The Milkweed Triptych, by Ian Tregillis

One of the best speculative fiction covers I’ve seen in a while. Sadly, the US publisher switched cover artists after the first book.
One of the best speculative fiction covers I’ve seen in a while. Sadly, the US publisher switched cover artists after the first book.

The Milkweed Triptych, by Ian Tregillis, comprises three novels: Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evils. Together, they form proof that a good author can outshine the most hackneyed premise.

The trilogy takes place in a world where Nazi Germany fields superpowered warriors and a desperate Britain responds with forbidden magic. In the hands of 99% of authors, the result would have been pulpy, campy, trashy. Not here. While the three books are quite different (in tone and even in genre1) from one another, they nonetheless form a clever, often dark, and surprisingly restrained story – and it is a single story; each book is one part of the greater whole, not a standalone.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain what’s so clever about the series without getting into at least mild spoilers. Here’s the spoiler-free version: the action, which is spectacular in both senses of the word, is just the tip of the iceberg. The world is well-drawn – I have seen utterly unconvincing works where the author dumped superpowers, or magic, or the paranormal into a real-world setting without the least bit of thought about how this would have affected history 2. Tregillis doesn’t make the same mistake – it helps that his prose and research are both generally good 3. And his characters are vivid. When one managed to find happiness after a lifetime of misery, I wanted to cheer. When a particularly unlikeable soul found himself the butt of the author’s black humour, I laughed. When the tension mounted, I was almost afraid to find out what would happen next.

Beyond that, I do recommend going in blind. Trust me – they’re good! I look forward to Tregillis’ next project, a “fantasy clockpunk trilogy that has an element of alternate history”.

  1. The third book is more of a conventional action/adventure story than the earlier two, right down to the generic “angry man with a gun” cover art. This has earned it a number of lukewarm reader reviews; I think it’s still pretty good, and it derives emotional heft from the first two books.
  2. The most egregious culprit I can think of, offhand, would be Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook.
  3. Based on other reviews, I understand that the author messed up several details of daily life in Britain. I also found the worldbuilding more convincing in book 1 than in book 2. Other than that, I thought the research in the first book, in particular, was excellent. The author nailed a very minor detail that I only picked up because I read some crunchy, specialist WW2 histories earlier this year.

Warlock 2: Mage Versus World

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Warlock

2014-05-21_00003

 

My first scout killed some cockroaches and some wolves, then was mauled by a giant bear.

My second scout found some demonic trees and was turned into fertilizer before he could retreat.

My third scout killed some wolves and some weak spiders, reached level 3, and was immediately eaten by the giant killer spider lurking behind the weak spiders.

My fourth scout was diverted to help clean up a rogue infestation near my second city. After that he headed out into the fog and had dinner with some angry zombies. He was the main course.

My fifth scout killed the bear that killed my first scout, and discovered ogres. This was not a fortuitous discovery.

My sixth scout survived until the end of the game despite some hairy moments involving fire elementals, imps, vampire lords, sand golems…

My seventh scout found a trio of polar bearmen.

 

As the sequel to 2012’s Warlock: Master of the Arcane, Warlock 2 builds on that foundation and manages to make its predecessor all but obsolete. Warlock 2 offers most of 1‘s content, along with a bevy of new features, systems, modes, options and content. Unfortunately it also inherited the first game’s biggest flaw: weak AI opponents. As such, the game’s world is your main opponent, and what a hostile, merciless opponent it can be! The list above is a fairly standard record of the first 20 turns of my Warlock 2 games.

 

When I reviewed Warlock 1 at release I found it to be enjoyable, and a little unusual. It looked like Civilisation V, a similarity which only ran skin-deep. Far from being a 4X empire builder, it was a tactical wargame powered by copious magic, a hostile world, and unhinged comedy. Warlock 2 is no different, and in the crowded turn-based fantasy strategy game market of 2014 that’s all the more important. Warlock 2 is not directly comparable to Age of Wonders III, Endless Legend, Elemental, Eador, or any of the other releases which we’ve seen in the last year.

 

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Tearaway – The Verdict

Tearaway - riding pig
“Look, Mum! No hands!”

A good toy is an object that is fun to play with.

A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.

– Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses

 

One part game, one part tech demo for the PS Vita, and one part toy; that’s Tearaway, the latest platformer from Media Molecule, the studio behind LittleBigPlanet. It’s short and easy as far as games go, but what makes it special is how those ingredients come together.

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Skulls of the Shogun: The Verdict

Skulls of the Shogun Autumn

 

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.” Take that logic, apply to a strategy game, blend in a striking aesthetic, and sprinkle with humour: developer 17-BIT’s Skulls of the Shogun is the result.

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Europa Universalis IV: The Verdict

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

Paradox Development Studio’s Europa Universalis IV is a game about trade-offs, and it is all the better for it.

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Waking Mars: The Verdict

The beauty of Mars. I took so many cool screenshots, but this was the only one that wasn't a spoiler.
The beauty of Mars. I took so many cool screenshots, but this was the only one that wasn’t a spoiler.

Science fiction, it is said, is the literature of ideas – a genre about going where nobody has gone before. Its iconic emotion is the “sense of wonder”; its iconic heroes are explorers and scientists. Now an indie game, Tiger Style’s Waking Mars, has distilled that spirit into a remarkable ten-hour package.

 

I wrote my first impressions of Waking Mars last year; you play an astronaut exploring a cave complex beneath Mars. Each area is home to a certain amount of Martian wildlife, and to progress to the next, you must increase the amount of life – the biomass – above a certain threshold. To do this, you flit about on a 2D, side-scrolling map of the area, planting seeds, tending to the newly grown plants, and collecting their secreted seeds to plant elsewhere or feed to animals. (While the game does look like a platformer, I found this is not the case; it emphasises exploration, not reflexes or timing, and in fact I recommend turning the difficulty down so you can focus on its strengths.)

 

This is a simple premise, but it’s done wonderfully. Over time, you encounter more, and more varied, species, each with their own ecological niche. There’s the Halid, your workhorse throughout the game: a plant with moderate biomass and the ability to produce a profusion of seeds. There are little scurrying creatures, which reproduce after eating Halid seeds; individually their biomass is trivial, but if you can fill a room with them… There are plants that offer high biomass, but that kill other organisms. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Along the way, you discover more and more species, more and more of the planet’s mysteries, and I wish I could spoil some of these for you – more than once, they made me think, “wow!”

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Wargame: AirLand Battle — The Verdict

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon
Wargame players will spend most of their time looking at blips on the map...
Wargame players will spend most of their time looking at blips on the map…

 

Eugen Systems, the studio behind Wargame: AirLand Battle, is now one of my favourite developers of strategy games, of historical games, and indeed, of historical strategy games.

 

I don’t say this lightly. That is exalted company to be in, alongside the likes of Paradox, Firaxis, and Creative Assembly, but I think it’s deserved. With AB, Eugen has demonstrated three things:

 

1. They can capture the spirit of a setting – in this case, a Cold War gone hot in Europe.

2. They know what makes a good strategy game: a series of interesting decisions that produce clear, understandable outcomes.

3.  They can learn from past mistakes.

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Tomb Raider – The Very Quick Verdict (and a reflection on cover shooting)

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider haze

 

After finishing Tomb Raider, I’m happy with the gameplay appraisal I posted halfway through. This is a title that’s not sure whether it wants to be “the subtle tale of a young woman using her wits to survive… or a summer blockbuster, long on explosions and short on brains.” There is a fair amount of running and jumping and climbing about, as much of a pleasure as it was in Assassin’s Creed; there are puzzles whose solutions made me feel quite pleased with myself; and there is a lot of third-person cover shooting, too much and too repetitive for my taste (and with some downright aggravating ‘watch pattern -> dodge -> counterattack -> repeat’  closed-arena boss fights).

 

Tomb Raider more ziplining

 

I do want to home in on one word in that last sentence – “cover”. In a game that derives so much of its appeal from the main character’s agility, I am not convinced that cover shooting was the best way to handle combat. Taking cover, by definition, deprives Lara of her agility; and while she has to move from cover to cover (enemies will lob Molotov cocktails or grenades if she stays still too long), a brief scramble to the next waist-high obstacle pales next to the freedom of the game’s non-combat segments. TR does contain a tantalising “what might have been” moment – one particular sequence is a lot closer to old-fashioned run-and-gun shooters, and it’s amazing what a difference that made to my enjoyment. Suddenly I could sprint! Retreat! Climb up and climb down! Fall back to a previously cleared section! Why even stop there? In a game with this many cliffside jumps and ziplines – see the above screenshot – couldn’t Lara have, say, an unlockable ability to aim her pistol in bullet time and shoot while in mid-air (a la one skill in Sleeping Dogs), or while shimmying along a rope? Surely the designers could have done better than the parade of shooting galleries that did make into the game.

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Book review: Rivers of London/Midnight Riot, Moon over Soho, & Whispers Under Ground, by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London coverLast week, I read an urban fantasy novel, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (released in the US as Midnight Riot), about a modern London constable who becomes apprentice to the last sorcerer on the force. The very next day, I read its sequel, Moon over Soho. And the day after that, I read the third in the series, Whispers Under Ground. Three books in three days – they’re that good! And that addictive.

 

To start, I should get my one criticism of these books out of the way: their plots do not hang together very well, with Rivers of London being the most egregious offender. However, Aaronovitch writes with such exuberance that I can forgive him the wayward plots. What does he do right? That’s a longer list.

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Book review: Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones

Castle in the Air coverOnce upon a time, in the land of Zanzib, there lived a young carpet merchant named Abdullah. Abdullah’s life was safe but dull, and his only excitement came when he daydreamed himself to be a long-lost prince. Then one day, a man offered to sell him a magic carpet…

 

Castle in the Air is a 1990 children’s novel by the sadly deceased Diana Wynne Jones. It’s billed as a sequel to the better-known Howl’s Moving Castle, but it stands alone very well – I did fine despite having forgotten pretty much everything about Howl. In fact, Howl fans might be advised to approach this as a separate story – Amazon reader reviews suggest the two books are only tangentially connected.

 

Connection or no connection, this is a book that does well on its own merits as a light-hearted romp through a fairy-tale world. Castle in the Air is the kind of book where chapter after chapter, the hero escapes from the frying pan only to land in the fire. The surprise, and the fun, lie in discovering how he makes it out each time! It helps that the characters are so vividly drawn. We’ve seen Abdullah’s archetype – the dreamy lad whose wish for adventure comes true – a thousand times before, but Jones breathes life and charm into him all the same. Consider this description of Abdullah’s imaginary backstory: Continue reading “Book review: Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones”

All aboard! Ticket to Ride: The Verdict

Ticket to Ride PC: clean, colourful, and attractive
Ticket to Ride PC: clean, colourful, and attractive

 

The railroad must get through. Chicago must connect to Santa Fe. But I’m almost out of locomotives, my rivals are muscling in, and can I get three cards of the same colour?

 

Welcome to Ticket to Ride, the PC adaptation of a highly regarded board game (which I have not yet played). In Ticket, players claim train routes by playing cards – six yellow cards to connect Seattle to Helena in the above screenshot, for instance, or five blue cards to connect Atlanta to Miami. Long routes are worth more than short routes, but are correspondingly harder to claim. Furthermore, each player begins with a certain number of “tickets” – routes (Chicago to Santa Fe, in my above example) that reward the player if they are completed, and impose a penalty if they are not. Again, long-haul tickets are worth more – both on the upside and on the downside! – than their short-haul counterparts. Lastly, each route can only be claimed by one player at a time (although the game does provide some duplicate routes). So for example, I couldn’t go Denver -> Santa Fe in the above screenshot, but neither could the other players go Denver -> Omaha, or Chicago -> Pittsburgh, or Pittsburgh -> New York.

