Musical Monday: “Main Theme” (Valkyria Chronicles), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

We’re back into game soundtracks with this week’s song, the “Main Theme” to the PS3 tactical RPG Valkyria Chronicles. It was composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, of Tactics Ogre/FFT/FFXII fame, and it lives up to that pedigree. Enjoy!

A gaming convention in Sydney! EB Expo, October 2012

Compared to our Northern Hemisphere friends, Australia is relatively short on video game (and anime, and science fiction, and geek…) events — hence why I haven’t been able to talk about conventions on this blog. No longer! In a little over a month’s time, I’ll attend the EB Expo (Sydney Showground, 5 to 7 October) as a member of the press. I’ve copied and pasted the list of games to be exhibited below:

 

 

That selection is rather console/action-heavy, but that’s fine — I’ll still be interested in taking a look at the two prominent strategy games on the list, XCOM (just a few days before it unlocks…) and Company of Heroes 2. As someone who’s gotten a lot of value out of his PSP, I’ll also be very interested in an up-close look at the Vita — that’s one platform I intend to buy once it acquires a decent stable of RPGs (squad-based or otherwise). And there’s bound to be other titles of interest, so I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open!

Civilization V: Gods and Kings – The Verdict

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Civilization V
From these humble beginnings, can you build an empire to stand the test of time?

 

For years, new Civilization games (much like a certain other franchise) have followed a process of “two steps forward, one step back”. The original Civilization was a great and seminal game, but Civilization II surpassed it in every way. The third game was a low point in the series, but introduced a number of concepts followed up in the excellent IV. And while I liked V, my ultimate conclusion was that it “it’ll take a future Civ VI to build on the concepts and changes introduced by V.” How does the recent release of Gods and Kings, the expansion pack to V, change this?

 

To answer this question, I think it helps to split up what G&K offers into two categories. In one bucket, we can place the headline-grabbing features wholly new to V: new scenarios, espionage, and religion. Simply put, these are nice, but they’re not worth US$30 (let alone US$50, if you happen to suffer from regional pricing). In the other bucket, we can place the tweaks G&K makes to the core game: AI, diplomacy, units and technologies, and so on. These are the real draw.

 

Starting with espionage and religion, these two features are similar in that they both offer a handy set of bonuses, without reaching so far as to be game-defining. Espionage begins in the mid-game. When a civilisation begins a new technological era, starting with the Renaissance, it receives one spy who can be sent to a rival player’s city, sent to a city-state, or left at home for counterintelligence. Sent to another player’s city, a spy will provide line of sight and early warning about planned attacks, and every X turns, steal a technology (unless he/she is killed by a counterintelligence agent!). Sent to a city-state, the spy will gradually increase relations over time, and can be used to attempt a coup (a roll of the dice that will leave you with either a new city-state ally, or a dead spy). Simple, hands-off (none of the “fiddly agent” problem common to strategy games), elegant, but not decisive.

 

A la carte: religious bonuses in G&K

 

Religion, meanwhile, works off “faith points” which are primarily generated from buildings such as shrines/temples. The more faith points you accumulate, the more missionaries (spread your religion), inquisitors (quash other religions), and Great Prophets (do all the above, and also needed to found the religion!) you can deploy. Founding a religion allows you to pick and choose from a set of bonuses, some of which will apply only to you, some of which will apply to cities of any nationality that follow that particular faith. As only one civilisation per game can choose any given bonus, prioritising faith – and hence, that first Great Prophet – will allow the early bird to catch the worm. I think the importance of religion will depend on play style: I never found it that central, but I can see someone reaping dividends by taking a religion-centric civilisation (such as the Celts, who earn faith from forest tiles), then picking bonuses that allow, say, the purchase of pre-industrial units with faith.

 

Meanwhile, the two scenarios I tried (out of three* that shipped with the expansion) were a mixed bag. Steampunk scenario “Empires of the Smoky Skies”, despite its name, is a breath of fresh air. It’s quick to play: I finished in a single evening. Its mechanics are distinct; in particular, zippy research and construction, plus unique victory conditions, make it a builder’s paradise. And it has a sense of place, of steampunkish whimsy: it’s impossible not to grin when bartering anti-gravity ore with a goggled, top-hatted man named “Ignace Curnow”. In contrast, the “Fall of Rome” scenario was a disappointment. A purely military scenario with no diplomacy, no research, and no religion, it runs headlong into the “Civilization is not a wargame” problem that has dogged scenarios since Civ II.

