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.

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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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Age of Charlemagne – a worthy complement to Attila

Attila - AoC Cavalry croppedAge of Charlemagne offers the basics, done right. If Rome II was about conquering a huge empire, and Attila was about defending it, Age of Charlemagne offers a tight, focused campaign that can be finished in a reasonable time. In this regard, it reminds me of Shogun 2 and particularly its expansion Rise of the Samurai, the most elegant and pared-down of the Total War campaigns.

More details below:

Fun challenge. Playing as Charlemagne on Hard campaign difficulty/Normal battle difficulty, my initial situation resembled a smaller, less dire version of that facing the Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne starts with long borders, an awkwardly shaped empire, and enemies at either end, in the southwest and northeast:

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Clippings: settling in for the season

Heading into December, my gaming time has been split between recent releases (Fallout 4, Thea: The Awakening), other purchases from Steam’s November sale (the British DLC for Company of Heroes 2), and finishing off my Nobunaga’s Ambition campaign. I’m looking forward to more time with the newly released Charlemagne DLC for Total War: Attila – it’s well-regarded, doesn’t look too big, and, based on my short and ill-fated first campaign, offers a good challenge. I’d also like to finish Tales from the Borderlands and try Life is Strange, which I also picked up during the Steam sale.

Meanwhile, we’re learning more about next year’s major strategy releases:

  • Paradox is broadcasting a weekly staff multiplayer game of Hearts of Iron IV, pitting the UK against Germany. You can find episode 1 here; as at the time of writing two episodes are out, and a third is due to air tomorrow.
  • While Paradox is more circumspect with Stellaris footage, the dev diaries are promising. I’m particularly interested in the research system, which presents a dynamic choice of technologies rather than a static tech tree, and about interactions with pre-spaceflight species, which players will be able to uplift.
  • XCOM 2 footage is also out – I like this video from Eurogamer, which showcases the base screen, soldier customisation, and tactical combat, accompanied by developer commentary. Also check out USGamer’s interview with Jake Solomon.

In other news:

  • Fallout: New Vegas Tour is a really cool look at the places that inspired the game. I had no idea they were so rooted in fact.
  • This USGamer article has done a lot to pique my interest in Yakuza 5. Mini-games built around serving ramen and talking to taxi passengers? That is unique.
  • And this is an interesting discussion of violence in Rise of the Tomb Raider. In some ways, it echoes my thoughts about the 2013 reboot.
  • With Xenoblade Chronicles X just out, Eurogamer examines the career of its creator.
  • Finally, Gimmen Gong, who composed much of the soundtrack for Guns of Icarus Online, has written in to tell me that an expanded album is now available. It’s dominated by slow, mournful ambient music, of which my favourites are “The Last Spirits of Time Forgotten” and “Original Main Theme”. There are also several faster-paced tracks; I like “Captain’s Maneuver” and “Grand Skyway of the Armada”. If you liked the GoIO soundtrack, the samples are worth a listen. Note that this album excludes the main menu theme and the drumbeat that plays when going into combat (“Adventure” and “Battle”, respectively), which were composed by Zain Effendi and are included with the collector’s edition of the game. It does include 3 tracks towards the end that overlap with the collector’s edition.
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Fallout 4: Early impressions

The deal was done. The merchant would trade me a stimpak; I would trade junk and a handful of cash. We agreed. The goods changed hands. And moments later, gunfire ripped through the night sky.

Something flared red. Was that a rocket? Whatever it was, as the merchant yelled, instinct took over. I ran for cover. When I reached safety, I stopped. Regained my cool. Looked for the raiders. Fought back.

When I combed through the bodies afterward, I realised the raiders had been armed with nothing better than home-made pipe guns. In the surprise and confusion of the ambush, I’d assumed far worse. In that unscripted moment, Fallout 4 brought its world alive.

A minute later, I approached the merchant, as well as another group of civilians that had blundered past. They reacted as though nothing had happened. And understandable though that was — should I have expected an unscripted response from characters in a video game? — it yanked me back out of the game’s world.

That episode sums up my experience so far with Fallout 4, about five hours in. As a moment-to-moment experience, it’s very good. Creeping through a underground raider camp, going room-to-room in a building harbouring raiders and incongruous Revolutionary War mannequins, and scavenging building material from rubble felt natural and immersive. In addition to the unscripted moments, scripted set-pieces seem fairly common so far. I can already feel the lure of crafting and settlement-building, although it’s too early to tell how much depth the settlement system has, and I have some concerns about the UI for settlement management. Is there some way of assigning settlers to tasks from a central screen, or do I have to walk around town and assign them one by one?

