For this week’s song, I was spoiled for choice — ever since playing Empire at War, I’ve been in the mood for Star Wars music. In the end, I opted for the hopeful, yearning piece below. Enjoy, and may the Force be with you, gentle reader!
For this week’s song, I was spoiled for choice — ever since playing Empire at War, I’ve been in the mood for Star Wars music. In the end, I opted for the hopeful, yearning piece below. Enjoy, and may the Force be with you, gentle reader!
Inspired by similar lists created by Tim Stone of RPS and Bruce Geryk, I am very pleased to unveil my recommended reading list for fans of this site! You can access it here, or by clicking the “recommended reading” list at the top of the page.
At this stage, the list is dominated by history and historical fiction, with a bias towards my interests — economic, military, and world histories (by subject), and the early modern period to the present day (by era). Please let me know if you’d like more recommendations on a particular era — I had to prune quite a few books, especially for the early modern period onwards.
Over time, I will add to the list (this will be noted on the front page). I hope you find it useful.
Total War: Attila previews are trickling out, comprising a mix of write-ups and Youtube videos. Here are the more useful ones I’ve found:
I’m not worried that Attila will launch as poorly as Rome 2 — after that fiasco, the previewers are falling over themselves to be cautious, and so far I haven’t seen reports that Attila is broken. I am a bit worried that the game will turn out like Fall of the Samurai – a brilliant concept that needed a few more months in the oven. Either way, keep an eye out for my thoughts once the game is out.
In other news:
Every so often, I play a game that’s more fun than its mediocre mechanics would suggest. Ni no Kuni was one such. Star Wars: Empire at War is another.
Empire at War was a 2006 RTS whose Galactic Conquest mode, a freeform campaign, had clear pretensions of being Total War in space — without the depth. I walked away disappointed.
I found EaW’s skirmish mode more appealing. Unlike Total War skirmishes (or, for that matter, Galactic Conquest, where all recruitment occurs on the strategic map), EaW skirmishes play out as a more traditional RTS. Each side starts with a starbase, which produces new units and can be upgraded to unlock new build options. Asteroid belts are scattered around the map; once secured by fighter squadrons, they can be mined for income. There are a handful of unit types: fighters, bombers, anti-fighter ships, and capital ships of varying strength, such as Victory-class Star Destroyers, Imperial Star Destroyers, and Mon Calamari cruisers. There are also various hero units drawn from the Star Wars franchise, such as Vader in a TIE Advanced, the Millennium Falcon, and Admiral Ackbar.
This adds up to produce a simple, decent strategy game. It’s important to build up the starbase and unlock higher-level units. It’s also important not to be overrun here and now, and upgrading the starbase is expensive and will tie up production for a long time. The result is an interesting short-term versus long-term trade-off.
Above all, EaW‘s saving grace is its ability to channel the Star Wars experience. When the John Williams music blares, and a Star Destroyer emerges from hyperspace onto the Rebel flank, and Vader and Boba Fett sweep the field clear of X-wings, the dated graphics fade away; and I forget all my quibbles with game design.
One episode can sum up my relationship with EaW. In my first few minutes with the game, Han and Chewie in the Falcon managed to solo (no pun intended) four of my TIE Interceptor squadrons and drive off their supporting cruiser. Was that an example of finely balanced strategy design? Perhaps not. Was that a cool Star Wars moment? You bet.
My first clippings for the new year! This week, I have two fun pieces about retro games:
A good story is a series of interesting decisions made by its characters.
This year, I kick off with one of my favourite pieces of ambient music from Endless Legend, a game that has a lot of good ambient music. (Confusingly, the song goes by two different names.) Enjoy!
Welcome back to another Game of the Year list. This year, I’ve tweaked the format again — many of the games I played in 2014 were released in previous years. Sometimes, I played the old game “as is”; sometimes, I played a new port or an expanded version of the old game. So I’ve broken this post down into two parts. First, I review the accomplishments of 2014. And second, I take a look back at the notable games I played, whether or not they were originally released that year.
Happy New Year!