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Journey: The Verdict

 

How much can we care about a digital companion?

 

Whole games have been built around this question – most notably 2001 classic Ico, which cast players as a young boy who had to escape a witch’s castle together with a girl named Yorda. Together, the two made a team: Yorda was frail, but she was the only one who could open the castle’s magically sealed doors. And it worked: Ico is one of my all-time favourites. Subsequent games – such as the modern Princes of Persia – ran with this idea, but implemented it the same way: your companion was always computer-controlled, and there was a gameplay reason you needed to work with her (for good measure, it was always a her). Thatgamecompany’s Journey is the latest game to tackle this question… but this time, it puts its own spin on the formula.

 

In Journey, you play a cloaked traveller who has to cross the desert to reach a distant mountain. There is no dialogue, no narrative, and no exposition. Who is the traveller? The answer seems to be “a pilgrim”, but this isn’t stated outright anywhere – it’s something I deduced. Is the pilgrim a he, a she, or an it? I imagined my pilgrim as a she, but that was pure whimsy. Did she have family or friends before deciding to cross the desert? Who knows. Journey’s gameplay mechanics are equally minimalistic: mostly, the pilgrim walks towards her destination. She can use the magic in her scarf to jump or fly, and she can recharge her scarf by chirping musically when standing near bits of cloth scattered throughout the world – streamers, banners, magic carpets, and the like. This is pleasant enough – controlling the pilgrim is smooth and fluid, whether she’s on the sand or soaring through the air – but that’s about it as far as game mechanics go. There is no real challenge, except for looking/walking around, wondering where to go next. There are neither puzzles nor combat. There isn’t even a Game Over screen – it is impossible to die. The overall game is quite short, just a couple of hours. In this regard, Journey feels a lot like thatgamecompany’s previous title, Flower.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown – The Verdict

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

For one month, you followed me as I played through Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the successor to one of the greatest games of all time. Now that I’ve finished, I can give my verdict: this is the true heir to the original, both in its strengths and its weaknesses.

 

At heart, both 1994’s X-COM and 2012’s XCOM are stories about heroism. That is something so many games claim to offer, but so few truly do. Heroism is not a power fantasy. Heroism is not about being the toughest guy alive (action games), or the sneakiest, or the cleverest general (Total War). Heroism is the courage to stand up against overwhelming odds, to endure loss and sacrifice on the road to victory. This is the experience that XCOM delivers in spades.  Like its predecessor, XCOM follows a handful of outnumbered, outgunned, and oh-so-fragile men and women in their struggle against a technologically superior alien invasion. They are few enough, and diverse enough in their capabilities, to be distinct: I knew every name and face in my barracks. That makes it hurt all the more when they die – which they do often and permanently. For those odds, at least on “Classic” difficulty, really are overwhelming. On the world map, the aliens often launch three attacks at a time, while XCOM can only respond to one. Once in battle, XCOM operatives will usually die in two or three solid hits. But – and this is key – thanks to the context provided by the game’s strategic layer, that sacrifice never feels in vain. Slowly but surely, those brave underdogs will turn the tide of the war. With each battle, the survivors grow more skilled. With each pile of recovered alien loot, the survivors become better equipped. With each XCOM satellite and fighter plane (their construction funded by that loot), the world takes one step back from the brink. With each act of bravery by your soldiers, XCOM comes one step closer to victory.

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Book review: The Scarab Path & The Sea Watch, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

The Scarab Path and The Sea Watch are respectively books 5 and 6 in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series. (You can find my review of book 1, Empire in Black and Gold, here; and my review of books 2-4 here. Start with the first book – individual entries don’t stand alone!)  While the two books feature different characters and take place on opposite ends of Tchaikovsky’s world, I’ve chosen to review them together because of how well they cast into relief the author’s strengths – and his weaknesses.

 

In a nutshell, Tchaikovsky’s strength is his imaginative setting. His brew of magic,  steampunk mad science, and creative, insect-themed fantasy races grabbed me from the very first page of book 1; that hold continues in #5 and #6, in which Tchaikovsky takes his characters to new and wondrous locales. Tchaikovsky’s weakness is his tendency to use that fascinating world as nothing more than a backdrop for generic fantasy plots, populated with largely generic fantasy characters.

 

This is where the difference between #5 and #6 becomes apparent. In #5,  Tchaikovsky plays to his strength and avoids his weakness. It is the closest he has come to a character-driven story – while there’s an exciting external conflict plotline, the heart of the novel is about two people trying to cope with the scars left by earlier books – and it works. The resulting sense of depth makes #5 by far my favourite in the series – even if I did giggle at one character’s overly melodramatic fashion sense.

 

Unfortunately, #6 didn’t live up to that. #6 has a strong middle section in which the characters explore their new surrounds, but my suspension of disbelief was badly marred by a ludicrously slimy early villain who did everything short of tying widows to lightning-powered train tracks. In general, #6 also feels far less character-driven, and far more action-driven, than #5 – in this regard it’s a throwback to the earlier books in the series, and that just isn’t something I enjoy as much as I did #5.

 

I concluded my review of parts #2-#4 by saying, “I do plan to check out the next book at some stage, and I hope Tchaikovsky learned his lessons.” I don’t think he did – or rather, he did for #5, only to seemingly forget them for #6. That leaves the series as interesting, original, readable beach/airport novels (almost literally – I read #5 and #6 during down time on my travels). Will they ever be more? After six books, I doubt it. But sometimes, a good beach novel is exactly what I need, and when I do, I will happily reach for Tchaikovsky #7.

 

Resources

Buy The Scarab Path (Book #5) from Amazon US

Buy The Sea Watch (Book #6) from Amazon US

 

 

FTL: Faster than Light — The Verdict

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series FTL: Faster than Light
Hull – reduced to confetti. Fuel – almost out. Systems – mostly disabled. This is when FTL shines.

 

The best way I can describe FTL: Faster than Light, the new indie title from Subset Games, is to say it lives up to the very simple promise on its Kickstarter page (emphasis mine):

 

FTL is a spaceship simulation roguelike-like. Its aim is to recreate the atmosphere of running a spaceship exploring the galaxy.

 

To get a sense of how the typical game of FTL plays out, I refer you to my Let’s Play series – linked at the top of this post. In summary, players start at one end of the galaxy, progress through seven increasingly dangerous sectors, and finally take on the final boss at the end of sector eight. Each sector comprises a randomised mix of encounters – shops, text-based, multiple-choice quests (think King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame, or maybe a much simpler Space Rangers 2), hazards such as asteroid fields, and most of all, hostile spaceships. Combat is a frenetic homage to movie and TV space battles, as you juggle power between shields and engines and weapons, order your crew to fix hull breaches and extinguish fires, target enemy subsystems, and oh god Mr Chekov will you knock out their missiles before they kill us all?! (Since the game only gives you one save slot, you cannot reload if you die unless you back up your save file, aka “savescumming”.) Afterwards, you use scrap from your enemies’ hulls to upgrade your ship and buy fuel and repairs. Ultimately, you escape to the next sector one step ahead of your foes, and begin the process again. The typical game takes about an hour or two to play, and for most of that time – specifically, for sectors one through seven – it is a delightful roller-coaster of excitement and panic and elation.

 

Where FTL falls down is its endgame, sector eight, which finally trips over the line between challenge and frustration. The end boss suffers from several related problems:

 

1) The boss isn’t merely more difficult than anything else in the game. It’s an order of magnitude more difficult.

2) The sheer length of the boss battle. Most battles are in the game are over in 2-3 minutes. However, the boss’ defences are so strong that all up, it took me something like 40 minutes to beat! The game’s combat system is built for short, sharp fights, and it bogs down when it takes that long to get through one opponent.

3) The need for luck to beat the boss. This manifests in two ways. First, since equipment, and shop catalogues are random, it’s possible for a player to reach the boss without the tools needed to win. Second, as my experience in part 4 of the Let’s Play showed, the length and difficulty of the boss fight increase the odds an unlucky hit will scupper all your work.

4) The inability to save/reload, which becomes a liability here. If things go wrong 80% of the way through the boss fight, get ready to replay aaaaaall the way from sector 1.

 

Net effect: I feel absolutely no shame over savescumming to beat the boss, and while I could replay the game (unlocking and then trying out different spaceships, attempting different builds, etc) – I don’t want to. There are players who feel motivated to defeat that final boss over, and over again. I am not one. And that is a real disincentive for me to spend any more time with FTL.

 

Still, while FTL lasted, it and I had a wonderful ride. As with 2010’s Recettear, FTL is short, sweet and clever. It’s not perfect, but the core mechanics for 80%-90% of the game are sufficiently strong to outweigh the annoyance and tedium of the remaining 10%-20%. Well worth checking out, and I look forward to seeing what its creators do next.

 

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

Fan wiki

 

The basis of my review

Time spent with the game: I estimate 8-10 hours.

What I played: Four playthroughs on Easy (one won), using the Kestrel.

What I didn’t play: Normal difficulty. The other spaceships in the game.

Jeanne d’Arc – The Very Quick Verdict

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Jeanne d'Arc

Now that I’ve finished Jeanne d’Arc (PSP, 2007), I can give my verdict!

 

This post is really an addendum to Monday’s discussion of Jeanne’s gameplay. There’s not much more I can say on that subject! It’s “lighter” – easier, less complex, less time-consuming and grindy – than the typical tactical RPG, but that’s an observation rather than a criticism. From a mechanical perspective, Jeanne is well-designed and largely well-executed (although it does seem a bit laggy compared to its peers), and that forms its main draw.

 

I do want to talk a bit about story, which is what so often elevates tactical RPGs from “good” to “great”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do that for Jeanne. The plot is a mishmash of competing and often incoherent plot elements, populated by characters who wander on- and off-stage with little rhyme or reason.  What partly redeems it is that, after a slow start, some bits of that mishmash become much better than others. There are some clever twists on history, some very striking individual moments, and one subplot steals the show with its character development (both in the sense that the characters involved change over time, and in the sense that they make painful decisions that reveal their true selves). The net effect is that while the story as a whole is not good, enough of it was for me to stay interested.

 

At the end of the day, then, Jeanne is a good game rather than a great one. It doesn’t quite match the genre’s two pinnacles, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, which coupled great gameplay with powerful, meaningful stories. But its gameplay riffs effectively off the greats, and there are enough worthwhile ideas buried in the story to offer a nice bonus on top of that. A worthy “honourable mention” in genre history.

 

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 Jeanne d’Arc on Amazon.com

 

The basis of my review:

Time spent with the game: Almost 41 hours.

What I played: The entire story.

What I didn’t play: Postgame content.

A story worth telling: Game of Thrones the RPG

What can you do when you desperately want to talk about a game, yet cannot do so without spoiling most of what made it such a memorable experience? I have been attempting to find an answer to that question for weeks now. Game of Thrones the RPG is that rare thing: a game with a story which would genuinely be lessened if, when starting, you knew what lay ahead. There are moments of genuine surprise, moments of emotion, moments where the pieces snap together and where I was left in admiration of the storytelling. As much as I would love to link to a youtube video of my favourite speech in the game, I cannot. As much as I’d love to discuss the interplay during a certain rainy scene, I cannot. As much as I am dying to discuss the way a specific relationship is developed, I cannot!

