I choose you! Combat in Final Fantasy X

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Final Fantasy X

FFX Valefor in action

In my last piece about Final Fantasy X, I wrote about its biggest draw: its world, its story, and the way the two interact. What makes FFX a good game, not just a good worldbuilding exercise, is the second thing it does well: combat.


The principles behind the combat system are straightforward, but implemented well:


1. It’s turn-based, with turn order depending on speed – zippy characters move more often than slower ones.

2. The active party comprises three characters (out of a total of seven playable), and in one of FFX’s most distinctive features, you can freely switch characters during battle.

3. Each character begins with a distinct role and a unique progression upon level-up (they can eventually mix and match, while an alternate game mode allows customisation from the outset).


The net effect is the best battle system I can remember in a numbered Final Fantasy. Battles are fast to play (which is important, given how frequent they are) and not very difficult – I think the only game over screen I’ve seen was the result of a boss fight. At the same time, they require the player to do more than simply mash “attack”, an area where all too many JRPGs fall down. At its simplest, this is due to the need to target the right enemy with the right character (compare Persona). For instance, veteran swordsman Auron hits hard but has difficulty connecting against flying enemies, so I use him against armoured, ground-bound enemies instead. If the only enemies left are fliers, or resist physical attacks, then out goes Auron and in comes the black mage. In a more complex fight, I might open by using a support character to buff the party, swap him out in favour of a debuff specialist (1), and finally swap in the damage dealers.

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Final Fantasy X HD: The magic returns

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Final Fantasy X

FFX Landscape Moonflow

Imagine being flung into an alien world, a thousand years hence. Imagine navigating a new society, with nothing left of your home but a few hauntingly familiar notes.


That is the premise of Final Fantasy X, whose Vita re-release (Final Fantasy X HD) is probably my favourite game this year. Imaginative and believable, the world of FFX stands head and shoulders over many other RPGs – its Final Fantasy siblings included. In fact, after 20 hours, I’d argue it outdoes the majority of games! Our window onto the story is Tidus: athlete, likeable if not especially bright goofball (1), and fish out of water. One day, he’s a champion blitzball player – think fantasy underwater soccer. The next, a monstrous fiend has levelled his city, and when he wakes, his home is no more than a myth.

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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.

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.


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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).

Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai first impressions

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2
"The Battle of Hakodate", c. 1880. Artist unknown. Courtesy Wikipedia.


Note: my final review can be found here.


With its promise of firearms, ironclads, and railroads, I was eager to leap into Fall of the Samurai, the nineteenth century-themed expansion to Shogun 2. After getting ~70-80 turns (up to 1867) in my abortive first campaign on “hard” difficulty, starting a second hard campaign, and then reaching the mid/late game (1866) of a third campaign on “normal” (all three times as the Nagaoka clan), here are my early thoughts:


I like the balance between firearm and traditional units. At first, cheap spear levies should remain the core of any army – early muskets are inaccurate and slow-firing, which makes levy musketeers better suited to manning fortress walls than to the open field. However, it doesn’t take long (~12 turns) to unlock modern rifles, which shoot much faster and more accurately than the muskets. Train up a decent force of riflemen (again, this doesn’t take long; they’re not too expensive, and they only take a single turn to recruit), and you can safely relegate the spearmen to anti-cavalry support or castle wall fodder. And not only does better technology unlock new units, it also grants bonuses to the basic ones, so those basic riflemen remain useful later on. In my first game, it was a delight to give a whole army of charging samurai a lesson in modern warfare.


Fortress assaults are even more lethal, due to the ubiquity of guns. Against well-defended castles, artillery seems to be essential.


I have yet to get the hang of naval warfare. Unlike Empire and Napoleon: Total War, all the ships are steam-powered, so the wind doesn’t play as big a role as it did in those games. For now, it seems to be a matter of bringing the most (and the most technologically advanced) cannon, engaging broadside to broadside, and praying one of your ships doesn’t blow up to a lucky hit. I have not yet unlocked the high-end naval units (ironclads and torpedo boats), so these might shake up the equation.


Naval bombardments are cool without unbalancing the game. If a land battle takes place near a friendly fleet, you can call in up to two barrages. While powerful, they have a very long cooldown and aren’t especially precise, so navies aren’t the “I win” button.


Money is harder to come by. There are no more trade nodes, so to obtain goods for export (silk, tea, etc), you have to seize the provinces where they’re produced. As such, resource-producing provinces are now far more valuable than in the base game. This is even more pronounced when playing on “hard” difficulty, in which everything is more expensive.


