Since the release of World War 2 grand strategy game Hearts of Iron II, almost a decade ago, Paradox Development Studio has always set its games to original music by Andreas Waldetoft. But the original Hearts of Iron relied on pre-existing music — for instance, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, Mussorgsky’s “The Great Gate of Kiev”, and this week’s theme, Rodrigo’s “Adagio”. While lovely, “Adagio” is neither heroic, nor bold, nor martial at all. It is melancholy and regretful (according to Wikipedia, one of Rodrigo’s inspirations was grief at his wife’s miscarriage), and perhaps that makes it appropriate for accompanying a game about World War 2. Worth thinking about while you listen to the song.
Eugen Systems, the studio behind Wargame: AirLand Battle, is now one of my favourite developers of strategy games, of historical games, and indeed, of historical strategy games.
I don’t say this lightly. That is exalted company to be in, alongside the likes of Paradox, Firaxis, and Creative Assembly, but I think it’s deserved. With AB, Eugen has demonstrated three things:
1. They can capture the spirit of a setting – in this case, a Cold War gone hot in Europe.
2. They know what makes a good strategy game: a series of interesting decisions that produce clear, understandable outcomes.
3. They can learn from past mistakes.
Not a Review
For sale: 1 longboat fleet. 1 careful owner. 5,670 miles on the clock. Used for raiding around the Russ. No damage, good insurance record. Has provided years of joy and much treasure, sale by necessity only. Owner converted to Christianity so raiding no longer possible. All reasonable offers considered.
Hello good friend. I am King of Mercia, most Excellent Eadward the Bearded, and you help I am nedding. My Kingdom which is of Mercia being conquered by Vikings unJustly and against wishes of my own loving good people who like me their King in bad coup of conquests. I have large treasury (10,000,000 gold bits of pure gold) which i need to Trangsfer out of country without border taxes or being stealed by naughty People. You help me now and I make you Rich by giving you generous share of my large treaserary (10,000,000 coin in g0ld) being worth 10%. You ‘ll be a Rich man. All you need to do to Help me is send by fastest carrier pigeon your treasury key and guard passwords so that i can send by direct transfer directly the whole of my own treasury (10,000,000 peices of gold) under the label of a Random event choose Gift event choice 2. Then it arriving safely in your country and I giving you generous 10% of total to keep as to make you a Rich man who has lots of monies.
Replie immediately as this time limited offer due to Vikings killing everyone and robbing all my country. Remember: send treasury key and guard pastwords by fastest carrier pigeon now for lots of gain! Send carrying pigeons to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Yes, this great opportuinity for to Kind and great man who help Mighty king down on his luck with big treasury (10,000,000 golds!) due to Vikings.
Rebel with a clue seeks army for rebellion. No experience necessary; however, dedication to the cause is a must as aimless rebelling is no longer permitted. All applicants will be considered. Apprenticeships available for ages 18-24.
Welcome back to my Let’s Play of Wargame: AirLand Battle!
In Part 1 of this LP, my effort to defend Scandinavia (playing NATO in the War in the North campaign) got off to a promising start:
1. The Danish army wiped out two Warsaw Pact brigades that attempted to seize Aarhus;
2. The Swedish army did the same with an amphibious landing at Malmo;
3. As at the end of the last instalment, the Swedish and Norwegian armies had recovered their fighting trim and were in position along an Oslo-Stockholm defensive line.
What were the key lessons learned? First – and I am indebted to this excellent guide from the official forum – that the objective in battle isn’t to kill so many of the enemy that the survivors run away, it’s to wipe them out (which will earn me the morale points I need to win the campaign). In game terms, that means (a) pinching off the enemy reinforcement sectors so they can’t retreat, and then (b) win the battle by hunting down their command vehicles. Unable to flee, the losers will surrender.
In practice, the campaign is designed such that it is difficult to decisively win battles unless there is a large discrepancy (due to some combination of morale, initiative, positioning, and equipment) between the combatants. Otherwise the two forces tend to get stuck in a spiral of falling initiative (reducing the forces they can deploy) and increasing morale (making it harder for them to rout the other), broken only when the arrival of a fresh brigade tips the balance. Other players have complained about this, and I can see both sides of the argument; I like what the developers were aiming for, but I do agree it could do with some reworking.
