Meiji Restoration standalone expansion for Shogun 2 on the way!

Sega has announced a new standalone expansion for Shogun 2, “Fall of the Samurai”, and boy does it sound cool. Excerpt from the press release below:

 

Based on the backdrop of the Boshin War period, the new campaign starts in 1864, a time of growing resentment against Western colonial power and influence. As Japan began to modernise and industrialise, the inevitable social and economic changes led to increasingly militant nationalism and antipathy towards the Shogunate.

 

New foreign powers

 

The American, British and French nations played an important part in the story of the Boshin war and your relations with these foreign powers will be integral to unit recruitment and to advancing your technology trees.

 

New 19th century Japan campaign map

  • The new island of Ezo extends [nowadays Hokkaido] the SHOGUN 2 campaign map northwards.
  • Fully refreshed towns and other campaign map features reflect the different time period, with railways making their first appearance in a Total War title.

 

Railway lines on the campaign map

  • Develop your own railway network to move armies and agents between your regions.
  • Railways can be sabotaged and transport can be blocked by enemy armies who take control of parts of the line or railway stations.

 

39 new land units

  • Including modern ranged units – such as the Gatling gun and Armstrong gun – controllable in a new first-person mode.
  • New units can also be recruited from foreign powers, including the British Royal Marines, US Marine Corps and French Marines.

 

10 new naval unit types with a total of 21 ships

  • New steam-powered warships, heavily armed with modern artillery.
  • Foreign ironclad ships can also be purchased, including the Warrior-class ironclad.

 

New port siege battle type

  • This new battle type triggers when attempting a naval assault on an occupied enemy port.
  • The attacking fleet must sail into the harbour and capture the port, running the gauntlet of coastal gun defences.

 

New land and sea unit interactions

  • During a land battle, armies can call in offshore artillery support barrages.
  • Conversely, costal gun emplacements can target enemy ships during port siege battles, when ending their turn within the range of upgraded coastal defences.
  • Campaign map bombardments: offshore naval units can bombard armies and cities in adjacent coastal areas on the campaign map itself…

(Snip)

Railroads! Gatlings! The Boshin war! Steamers! Ironclads! Naval bombardment (wasn’t this originally promised for the base Shogun 2?) and coastal batteries! Port battles! — something they should add if they revisit the eighteenth century or the Napoleonic era, incidentally. Woo!

 

I am leery about the first-person control for Gatlings, but that likely won’t be a big deal even if it is weak.

 

I also wonder if this is a dry run for an American Civil War game…

Distant Worlds first impressions: The galaxy is a big place

This is part 1 of a series on Distant Worlds.

 

1. First impressions: the galaxy is a big place

2. How the opening moves play out – a mini-Let’s Play

3. The verdict

 

 

Note: I am playing a review copy comprising the base game plus both expansions, supplied by the publisher, Matrix Games.

 

The first time Distant Worlds, the 4X space game from Code Force, impressed me, I was a few clicks into the tutorial.

 

The tutorial began in the usual way: camera focused on my homeworld, instructions on how to move the map.  Following the on-screen prompts, I scrolled around, hit “continue”, zoomed out. And then I saw the galaxy. Do you remember the godlike feeling of first zooming out in Sins of a Solar Empire or one of the Supreme Commander games? Distant Worlds brought that back for me.

 

To put this in perspective, consider that Master of Orion II, still the gold standard for the genre after 15 years, had 36 star systems in its normal galaxy and 72 in its huge galaxy. Well, in Distant Worlds, the normal galaxy has 700 systems, each with its own features (planets, black holes, etc). The largest galaxy has 1400, and even the tiniest dwarf galaxy has 100.

 

That sheer scope extends well beyond map size. There are 41 different resources, 20 different races, up to 14 AI players at the start of a game, multiple planet types, espionage, ship design, and a tech tree. There are separate private economies and government budgets. There’s even tourism*. It would be unplayable were it not for the game’s signature feature, and the second way in which it impressed me: automation.

 

Pretty much every aspect of your empire can be handled by the AI. Freighters and passenger liners will shuttle about your empire, construction ships will build mines and resorts,  research will proceed automatically, governors will auto-assign themselves to colonies. Even the military can be automated. In Distant Worlds, warships will auto-escort colony ships and other civilian vessels; patrol colonies; and fend off raiders. They’ll even automatically form up into task forces, and if you choose, the game will periodically ask if you want them to sortie against nearby targets (which could be anything from a pirate base to an enemy fleet).

 

This doesn’t mean you can simply become a spectator and let the game play itself. You can take manual control of most aspects of your empire (with the exception of NPC civilian ships), and for obvious reasons, this seems to work better for anything that’s a strategic priority: diplomacy, major fleet operations, and such. However, the automation largely frees you from the mundane work that is the bane of strategy games. Remember the “joy” of nursemaiding settlers in Civilization, playing whack-a-mole with rebels in older versions of Europa Universalis, or making up for passive unit AI in an RTS? In Distant Worlds, your virtual underlings can handle those for you.

 

So far, the game has been at its weakest when it didn’t free me from mundane work. Not surprisingly for a complex indie strategy game, the interface is not great. For example, fleets are the basic building block of military operations in the game – but there’s no way to set their targets, merge them, or disband them from the fleet overview screen, and no way to have newly built ships auto-join an existing fleet. You have to click-select the fleet to set its objectives, and you have to order ships in or out of the fleet by hand. As such, this is one aspect of the game that could still use some work.