2014 was a quieter year for the site than 2013. There were 77,000 page views, down from 92,000 the previous year. That’s still a little bit above the 71,000 in 2012. Again, the most popular posts (the top 3, in fact) related to Paradox strategy games. #4 was my guide for Wargame: AirLand Battle and Wargame: Red Dragon – quite pleasing after the work I put into it! And #5 was an old post I wrote about Tactics Ogre. Visitors came from as far afield as Iran, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea.
During 2013, I’d focused on new games, and in particular, new strategy games. For 2014, one of my goals was to write more about everything else — especially my other great love, JRPGs. So while I wrote about several new strategy games (Age of Wonders III, The Banner Saga, Civilization: Beyond Earth, Endless Legend, Warlock 2, and Xenonauts), I spent more time discussing Crusader Kings 2, Europa Universalis 4, Child of Light, Final Fantasy X HD, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, The Last Story, Valiant Hearts, Transistor, and Tearaway.
Breaking down content by type, there were no Let’s Plays s this year. I’d thought of writing one for Beyond Earth; when BE turned out to be subpar, I scrapped the idea. I did interview two developers about upcoming strategy games — Soren Johnson about Offworld Trading Company and Dan Lind about Hearts of Iron IV. I wrote my first ever game guide, for Wargame, and wrote a couple of brief pieces about genre problems — JRPG random battles and espionage in strategy games. I even wrote my first ever piece about gaming merchandise — the piano sheet music of Final Fantasy VI.
During 2015, there is one game I will almost certainly cover: Hearts of Iron IV. Whether it’s good or bad, expect me to have a lot to say! I’ll also keep an eye out for the Grim Fandango re-release; No Man’s Sky; Persona 5; Satellite Reign; Total War: Attila; and The Witcher 3.
For now, look forward to my ‘notable achievers of 2014′ honours list, which is about 3/4ths complete. I’m also cooking up a recommended reading list, containing novels, history books, and science fiction that you might find worth a look.
Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you around.
Back when I wrote about Tearaway last January, I quoted Jesse Schell’s distinction between a toy (something that’s fun to play with) and a game (a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude). Using these definitions, I would argue Endless Legend is a good game and a better toy.
As a toy, Endless Legend is a fresh, colourful take on 4X strategy, enlivened by one of the most imaginative settings in the genre. I love its diverse factions, its aesthetic and music, its unique mechanics. I also appreciate that there’s an option to enlarge the font – Paradox and Matrix, take note! As a game, Endless Legend shines early on. The first 50 to 100 turns are an exciting competition, in which I race to expand, weigh different research priorities, or struggle to hold a distant region that produces essential raw materials for my army.
Eventually, Endless Legend runs into a familiar problem with the genre — a tedious late game. Individual city build queues, a staple of the 4X genre, don’t scale well to large empires. Late-game units are just early-game units with bigger numbers. And once one player stakes out a big enough lead, the rest of the game is all downhill. There is a “rubber band” happiness mechanic reminiscent of Civ V (larger empires are more restive than smaller ones); it doesn’t seem to be enough.
The runaway leader syndrome is exacerbated by a diplomatic AI that’s so capricious, it might as well not exist: I remember one AI player tearing up our brand-new trade agreements at the same time it was being devoured by another, larger opponent (which went on to win the game). In a different game, the AI players tried to team up on me when I pulled ahead — except that I was so far ahead that their declarations of war were utter suicide. After I absorbed them, I was even stronger than before.
With a few patches or perhaps an expansion, something to spice up the late game, I think Endless Legend could become a classic of the genre. As is, it’s one of the most original strategy games in some time, and still worth checking out for fans of the genre.
The Manchu conquest of Ming China, in which a much smaller, younger state managed to overthrow the greatest empire in the world, is one of those episodes in history that seems tailor-made for a grand strategy game. After recent versions of Europa Universalis IV (the Art of War expansion, the accompanying 1.8 patch, and the subsequent 1.9 patch) fleshed out East Asia and Siberia, I was eager to give the Manchu a spin.
