On the importance of swooshing cameras (or, personal meanderings how minor details add up to significant effect)

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden

Europa Universalis II was my first Paradox game. Since then I’ve played every strategy title Paradox has produced, excepting the Hearts of Iron series. Whilst I have great respect for their scope and ambition, and do not care to think about how many hours of my life they have consumed, I have often found them rather soulless. Not quite the proverbial Excel spreadsheet – but not all that far off. They lacked atmosphere and felt like they had little to do with the era they portrayed outside of a handful of specific game mechanics and some window dressing. After a lengthy process of gradual improvement, I find that Crusader Kings II demonstrates that Paradox has put the final nail in that soulless feeling’s coffin.

 

How have the developers managed this? With a swooshing camera, trivial artwork, nicely timed music, and a few other entirely frivolous details which, taken together, add up most pleasingly.

 

When Crusader Kings II launches, it greets the player with a stained-glass version of the Paradox company logo. This is not unusual: the other games all feature a customised version of the logo. The intro music begins to play immediately, a gentle piece with soft chanting over the top of a small selection of instruments. If you do not own the game, you can listen to the title music here. The logo swaps to a slideshow of unique illustrations. After 52 seconds, the point where the game will transition to main menu on most computers, the music begins to pick up both in pace and in complexity. At 1:03, bam! The music temporarily kicks up another level as the player surveys their options, then goes softer to permit undistracted thought. At 2:06, around the time I’m seriously pondering the merits of a particular dynasty, the music kicks up to full fever and my head fills with visions of epic conquest. Whether the harmony of game timing and music pace is intentional or a happy accident, the sequence does possess a few advantages over Paradox’s prior games. The two immediately prior handily demonstrate two different approaches, neither of which I feel works as well. Sengoku observes total silence through the loading screens; music makes its first appearance when the player arrives at the main menu. A House Divided, the expansion pack for Victoria II, has an animated intro sequence prior to the loading screens. Whilst this works nicely on the player’s first game, on all subsequent ones it is skipped. This results in a burst of disassociated music before the video vanishes and the majestic loading screen music begins. Compared to Crusader Kings II’s smooth sequence, the result feels uneven and disrupted.

 

Crusader Kings II has another trick up its sleeve for the opening: my titular swooshy camera. The main menu is a 3D map of Christendom plus neighbouring non-Christian lands. Click on ‘single player’ and swoosh! The camera swings in, seamlessly transitioning the map from background to the centrepiece on which you choose your dynasty. Choose your dynasty and start the game, and swoosh! Once again, a seamless transition as the map zooms in on your starting location, the interface swaps to the in-game set, and the game is ready to play. As Nintendo 64 owners used to tell their Playstation ‘rivals’ during the fifth-generation console wars, smooth transitions and no loading times matter. In this instance they preserve the atmosphere the game creates, and allow for one very neat visual effect. The swoosh itself, despite being a tiny bit of programming, makes the game feel more luxurious than previous Paradox titles. It feels like a Big Boy Studio effect.

 

The swooshy camera also reveals an overt secret. When the camera begins its first swoop, you can see the boundaries of the 3D world. Rather than cutting off in an ugly crop, there is a raised, patterned wooden border. The world exists as a sculpture inside a tray. Who would possess such a map? How about the fabled Emperor Qin, whose tomb is said to possess a map of China with rivers made out of mercury. Plush! Crusader Kings II is not the first game to present its map as precisely that. Victoria II mimicked a school atlas when the player zoomed out far enough, and CA’s original Shogun: Total War plays out on a parchment map with carved wooden counters, to name but two. That said, the effect is unusual, and presented in a manner which feels distinct to this one game.

 

 

What about the sound effects? Where most games feature bland clicking sounds when you hit this or that interface button, Crusader Kings II features various harp chords. Move around quickly enough and you create your own little tune. This only applies to the ‘choose your dynasty’ screen, so it does not have the chance to wear out its welcome.

 

That’s the swooshy camerawork and the well-timed music. What about the rest?