 

When it comes to system requirements, don’t be fooled by the “indie” label. Even on a small galaxy, after 6-8 hours of play, the game became rather laggy – particularly noticeable when zooming in and out, or when scrolling the map. Tweaking a couple of settings today seemed to make my old saved game run faster, but this could have been illusory as I didn’t run it for very long.

 

Still, the technical issues are survivable. After having a lot of fun with my first practice game (I quit when I achieved my personal goals – it turns out cranking up the threshold for the victory conditions was not a good idea in a game this large), I’m looking forward to playing again. The galaxy is not just vast, it’s also full of cool things, so stay tuned for the next update…

 

* Oddly enough, resorts in the Distant Worlds-verse are under government control.

Difficulty in Demon’s Souls: what we can learn from… behavioural finance?!

This is part 3 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

 

Here’s a thought experiment to chew on. In each case, the alternatives are mathematically identical:

 

Scenario A. You can win a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either winning $2 or winning nothing. Which do you choose?

 

Scenario B. You can lose a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either losing $2 or losing nothing. Which do you choose?

 

You would expect these answers to be consistent – someone who chooses the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario A should also choose the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario B. However, this isn’t the case. On average, people will choose the certain gain in Scenario A, but run the risk of the double-sized loss in Scenario B. Why? Because, according to behavioural finance researchers, a loss is felt more acutely than an equally-sized gain (a phenomenon known as loss aversion*), hence the willingness to take the chance of an even greater loss just to avoid the agony of the small one.

 

Extrapolated to video games, loss aversion could probably explain a lot of player behaviour – abusing save/reload, anyone? It surely must explain why we feel death penalties so keenly, and since death penalties are so inescapable a part of Demon’s Souls, it helps explain why the game’s difficulty is often exaggerated.

 

Yes, I said “exaggerated”. This does not mean it’s easy; far from it. Even playing an easy class, using a walkthrough, and looking at a map, I died twice in PVE today, while PVP invaders routinely slaughter me. It does mean that the death penalty, loss of unspent souls if you fail to pull off a corpse run, is nowhere near as fearsome as it sounds. Souls might be easily lost, but they’re also easily acquired – co-op is the safest and best way, but even for a low-level character, it is not that hard to farm them. However, loss aversion would exacerbate the harshness that players perceive.

 

In my case, while having to replay a level does frustrate me, I don’t especially mind the death penalty. While I am very careful on corpse runs, I can shrug off failing and losing my souls for good. Partly, this is because I know, and thus can control for, the game’s mind tricks. Partly, this is because I’ve never lost a truly whopping number of souls – I’m always careful to return to safety and spend my souls whenever I have enough saved up. Appropriately, there’s another technical term relevant to that

 

* If you’re interested, you can read more e.g. here and here.

Book review: The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson

THE MISTBORN TRILOGY

Brandon Sanderson

 

After really enjoying a short story by Brandon Sanderson, “Firstborn”, I had high hopes for another set of his works, the Mistborn trilogy (comprising Book 1, Mistborn; Book 2, The Well of Ascension; and Book 3, The Hero of Ages). Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

 

At its core, the Mistborn trilogy is a Traditional Fantasy Series. While there are no elves, dwarves, or orcs, there are superpowered teenage heroes and sinister dark lords. What distinguishes it is the bunch of clever twists that Sanderson adds to the formula. As such, he is strongest as an “ideas guy”. This is visible in the way the first book overlays bits of the heist genre onto the fantasy template; the alternatives to the stock fantasy races; the magic system that’s almost RPG-like in its depth; the little and not-so-little plot twists; and more.

 

Unfortunately, Sanderson is not very good at the nuts and bolts of writing*. He is not very good at scene construction (with the exception of action scenes), he is not very good with prose, and in particular, he is not very good with dialogue, which often sounds stilted and didactic. Almost any of the speculative fiction authors I’ve read in the last few years – to name a few, Bujold, Kay, Lynch, Morgan, Abercrombie, Vinge, Powers, Martin, maybe even Erikson – could beat Sanderson at the micro level. This also hurts his characterisation – for example, I found it hard to remember which member of the heist crew was which, and I ended up skimming one important character’s chapters in book 2 because I found his conversations so inane.

 

Going book by book, the first novel is the best. The magic system is fresh, the plot is tight, and the fights are well-spaced and thrilling. The second book is the weakest by far. While it starts with an interesting premise (what happens after the superpowered teenage heroes succeed?), it suffers from an acute case of the Idiot Plot as said heroes spend the book blundering, moping about their love lives, and generally making a hash of things. The third book falls in between – while a lot better than the second, the sprawling subplots and the increasingly draggy fight scenes are a far cry from the first book.

 

Ultimately, while the first book in particular is worth a look if you do like Traditional Fantasy Series, the novels can’t do justice to the nifty ideas they contain. While there are plenty of worse speculative fiction authors, there are also plenty of better ones, both at the pulpy and at the Great Novel ends of the spectrum. And while Sanderson’s weak prose is not the sole culprit, it’s certainly a major one**.

 

You can buy Book 1, Mistborn, from Amazon here.

 

* Or at least he wasn’t at the time he wrote this series. I have heard his prose subsequently improved, but not having read any of his other novels, I cannot attest to whether this is true.

 

** As such, this trilogy would have worked much better in a visual medium. This also explains why I prefer Sanderson’s short fiction – short stories are briefer and idea-driven, which plays to his strengths.

 

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

 

See you in a couple of weeks’ time

Matchsticks for my Eyes will be on holiday for the next couple of weeks. However, I still plan to write a post or two — I’ve just started on a review of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, so perhaps that’ll be my next update? — in that time, so keep checking back every so often!