Musical Monday: The Battle Themes of Sins of a Solar Empire

This week, I’ve chosen to highlight the soundtrack of Sins of a Solar Empire, the game that enticed me back to real-time strategy after almost a decade of burnout. I associate the three pieces below with the phases of an engagement: “Battle 8”, with its opening drumbeat and ominous brass, makes me imagine the rival fleets jumping in, their admirals manoeuvring into position. “Battle 12” makes me think of the battle itself. And the triumphant “Upbeat 3” makes me think of the moment of decision, when the TEC Marza-class dreadnoughts unleash their missile barrage, when the enemy fleet crumbles and the survivors flee for the edge of the gravity well. Enjoy!

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Clippings: Steam and Stars

Several interesting interviews this week:

Space Game Junkie has a Q&A about Paradox’s upcoming Stellaris. Some interesting tidbits — Victoria-style internal politics sound long overdue for the space genre.

The Wargamer interviews the designer of Rule the Waves, the Dreadnought-era naval simulator. Did you know that Master of Orion inspired the ship design in RtW? If you ask me, RtW makes better use of that mechanic than 90% of the space 4X games that followed MOO’s footsteps.

Meanwhile, the Flare Path’s write-up of Pike & Shot: Campaigns has prompted me to add the game to my wishlist. Between QuadrigaVietnam ’65, and Rule the Waves, that column has become hazardous to my wallet…

A retrospective of Circle of Blood/Broken Sword, the classic adventure series.

In non-game news, here is an interesting article about the rise of ebooks on mobile phones, buoyed by larger screen sizes. The article doesn’t discuss “cell phone novels”, which have been around for some time in Japan, complete with a prose style adapted to the medium.

Finally, check out this high-resolution concept art from Endless Legend. Beautiful!

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Clippings: Gamescom & Guesses

Update: Paradox has officially unveiled Stellarishere is RPS’ preview, the best I’ve found. It is neither related to Coriolis, nor like EFS. Instead, it sounds more like Distant Worlds, with a dash of the procedural generation that characterised Paradox’s abortive Runemaster. A galaxy populated by randomly generated species, an emphasis on discovery and exploration that will last throughout the game, new factions popping up… I look forward to finding out more.

Gamescom has kicked off, with the big news – for me – yet to come. If my guess is correct, Paradox may be about to announce a new space game!

The facts: Paradox is working on “Project Augustus”, a new mystery game that will be unveiled at Gamescom. Pending the announcement, it has released a number of cryptic hints, which you can find here.

The speculation: Based on the arguments in this post, plus the subsequently released hints, I’m convinced the game will be set in space. Paradox has published an ebook named Coriolis: Dark Between the Stars, apparently set in the universe of a Swedish tabletop RPG. And it has recently registered a new trademark, “Stellaris”.

The wishful thinking on my part: Could Project Augustus be a spiritual successor to the sadly underappreciated Emperor of the Fading Suns? “Dark Between the Stars” is a term from the Fading Suns setting, and a Crusader Kings-style character-driven game would be perfect for a “feudal future” setting such as EFS. I’d love a remake – EFS was one of the most unique games I’ve ever played.

In other news:

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Quick Impressions: Vietnam ’65

2015-08-01_00003Vietnam ’65 is an iPad/PC strategy game with a deceptively simple concept: patrol villages on a randomly generated map (above) and prevent the Viet Cong & North Vietnamese Army from doing the same. It’s simple, short, and sweet; after two matches, I am impressed.

V65 is built on extreme asymmetry. When all goes well, US infantry can race from village to village in their transport helicopters, while tanks, gunships, and howitzers dominate the countryside as far they can reach. Not everything will go well:

  • There are 10 villages to cover, and too few soldiers and helicopters to protect them all.
  • There are a lot of demands on those helicopters – ferrying troops, resupplying them (out-of-supply units are eventually destroyed), and evacuating injured units.
  • The helicopters have finite fuel, limiting the time they can spend away from base.
  • Enemies can be difficult to find, spawn continuously, and lay ambushes of their own…

At times, there were moments of panic: when supply convoys came under RPG fire, making me wonder if my distant troops were cut off; when the Viet Cong emerged at 2-3 points and I only had enough firepower to respond to one; when my only helicopter gunship came crashing down.

Eventually, I won both games1 with a two-pronged strategy: I carpeted the map with outposts, extending the range of my helicopters and artillery, while training enough South Vietnamese troops to hold the line. Now, I feel that I have a good enough grasp of the basics that I can experiment with different game modes, or just move onto another title.