For present purposes, though, what the rules should be is beside the point. The key is to focus on what the rules are, and if I need to engineer massive mismatches to win, then that is what I shall do. That means (a) ensuring each sector of the line has fresh brigades in reserve, so that they can polish off a weakened enemy, and (b) conserving my strategic buffs/debuffs (e.g. air raids) until the time is right.
With that in mind, let’s see how the rest of my Nordic campaign plays out.
Happy Queen’s Birthday to my fellow Aussies! This week’s song is actually a two-in-one medley created for the Distant Worlds orchestral concert, with both parts taken from a game I haven’t played, MMORPG Final Fantasy XI. I personally prefer the first half, a sweeping choral piece (“Memoro de la Stono”), as I find the lyrics in the second half (“Distant Worlds”) a little cheesy. However, the song remains excellent and well worth listening to. Enjoy!
March 1985, Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev loses the race to succeed Konstantin Chernenko as head of the USSR.
Early September, 1985. A clash between Soviet and US Navy aircraft leaves several pilots dead. The world totters on the brink of war.
Late September, 1985. World War III erupts. Norway and Denmark, comprising NATO’s northern flank, are on the front line. The Norwegian army manages to halt the Soviet advance – only for Soviet troops to roll into neutral Sweden, threatening Norway’s eastern flank. To the south, the Soviet advance into West Germany leaves their forces on the border with Denmark.
NATO’s troops are badly battered. Enemy reinforcements abound. Scandinavia hangs in the balance. Can my leadership save the day?
Welcome to my Let’s Play of Wargame: AirLand Battle.
Wargame: AirLand Battle is a newly released strategy game for PC, a blend between the real-time strategy and traditional wargame genres (for more background, check out the other posts I’ve written about the Wargame series, linked at the top of this page). In addition to multiplayer and skirmish modes, AB offers four single-player campaigns of varying length and difficulty; I have finished the shortest and simplest campaign, which is really a tutorial in disguise. For this LP, I will be jumping all the way to the longest and most challenging, “War in the North”.
The game bills this campaign as “Very Hard”, but I’m confident I’ll be up to it. (And, hey, everything worked out the last time I LPed a difficult game.) I will play the campaign either until I win/lose, or until it stops being fun. Here goes!
Hi, everyone! I’m very happy to say that the folks at Paradox have agreed to an email interview about the forthcoming Europa Universalis IV, so if there’s anything you’d like to ask them, please chime in.
At this stage, I expect my own questions will be geared towards the big picture — the developers’ vision/ design philosophy, the lessons learned from other games such as CK2, how they plan to pace EU4 through the mid- and late-game (often the weakest part of Paradox games), their approach to history and historical phenomena that don’t appear as lines on a map, such as the diffusion of new crops around the world, etc.
When I made my last move, I thought I’d seized an opening. The pirate had his back turned; and when I saw I could take him down with one attack from Kyril, the game’s young hero, I couldn’t resist. But now the shoe is on the other foot. In my haste to push Kyril forward, I’ve left him standing alone on the deck of the pirate ship. And before any backup can reach him, several pirates have their turns coming up…
The first pirate attacks. Kyril’s health plummets. Next pirate’s turn. I grit my teeth – only to watch, impressed, as the boy’s father leaps in to protect him from the blow. Kyril took only half damage from that hit, and the pirates’ opportunity has passed. It’s Andarc the mage’s turn next, and he opens up with a barrage from his Lightning rune, killing one pirate and wounding another. Then it’s the turn of more and more of my characters, and as they run up to join Kyril, the danger is past.