Here are the Jianzhou Jurchens at the start of the game. Historically, their leaders forged a new “Manchu” state and went on to establish China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing:
1. Building a power base to the north of Ming China. I began by subjugating the other Manchu tribes, Siberia, and chunks of Korea, and by the 1510s, I was strong enough to fight off a Ming invasion attempt. My counterattack took the northern tip of China, around Beijing. I took the screenshot below shortly before my war with Ming:
2. Pushing into China proper, and Westernising. As early as the 1560s, I was planting outposts on the west coast of North America while simultaneously fighting the Russians to a standstill. Decades later, the Ming were still a paper tiger: after a second war, I briefly held all of coastal China down to the wealthy Yangtze delta. A vicious burst of revolts in occupied China was only a temporary setback: by 1630 I had picked up Western technology (courtesy of my American colonies). The screenshot below depicts the situation a couple of decades later, by which point it was simply a matter of…
3. Mopping up. Once I controlled a decent chunk of China, my manpower, wealth, and technological edge allowed me to snowball through the rest. I spent the rest of the 1600s and 1700s absorbing the remainder of China, fighting the odd war against Europeans, and bullying nearby minnows.
Here are my borders at the end of the game (note that Siberia was a client state of mine). Had I wanted to, I could have pushed much further — I had a standing army of over 180,000 men, manpower reserves of another 300,000, maximum technology, and the most provinces of any nation in the world:
Overall, I had great fun, perhaps more so in the first half of the campaign. I think the second half was held back by a common genre problem — EU4’s mechanics don’t scale well to large empires. Otherwise, I am very pleased with the current version of the game, which addresses one of my longest-running complaints with the series. Even with its late-game problems, I think EU4 is a very good strategy game; and I particularly appreciate that the developers have fleshed out my favourite aspect — the world beyond Europe. If you haven’t played EU4, or if you played back at launch, this would be a great time to jump in.
I’ve divided the rest of this post into several sections. Below, I elaborate on EU4‘s design (and the state of the game). If you’d like to try forming the Qing, skip to the mini-guide at the end of this post.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a very happy New Year. Matchsticks for my Eyes will return shortly with a year-end wrap. Now, go enjoy the occasion!
I thought I’d cracked it.
Over and over again, I attempted one of the greatest challenges in Crusader Kings II – play a Zoroastrian and restore the Persian Empire. Over and over again, I fell prey to larger, stronger neighbours. Proud independence seemed impossible.
Now, it was time for one more approach. I pledged fealty to a weak king — and set myself up as the power behind the throne. It worked: I kept my dynasty, the House of Karen, alive for a hundred years. And one day, I overreached. Playthrough after playthrough had been cut short by the vast armies of the Abbasid Caliphate. Why not switch my allegiance to the Caliph, undermine his rule from within, and pick up the pieces after his fall?
Seventy years later, after my umpteenth rebellion, the Caliph stripped my dynasty of its last lands. I had forestalled fate, not changed it.
This week’s song is another one of my favourites from Fallout: New Vegas. Enjoy!
Xenonauts is a generally inspired homage to the Gollop Brothers’ X-COM, let down by repetitive ground combat. After six or seven hours back in September, I loaded up Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Within… and since then, I’ve haven’t looked back.
Comparing Xenonauts and Enemy Within made me appreciate what Firaxis did right. Because soldiers in Firaxis XCOM can move quite far and still shoot, and because cover, flanking, and line of sight are so important, Firaxis ground combat is extremely fluid. In the very first Enemy Within battle I played after Xenonauts — “just for comparison, then I can write this article” — my soldiers started on one side of a convenience store. First the aliens came from the east, along the street. Then they emerged from the north, through the store, onto my flank! My squad ran, and climbed, and hid on the roof — all but the poor Support trooper who couldn’t make it in time. The aliens emerged from the store. And my survivors took revenge:
After giving up on my dream of restoring the Persian empire in Crusader Kings II – believe me, I tried every strategy, half a dozen characters, and many, many times – I decided to try a Norse ruler instead. And wow, the Norse music (contained in the “Hymns to the Old Gods” DLC) is pretty good. The example below is lovely and mellow – enjoy! EDIT: It’s also mellower than the image would suggest – I only just noticed the dangling bodies. Yikes!