Overall, V65 turned out to be precisely what I wanted from a strategy game: quick to play (a few hours per match), simple to pick up, and at the same time, fresh and thematically evocative. For $10, this is well worth a look for genre fans.

Further reading (and listening)

The Three Moves Ahead episode that sold me on V65. Contains a great discussion of the game, its depiction of its topic, and some really handy tips.

Tim Stone’s review.

Rob Zacny’s review.

  1. One on “regular” difficulty, the other on “veteran”.
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Clippings: Rule the Waves!

Amateur admirals, ahoy! This week’s highlight is Rule the Waves, a dreadnought-era naval strategy game. In RtW‘s strategic layer, the player designs new ships, pays for them out of a limited budget, juggles crises, and last but not least, appeases the politicians. In the tactical layer, the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers come out to play. Now that I’ve found my way around the interface, I find the game pretty elegant to play, and after two campaigns, I can report that the game is cracking good fun. My only wish is for a way to automate tactical battles and just focus on the strategic layer.

Here is the Flare Path’s write-up. Here is a Let’s Play over at the official forum. You can purchase the game here – note it takes a little while for the serial number to arrive. A few tips, if you pick it up: (1) submarines are great value – they’re dirt-cheap and seem very effective at forcing enemy countries to the negotiating table, (2) you will need a lot of hulls for coastal patrol/ASW duty as the game goes on – I like building cheap patrol boats on a minesweeper chassis, and (3) playing as the US, most of my battles were cruiser vs cruiser skirmishes (I guess I was too remote for other countries to justify sending in the battleships) – it paid off to invest in outsized heavy cruisers.

This week’s other links:

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Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Pt 2: East Meets West

Report of the Spanish ambassador to Meiguo, 1600

In the three months since I departed Your Majesty’s presence, I have travelled first to our colony of New Spain, then thousands of miles north overland. I write to you now from the court of Meiguo, on the shores of another sea.

Like ourselves, the rulers of Meiguo are not native to the New World. They trace their ancestry to a deposed emperor of China, who fled his home near two centuries ago. Since arriving, they have extended their reach far south and east: they abut our colonies in Mexico, and also along the Rio Grande.

While Meiguo’s domains are vast, they are sparsely populated. I saw few towns during our journey north; I will be surprised if these lands contribute much to the Meiguo purse.

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Clippings: From the Horse’s Mouth

A mix of interviews and retrospectives this week:

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Clippings: Post-E3 Edition

No EU4: Common Sense update this weekend, I’m afraid – real life has intervened. The adventures of Meiguo will resume next week.

Between Dishonoured 2, Fallout 4, and The Last Guardian, this E3 was my favourite in years. You’ve probably already seen the high-profile stories; here are a few that slipped through the cracks:

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Musical Monday: “Drunken Sailor” (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag)

One of the things I love about AC4 is its use of … well, not quite period music – Wikipedia dates this song to the 1800s, well over a century after the game takes place – but pre-existing folk music and shanties. For me, that does a lot to root the game in a sense of time and place. Enjoy!

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Oriental Empires Q&A, with Bob Smith

OE1

Oriental Empires is an upcoming 4X strategy game that will cover most of Chinese history, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. My interest piqued, I conducted an email Q&A with developer Bob Smith. Read on:

 

About the developers

1. Hello, and welcome to the site! Please tell us a bit about yourselves.

Development of Oriental Empires is being led by R.T. Smith and John Carline, two veteran strategy game developers with more than 30 years’ experience between them. Previously they worked together on the Total War series of games, in roles including Project Director and Lead Artist, and have credits on many other AAA titles from studios including Crystal Dynamics, Pandemic, Frontier Developments, and Slightly Mad Studios.

 

2. Your best-known previous work was Total War. What lessons have you learned from your experience with those games?

That you can’t please everyone, that you’ll never ship the perfect product, and that the bigger your team, the more features you’ll have that don’t quite join up.

 

About Oriental Empires

3. At first glance, Oriental Empires looks like a cross between Civilization V, Endless Legend, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. What are your influences and how have they shaped the game?

The initial inspiration was to create a civilization building game based on Eastern civilization, and having an interesting combat system. Superficially this is similar to Civ, but I don’t think the games feel alike to play. The battles obviously have some similarity to Total War games, but again, the resemblance is superficial as you don’t directly control them. History, reality, space 4X games, and miniature and board games are also influences.

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Clippings: Belisarius, Dolphins, and Woolly Dinos

Big week in strategy game news – CA has announced The Last Roman, the first add-on campaign for Total War: Attila. TLR will cover Justinian and Belisarius’ attempt to reconquer the West; here is the announcement video (complete with developer interviews) and here is Rob Zacny’s summary.

