ animations are as satisfying as ever, from shimmying down drainpipes to whipping out pistols, and late-game equipment looks fantastic. Set against this, the music is merely decent — a big step down from the great soundtrack of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM lategame characters

  1. Contrast Civilization: Beyond Earth, which gave the player underwhelming choices instead.
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Clippings: From Tristram to the Stars

Paradox has announced the imminent release of its next two grand strategy games — Stellaris (9 May) and Hearts of Iron IV (6 June). The gameplay video above highlights the start of a Stellaris game – it looks promising! The key will be the extent to which Stellaris can combine the best of the 4X (discovery, exploration) and grand strategy (dynamic empires) genres, while avoiding the usual late-game pitfalls, snowballing and micromanagement. This is one reason I’m so interested in the game’s AI sector governors – if implemented well, they hold out the promise of a transition to late-game “macromanagement” a la Nobunaga’s Ambition.

In other news:

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Musical Monday: Behind the Scenes with Shogun 2

Celebrating the fifth birthday of Total War: Shogun 2, this week’s Musical Monday is slightly different – a behind-the-scenes look at its taiko drum music. I was interested to learn it was recorded in Sydney by a local troupe, Taikoz. Enjoy!

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Clippings: En Route to No Man’s Sky

Short update this week – No Man’s Sky now has a release date, 21 June, and a flurry of previews have gone up. I like the preview/interview pairs from USGamer and PC Gamer; for a more personal look at NMS‘ creators — and their process of creation — check out this May 2015 article from the New Yorker.

Meanwhile, the Master of Orion reboot is now available on Steam Early Access. Previews appear scarce, and PCGamesN is downright unenthused.

Finally, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter now has a confirmed release date, 27 May (hat tip to frogbeastegg).

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Clippings: Firaxis February

Still alive! While this year has been busy (in a good way), I’d like to carve out bits of time for this site when I can.

This week’s highlight is Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s interview with Jake Solomon, lead designer of Firaxis’ XCOM games. It’s one of the best developer interviews I’ve read in some time, touching on issues such as:

  • What to do when theme and mechanics (in this case, XCOM2‘s controversial timer) clash;
  • Player psychology;
  • Elegance in strategy design – a topic where I agree with Solomon.

On the subject of Firaxis, the 25th anniversary of Civilization has seen the release of several interesting articles: an overview from a panel with Sid Meier, Brian Reynolds, and Soren Johnson; two interviews with Sid himself; and for a different perspective, an interview with Bruce Shelley.

Finally, Looking Glass fans might be interested in this interview with Warren Spector.

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Musical Monday: “Roses of May” (Final Fantasy IX), composed by Nobuo Uematsu

Welcome back to Musical Monday!

This week’s song is from a game I haven’t played — I know it from its appearance on the orchestrated Final Fantasy album below. Following the recent mobile re-release of Final Fantasy IX, the time seems right to highlight this lovely piece. Enjoy!

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XCOM2 first impressions: Good luck, Commander. You’ll need it!

XCOM2 Briggs Misses His ShotI did it! I finally did it! At the start of my third campaign, I finally beat the aliens with no fatalities — on ironman “Commander” difficulty, the new name for “Classic”, no less! The stars aligned, the aliens walked into my operatives’ sights, and I breezed through the campaign’s first mission.

On the next mission, my operatives never even made it as far as the objective. There was a time limit; I took too long to dispatch the first two groups of aliens; and with one turn to go, the third group of aliens gunned down my point man, the only one in range to reach the objective. It was a lost cause. I called for evac. My survivors slunk home, empty-handed.

On the third mission, I ran. My soldiers tore through the aliens, losing one veteran in the process. They ran for the prison cell where their target, a friendly scientist, was held. Two more aliens appeared. My squad fought through. As the mission timer hit its final turn, and an alien transport disgorged reinforcements, my soldiers — and the rescued scientist — made it to the evacuation point.

