My Game of the Year – 2011 is…

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Game of the Year Awards

2011 was a good year in gaming. Just counting new releases, I enjoyed all of:

 

  1. Bastion (PC), an isometric action game with pretty art design and an original world;
  2. Dark Souls (PS3), which (so far – I haven’t played enough to form a verdict) offers a promising mix of finely tuned challenge and great drop-in co-op gameplay;
  3. Frozen Synapse (PC), a stylish and clever squad-based indie strategy game;
  4. Section 8: Prejudice (PC), a bargain-priced team-based shooter. This is a genre I wouldn’t normally touch, but I had a great time roving around Prejudice’s battlefields as an engineer-medic-tank commander, a role that could survive my lack of reflexes;
  5. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP),  the modern remake of Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s tactical roleplaying game; and
  6. Total War: Shogun 2 (PC), the latest and – by far – most polished instalment of the long-running historical strategy series.

 

One title, though, managed to stand out from the pack. One title was the best example of its genre I’d seen in years. One title is my Game of the Year. I present to you:

 

Game of the Year – 2011: Total War: Shogun 2 (review here), developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. This truly deserves the “strategy” label: it’s packed with interesting and well-executed sub-systems (diplomacy, realm management, campaign manoeuvre, and battlefield tactics), well-paced, and blessed with a clever computer player. With this, CA has addressed every complaint I’ve had – and redeemed its mistakes – as far back as Rome: Total War.

 

And there is one more with a similar appeal:

 

Runner-up: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (review here), developed and published by Square Enix. This is the pinnacle of the “traditional” turn-based TRPG genre; built around combat that’s fluidly lethal without being frustrating, it then tries to sand away every little annoyance in the genre – from unskippable random battles to unclear camera angles – and tell a story more meaningful and mature than “kill the foozle, save the world”. It doesn’t quite succeed at those two goals, but it aims high and comes close to its mark, something I appreciate all the more after going back to older, cruder TRPGs.

 

Well done, Creative Assembly and Square Enix. And Happy New Year to all of you!

Dark Souls impressions: The eloquence of the blade

This is part 4 in 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

 

After circa 25 hours in Demon’s Souls, it was time to take a break. I could have played something easier, brighter, more cheerful… but instead, I started its successor, Dark Souls. And no regrets: six or seven hours in, I’m having a good time. Early thoughts below:

 

Play style: This time, I opted for a build that was the opposite of the first game. In Demon’s Souls, I played a royal, a lightly armoured magic-user for whom melee was almost always the last resort. In Dark Souls, I’m playing a knight: lumbering (by default), heavily armoured, and reliant on melee.  While he does carry a cheapo bow and a painstakingly restocked arsenal of firebombs, most of his work is done up close, with sword and halberd. That has redoubled my appreciation of just how well the Souls games do hand-to-hand combat: even against trash mobs, it is a joy to dance past a zombie swinging his axe, cut him down from behind, and turn just in time to face a swordsman. Larger foes too: duck back from a knight’s enormous hammer and catch him while he recovers, hack away at a stone giant before it can awaken, dodge the whip-branch of an animated tree…

 

Level design: I think Dark Souls has the edge here. Three of the five worlds in Demon’s Souls, at least at the points where I was, felt like typical video game/fantasy environs: the pseudo-medieval castle; the prison/torture chamber; the ruined shrine. They were well-done, to be sure, but typical all the same. Dark Souls, in contrast, has given me a street battle through a pseudo-medieval town, followed by a dark, lush forest, both of which feel far fresher. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I find it easier to suspend disbelief in the second game*.

 

Difficulty: Not being able to blow away weaker enemies with the wave of a wand should make my Dark Souls run harder, but so far, with one exception, it doesn’t feel that way. I can think of several reasons: (1) most of the time, Demon’s Souls limits the player to 50% or 75% of maximum health, a restriction missing from Dark Souls; (2) I think my knight’s armour does make a difference; and (3) I now have more practice at the combat system – probably the most important factor, judging by anecdotes from new players who are stuck on the first area. The exception relates to boss fights: in Demon’s Souls magic was the easy way to deal with most bosses, and I suspect that’s still the case. The most recent boss I fought was almost wholly ranged, though luckily, the designers provided a magic-using NPC to assist in the fight. At other times, I rely on the next point…

 

Multiplayer: This has been the source of some of my grandest moments. Co-op is still a blast – my favourite visual image from the game, so far, is three warriors, male and female, differently armed and attired, advancing across a rooftop to meet a boss. And after regularly dying to PVP invaders in the first game, it was a glorious moment when in co-op, I tag-teamed an invading griefer, shrugged off multiple blows from his hammer in a battle lasting minutes, and finally knocked him to his death off a ledge.