On “hard”, the AI loves to dogpile you – especially if you’re at war with its allies. You do get significant diplomatic bonuses with clans that share your allegiance (pro-shogun or pro-imperial), but that, by itself, is no guarantee of your safety. In this regard, Fall feels similar to the previous expansion pack, Rise of the Samurai.


The in-battle voices have deteriorated. No more Japanese voice acting from your units, no more “yari ashigaru de gozaimasu!”, and no more advisor yelling, “shameful display!” Instead units acknowledge orders in accented English a la Rome: Total War, and the battle commentary now comes from a hammy, booming-voiced, all-American sort (“The enemies’ allies run like he-eathens from a preacher, sir!”). I liked things better in the original. Still, this is a relatively minor problem for me.


The “hard” difficulty setting lives up to its name – after a while, I found it more frustrating than fun. “Hard equates to more demands on less money (costlier buildings + more enemy armies to fight), and the overall difficulty is closer to Rise of the Samurai than to the base game. Unless you’re a lot better than me at Shogun 2, I don’t recommend Hard for your first game.


Meanwhile, “normal” turned out to be pretty easy once I  hit the midgame. It would be nice if there were a difficulty setting in between. (Of course, realm divide could shake me out of my complacency!)


Apart from the difficulty, though, so far so good. I missed Empire’s gunpowder warfare, and I’m glad to see it back in Shogun’s more polished form. Watch this space for more!


UPDATE: So as of late 1867, I can state that on “normal”, the short campaign is quick enough to finish in a single day. I haven’t finished… yet. But I’m two provinces away from fulfilling the victory condition (14 provinces, plus Kyoto and Edo in the hands of Shogunate-aligned clans), and standing on the cusp of realm divide. I could easily have won the game any time in the last hour and a half; I’ve just been holding off so I can unlock the endgame units (Gatling guns!).


UPDATE 2:  Went back to an earlier save and won the campaign, on “normal”, in one day! Hurray!


UPDATE 3: Reflecting on my campaigns as Nagaoka, I feel disappointed with Fall. While as noted above, I really like Fall‘s basic building blocks, the difficulty and pacing have prevented my early experiences from becoming the sum of their parts. I’ve described above my problems with the “hard” campaign, and “normal” turned into a pushover once I got past the early game — all the nearby clans were either friendly, too small to be a threat, or both. And since I was playing the short campaign, realm divide wasn’t a serious danger: this only kicked in after I took 13 provinces, and only needed one province more to win! (The victory thresholds, at 14 provinces for the short campaign and 26 for the long, are far lower than for the base game.) However, I’m willing to give Fall another chance: it’s possible I was (A) unlucky*, (B) playing a less fun faction, (C) unwise to play a short campaign, (D) not experienced enough for my first, “hard” campaign (when I was still learning how Fall worked) and too experienced for the later, “normal” campaign, or (E) some/all of the above. I look forward to reporting back once I’ve tried another campaign.

Attack, defence, and the art of Wargame

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon
I wish I were as good as this guy: Zhuge Liang, the original strategist

It’s pretty clichéd to describe inventions – military, cybersecurity, maybe even medicine – as a race between offence and defence: I invent a weapon, you invent armour, I invent a bigger weapon.  But that could almost sum up how my approach to Wargame has evolved. It’s not just that I’ve learned how to counter unit X, or how best to use unit Y. My overall strategy, the way I look at a map and lay my plans, has shifted: first from overly-aggressive to overly-defensive, and now hopefully to a happy medium.


This is how I learned.


1. Never believe everything you read on the internet


The "I win" button?


Internet forum threads made multiplayer mode sound so easy. Most players are careless, the forumites boasted. They don’t guard their backs with anti-aircraft units, they’re heedless of the dangers that can lurk in forests. All I had to do was:


i. Fly over a few Black Hawks, loaded with the toughest troops money can buy.

ii. Drop off my men in forests near enemy HQs.

iii.  Laugh as they roll over unsuspecting targets.


Why learn the intricacies of commanding tanks, infantry, artillery? Chop off the head (eliminate all of a team’s command units) and the body dies (that team loses the game). It worked against the computer, when I tried it once! The war would be over by Christmas!


As it turned out, most players were not that careless. Anti-aircraft fire swatted away helicopters that flew too close, and a few tanks or flamethrowers could usually swat away commando raids. Meanwhile, I found myself regularly outplayed in the nuts-and-bolts ground war.


2. The art of defence; or, David vs Goliath


Ambush by anti-tank missile team


Out went the tactical gimmicks, which sounded so good on paper and were so easily countered by simple precautions. In came a focus on learning the basics of the game – down to defending against frontal assaults. Since I usually play Nato, this meant “how not to be overrun by cheap, powerful, abundant Eastern Bloc tanks.”


