All roads lead to where you want: I want an open-world Roman game

Odds are you’ve heard of the Grand Theft Auto series (modern-day, urban crime action-adventures), even if you’re not a gamer. It was Grand Theft Auto III (2001) that propelled open-world games to prominence in the industry, but open-world games have been around for a long time – and while I am not very interested in GTA’s setting, luckily for me, it’s just the tip of the open-world iceberg. There are open-world first person shooters, such as Far Cry 2, set in an African civil war; and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, set in a near-future “Zone” around Chernobyl populated by mutants, monsters and mercenaries. There are open-world RPGs, such as fantasy epics Daggerfall through to Oblivion; and the post-apocalyptic Fallout series. There’s an open-world medieval combat simulator, the Mount and Blade series. There is even the open-world, multi-genre, minigame-filled extravaganza Space Rangers 2, where you variously fly a spaceship around the galaxy, command ground forces in an RTS, and get out of jail by playing text adventures.

 

But there is one potentially awesome setting that has been overlooked: Ancient Rome. Specifically, the city of Rome, during the fall of the Republic.

 

Now, Rome has a lot of things going for it. From a marketability perspective, we’ve all heard of it. We may no longer learn Latin in school, but we have seen the HBO TV series, watched Gladiator, played Rome: Total War. From a gameplay perspective, Rome was big! In its heyday, it was the most populous city in the world, and it offers a corresponding amount of variety for players.

 

Imagine a game that began with choosing a background a la Dragon Age. Perhaps you’re an equestrian youngster from the provinces? A dissolute patrician? Or the scion of an august senatorial clan? Then, choose your skills, choose your friends, and build a career as a hoodlum, orator and lawyer, aspiring politician, or merchant*, with distinct minigames and social circles: perhaps a text-based adventure for a lawsuit or a Senate debate, a trading sim for a mercantile transaction, a brawler for the street combat. These categories wouldn’t even be mutually exclusive! This was a city where politicians hired street gangs to beat up their rivals – and died at the hands of their rivals’ gangs.

 

Or if you wanted a more actiony game, what about the Hollywood, sword-and-sandals version of Rome? Consider Centurion: Defender of Rome (as described here by Troy Goodfellow), which, 20 years ago, let you race chariots, fight as a gladiator, and command the flagship at sea, in between more conventional land battles (preceding Rome: Total War). How cool would that be with modern-day technology, and the ability to explore Rome in between bouts?

 

Rome is only the start as far as historical settings are concerned. I know almost nothing about, say, early 1700s London, but from what little I know, it would work well: dystopic squalor amongst commoners and in Newgate Prison for a “street”-level game, tension between Whigs and Tories in the corridors of power for a more political game, the shenanigans of the South Sea Company for a game about the budding world of modern finance. Or – to name another setting I don’t know much about, but which sounds very cool – what of a game in 1500s or 1600s Asia, a world that increasingly encountered European freebooters, merchants and companies hungry for porcelain and spices?

 

Human history, in all its richness, is often tapped by strategy games and wargames. But to the best of my knowledge, there are rather fewer open-world games that take advantage of its possibilities. This is a pity. I hope I’ve shown the potential in a Roman game, or an early-modern British game, or an Age of Discovery Asian game – and if Rockstar can branch out to the Wild West with Red Dead Redemption, who’s to say that one day, we might not get free rein of the city on the Tiber?

 

* I haven’t played this series, Taikou Risshiden, but, in that it’s about playing one of a number of professions such as swordsmith, merchant and warrior, it sounds a lot like a Sengoku Japanese version of what I have in mind.

Magicka demo impressions: sadly, it’s the little things that count

Update: Following a patch, Magicka now allows you to save and quit at checkpoints (previously, quitting in mid-level would lose your progress). I now own the full game.

 

After hearing about Magicka, a newly-released game, on the Quarter to Three forums, I was intrigued. After reading this writeup of the game, courtesy of Rock Paper Shotgun, I had to try its demo. After actually playing the demo… well, I’m glad I tried before I reached for my wallet.

 

The gameplay itself is, no pun intended, a blast. Think of it as a Lina Inverse simulator: the game is about fighting off hordes of goblins, trolls, and other nasties by tapping out different magic elements on your keyboard/gamepad to produce different spells. So tapping earth will fling rocks at your foes. Tapping earth and fire will lob a fireball. Lightning and fire together will jump from foe to foe and set them alight. Cold and arcane will produce a beam that freezes enemies in their tracks. Water will make enemies (or yourself!) more vulnerable to subsequent lightning magic… The devastation you can unleash is enormous, and the gameplay, as you mash the spellcasting buttons, is suitably frantic.

 

No, the problem is the technical package in which the gameplay is wrapped. You can’t just save anywhere you please. At least during the demo, the game isn’t as generous as I’d like with checkpoints, so I can clear out a room, die on the next room, and have to play the first room all over again. But that pales in comparison next to the fact that you can’t save midway through a level, exit, and resume where you left off. And we are not talking about five-minute levels here –30-40 minute sessions weren’t enough for me to finish the first level. You can remap the keyboard and gamepad controls, and return the keyboard to its default – but I haven’t yet seen any ability to return the gamepad to its default. And multiplayer, a major selling point of the game, reportedly doesn’t work.

 

I understand the developer and publisher are aware of the complaints. A patch has already been released, and more are on the way. That said, I was not encouraged to read, on the Steam forum:

 

“A save option can’t be added without some serious investement in coding time.

we’d much rather spend that time on fixes, more polish and other requested features.”