 

There came a point where, with a good deal of surprise, I realised that I wished I had not read the books by George R R Martin because they were spoiling the game’s plot. Honestly. Hand on heart. When the game laid out certain facts, my mind feverishly examined them, twisted them about to fit them into the ever-expanding plot — and then I realised I knew the rough direction certain aspects must take because of what is — and is not — present in the books. If I hadn’t possessed that book-based knowledge, then particular aspects of the plot would have been all the more effective — but I cannot elaborate without risking indirect spoilers.

 

ZOMG! That’s the scene where — argh! I can’t say! If you see the cutscene that image is part of, that’s the scene which I wish I could post a video of. I can’t believe it’s used as a marketing image! I bet the developers chortle every time they see an unsuspecting site post it.

 

For reader reference, I am not a big fan of the Ice & Fire series. I have read all of the main series, along with two of the Dunk & Egg novellas. I started reading back when book 3 was released in paperback. Whilst I really enjoyed the first three books, I found Feast for the Crows and Dance with Dragons to be deeply disappointing. The novellas were OK, the first being superior to the second in my opinion. Series 1 of the HBO adaptation was generally excellent, but I haven’t yet seen series 2. Thus, I would say you do not need to be a fan in order to enjoy the game. You only need to have the right gaming tastes. Make no mistake: however much I liked it, I do not recommend Game of Thrones the RPG to any but a specific sub-set of gamers. More on that later. First I shall attempt to pick my way through the minefield and explain why I enjoyed the story so much.

 

To begin with, the game alternates between two protagonists, Mors and Alester. You play chapter 1 as Mors, chapter 2 as Alester, and so on, back and forth, until eventually they meet. At the outset the two stories feel completely disassociated. Mors is up at the Wall doing his duty as a brother of the Night’s Watch; Alester is down south taking up the reins in his family home. Alester’s story begins months prior to Mors’; you’re playing the recent past. Gradually, a tentative link appears between the two strands. It’s at this point the game begins to get interesting. Yes, the game suffers from a slow beginning. I found Mors’ story reasonable from the first, if nothing special or particularly engaging. Alester had some interesting moments, but it took several of his chapters before his half of the tale began to engage me.

 

When that tentative link appears, Mors’ story started to take a rapid uphill climb. His relationship with a certain character began to develop from typical videogame material to something better, something portrayed with a certain touch of sensitivity — this lent it a humanity frequently lacking from similar relationships in other games. It’s at this point Mors’ voice actor began to improve, as though he’d realised there was more to this script than the typical fantasy game guff. I began to look forward to scenes featuring the two characters, and equally to desire answers to questions which were beginning to form.

 

Then, Things Happen(TM). Well golly! Yes, I’d seen some of that coming but execution certainly kept my attention riveted — and immediately, freshly hungry for answers, we are snatched away to Alester’s next chapter. It’s a lengthy chapter and slowly, slowly a few pieces of the jigsaw are doled out, fitted together. Right around the point where I felt the chapter was over-long, More Things Happened(TM). And did not stop happening. For the rest of the game. Twists, turns, revelations, shocks, neat snatches of dialogue, and always that hunger to find out what happens next — the story hit its stride and did not falter. Suddenly, those slow opening chapters made a lot more sense when viewed as part of an overall story. They established the cast of characters and the world they inhabit: the type of detailed set-up material so common in books and rare in games. Mors and Alester, in particular, had more to them than typical game characters. Added dimensions and familiarity upped the impact of those aforementioned Things Happening(TM). Events I would have watched dispassionately in another game — have watched dispassionately in other games! — hit me in the gut this time around. Things which feel cheesy or silly in other game plots worked smoothly in this one because the time had been taken to set them up, embroider them into the fabric of the universe. Character motivations made sense as human motivations rather than plot devices. Mors and Alester developed shades of grey, revealing themselves as gloriously human characters. Predictable events often had unpredictable spins to them, happening at the ‘wrong’ time, or with added aspects which were not expected. At the end, the very end, after one final roller-coaster of emotion, I found myself in the happy position of not being able to say which of two conflicting viewpoints was the right one. Honour or duty? A vital, thematic question. The very last scene of the game was one resulting from my choices; it reflected the decisions I had made and left me with a mixture of sorrow, hope, pride, and worry. I believed I had done the right thing by my favourite character, yet I wondered if perhaps the cost would, in the end, prove too high.

 

My name is Mors. I am distilled awesome.

 

The game has five different endings. There’s a major choice at the clearly flagged point of no return. This determines which ‘side’ of the ending you will play out. After that, you make another choice on which direction you want the ending to take. The fifth ending is for dying during a certain battle. I reloaded to watch the others — I needed to know! The first ending I saw, the one I regard as my ‘true’ ending, was the most fitting for the path I had taken through the story and I’m glad I arrived at that one naturally.

 

Yes, “path through the game” and “choices”. Whilst the characters are pre-written and are confined by the limitations of the plot, there’s a reasonable bit of wriggle-room for the player to shape their own versions of Mors and Alester. My Mors was an honourable, upstanding, occasionally downright scary fellow. He could have been a blood-thirsty psychopath, or an unbending, harsh veteran. My Alester tried to strike a balance between the demands of family, honour, religion and crown. In another playthrough he could have been a religious zealot, an oppressor of his people, or a wannabe-liberator. When Mors and Alester unite, the player retains control over both. Conversations will frequently have the option of a response from each character. This ensures there are few personality swerves, and that neither character is relegated to subordinate place. Mors and Alester are equals throughout. The story is theirs: it belongs to both and is told by both. Sub-events can be influenced as well, and the choices you make will often come back in later chapters. To give a spoiler-free example, if you save a certain person in one chapter you can meet him again later and could talk him into assisting you.

 

Interestingly, Mors and Alester are both older men. Mors is completely grey, Alester heading that way. One could pithily sum this up with “Mature characters for a mature story”. Life imparts experience, and both characters are richer for having decades of life behind them. They reference, and draw upon, this experience throughout the game.

 

Alester. Is he wearing the hood because he’s a Red Priest, or because he’s sensitive about his greying temples?

 

So why wouldn’t I recommend the game to all RPG gamers? It’s very simple: the gameplay and the production values. This is a game which relies very heavily on its plot, and so gamers who prize gameplay above all else will struggle to see much attraction.

 

In terms of production values, Game of Thrones the RPG is clearly not a triple-A title with a many-millions budget; it is unfair to demand it match a Bioware or Bethesda game in that department. The game cannot compete on those grounds and there is no point in trying to claim otherwise.

 

Game of Thrones the RPG is not a pretty game. I’d say that it’s not as ugly as some critics have made out; it’s about on a par with Dragon Age: Origins’ console versions. If Dragon Age has occasionally better texture work, Game of Thrones has better character models with nary a spindly-twig-arm in sight. Locations are easy to recognise by sight, and character models have a good range of variety. Whilst there’s plenty of unrealistic fantasy armour, there’s also a higher than typical amount of armour based on real historical designs. Generally, I felt that the common foot soldiers had the best ‘outfits’. The game’s major set-back in presentation occurs in larger areas, King’s Landing in particular. The game engine (and doubtless budget) cannot host large, complex areas filled with plenty of active NPCs. Thus, the two bustling urban areas felt decidedly boxy and emptier than they aught. There’s also a strange obsession with closing off the easiest route from A to B in King’s Landing, meaning that the player is forced to take the long route around outside of specific set-pieces which temporarily open up the doors. Castle Black fares better due to being a quieter and more straightforward location; however, the sense of scale is missing from the wall. It’s the old graphics versus gameplay versus experience debate – some people are better able to overlook shortcomings like this, others find they unacceptably damage the atmosphere of the game. That’s a decision best made by the individual gamer.

 

The game fares similarly in the audio department. The TV series’ theme music is used for the title screen. Other than that, the music is original, and unfortunately quite forgettable. The sound effect selection does the job, although without a huge range of variety. I did find that the howl of wind added a lot of atmosphere to the chapters taking place at the Wall, and contributed more to the feeling of chill than the snow and ice effects. The voice acting is a very mixed affair. Mors improves as the game progresses, starting as a gruff, growly half-hearted sort, and ending the game as a gruff, growly fellow who produced lines with such emotion I was mesmerised through a certain scene. Alester, by contrast, is voiced with consistency throughout, though sadly he never reaches the same highs even if he does avoid the initial lows. The two main characters have a lot of dialogue between them, and fortunately, even at their worst, I never found them to be less than tolerable. All of the characters who appear in the HBO series are voiced by their respective actors, including Lord Mormont, Varys and Cersei. The remainder of the cast range from acceptable to “Is something wrong with her nose?”

 

Some gamers associate mid-budget games with bugs and technical failings, sometimes with good reason. Game of Thrones the RPG has few such issues, at least in its Xbox 360 incarnation. The frame rate was stable and fluid, and I only encountered two bugs in my entire 30+ hour playthrough. Both were in the final chapter, and both necessitated reversion to an earlier save as they made progress impossible. In one instance I could not initiate conversation with a critical NPC, in the other I could not walk through a doorway due to an invisible wall. That’s actually fewer bugs per hour than I’ve encountered in some recent triple-A RPG titles :cough Mass Effect 3, Skyrim :cough: but it was still immensely aggravating, and cast a cloud over the game’s final hour. The standard RPG maxim should be followed: save early, save often, and save in multiple slots!

 

This is the concept art for the room where — er, various things happen. Yes. Various things. Some of which are more variously spoileriffic than others.

 

Gameplay is roughly a 40/40/20 split between conversation/plot, exploration/travel, and combat. Yes, combat is very much in the minority! Battles are less frequent than is the genre norm, and the stakes are much higher. Active player participation is required — there is no mashing X to win in this game. Difficulty is adjustable at any time, yet, as in Witcher 2, easy mode is more comparable to most games’ normal mode. You must use your characters’ skills wisely, both to set enemies up for extra damage and to prevent them from using their own skills. Using a skill costs stamina; a character can temporarily go into guard mode to catch their breath and restore most of their stamina gauge. There is a cooldown on this, however, so it cannot be spammed. Characters can apply poisons and wildfire to their weapons for extra effects, and can drink potions for bonuses. During tough battles, both will be essential. Each level gained feels precious, each upgrade to your equipment significant, because an extra 10 points of damage have a tangible effect in combat. Personally, I preferred this approach. Combat quality over combat quantity. Orders are issued in real-time and combat cannot be paused. Instead, you pull up a skill wheel and the game goes into slow motion. Queue up your commands, swap between characters and targets as necessary, then close the skill window. The game will resume normal speed and the actions play out. While there’s an element of pressure, I never felt overly harassed by the inability to pause, and I confess to being something of a pause-baby in any RPG which will let me. Conversation, exploration and travel all function as you’d expect, following genre conventions like dialogue choices and fast travel.

 

The game does feature the occasional stealth section. Mors is a skinchanger and can take command of his dog. Mors being Mors, the dog is called Dog and looks about as grizzled as his master. These sections are short and quite widely interspersed throughout the game. Dog will not give Solid Snake any competition-based fears as his stealth is markedly simpler than that of the serpent. You control Dog from a first-person viewpoint. You walk up behind guards and pounce on them, tearing their throat out with the aid of a simple button-bashing minigame. Done, you abandon the corpse and skulk off to locate the next hapless fellow. If the guards spot you then they will attempt to kick Dog. Should they land a blow, Mors is jolted out of Dog’s mind. It’s a mild penalty; you can immediately dive right back in and run back to the guard who foiled you to try again.

 

Mors and Alester anxiously await the verdict on their adventure.

