Mystery game mode coming to Wargame: European Escalation in July

Update – 5 July 2012: It’s a mystery no longer: details of Conquest are now on Steam. It’s a territorial victory mode:

 

’CONQUEST’’ for Wargame: European Escalation brings brand new exciting content to extend the conflict.

Defy commanders worldwide in the brand new multiplayer mode: CONQUEST. To be victorious in this mode, in addition to the classic Command Points, you will have to control Victory Sectors (VS) located on the map, until the victory conditions are fully satisfied. In this mode there’s no Scoring System related to the destruction of your adversary’s units, only controlling territories will grant you victory. 7 maps have been adapted or created to fit this new mode, where you can either challenge players or AI.

 

Note that since it’s a “free DLC”, you’ll have to install it separately. For anyone who’s new to the game and wondering whether it’s worth buying, check out my full review!

 

Update – 4 July 2012: Patch notes are out! It’s a long list, but the highlights include a new gameplay mode (“Conquest”) and continued balance tweaks. I have to say, I’m very happy with Eugen’s post-release support for this game. Developers, this is how you treat your customers!

 

Original post: Back in April, Eugen Systems patched a new game mode into Wargame: European Escalation, and now the game’s Facebook page has this to say:

 

Second free DLC coming in July !

Get ready to confront your opponents in new multiplayer mode!

 

There are no additional details for now, but I’ll keep you posted as more emerge.

 

And We’re Baaaaack

Good news — my computer is back from the service centre, and even more importantly, my backup restored just fine! It’s business as usual again, so stay tuned, over coming weeks, for write-ups of Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion and Civilization V: Gods and Kings. I’ll see you ’round!

Soren Johnson: “So far, the big question for cloud gaming is when will it be feasible, but ultimately, the more important question is what will it enable.”

From Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes (itself a reprint of an article in Game Developer magazine):

 

Ever since OnLive’s dramatic public unveiling at GDC 2009, the games industry has been watching and wondering about cloud gaming, at times skeptically, at times hopefully. The technology holds the potential to revolutionize the business, perhaps forever destroying the triangle that connects consumers with hardware manufacturers and software retailers…

 

… Most importantly for consumers, cloud gaming should change the economics of pricing. By removing the traditional retail middlemen, not to mention secondary drags on the system like rental and used-game sales, a developer could easily make as much money selling a game for $30 via the cloud as they could selling it for $60 via a traditional retailer. The industry could finally approach a mainstream price point, with games priced comparably to movies, books, and music – instead of the $60 price point (for a $300 console) which is absurdly out of reach of the average consumer.

 

Indeed, the economics could change for developers too. If entirely new business models emerge, with consumers paying for a game daily, weekly, or monthly – or perhaps with a single subscription to all available games (a la Netflix)  – the design incentives change. Cloud gaming could reward developers for depth of gameplay over ornate, scripted sequences; infinitely replayable dynamic games like Left4Dead or StarCraft might suddenly be more profitable than hand-crafted semi-movies like Call of Duty or Uncharted

 

.. However, cloud gaming’s potential is much, much greater than changing the economics of the industry; in fact, it could revolutionized the very way games are made…

 

… Perhaps the group which has the most to gain from this new model would be small, independent developers, for whom the idea of building an indie MMO seems laughable given their tiny resources. One can’t help wonder what Mojang could do with a cloud-based version of Minecraft, seamlessly updated, playable from any device or browser, that connects every world end-to-end. So far, the big question for cloud gaming is when will it be feasible, but ultimately, the more important question is what will it enable.

 

Definitely worth a look (and while you’re there, check out some of the older posts — in particular, the two about theme vs mechanics are some of my favourite pieces of games writing.)

Musical Monday: “Call of Magic” (aka the Morrowind theme), composed by Jeremy Soule

It’s Musical Monday again, folks! This week’s song, composed by Jeremy Soule, goes by several names — “Call of Magic”, “Nerevar Rising”, “Morrowind Title” or just “the Morrowind theme”. Of all these titles, I like “Call of Magic” the best: it’s a hopeful song, filled with the spirit of adventure. Just the thing to see you off on your journey:

 

 
You can also download it from the official Morrowind site, so head on over if you’d like a copy!

