Stellaris, one year on

Victory!

Amidst the brightly shining stars, the Mushroom Domain’s legacy shall endure. The Mushrooms were not the galaxy’s most populous species. They did not control its largest empire. Yet they were its most influential. It was a Mushroom-created federation that brought peace to the galaxy and defended it against an invading scourge, and it was a Mushroom battle fleet that fired the final, victorious shot.

One year after launch, Stellaris remains best approached as a science-fiction story generator. Its strengths and weaknesses are recognisable from launch: in Jesse Schell’s “toy vs game” classification scheme (a toy is something you play with, a game is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude), Stellaris is still more of a toy than a game — not uncommon in the 4X and strategy genres, where a rich experience such as Total War or Master of Magic can represent more than the sum of its parts. Stellaris is not a balanced set of finely-honed decisions, and I wonder if it ever could be one without jeopardising what it does do well: providing a sandpit to enact grand sagas of galactic ambition.

More detailed thoughts below:

At a design level, this is still one of the most interesting 4X titles around. Thematically, Stellaris‘s well-written flavour events, randomly generated species (peer empires, brooding precursors, upliftable pre-spaceflight worlds, and more), and abundant science-fiction homages combine to produce a galaxy that is “ancient and full of wonders”. Later on, the galaxy begins dividing into blocs, precursor races awaken, and intergalactic invaders emerge, representing radical potential changes to the game board: when the victory screen popped up, my Mushrooms and their federation partners were defending against a mighty “Awakened Empire”, a once-dormant precursor now turned aggressively expansionist.

Mechanically, Stellaris is still strongest early on. Since the Utopia expansion came out, I’ve started four campaigns, shelved three after reaching the mid-game, and finished one. Early-game exploration remains the highlight; the mid-game is weakened by bland mechanics such as planetary construction and ship design. Patches and DLC have helped to some extent, providing new mid/late-game foes (Leviathans DLC), internal politics that feel rewarding instead of punitive (the 1.5 patch), buildable megastructures (the Utopia DLC — I’ve only built a few so far), and a Civ 5-style traditions system (Utopia again).

Applying mods and experimenting with custom game settings let me address the game’s weaknesses, build on its strengths, and tailor the experience to my preferences. In 4X games, I hate micromanaging large empires — I prefer a smaller scale where every settlement matters — and I prefer to play as a peaceful builder. I was able to achieve this in my completed Mushroom Domain game, a relaxing experience in which I let federation allies extend our control across the galaxy while I focused on building and exploration. To do so, I opted for a small galaxy with the proportion of habitable worlds set to 25% of the default. Meanwhile, I installed the More Events Mod (more to discover), Megastructures, Improved Megastructures, and Stellar Expansion (more to build), and assorted quality of life mods (AutoBuild). For future games, I intend to install Guillis Planet Modifiers (more planet variety) and perhaps The Zenith of Fallen Empires (ambitious endgame options).

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Musical Monday: “Together to the Stars (United Empire Theme)” (Endless Space 2), composed by FlyByNo

This week’s song is another case of “the music is better than the game”. While I was disappointed with Endless Space 2, this track is stirring, evocative, and — as an imperial leitmotif — suitably bombastic. Enjoy!

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Endless Space 2 impressions

I have mixed feelings following my first game of Endless Space 2. I went in with high hopes: after bouncing off Endless Space 1, I went on to love Endless Legend. At first, I had a great time. Six hours later, by the time I finished my beginner game, I was bored.

Its strengths and weaknesses are those of Endless Legend at launch. Re-reading what I wrote about Endless Legend in 2015, much of my critique applies equally well here. Endless Space 2‘s headline strengths are gorgeous art and imaginative worldbuilding, while several aspects of nuts-and-bolts gameplay deserve praise – spaceship design is simple and elegant (I set up two main ship classes: one fast and powerful for my field forces, and the other well-armed, slow, and cheap for my garrisons), while building up planets is pleasant and satisfying. Its weaknesses include bugs, what seems like an AI inability to upgrade spaceships, and something more fundamental: the late game is a slog. While I was willing to forgive Endless Legend at launch, and that game went on to take significant strides, I’m a little disappointed that after several years, Endless Space 2 has gone back to square one.