I’m several hours into Suikoden Tactics, a 2005 spinoff from one of my favourite RPG series, Suikoden. As its name suggests, it’s a grid- and turn-based tactical RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, and Disgaea (in other words, in my classification scheme, it’s a Type III game). From a mechanical standpoint, it is reasonably straightforward: different characters have different strengths and weaknesses, and while characters’ classes appear to be effectively preset – for instance, Kyril will always be a melee fighter – there is some scope to customise them by choosing which skills to prioritise. The actual combat is standard TRPG fare, though with a couple of quirks: characters have elemental affinities with particular tiles on the map, and tile elements can be changed by items and spells. That said, so far this seems to be good standard TRPG fare. Combat feels intuitively fluid in the way that the best tactical RPGs do: characters go down in just the right number of hits (too many would lead to tedium; too few would be frustrating), move far enough for squishy characters to be vulnerable, but not too vulnerable; and so on. Aesthetics are a mixed bag; the in-game sprites have not aged well, but character portraits are crisp and attractive. Storywise, no spoilers, but I’m definitely intrigued.
This week’s song is the haunting, beautiful title theme of the Britannia campaign, from the Kingdoms expansion for Medieval: Total War II. As with “Uncle Samurai” from Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai, this is one case where Jeff van Dyck’s music was better than the rest of the game – Medieval II is my least favourite entry in the series. Enjoy!
(Fun trivia: this is actually built around an old Scottish folk song, “Ailein duinn”. Personally, I prefer this to the original, or at least to the versions of the original I’ve heard on Youtube.)
My last attack failed. This one, I promise myself, won’t.
I’m playing a NATO vs NATO mirror match, one of the options available in skirmish and, in this case, multiplayer. (In universe, I imagine it as an especially realistic military exercise.) Last time I made the rookie mistake of advancing without reconnaissance; my raiding force drove straight into a platoon of Challenger main battle tanks. This time, I’ve infiltrated an SAS patrol behind enemy lines to scout out my objective, and they’ve spotted nothing but a platoon of mechanised infantry. Since then, I’ve spent several minutes hatching my plans: Norwegian infantry will assault from the south, US marines and French tanks will come from the southeast, and I’ll use artillery smoke shells to screen their advance.
It’s time to go. A smokescreen billows into life, and my tanks and APCs burst out of cover. No resistance so far – the recon work paid off. Excellent. I look at the minimap… and see an enemy horde advancing on the other side of the map, towards an objective I’d secured earlier. My opponent, it seems, chose the exact same time to make his push.
I’ve already committed my ground reserve, but I have one last lever to pull – RAF Tornados loaded with tank-busting cluster bombs. Aircraft are as fragile as they are valuable, and if the attackers brought enough anti-air units, my Tornado pilots could be flying into a suicide mission, their planes’ advanced countermeasures notwithstanding. But sometimes, fortune favours the bold…
Welcome to the second part of my Wargame: AirLand Battle preview, based on the game’s current pre-order beta! I’ve divided this into two sections, below – one for new players, and one for returning European Escalation veterans – before offering up some concluding thoughts.
I’m five hours (per Steam) and three abortive practice games into StarDrive, a new PC space strategy title from one-man studio Zer0 Sum Games. So far, I can perhaps best describe this by reference to two games: one that’s obvious, space 4X stalwart Distant Worlds, and one you perhaps may not expect, fantasy TBS Warlock: Master of the Arcane.
Just as Warlock looks very much like Civilization V, StarDrive’s vast galaxy and pausable real-time gameplay appear to resemble Distant Worlds; but for both these games, appearances are deceptive. I get the impression that StarDrive’s design goals are very different to Distant Worlds’ – where DW aspired to be a living universe simulator, complete with a bustling ecosystem of NPC civilian spaceships, AI advisors, and derelict armadas, StarDrive strikes me as a far more warfare-centric game. Let’s break down what I’ve seen of StarDrive, X by X.
Talisman: Prologue is a recently released Android/iOS adaptation of an old board game (which I have not played), Games Workshop’s Talisman. TP is a solitaire game in which the player controls a single high fantasy adventurer (a warrior, troll, assassin, etc), who moves around a board, attempting to solve a “quest” (kill X monsters, bring the princess to Y castle) chosen at the start of the game.
Note my choice of words: the character moves around the board, not the player. That’s because almost everything in TP – how far the adventurer moves, the monsters he/she encounters, whether s/he defeats the goblin, whether the enchantress turns him/her into a frog – is determined almost entirely by chance. Never mind strategy or making interesting decisions; in TP, there are very few decisions at all, and in mechanical terms, that makes it a lousy game.