 

Details

 

Track: “Call of Magic”/”Nerevar Rising”/”Morrowind Title”.

SourceMorrowind soundtrack.

Credits: Composed by Jeremy Soule.

Tactics X-COM: Jagged Ogre Chronicles, or a guide to squad-level strategy/tactics/RPGs

 

This is a good time to be a fan – as I am – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).

 

The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.

 

 

Type 1: the “squad-based strategy game with RPG elements”

 

 

Typified by the Jagged Alliance series and the first three X-Com games, this subgenre is largely PC-based (notwithstanding the odd console port) and driven by Western developers. These games share two overarching attributes. First, they emphasise the “strategy” part of “strategy/RPG”, and second, they’re closer to the “realistic” than to the “cinematic” end of the spectrum (at least compared to the other categories!). These manifest in a few ways:

 

  • There isn’t much in the way of character customisation or special abilities. Different troopers have different statistics – marksmanship, strength, etc – and, in Jagged Alliance 2, different passive bonuses (e.g. night operations or automatic weapons). However, soldiers lack RPG-style active abilities, and they usually don’t have classes – they certainly don’t in X-Com and JA. What does distinguish soldiers is their equipment (which, in the absence of classes, can usually be freely assigned). You won’t mistake a rifleman, a machine gunner, and an anti-tank specialist!

 

  • The same applies to the enemies you fight. In JA2, a black-shirted commando will be both better armed and a better shot than a yellow-shirted militiaman, but actual boss enemies and special abilities (with the exception of a handful in X-Com – psionics and Chrysalids) are rare.

 

  • In the absence of “gamey” levels of health, life is cheap. X-Com, where the most heavily armoured veteran could die to a single unlucky shot, took this to extremes – but even in JA2, a single turn’s volley fire could be lethal. Conversely, the lack of character customisation means that losing one trooper is not the end of the world – especially not in X-Com, with its never-ending pool of recruits! (I seem to recall JA2 was a bit harsher on this front – not only were there finite mercenaries available, but losing too many would make it hard to recruit more. As such, X-Com was best played without reloading, but I doubt JA2 would be so amenable.)

 

  • In the defining games of the genre, there is no scripted campaign – in X-Com and Jagged Alliance, you choose where and when to take the field. This fits with the conceit of these games – you’re the overall commander, in charge of far more than just battle tactics.

 

  • Combat typically requires you to kill/capture every enemy present. However, the battlefields are large, what you can see is limited to your soldiers’ line of sight, and the enemy could be anywhere. As such, battles tend to unfold as a sweep of the map.

 

This subgenre has never regained its 1990s glory days (hence PC gamers lamenting the “death” of squad-based strategy/RPGs), notwithstanding the odd 2000s release such as Silent Storm. However, signs of life remain. As a largely faithful remake of X-Com, Xenonauts falls squarely in this category, and if it lives up to its promising alpha build, that would deliver a welcome breath of air.

 

Type 2: the “tactics game with RPG elements”

 

Fire Emblem (various Nintendo platforms) and Valkyria Chronicles (PS3 for the original game, PSP for the sequels) form a second subgenre, console-based and driven by Japanese developers. (I suspect Jeanne d’Arc for PSP would also fall into this category, but I haven’t played enough to be sure.) What sets these aside from Type 1 games is that they’re a little more stylised, a little more “game-y”, a little more RPG-like. Specifically:

 

  • As with Type 1 games, there still isn’t much in the way of character customisation or special abilities. However, in RPG fashion, realism now plays second fiddle to game logic. FE/VC characters are much more distinct than X-Com troopers, and their abilities and weapons are delineated by class. A “shock trooper” in Valkyria Chronicles will always use a submachine gun rather than a rifle, an engineer will never be able to use a grenade launcher, and so on. Fire Emblem even cheerfully throws in a rock/paper/scissors dynamic between axe-, sword-, and spear-wielding classes.