 

I’m hesitant to call this a review. I don’t want to write a review, although that’s what it has ended up being. I want to discuss the rain scene, and the ending, and the relationships, and all those other spoilerific aspects. I want to talk about why this story would make a decent book — note decent, not great literature or throw-away pulp reading. I want to compare it to the other games and talk about why the story worked for me where others fell flat. It is a repeat of my Divinity II dilemma. You see, I loved the original ending of Divinity II. I can’t tell anyone why without ruining the ending and thus robbing my audience of the necessary experience to fully enjoy it. Some things require a build-up, context, and immersion in order to work.

 

If you are interested in strong characters and plotting in video games, then you probably aught to play this game. It manages to get so many things right in those areas! Wait for a sale if you feel more comfortable with lower expenditure and hence, lower risk. Play until you reach the scene in the rain around the halfway mark. If you aren’t caught by that point, then I doubt you ever will be. Just remember: it’s a slow starter.

 

The basis of my … gibbering:

 

Time spent with the game: Somewhere around 35 hours. The storyline was completed, as were all side quests and achievements. I also saw three different endings.

 

The review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game. It was purchased by myself.

 

The images used in this piece all come from the official website at http://www.gameofthrones-rpg.com.

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.

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion – The Verdict

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

 

Space combat has never looked so beautiful: Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

 

 

The 1990s were the decade of the real-time strategy game, and I played every major one: Herzog Zwei, Dune 2, Command & Conquer, Warcraft 1 and 2, Red Alert, Total Annihilation, Starcraft, Age of Empires 1 and 2. Then I burned out. Done with base-building, peon-sitting, unit-spamming, tactics-light games, I spent the 2000s in RTS-less bliss. Then came the original Sins of a Solar Empire, in 2008, as far removed from its 90s forebears as a game could be. Peon micromanagement was out. Scrapping over a finite number of planets with a finite number of available improvements (a la, I would later realise, Kohan or Rise of Legends), battling over strategic jump lanes, constructing vast capital ships and choosing scarce upgrades were in. I was hooked. Sins brought me back to the RTS fold. Now, four years later and two “mini-expansions” later, developer Ironclad and publisher Stardock have unveiled Sins’ latest incarnation: Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, a deluxe version incorporating every addition made to date, and some new ones to boot. Is it worth your while?

 

The key point about Rebellion is that, underneath those additions, this is the same Sins we know and love. Sins has always succeeded as an exercise in juggling resources: Do I use my main force to push on Deucalion, or do I hold it back to defend Calliope? Do I invest in a dreadnought that can eventually hit an entire fleet with one missile barrage, or do I bank on an early-game rush with a carrier? How do I split my cash between the fleet, fixed defences, economy, diplomacy, and research? Rebellion does nothing to mess that up. By itself, that makes it worthwhile for a series newcomer.

 

For series veterans, the answer becomes more complicated. Rebellion’s new features fall into three main categories:

 

New units at either end of the size spectrum: titans, gigantic ships limited to one per player; and little corvettes. While the titans are Rebellion’s highest-profile addition, I’m not convinced they quite live up to the hype. Oh, they’re spectacular to watch, and they shake up the game dynamics the moment they come into play: it was horrifying and yet cool to see an AI titan take apart my level 5 Marza dreadnought (only one level away from Missile Barrage!) like the proverbial knife through butter. But what do they actually achieve? They’re a very pretty way to break stalemates – and that already existed, in the form of endgame superweapons such as the TEC novalith cannon. The titans (which unlock at research level 4) effectively pull forward that endgame stalemate-busting power into the midgame, which is satisfying but not as novel as some of Rebellion’s other changes.

 

The Advent Loyalist titan prepares to go into action.

 

New factions: Each of the game’s three races, the TEC, Advent and the Vasari, is now split into two sub-factions (Loyalists and Rebels) who share most of their units, but have unique titans, corvettes, and special bonuses. Two of the sub-factions deserve special mention. From early in the game, the TEC Rebels can break one of Sins’ key rules (players can only expand as quickly as they can fight their way past the neutral forces occupying most of the map): they can research a “truce amongst rogues”, which allows them to go unmolested by neutrals and space pirates – and thus, expand hilariously fast. This isn’t an instant win: new colonies in Sins start well in the red and require an initial investment to make them profitable, so the faster the Rebels grow, the more they have to invest. However, while “infinite colony spam” might leave the Rebels vulnerable at first (something I suspect would be a liability in player-vs-player multiplayer), it pays off hugely once those colonies pull into the black – giving the Rebels the most unique feel of any faction. Meanwhile, the Vasari Loyalists – hurrying to gather the resources needed to flee an ancient foe – get the ability to strip-mine planets down to a barren husk, as well as a titan that can salvage resources by chomping enemy space fleets. Not only does this emphasise the Vasari’s strengths at hit-and-run war, it also nicely fits the game’s lore.

 

New victory conditions: Whereas previous Sins instalments had two victory conditions (“kill ‘em all” and “accumulate X diplomacy points”), Rebellion adds “destroy the enemy flagship”, “level the enemy homeworld”, “research a special, fantastically expensive technology”, and “occupy a heavily-fortified neutral world”. If I had to name Rebellion’s most significant improvement, this might just be it: now I can finish large maps in a reasonable amount of time! Unfortunately, it’s also a gigantic missed opportunity: the AI doesn’t understand the two potentially most significant victory conditions. The flagship and homeworld victories are fine: the AI takes good care of those (if anything, it’s too cautious – the flagship is a big help on the front lines early on). The problem is with the science and occupation victory conditions. While the AI seems vaguely aware it can win via science (the game once notified me that a computer player was researching the victory technology, and while this was too little, too late since I was bombing its homeworld, it was still nice to see), it completely fails to grasp the concept of a victory countdown. When I am about to win, my opponents should try to stop me – that’s why the game broadcasts warnings about other players’ impending victory! Rebellion’s computer opponents, in contrast, do nothing. No last-minute rush, no desperate attack, just placid acceptance of their impending loss. Done properly, the science and occupation victories could have transformed Rebellion’s endgame, turning it from the traditional strategy slog into a desperate and tense and interesting race to survive until the countdown ran out. Instead, against the computer, they’re just “I win” buttons. This omission is all the more disappointing because it’s a problem the RTS genre solved almost 10 years ago: as far back as 2003, the computer player in Rise of Nations knew enough to go for my throat when I built enough Wonders of the World to trigger that game’s victory countdown*.

 

My Vasari Loyalist fleet closes in on the defenders of the special “occupation victory” planet.

 

At the end of the day, Rebellion is a good game: its Sins heritage sees to that. As the latest and greatest Sins instalment, I would unquestionably recommend it to a strategy fan new to the series. On the other hand, while Rebellion offers enough improvement to be worth a look for experienced fans, it falls just, painfully short of its potential.  It was worth the time and money I put into it, but had the new victory conditions been better implemented, it could have offered more. A good game, but not the breath of fresh air for the series it could have been.

 

* To say nothing of the TBS genre, which decisively solved that problem with Shogun 2’s realm divide.

 

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

Sins of a Solar Empire wiki (most of the advice here seems pre-Rebellion, but still worth a look for new players)

 

The basis of my review

Length of time spent with the game: Around 19 hours (including time spent with the beta).

What I have played: One single-player game won, on Unfair difficulty, as each faction except the Vasari Rebels. One co-op game as the Vasari Rebels, approximately to the halfway point. One aborted single-player game on Cruel difficulty.

What I have not played: PvP multiplayer.

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.

Waaaaaaaaaaaaar! Warlock: Master of the Arcane – The Verdict

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Warlock

Warlock: Master of the Arcane is very upfront about what type of game it is. The first word tells you everything you need to know. Warlock – person who uses magic; this part is readily apparent. Add a hyphen, and a second meaning emerges. War-lock – a game where you are, essentially, locked into perpetual war until a lone victor stands atop a pile of skulls.

 

Warlock bears a much-remarked upon resemblance to Civilization V, and is described by its own marketing as a 4X game. The Xs comprise: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. These factors combine to create a certain expectation in the player, and I do not think that serves Warlock particularly well. Compared to more traditional 4X games, such as the Civilization series or Master of Orion, Warlock has a narrower, deeper focus. If you enter the game with the wrong expectations, it is easy to be disappointed by what it does not offer. Let’s get those factors out of the way right at the beginning, so we can focus on what Warlock does offer. There are not many peacetime options, and peace acts as a chance to prepare for the next bout of fighting. Diplomacy is very poor indeed. Whilst it is possible to form alliances, and a few other diplomatic staples, the AI is generally reluctant to play along. City management is quite lightweight. Terrain has no influence on city production outside of special resource hexes, and impassable hexes like mountains. Terrain is very important when it comes to unit movement and combat calculations, however. Constructing as many cities as possible is the best strategy; there is no equivalent to other game’s happiness or corruption to hold back the sprawl, and no advantage gained from remaining small.

 

If the player is doing particularly well in a war, the AI may sue for peace and sweeten the offer with tribute.

 

What does Warlock do well? Creative, flexible, occasionally deranged warfare. It’s a game where open-minded players will thrive. Magic allows the game to offer additional solutions to age-old strategic questions such as, “How can I break through this choke point?” To answer that question with Warlock‘s toolset, you can:

 

1) Use strong units to assault the choke point head on, grinding your way through in a battle of attrition.

2) Use ranged units and magic attacks to weaken the defending units before sending in your heavies.

3) Use a ship to bombard the enemy from the sea, if terrain permits.

4) Use a teleport spell to send individual units behind enemy lines.

5) Summon units like imps or ghost wolves behind enemy lines

6) Use a spell such as “water walking” or “levitation” to flank and/or bypass the choke point.

7) Use a unit which can naturally fly to flank and/or bypass the choke point.

8) Use debuff spells like “weakness” to reduce the defenders to pitiful shadows of their former selves.

9) If the enemy unit is using a particular damage type, cast defensive spells of the appropriate type to make your unit partially immune to the enemy’s attacks.

10) Use magic to resurrect dead units and send them right back in for another go.

11) Dragons. Nobody likes being burped on by a dragon.

 

That’s quite a range of options! Sometimes the detail is as important as the outline. Yes, you can send in a unit of flying swordsmen. You can also send in a unit of knights riding flying donkeys, or water-walking tophat-wearing werewolves! Hence the aforementioned “occasionally deranged”. Warlock does not always take itself seriously.

 

Some of the special resources are more … special than others.

 

While there are only three playable races, they are well individualised. In addition to having unique graphics, buildings, and units, each race is tailored to utilise – and produce – one of the three main resources more heavily than the others. The undead are geared towards mana, humans gold, and monsters food. In the early game, playing towards these strengths is important. By the mid-game, a diligent player will have captured at least one city of each race. At this point specialisation pays dividends; the racial production bonuses and unit recruitment apply no matter who owns the city. Thus, an undead city owned by humans will still produce more mana, still consume mana instead of food to support its populace, and still have the potential to recruit various types of skeleton warriors. There will, however, be a 20% penalty on resource production if the owner is not of the same race.

 

Unit variety is not as limited as the small number of playable races might imply. In addition to the three playable races, the game features numerous minor races. Enterprising warlocks can recruit units from races including elves, dwarves, dragons, and minotaurs. These units are not casual re-skins of the major races’ units; they have their own building requirements, strengths and weaknesses. As you might expect, you can also summon magical creatures to serve in your army, from ghostly wolves to greater elementals. The hostile “wild” unit spawns feature a diverse array of units. In total, the game offers a very generous range of units. Units acquire experience during combat and over time, and will level up at set amounts. Each time they level up, they can choose one of three perks. The game features a wide range of unit upgrades, such as masterwork armour or enchanted weaponry. There is no limit to how many of these upgrades a unit can possess. Once available, upgrades can be purchased for any eligible unit. Lower tier units can also be upgraded into more advanced forms once the necessary buildings have been constructed. This means three things: units never become obsolete, units become highly personalised, and veteran units become powerhouses.