So what’s the point of TP, then? Its theme, which I think you will enjoy to the extent that (a) your imagination can construct a story from card art and random numbers (TP‘s high production values help), and (b) you like ‘80s high fantasy. The last time I played, my assassin stumbled on a mischievous imp (drew an Imp card), who teleported him to a cave (I rolled a certain number), where he slew a serpent (drew a card, rolled a die, and compared his die roll + strength against the serpent’s) and discovered a rich hoard of gold (another die roll). There is a cool and exciting, if brief, story in there, even if I had to fill in all the details in my head.
The last thing I should note is that the game’s own designers seem very aware that it lacks the depth for sustained play. The game’s quests – and hence, its play sessions – don’t last very long. However, finishing each quest unlocks both new quests and new adventurers, which is what provides the incentive to return.
Overall, I can’t recommend TP for gamers in search of a meaty ruleset, a tense challenge, or even much in the way of player agency. However, for those who don’t mind being spectators while the dice do the work, TP is worth a look as a coffee-break-length ticket to Fantasyland.
A technical note: while the game is playable on my 7” device (Nexus 7), the font is too small for my liking. People with larger screens may find the font more appropriately sized.
With Wargame: AirLand Battle bringing the Cold War to virtual life, I can think of no better choice for this week than Basil Poledouris’ theme to The Hunt for Red October. It’s a powerful, Russian-language choral piece, well suited to the movie’s subject, and another feather in Poledouris’ (Conan the Barbarian) cap. Enjoy!
Wargame: AirLand Battle is the upcoming sequel to Wargame: European Escalation, a Cold War-themed fusion of two genres: the RTS and the beer-and-pretzels wargame. EE was one of my favourite games of last year, and despite its beta status (1), AB is shaping up to be one of my favourites of this year, too.
AB’s appeal begins even before the first shot is fired. In AB as in EE, players start by choosing the units they will take into a match, and then grouping these into a “deck”. However, where EE offered “only” 361 units, AB offers a whopping 826! More units are not necessarily better, but here it works for two reasons.
Papers, Please is an indie game by Lucas Pope, currently in beta, in which the player takes on the role of a 1980s border guard in a Communist country. On paper, the game is simple: read the papers of each traveller who approaches your checkpoint. Admit those who meet the official criteria (e.g. they are citizens of the correct country; they have a valid work permit and visa); deny those who don’t; and keep an eye out for discrepancies. In practice, it’s a bit more complicated: there are a fair few variables to keep track of, which requires the player to trade off thoroughness and speed. You are paid based on how many people you process, but make mistakes and your pay will be docked. Earn too little, and your family starves.
The real appeal of Papers, Please isn’t so much mechanical as psychological: this is a game that tries to put the player into the shoes of a minor, despised apparatchik upholding a corrupt regime in order to pay the bills. I might even go so far as to say the game turns you into a bureaucratic version of the mooks we normally mow down without a second thought. Not necessarily a “fun” game, but it’s an interesting thought experiment and worth checking out if you have a few minutes to burn.
This week’s song is the battle theme from classic (has it really been that long?!) JRPG Persona 4. It works on several levels: (1) it’s an energetic, upbeat, and enjoyable song in its own right; (2) it fits the mood of what, murder mystery plot notwithstanding, is a pretty cheerful game; and (3) as a piece of J-rock, it’s probably exactly what the protagonists would listen to while they fight monsters. Enjoy!
“They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they want to.”
– Terry Pratchett
I’ve been thinking lately about violence in entertainment; my response to such; and what creators themselves have to say about it. In the last twelve or so months, I’ve played five games that symbolise different attitudes to violence: three “traditional” shooters in which there is no non-lethal option (BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Spec Ops: The Line), and two stealth/action games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored) that permit a gentler approach. Below, I table their key differences.
(Note: each game’s violence is largely directed against human enemies, such as mercenaries, cultists, soldiers, or police/city watchmen, as in the quote at the top of the page. Also, there are a few bosses, in both senses of the word; but most enemies are low-ranking grunts.)