 

  • Meanwhile, much like trash mobs in an RPG, individual enemies in Type 2 games tend to be clearly weaker than the player’s squad members. However, watch out for bosses!

 

  • In Fire Emblem, characters can still die easily in the hands of a careless player. However, as with Type 1 games, the lack of character customisation means that the loss of one character is not the show-stopper it might otherwise be. (Valkyria Chronicles is a little more forgiving – it gives you a three-turn grace period to call in a medic.)

 

  • Gameplay consists entirely of a scripted campaign with set battles – no strategic metagame here.

 

  • Battles still revolve around sweeping a large map, but this plays out slightly differently. Your objectives are different – most levels require you to capture a specified piece of turf, rather than just clearing out the enemy. However, since enemies typically don’t “wake up” until you move close enough, this encourages you (especially in Fire Emblem) to play slowly and carefully, so as not to trigger an overwhelming enemy response. The result, in Fire Emblem, was precise, meticulous gameplay as I checked enemy characters’ movement ranges, lined up the party in safe areas, and then quickly moved in for the kill. (Valkyria Chronicles was a little different in that its scoring system worked by speed, so it was often “optimal” to run past enemy soldiers and beeline for the objective, but I tended to only play this way when I knew a map very well.)

 

This genre is doing a bit better than Type 1. Valkyria Chronicles never saw a PS3 sequel (2 and 3 came out for PSP, and 3 never made it to the West), but Fire Emblem: Awakening has been announced for 3DS. With luck, we’ll see more of these games in the future.

 

Type 3: the “role-playing game with tactical elements”

 

 

A third subgenre, also primarily console/Japanese, includes Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX/PSP), Tactics Ogre (originally SNES/PSX, but I’m mainly thinking of the PSP remake), Front Mission (various), and Disgaea (various). The dividing line between this and Type 2 can be a little blurry, but in general, the key feature of these games is that they emphasise the “RPG” part of “tactical RPG”.

 

  • By this, I mean Type 3 games share traditional RPGs’ emphasis on character development. Out of battle, there’s plenty of time spent on allocating skill points, navigating often-baroque class trees (this class guide for FFT says it all), and building a super-team. In battle, where a Type 1 or Type 2 character would be limited to moving, attacking, and maybe unlocking doors, Type 3 characters constantly fire off special attacks and unique abilities. This also extends to enemies – regular enemies, not just bosses, frequently have their own nasty abilities.

 

  • Conversely, while some of these games do allow for permanent death (FFT, Tactics Ogre), building up characters takes so much time and effort that I think players would have to be crazy not to reload in the event of their characters dying. (Other games, such as Disgaea, sidestep this problem by not having perma-death in the first place.)

 

  • As with RPGs and Type 2 games, there is a scripted campaign with a set storyline and battles to play through.

 

  • The “tactical” part is still present: battles are played out on strategy-style grid maps and positioning remains a consideration (for example, Tactics Ogre, which encouraged you to use terrain and heavily armoured knights’ special abilities to wall off squishy mages and archers). However, the maps are typically smaller than in Types 1-2, and enemies are typically more aggressive about coming out to meet you. As such, there’s no more “sweeping the battlefield” dynamic.

 

Out of the three subgenres, this one is probably doing the best. While the broader JRPG genre largely disappeared during the HD console era, this subgenre never went away. The PSP in particular is a mecca (FFT, Tactics Ogre, ports of Disgaea 1 and 2…), and new/ported Disgaea games continue to appear (e.g. Disgaea 4 came out for PS3 last year, and Disgaea 3 has made it to Vita). I look forward to seeing, and playing, many more in the future.