 

Spell research is quite simple. You begin the game with a set amount of research coming in. To increase it you must build certain city improvements on special resource tiles, e.g. an excavation on some ancient ruins. Research does not increase with city quantity, nor with population growth, gold income, or any of the other genre staples. The game will present 5 spells, each chosen randomly. Select one, research it, and you will be offered another 5. The spells which you passed over last time will remain, and the one you researched will be replaced by a new random selection. This randomness can, on rare occasions, be rather frustrating. Gaps will be left in your repertoire until you have played long enough to perform a lot of research. If you lack a favourite attack or buffing spell, you can usually improvise with another. This is a welcome prompt to player creativity. However, if you lack a more specialised spell, such as the one which allows you to banish curses like the “mana drain” spell, you may need to soldier on under the penalty until the research screen finally offers the correct option.

 

On higher difficulties, the AI is not shy about building a large army.

 

Warlock‘s AI is best described as competent. Unless it finds itself hemmed in by other factions, poor terrain, or very strong wild monsters, it can be relied upon to expand. It’s smart enough to pack its cities in densely but not to the point where it over-crowds, thus ensuring maximum usage of space and making defence easier. On the default difficulty the AI does not seem to recruit large armies; however, it is happy to do so on higher difficulties. It recruits a mixed force, using melee, ranged and magical units. Happily, it uses the units correctly! Warlock will not hide its melee units behind its mages, and will attempt to skirmish its ranged units back to safety whilst shooting. The AI is definitely better on the defensive. It is capable of complex movements such as surrounding an isolated unit, swapping damaged units for fresh ones, and using multiple attacks on a single target. It will gleefully use magic against you, with the area of effect fireball spell being a particular favourite. The AI will always use cities and defensive towers to attack when an enemy unit is within their range. Sadly, the AI fares less well when it goes on the offensive. It fails to send sufficient units to get the job done, trickling in two or three units at a time for the player to kill. It will only send more units when the first wave is dead. It attacks the same locations repeatedly, predictably, futilely. The main problem lies with the AI’s unit selection: it insists on using basic and mid-tier units to the exclusion of all else. It will apply some upgrades and magical buffs to its units, but will not take it as far as the player. This means that in a unit-to-unit comparison the AI is badly out-classed from the mid-game onwards. It doesn’t matter how many units it fields in home defence if the player’s units are killing them in a maximum of three hits, with one or two hits being very much the norm.

 

The game’s stiffer challenge lies in exploring the alternate dimensions. Accessed via set portals, these separate maps are packed with Warlock‘s strongest units. Tempting rewards lure the player in. Certain resources do not exist in the normal world, and can only be found inside these alternate dimensions. Other resources are exceptionally rare in the normal world yet abundant in the alternates. Should a beachhead be established, cities can be built, and this provides a measure of back-up should matters go pear-shaped in the normal world.

 

The game setup screen is confusing at first glance, but the elaborate design manages to keep most of the options on a single screen and eliminates drop-down menus.

 

The interface is clean and easy to get on with. Most important information is available at a glance, and breakdowns of global resource income are accessed via tooltips. Combat predictions are accurate and detailed, although the occasional critical hit sees a unit doing more damage than predicted. Hotkeys are present, if sparse. I do feel that the developers missed an opportunity when it comes to scoring. There isn’t any! It would be nice to gauge the relative strength of each warlock. A Civilization IV-style post-game breakdown would also be appreciated. In a game which places such importance on individual units, it’s a little strange that there’s no way to track how many kills you have made, how many units you have lost, how many kills each unit has, and so on. The lack of a proper in-game encyclopaedia is keenly felt. Right-clicking a unit or spell will bring up a little encyclopaedia entry, complete with stats and lightly comical descriptive blurb. But if you do not have the item available to right-click you have no way to access the entry.

 

Right-clicking on a unit will bring up a detailed information box. Tooltips provide further breakdowns of stats, including resistances, active spell buffs, and unit upgrades.

 

Warlock does not feature a campaign, and currently lacks multiplayer. It does have a fully-featured random game generator. There’s a variety of map sizes and types, and you can control the number of AIs and extra dimensions. If you do not wish to use a pre-set warlock, you can create your own using a small yet significant selection of perks. Sadly, it is not possible to tinker with advanced settings, such as wild monster spawn frequency, starting resources, or available victory conditions. The map generator does throw out the occasional nasty starting position. Some players may enjoy this as a challenge; others will want to re-roll. Replay value is moderate to high.

 

Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a game which set out to meet specific goals, and it has succeeded in that. Within its narrow focus, it offers a generous toolkit and gives the player room to experiment. It is not a game for everyone. Peaceniks need not apply! Other strategy gamers should at least download the demo and search for the fabled cheese caves.

 

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

 

Beginners’guide

 

The basis of my review

 

Length of time spent with the game: 4 completed games, approx 38 hours of play (including time spent with the demo).

 

What I have played: Normal and challenging difficulties; small, normal and large map sizes; continents and super-continent map types.

 

What I have not played: Impossible difficulty, and those rated below normal; two remaining map types; the largest map size.

 

Rachel McFadden (aka frogbeastegg) has been gaming since she discovered the original Prince of Persia on the IBM 286sx PC. Whilst strategy and RPGs are her preferred genres, she is a multiplatform gamer who will play almost anything provided it isn’t sport, car racing, or multiplayer only. Under the frogbeastegg name Rachel has written guides for many of the Total War series, various AARs for strategy games, and a few pieces of fiction. When not engaged in reminding various virtual populaces that she is in fact the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and the One True Hero, Rachel can typically be found with her nose in a book.

 

Note: the above comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s publisher, Paradox Interactive.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky: The Verdict

 

After a heyday spanning the Playstation and Playstation 2 eras, Japanese RPGs (at least, those translated into English) have retreated from home consoles: the Playstation 3 offers nowhere near the riches that its predecessors did. To some extent, portable consoles such as the PSP have picked up the slack with excellent tactical RPGs such as Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, as well as pure JRPGs such as Persona 3: Portable. How does another contestant in the PSP camp, pure RPG The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (Falcom 2006, released in the US by Xseed in 2011), measure up?

 

The answer is, “It’s a trick question.” From its roots up, I found Trails to be a very different beast to many other RPGs, including those I named above. This is not because it’s groundbreaking. It’s not: the story is linear and combat is turn/party/menu-based. Rather, where other games are built to challenge – for example, P3:P offers challenging gameplay, while FFT and Tactics Ogre also challenge the genre’s storytelling conventions Trails seems built for relaxation.

 

For example, Trails’ story and characters are a mishmash of familiar archetypes. Its young heroes – a cheerful hothead and her calmer brother – rove the land Fighting Evil and Righting Wrongs. The plot twists are guessable, the other party members out of central casting. But it works. The heroes are likeable, and their dialogue often witty – witty enough to make me laugh out loud a couple of times. The villains are dastardly, but never disturbing. The music is cheery, the towns and landscapes detailed. The net effect: a mood that’s nice and pleasant, and a world conducive to wandering around and seeing the sights.

 

(A quick story aside: Trails is the first game in a trilogy, and also the only one, so far, to be officially released in English. However, its plot mostly stands alone – there is a sequel hook, but it feels like the first act of a new story rather than a loose end. As such, this shouldn’t be an obstacle for potential buyers.)

 

Trails’ gameplay produces a similar effect. For starters, it avoids the single most annoying genre convention: random battles. Instead, you can dodge monsters a la Chrono Trigger and Persona, which saves a lot of aggravation. And there’s precious little need to grind – I did almost every sidequest in the game and that was plenty. Character management is reasonably complex: I had to put some thought into juggling different party members’ specialties, and mixing and matching the “orbments” that determine available magic spells. But I found the actual battles pretty easy: most enemies, and even most bosses, just didn’t hit hard enough to be dangerous. True, combat needed some mental involvement – I couldn’t just mash X to attack. But once I equipped a sensible choice of orbments, I’d just bring out the appropriate elemental spells, then heal as needed. The outcome was rarely in doubt: I could count on the fingers of one hand all the times I Game Overed. (Even when I did, no big deal; you can instantly replay a lost battle, and the game allows saving anywhere.) No hair-tearing moments here, just an agreeable way to while away time.

 

And that is how I’d sum up my Trails experience: “an agreeable way to while away time”. If you’re not already a JRPG fan, I don’t think this will bring you on board – it adds nothing radically new to the recipe. But if you do enjoy JRPGs, Trails is like comfort food: low-stress and easygoing. For genre buffs in the mood for old-fashioned home cooking, Trails might just be worth a look.

 

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.

 

Resources

 

Buy from Amazon (US)

 

The basis of my review

 

Length of time spent with the game: ~50 hours.

 

What I have played: Finished the game.

 

What I haven’t played: n/a

Stacking – The Verdict

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Stacking
A journey with dolls

 

Double Fine Productions’ adventure game, Stacking, has an illustrious pedigree: Double Fine founder Tim Schafer’s resume is littered with genre pillars, from Monkey Island to Grim Fandango. Born out of an internal Double Fine game jam, Stacking debuted on consoles in 2011, and has now reached the PC. How does it stack (sorry) up? Pretty well, thanks to two distinct strengths.

 

The first is its original premise: the residents of Stacking’s world aren’t humans, they’re Russian matryoshka dolls. Your character is the tiniest of all, but “stacking” into a small doll will allow you to jump into a medium-sized doll, which will allow you to jump into a large doll, and so on. Each doll has its own ability, which you can use while stacked into it. As such, instead of the usual “fiddling with every item in your inventory”, solving puzzles is a matter of working out which doll’s power to use – or, sometimes, which dolls’ powers, as some puzzles require the combined use of more than one. (Using multiple dolls is Stacking’s equivalent of “use every item with every other item”, but thankfully, the puzzles are more sensibly designed than that!) It’s fresh, it’s quirky, and at first, it’s a delight to stack into every doll in sight, in search of the next new ability.

 

Yes, you can stack into all those bicyclists

 

The second is how neatly it avoids the traditional sin of adventure games: the ease of getting stuck. Normally, adventure game puzzles have one solution, and if you can’t guess it, tough luck (short of resorting to GameFAQs). This is especially bad when the game expects you to, say, make a moustache out of cat hair. While Stacking does offer an in-game hint system, it also addresses the root of the problem: in this game, puzzles have anywhere from three to five solutions. One or two will usually be obvious… but the challenge comes from trying to work out the rest. This is a much better way of designing an adventure game: it lets you set your own pace (do I want to blast through, or tick off every solution?) and gives a good reason to be completionist (some of the solutions are laugh-out-loud funny).

 

Stacking’s greatest limitation is that its characters and plot aren’t very deep – not deep enough to carry the game. Without the compelling stories of, say, The Longest Journey or Gabriel Knight, Stacking relies on novelty value. And eventually, the novelty wears off: by the time I finished, I found the game less amusing and enjoyable than when I began. (I also stopped bothering with every solution: I just wanted to wrap up!) But Stacking is short enough for this not to be a serious problem – I finished it in ~8 hours, before it outstayed its welcome.

 

At the  end of the day, Stacking isn’t a great game, but it is a good one: the video game equivalent of a healthy snack. Cute, imaginative, and sometimes hilarious, it’s especially well suited for quick breaks – if you’re tired or short on time, you can dip in, solve a puzzle or two, and call it a day. Worth a look for genre fans.

