A game that could have been: Emperor of the Fading Suns

If I had a penny for every game set in outer space, I’d be writing this post from somewhere sunnier and sandier. How many first-person shooters have cast us as Angry McShootsalot, the space marine? And how many RPGs and 4X games have treated us to  “classic space opera” universes, the sort familiar to anyone who’s seen Star Trek or Star Wars, or read a Larry Niven novel? This extends to gameplay conventions. If you’ve played Master of Orion, Sword of the Stars, Galactic Civilizations, or Space Empires, you know the formula – players start with a single world at the dawn of the age of interstellar travel, then colonise virgin territory until eventually the whole galaxy is claimed. Technology progresses in a smooth upward line. The real fighting is all done in space; ground combat is abstracted to ‘bring troop transports and roll the dice’. Everything is clean and crisp and futuristic.

 

If I had a penny for every game set in an original version of outer space… well, at least I’d have one cent, courtesy of Emperor of the Fading Suns (EFS), the 1996 turn-based strategy game from Holistic Design, Inc (HDI). Set in the same universe as Fading Suns, HDI’s pen-and-paper RPG,  EFS falls into the broad 4X genre defined by classics such as Civilization and the games I listed above, but carved out a space all its own. In EFS, the main conflict was human against human, though there was an alien menace in the background. And there was nothing crisp or clean or futuristic about its universe, filled with princes, priests, psionics and peasants in what’s usually described as “a cross between Dune and Warhammer 40,000”.

 

The princes were the players, competing to become emperor of the 40 “known worlds” that were all that was left of a once-thriving interstellar society.  40 worlds might not sound like a lot… but unlike other 4X games, where a world would be defined by a few numbers, in EFS each had its own unique, Civilization-sized hex grid map. Each had its own layout of continents, islands, oceans. Each had its own assortment of resources: fertile farmlands, oil-rich deserts and seas, mountain ranges containing ore and gemstones. They had different terrain palettes, and a very different feel – you would not mistake snowy Delphi, capital of the Atreides-knockoff House Hawkwood, for the jungle world Severus, capital of the Harkonnen-knockoff House Decados.

 

EFS’ combat system also emphasised the planetary level. Ground and space battles were fought Civ-style (without tactical combat) between stacks of up to 20 units at a time, with different units excelling at different phases of battle – for example, artillery could shoot first and target any unit, but would be vulnerable in “direct” or “close” combat. While there were relatively few types of space unit, the game’s lavish technology tree offered ground units aplenty, starting with basic tanks and self-propelled guns, and culminating in power-armoured assault legions, genetically engineered warbeasts, and hover tanks. Capital spacecraft (cruisers and dreadnoughts) could bombard enemy stacks before you sent in the ground troops, but they couldn’t hit every unit, and planet-to-space batteries – perhaps protected by the planetary shield! – could shoot back. Thus, to invade a world, gaining space superiority wasn’t enough – you had to land troops to establish a beachhead and fight your way across the surface, all the while keeping up a flow of new ground units from your homeworlds. As a result, EFS, better than any other game I’ve played, captures just how colossal an undertaking a planetary invasion would be.

 

EFS’ uniqueness extended to its victory conditions. To start with, players could trade favours to win control of what was left of the Imperial ministries (space fleets, spies, border garrisons) – every 10 turns, the players would elect one of their number to be the regent, the one in charge of handing out these offices. To win the game, you had to first be voted regent, then declare yourself emperor. Instead of putting you through the tedium of steamrolling every other claimant to the throne, EFS “just” required you to be confirmed by a final vote after another 10 turns.

 

And this was when the game was at its most exciting. To vote for regent or emperor, you needed two things. First, each player’s voting rights were represented by five sceptres – actual units on the map – and these could be stolen from one another (or from certain NPC factions). More sceptres, more votes. Second, you needed a noble in the capital to cast your vote. You started with five nobles – four on your homeworld, one in the capital – and if they all died, it was game over. Now, for most of the game, the capital was a neutral zone where assassins could strike, but overt conflict was forbidden. But once the regent crossed the Rubicon, that prohibition was lifted. Rival armies would converge on the capital to slaughter each other’s nobles while safeguarding their own. Battle fleets would take up position to stop the armies arriving. Blood would run in the streets, as neglected garrisons were overrun by their more prepared rivals. And hanging over your head was the looming deadline of that second vote. That was how a race for the imperial throne should feel. And that was how a strategy endgame should play.