 

 

Within these categories, different games have added their own unique twists. For example, the genius of Valkyria Chronicles lay in its control scheme. You didn’t move soldiers by clicking squares on a grid – you took direct control of the selected soldier, using the PS3’s analogue stick to run him or her behind sandbags, into trenches, out of cover and into the open. The camera wasn’t locked isometric – it followed each soldier from a third-person perspective. You didn’t choose targets by selecting them from a list or highlighting their square – you hit a button to bring up a pair of crosshairs, then swung the crosshairs over a selected foe, and finally “pulled” the trigger. Now, VC was still a strategy game, not a shooter – once you lined up a shot, whether it hit was determined by the soldier’s class, equipment and special abilities, not by player skill. Yet, by bringing the immediacy and excitement of an action game, the control scheme contributed tremendously to the overall experience.

 

For another example, consider Disgaea, which relies heavily on terrain and movement. Many battles contain “geo panels” that give a special modifier to anyone standing on them – for example, automatic healing (or automatic damage!) every turn, a bonus to attack, an all-around bonus to enemies, and so on. These special effects are generated by geo symbols, pyramid-shaped objects that also appear on the map. And not only are the geo symbols destructible, but party members can pick other characters (friends and foes) and geo symbols up, then throw them around the map. Many levels rely on this! For example, if 90% of a map is coated in red panels, and two geo symbols placed on the red panels give enemies on red a 6x bonus, trying to play as if the game were FFT would be suicide. The solution: line up a daisy chain of, say, six characters. Have #5 lift #6, have #4 lift #5 (who is still carrying #6), and so on. Eventually, #1 throws #2, who throws #3… all the way to the point where #6 can reach and destroy a “3x enemy boost” geo symbol in one turn, before the computer gets to use those nasty bonuses. Does this make story levels puzzle-like? Probably. But it is an interesting mechanic in its own right, and it does distinguish the game from the rest of the genre.

 

This takes us back to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which stands out because of the way it blends multiple games and subgenres. The way it breaks down soldiers into classes, with their own equipment loadouts and special abilities, is straight out of Type 3 games. So is the ability to unlock additional, more advanced classes later on. But its frequent use of an action game-style camera reminds me of nothing so much as the intent behind Valkyria Chronicles’ control scheme (or perhaps the Gallop brothers’ cancelled Dreamland Chronicles, which was to have used similar controls), and the frequency of character death is a (key) holdover from the original X-Com. As such, I don’t think it’s possible to draw apples-and-apples comparisons between Firaxis’ XCOM and the originals, or between XCOM and Xenonauts – but this doesn’t bother me in the least. While Firaxis is diverging significantly from the originals’ design, it also seems to be cross-pollinating several excellent strains of squad-level gameplay. We’ll see in a few months’ time how well this works out, but for now I am eager to see what Firaxis can do.

 

And if I had to conclude on one thought, that would be it: eagerness. Whether these games fall into one big genre or three related ones, at their best they combine the strengths of strategy games and RPGs. They offer the satisfaction of out-thinking and out-manoeuvring an opponent; intricate plots – and a focus on named, persistent characters. Just as great characters make great fiction, the stories that arise through gameplay become all the richer when they star characters whom we have nurtured, whom we can identify and remember. I remember the almost-dead warrior in FFT who ended one of the toughest boss fights in the game with one last desperate jump. I could almost feel the desperation in Valkyria Chronicles when three soldiers tried to hold off an enemy tank, and when I got control of my own tank and sent it to their relief, I certainly felt the power. And I remember the fallen heroes of X-Com and Fire Emblem, including veterans who had been with me since the start of the game and who finally gave their lives near the end. I remember these and more.

 

At the end of the day, it’s no coincidence so many of my favourites fall into the categories described above – PC and console, Western and Japanese. I look forward to seeing more of all these in the future, and I hope that if you’re a pure PC or pure console gamer, if you’re familiar with some but not all of the above games, I’ll have piqued your interest ­in the rest

Okami HD coming to PS3

Beautiful and artistic, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and Okami are three of my favourite games of all time. The first two were ported to the PS3 last year, and now it’s Okami‘s turn: Capcom has announced Okami HD, with optional Move support, will come out later this year. Trailer below:

 

As one Youtube commenter points out, I don’t recall the PS2 version of the game being anywhere near that blurry, but I’ll welcome anything that could bring such a great game to a wider audience (or even just ensure its availability for an HD platform).