 

You can buy Stacking (PC) from Amazon US.

 

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.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: Around 8 hours.

 

What I have played: The main game.

 

What I haven’t played: The DLC adventure (“The Lost Hobo King”) included free with the PC version.

Matchlocks for my Eyes, or Total War: Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai – The Verdict

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2
The Fall of the Samurai

 

Set during the sixteenth-century zenith of the samurai, Creative Assembly’s Total War: Shogun 2 (2011) was one of the best strategy game in years. CA soon followed it up with a first expansion, Rise of the Samurai¸ which wound the clock back to the Gempei War of the twelfth century. Now the latest, stand-alone expansion, Fall of the Samurai, wraps up almost a millennium of Japanese civil strife by moving forward to the nineteenth-century Boshin War. How does it compare to its illustrious parent?

 

The promise

 

Fall’s greatest strength is the clarity of its theme: this is a game about change, in a way that no other Total War game has been. In fifty years, Japan went from a land of shogun and samurai to a power that could beat a Western empire; and from look to feel to mechanics, that wrenching transformation is written all over Fall.

 

You’ll notice the game’s new aesthetic straight away: riflemen face samurai in the game’s loading screens, the new map looks like a nineteenth-century atlas rather than a Japanese scroll, most of the playable daimyo are dressed in Western uniforms.  As you build up your empire, you’ll see more wonderful touches in the graphics and flavour text. Trains puff smoke and chug through little tunnels. Generals receive stat boosts by picking up Western knick-knacks: pianos, penny-dreadfuls  and more. New technologies are accompanied by poetic blurbs, running the gamut from bleak to resigned to hopeful. (Compare the descriptions for six techs: “arms deals”, “modern army”, “cordial relations”, “gold standard”, “capitalist production”, and “charter oath”.)

 

But text is only part of the story. Gameplay mechanics are another vital way to communicate theme, and this is where Fall shines. As you fight your way across Japan, you’ll witness the end of an era, or more precisely, the transition through several eras, compressed into a single frantic period. Within the span of a single campaign, you’ll go from the shock-dominated battlefield of the Middle Ages, through the pike-and-shot era, to the fire-dominated age of industrial war. At the start of the game, samurai and even levy spearmen will roll right over peasant musketeers, but soon enough, trained soldiers with modern rifles will take their toll on anyone who approaches on foot. As firearms get better and better, riflemen more and more skilful, and artillery more abundant, modern armies will eventually massacre hordes of samurai or peasants with barely a scratch.

 

A bang, not a whimper: the power of modern weaponry

 

As such, modern weaponry is a literal game-changer. But not just due to its lethality. Riflemen do what bowmen have always done in the Total War games, just much, much better. Even greater transformations are visible in the other arms, cavalry and artillery, and what they do to the overall feel of combat. Traditionally, battles in the Total War series were about pinning the enemy’s infantry in melee with your own, preferably heavier infantry, then swinging around with cavalry to roll up the enemy from behind. Heavy infantry beat spearmen, spearmen beat cavalry, and cavalry beat anything if it attacked from behind. Even in the gunpowder-era games (Empire and Napoleon: Total War), battles were decided after the armies were close enough to see the whites of each other’s eyes. Not so in Fall. Spearmen still counter cavalry if they catch them in hand-to-hand… but now the cavalry have guns aplenty, and they need them. The best counter to a charging lancer is no longer a man with a pike; it’s another horseman with a gun, or perhaps even a well-trained rifleman. And woe betide the spearman who tries chasing a revolver-armed horseman. That is, if that spearman survives artillery that long. The inaccurate cannon of Empire and Napoleon are gone: American Civil War-era Parrott guns unlock early on, and they will rack up hundreds of kills per battle. Massed Parrotts will knock out even elite regiments long before they enter the fray, and later artillery is even more lethal. You will see the death of chivalry in this game, and you will see the road towards the slaughter of the Great War.

 

The failings

 

At their best, Fall’s battles might just be the finest in the entire series. The key phrase is “at their best”. All too often, the battles are not at their best, due to problems with the campaign AI. And that sums up Fall’s greatest weakness: it all too rarely fires on every cylinder. Here are some examples:

 

1. Land combat. Battles at the start of the game, when both the player and the AI rely on levies backed by a handful of samurai and modern riflemen, are tense and fun. The problems come later: the computer just doesn’t understand how badly quality eventually beats quantity. Even in the endgame, I’ve only seen the AI use high-end modern infantry once. I see rather more regular modern infantry (especially after installing an AI mod), but I also see lots of samurai and peasants  – by this stage, target practice. All too often, the game serves up fodder instead of challenge.

 

This becomes repetitive after a while

 

2. Sea combat. The war at sea is meant to take a similar course to the war on land. Wooden ships burn en masse once explosive shells show up, and ironclads sound their final death knell. Pitched fleet battles, especially in the presence of coastal defences, can be spectacular. Unfortunately, the designers evidently thought it was fun to make the player play whack-a-mole against constant, small raiding fleets (especially on “Hard” difficulty). It’s not. The problem is exacerbated by naval zones of control that are too small; and puny coastal defences. I alleviated this with a homebrew naval mod, but I shouldn’t have to fix games myself.

 

Wooden ships: all too vulnerable

 

3. Diplomacy. In the base game, diplomacy was “every man for himself”, but Fall divides Japan into two broad camps (based on the way religion worked in the original game): pro-Imperial and pro-Shogunate. Players of the same allegiance enjoy a healthy bonus to diplomacy; players of opposing allegiances take a serious penalty. The victory conditions reflect this: your camp has to take X number of provinces and both Edo and Kyoto, but you personally have to take far fewer provinces (14 in the short campaign, rather than the base game’s 25). And rather than “you vs the world”, realm divide now functions as the final Shogunate/Imperial showdown: only the opposing camp will attack you, while clans of the same allegiance will rally behind you instead.

 

On paper, this is a great idea. And when it works (i.e. when the war between the two factions hangs in the balance), it works well. It’s very cool to be part of, as opposed to the focus of, a greater conflict – especially after realm divide. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work: the course of the broader war is a crapshoot. If your faction does too well, the game is boringly easy. If your faction does too badly, then the game turns into a grinding slog. It’s aggravating when such a key part of the overall experience comes down to luck of the draw.

 

4. Difficulty and balance. More broadly, Fall’s campaign feels as though the developers didn’t have the time to properly tune the game’s balance. It shows up in the difficulty settings: on “Normal”, the campaign is often rather easy. “Hard” is a different story, but not because the computer is cleverer. No: everything costs roughly 15%-20% more, and the computer players team up for a game of kick-the-human. It shows in the victory conditions: requiring that your camp hold Edo and Kyoto might be historically accurate, but it skews the game, since both (particularly Edo) are within Shogunate territory. As a result, my Normal Shogunate campaign felt much shorter and more anticlimactic than my Imperialist campaigns. (Compare the base game, in which you fought your way towards Kyoto, in the centre of the map.) It shows in the game’s economy. The developers clearly intended money to be scarcer: trade nodes have been removed, most farmland is poorer than in the base game, and everything costs more. But they went too far: now money is artificially, annoyingly scarce unless you beeline for “fertile” and “very fertile” lands (especially bad on “Hard”). And it shows in the issues I described above. Given time, surely the developers would have fixed the AI issues, the ship spam, and so forth.

 

As such, my playthroughs of Fall have been a decidedly mixed bag. Playing on “Hard”, my campaigns began promisingly, with plenty of challenge and thrills, before eventually degenerating into frustration. Playing on “Normal”, one game I spent fighting small, weak clans was dead boring. One game in which the opposing faction took over most of Japan started well, but turned into a slogfest. And my final, most rewarding playthrough delivered the experience that Fall should have been from the start. I played differently that last time – by then I knew the “optimal” path to take, and I didn’t turtle (which I think helped the game’s pacing). But I also had to apply the AI and naval mods mentioned above, and I benefited from luck (e.g. with the progress of the Imperial/Shogunate war).

 

Conclusions

 

The Twilight Samurai

 

Ultimately, Fall of the Samurai didn’t live up to my hopes. Fall brings together theme and mechanics with a superb battle system, only to hamstring itself with a wildly inconsistent campaign. Its highs are higher than the base game’s – but its lows are just too frequent, and too annoying, for it to fill its predecessor’s shoes.

 

At the end of the day, I have to formulate my recommendation based on one wonderful campaign –and five (!) that were love-hate. And that is: wait for patches, mods, and/or a bargain sale. Buy Fall of the Samurai then. But don’t buy it now.

 

You can buy Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai from Amazon (US).

 

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

 

Province fertility/specialty map, updated for Fall of the Samurai.

 

Radious’ AI mod. It’s hard to unpick the difference made by a mod, but I do think this helped the AI recruit better armies.

 

My homebrew naval mod. To install, simply unzip and place in the \data folder in the game’s Steam directory. Its key features are:

 

  1. Bombardment range is still 8 (or 10 for Tosa, which gets a +2 bonus).
  2. The Tier 1 harbour (“If this is a port, then one wall is a house!”) remains defenceless.
  3. The Tier 2 port now has level 1 defences (equal to the base game’s trade ports) with a range of 12. The defences are silenced at 70% health.
  4. The Tier 3 trade port now has level 2 defences (equal to the base game’s military ports) with a range of 12. The defences are silenced at 50% health (again, equal to the base game’s military ports).
  5. Tier 3 military ports and the foreign (British/French/American) tier 4 trade ports now have Level 3 defences (equal to the base game’s drydocks), with a range of 12. The defences are silenced at 30% (again, equal to drydocks).
  6. Drydocks, whose defences were already maxed out, have received no boost.
  7. The naval intercept radius is now 12.
  8. These changes will be reflected in the tooltips when you mouse over the buildings, but not in the in-game encyclopaedia.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: I estimate at least 20 or 30 hours.

 

What I have played: Two campaigns won (Nagaoka/Normal/Short, Tosa/Normal/Short). Four campaigns aborted: two as Nagaoka/Hard, one as Tosa/Hard, and one as Tosa/Normal. Briefly, the cooperative multiplayer campaign (Choshu/Hard, with a friend playing Tosa). A couple of multiplayer battles.

 

What I haven’t played: The PvP multiplayer campaign.

Wargame: European Escalation – The Verdict

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon
This British Chieftain tank destroyed 8 enemy tanks, 3 armoured cars, a jeep, a personnel carrier, and a helicopter. Give the crew a VC!

 

Summing up Wargame: European Escalation, Eugen Systems’ latest real-time strategy game, is easy. It’s designed to do two things: evoke the modern (1970s-1980s) battlefield, and give the player choice. Picking it up is easy. But mastering it – that’s hard.

 

Playing Wargame is about putting the right troops in the right place at the right time. Unlike Eugen’s earlier RUSE, there is no base-building and almost no economic management – more dangerous parts of the map are worth more reinforcement points, that’s it. Instead, tactics are king. The basics are simple: use recon units to size up the foe; recognise that in an equal fight, the defenders will win; attack where the odds are unequal in your favour; and defend or fall back where they’re not. The tricky part is the “how.  With 361 units in the game, who are the right troops for a given situation? On large maps, laden with forests and swamps, highways and towns, where is the right place to attack, hold, lay an ambush? On battlefields this fluid and lethal, when is the right time to act?