Meanwhile, a new round of Hearts of Iron IV previews is up; Three Moves Ahead has a detailed discussion; and quill18 has posted almost 30 minutes of gameplay footage. My take-aways are: (1) the current (alpha) build needs a lot more work; (2) beneath the glitches, there is a lot of potential; and (3) I’m glad the game has been postponed until 2016.

In other news:

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Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Part 1: Welcome to Meiguo

In 1402, the Ming Emperor’s uncle usurped the throne.

The imperial palace burned.

According to one legend, the Emperor survived, and fled overseas; Zheng He’s fleets were dispatched to hunt him down.

What if the Emperor made it further than Zheng could have dreamed?

Hello, and welcome back to my coverage of Europa Universalis IV. Since I last wrote about EU4, it has received a further two expansions – El Dorado, which added a custom nation designer, and the newly released Common Sense. For my current game, I will play as Meiguo, a Chinese custom nation on the west coast of North America.

This is Meiguo in 1456, 12 years after the game began:

EU4 Welcome to Meiguo

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Very Early Impressions: Battle Academy

So far1, I’m impressed by Battle Academy, the 2010-vintage World War 2 TBS. The vibrant, comic-book aesthetic charmed me straight away, while the game mechanics present tactical concepts in a clear, elegant manner. Light tanks are zippy and thinly armoured, making them best suited for reconnaisance or mopping up. Infantry is horribly vulnerable in the open, and lethal when striking from ambush. Armour and artillery can suppress defenders, allowing friendly infantry to safely close in. Bunkers and concealed anti-tank guns are potent force multipliers – in the screenshot below, my entrenched Tommies gutted an Afrika Korps charge:

Battle Academy - 8th Army DefenceCurrently, the base game, which includes three campaigns (North Africa, Normandy, Ardennes) is available for $1 as part of the weekly Humble Bundle. For those interested, that price makes it a screaming buy.

  1. I’m three missions and 2-3 hours in.
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Clippings: Special Strategy (and RPG) Sequel Edition

The big news is 2K’s announcement of XCOM 2, due out for PC (and only PC) this November – IGN has the details. Highlights include randomised maps, secondary mission objectives (hopefully this will make missions a bit less grindy), various refinements to combat, and a novel premise – XCOM lost the war; Earth was overrun by aliens; and decades later, the remnants of XCOM are continuing the fight. I will most probably cover the game – although this time, I might turn the difficulty down!

Meanwhile, Paradox has announced a new Crusader Kings 2 expansion focused on Mongols, nomadic tribes, and the Silk Road; you can read the first dev diary here. From what I can see, reactions have divided into four categories: (1) “Woo! Mongols!”; (2) “Woo! Dothraki for mods!”; (3) worries that the larger map will lag the game; and (4) “Paradox should deepen/refine the existing mechanics instead of enlarging the game’s scope”. Personally, I loved the time I spent on the steppes in CK2, and I’d like to see how Paradox can build on that.

Speaking of Paradox, a press preview event is currently on for Hearts of Iron IV. The preview embargo lifts next week, so I’d expect to see articles and footage then.

Finally, at the time of writing, Bethesda is a few hours away from a Fallout-related announcement. Here is a 2010-vintage interview with the developers of Fallout: New Vegas, an excellent game that I still need to finish!

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What I’ve been reading

I’ve taken a break from European political/military history (Iron Kingdom, Frederick the Great: A Military History, Britain’s War Machine) to power through several fantasy books:

  • A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan – the adventures of a young woman who sets out on an expedition to study dragons. Continued in The Tropic of Serpents. I quite like these – decent, easy reads with a distinctive first-person voice. I also like their meandering tour of the setting, which seems analogous to early nineteenth-century Earth.
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Fast-moving sword and sorcery yarn, in which an ageing, world-weary monster-hunter battles necromancers in a fantastic Middle East. Would make a great game.

I’ve also started The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, the first book of the Chinese history series whose Ming Dynasty entry I included in my recommended reading list. Very good so far… with one exception. Kindle readers be warned – the ebook edition is missing most of the illustrations! “To view this image, refer to the print version of this title,” it says – and had I known that, I’d just have bought the print version.

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Musical Monday: The Byzantine Empire (Crusader Kings II), composed by Andreas Waldetoft

Last Christmas, I spent some very pleasurable hours in the shoes of Alexios Komnenos, Emperor of Byzantium, trying to rebuild my battered empire. This week’s song, added as part of the “Songs of Byzantium” DLC for Crusader Kings II, formed part of that experience. Enjoy!