 

Overall first impression: A more polished version of the same, but that’s not a bad thing! If anybody out there enjoyed the first game but hasn’t picked this up yet, this seems well worth checking out.

 

* Though to be fair, I wonder if my reduced use of walkthroughs/maps in Dark Souls has something to do with this.

Ninja FAIL

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Fresh from winning every* battle in a Shogun 2: Rise of the Samurai campaign and still losing the war, I found some much-needed comic relief in the following video.

 

 

My favourite segment is the one beginning at 0:18, but it wasn’t an easy pick!

 

Separately, Matchsticks for my Eyes wishes you all a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Thanks for reading, and may you experience many wonderful stories in the years to come!

 

* Okay, almost every.

Distant Worlds: The Verdict

This is part 3 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.

 

 

4X strategy games, especially 4X space strategy games, do not think small. They challenge the player to build world- or galaxy-spanning empires, to juggle exploration, economic management, research, diplomacy, and military leadership. Yet even by these standards, Code Force’s Distant Worlds is a behemoth. Big (galaxies span hundreds of stars), complex, and breaking new ground within the genre, it could so easily have been a case of an ambitious indie developer biting off more than it could chew. From what I’ve read, it did indeed have its fair share of rough edges at launch… but as of the second expansion pack, Legends, it’s remarkable how well it works.

 

At a design level, DW’s distinctive features are:

 

  • Everything takes place in pausable real-time (which can be slowed down or sped up);

 

  • No separate tactical battles. As with a Sins of a Solar Empire or AI War, you can zoom in to watch ships fighting it out, at the same time that the rest of the galaxy goes about its business. However, there’s relatively little fine control available here – warfare in DW emphasises logistics and manoeuvre at the galactic level;

 

  • Relatively little emphasis on planetary management. There are only a bare handful of facilities to build, and they don’t unlock until a ways through the tech tree. As such, there are only a few levers to pull to influence the economy: laying down necessary infrastructure (starbases, especially with commerce centres, and refuelling posts), securing luxuries and resources (via mines and colonies), signing trade pacts with the neighbours, and building the odd wonder.

 

  • Rewarding goody huts. Finding a derelict cruiser early on is a nice treat. Finding a derelict armada, and making the necessary investment to recover it (the kind of decision that’s the crux of strategy games!), can tilt the balance of power.

 

The net effect is that the game emphasises exploration (which it does very well), warfare (at the level of the grand admiral, not the captain), and preparing for the above. As such, it’s often likened to Europa Universalis III in space… though a better analogy might be Victoria 2 or Hearts of Iron 3, because Distant Worlds’ other distinguishing feature is the ability to automate almost every aspect of your empire.

 

The AI automation is a joy to work with. It can be toggled off area by area, allowing you to concentrate on what you find the most rewarding part of the game. It smoothes out what would otherwise have been a fearsome learning curve – for instance, in my first game, I let the AI handle research and civilian construction while I learned how to play admiral. It takes care of tedious busywork, such as raising troops, fighting off pirate raiders, escorting civilian ships, or garrisoning outposts. As of Legends, it can even be given an intermediate level of autonomy: you can assign fleets an area of responsibility, either to defend or subdue, which allows you to dictate the “big picture” to the AI and let it handle the details. The AI, in short, is the assistant I wish every strategy game offered.

 

My main criticism of the game is an occasionally subpar interface. For example, I would love an easy way to route newly built ships to a given fleet, instead of having to select them one by one. I can only imagine how much of a hassle this would be on large maps, or when adding lots of smaller ships to a fleet! I’d also like to be able to see the total troop strength on a planet, not just the number of units. Still, this isn’t a deal-breaker for me.

 

Diplomacy is relatively simple, but works well. Here the various alien races’ personalities shine through: playing as the humans, I soon found out that the Space T-Rexes are much friendlier than their fearsome appearance suggests, whereas starting next to insectoids guaranteed an early war. Computer players will sue for peace if they’re losing a war or if someone jumps them on another front. They’ll even butter you up with tribute when they want something, if they fear your power, or, more benevolently, if they’re on especially good terms with you.