Whew. Welcome to XCOM 2, a tense, exhilarating, thrilling ride. In fact, I may well drop my campaign down to a lower difficulty — I think I’d rather play a relaxing game than a tense one. Several factors make it harder than the original:

*Mission timers, which force more aggressive, dare I say reckless, play. They’re the most controversial aspect of the game — there are already mods that extend or remove them. Personally, I like the idea; I’m reserving judgment on how well they work until I have the chance to play more.

*Alien health. Gone are the days when explosives were a guaranteed kill. On Commander difficulty, even the lowliest ADVENT trooper (4 health) will often survive a single grenade (3-4 damage). The new, improved Sectoid has 8 health and appears from the second mission on!

*Alien abilities — Sectoids can use mind control and panic from the start, allowing them to incapacitate one member of a 4-soldier squad1. Another alien disguises itself as a civilian during retaliation (the renamed terror) missions. And I haven’t even made it past the first game month…

Wish me luck! I look forward to posting more detailed thoughts.

  1. The counter is flashbang grenades, which interrupt Sectoid psionics; however, every soldier carrying a flashbang is a soldier not carrying a regular grenade. There is also a rumour that flashbangs are bugged and give aliens a 100% critical chance; I don’t know if this is correct.
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Musical Monday: The Music of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, composed by Michael McCann

Sometimes tense, sometimes exciting – what would Firaxis’ XCOM have been without its soundtrack? With the release of XCOM 2 imminent, I thought I’d highlight Michael McCann’s superb music for the original:

(Note that the versions above, from the composer’s Soundcloud page, appear slightly different from what plays in-game.)

Several tracks stand out. First off is the menu theme, “Enemy Unknown”; its low, ominous beat echoes the ambient music in the Gollop Brothers’ original game, before swelling into something more rousing.

“Ready for Battle”, the squad select theme, is one of the few “heroic” pieces on the soundtrack. I’ve heard it dozens of times and it still hasn’t grown old.

The intense “Combat 8” is my favourite battle theme. I love how it compresses the emotional beats of XCOM combat into less than a minute, from the warble at 0:15, through a harsher blare, to a few hopeful seconds around 0:40.

Finally, “Our Last Hope” is the other notable heroic theme. Enjoy!

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Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter Q&A, with Wael Amr

2016 is due to see the release of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, the next entry in Frogwares’ long-running series of Sherlock Holmes adventure games. As a fan of 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments — which I called an “interesting, ambitious example” of thematic puzzle design — I reached out to Frogwares to find out more. Read on for my interview with Wael Amr, Frogwares CEO, in which we chat about The Devil’s Daughter and the broader adventure genre:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site!

Frogwares is perhaps best known for its Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games, most recently 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. How did you come to work on these games, and how has the series evolved?

We started to work on the series in 2001. Our first game was a very traditional adventure game at that time.

Every game we made since was different, in technology, scenarios, control scheme and gameplay.

The versatility of Sherlock Holmes allows to have more than one kind of gameplay or controls scheme.

Our last game, The Devil’s Daughter features probably the wider range of game mechanic we ever created.

 

The next Sherlock Holmes game will be The Devil’s Daughter, due for release in 2016. What can you tell us about its new features, and which do you consider the most significant?

I would say that the most significant is the rhythm of the game, that is rather dynamic. It is due to new mechanics of course, but not only, the new character controller, the removal of loading, make the overall pace more dynamic and active. Focus tests showed it was a very welcomed change. The heart of the game is cases investigation and it remains so.

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Clippings: Strategic Assessments

Have you ever wished for more elegant, quicker-playing 4X games? One such title is Eclipse, a boardgame ported to iPad several years ago. It contains the traditional building blocks of the space 4X genre: research, colony ships, ancient treasure troves, and even ship design. Yet there are relatively few moving parts – no individual build queues, no planetary management, small fleets, and a limited number of actions that can be taken per turn (design decisions that, in the PC space, remind me of Armageddon Empires and Skulls of the Shogun). Individual decisions matter, a philosophy I’d like more PC developers to explore.