Stellaris presents an interesting comparison. Both games enliven early exploration with quests, events, and anomalies to investigate. Both games reflect their developers’ pedigree – Endless Space 2 has superior ‘4X’ mechanics (ship design, planetary buildings) while Stellaris has more interesting diplomatic options (a successful military campaign in Endless Space 2 took me over my planet limit, at which point I wished I could set up unwanted planets as a vassal buffer state). Both suffer in the mid-to-late game, although Stellaris tries to address this with endgame crises and the War in Heaven.

… highlighting underlying issues in 4X game design. Most 4X games are built around the player acquiring more stuff, and with it, more to do (more units to push around, more cities or planets to manage). Mechanics that work in the early game, such as managing city build queues, fail to scale in the late game. At the same time, the late game loses much of its challenge as the player snowballs across the map. A handful of games address these problems: the recent Total War games add powerful late-game foes (the rest of Japan in Shogun 2, the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer); Imperialism centralises all production in the capital city, reducing micromanagement; similarly Armageddon Empires restricts the player’s production to whatever is in his/her hand of cards.

What next? While I’d like to play more of Endless Space 2, I’m not whether I’ll do so as-is (perhaps on a higher difficulty setting or playing a different faction) or whether I’ll put it back on the shelf for now. If Endless Legend is any indication, I may well be more positive in several months.

Further reading

Troy Costisick at Explorminate has a positive and very detailed review.

Chris Thursten at PC Gamer argues that the game needs more polish.

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Musical Monday: “Through the Gates” (Conquest of Elysium 3), composed by Mattias Westlund

I encountered this week’s song a number of years ago in Illwinter’s Conquest of Elysium 3. To me, it’s a very “high fantasy” song, conjuring up images of bold heroes riding out into the great wild. Enjoy!

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Clippings: Total Warhammer 2, Nintendo’s Mobile Business Model, Fallout 4 Mods

Creative Assembly has announced Total War: Warhammer 2press release here. Notably, it will allow owners of the original Total Warhammer to play a “mega-campaign” that combines the maps of the two games, a feature I remember being discussed when the first game was still in development. Eurogamer has an excellent interview here. PC Gamer and PCGamesN add some details about, respectively, victory conditions and retrospective tweaks to the first game’s factions.

Masashi Isawa at the Nikkei newspaper highlights Nintendo’s respective experiences with Super Mario Run and Fire Emblem Heroes. Although revenue from SMR “did not meet expectations”, Nintendo still prefers its premium pricing model over the more lucrative F2P model of Fire Emblem: Heroes.

Finally, Christopher Livingston at PC Gamer highlights Sim Settlements, a Fallout 4 mod that makes settlements dynamic places that inhabitants build up and furnish. Very cool!

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Clippings: Afghanistan ’11, Julian Gollop, Video Game Photography, and more

Strategy gamers are in for a treat this week with the release of Afghanistan ’11, the sequel to Vietnam ’65. Like its predecessor, Afghanistan ’11 captures the experience of waging counterinsurgency warfare against an unseen foe. The Taliban lurk, place IEDs, ambush convoys, and occasionally emerge in force. Just as important are logistics and the need to shore up political support. On “normal” difficulty, I find the game rather punitive (which is probably appropriate to the theme), and I’ve encountered some annoying bugs. Overall, I would still recommend it to those interested. Update: I would recommend it once the bugs have been addressed; I’ve encountered several crashes and – infuriatingly – an already-met victory condition resetting itself, preventing me from winning a campaign map on which I’d spent hours. For more details, check out Tim Stone’s review in his Flare Path column.

Julian Gollop, of X-COM fame, has conducted a Q&A about his upcoming game Phoenix Point. His stated ambition is to realise the vision he first set out to create X-COM: Apocalypse, involving multiple factions and alien monsters that mutate to counteract the player.

Micah Dutro at Explorminate gives a positive review to Battle Brothers, a low-fantasy tactical RPG.