 

To cap things off, EFS was also highly moddable: it had a map editor and it stored rules and unit data in Notepad-editable files. If you thought the common artillery unit was too powerful, or that special forces legions should be able to live off the land, you could change it yourself. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Ambitious mods upped the challenge, reshaped the game’s economy, changed the combat rules, added whole new classes of units that could fight in space or on the ground.

 

Unfortunately, EFS also had its fair share of flaws. The game was quite clearly not a finished, let alone a polished, product.  Vestigial, unimplemented features remain to tantalise the player – for example, you could throw your weight behind one Church sect or another, which had absolutely no effect but implies that the designers intended players to stack papal elections in their favour. And while the game did come with multiplayer, its AI barely knew how to play. Rather, my most challenging single-player experience came from a fan-made scenario that lumbered me with internal foes (a frail economy and a rebellious populace), in a prophetic flash-forward to 2005’s Rome: Barbarian Invasion.

 

For whatever reason, EFS did not succeed in the marketplace, and ultimately it made little impression on the genre. You will see plenty of Civilization or Master of Orion retrospectives and sequels, but none for EFS. Years later, the potential of the franchise glimmered again when HDI announced a spin-off project, Fading Suns: Noble Armada. Rather than being a 4X title, Noble Armada followed in the footsteps of “freelance starship commander” games such as Elite. Set during the peace following the emperor’s accession, it would have allowed players to venture into unknown space, trading, fighting, exploring and questing at the head of a small fleet. And Noble Armada made it quite far through the development process: I remember playing a pre-release demo, buggy and crash-prone but tantalisingly fun. But sadly, this flicker of hope never came to fruition. Noble Armada bounced from one publisher to another, before finally dying, never to see the light of day. With it died the Fading Suns franchise on the computer.

 

Nowadays, Emperor of the Fading Suns is a dusty entry on abandonware sites, and a fond memory in the minds of fans. It’s a sad fate for a game that, with a bit more polish and a better AI, would have been one of the best strategy games ever made. As it is, it’s still a gem, albeit a flawed one. It’s a unique experience, both in terms of game mechanics and flavour. And for a player looking for immersion rather than a competitive single-player experience, it still holds up very well. I wish it were both better known and more widely imitated. I can’t do anything about the latter, but with this post, I hope I can do something about the former.

 

Resources

 

Video tutorial (Nova mod)

Hyperion mod – my mod of choice when I played EFS

Nova mod – no personal experience with this but a lot of players like it

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

At long last… – my thoughts on ADWD

My copy of ADWD
At long last... my copy of ADWD

 

After six long years, I’ve finally read A Dance with Dragons. Here are my thoughts.

 

SPOILER WARNING – stay out if you haven’t finished the book.

Continue reading “At long last… – my thoughts on ADWD”

In praise of short games

I have many halcyon memories of playing games as a kid, but looking back, there is one that seems particularly fantastical: I used to play very long games. In titles such as the Civilization series, I’d choose the largest possible maps and take advantage of any option to keep playing after I’d already won. I even remember one childhood X-Com game that I never finished – I’d effectively maxed out the tech tree, and years and years of in-game time would pass, but I’d still happily roam around planet Earth swatting UFOs instead of progressing to the endgame.

 

Now…

 

Now that I’m grown up and working, when I play strategy games, I always turn down the map size or select the “short” campaign. That’s the only way I’ll have time to finish and then move onto something else. (This kills a second bird, too – shorter games are a better fit for the front-loaded pacing of many strategy titles.)  But my options are more limited with “narrative”-style titles, such as RPGs. Offhand, I can think of only one short RPG in recent times, Recettear, and that was a story-light game. Most RPGs, especially high-profile ones, are packed with plot, dialogue, side quests, and, of course, grinding. I still enjoy lengthy RPGs, but I often don’t have the time to finish them – when I buy them at all. The big exception is portable games – my current PSP title (Persona 3), and the two before that (Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre) are all behemoth RPGs – because there, I can take several months to chip away at them during my daily commute.

 

And playing on after I’ve won? Unimaginable. Now, strategy, RPG, or otherwise, the closer I come to the finish line, the more I want to be done with the game.