 

We hope the skies are as friendly as they are smoky

 

Those are G&K’s most visible features. However, iceberg-like, its real significance is what lies below. Here are a few examples:

 

1) The computer player is cleverer (at least on land maps). Time after time, I’ve had to fight for my life – usually against early-game rushes, once against a late-game attempt to snatch up a diplomatic victory. In general, the AI hits the sweet spot where it can offer a thrilling game without actually making me lose. It did drop the ball in one game in which (a) the computer players all ignored the New World (this was a Terra map), and (b) the #1 player declared war on my horribly unprepared self… only to not lift a finger, not even posting a single soldier to our border! (The resulting war ended up one-sided, all right, but not the way I’d feared.) However, this match was very much the exception to a usually positive rule.

 

Heeeeeere they come! Babylonian forces (in teal) attempt an early-game rush.

 

2) Diplomacy, though still not up to the heights the series reached in Civ IV, has improved to the point where the computer feels rational now. That’s more than most strategy games can say!  The computer will ask for a cease-fire when it’s weary and throw in the towel (but without the ridiculously abject capitulations of pre-G&K) when it’s beaten. Even more importantly, it generally will not go to war without a sensible reason, such as border tension, and it can be deterred by a suitable show of force – in one game, the computer massed troops on our border while I was busy fighting another war, only to back down once I rushed an army home! Not only is this good strategy on the computer’s part, it does a lot to aid my suspension of disbelief and hence, my enjoyment.

 

3) The tech tree, the available units, and their upgrades are better designed. Remember the abortive archer upgrade path, or the ease of beelining for mechanised infantry (which made tanks redundant)? Gone. Games ending before I got a chance to play with aircraft and other late-game units? Well, now that G&K has added Great War-era aircraft, I have story after story to tell about how airpower transformed my campaigns. The effect was almost as steampunkish, and certainly as cool, as anything in Empires of the Smoky Skies! It’s not perfect – the devastating Gatling guns unlock a little too early – but it’s much better than what we had before.

 

The Iroquois mass along my northern border while my main army fights Greece in the southwest.

 

I could list more incremental improvements. Refinements to one of Civ V’s best new features, city-state diplomacy.  Notably faster performance on my computer. But the gist, I think, would be the same. The best reason to buy G&K isn’t to see spies, or prophets, or steampunk airships. The best reason to buy G&K is to see how it enables Civ V to realise its potential, and I think it’s telling that the more I played G&K, the more I liked it.

 

At the end of the day, my recommendation is straightforward. If you hated the base game, Gods and Kings will do nothing to change your mind. If you liked the base game, however, Gods and Kings is worth your cash. It offers subtle but real enhancements, and irons out several of the flaws that previously marred Civ V. Its more visible additions – espionage, religion, scenarios – are merely icing on the cake. A good expansion.

 

* Despite its historical setting, the third scenario, “Into the Renaissance” starts players with just one city and a settler!  This didn’t quite appeal to me, though I may revisit the scenario in the future.

 

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

 

Resources

 

Buy Civilization V: Gods and Kings from Amazon.com

The four-city Tradition start, for use on Emperor and up. I’ll have to try this sometime!

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: I estimate 30-40 hours.

 

What I played: One game on King as Austria (aborted). One game on Prince as Austria (won via the science victory). One game on Prince as Carthage (won, science). Two games on King as Korea (a pre-G&K civilisation) (won, science). One attempt at the Fall of Rome scenario (aborted). One attempt at the Empires of the Smoky Skies scenario on Emperor (lost). These were mostly on land-heavy maps: Continents, Terra, and Europe.

 

What I didn’t play: The “Into the Renaissance” scenario. The remaining difficulty settings and civilisations. Archipelago and similar maps.

Who wants a walk-on role in my XCOM: Enemy Unknown squad?

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

 

Calling all readers, aspiring alien-hunters, and Guile-haired jumpsuit-wearers! With XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s release just a month and a half away, Earth needs a few* brave** men and women. As in the original X-Com, players will be able to rename their soldiers at will, and for the XCOM game diary I’m planning, I’d love to name my troopers after you guys. Though I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and incoming plasma, it’ll be exciting while it lasts! Who’s with me?! Do you want to live forever?!