“Do you think these titles can compete with $120 million dollar super titles?”

From Gamesindustry International‘s interview with THQ president Jason Rubin:

 

And he [THQ CEO Brian Farrell] said, “Well, where do you think the industry’s going? Do you think these titles can compete with $120 million dollar super titles?”

 

So I said, “Well, you know, three, four years ago I would’ve said no. Even two years ago I would’ve said no.” But looking at the industry in the future and what’s happened in PC space, I think there’s going to be a much wider variety of games in the future. I think you’ll see things like Portal or World of Tanks or League of Legends or other ways of attracting people that don’t require the snazziest graphics, the most dollars per minute on screen, 600 person teams. Not that those titles won’t do well. They’ll do really well. And they’ll get bigger and that’s a race. But we don’t have to necessarily play in that race…

 

… And I think we can do all right without it. Take a look at [South Park] Stick of Truth. A lot of people are talking about it, excited about it. That’s not a blockbuster. Graphically, it’s not going to compete with Call of Duty, but it’s a really cool game. Metro’s gotten a lot of nominations for Best in Show. Company of Heroes, the sequel to the highest rated RTS of all time. There are good things to do.

 

“I think there’s going to be a much wider variety of games in the future.” I like the sound of that.

Introducing Musical Monday: “Inner Universe” (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), composed by Yoko Kanno

Sorry, guys, still no major update — not only is my computer still out of commission, but I’ve been feeling under the weather for the last week. I have written most of a post on squad-level strategy and tactical RPGs, but ’til it’s ready, I thought I’d tide you over by kicking off a new series: Musical Monday. Every Monday, I plan to highlight the soundtracks that make my favourite games, movies, TV and anime what they are — and first up, I’ve chosen one of my all-time favourites, “Inner Universe”. Soaring and angelic, it perfectly accompanies the opening credits to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex:

 

 

A longer, five-minute version appears on the first soundtrack CD. Back in the day, I used this as background music for Freelancer:

 

 

Enjoy, and stay tuned for more next week!

 

Details

 

Track: “Inner Universe”

Source:  Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex soundtrack – OST CD #1

Credits: Composed by Yoko Kanno, lyrics by Shanti Snyder & Origa, sung by Origa.

Technical Difficulties

I often praise my two-year-old computer’s reliability, but it looks like I tempted fate one too many times. This morning, Windows 7 warned of a “hard disk problem” and when I tried switching on the computer this afternoon, it wouldn’t even boot. Luckily it’s still under warranty, so off to the service centre it’ll go. Until it’s back in action, though, I may be a bit slow to update the site (and in any case, with my gaming rig out of action, I’ll have less to write about). Thanks for your patience until then!

Persona 3 Portable: The Retrospective Verdict

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

 

 

2006 was a big year for video games. That year, two of the current generation of consoles launched: the Playstation 3 and the Wii. The rival Xbox 360 launched the previous year, but 2006 saw the debut of one of its signature franchises, Gears of War.  And the king of the previous generation, the Playstation 2, was at its zenith. In 2006, Capcom released the stunning (and superb) Okami; Square Enix gave us Final Fantasy XII… and in Japan, Atlus released Persona 3, the latest instalment in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. When Persona 3 made its way to the West in 2007, it received a glowing reception; when I finally played the game, last year, I expected the world of it. It did not disappoint.

 

To be sure, Persona 3 received a few coats of paint in between 2007 and 2011. An enhanced PS2 version, Persona 3: FES, added an epilogue and tweaked the core game; the PSP port I played, Persona 3: Portable, added an alternate, female protagonist and imported some of Persona 4’s gameplay enhancements (though it also had to replace in-engine cutscenes with still art and “talking heads”). But the core of the game has been the same throughout. You guide a modern-day high schooler through one year of his (or her) life, allocating precious time slots between studying, shopping, socialising with one of ~20 people – school buddies, an elderly couple, a little kid, and more – and, uniquely for a teenager, dungeon crawling. The “social simulator” and “dungeon crawler” halves of the game are linked: the main character derives his/her combat abilities from guardian spirits called Personas. Each Persona, and each possible character relationship, is assigned to a given “arcana”, and the stronger a friendship, the stronger a newly created Persona of that arcana will be.