 

And that is the beauty of Wargame. From a thematic perspective, while the game is a long way from a realistic simulation, it borrows enough to feel believable (think Total War or Panzer General). Simply but clearly, Wargame illustrates the importance of scouting, flanks, supply lines, terrain, and more. Its huge arsenal helps bring the setting to life – it’s addictive to compare an Abrams to a Leopard 2 to a Challenger, or a Marder to a Bradley to a BMP!  From a mechanical perspective, it epitomises Sid Meier’s definition of a strategy game as a “series of interesting choices”, beginning with which units to unlock and which of those unlocked to take into battle; and culminating in the myriad of decisions made during a match.

 

The right unit, in the right place, at the right time: Flamethrowers at point-blank range

 

Unfortunately, the game’s single-player campaign can’t do justice to its design. I’m not convinced that linear campaigns and scripted missions fit a game built around choice, and while I did get past the introductory campaign (5 missions out of 22), the next mission I tried prompted me to abandon this mode out of frustration*. I think enjoying the campaign would require a taste for scripted (and difficult!) RTS levels, one which I don’t share. The game’s skirmish mode is much better suited to its design, and decently implemented: I can beat the computer player almost every time, but barring the odd off day, it’s usually good enough to give me an exciting fight. The bigger problems with skirmish are a lack of customisation options and a failure to tie into the metagame: skirmish is limited to 1v1 matches (in a game where most maps are intended for >2 players), you can’t save skirmish replays, and you can’t unlock new units by playing this mode. (Update: Eugen has now added a comp stomp mode to Wargame, and you can now unlock new units via skirmish, albeit more slowly than via the campaign or PvP multiplayer.) As such, I would love to see a expansion that added a dynamic campaign, a la Dawn of War: Dark Crusade or Rise of Nations. It’s in multiplayer where Wargame really shines.

 

(A couple of quick notes about multiplayer. The community is mostly civil – I think Wargame benefits from not being the kind of title that draws the ‘l2p nub’ crowd. And while forum discussions are filled with complaints about unit balance, exploits, and immersion-breaking tactics, my actual experience could not have been more different: 95% of my matches have featured well-rounded armies deployed in reasonable ways. I have no doubt that exploits exist, but Eugen’s track record makes me confident it’ll patch the remaining holes.)

 

Lastly, I should warn that Wargame’s plethora of units has a downside: I’m sure it would steepen the learning curve for players new to the period. The game’s manual provides brief descriptions of each category of unit, and detailed stats are available in-game. However, short of poring over those, there is precious little guidance as to which tool to use for which job. How would a Leopard 1 fare against that T-80 coming down the road? (Badly.) Is the Challenger or the Chieftain the high-end British tank? (The Challenger.) What’s the difference between the Dragon and TOW anti-tank missiles?  (The Dragon is carried by infantry, the more powerful TOW is carried by vehicles.) While surmountable, this could well be an early stumbling block.

 

Driving into the sunset

 

At the end of the day, Wargame won’t be all things to all players. For someone who isn’t interested in the period, an offline gamer, or both, my advice would be to wait for a demo, a sale, or perhaps new features in a patch – the campaign is just too taste-dependent, while skirmish is a bit limited. (Update: The new features have come, and Eugen has added comp stomps, which should enhance Wargame’s appeal to non-PvPers.) But for a gamer who is interested in Wargame’s subject – say, someone who grew up playing Gunship 2000 and M1 Tank Platoon, or reading books such as Nato and the Defence of the West, Red Storm Rising and Jane’s Modern Tanksand who enjoys multiplayer, this will be a dream come true. Highly recommended to the latter, and a candidate for Game of the Year.

 

* This mission placed me in command of an American force stuck behind enemy lines, low on fuel and ammo, and reliant on captured Soviet supply depots. Very cool concept, but wearyingly implemented.

 

You can buy Wargame: European Escalation from, amongst other vendors, Amazon US and Gamersgate.

 

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

 

Fan wiki

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: I estimate 20-25 hours. Steam says almost 50 hours, but this includes a lot of time away from the computer. Meanwhile, the game’s figure of 18-plus hours seems to underestimate time spent in single-player,  checking unit stats, etc.

 

What I have played:  A lot of unranked multiplayer games (mostly team games – 2v2, 3v 3, 4v4), one ranked 1v1 multiplayer battle, a fair number of skirmish games, the first campaign (5 campaign missions out of 22 total). This has mostly been as Nato.

 

What I haven’t played: The remaining campaign missions; the Warsaw Pact (much).

Book review: Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark are respectively books 2-4 in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, and the quickest way for me to describe them would be “more of the same”. Together with book 1, they constitute a distinct story arc within the overarching series, and as #2-#4 in particular feel like one giant novel, I have chosen to review them in a group.  (You can find my review of book 1, Empire in Black and Gold, here.)

 

These books are “more of the same” in a literal sense: they follow the same protagonists along the same story arc begun in Empire in Black and Gold. They are epic fantasies, and they offer an imaginative world with some spectacular set-pieces. And they represent an improvement over the first book in one small but noticeable way – no more head-hopping!

 

Unfortunately, they also offer too much of the same in one key way. Where Empire’s plot was strong and tightly focused, its sequels introduce a common genre problem: sprawl. Over these books, the characters fan out across the world, meeting new faces, discovering new locations, and getting into subplot… after subplot… after subplot. I didn’t care for all of these, but I’m willing to concede that’s a matter of taste; besides, I loved one particular subplot, almost Miyazaki-like in its evocation of a brotherhood of aviators. The problem isn’t so much the quality of the subplots as their quantity: they slow down the story to a crawl, culminating in a weak book 3/early book 4.  It doesn’t help that the sequels fall into another genre trap, noticeable character plot armour, that the first book cleverly sidestepped.

 

In the second half of book 4, though, Tchaikovsky rediscovers his muse. The subplots come together, the action speeds up, the story arcs incubating since book 2 finally come to fruition, and the plot armour vanishes. And this is what redeems these books. At that magic moment in book 4, I went from dissatisfied to newly enthralled, and that momentum carried me through to the end.

 

Ultimately, these books aren’t quite what I’d hoped: compared to his debut, I think Tchaikovsky took two steps forward and one big step, labelled “PACING”, back. Nonetheless, they finish well enough to be worth a look for people who enjoyed book 1. I do plan to check out the next book at some stage, and I hope Tchaikovsky learned his lessons.

 

You can buy Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark from Amazon US.

 

 

Conquest of Elysium 3: The Verdict

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Conquest of Elysium

Introduction

 

One look at Conquest of Elysium 3, the new fantasy turn-based strategy game from Illwinter Game Design, and you would think you’d stepped into a classic 4X. You begin by choosing a faction (one of 18 character classes) and a map type (one of six eras), and when you start play, the following screen is straight out of every 4X ever made:

 

Humble beginnings

 

One citadel, two commanders (lose all your citadels or commanders, and it’s game over), a handful of guards, and a whole, randomised, unexplored world. Now go out and conquer it!

 

However, the truth is very different. While COE3 wears the trappings of the 4X genre, it boils down three of the genre’s four elements into something that’s not just simpler and faster to play, but also distinct in emphasis and feel. As such, this is to 4X games what 30-second RPG Half-Minute Hero was to Final Fantasy; the parallels are there, but they point in a different direction.

 

Explore and expand

 

To begin with, unlike a 4X game, you won’t even be able to build anything at the start of COE3. Early on, troops are expensive – too expensive to afford with just your starting citadel! So how do you expand your army?

 

The answer lies with the useful locations that dot Elysium. Some will provide resources to fund the expansion of your army. Some will count as new citadels, allowing you to recruit troops in the field as well as moving all your eggs out of one basket. Some will let you power up your mages, and so on. So the first order of business is to find, and then secure, those locations.

 

Even within a category, not all locations are created equal. For starters, different classes need different resources. Settlements and mines provide gold and iron, which everybody needs. If you’re playing a vanilla human class, the Baron or the Senator, those are all the resources you need: go bury the world in knights and legionaries! However, most classes will need other resources to unlock their special abilities: the Troll King gathers fungus from forests for magic rituals, the Dwarf Queen and the Warlock collect magic gems from mines, and so on. Different classes might also get bonuses/penalties to specific locations: the Senator makes more money from everything, while the Dwarves make more money from mines and less from settlements.

 

On top of that, different locations are also guarded by independent forces of varying strength. Generally, a prize will be commensurate with the difficulty of taking it: you might find one or two spearmen defending a farm that brings in 1 gold per turn, while a city bringing in 5 gold and 2 trade (allowing you to buy/sell other resources) might be held by 20 men with zweihanders and longbows. Still, that’s only a general rule. No two locations of the same type will have exactly the same defenders, so stumbling across a soft, juicy target is a big part of the thrill of exploration.

 

Once you’ve taken a location, you’ll then need to hold it. Even leaving aside other players, Elysium is packed with wandering independent monsters (deer, bandits, snakes, undead…), and more will spawn from their lairs. These will constantly raid your possessions, and movement in the game is slow enough that you likely won’t want to circle your main force back to recapture lost ground. But detach too many men for garrison duty, and you could slow your expansion.

 

Early expansion, then, is a constant, delicious trade-off between risk and reward (do I have enough troops to take that mine?), followed by a juggling act between offence and defence (how many troops can I safely leave behind to garrison it)? For me, the game is strongest in this phase, when every turn is filled with curiosity about what may lie over the next hill; excitement when I discover my El Dorado; and a stream of interesting decisions.

 

A tale of two cities

 

The above screenshot illustrates this aspect of COE3. In this game, I hit the jackpot: two cities nearby, one of which was held by a mere eight men! Unfortunately, I promptly squandered it: when I rushed in to attack, those eight men were plenty to wipe out my attacking force, including my only two commanders. Game over.

 

Hey, what happened to “Exploit”?

 

Why were those cities such a big deal? Could I have established my own? Well, no. Importantly, there is precious little economic or empire management in COE3. For example, research is important in Civilization or Dominions, but in COE3 there is no research and no tech tree. If you want a magician to learn a new spell, you conquer a library, sequester him/her for several turns, and watch as he/she emerges with a new entry in the spellbook. Similarly, there is virtually no “guns or butter”, virtually no way to invest in one’s economy now for a future payoff, and little terrain improvement.

 

There are exceptions. The Burgmeister, who presides over a nation of diminutive, weed-growing humanoids, can spend money to “colonise” farms and transform them into more productive hoburg villages. A couple of the other classes can transform the map to increase their unit production: the Troll King’s allies can spend resources to haunt forests, which makes them spawn friendly wandering monsters, while the Dwarf Queen has to invest gems and gold to set up new daughter colonies. Still, this game’s emphasis is firmly on fighting wars, not winning the peace.

 

Exterminate!

 

When you do march into an independent city, you’re counterattacked by monsters, or when another player’s army shows up, it’s time to fight. You have no control over combat once it starts; instead, the game will show you a turn-by-turn replay of the fight. The following screenshot shows my late-game army in action against a computer player:

 

Fight it out!

 

Note that each army is lined up in rows. The concept is a little like Ogre Battle or Disciples: a unit’s abilities depend on which row it’s in. Melee units in the back rows will be unable to attack, archers in the front row will attack with daggers instead of their primary weapons, and so on. Here, though, you don’t choose who goes into which row – archers and crossbowmen are always in the middle, swordsmen always towards the front, and so on. On its turn, each unit then picks a random target, usually limited to the enemy’s front row (certain attacks are an exception).