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Strategy Games and the Post-Apocalypse

Just as I associate post-apocalyptic video games with one franchise, Fallout, so I associate post-apocalyptic strategy with one game, Vic Davis’ Armageddon Empires. It’s an excellent game, whose design I dissected several few years ago. It’s also a unique game – both in the sense that it’s original, and in the sense that it’s the only “strategic level” post-apocalyptic game I can think of. Even adding a few strategy games that take place at smaller scales produces a very short list1.

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  1. Fallout Tactics is a squad-based tactical RPG. Convoy is a new (and apparently flawed) indie game billed as FTL meets Mad Max. And if zombies count, Sarah Northway’s Rebuild was a Flash game that took place in the aftermath of a zombie invasion.
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Clippings

In the last few weeks, I’ve dipped into a variety of games, without spending much time on any one:  Assassin’s Creed 4; Shadow of Mordor; Counterspy; Order of Battle: Pacific; Kerbal Space Program; and Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles.

Mostly, I like them. AC4 is as enjoyable as ever. Kerbal captures the wonder of spaceflight when I see the horizon before me, and the terror when I try to get my Kerbonauts back down. After a few hours, I’m comfortable calling it one of the best science fiction games I’ve played. Mordor, Counterspy, and Order of Battle: Pacific, so far, live up to their strong reviews and word of mouth. (Or, in one case, live down – I agree with the consensus that OOB: Pacific‘s naval battles are the weakest part of an otherwise strong game.)

Dracula X is the odd one out. I had never played a Castlevania game before, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, I think I started with the wrong one. I am not good at platformers… and this is a difficult platformer with limited continues. After beating my head against the first two levels, I am about ready to download a saved game that will unlock the other included Castlevania release, the well-regarded Symphony of the Night.

In this week’s news:

  • The Witcher 3 is out, to rave reviews. Pick your favourite gaming site, and odds are it’ll have a favourable review.
  • Logic Artists has announced Expeditions: Viking, a sequel to Expeditions: Conquistador. This is great news! Conquistador was an original game in an original setting; I’d love to see what the developers do with Vikings.
  • Firaxis has announced Rising Tide, an expansion for Civilization: Beyond Earth – here are interviews with PC Gamer and RPS. After being disappointed by Beyond Earth, I am reluctant to part with any more money…
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Musical Monday: The Faction Themes of Endless Legend (composed by Flybyno)

I love Endless Legend‘s soundtrack, and I love its imaginative, distinct factions. This week, I thought I’d bring them together. Below, I highlight one theme from each of the three factions that I’ve played (there are eight factions total, each with two themes). Enjoy!

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Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Follow-Up Q&A

Guns of Icarus Online is one of the most unique games I’ve played – a team-based dieselpunk airship game, in which rival crews try to shoot each other out of the sky. When it launched in 2012, it was strictly PvP. The following year, developer Muse Games launched a Kickstarter campaign to add PvE (“Adventure mode”), and it seems to be coming along nicely.

Read on for my follow-up email interview with Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, about Adventure mode:

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

When I last spoke to Muse Games in 2013, you were running a Kickstarter campaign for “Adventure mode” — a large expansion pack that would add PvE and co-op to the game. How is that coming along?

Howard Tsao: It’s been a long journey, with the scope of the expansion arguably larger than the original game, but we’re constantly making progress. Right now, in addition to iterating on some of the game modes and honing AI director as well as AI enemy movement and behaviour, we’re also doing work on player, faction, and world progressions. A lot of the in mission or in match feedback and progression are being designed and worked on as well. We’re creating factional airships, boss ships, and wardrobe as well, and we’ll soon move into designing more maps and game modes as well.

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Clippings

This week’s biggest news item is a movie – Mad Max: Fury Road is out, to rave reviews. It deserves them. Fury Road is what Mad Max movies should be. It’s what Mad Max movies can be, given a reported US$150M budget. It’s thrilling, visually spectacular (sometimes downright beautiful), and features a tough, capable female lead – I can sum it up in one phrase: “Holy @*&%, that was cool!” If the upcoming Mad Max game can live up to the movie, it will be a blast.