Nadia Oxford at USGamer discusses Zelda: Breath of the Wild as a post-apocalyptic game

Simon Parkin at Eurogamer discusses video game photography from Final Fantasy XV to Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Meanwhile, Robert Purchese from Eurogamer meets Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of the Witcher books.

Finally, fantasy fans might be amused by this analysis of the frequency of braid-tugging in Wheel of Time.

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In search of Cathay: exploring historical strategy games set in China

This post discusses some of the notable games that explore the history of China – a fascinating subject crying out for more attention.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Any discussion of strategy games set in China must begin with KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, whose first game dates to the NES.

Set amidst the civil war that followed the fall of the Han Dynasty — the same period that inspired the Chinese classic novel, the Dynasty Warriors games, and assorted movies, TV shows, and anime — these games are mechanically as well as thematically notable.

Along with KOEI stablemates such as Nobunaga’s Ambition, and Paradox’s Crusader Kings, these are some of the very few character-driven strategy games in existence. Every action in ROTK, from building a granary to leading an army, is assigned to (and performed by) named characters. ROTK’s characters form a cast of thousands, taken from history and the pages of the novel (there is also the potential to create custom officers)

Within the series, individual games vary. I have very fond memories of playing ROTK XI, a micromanagement-intensive but engaging game whose cel-shaded graphics and hand-drawn art remain lovely today.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by ROTK XIII, the latest in the series. Like some of its predecessors, XIII is a RPG/strategy hybrid that allows players to play as low-ranking officers or governors, as opposed to faction leaders, and work their way up. In theory, this is brilliant. In practice, life as a junior officer in ROTK XIII plays out as Ancient Chinese Workplace Simulator. I spent my time clicking through menus to fulfil orders, waiting for progress bars to fill up, and occasionally networking with fellow officers. (More subjectively, I didn’t like XIII’s art style compared to its predecessors, or for that matter, Nobunaga’s Ambition.)

For those interested in the ROTK series, I would recommend XI, which is available for digital purchase.

Completing a task in Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII.

Oriental Empires

Flawed and fascinating, Oriental Empires (currently in Early Access) is a bundle of interesting ideas that — based on a playthrough in late September/early October 2016 — fail to cohere into a good game. In particular, it feels caught between two conflicting paradigms. Its overall structure is that a conventional 4X game like Civilization, depicting the Warring States of pre-Imperial China. Hidden inside is a more radical idea: a game about maintaining the internal stability of an empire.

On its surface, Oriental Empires is very much about the Warring States. The map is filled with multiple civilizations, each of which represents a kingdom or tribe that existed before the unification of China. Nobles are still implied to be a powerful force within society, as they were in the Warring States. Most of the game’s tech tree is pre-imperial — a thousand years of imperial history are relegated to the final era.

The trick is that the other players aren’t the real challenge: I won a cultural victory without going to war against a single other player. Instead, Oriental Empires’ most interesting mechanic (and its greatest challenge) is the way it handles internal dissent. Each city has a separate unrest level for nobles and commoners, and while the nobles are easy to keep happy, the commoners are dangerous. Drought — a random event — produces unhappy commoners. Famine produces unhappy commoners. And crucially, whereas most 4X games encourage the player to build and improve their cities, doing this in Oriental Empires produces unhappy commoners: when tile improvements and buildings go up, Oriental Empire assumes that the work is done by commoners drafted for corvee labour.

When rebellions do break out, they can be very dangerous. The game has several types of military unit, including nobles, regulars, and militia; while militia are cheap, they tend to defect to nearby rebels. On top of that, multiple unhappy cities can set off a chain reaction. Once, I had to reload after being bankrupted by a death spiral. The parallels to history — including the fall of China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin — felt strong.

Unrest can be defused through different national policies; happiness-boosting buildings such as theatres, temples, and courthouses; favourable random events (such as good harvest); maintaining a garrison – of regular troops, not militia – assigning a city governor, or a slow cooldown. It can be better not to overbuild in the first place. The take-away is that there is a trade-off between growth and stability, and a wise ruler will avoid making the historical mistakes of the Qin.

Overall, while Oriental Empires is difficult to unconditionally recommend (unless it’s improved as a strategy game since I played it), I found it sufficiently intriguing (and aesthetically pleasing) not to regret my purchase.

Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom

Recently listed for sale on GoG, this is a charming entry in the City-Building series best known for Caesar I-IV. I’ve enjoyed the limited time I’ve spent time with it.

Mechanically, Emperor is close to what I remember of Caesar III. City-dwellers’ houses, which upgrade into progressively grander forms as citizens’ needs are met, are serviced by walkers sent out from nearby buildings. To keep the walkers on track, the player can even deploy roadblocks and walls. The city’s needs include food, water, entertainment, religion, commodities, and more – the standard building blocks of a city builder.

What lends charm is the game’s flavour. The introductory campaign begins in prehistoric China, where the player’s settlement cultivates millet. New commodities such as wheat and jade are introduced through trade with other settlements, representing the development of the material culture we think of as “Chinese”. Within the city, instead of Caesar III’s lion tamers, there are acrobats and musicians. Throwing a festival for New Year will result in a lion dance making its way around town.

From my time so far, this is a solidly executed example of the city-builder formula; worth a look for those interested in its theme.

Building a town in Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom
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Musical Monday: The Music of Zelda: A Link to the Past

In honour of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, this week’s music is a blast from the past. I’ve chosen three very distinct songs from 1991’s A Link to the Past – the Hyrule Overture, LttP‘s upbeat, “we’re off on an adventure” world map theme; second, the imposing Hyrule Castle theme; and perhaps the most interesting of the three, the Dark World theme, which for me always conjures up memories of Link standing atop that ziggurat, the sunset in the background. Enjoy!

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Clippings: the design philosophy of Breath of the Wild, building a career out of mods, subscription gaming, Tooth & Tail

This week’s top read is Chris Thursten’s (Eurogamer) analysis of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which frames its design in the context of games such as Far Cry 2 and Morrowind. These titles expanded the list of available verbs and then encouraged the player to experiment–a philosophy that, the article argues, goes on to guide Breath of the Wild.

Joe Donnelly at PC Gamer profiles two Cities: Skylines modders whose hobby transformed their lives — one now works for Arkane, while the other overcame depression and returned to creating art. Inspiring stuff.

Rob Fahey at GamesIndustry discusses the subscription models being pursued by Microsoft and Sony.

Finally, Tom Marks at PC Gamer previews Tooth and Tails, a short-form action-RTS. While the preview likens it to a condensed Starcraft II, it reminds me more of Herzog Zwei.

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Musical Monday: “Super Mario Bros Theme”, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra

In honour of the release of the Nintendo Switch, this week’s theme is the Greatest Video Game Music orchestral version of the Mario theme. Enjoy!

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Clippings: Frog City’s Imperialism, Ubisoft’s VR, Kickstarter, Persistent Video Games, Steel Division: Normandy 44

Last night, I fired up Imperialism, the classic 1997 strategy game casting the player as a nineteenth-century Great Power in pursuit of world domination. It holds up remarkably well. There are two notable features about its design: (1) it’s elegant, with much less micromanagement than a Civilization or a Paradox game; and (2) it captures its subject very well. Early in the game, the world is a liberal, free-trading place; if you need raw materials you can easily buy them. Later on, the Great Powers carve up the world market and you can’t depend on anyone other than your colonies. Colonialism becomes a matter of “eat or be eaten”. It’s a cynical view of international relations… and one suited to the game’s theme. (If I have a complaint, it’s the military side of the game, which–at least for this rookie player–tends towards stalemate.)

The news of the week is Nintendo’s launch of the Switch – GamesIndustry has a good round-up. For me, the Switch is the reincarnation of the Vita – a way to play high-quality “core” games on the go – and I hope it will enjoy better fortune!

Ubisoft discusses its VR approach with GamesIndustry. The key takeaway is that the company views its early forays into VR as experiments, rather than profit drivers. I’d argue that this is exactly the right approach for a technology as nascent as VR.