In several ways, Endless Legend feels like the game Civilization: Beyond Earth wanted to be. The two games share several design choices, such as non-linear tech trees and a unit system that consists of upgrading a few basic designs. The difference is that Beyond Earth felt bland and boring, whereas Endless Legend brims with personality.
My favourite example is the Vaulters – the only Endless Legend faction I’ve tried so far. The Vaulters are the descendants of ancient spacefarers, marooned after their starship crashed. As the game opens, quakes have driven the Vaulters out of their subterranean cities and to the surface, whence they compete with the other empires of the world.
The first thing I noticed about the Vaulters is that their basic unit is called the “Marine”. This, I absolutely love. It conveys their heritage with one word: it makes perfect sense that space-going marines would have been the protectors of the original Vaulter settlement, and I can imagine generation after generation of Vaulters brought up to think of their warriors as “marines”, long after the origins of the word faded into myth.
The marines’ appearance fits the backstory, too. Here’s some official art of the Vaulters — the marines are the crossbowmen in the foreground. Look at their bows:
The marines’ crossbow stocks are made from — or perhaps patterned after — futuristic assault rifles. Either the Vaulters recycled their rifles once they stopped working, or else they deliberately crafted their crossbows to resemble ancient weapons of myth. Both explanations make sense given the backstory. How cool is that?
Incidentally, that hulking construct in the background is a titan – a higher-tier Vaulter melee unit, fashioned from an ancient robot. And I believe the woman brandishing an axe is the starting Vaulter hero — judging from their leader art and their heroes (all female), the Vaulters are a matriarchy.
Once in-game, the Vaulters have a great special ability: they can teleport armies between friendly cities. On the defence, this is as useful as it sounds. And the ability to instantly warp reinforcements into a newly captured city obviates the need for lengthy supply lines back to the homeland… and makes conquest that much easier. Again, how cool is that?
As a final note, the Vaulters are just one of eight factions in Endless Legend. Even leaving aside the more generic (such as omnicidal insectoids), that still leaves unique choices such as the Roving Clans, a merchant nation that can’t declare war, and the Broken Lords, a cursed nation that eats mystical energy instead of food. I suspect I may just have scratched the surface!
And that makes me glad. After the years I’ve spent whingeing about unimaginative video game settings, Endless Legend is a breath of fresh air. Other strategy designers, take note!
Endless Legend art taken from the official site.
After many attempts to restore the Persian empire in Crusader Kings 2, I have learned two things.
First, playing a Zoroastrian is hard. The first three times, I tried playing Persian Zoroastrian lords: Vandad Karen, an independent lord in 867 (twice), and Shorzan Bavandid, a vassal of the Abbasid Caliphate in 769. I didn’t last long: Vandad is surrounded by hostile neighbours, and Shorzan and his heirs live at the mercy of the Caliph. The fourth time, I chose Wakhushakk1, a tribal chief who rules over a single province in 769 – and this time, after many saves and reloads, I was able to carve out (albeit not keep) a kingdom along the Silk Road. In the process, I made my second discovery: the game has a pretty cool model of tribal societies, as distinct from feudal proto-states.
The key difference2 is that in my experience, feudal armies are predictably sized and only grow gradually. Bigger and more developed realms can raise more troops, but newly conquered territories don’t contribute troops for some time, and developing holdings takes time and money. In contrast, tribes use the leader’s prestige as their main currency. Given a sufficiently prestigious leader, tribal armies can spring up overnight: if a tribe is at war, the player can cash in 500 prestige points in exchange for a 2,500-strong army. On the steppes, that is a big deal. For context, Wakhushakk’s starting levy is only about 350 men!3 The army will disappear in peacetime – but you can keep it around indefinitely by starting a new war before the old war is over.
The trick is getting that 500 prestige. There are several ways to accumulate prestige. One is passage of time: I spent the early years of my tribal game with the speed turned up to maximum, waiting for my prestige to hit the magic 500 mark. A faster way is to win wars. Hit 500 prestige, raise one army, win a few wars and earn another 500 prestige, raise a second army and add it to the first… it’s possible for a tribe to erupt out of nowhere and take its neighbours by storm.