 

I hope Magicka’s developer will quickly tidy up its infuriating problems, because I want to fully enjoy its potential. ‘Til then, I’m saving my $10.

What I’ve been playing over the 2010 holidays; impressions of King Arthur & Far Cry 2

Over the last couple of weeks, while I’ve played a fair bit of Civilization V, on the whole I’ve taken the scattergun approach and spent a little bit of time on a lot of games instead of focusing on a couple of titles. Some of the games I played are old favourites: I returned to Fallout 3 in order to blast through the Broken Steel DLC before I wrote my feature on storytelling in Fallout 3; and I tried my hand at what seems to be the most popular challenge for Europa Universalis III veterans, rebuilding the Byzantine Empire. Some were titles that I hadn’t played before, but which I’ve owned for some time. And some were new games, largely purchased during Steam’s recent holiday sale. Here are my impressions on some of the games in the two latter categories:

 

  • King  Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame (new game): So far, I’m impressed by the production values of this game, its dark, brooding art and ethereal vocal music, and I love the premise that King Arthur and his knights live in a world filled with giants and faeries both “seelie” and “unseelie”, Christians pushing back against the old gods, and where half of England is covered by a mystic forest where time passes differently. However, I haven’t got the hang of the actual gameplay yet: more often than not, my battles seem to degenerate into confused brawls in the woods.

 

  • Bioshock and Mass Effect (backlogged games): Both these games intrigue me, and on paper, I should love both of them: one reputedly has fantastic writing and themes, the other is supposed to be a well-executed space opera pastiche. But neither has really grabbed me after the first hour or so, and again, the gameplay looks to be the culprit. Which takes me to…

 

  • Far Cry 2 (new game): This is the stand-out of the games I’ve dabbled in. When the game opened with a bumpy jeep ride through sub-Saharan Africa, with the driver telling stories about brush fires, bribing mercenaries at a checkpoint, and pointing out the last plane out of the country, I knew I was in for a distinctive, original setting. And when I lost my car in game, trudged along for a little while, realised why people find a car so essential to get around, and decided to raid a mercenary outpost just so I could loot a new one, I knew I was in for a distinctive play experience.

 

I still have many more titles I need to dig more deeply into (AI War, Rise of Nations, Rise of Legends, The Sims 3, Resonance of Fate, Dragon Age…) and something else may well capture my attention. But just based on what I’ve played so far, I suspect Far Cry 2 will end up booting Bioshock and maybe Mass Effect back down into my backlog. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I like Far Cry 2, given that I also enjoyed STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, another atmospheric open-world shooter. And as a result, I suspect those shooters I buy in the future will likely be in the same vein.

The joy of playing with other people in Worms Reloaded

While I have been in no great hurry to play single-player Worms Reloaded, the recently-released (August) entry in Team 17’s long-running series,  multiplayer is a different story. Anyone living with me should be able to tell when I’m playing multiplayer Worms, simply by listening to how much delighted laughter rings out from the room. Of course, any game is better in multiplayer (for example, adding other humans turns diplomacy into a key element of the gameplay experience – and Worms is no exception), but there are a couple of factors in particular which stand out for Worms.

 

First is the slapstick tone of the action in a multiplayer game, as  each player’s worms open up on their foes with bazookas, grenades, and more exotic weapons such as Holy Hand Grenades and flying explosive sheep. Half the fun is when worms blow themselves up with explosive weapons, or conversely pull off utterly implausible shots across the length of the map. Here I think the turn-based nature of the game helps, because it builds up tension – oh no, what could that guy be up to on his turn? He’s lining up a shot… Can he hit? Will he hit? Will he hii— The length of each turn is just right (a minute, give or take). The bloodless but grotesquely exaggerated, Looney Tunes-esque violence is just right: explosive-but-inaccurate weapons have far more potential for comic misuse than precise ones. The colour palette is vivid and cheery (see this screenshot on Giant Bomb). But the humour is conditioned on knowing that there is an actual human being behind every one of those moves. Against the computer player, the tension might still be there, but the game now becomes a straightforward man-against-machine test of skill. Bad AI is when a computer-controlled worm blows itself up; laughter is when another human player’s worm blows itself up.

 

Second is the way in which multiplayer Worms Reloaded allows players to showcase their imaginations. Players can customise the worms on their team in a variety of ways: names, hats, tombstones, voices. So in a multiplayer match, one of my little pleasures is seeing the theme that everyone has come up with. My worms are named Julius, Brutus, Scipio, and SPQR; wear Hollywood Roman helmets; and proclaim things such as, “Am I not merciful?” (when they miss a shot), “I would rather be first in a village than second in the empire!”, and, when I dawdle too long in taking my turn, “You procrastinate like the Senate!” I’ve seen teams of worms modelled on robots, varieties of cheese, even German generals, with voices to match. And I am eager to see what players could do with some of the other Worms voice sets, such as the cod-Shakespearian (“A donkey, a donkey, my kingdom for a donkey!”).

 

Now, neither factor is unique to Worms. There are other over-the-top, goofy games out there – that said, while I am sure ones oriented towards multiplayer exist, offhand I can’t think of any. And there are other games that allow players to show off their creativity – I’m thinking of the ability to share families and lots in The Sims 3, plus character customisation in MMOGs.  But combining those two features into something approximating the simple joy of childhood play, plus good nuts-and-bolts gameplay (beyond the scope of this article, but check out the reviews for more details), worked very well for Team 17.

 

Hmm, maybe I should set aside some time this weekend for some multiplayer Worms…