 

And that’s emblematic of all the cool things to discover in DW. If this game had a motto, it would be, “the dev team thinks of everything”. Time and again, Distant Worlds has enthralled me with little touches that sound trivial on paper, but that helped bring its universe to life. The light-bulb moment when I realised why my AI neighbours were showering me with gifts. The nasty shock of seeing colonies revolt when I declared war on their ethnic kin – something that should happen in games, but never does. The awe of first starting the game and seeing how big the galaxy was. The thrill of discovering a derelict space fleet, waiting for me to defeat its guardians and send in the construction ships – and the moment when, upon seeing another empire’s construction ships butt in, I wondered if it would be worth a war to keep the derelicts to myself. Perhaps the most impressive part: there’s so much of the game I still haven’t seen! I haven’t tried many of the setup options (including an entire gameplay mode), and I’ve only played the humans, leaving 20 alien races, each with certain unique victory conditions, to go.

 

All in all, Distant Worlds lives up to its promise. Vast, unique, and packed with the sense of wonder that lies at the heart of science fiction, I’d recommend it to any grand strategy fan – and to any strategy developer in search of good ideas. Thumbs way up.

 

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.

 

 

The basis of my review

 

Length of time spent with the game: Roughly 30-40 hours.

 

What I have played: I’ve won two games on small maps, and walked away from many more on a variety of map sizes. Generally, I like my maps small enough to finish over an afternoon, and small enough for each individual colony or fleet to really count.

 

What I haven’t played: The “Return of the Shakturi” mode, any species other than the humans.

Book review: Fatherland, by Robert Harris

Berlin, 1964. Germany crushed Britain and Russia, won the Second World War, spent the next two decades locked in a cold war with the United States. Hitler’s 75th birthday is approaching, just in time for a new detente with the US. And German detective Xavier March has just been called in to investigate the discovery of a body in an exclusive neighbourhood, which will kick off events further-reaching than March could have dreamed…

 

I found Robert Harris’ novels about Cicero and the Roman Polanski film based on another of his books (The Ghost Writer) enjoyable but nowhere near great. But his first novel, Fatherland, showed me why the man is a bestseller.

 

Fatherland’s characters won’t win any awards for originality. Xavier March himself – middle-aged, at a career dead-end, estranged from his ex-wife and son, cynical about the Nazi Party – is straight out of central casting. The rest of the cast falls into equally familiar archetypes, from spunky journalist to Nazi brutes. And I suspect a veteran thriller reader would be able to say the same about the plot – even as a novice to the genre, a number of Fatherland’s plot developments felt awfully familiar, and I was even able to guess one of the major twists.

 

The real star is the dystopic setting. “The Nazis win WW2” is the most hackneyed of alternate histories, and I have a couple of niggles with Harris’ timeline, but none of that detracts from the book. Harris brings his setting to life with skilful detail, sometimes through March’s observations, sometimes through casual remarks, sometimes through well-written and interesting infodumps. We see March’s fellow Germans cringe from his SS uniform, we see the values of Nazi society reflected everywhere from the personals ads of March’s newspaper to the “crimes” investigated by some of his colleagues, we see how March’s devoutly Nazi son loves touring Berlin to admire Albert Speer’s post-war architecture, we hear rumours of the atrocities committed by March’s counterparts in the Gestapo. And this is more than background colour. The setting, plot and characters, stock though they might individually be, combine to create a work of chilling power.

 

It is that chill which makes Fatherland so effective. This is not a feel-good book, except in the sense that it should make you grateful that history unfolded the way it did. But even knowing its biggest reveal before I started (this has to be one of the few spoiler-free reviews of Fatherland on the internet) did nothing to diminish the bleak horror when it did unfurl. And guessing much of its ending hasn’t prevented the book’s final moments from lingering with me. A worthwhile read.

 

 You can buy Fatherland from Amazon here

 

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.

 

Way to shoot yourself in the foot (for the umpteenth time), Sony

Courtesy of IndustryGamers:

 

“Q: How many PSN account can be set up on a Vita system?” GAF member mehdi_san wrote. “A: Only 1 account. If you want to use a different account, you need to format the system to factory settings.”

Some PS3 and PSP owners have separate accounts to pick up games and demos from other regions.  This move means those players will be out of luck when it comes to playing Japanese titles on their American systems, or vice versa.

On the bright side, a Sony representative recently told Thrifty Nerd that Vita titles on PSN would cost up to 40 percent less than their retail counterparts.  It’s some decent savings that could make up some of the ground lost by recent Vita revelations.  Proprietary memory cards required to save certain titles, an expensive UMD Passport program missing many key developers, and a lack of support for PSOne Classics are slight issues alone, but are starting to add up for some early adopters.