The headline and subtitle of this GamesIndustry post say it all: “”You need a community before doing something like Kickstarter: Press coverage doesn’t result in more backers, indie developers say, so it pays to have your own community before you start.” I’d be interested in a study as to the characteristics of successful Kickstarter campaigns over time — anecdotally, backers have less appetite for taking a punt on untried creators (I know that I’ve become very selective, and typically prefer to back creators with a track record).

At Eurogamer, Alexis Kennedy discusses the notion of persistence in video games – from the early days of persistence-free ‘drop a coin in the machine’, through the saved game and the MMO, and to modern designs such as Elite: Dangerous. It’s an interesting topic, although personally I doubt I’d have the energy/stress tolerance for a highly “persistent” game.

Finally, two of my favourite companies in the industry have teamed up: Paradox will publish Steel Division: Normandy 44, a real-time tactics game from Eugen Systems, the developer of the Wargame series. Based on TJ Hafer’s preview at PC Gamer, the new game looks like an evolution of the Wargame formula (as visible in the screenshot below, the interface is straight out of Wargame). The differences appear to be a greater focus on morale, a new front-line system replacing Wargame‘s sectors, and a new mechanic whereby different units unlock in different phases of a match. I’m excited!

Steel Division: Normandy 44. Image supplied by Paradox.

 

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Clippings: JRPG Translation, Stagnant 4X Games, CK2 Retrospective

US Gamer interviews two of the people who localised Playstation RPG Vagrant Story. Notably, one of the interviewees is the superb Alexander O Smith, who subsequently worked his magic across titles such as Phoenix Wright, Final Fantasy XII, and the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre. Well worth a read for JRPG fans and those interested in video-game translation.

In a 2016 article, Rob Zacny argues that the problem with 4X games is that “they are ultimately games about progress that nevertheless have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject”; he then goes onto Alpha Centauri and Victoria 2 as games that did this right. Rob is one of the best strategy game writers today, and his analyses usually make for an interesting read.

Five years and many expansions after the release of Crusader Kings 2, its designers take a look back at what worked, what didn’t, and what had to be cut.

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Clippings: Counterinsurgency, Mars, RPGs

Several years ago, I wrote about Vietnam ’65, one of the most interesting asymmetric strategy designs I’ve encountered (and a fine “short-form” exception to a genre typified by sprawl). Now, Tim Stone at the Flare Path has posted a good preview of its upcoming sequel, Afghanistan ’11. I look forward to picking up the game when it’s out.

Remember Take on Mars, the space simulator from the developers of ARMA? PC Gamer has now posted a review. While my initial reaction was “huh?”, it turns out that the game has evolved significantly since its Early Access days; an interesting read.

How should the RPG evolve? PC Gamer asks several developers.

 

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Musical Monday: “The Hyperion Overture” (Starcraft II), performed by the Eminence Symphony Orchestra

Musical Monday kicks off for 2017 with an orchestral performance of the Terran theme from Starcraft II. Enjoy!

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Clippings: low-spec strategy gaming, what Nintendoes, and 4X sales

Welcome back to Matchsticks for my Eyes!

At present, my gaming comprises what’s playable on an ultrabook with Intel integrated graphics.  Over the last couple of months, this has included:

  • Hearts of Iron IV – following the launch of Together for Victory, the Commonwealth-themed DLC, I had a great time leading (the newly expanded) India to independence and victory over the Axis, although by this stage, I know HOI4 well enough for the AI cracks to show. Playable on “medium” texture quality and 1920×1080 graphics, although definitely more so in the early game (lag was painful by the late game).
  • Shadow Tactics – I have started, and really enjoy, this Sengoku Japan stealth tactics game. For the best write-up of the game, check out Tim Stone’s review at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Playable, although this required turning down the graphics to low and shrinking the resolution to 1600×900.
  • Armello – I dabbled with this gorgeous, fairy tale-themed game (refer to this Three Moves Ahead podcast for a good discussion). Comfortably playable on “medium” graphics and 1920×1080 resolution.
  • Games on the Battle Academy engine, including the original Battle Academy and Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun, unsurprisingly run fine.
  • Wargame: Red Dragon – I returned to its single-player campaign, which was comfortably playable on low/medium graphics and 1920×1080 resolution.
  • Other games I intend to try on this machine: Civilization VI, the original Dishonoured, and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion.