But while tribes are powerful, they’re also brittle. Tribes are the antithesis of “rubber banding”: just as success feeds on success, defeat – and the consequent loss of prestige – can leave the tribe vulnerable. At best, defeat still meant twiddling thumbs while I waited for my prestige to recharge. A second vulnerability is the tribe’s reliance on a prestigious leader. Whenever one of my chiefs died, passing leadership onto an unproven son, my neighbours would pounce. In the end, after spending 50 years in “conquest” mode, I decided that boom-and-bust tribal mechanics had outlived their usefulness. It was time for my people to put down roots and switch to feudalism.
From a mechanical perspective, tribes in CK2 can be a little frustrating – and also exhilarating. From a thematic perspective, I love their representation as warrior societies reliant on charismatic leaders. It seems a very elegant way of representing real-world tribal conquerors who burst onto their neighbours like a bolt from the blue, while tribal limitations give players a reason to eventually settle down. Give the tribes a try!
Crusader Kings 2 base game and some DLC supplied by Paradox. I purchased the more recent DLC, including The Old Gods and Charlemagne, which made the abovenamed characters playable.
Here’s another gem from the Valkyria Chronicles soundtrack. It’s one of the game’s more iconic battle themes (despite the name, it plays in regular rather than boss battles); to me, this is VC. Enjoy!
Just a short update this week, as I’m away on holiday:
Hope you’re having fun, and I’ll see you in a week’s time.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is an adventure game that doesn’t feel like other adventure games.
Typically, adventure games give the player several tasks: exploring the environment, gathering items, talking to NPCs, and solving puzzles. The challenge comes from the last element, solving puzzles. Sometimes, this becomes a problem. Either the solution to the puzzle makes no sense (making a moustache out of cat hair), or the puzzle itself is out of place.
Crimes and Punishments contains several of these elements. There is a fair amount of exploration and talking to NPCs (both accompanied by a sort of “Holmes vision”, triggered at the touch of a button):
Back in 2009, Valkyria Chronicles was the game that made me buy a PS3. It was innovative, beautiful, and grossly under-appreciated by consumers – the sequels moved to the PSP, and the third game never even came out in English. Now the original game is coming to PC, and for fans of tactical RPGs who missed it the first time, it’s well worth a look. Yes, there were balance issues. Yes, the plot was disappointing. But I can forgive that, because at VC‘s heart rested an insight: squad-based tactical TBS can have the spectacle and excitement of shooters. You can see that idea recur in XCOM, and I believe the Xenonauts developers will follow suit with their next game.
Here’s some gameplay footage of Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3. Skip to 3:00 to see the actual battle. Note that whenever you see the player taking a shot, whether it hits is determined by the soldier’s accuracy (as in an RPG or strategy game) rather than the player’s skill:
(Edit to add: USGamer has a good overview of the Valkyria Chronicles series’ history.)
In other news:
This week, I present two variations on the same theme. The main title theme of Gabriel Knight is forty seconds of tension, followed by two minutes of intensity. It pops up again, this time a gentle guitar piece, as the ambient music in Gabriel’s bookstore. It’s stuck in my mind all these years, and below, I’ve linked the remastered versions from the new remake. Enjoy!
I’ve just won my first game of Civilization: Beyond Earth1, and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.
The problem is not that this is “Civilization V in space” – in fact, it’s missing some of the features I liked in Civ V (on which more below). The problem is that my first game contained too much busywork for too little payoff. I can tell you cool stories about Beyond Earth’s progenitors, Civilization V and Alpha Centauri. In fact, I could probably tell you cool stories about every Civ game from I to V. I’d be hard-pressed to do the same for my Beyond Earth run.
The Milkweed Triptych, by Ian Tregillis, comprises three novels: Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evils. Together, they form proof that a good author can outshine the most hackneyed premise.