 

Ahem. If you’re interested, leave a comment below and I’ll add your name to the bottom of this post. Once the game is out, I’ll probably either create a new post with all the custom-named soldiers and their current status, or just expand on this post. So check back in a couple months’ time!

 

* at least

** or “foolhardy”

 

The roll call thus far

“Beefeater”

“Froggy”

“Josh” (wants to be first into battle)

“LeSquide”

“Kat”

“Talorc” (who wants a rocket launcher)

“Veloxi” (wants a sniper rifle)

“Hikaru Usada” (wants… to be last out of the dropship)

“Riztro” (great psi bait)

“Rebecca W”

“Wolfox”

“Farnsworth” (wants to hang back and lob the odd grenade)

“Thasero”

“Gunner”

“2K Alan”

“Elyscape”

“Bruce Geryk”

“Swordlily”

“Xanomon”

“Calistas”

Musical Monday: “Opening Titles” (John Adams), composed by Rob Lane

This week’s song is the opening theme to John Adams, the very nice 2008 HBO miniseries. Below, I’ve linked both the full-length version and the shortened version that plays over the gorgeous credits sequence. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Details

Track: “Opening Titles”.

Source: John Adams.

Composer: Rob Lane.

Trade, trade, glorious trade! First gameplay video of Europa Universalis IV highlights new trade system

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

Hot on the heels of Paradox’s announcement of Europa Universalis IV, studio boss Johan Anderson has presented the first gameplay video! Courtesy of Gamespot:

That video’s highlight, for me, is the new trade system (which starts at 3:54). Placing trade routes on the map (linking the old EU “centres of trade”) appears to been inspired by Empire: Total War‘s excellent but horribly underappreciated system. However, it appears Paradox is adding its own flair. This Destructoid interview explains:

 

“So what we’ve done is added in a system of static trade routes, so the trade flows along from the world into Europe, and your job is to dip money out of them as they go by. The way you do this… firstly you have your trusty merchant that you can send to various points along the routes to convince them to suck more wealth down to you rather than have the locals cream off the profits.

The second part of your trade empire is territory. If you take the Portuguese empire you’ll see strings of bases along their trade routes, so if you do the same thing you’ll be able to suck more trade home to Portugal and make yourself wealthier.

The third part is the fleet which will help you control trade in areas. We’re going to make small ships trade ships and big ships combat ships. So the small ships, you can send them off to, say, the Arabian Sea where the trade will split between going around to Africa and going up to Eastern Europe, and if you increase your power there you can steer the trade to where you want to.”

Trade ceases to be a merchant placement mini-game, and looks set to become far more connected to conquest, colonization, exploration, and diplomacy. No longer do you have to conquer entire countries to get a gold mine in a specific province, you can use your fleet and strategic bases to control the flow of trade on your own terms. Previously the system was very automated “and the moment you start talking about automation, the feature has a problem.”

 

As the above video highlights at 6:18, trade routes will also shift over the course of the game (away from the Mediterranean and towards the Atlantic, once the routes around the Cape of Good Hope and to the Americas open up).

 

The net effect, hopefully, will be to strengthen one of EU3‘s weaker aspects: the naval game. Not only were individual naval battles not very satisfying (they tended to boil down to “who brought the most ships?”), but EU3 only modelled one of the uses of seapower (being able to land troops on the enemy coast), while neglecting the need to protect overseas trade routes. Based on what we know so far, it sounds as though EU4‘s naval game will be much more interesting, which should benefit maritime powers such as Portugal, the Netherlands, and England->Great Britain. I look forward to seeing how this works in the final game — and to seeing what else Paradox has in store for us.

Musical Monday: “Time Circuits” (Chrono Trigger), by Yasunori Mitsuda

This week’s song is another SNES-era RPG world map theme: “Time Circuits” (aka “Corridors of Time”), which plays in one of the most wondrous areas of Chrono Trigger. Enjoy!

 

 

Details

Track: “Time Circuits”/”Corridors of Time”.

Source: Chrono Trigger OSV.

Composer: Yasunori Mitsuda.

What we know about Wargame: AirLand Battle

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon

#6 – May 2013 – The game’s preorder beta has begun! Check out my impressions of the beta!

 

#5 – 16 February 2013: Big news! The game’s website is now up, and so is the dev diary. Recent preview include PCGMedia’s and RTSGuru’s.