 

As a result, army composition is where much of the game’s strategy lies. For example, multiple rows of ranged units can all shoot while only the front row of melee units can attack. But those melee units at the front must survive to shield the archers. So how might I best divide my army between the two? Returning to the above screenshot, my front rows comprise the most heavily armoured infantrymen I can recruit, plus hulking fire, earth and water elementals – ordinary grunts have the life expectancy of mayflies. Behind them I have two rows of archers and crossbowmen (the soldiers in the red trousers), plus a lightning-throwing air elemental (the cloud/tornado in the middle). At the very back are my leaders: the Great Warlock of Water (in blue) and his apprentice (in saffron). This combination worked like a dream: the infantrymen and elementals held fast, the crossbowmen compounded my firepower, and the Great Warlock laid waste to whole rows of the enemy army with his high-level magic.

 

My army would probably have looked quite different had I been playing another class. My Warlock started with a roster of generic human soldiers (paid for with gold and iron), supplemented these with elementals (paid for with gems), and boosted his own magic (gems again). By contrast, the Troll King fields a handful of powerful, expensive behemoths (himself foremost among them!), accompanying mages who can scry out their next target, and goblin cannon-fodder. Playing the Warlock feels like leading an army; playing the Troll King feels like leading a small but elite raiding party, marching to a soothsayer’s tune. Not every army is as distinct as the Troll King’s, but that still leaves variety: for instance, the Senator relies on row after row of legionaries, armed with javelins for ranged combat and gladii for melee. No need to worry about separate spear- and crossbowmen for him!

 

Eventually, it’s time to take the war to the other players (if they haven’t been destroyed by other AIs or the independent monsters). Unfortunately, for me this is the least satisfying part of the game. True, it’s fun to finally unleash late-game units and magic, and there are still some interesting decisions to be made. Do I go for an early attack or a late one? (For example, from what I’ve seen the Troll King is much better suited to rushing; early on he can clean out entire villages by himself, but he can’t solo even a mid-sized army.) Do I split my forces to raid the enemy’s settlements? Can I beat that army or do I fall back on my citadel and wait for reinforcements? But in my experience, this all boils down to who has the nastier stack of doom. Either I show up with a bigger army and steamroll the other player, or the other player shows up with a bigger army and steamrolls me. No control over battles means no scope for superior tactics, and no economic management means precious few levers to pull to ensure I have a bigger army in the first place. This is fine when I’m playing explorer and stomping independents; less fine when the other players can try to stomp me back. Presumably the player with the better army did a better job of exploring and securing the map earlier on, had a better grasp of army composition, had a luckier starting position, or all of the above. But for whatever reason, victory or defeat too often feels like a black box to me.

 

After winning or losing, it’s time to start another game. This is feasible in a way it wouldn’t be in the typical 4X game: you can finish a COE3 “large” map in maybe an hour or two, and smaller maps in significantly less. The best analogy is skirmish mode in an RTS – something you can keep replaying in bite-sized sessions – but with random maps.

 

The Verdict

 

Ultimately, a food metaphor might be the best way to sum up Conquest of Elysium 3. Its big brother, Dominions 3, is like learning how to cook: difficult and time-consuming, but blissfully rewarding in the end. The typical 4X game, say Civilization or Master of Magic/Orion, resembles a meal at a buffet restaurant: enjoyable, filling, and replete with choice, but not something you can quickly consume. COE3, with apologies to Forrest Gump, is more like a box of chocolates. Like a box of chocolates, it’s filled with variety, courtesy of its 18 factions, six eras, and imaginative developers. Like a box of chocolates, it’s better at the start (this is a good game about exploration) than at the end (when I have to fight other players with a toolkit better suited to the player-vs-environment gameplay of the opening phases). And, just like a box of chocolates, COE3 is better suited for snacking than for full meals. If you’re after a light, quick-playing game, one that encourages you to reach in, take a bite, and come back later to sample different flavours, COE3 is worth a look.

 

Hopefully Illwinter will release a demo soon, but for now, you can download its predecessor (Conquest of Elysium 2, 1997) as freeware here; or buy the full game from Desura. Update: there is now a demo available.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: I estimate at least 10-15 hours.

 

What I have played: The Warlock, Senator, Baron, Troll King, Dwarf Queen, Enchanter, Burgmeister, and Barbarian characters.

 

What I haven’t played: Multiplayer; the remaining characters; any difficulty level that gives the computer a bonus.

 

Note: the above comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s developer, Illwinter Game Design.

 

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.

Book review: Empire in Black and Gold, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication. They have been protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbours.

But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, its killing Art . . . And now its hunger for conquest and war has become insatiable. Only the ageing Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, can see that the long days of peace are over. It falls upon his shoulders to open the eyes of his people – as soon a black-and-gold tide will sweep down over the Lowlands and burn away everything in its path.

But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire’s latest victim.

– Official blurb for Empire in Black and Gold

 

Empire in Black and Gold, the first book in the Shadows of the Apt series, is a promising epic fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. While Tchaikovsky uses the genre’s basic building blocks – a formidable danger, an oblivious civilisation, plucky heroes between the two, and cool set-pieces – he creates something new and fresh by dragging those old tropes into the industrial age.

 

Tchaikovsky’s prose, characterisation, and plotting are solid. None of these will win any awards, but they get the job done. I cared about the protagonists – the beautiful swordswoman and her plain sister, the nerdy engineer and the laughing dandy, the ageing mentor and the few surviving comrades of his generation. I was intrigued by their antagonist, a spy/secret policeman. I wanted to know what happened next, and when I powered ahead, the prose mostly stood out of my way. Tchaikovsky does have a jarring habit of head-hopping (switching from one point-of-view character to another within the same scene), but I grew used to this after a while. Otherwise, his writing carries the book through both fight scenes and quiet moments.

 

Where the book shines is in the power of the author’s imagination; with seemingly every page, right to the very end of the book, I would find something new to delight me. Two things exemplify this. First, the fusion of magic and technology. Smoke-bellowing, tank-like battering rams pound city gates into the dust; winged infantrymen drop down amidst hot-air balloons; ballista operators shoot it out with fireball-throwers. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that, even after breaking out of D&D pseudo-medieval settings, is still stuck largely in a pre-industrial age. Second, its assortment of fantasy races: not elves and dwarves, but humans who took on the aspect of totem insects.  Winged, child-sized Flies are excellent couriers and scouts, Beetles are unglamorous but inventive, Spiders are attractive but devious, Ants share a telepathic link, and so on. This is the originality with which good speculative fiction is made.

 

Overall, Empire in Black and Gold isn’t the best fantasy book ever, but I had a lot of fun with its combination of (a) external conflict, (b) a weird and wonderful setting, and (c) decent execution. Recommended to genre fans, and I look forward to reading the rest of Tchaikovsky’s work.

 

You can buy Empire in Black and Gold from Amazon US here.

 

Book review: The Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

The Children of the Sky, Vernor Vinge’s latest science-fiction novel, is the direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep (my review here). As such, I wouldn’t recommend starting the series with this book! That said, if you are familiar with Fire, I don’t think you need to re-read it – I enjoyed Children despite having read Fire so long ago, I only remembered its general premise.

 

Whereas Fire took place on two levels – a galactic storyline ran in parallel to events on the world of the Tines, the book’s featured alien species – Children takes place solely amidst the latter. Its plot was interesting enough to keep me reading, but I have a couple of complaints.  One, not only does the ending suffer from “middle book syndrome”, but the lack of resolution felt a bit strange to me in light of previous developments. If A, B, and C already happened, then surely <character>’s fate shouldn’t have been left open? Two, while Vinge normally writes effective villains – his future totalitarians in A Deepness in the Sky were far more chilling than lesser authors’ Space Nazis/Commies – he slips here. One villain in Children was so slimy, and in such a way, that it felt as though Vinge was trying too hard to manipulate the reader’s (my) emotions. (This character also represents something of a missed opportunity – had he been less black-and-white, I think that would have given one plotline a bit more heft.)

 

However, that one villain is the exception. Otherwise, Vinge’s characterisation and “micro”-level writing cement him in the top tier of space opera authors, and he particularly shines at depicting aliens. I could simply list what I like about his writing – clever concepts, lively dialogue, likeable aliens – but it would probably be more effective to point you to this excerpt from chapter one.

 

Notice how many things Vinge does right in that excerpt. He gives a clear sense of the characters’ personalities, right down to the doorman. He gives an especially clear sense of Tycoon’s personality, first through the environment Tycoon has created, then through others’ reactions, and finally through the introduction of Tycoon himself. He gives a good sense of the world, starting with the contrast between servants/merchants/royalty and the word “factory district”, and he gives a great sense of how humans might look through another species’ eyes. All that just from the first two and a half thousand words!

 

Of course, Vinge doesn’t fire on all cylinders for every page; that excerpt is probably one of the better scenes. But even if the book as a whole is probably “decent” or “good” rather than “great”, its best sequences are sheer delight. That delight is what I remember when I look back on The Children of the Sky, and that delight is what makes me recommend it, despite my complaints, to series fans.

 

You can buy The Children of the Sky from Amazon US here.

 

Book review: Spice and Wolf Volume 1, by Isuna Hasekura

Travelling merchant Kraft Lawrence dreams of amassing enough money to open a store in town – but for now, his life is dangerous and lonely, his home simply the back of his wagon. Meanwhile, for centuries Holo the wolf goddess ministered to a small village as its harvest deity – but now the villagers have a jealous new God, and new methods of farming. Neither needed nor wanted, Holo decides to return to her distant birthplace, and which travelling merchant should be around for her to hitch a hike?

 

Spice and Wolf is a series of Japanese light novels – I think the closest Western analogy is “young adult novels with a handful of illustrations” – following the adventures of the duo. It’s perhaps better known in the West for its two-season anime adaptation (the first novel overlaps with episodes 1-6 of the anime), whose first season I watched when it came out a few years ago. However, my enjoyment was marred by poor fansubs, and so when I saw the first novel available in English, I grabbed it. I’m happy to report it met my expectations.

 

The heart of the book is the dynamic between the two main characters. Holo is teasing, gluttonous, sometimes temperamental, undoubtedly difficult – but also shrewd, loyal, and usefully for the duo, able to supernaturally sort truth from lies. She has enough of the capricious deity in her to make her feel convincingly alien; not enough to prevent her from being sympathetic. Lawrence is the more level-headed of the two, a hard-working, kind-hearted Everyman. Their banter is a delight to read – and so is how, when the chips are down, they come through for each other.

 

Plotwise, the book stays true to Lawrence’s occupation: this has to be the only fantasy novel in existence about currency trading. Conspicuously absent are dark lords, evil emperors, conquering armies, and other staples of the genre. The world is pseudo-Medieval Europe, with little in the way of magic or intelligent non-humans – so far, Holo is the only example of either category. Both appear done reasonably well*, with especial kudos for the original subject matter of the plot – I’d like to see more along those lines! The prose is a bit clunky, but I stopped noticing after the first chapter or so. I do like the slightly archaic feel of Holo’s dialogue, compared to Lawrence’s – it’s consistent with their respective ages. Lastly, a note about the cover: it’s racier than the book’s contents. Luckily, taking off the dust jacket reveals the original Japanese manga-style picture of a fully clothed Holo, which could be useful in avoiding misunderstandings!

 

Ultimately Spice and Wolf: Volume 1 is a short read, but it’s a very enjoyable one. As one of the few (maybe the only?) “economic fantasy” novels I’ve seen, it occupies a severely underused niche; even defining it more broadly as a novel about “everyday life in a fantasy world” still makes it fairly unique. Add interesting, likeable characters, and the end result is a book that should appeal well beyond fans of the anime. Recommended.

 

You can buy Spice and Wolf, Volume 1 from Amazon US here.

 

* With the disclaimer that I don’t know enough about real-world medieval trade to spot any inaccuracies.

 

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.