In other news, GamesIndustry rounds up Nintendo’s latest investor Q&A (the full text can be found here). It’s an interesting read; topics range from Nintendo’s mobile strategy to the trade-off between expanding the company and maintaining Nintendo’s culture.

Finally, eXplorminate analyses 4X sales data on Steam over 2016. Out of the year’s new releases, Civ 6 and Stellaris dominated, with the new Master of Orion running a very distant third. Interestingly, Endless Legend has had strong legs since its initial release in 2014.

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My gaming year: 2016

Hello, and welcome to my gaming wrap for 2016.

For me, the year was defined by five new PC strategy games — Stellaris, XCOM 2, Total War: Warhammer, Civilization VI, and Hearts of Iron IV, each of which I really enjoyed. I also dabbled with a few new releases in other genres (Titanfall 2 and House of the Dying Sun), replayed several older games (Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, Total War: Shogun 2, and a little Dishonored), and discovered the joys of iPad gaming (Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy, 80 Days, Desert Fox, and the mobile version of FTL). Two final notable releases were Dishonored 2, which is waiting in my Steam library for me to finish the DLC for the original Dishonored, and The Last Guardian, which I intend to eventually buy alongside a PS4.

Digging more deeply into the five new strategy games, it’s interesting to see how they represent different blends between innovation and execution:

– XCOM 2 is the excellent, evolutionary, sequel to one of my favourite games. In terms of game mechanics, it’s probably the strongest on the list: it is a delight to mix and match the complementary abilities of a late-game squad.

– Stellaris is imaginative, beautifully scored, and has the potential to become one of the most significant 4X games in the last 20 years. I am particularly interested in the extent to which future updates flesh out internal politics, an area where the 4X genre could learn a lot from grand strategy games.

Hearts of Iron IV and Civ VI are built on strong underlying designs, combining the best elements of their respective predecessors (HOI 2-3 and Civ 4-5) with new innovations; I expect both games to be stronger after AI tweaks and expansions.

– Finally, Total Warhammer successfully adapts the apocalyptic, “rage against the dying of the light” experience of Total War: Attila to a fantasy setting.

In the broader game industry, the most interesting development for me has been Nintendo’s counterattack across multiple fronts: (1) the Switch announcement, aimed at the traditional console/core gamer market; (2) well-received moves to bring Nintendo IP to mobile, through licensees (Pokemon GO) and  outright development (Super Mario Run, supported by mobile specialist DeNA); and (3) laying the groundwork to take that IP beyond gaming by partnering with Universal Parks. I love the concept of the Switch — playing core games on the go is a big draw — and I look forward to learning more in 2017. While I’m also very interested in VR, I expect this to be more of a medium/long-term story.

Other releases I’ll watch in 2017 include Frozen Synapse 2, Persona 5, and Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (especially if it’s ported to PC).

Note: I will soon be travelling overseas and won’t have access to my gaming PC for several months — during that time, I expect to survive on a diet of Paradox, Slitherine, independent, and classic games. I wish all of you Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and all the best for 2017!

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Musical Monday: “Scarborough Fair” (Civilization VI), arranged by Geoff Knorr & Phil Boucher

Welcome back to Musical Monday! This week, I present “Scarborough Fair”, the old folk song used as the English theme in Civilization VI. There are two really cool things about the game’s music – first, the quality of the music itself, and second, how each civilisation’s theme evolves over the course of the game – you can hear the Ancient, Medieval (1:59), Industrial (6:08), and finally Atomic (10:07) themes below. Enjoy! Continue reading

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Musical Monday: “Amen” (Medieval 2: Total War), composed by Jeff van Dyck

For years, the music of Jeff van Dyck was a crucial part of the Total War games. Some of his tracks were thrilling; others stately. This, the menu theme for Medieval 2, is sombre and thematic – enjoy!

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Musical Monday: “Cadiz” (Expeditions: Conquistador), composed by Leonardo Badinella

Back in 2013, when Expeditions: Conquistador was new, I featured a gentle, atmospheric overworld theme from its soundtrack. Three years later, I still listen to its excellent music. This week’s piece is the bold, triumphant “Cadiz” – enjoy!

