This week, I have two songs for you: “Omoi Haruka”, the soft, gentle theme from the 2007 anime Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, and its vocal version, “Nahji no Uta”. Excellent but criminally overlooked, Moribito brings its low-fantasy world to life with such verisimilitude, I could almost think it’s really historical fiction. Composer Kenji Kawai’s (Ghost in the Shell, Fate/stay night) music, particularly the folk song-esque “Nahji no Uta”, is a key part of that appeal. Enjoy!
Track: “Omoi Haruka” & “Nahji no Uta”.
Source: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit – OST #1.
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.
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*.
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.
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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.
I never played Mass Effect 2, the source for this week’s song, “Suicide Mission”. Instead, I discovered the song on my newly bought copy of the “Greatest Video Game Music” CD, and took a shine to it at once. The version linked below is the one from the CD, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Enjoy!
This week’s song is the theme of Terra, the heroine of Final Fantasy VI, and also the game’s first overworld track. Melancholy, wistful, yet with a strain of hope, it is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard despite being composed for the SNES sound chip. Here it is:
Deservedly, it also features in pretty much every Final Fantasy remix collection there is: I’ve listened to piano, vocal, and multiple orchestral versions of the song. However, while the orchestral versions are grand and glorious and good (I’ve linked one below, from the “Distant Worlds II” collection), I can’t help but think that they miss the sweet sadness that made the original so special. The vocal version, “Wanderer of Time” (linked, bottom), comes a bit closer to the original. Still, they’re all well worth a listen.
Source: Final Fantasy VI original soundtrack.
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu. “Wanderer of Time” version sung by Risa Ohki.
Two high-profile strategy games came out recently, Civilization V: Gods and Kings and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, and I might as well spoil my forthcoming reviews by saying I like both of them. Each offers incremental but tangible improvements over its predecessor; each is a worthy addition to its franchise. However, for sheer enjoyment, they might just be trumped by a third title I discovered around the same time: Armageddon Empires, the 2007 board/collectible card game-inspired, turn-based strategy title from Vic Davis and his one-man studio Cryptic Comet.
By way of background, AE takes place on a future Earth devastated by a four-way war between humans, mutants, and two invading alien armies. Players explore a randomly generated map, gather resources, amass armies and heroes, research better equipment, and ultimately crush their opponents. In other words, AE is a 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) game, the post-apocalypse’s answer to Civilization. However, whereas conventional 4X games allow players to build anything they have researched and can afford, AE represents available units and structures as cards – players are limited to building what they have in their hand at any one time. Certain card types can be created and added to a hand in mid-match, but the basic building blocks of gameplay – tanks, troops, fortresses, heroes – must be included in a deck before a match (hence the board game/CCG element)*.
That’s the waiter’s description – so what are the chef’s secrets?
The first thing that makes AE special is its twist on the genre formula: most strategy games are built around sprawl, but AE is built around scarcity. Most of the wasteland is just that, useless and barren, save for a few resource-gathering sites. Armies are finite, limited by deck size. New units are produced from one source (the player’s hand of cards – though they can then be deployed to any friendly base), so no juggling multiple cities, factories, or build queues. This has several implications. First, as Kieron Gillen pointed out, it’s consistent with the game’s post-apocalyptic theme: it stands to reason that in this world, there just is not that much to go around. Second, it does away with the usual bane of the strategy genre, the “I have to babysit all this?!” syndrome. Last of all, when players can form a stack of doom out of four units (see the screenshot above) and (at least on the default settings) there are no more than two or three main armies to manage, this doesn’t just affect the gameplay mechanics (“fewer, but more interesting decisions”) – it also makes every stack more distinct, and hence easier to identify, easier to grow attached to. (This is a topic to which I’ll return.)
AE’s second distinctive feature is that, like Distant Worlds and Conquest of Elysium 3, it gets exploration right. Every game map is bound to contain a few special locations (the number can be tweaked at startup), and these run the gamut. Named, especially juicy resource-gathering sites: the Camps (+3 manpower, whoo!), the Slave Pit and its overseers, the cannibal-infested Destroyed City. Abandoned strongholds: the White Base**, the Crashed Mothership, the Mecha Design Lab. Hidden goodies: a desiccated corpse still clutching a suitcase nuke. This works from a mechanical perspective: it encourages early-game exploration, rewards players for investing in recon units, and offers a trade-off: do I muster troops to take out a defended site, or do I use them to hit one of the other players? But crucially, it also adds to the theme. Scavenging is part and parcel of any post-apocalyptic world, and AE’s specific choice of locations adds further flavour. What do the slave pits and cannibal ruins tell us about the catastrophe that befell the world? What does the gaudy casino defended by gangsters tell us about how some survivors have managed to make their living? And just who was that poor devil with the suitcase nuke?