In other news:

  • There are plenty of upcoming space games; Rebel Galaxy‘s unique features are (1) a country music soundtrack and (2) that it gives players a capital ship instead of a fighter. Here is USGamer’s video preview; here are written previews.
  • Brief but interesting – USGamer takes a look at genres that did better outside their home countries.
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Clippings

  • Hearts of Iron IV has been delayed again, with the new date to be announced after the team is done working on “a large milestone”.
  • Still on the subject of WW2, reviewers are glowing about Order of Battle: Pacific, a new game inspired by Panzer General and Unity of Command.
  • PC Gamer reviews Kerbal Space Program, version 1.0. The game has been available in pre-release form for ages — I wrote very briefly about it years ago — and so the PC Gamer piece reads more like an appreciation.
  • In adventure game news, reviews are uninspiring for Broken Age: Act 2. I’d held off buying until the entire game was out. Perhaps I should keep holding out for a better discount?
  • And finally, a game I never knew existed: A-Train 3D, a crunchy train management game for 3DS.
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Musical Monday: “Travesuras De La Vida” (Tropico 4), by Alex Torres and his Latin Orchestra

Have I got a treat for you this week! The music of Tropico 4 is fantastic, both in its own right, and as a way to bring the setting to life. Enjoy – and check out artist Alex Torres’ other work. I’m listening to his catalogue on Spotify as I type…

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Endless Legend & Age of Wonders 3: One Year On

The two expansions to Age of Wonders 3 have brought new races, a new character class, and (together with patches), assorted features and balance tweaks. They have also addressed my single biggest complaint with the game: the victory conditions (and their effect on pacing).

At launch, there was one way to win AoW3: destroy all opponents. This made the endgame a slog. Now, there are several other options:

  1. Beat down the AI players to the point where they surrender (added via patch). Per the developers, this is meant to happen after the “epic final battle… in situations where the AI is substantially outmatched and just lost a great number of its forces in a battle.” Based on the two AI players who surrendered after I crushed their multi-stack main armies, this works as promised!
  2. Territorial control, added in the first expansion. Similar to the Thrones mechanic in Dominions 4, this requires the player to take several “seals of power” defended by independent monsters, and hold them while progress towards victory ticks up. As the monsters periodically respawn, the seals have to be garrisoned – I suspect this is a risk/reward mechanic. Do you grab many seals, and risk spreading yourself too thin? Encouragingly, AI players do realise the importance of the seals; I lost my second game post-expansion when the AI flattened my armies and then captured the seals.
  3. A new, Wonder-style victory condition, added in the second expansion. I’m still getting a handle for this one; the developers describe it as “a great option for more defensive players”. Unlike the seals victory, aiming for this will provoke the AI players into declaring war, so it’s a defensive victory rather than a peaceful one.

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Clippings

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What I’ve been reading

I wanted to go into a bit more detail on this week’s books – Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst (novel) and The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu (novel).

Night Soldiers is billed as a spy novel. I say ‘billed as’ because it’s really a collection of vignettes, loosely linked by the 1930s-1940s world of espionage. Here, a Bulgarian lad comes of age as a trainee spy in Moscow, amidst the terror of Stalin’s purges. There, a lethargic American joins the OSS, parachutes into occupied France, and discovers his talent for sabotage. It’s a vivid, immersive read – although as with the novels of Patrick O’Brian, the emphasis is on atmosphere rather than plot, so it may not be to everyone’s taste. If you’re interested in the era, give the sample chapter a look.

The Grace of Kings is a much-hyped epic fantasy inspired by Chinese history. It’s interesting, both for its setting and its style. It also tells a pretty good yarn!

Grace of Kings is the story of two men, Kuni the trickster and Mata the warrior, as they rise to power. Their adventures are, essentially, a fantasy retelling of the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han. (Seriously, knowing a bit about the period was enough to let me guess where the plot would go. I even guessed how specific incidents would unfold.) The Chinese influence extends beyond the setting – the mythic tone, the occasionally detached prose, and the willingness to tell rather than show remind me of the pre-modern literary conventions of Three Kingdoms. My main complaint is that one or two character actions felt contrived, seemingly so as to stick to “history”. Overall, a recommended read for fans of epic fantasy novels and grand strategy games (and maybe even Konami’s Suikoden RPGs).

Finally, I read Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade (novel) – his parody of The Phantom of the Opera. Decent, amusing, with some pointed comments on superficial beauty. Recommended for Discworld fans.

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A spiritual successor to KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms?

That is my initial impression of Oriental Empires (press release here), a newly announced 4X game that will be set in China between 1500 BC and 1500 AD. The bullet points and especially the screenshots remind me of Endless Legend/Civilization V meets Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI – it looks like all combat takes place on a hex-based strategic map, rather than being divided between a tactical and a strategic layer. The developers, R. T. Smith and John Carline, do have experience – both men have previously worked on the Total War series, with Smith’s experience stretching all the way back to the original Shogun. With the game scheduled for Early Access in ‘summer 2015’ (northern summer, I assume), the finished product is still some ways off.

Personally, I think the idea has potential. I’m always up for a novel setting, and China is badly underused in (Western) games. I’m trying to line up an interview with the developers, and will report back with any findings.

 

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