 

EDIT: So the limit on PSN accounts is actually linked to the memory card, not to the Vita, according to Eurogamer. Still annoying:

 

The PlayStation Vita is not limited to a single PlayStation Network log-in, as widely reported last week, Sony has confirmed.

However, you will need to either restore factory settings every time you want to change accounts or buy two separate proprietary memory cards.

Opening moves in Distant Worlds: a mini-Let’s Play

This is part 2 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 very first screen I see, when I set up my second game of Distant Worlds – my first was a practice game – looks like this:

 

 

It’s a lot of options, isn’t it? I choose the standard number of stars but accidentally make the map “large” instead of “medium”, a mistake I don’t realise until later.

 

Next up are race selection and empire tweaking. I choose the humans, and name my empire the “Republic of Lune”. Here, we encounter one of my niggles with the game: while it allows great flexibility when setting up the galaxy, unfortunately you can’t customise your race within the game*. As such, this is closer to Alpha Centauri than it is to Master of Orion (with its potential for hilariously unbalanced builds) or even Space Empires. Last I choose victory conditions – these are pretty much the default, except that I’ve disabled the Return of the Shakturi (first expansion pack) victory conditions.

 

Time to begin the game. Here’s my starting position:

 

 

Around my homeworld, I have a small fleet and several mining bases in nearby systems. This is the “early exploration” phase of 4X games, the time when players discover the lay of the land, look for city/colony sites and future chokepoints, and uncover goody huts. Distant Worlds has particularly useful goody huts (of which we’ll soon see more), and as such, I start building extra explorers and construction ships so I can quickly find and exploit them. Otherwise, I leave my empire to manage itself. I don’t know the tech tree very well, and my invisible AI viceroys can build mines and order scouts just fine on their own.

 

Soon, my scouts find what I’d hoped for, the independent world of Sol I:

 

 

To put this into context, colony population in Distant Worlds seems to grow very, very slowly compared to other 4X games, so your homeworld will still account for the lion’s share of your economy well into the game – no infinite city sleaze here! Thus, independent worlds, which already start with a moderate population and are undefended by spaceships, are a valuable prize early on. If their residents are friendly, you can simply claim them by sending in a colony ship; otherwise, you can send in the marines. You can’t wait too long, however, because by default** they will turn into new players if left alone.

 

Thus, I quickly order the construction of a colony ship, to be subsequently dispatched to Sol I.

 

Fully armed, not yet operational

 

Eventually the colony ship is ready, and Sol I joins my empire peacefully. I start building a starbase above the planet, and send out my navy against some nearby pirate bases, but otherwise the game proceeds uneventfully.

 

Then my scouts stumble upon a second type of goody hut:

 

 

This is Distant Worlds’ shout-out to the “big, dumb objects” beloved of science fiction authors, and I know just how valuable these particular BDOs are. In my first game, I had a hard time fighting past the space monsters guarding the derelict fleet, and it took forever to rebuild the capital ships I found, but once I did… wow. They swept all before them.

 

As such, I start beefing up my main strike force, the “Expeditionary Fleet”, in preparation to recover the derelicts.

 

A fly in the ointment

 

Eventually, one of my scout ships runs into two more independent planets in the Boskar system, a long way from my homeworld.

 

This is what the game has to say about the Boskara:

 

 

Clearly, these are not people I want as my neighbours. The potential threat on my southern border, so close to my homeworld, is unacceptable. With colony ships unlikely to succeed, it’s time to build some invasion transports and nip the potential threat from Boskara in the bud.

 

However, by the time I’ve built the first transport, loaded it with troops, and sent it to Boskara, it’s too late. Boskara I, still an independent world, falls easily to my ground troops. But Boskara II has now morphed into a single-planet empire: the Boskara Authority, complete with its own small space fleet. This is what the map now looks like (the Boskara are the purple blotch):

 

 

The threat remains. So does the logic of an early strike: better to smother the Boskara Authority while it’s still a single-planet empire than to allow it to grow into a mortal foe. I rename my main force the Southern Expeditionary Fleet and send it to defend my new outpost in Boskara (though it won’t have the firepower to win a war by itself). With the Southern Expeditionary Fleet unavailable, this means I’ll also have to start building a new force, the Northern Expeditionary Fleet, to recover the derelict ships.