 

As a casual glance at any screenshot will reveal, the game’s interface is a concoction of stained-glass, occasional gilding, muted colours, and niello. In-game, you will notice a multitude of little details, like sections of scrollwork carving. The stained-glass buttons are made up of numerous little panes, not crude chunks of colour. Messages are presented on scraps of tattered parchment. There’s a large variety of custom paintings used across the interface, from the reclining lady in the pregnancy announcement to the soldiers on the battle screen. This is an image-rich game. I cannot think of any other Paradox game with as many supporting artworks. In this aspect Crusader Kings II is once again the culmination of a slow process; each Paradox game has added a little more care to the UI artwork, passing from the functional ugliness of the early games, through the passable but bland games like Victoria, to the almost-but-not-quite of Sengoku‘s tasteful wooden panelling.

 

Having given a nod to the most obvious, I’d like to move to the minor detail I myself find most important: armies. In prior games, armies tended to look very similar, to the point where I occasionally found it difficult to tell who owned what! Crusader Kings II gives each province’s army its own unique coat of arms, and an army levied from that province will wear the coat of arms on its surcoat. Additionally, different cultures have different army models. Instantly, the world feels far more alive, the game more detailed. Now that sounds confusing in the opposite direction. How do you tell which army belongs to whom? Answer: it’s easy to recognise the coats of arms, yours and your foes’, because you see them all the time whilst playing the game. Heraldry works – that’s why it was used for so many centuries. If that’s not enough, the owning faction’s icon appears below the army model, and it’s that vital bit bigger and clearer than similar identifiers in games like Sengoku, whilst not so disassociated as the big flags in games like Europa Universalis III.

 

Armies in Sengoku. Two warring clans ... but which one is mine?

 

Armies in CK2. Look-it the purdy surcoats!

 

The characters speak for themselves. Instead of being filled with rather bland countries differentiated only by their flag, Crusader Kings II has a world filled with varied faces, traits and statistics. This is the evolution of a design which began in Crusader Kings I, then grew in Europa Universalis: Rome and Sengoku. Whilst the range of character stats and actions is a little larger, it is once again the seemingly unnecessary frippery which helps Crusader Kings II take that leap ahead. Due to a wider range of character portraits, improved visual detail on those portraits, and a better visual aging process, the game feels that bit more convincing. That in turn supports the character-based gameplay, with all its inter-personal relationships and event choices. In a satisfying loop, that gameplay bolsters the portraits by making the faces feel like more than a randomised bit of art.

 

A swooshy camera, lots of minor graphical frippery, a few frivolous details – all unnecessary fanciness with little relation to gameplay… all vital to making Crusader Kings II feel alive.

 

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 developer, Paradox Interactive.

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 – 40% off sale & content patch

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon

Eugen Systems has released a new content patch for Wargame: European Escalation (officially a “free DLC” – the only practical difference is that you’ll have to download it separately), while for the weekend, Amazon and Steam are now selling the game for US$24, representing a 40% discount. Reader Wolfox wonders whether the game is worth it, for an offline gamer, at that price.

 

My answer is “probably”. At a design level, Wargame is fantastic, and the new patch has fixed two issues that had marred player-vs-AI games. You can now do comp stomps, and you can now unlock new units by playing the skirmish mode or comp stomps (albeit more slowly than through PvP). The skirmish AI still offers less challenge than an experienced human player, but it plays well enough to make me work for victory. (Think one of the better Total War games, or, well, most strategy games.) And there’s a fun way to enhance the challenge – play with a themed deck, e.g. by restricting yourself to units of just one nationality.

 

Meanwhile, my recommendation for the game’s target audience (folks who enjoy PvP multiplayer) hasn’t changed. Wargame was worth it at full price, and it’s definitely worth it at 40% off!

 

Going forward, I’d still like to see more options to handicap the game or customise victory conditions. However, Eugen’s track record (in addition to the above additions, it’s patched in a new gameplay mode, more maps, and continued balance tweaks) makes it very plausible that we’ll see future additions along these lines. Keep up the good work, Eugen!

Postcard from a world of Russian dolls

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Stacking

Stacking, Double Fine’s Russian doll-themed adventure game, is a treat for the eyes as well as the funny bone. In the above screenshot, a mismatched crowd queues up for tickets at a train station; their distinct designs, and the station’s warm ambience, speak to the love and craft with which this game was made.

 

Stay tuned for a full review once I’ve finished!

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