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EB Expo 2016: Dishonored 2, Gravity Rush 2, More Lego

eb-expo-showfloorI attended the EB Expo using a media pass supplied by the organisers.

This year’s EB Expo continued the event’s shift away from gaming-specific content towards being a general pop-culture fair. It included the usual big-name video gaming exhibitors – all three platform holders (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo), major publishers such as Ubisoft, and hardware companies such as Logitech and Razer. It also offered a range of exhibitors from related fields, including science-fiction fan groups, artists and craftspeople, and the return of last year’s highlight, the Lego enthusiast group Sydney Brick Show.

More thoughts after Vault Boy:

I posed with this same Vault Boy prop last year.
I posed with this same Vault Boy prop last year.

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Musical Monday: Video Games Live’s Okami

This week’s song is Video Games Live’s arrangement of one of my favourite soundtracks, Okami. It comes from VGL’s recently released Level 5 album, available in the usual places (and also on Spotify). I think I’ve backed or purchased every VGL album so far, and this is one of the strongest. Enjoy!

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Musical Monday: The Faction Themes of Hearts of Iron IV, composed by Andreas Waldetoft

While on the whole I think the Stellaris soundtrack still represents Andreas Waldetoft’s best work, the best pieces on the HOI4 soundtrack excel at conveying the flavour of their respective factions.

The Western Allies’ music ranges from hopeful to wistful, reminiscent of the music from Band of Brothers:

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A world at arms: thoughts on Hearts of Iron IV

HOI4 French Battle PlansVive l’Entente! My first “proper” game of Hearts of Iron IV was a journey from desperation, through grind, to eventual triumph. Playing as Britain, World War II began a year early, in 1938, when I backed Czechoslovakia at Munich. This defiance came to little avail, as the German war machine rolled over Czechoslovakia, and British workers raced to equip an unprepared military.

Finally, the Axis marched into the Balkans — and stalled in the face of dogged Yugoslav, British, and Commonwealth resistance. As British troops helped stabilise France’s Alpine front, and the United States entered the war,   I dared to think Germany’s days were numbered. Would the Soviet Union take advantage of German preoccupation to march on Berlin?

The Soviets entered the war, all right — on the wrong side. Stalin sent an ultimatum to British-aligned Romania. The Romanians refused. Now, the Allies were at war with both the Axis and the Soviets. Stalemate — and a little frustration on my part — set in.

In time, I broke the stalemate. In Europe, I unleashed the “Brits-krieg”: my armoured spearhead, now lavishly equipped with tanks, trucks, and self-propelled artillery, shattered the totalitarians’ lines. In the Pacific, British marines and aircraft carriers pushed up towards Japan. After a long, gruelling war, final victory came in 1946.

HOI4 RN vs IJNVive la France! Several more attempts, this time as France, went less well. In one game, I defeated Germany single-handed, only to be bulldozed by the Soviets pushing from the east and Spain coming from across the Pyrenees. Eventually, the stars came into alignment. Shielded by an extended Maginot Line, I built up my strength, overpowered Germany, and sat down with Stalin to determine the fate of Europe. Then when World War III broke out in response to a Soviet attack on Turkey, I did it all over again, pushing the Red Army back from the Rhine and avenging Napoleon’s defeat.

Possibly the best Hearts of Iron game yet. I’ve played this series for over a decade, since the original Hearts of Iron, and for most of that time my affections have belonged to Hearts of Iron 2. Now, I can’t imagine going back: HOI4 combines great alternate-history potential with a solid underlying design and improved quality of life. At present, as is so often the case with highly complex strategy games, its greatest limitation is the AI 1.

More detail below:

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  1. See also Dominions and Total War.
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Musical Monday: “Roll Me In” (Katamari Damacy)

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

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

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

Read on for more:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site!

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Shield of civilisation: Thoughts on Total Warhammer

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

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

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

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

More detailed thoughts below:

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

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

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

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

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Clippings: Civilising the Kaldwins

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

In other news:

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Space Opera, Act I: Thoughts on Stellaris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below, I elaborate:

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