My comments, and mild spoilers, below. Continue reading
This week’s song is the main theme to Stardrive, the upcoming (26 April) 4X space strategy game, and it is exactly what one would expect from the main theme to a 4X space strategy game. This is not a bad thing. Triumphant, stirring, and dare I say, “epic”, it’s been a real pleasure to listen to. Enjoy!
Last year, I wrote about Guns of Icarus Online, an interesting, atmospheric shooter set on board opposing steam/dieselpunk airships. Since then, developer Muse Games has unveiled a Kickstarter campaign for the long-awaited paid expansion, Adventure mode. Muse’s stated plan for Adventure includes three key elements:
1. PVE and co-op gameplay, unlocked at the Kickstarter’s threshold of $100,000;
2. An in-game economy and faction system, flagged as Muse’s first major stretch goal ($350,000)
3. Worldbuilding tools, flagged as the second stretch goal ($500,000).
Muse has stated that, should it secure more than $100,000 but less than the full $500,000, all Kickstarter backers will receive a “season pass” that will entitle them to future elements of Adventure Mode as and when they are released.
Read on for my email Q&A with Jess Haskins, Designer and Chief Nomenclator at Muse:
This week’s song is probably the most obscure I’ve featured to date. It’s the opening theme to a game I’ve never played — Genso Suikogaiden Vol 2: Duel at Crystal Valley, a visual novel spun off from the cult classic Suikoden JRPGs. (You might remember I featured the opening theme to Suikoden III a while back.) It’s also a lively song with a unique sound, and like the Suikoden III theme, it goes really well with the accompanying cinematic. Enjoy!
Since so much of my response to BioShock Infinite is wrapped up in the details of the game’s story, I thought it deserved a short follow-up of its own. As such, there will be extensive spoilers ahead – don’t read this post if you haven’t finished the game!
“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.”
The year is 1912. With those words ringing in his ears, Booker DeWitt, washed-up private detective and protagonist of Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, makes his way into the flying city of Columbia. On his shoulders lie several burdens: the fate of Elizabeth, the young woman he’s been tasked to bring back to New York. His own destiny, as it becomes intertwined with hers. And lastly, the weight of the BioShock franchise, one of the most acclaimed in gaming.
Not playing much of the previous BioShock games (1) did nothing to water down my expectations for BI, a game whose promised features read like my wishlist. A game that gives players an array of special powers, and rewards them for ingenuity? An original setting, layering vibrant, imaginative mad science atop an underused historical era? A companion character, Elizabeth, for us to like and grow attached to? Sign me up! Read on to find out (spoiler-free) how the game fared against my hopes.
Happy Easter, everybody! This week’s song is the opening theme, “Twelve Dreamsongs”/”Juuni Genmu Kyoku”. of a classic anime, Asian-themed fantasy epic The Twelve Kingdoms. I’ve linked two versions — the first is simply the show’s opening credits, which pairs lovely visuals with a short version of the song. The second version is the full-length theme from the official soundtrack. Hmm. With my Twelve Kingdoms DVDs sitting on the shelf within arm’s reach, perhaps it’s time for me to re-watch the show…
After finishing Tomb Raider, I’m happy with the gameplay appraisal I posted halfway through. This is a title that’s not sure whether it wants to be “the subtle tale of a young woman using her wits to survive… or a summer blockbuster, long on explosions and short on brains.” There is a fair amount of running and jumping and climbing about, as much of a pleasure as it was in Assassin’s Creed; there are puzzles whose solutions made me feel quite pleased with myself; and there is a lot of third-person cover shooting, too much and too repetitive for my taste (and with some downright aggravating ‘watch pattern -> dodge -> counterattack -> repeat’ closed-arena boss fights).