 

#4 – 24 August 2012: Confirmation of the four new nations! Sweden, Canada, Denmark, Norway.

 

#3 – 18 August 2012: Some details out from Gamescom, if you can read French! The highlights, according to Google Translate, include a co-op campaign and confirmation Sweden and Canada will be in the game.

 

#2 – 14 August 2012: . In response on a question I asked on the official forum about AirLand Battle‘s “dynamic campaign”, an Eugen team member stated:

 

Dynamic means fully dynamic -so much more than in W:EE :D

 

That sounds promising to me!

 

#1 – 12 August 2012: Eugen Systems and publisher Focus Home have announced Wargame: AirLand Battle, the upcoming (2013) sequel to European Escalation! I’ve quoted the full press release at the bottom of this post. The highlights are as follows:

 

1) The new game still takes place in the 1975-1985 time period, and the protagonists are still NATO and the Warsaw Pact; however, the action has shifted north to Scandinavia.

2) Fixed-wing aircraft will be in the game! This is a change from EE, where the only aircraft are helicopters.

3) There will be four new countries in the game. The developers have all but confirmed one of them  will be Canada, with the other three being chosen from amongst Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

4) The number of units has increased to 750 (more than double the 361 in EE!), of which 150 are planes.

5) Edited in due to my bad memory: AirLand Battle will have a “dynamic campaign”! This is the feature that has me most excited, as I felt the campaign was the weakest part of the original game.

6) You can view the first teaser trailer below:

 

 

I’ll update this post as news about ALB emerges, so stay tuned!

 

 

PARIS- Aug. 10, 2012 – Released in early 2012, Wargame: European Escalation by Eugen Systems became the new benchmark in real-time strategy games, praised by critics and players alike.

 

Today, its sequel, Wargame: AirLand Battle, has been unveiled for the first time in this teaser video. Planned for released in 2013, Wargame: AirLand Battle will bring the series to a brand new dimension. Today’s video gives a glimpse of the spectacular new features to come!

 

Wargame: AirLand Battle will be presented for the first time at Gamescom 2012 in Cologne next week at the Focus booth in the business area (Hall 4.2, Stand I-050a) and at Koch Media’s booth in the public area (Hall 7.1, stand B051 – B041)!

 

While the first Wargame made a splash with its powerful engine, Wargame: AirLand Battle will be the series’ leap forward by bringing a level of detail never before seen in a real-time strategy game. The new version of the IRISZOOM Engine™ will display spectacular graphics with a wide variety of units, scenery, and impressive topography reproduced from satellite maps, all of which are visible in today’s teaser.

 

Just like its predecessor, Wagame: AirLand Battle takes players through a series of conflicts commanding NATO and Warsaw Pact troops between 1975 & 1985 at a turning point of the Cold War. In this episode, war rages in Northern Europe, notably Scandinavia, whose architecture and magnificent landscapes are faithfully recreated in the game.

 

Wargame: AirLand Battle allows players to command all military resources of the Cold War era from tanks to planes. A total of 150 planes strengthen the playable arsenal of the game, from fighters to bombers to electronic warfare planes. Four new nations and their vehicles join the original eight from the first installment, making a total of over 750 vehicles and combat units rendered in realistic detail! Wargame: AirLand Battle also brings authenticity to the next level thanks to a new weapons system, better handling of fire effects, and a new Urban Combat Interface (UCI) allowing for battle inside cities.

 

The solo campaign is composed of several new dynamic campaigns, during which players manage all aspects of battle by leading each squad of the Theater of Operation and making good use of reinforcements and strategic support. Wargame: AirLand Battle still allows customization of armies in solo and multiplayer modes thanks to the ‘Deck’ system, which is now being enhanced with an integrated ‘viewer’. Ultimately, each decision made will have an impact on the tactical outcome of battles and evolution of the global conflict! Prepare to re-enter the Cold War in 2013!

Bleak, clever cyberpunk: the world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Deus Ex: Human Revolution

A society consists of:

 

A handful of ultra-powerful ultra-rich;

Criminal lords who control everything not controlled by the ultra-rich;

Police whose only principle of operation is maintenance of the status quo;

Hordes of poor people starving in the streets;

Absolutely no middle class whatsoever.

 

Nonetheless, the society manages to remain at a high technological level.