 

The road to war

 

Preparations for war go well. My tech base reaches the point where I can start building cruisers, and I promptly order up a batch – at first, most go to the Northern Expeditionary Fleet, but I also build a couple at Boskar to form the backbone of the Southern Expeditionary Fleet. The Boskara, evidently daunted by my military might, even pay me some tribute; this ends up ploughed right back into my fleet.

 

Soon, the Northern Expeditionary Fleet is ready for battle. In my first game, sending token forces to derelict fields did not work well. This time, things go differently: the Northern Expeditionary Fleet carves through the space monsters like a hot knife through butter, and my construction ships can safely begin work.

 

As I build up my forces in the Boskar system, the AI viceroy is seemingly able to read my mind:

 

 

I don’t pay close enough attention to see what effect that has, but judging by the Boskara AI player periodically yelling at me to stop my attacks, it must be doing some damage. I also accept the game’s suggestions to send out my intelligence operatives to sabotage Boskara facilities.

 

All this is a prelude to the real blow. My transports are headed back to Boskar, after picking up troops at my homeworld; the Southern Expeditionary Fleet is growing in strength; and my AI-controlled 1st Fleet has also showed up in Boskar. But my opportunity is ebbing away; I can see the Boskara fanning out to the south.

 

It’s time to go to war.

 

No plan survives contact with the enemy

 

Of course, my “short, victorious war” is anything but. The moment I declare war, one of the coolest, most unexpected events I remember seeing in a 4X game rears up and bites me. Remember that ethnic-Boskara world that I conquered earlier? The moment I declare war on their neighbours, my Boskara subjects rebel, kick me off their planet, and join the Boskara Authority.

 

That dishes my dreams of conquest. The Southern Expeditionary Fleet blasts the Boskara space fleet to scrap, pulverises their space ports, blockades their worlds. But now I don’t have a forward base, my troop transports have a habit of running out of fuel, and what ground troops I can get to the Boskara system prove to be insufficient. With bigger fish to fry elsewhere in the galaxy, I settle for a face-saving compromise: the Boskara accept a treaty of subjugation, and my ships pull back from their system.

 

In the end, my fears about the potential threat from Boskara turn out to be groundless: sandwiched between myself and another empire on their southern border, the Boskara never expand far. When the dust settles, the whole war turns out not just to have been completely unnecessary, but also counterproductive.

 

With a whimper, not a bang

 

The early moves, culminating in the Boskara conflict, end up being the most exciting part of my second game of Distant Worlds. After that, my expansion is peaceful. The other computer players I encounter are mostly friendly, and those who aren’t are still smart enough not to declare war – remember, I recovered a lot of derelict capital ships? I generally don’t like starting naked wars of aggression in 4X games, and anyway, by the mid-game, the galaxy is just too sprawling for me to look forward to long-distance wars.

 

Unfortunately, Distant Worlds doesn’t seem particularly well suited to long periods of peace. Compared to Civilization or Master of Orion 2, which I had a lot of fun playing as “giant tycoon games” (as one forum poster memorably put it), DW doesn’t offer much in the way of colony development – it’s closer to Dominions 3 or maybe Europa Universalis 3, a few expansions ago.

 

In the end, with my empire tied for equal #1 place in the race for the victory conditions, I quit. Here’s how the game ended. The dark-blue empire in the NW corner is me, the purple dot at 9 o’clock is Boskara, and the small medium-blue empire interwoven with mine is an AI protectorate.

 

 

Observations from Game #2

 

(1) The “Normal” number of stars does not mix with the “large” galaxy size – everything is too spread out. This is further exacerbated if you spawn at the edge of the map.

 

(2) On large-sized maps and up, and also on smaller maps if you set overly ambitious victory conditions or if point (1) is in play, I suspect DW is one of those titles, like Europa Universalis or most of the Total War franchise, where you play through to the midgame and then walk away once you meet your own personal objectives. Since I would like to see a victory screen, my third game will probably be on another small map.

 

(3) That said, the early game in DW is a lot of fun, probably even better than in Civilization. The potent goody huts, the scarcity of worlds that can be colonised with early tech, and the importance of claiming independent worlds before someone else does/before they turn into new empires all contribute to an exciting exploration phase.

 

(4) With the default settings, the AI in DW is very peaceful compared to every other 4X game I’ve played. It’s almost impossible to play Civilization without at least one computer player picking a fight. In DW, on the other hand, I always find myself in the unexpected position of being the aggressor. Next game, I’m dialling up the AI’s aggression (remember, this is one of the options at startup).

 

 

* I believe you can mod in custom factions.

 

** I left this option checked at the start of the game.