The trilogy takes place in a world where Nazi Germany fields superpowered warriors and a desperate Britain responds with forbidden magic. In the hands of 99% of authors, the result would have been pulpy, campy, trashy. Not here. While the three books are quite different (in tone and even in genre1) from one another, they nonetheless form a clever, often dark, and surprisingly restrained story – and it is a single story; each book is one part of the greater whole, not a standalone.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain what’s so clever about the series without getting into at least mild spoilers. Here’s the spoiler-free version: the action, which is spectacular in both senses of the word, is just the tip of the iceberg. The world is well-drawn – I have seen utterly unconvincing works where the author dumped superpowers, or magic, or the paranormal into a real-world setting without the least bit of thought about how this would have affected history 2. Tregillis doesn’t make the same mistake – it helps that his prose and research are both generally good 3. And his characters are vivid. When one managed to find happiness after a lifetime of misery, I wanted to cheer. When a particularly unlikeable soul found himself the butt of the author’s black humour, I laughed. When the tension mounted, I was almost afraid to find out what would happen next.
Beyond that, I do recommend going in blind. Trust me – they’re good! I look forward to Tregillis’ next project, a “fantasy clockpunk trilogy that has an element of alternate history”.
Heads up! Civilization: Beyond Earth pre-loads are now available – the game will unlock on the 24th (Friday), just in time for the weekend. The download is 2.7GB.
Not much to report otherwise. I’m pecking at XCOM: Enemy Within and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments on the PC, both of which I enjoy – in fact, I fired up XCOM so I could compare something with Xenonauts, and after rediscovering the joys of Firaxis’ game, I can’t go back. On PS3, I’m playing Okami HD, the port of one of my favourite games of all time. And on Vita, I’m slowly progressing through the marathon that is Persona 4: Golden.
In this week’s links:
… is that it tends to boil down to a single die roll.
The key word is “single”. Consider spies in Civilization, agents in Total War, and paid assassinations in Crusader Kings. Even in games without tactical combat, where battle is ultimately a matter of rolling the dice, the player can determine the outcome of a war through superior numbers, technology, or manoeuvre on the strategic map. Since armies comprise multiple units, a single unlucky die roll won’t be decisive.
By contrast, spy actions in strategy games have traditionally been determined by a single, all-or-nothing roll. If it succeeds, wonderful. It it fails, the player’s lack of control over the outcome makes it a temptation to reload – especially as failure may incur the loss of an experienced, irreplaceable asset.
In the last few years, designers have grown wise to this. Now, it’s common to see spies and agents grant a passive bonus, or a gradual effect that builds up over time. For example, in the more recent Total War games, agents have both a “passive” ability (such as granting bonus experience to friendly troops, or extra income in a town) and an “active” ability (such as assassination or sabotage).
Personally, I think this is a big step forward. I find passive, predictable bonuses to be less fiddly and more conducive to planning. And by limiting the number of agents that can be deployed, relative to the number of potential opportunities, designers can require players to make “interesting decisions” about where to deploy their scarce agents1. I look forward to seeing what designers come up with.
The key is that Crimes and Punishments sells the illusion that I’m experiencing a Holmes adventure. Its production values are pretty good, and the writing and voice acting are very good. It also has a sense of humour. For all the cool authority Holmes projects, Watson is clearly the one who has to put up with him on a daily basis, and their banter is laugh-out-loud funny. The traditional adventure game “examine everything” mechanic makes perfect sense in a game about Sherlock Holmes, a man renowned for his powers of observation. And uniquely, it’s possible to reach the wrong conclusion on the basis of the evidence. My one gripe – there is no “save anywhere”. There isn’t even “save and exit”. Instead, the game uses a checkpoint system.
Meanwhile, Jane Jensen informs me via email that the soundtrack for the Gabriel Knight remake will not be sold separately:
Hi, Peter – no, it is only available digitally as a gift with the pre-order of the game. It will not be sold separately due to our licensing agreement with Activision.
In other news:
Frozen Synapse has recently been ported to Vita (as Frozen Synapse: Prime), so for this week, I thought I’d highlight my favourite track from the original game. Together with the visual design, the music is key to the game’s cyberpunk atmosphere – I suspect it’s especially important given the minimalism of the rest of the game. Enjoy!
I spent Friday at the EB Games Expo in Sydney, walking the floor, playing games, and keeping an eye out for what seemed interesting. For me, it was a chance to catch up with the “AAA” space and chat to some Australian indies. It was also a chance to learn about games that I would otherwise have missed. Read on for more!