The third element that makes AE special is the broadest and most intangible of the three, but also possibly the most important: this game is evocative. For me, every single-player video game is at least partly an exercise in imagination, in temporarily convincing me that I’m not just making pixels blink on a screen – I’m building a city, piloting a spaceship, saving the world. And this is where AE shines. Partly, this is thanks to the factors I discussed above. Exploration brings the game’s world alive, and the relative scarcity of pieces in play means that (a little like a squad-based game or tactical RPG) it’s easy to construct narratives about the Vengeance mech you always sent where the fighting was fiercest, or the plucky marines who seized the alien HQ with a surprise landing. Partly, this is due to the way so many game mechanics revolve around hero units, giving AE a human face. New inventions (see the above screenshot – better vehicle armour, man-portable laser cannon, tactical and strategic nukes…) don’t spring from a well of “science points” – they come from scientist heroes, who have to roll dice against their skills. That suitcase nuke won’t magically walk to another player’s base – a saboteur hero, such as the humans’ Valentine Kusanagi**, has to infiltrate the hex and make a successful roll. Partly, this is due to inspired card art. The Colossus mech is one of the scariest units in the game, and to see why, look at the screenshot below. That thing has to be the size of a skyscraper! Partly, it’s due to the way different game mechanics interact in clear and intuitive ways: my scouts found a nest of survivors in a destroyed city, which let me call in a tactician and some Imperial Marines, who secured a forward outpost, which I used as an airbase to launch a nuclear strike and win the game. Partly, it’s due to… I could go on, but the point is AE is so much more than the sum of its parts. I walk away from every match feeling like I enacted a heroic story, and that’s one of the best things I can say about a game.
One might wonder why, if AE is so good and has been around for five years, it isn’t also better known. To be sure, it’s not perfect. There’s no in-game tutorial, and while it’s a rare game whose controls I can’t figure out just by messing around, AE’s are sufficiently unintuitive to require reading the manual or a how-to-play guide (I recommend Bill Harris’). Its interface leaves something to be desired, even by indie strategy game standards, and so does its coding – I’ve had to abandon a couple of matches due to glitches. But I don’t think the problem is the rough edges – none of them seriously hurts the gameplay. I think the problem is precisely that AE has been around for five years. It was very much ahead of its time: despite its glowing critical reception, it was not only a TBS, but an indie TBS for the PC, in the days before iPads, hip indie bundles, and the recent renaissance of small/mid-market games.
And that really is a shame, because five years on, AE doesn’t just “hold up” – it shines as an example of what this genre can do. More than a very good game, more than a possibly great game, AE is a unique game, packed with lessons in design. This is one game I think every strategy aficionado, and certainly every strategy designer, should play.
* There are a couple of exceptions, but this holds true as a general rule.
** I also like the shout-outs that Vic Davis scattered throughout the game!
This week’s song is neither an opening nor a closing theme — it is, effectively, Okami‘s overworld theme. It’s the background music for the Shinshuu Fields, the “hub” area for the game’s first act, and much like the Morrowind theme from two weeks ago, its lilting, upbeat tones are the perfect thing to send you off on an adventure. Enjoy!
Track: “Shinshu Plains 1” & “Shinshu Plains 2” (spliced together in this video and in the in-game music player)
Hi everyone — I’ve just added a new way to follow the site. For those of you on Facebook, you can keep an eye on the Matchsticks for my Eyes Facebook page (which reprints links to everything that goes up on the mothership), and feel free to drop a “like” or two!
In other site news, it’s been a couple of weeks since the last major update — I’ve been tardy, I know! However, I’ve spent some of that time with a couple of big new strategy releases, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion and Civilization V: Gods and Kings, so I should be able to give my thoughts on one or both of them soon. Also, stay tuned for a piece on the lessons designers can learn from Armageddon Empires, a 2007 indie game that blends strategy game and CCG influences, and a write-up of the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, one of the best creative works (in any medium) I’ve encountered. Hope to see you round for those posts!
From an opinion piece in last Monday (25 June’s) edition of the Australian Financial Review, page 43. The author, Mark Lawson, mockingly lists ways for politicians to waste their time:
Playing computer games. After a period with Civilization V (the game title uses the American spelling), I’ve switched back to Civilization IV as the game play is generally more exciting. But for long periods I’ve been into Medieval II, Victoria II, and Darkest Hour (a fan remake of the classic Hearts of Iron II game).
But if Julia Gillard wants real detail in her games, she could try the very complex Hearts of Iron III…
… For those who want a more active experience, the zombie shoot ’em up Left For Dead my son sometimes plays on the internet seems like fun. For those not into conquest or zombie stomps, my daughter recommends The Sims III.
Total War, Paradox, and Civ — I certainly can’t quarrel with Mr Lawson’s taste in historical strategy.