I also dusted off Order of Battle: Pacific, a well-regarded “Panzer General-like” that I briefly played last year. At the time, I was lukewarm on its naval battles; I put it on hold after seeing that a naval engagement, the Marshalls-Gilberts raid, was next in the campaign. Now that I’ve played several carrier battles, I quite like them. While they appear fairly simple – use recon planes to find the enemy fleet, torpedo bombers against capital ships, and dive bombers against small ships or to finish off damaged capitals – it’s still a thrill to watch my strike package approach the Japanese carriers at Midway. Next up: Guadalcanal.

This week’s top link is Quantic Foundry’s map of the strategy genre, broken down along two dimensions: Excitement and Strategy. Europa Universalis is high strategy and low excitement; MOBAs are the other way around. Total War is similar to EU, slightly lower on strategy and higher on excitement. Relaxed, “free-form” titles such as Cities: Skylines and tycoon games are low-strategy and low-excitement. It’s an interesting and, I think, useful classification system for what is a broad genre.

In other news:

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Clippings

Inspired by this episode of the Three Moves Ahead podcast, I recently revisited Star Wars: Rebellion and Empire at War, two grand strategy games released almost a decade apart.

Rebellion is… interesting. After playing for several hours, I was still getting a feel for it, and I don’t know yet whether it’s good or bad. Playing as the Rebels, I experimented with massing guerrillas in an attempt to incite uprisings on Imperial-controlled worlds. When that failed, I launched a conventional offensive with the Rebel fleet, took out an Imperial garrison that had its boot on the neck of the Corellian Sector, and was rewarded when multiple planets flipped to my control. My main complaint so far is the UI – not as bad as I’d feared, but still, it can be a hassle managing the galaxy.

Rebellion does intrigue me, and that’s more than I can say about EaW. I last wrote about EaW about a year ago, noting that I vastly preferred its skirmish mode to its campaign. I gave EaW‘s campaign a second chance and unfortunately, it’s still bad.

In other news:

  • This week’s notable release is the PC port of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, to a favourable reception. I remember the original Dragon’s Dogma on PS3 as pretty difficult – I didn’t make it very far in.
  • USGamer reviews the cleverly named Aviary Attorney, which may appeal to adventure game (and Phoenix Wright) fans.
  • Next month will be big for strategy gamers, with the release of XCOM 2 in early February!
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Musical Monday: “Final Fantasy” (almost every game in the series), composed by Nobuo Uematsu

Welcome to the first Musical Monday of 2016! To inaugurate the year, I have chosen the warm, hopeful theme of the Final Fantasy series, as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Enjoy the song, and may you all have happy listening.

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My games (and memorable moments) of 2015

Welcome back to my Games of the Year list. This year, I’ve highlighted notable achievements, as well as favourite moments from games old and new.

Favourite aesthetics: Several games deserve a mention: Apotheon, for sheer uniqueness (below); the vibrant, colourful Tales from the Borderlands; and Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, with its evocative art. Nobunaga’s Ambition also has great ambient music — I still listen to it on loop.

Apotheon - graphicsFavourite characters: Rhys and Fiona, the heroes of Tales from the Borderlands. Fiona is sharp and capable and funny; Rhys is a loveable bumbler, dreaming nebulous dreams of wealth and power. When his ridiculous get-rich-quick scheme collides with Fiona’s, the plot is set in motion. Throughout the game, I did my best to play them as decent people — loyal to their friends and, where possible, respectful of human life — and was rewarded with satisfying, sympathetic leads. They gave me many laughs, several moments that resonated with me, and a triumphant scene where Rhys demonstrates his character growth.

TFTB - Rhys Fiona reaching Continue reading

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Nobunaga’s Ambition: late-game observations (and reflections on AI automation)

Nobunaga's Ambition - VictorySurprisingly satisfying. Now that I’ve finished my campaign, I thought I’d comment on the late game of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, a topic on which I initially reserved judgment. Strategy endgames are plagued with two problems, (1) snowballing and (2) micromanagement, and NA illustrates how AI automation can help with the second.

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Kim Q&A, with Jeremy Hogan

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is one of my favourite classic novels, a picaresque set in nineteenth-century India. When the Secret Games Company launched a Kickstarter for a video game adaptation, I was keen to find out more. Read on for my interview with developer Jeremy Hogan:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce yourself and The Secret Games Company.