 

(I don’t have this problem with other media – I’ll still happily read a doorstop fantasy novel – because even the longest novel is much, much shorter than the typical RPG.)

 

What about you? Do you prefer to play short or long games? Do you keep playing after you’ve won? And has this changed over time?

Play rocket scientist with Kerbal Space Program

 

 

Lately, I’ve been playing around with Kerbal Space Program,  an indie game where you design rockets with several components (command module, parachute, solid- & liquid-fuel engines, etc) and then fly them into space. The picture you see above was taken at the apogee of my most successful flight to date — the last motor didn’t sputter out of fuel until the rocket was 30,000 metres off the ground, and the Kerbals made it back to earth safely again! Needless to say, being able to laugh at your own screwups is a vital part of enjoying the game. Currently it’s more of a toy than a game, but it’s an entertaining (and at least slightly educational) one for all that. If you’re interested in real-world space travel, and especially if you remember an old game called Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space, this is worth a look.

Spoiled by Greatness

When we want to praise a well-made device, a skilful cook, a more convenient way of doing things, anything, we commonly say, “It’s spoiled me.” Usually this is just a figure of speech. But as with many other clichés, there is a literal truth at the heart of this: sometimes, we really do find something so good that it takes away our ability to enjoy inferior alternatives. And I think this is the case with two of my preferred forms of entertainment, games and books.

 

My most recent gaming example is Total War: Shogun 2 (my verdict here); in mechanical terms, the best strategy game I’ve played in years. Shogun 2 didn’t just fix much of the Total War series’ traditional bugginess. It also fixed two endemic problems with the strategy game genre: the boring late game, and pointless diplomacy. Now, when I think about other games in the genre, I have a much more critical eye for those two issues (especially the former) after seeing them done correctly. One studio that might suffer as a result is Paradox Interactive. I’ve loved Paradox’s historical simulations for years and I have plenty of cool stories to tell about them (see, for example, my Byzantine adventures in Europa Universalis III), but they are not particularly fun after the early- to mid-game. So Paradox’s upcoming Crusader Kings 2 and especially Sengoku will have to surpass a bar that Shogun 2 set pretty high, and Paradox will have to work that much harder to convince me to buy them.

 

Something similar may have happened to me in books, although here it may simply have been that my taste improved as I grew up. When I discovered fantasy fiction in my early teens, I loved Raymond Feist’s tales of orphans-turned-sorcerers and swashbuckling young heroes. Then, over the years, I read George R R Martin, and Glen Cook, both of whom specialised in taking apart the traditional fantasy novel. Martin needs no introduction; Cook’s Black Company series depicts a traditional fantasy world, with centuries-old wizards capable of destroying armies in the blink of an eye – but from the perspective of the underdog, the common foot soldier. Now I can’t even remember the last time I glanced at my Feist collection. My tastes in space opera tell a similar story. I used to happily read military science fiction novels that were little more than glorified after-action reports. Then when I was 17, I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera novels – character- rather than explosion-driven, hilarious, moving, brilliant* – and I didn’t look back.

 

You can even see my own writing reflect the above trends in my literary tastes, albeit, it seems, with a lag. The first decent story I wrote, back around 2005 or 2006, was a heroic fantasy Tale of High Adventure, set in a world awash in magic and starring a hero who’s stronger, more cunning, and more superpowered than his foes. By late 2008/early 2009, when I wrote the first draft of The First Sacrifice, things had come down to earth. Artorius of Cairbrunn, the main character of The First Sacrifice, might be tough, clever, and a spirit to boot, but he’s decidedly short on superpowers. (To stretch an analogy, Artorius is the Daniel Craig to my earlier imagined Conneries and Moores.)

 

I’m not so sure whether I’ve experienced the same phenomenon, of discovering the good and being unable to return to the mediocre, in other media. Anime went in the opposite direction –  I discovered most of my favourite anime within the first few years after I started watching the medium. While I am unable to enjoy the majority of anime, I think this is more because common anime tropes annoy me than because I’ve been “spoiled” by watching the cream early on. And I don’t really watch enough movies or TV, nor am I sufficiently analytical when I do, to be spoiled for lesser works.

 

Is this phenomenon a blessing or a curse? Often it feels like the latter, when I just can’t find anything that interests me. On the other hand, bypassing the uninspired is what allows us to have time for the truly good. And if being spoiled is the price that must be paid to encounter greatness, well, I think it’s one well worth paying.