 

– The Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Clichés

 

At first glance, one might think that Deus Ex: Human Revolution, last year’s cyberpunk action-RPG from Square Enix, falls into the above trap. A walk around its first hub area (which I’ve just completed), the Detroit of 2027, appears to tick every box. The game’s first act takes place over a single evening, so the sky is black and forbidding. The streets are filthy. Graffiti is everywhere. The beat cops all wear riot gear. The outside world appears no better: newspapers refer to an ongoing “Australian civil war”. At times, the exaggerated dystopia shades into silliness: why are middle-class characters living in the same garbage-ridden slum as the local arms dealer?

 

The grrrritty future: Detroit in 2027, from Deus Ex: Human Revolution

 

But dig deeper, and you’ll find more to Human Revolution than Generic Science-Fiction Dystopia. This is a world defined, above all, by one social issue, one conflict – transhumanism, in the form of cybernetic augmentation. This raises several questions. First, there’s the usual debate about the morality of humans “playing God”, evident in conversations with other characters, in product blurbs from cybernetics manufacturer Sarif Industries and in radio broadcasts from anti-augmentation terrorists Purity First. It’s done well, it’s done plausibly – the pro/anti-augmentation slogans would fit right into today’s culture wars – but it’s also what we’d expect from a work that tackles the topic. In other words, well-executed but par for the course. If you are already familiar with this debate, from other works of science fiction, then Human Revolution won’t do much to sway your mind.

 

The game’s real strength isn’t what it has to say about transhumanism in general – it’s what it has to say about transhumanism in this particular world, with this particular technology and set of trade-offs. The advantages to cybernetic augmentation are obvious – you get to play with them. Want to jump like an Olympian’s dream, fling dumpsters and vending machines as if they were tissue-paper, see through walls, turn yourself temporarily invisible? These are merely some of the enhancements available to hero Adam Jensen, and making use of them is what Human Revolution’s gameplay is all about. More prosaically, cybernetics also fill the role of real-world prosthetics – allowing people who’ve been injured or maimed to live better lives. These positives are real.

 

The glittering future: the Sarif Industries lobby

 

But there is a heavy price. Cyborgs don’t lose their souls. They don’t become evil or insane or deranged. They don’t go on homicidal rampages. The game is not so crude as that. They do become dependent on an expensive drug, “neuropozyne”, to prevent tissue rejection and eventual agonising death. What happens when a cyborg runs out of neuropozyne, from the hints we’re given (and from this live-action trailer, in the form of a Purity First propaganda video) is not pretty – and there are “people” in Human Revolution, such as pimps looking for leverage over their girls, who’ll take advantage of that. This trade-off isn’t metaphysical, or moral, or airy-fairy and abstracted. This trade-off is grimly practical. Would you make it? Human Revolution’s appeal lies in its ability to make us ponder that question – and sympathise with those characters who didn’t get a choice.

 

Perhaps my single favourite visual in Human Revolution is a billboard advertising a new opera, “Il Metamorfoso” (see the bottom-left of the screenshot below). The game conveys so much meaning with that one simple little image. What is the “metamorphosis”? We don’t know, but given context and the curved, circuitry-like lines just visible in the ad, we can guess it’s augmentation. What is the opera’s take on it? The “Metamorfoso’s” demonic leer, and the way his hair flows into the sinister red background of the ad, speak volumes. Augmentation, the ad seems to tell us, is a deal with the devil. Revel in its power, but know it has consequences.

 

The commercial future: Detroit billboards in Human Revolution

 

It’s that kind of clever touch that draws me to Human Revolution. This is no exercise in mindless nihilism. It’s a game whose creators put real thought into its bleak future, into art and aesthetic and concept – and then, as good science fiction writers should do, extrapolated the resulting possibilities, vile or otherwise. It’s a game that respects my intelligence, and I look forward to playing more.

Musical Monday: “Blasphemous Experiment” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Masaharu Iwata

In my review of Tactics Ogre last year, I praised its music as a “labour of love”, and now it’s time to highlight it. I had a hard time choosing a track for this week, but I eventually settled on “Blasphemous Experiment”, the theme that plays whenever you fight a certain powerful necromancer. Enjoy!

 

 

Details

Track: “Blasphemous Experiment”

Source: Tactics Ogre: Unmei no Wa OST

Composer: Masaharu Iwata