I do want to home in on one word in that last sentence – “cover”. In a game that derives so much of its appeal from the main character’s agility, I am not convinced that cover shooting was the best way to handle combat. Taking cover, by definition, deprives Lara of her agility; and while she has to move from cover to cover (enemies will lob Molotov cocktails or grenades if she stays still too long), a brief scramble to the next waist-high obstacle pales next to the freedom of the game’s non-combat segments. TR does contain a tantalising “what might have been” moment – one particular sequence is a lot closer to old-fashioned run-and-gun shooters, and it’s amazing what a difference that made to my enjoyment. Suddenly I could sprint! Retreat! Climb up and climb down! Fall back to a previously cleared section! Why even stop there? In a game with this many cliffside jumps and ziplines – see the above screenshot – couldn’t Lara have, say, an unlockable ability to aim her pistol in bullet time and shoot while in mid-air (a la one skill in Sleeping Dogs), or while shimmying along a rope? Surely the designers could have done better than the parade of shooting galleries that did make into the game.
Now that Muse Games has announced Adventure Mode, the long-awaited expansion for last year’s airship shooter Guns of Icarus Online, the time seemed ripe to highlight my two favourite tracks from the base game’s soundtrack:
1. The game’s main menu theme, “Adventure”, composed by Zain Effendi — a short, sweet, mellow piece that goes beautifully with the game’s steampunk setting.
2. An more stirring in-game piece, “Crimson Sky”, composed by Gimmen Gong.
Enjoy, and stay tuned for my upcoming email interview with Muse!
Last week, I read an urban fantasy novel, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (released in the US as Midnight Riot), about a modern London constable who becomes apprentice to the last sorcerer on the force. The very next day, I read its sequel, Moon over Soho. And the day after that, I read the third in the series, Whispers Under Ground. Three books in three days – they’re that good! And that addictive.
To start, I should get my one criticism of these books out of the way: their plots do not hang together very well, with Rivers of London being the most egregious offender. However, Aaronovitch writes with such exuberance that I can forgive him the wayward plots. What does he do right? That’s a longer list.
For this week’s song, we’re going back to the ’80s – specifically, to Conan the Barbarian, a movie that tried so, so hard to be a dark, serious fantasy epic. It didn’t quite succeed, but Basil Poledouris’ majestic soundtrack brought it tantalisingly close. Below, I present the iconic main theme, “Anvil of Crom”, and a gentle travelling theme, “Theology/Civilization” – great ambient music for any fantasy RPG. Enjoy!
(By the way, did you know Arnie is due to return in a fourth Conan that retcons both Destroyer and the Jason Momoa reboot? One hopes it’ll be better than Destroyer…)
Eador: Genesis is a turn-based fantasy strategy game in the vein of Dominions, Heroes of Might and Magic, and Master of Magic. Originally released back in 2009 as the brainchild of one man, Alexey Bokulev, it was only recently translated into English by publisher Snowbird Games. I’ve been playing the game since last week, and while its graphics and production values are… well, what one would expect from an indie strategy game, its gameplay is pure just-one-more-turnium.
The outline of Genesis will be familiar to genre fans. There is a campaign, which I have not tried; all my matches have been on randomly generated maps. Players start with one province and expand across the map, conquering independent provinces, levelling up heroes, and eventually butting heads with each other in tactical battles. The last one standing wins the game. However, Genesis has several distinctive features:
1. Flowing, micromanagement-light gameplay. I think this is half the secret of Genesis’ addictiveness. Most turn-based strategy games, fantasy or otherwise, require constant fiddling from the player – managing multiple cities’ build queues, pushing numerous armies across the map, etc. By contrast, while Genesis offers plenty of choice – look at all the buildings on that construction screen! – at least on small maps, I only have to deal with a handful of moving parts each turn. Build queues? In Genesis, most construction is done in the capital, a la Imperialism – provincial improvements are relatively bare-bones – and in any case, you can only build one building and one province improvement per turn. As for armies, I’ve never had more than two heroes in play. This means there’s relatively little busywork each turn, and few impediments before it’s time for the next battle.
Following on from last year’s Gods and Kings, 2K/Firaxis has announced Brave New World, a second expansion for Civilization V. Whereas G&K‘s headline features were religion and espionage, BNW seems to focus on “soft power”: trade, culture, diplomacy, and a new “World Congress” a la the UN in previous Civ games/the Planetary Council in Alpha Centauri. I look forward to finding out more.
If you’d like to read the details, I’ve copied and pasted the press release below, while Rock Paper Shotgun has a full interview/preview up.