 

Battling monsters: one half of the game.

 

This design has several implications:

 

First, it brings Persona 3’s gameplay in line with its subject. Regardless of story, the gameplay in most RPGs (Japanese or Western) usually skews towards combat – but with its social simulation, its evenings spent doing homework, and its bites grabbed on the way home from school, Persona 3 conveys how its teenaged hero actually lives.

 

Second, the need to manage time weaves interesting choice into the fabric of gameplay. Do I hang out with character A, because I want a Persona of the relevant arcana to clear this stretch of the game? Do I push him to Tuesday so I can see character B instead? Should I spend my evening dungeon-crawling, or should I hit the books instead?

 

Third, more subtly, it fosters roleplaying. In a video game, we roleplay by making choices: Do I back this side in a dispute, or that side? Do I obey my lord, or follow my own conscience? These choices are typically discrete: the end of a quest might offer multiple solutions, or the main plot might branch off at specified points. In Persona 3’s case, the plot might be linear, but the constant stream of choices allows players the same opportunity. Yes, you can approach it as an exercise in powergaming… but it was far more rewarding for me to decide “as my character would”, spending time with NPCs I liked, and behaving consistently with the personality I imagined him to have.

 

Hanging out in town: the other half of Persona 3.

 

None of the game’s elements is perfect. As a dungeon crawler, it suffers from some overly long and tedious late-game boss fights. As a social simulator, it loses a bit of interesting tension once you max out the main character’s stats around the halfway mark. And its main plot suffers from several flaws. Gameplay and story segregation create occasional plot holes; the plot is weakened by a reliance on in-universe logic (think “Captain, we have to replace the dilithium crystals!”) rather than character conflict; and it labours under a fundamental contradiction: it takes itself very seriously at the same time that it revolves around superpowered teenagers.

 

But ultimately, those flaws are minor compared to what Persona 3 does right. It’s a very good dungeon crawler, a very good social simulator/time management game, and most of all, it delivers the most precious attribute in an RPG: it made me care. It made me care about its world, the world I explored every time I sent the main character through town in search of a friend or a coffee. And through great dialogue and voice acting, it made me care about its characters. Their story arcs more than made up for my complaints about the main plot: not all were great, but some were hilarious, others moving. From the first hour of gameplay, I laughed at their antics; when the story turned sombre, I felt for them. And through their unfolding stories, the game was able to convey some surprisingly meaningful themes.

 

Yukari is one of the many well-realised characters in Persona 3.

 

Evidently, a lot of players agreed with me. Not every game enjoys the recognition that it deserves, but this saga has a happy ending. The Persona franchise has gone from strength to strength: a PS2 sequel, Persona 4, came out in 2008, and in the limited time I’ve spent with it, it addresses every complaint I have about Persona 3. A PS Vita port, Persona 4: Golden, and a PS3 fighting game, Persona Arena, are both due out later this year. And most recently, Persona 3: FES has been re-released as a Playstation Network download for PS3. For anyone with a Sony platform, these games are easily accessible.

 

That’s a good thing. This is one game that every RPG aficionado should play, even those who normally don’t enjoy Japanese RPGs. With its marriage of a great concept and good execution, Persona 3: Portable wasn’t just one of the best games I played last year – it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. Highly recommended.

 

We hope you enjoyed this retrospective/review! To quickly find this post, and our other articles, click the “reviews” or “features” tabs at the top of this page.

 

Resources

 

Buy Persona 3: FES (PS2) from Amazon US

Buy Persona 3: Portable (PSP) from Amazon US

 

The basis of my review

 

Length of time spent with the game: Over 96 hours (!!!).

 

What I have played: Finished the male protagonist’s route.

 

What I have not played: The female protagonist’s route.