What I’ve been reading and playing — from the Three Kingdoms to the Alliance-Union Universe

Since my last update, I’ve been lucky to play three excellent (and very different) games, all Game of the Year material: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rule the Waves 2, and Dragon Quest Builders 2. I also reread an old favourite, Lord of the Rings, and ploughed through a new favourite, the works of CJ Cherryh.

Games

Total War: Three Kingdoms is the Shogun 2 successor I’ve awaited for the last 8 years, and the best Total War game to date. Everything I loved about Shogun 2 is back: the challenge, strong execution on both the campaign and battle layers, and a beautiful aesthetic. The challenge hit me very early on — playing Cao Cao (the recommended starting character!), I crashed and burned twice before succeeding on my third try. Even with that experience under my belt, it took me two tries to win as the Ma clan of Western China.

Against stronger opponents, ambushes are the great equaliser. The computer knows how to use them, too…

The campaign layer is immersive and well-designed. Each province is distinct, so geography matters. AI-controlled warlords play like believable characters: they have distinct personalities — Liu Bei will stand by his friends, while Yuan Shu is a treacherous opportunist — and act sensibly, for instance, by bending the knee to stronger powers. Interface improvements make even large empires manageable.

Sturdy shielded infantry make a good anvil on which to break enemy attacks…

The same attention to detail is visible on the battle layer. Each individual battle feels like poetry in motion; even one-sided battles made me consider how I could best win while minimising casualties.  Siege battles are interesting and dynamic for the first time in the series’ history. (Granted, after a certain point the challenge mostly comes from the campaign layer — the computer prefers recruiting cheap early-game troops, no match for a late-game human army.)

… while cavalry is a devastating hammer.

And Three Kingdoms is the best-looking Total War game since Shogun 2. Gone are the dark, muddy graphics of the Rome 2 generation, in favour of vibrant colours. The battle music is good (if not quite “Jeff van Dyck at his best”), and the strategic layer music is lovely and relaxing — the best in the series. I love this game, and I’m so happy that the developers did this period justice.

Flaming shot from trebuchets lights up the night sky.

At the other end of the strategy spectrum is Rule the Waves 2, an indie game covering naval warfare between 1900-1955. What makes it so brilliant is how it captures the essence of strategy — reconciling objectives to limited resources. You are in charge of a Great Power’s navy, whether that be mighty Britain or nearly landlocked Austria-Hungary: you design ships, build them out of a finite budget, and command them in battle, a bit like an oceangoing version of a space 4X game. But unlike a 4X, you are not the leader of your nation. You cannot control world politics, or the rise and fall of international tensions. You cannot control the nation’s economy: the US will always be larger and wealthier than, say, Italy. You cannot control the government, which tweaks the naval budget, makes demands, and if you do badly enough, sacks you — the “game over” condition. You can influence these things – for example, ostentatiously warning of war will give you a bigger budget at the cost of higher world tension – but at the end of the day, it is up to you to make the most of what you are given. I’ve had spectacular results as Austria-Hungary, frugally upgrading my ageing battleships, focusing my meagre budget on fast, modern destroyers trained for night actions, and only picking fights I could win. I’ve had an equally spectacular rise-and-fall as France, building up a proud oceangoing fleet and dominating the Mediterranean, only to be crushed by enemies out of my league — first the British and then the Germans. I was a big fan of the first Rule the Waves, and its sequel has lived up to my expectations.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 illustrates what’s possible by combining the structure and narrative of one genre, the RPG, with the verbiage of another, the builder game. Like an RPG, it’s an epic voyage that takes the heroes across many lands. Like an RPG, you progress by solving NPCs’ quests in each location. But unlike an RPG, those quests typically involve gathering material and building towns.

An early town in Dragon Quest Builders 2. Note the crops and perimeter wall.

It is a pleasure to make each area come to life with homes, workshops, kitchens, dining areas, and defensive walls. Add a localisation brimming with puns and wordplay, and the result is a blend of creativity with charm. I don’t have much experience with the builder genre — beyond bouncing off Terraria years ago — so this has been my pleasant surprise of the year.

Completing a building in Dragon Quest Builders 2.

Books

A few months ago I re-read The Lord of the Rings, accompanied by the Extended Edition movies, and rediscovered my appreciation for Tolkien. Intricate, mythic, and at times moving, LOTR is a masterpiece. It is a book that could only have grown out of its author’s lived experience. It makes no pretensions to realism; yet has something important to say. It richly deserves its status as the foundational text of the fantasy genre.

I’ve also finally become a CJ Cherryh fan, after previously finding her books (Downbelow Station) too dry and dense. Her specialties are alien cultures (in both senses of the word) and driven, desperate protagonists; both themes run through my recent reads. The Morgaine saga follows a woman on an obsessive quest, seen through the eyes of her loyal companion. The hero of Merchanter’s Luck is a traumatised space smuggler pushing himself to the edge of endurance. The Faded Sun trilogy tells the story of two tradition- and taboo-bound aliens searching for their homeworld, and the human veteran who helps them. I’ve just picked up another of her series (The Dreaming Tree), have another on my shelf (the Chanur trilogy), and saved the final Morgaine book for later; I look forward to digging in.

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