Hi, I’m Jeremy Hogan, I’m a game designer from London, where I’ve worked in the games industry for the last 8 years. I founded The Secret Games Company to release two indie projects, board game Dreaming Spires and video game Rise: Battle Lines. A year ago, I left my job to work on indie projects full-time so I could start the development of our latest game, Kim, which has been Greenlit on Steam and is now on Kickstarter.

 

 

Please tell us about your adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Based on the gameplay trailer, it looks like you’re translating Kim’s adventures into an open-world game reminiscent of Sid Meier’s Pirates or Space Rangers 2. Is this a fair reflection of what players can expect?

Yes those are fair comparisons; it’s a mix of genres so get ready for a long description… An RPG with branching dialogues, simple survival mechanics and light combat and stealth action in pause-able real time. I loved reading Kim and learning about colonial India and when I found out that Kipling’s work was in the public domain, I thought it was a unique opportunity to put such great writing into a game. Our gameplay was inspired by Expeditions Conquistador, FTL and Don’t Starve, another game it has a lot in common with is Sunless Sea.

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Shining in the darkness: playing the Eastern Romans in Attila

Attila - ERE at nightThe East endures. I closed out 2015 by returning to the grand campaign of Total War: Attila, this time as the Eastern Roman Empire. Like its Western sibling, the ERE is beset with enemies. Unlike my WRE game, I’ve been able to fight them off, a journey both exciting and memorable.

When the Visigoths rampaged through Thrace, and wiped out (at great cost) the first army I sent against them, I hunkered down, raised a new army under the Emperor’s personal command, and caught their weakened force in a night battle, depicted in the screenshot above. The survivors paid an indemnity for peace.

When a column of Huns razed a town along the Danube, I mustered an army four times their size, tracked them north, and brought them to ground.

Since then, I’ve fought off an invasion of North Africa. I’ve maintained an uneasy peace with Sassanid Persia, plying them with gifts while keeping a legion close to hand. I’ve built farms, aqueducts, and barracks; encouraged religious tolerance; and kept the Empire mostly in one piece.

Ahead, I see danger — and opportunity. With the Goths on the march again, and my WRE allies collapsing, I’m preparing a new campaign in the west. Against that, I’ve unlocked higher-tier units, my economy has stabilised, and to the east, the Sassanids are distracted by enemies of their own. If the situation can hold a little longer, I should be well-placed for the midgame. And all this has taken just 28 turns.

Attila - ERE map turn 28Below, I have a few more thoughts:

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The site in 2015

Happy New Year!

2015 was a quiet gaming year for me, reflected in the site. In terms of writing, it was a year of two halves. I opened with a Let’s Play of Total War: Shogun 2, followed by coverage of Total War: Attila, Cities: Skylines, and a second look at Endless Legend and Age of Wonders III following the release of their expansions. I also wrote most of a Europa Universalis IV custom nation LP.

During the second half of the year, real-life obligations kept me busy. I did write about adventure games, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, the Crisis of the Confederation mod for Crusader Kings 2, and over the holidays, the Age of Charlemagne expansion for Attila.

Over the year, I posted three interviews: one about China-themed 4X Oriental Empires, a follow-up with the developers of Guns of Icarus Online, and in my first modder interview, a discussion about Crisis of the Confederation.

Traffic was largely unchanged during 2015 — the site received around 80,000 page views, versus 77,000 the previous year. The most popular posts remained fairly constant; the top post was my guide to the Wargame series, while another three related to Paradox games (including Crisis of the Confederation) and one was an old post about Tactics Ogre.

In the next week or so, keep an eye out for my 2015 honours list, plus more posts about Nobunaga’s Ambition and Attila. Over 2016, I plan to cover Hearts of Iron IV (pushed back from 2015) and Stellaris; I’ll also observe XCOM 2, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, The Last Guardian, No Man’s Sky, Total War: Warhammer, Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. And I may well write some retrospectives and Let’s Plays of older games – Valkyrie Profile, Final Fantasy Tactics, Alpha Centauri, and Emperor of the Fading Suns (as a narrative LP) have been on my to-do list for years.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to seeing you around.

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