 

* You can legally read most of Bujold’s space opera series, the Miles Vorkosigan saga, for free here. Highly recommended if you like space opera at all.

Combat in Persona 3 Portable: The quick and the dead

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

As you can see above, most of my previous discussion of Persona 3: Portable has focused on one half of the gameplay: the social/high school life simulation. But what about the other half of the game, the dungeon crawl?

 

 

You’ll tackle Tartarus, the game’s dungeon, one randomly generated floor at a time. Each floor may contain chests or a portal out. It will contain the staircase leading to the next — and it will almost certainly contain groups of monsters, depicted as black blobs that wander about the dungeon floor. Bumping into these blobs will trigger a battle (no annoying random battles here, thank heavens!). They’ll chase you if you come within their sight, and if they run into you, odds are the monsters will get the first turn in the resulting battle… but strike a blob with your weapon, which is easier if you sneak up from behind, and you’ll move first.

 

Once combat begins, it looks like your typical menu-driven, turn-based JRPG: each party member* can attack, defend, use the special powers conferred by his/her inner spirit, the titular Persona, etc. Unique in the party, the main character can switch between different Personas, each with different strengths, weaknesses and powers; other party members are stuck with just the one set of abilities.

 

The twist to this system is the critical importance of targeting vulnerabilities. Attacks in the game are divided into nine types — Pierce, Slash, Fire, Electricity, Light, etc — and different party members, and different enemies, are weak against different types of attack. If a combatant is struck by an attack that targets his/her weakness, the resulting critical hit will knock him/her/it flat. And every time a foe is knocked down, the attacker will get an extra turn. Finally, if all monsters are knocked down, the party can launch a devastating “all-out attack”.

 

The significance of this is that the game encourages you to chain multiple critical hits in the same turn, culminating in an all-out attack. So if you get in the first move — remember, by striking monsters with your weapon on the dungeon map — and the party has the right damage types at its disposal, you can go through trash mobs like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western, where he could pull his gun and mow down three bandits before they even blinked. Conversely, if the monsters move first and they’re especially powerful, or you’re especially unlucky, it’s possible to wipe in a single volley of queued critical hits (luckily, monsters can’t launch all-out attacks…).

 

For most fights, this system works very well. It pushes you to prepare for battle by using a well-balanced party and keeping a varied selection of Personas on hand. It means there’s a bit of tension on the dungeon map, as you take care to sneak up on monsters, or conversely run like blazes to avoid having the monsters run into you. And given the number of trash mobs you’ll fight, it keeps ordinary battles moving at a good, brisk pace.

 

Where this system doesn’t work so well is in boss battles. It takes a long time to defeat the typical boss monster, and a simple, elegant system built for speed is not well suited for protracted pounding matches. My boss fights tend to turn into repetition of the same pattern of moves over and over – A attacks, B buffs then attacks, C debuffs then attacks, D heals. And as a result, I am often all too glad when boss fights are over.

 

Still, on the whole, I like Persona 3: Portable’s battle system. It’s not every boss fight that stretches on for too long. And even those that do are outweighed by the fun I have as I tear through the game’s ordinary encounters.

 

* This is a change from the PS2 version, in which you only directly controlled the main character — your party members had their own AI.

Announcing my short story: The First Sacrifice

Artorius of Cairbrunn hates being dead.

 

In life, he was a hero, protector to emperors and scourge of the barbarians, before he was betrayed and killed. Now, hundreds of years later, he’s been summoned back to the world of mortals — and telling hero from villain is not as simple as he once thought.

 

A heroic fantasy short story about right and wrong; fallen kingdoms and rising upstarts; love, loss, and the lengths to which we’ll go for those we care about.

 

You can buy The First Sacrifice for just US$0.99 or read a free sample at Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/70735) or at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0059HBUM6). It’s available for Kindle (at Amazon) and in HTML, mobi, epub, PDF, RTF, LRF,  PDB and plain text (at Smashwords).

 

I also have ten (10) freebie coupons which I’ll email to the first ten people who comment and request them. I currently have nine coupons remaining.

 

I hope those of you who check out the story will enjoy it enough to recommend it to your friends. And if you’re thinking about ebook self-publishing, or you’re just interested in how it works, check out my fiction website!