While I’m pretty happy with Fallout 4’s mechanics, I do have a couple of concerns about the writing. I loved Fallout 3’s opening (growing up in the Vault), and I loved Fallout: New Vegas’ opening, “reverse Western” setting, and plot hook. I liked Fallout 4’s opening — but this was followed by a moment of mood whiplash, and an early plot hook that felt contrived. To give due credit, Fallout 4’s protagonist benefits from being voiced, which allows him/her to respond to the environment in a believable and, at one point, sympathetic way.

A few more quick points: Character appearances have improved from previous games, although people still look odd when they run. I like the balance between VATS and ordinary actions — it looks like it’s better to use VATS up-close or against fast-moving enemies. And I like the diegetic interface that appears when you wear power armour. EDIT: Oh, and the UI seems to have been designed around a gamepad rather than a keyboard & mouse.

My tentative impression is that Fallout 4’s combat is at least as good as that in Fallout: New Vegas, while crafting and settlements are promising. Conversely, in terms of writing, New Vegas appears to have the edge. Overall, I like what I’ve played of Fallout 4 and I suspect it will come in as, at least, “good” to “very good”. Time will tell if it can pip its great predecessors.

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A Return to Adventure: Thoughts on Conquest of Elysium 4

When the giant demon attacked my fortress, I cursed.

The fort was my newest and proudest conquest, wrested from a nearby computer player. I left a small garrison, stiffened by two ballistae, to hold the walls while my main army subdued the nearby hinterlands. Now that demon, with its vast pool of health and huge spell list, was going to snatch away my prize.

The battle began. Because it was a siege, my ballistae were allowed a number of free shots. A bolt slammed into the demon. A big chunk of its health disappeared. And that was just the start.

CoE4 Ballista vs HeliophagusBy the time the perforated demon limped up to the castle gates, a humble bowman was able to administer the coup de grace. Ballistae (and Human Ingenuity) 1, Demon 0.

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From the archives: Tactics X-COM: Jagged Ogre Chronicles, or a guide to squad-level strategy/tactics/RPGs

I originally wrote this post in 2012 during the lead-up to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, proposing a classification system for squad-based games and tactical RPGs across PC and consoles. Since then, to my delight, the genre has gone from strength to strength. XCOM: Enemy Unknown turned out to be superb – it was definitely a hybrid, by the way, combining the lethality and dynamic campaign of Type 1 games, the Type 2 emphasis on careful movement and not triggering too many enemies, and the soldier customisation of Type 3. XCOM 2 is due out next year for PC. The Fire Emblem series is posting strong sales on 3DS, and Valkyria Chronicles has been ported to PC. Indie titles such as Expeditions: Conquistador have added spice. Welcome back, old friends – we missed you.

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Guide to TRPGs - Matchsticks for my Eyes

This is a good time to be a fan – as I am – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).

The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.

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From the archives: What five games say about violence

I originally wrote this in 2013, contrasting the approach taken by five big-name games towards violence. Arguably, recent years have seen greater awareness of what’s possible for a non-violent game, such as “walking simulators”, a renaissance in adventure games, the growing popularity of creation-focused games such as Kerbal Space Program, and outright subversive titles such as This War of Mine.  I look forward to seeing what options are available in another two years.

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“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.

violence-games-table-v2Read more here.

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Friends in Need: Diplomacy in Nobunaga’s Ambition

Akechi Mitsuhide did not have long to gloat.

After he betrayed and killed Oda Nobunaga – per historical event – I rallied a coalition of Nobunaga’s generals and surviving sons against him. From the west came Hashiba Hideyoshi, the man better known to history as Toyotomi Hideyoshi. From the northeast came the Oda remnants. And from the southeast, my own Tokugawa forces. I coordinated a three-pronged attack – you can see allied (green) military units in the southwest and northeast of the following screenshot, with my own (blue) units in the centre:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition at war

Mitsuhide was squashed flat:

Nobunagas Ambition - Naomasa Defeats Akechi

Two years after Nobunaga’s death, my armies marched into Mitsuhide’s final stronghold:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition Destroyed Akechi

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