This was when I learned the value of cheap anti-tank missiles, carried by infantry (as in the above screenshot), or as in the screenshot below, jeeps and French Gazelle helicopters.


How to stop unsupported tanks


Cost of a jeep with an I-TOW missile launcher: 25 deployment points

Cost of a Gazelle with HOT missiles: 45 points

Cost of a high-end Soviet tank, such as those they demolished: 60 to 110 points

Satisfaction of gutting the enemy assault: Priceless


True, in this case, the opposing team had played exceptionally poorly, driving tanks down a highway with no recon; no anti-aircraft support (this had been left in the next village over, where it was completely useless); and inaccurate and mis-targeted artillery. But a victory was a victory!


3. The last argument of kings


Find good defensive position, dig in with infantry and jeeps with anti-tank missiles, support with other units as needed, massacre attackers. Win?


Fighting in the shade


The above screenshot shows my troops being rocketed by one of the most powerful artillery units in the game, the Soviet Smerch. It wasn’t quite as devastating as it looks: my column was on the move, and many of my units (e.g. the tanks) were armoured. But infantry and jeeps with anti-tank missiles are not armoured. And if they’re in a defensive position – i.e. not moving – that leaves them frightfully vulnerable to well-aimed artillery.  Guess what I encountered more and more often?


Clearly, finding one spot to turtle was not the answer.


4. The art of attack; or, know thy battlespace


Around the same time I realised I was placing too much emphasis on defence and not enough on manoeuvre, I watched a Youtube replay of a match between top-10 players. The contrast could not have been more stark. These guys made full use of the large map: they spread out their troops, they sent out raiding parties, they tried to flank each other using side roads, they were proactive.


Back to the tactical drawing board I went. It was time I rediscovered the offensive – or, to be precise, time I learned how to balance offence and defence. Time I moved freely instead of pinning myself down; time I learned to strike along one front while defending along another. And to my frequent joy, I discovered that while most players know to watch their backs against aircraft, only the better ones seem to watch their flanks.


A successful attack


The transition wasn’t instant. In my first ranked battle, I crushed my opponent with a small but powerful flanking force of tanks supported by an infantry-heavy anvil*.  Soon afterwards, in the exact same forest on the exact same map, I focused too much on the anvil only to have the enemy blast it to bits. One match exemplified this – I pushed ahead with scouts, realised the other team had left their entire flank open, and bulldozed their artillery – and while our team lost by a hair, we might just have won if I’d brought more tanks (good on attack and defence) and fewer infantry (best on defence).


But the trend was there. And it reached its most satisfying point in the last match I played, the source of that Smerch screenshot above. The other team brought enough artillery to blot out the sun, enough to wipe me out if I’d turtled.


I did not turtle.


A target-rich environment: enemy artillery & supply depots



When that Smerch barrage came in, my armoured column was already halfway to the other team’s artillery. My soldiers regrouped; drove on. And once they arrived, revenge was sweet. The battle wasn’t the pushover I’d hoped: the other team called in more and more tanks to defend. But slowly, surely, it went my way. When my first wave went up in flames, my second wave picked up the slack. The enemy reinforcements slowed to a trickle. And my third wave started rolling in. Our team’s score had been well behind the enemy; now it leapt up and up. We fired the last shot, and when the match finished, we were ahead in points.


The game called it a draw, but I know who really won.


* I won despite accidentally buying the wrong infantry unit to support my tanks in the “hammer”!

How to lose Crusader Kings II: a very short guide

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden


Being a small collection of ways to lose:


Not Enough Relatives


1. Lack of male heirs. No sons, no other applicable males, and no time to rush through that female inheritance law.


2. Failure to read the fine print. Matrilinear. Important word. If your heir is female, it’s the single most important word in the English language after “tea”. It means that her offspring will inherit her dynasty name, i.e. you can play as them. Marry your little princess off in a standard marriage – in which she joins her husband’s family – and it’s the end of your line, no matter how many bratlings she produces.


3. Mass death. So you’ve done your duty and provided for the succession. Then the plague/Mongols/assassins/tournament come to town, and before you know it, people are dropping dead left, right and centre due to freak bad luck.


Too Many Relatives


4. Ill-considered gavelkind. You succeed, overwhelmingly. Title after title falls into your sweaty little hands. Heirs pose no problem: you’ve got sons and to spare. Then, your character dies. Suddenly your realm fractures – and you discover that under gavelkind law, the eldest heir only receives a single “copy” of the highest level title. All “duplicates” at that level will be handed out to the younger heirs. Where before you were the King of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, you are now the King of England, with neighbourly Kings of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Back to square 1; say hello to fraternal in-fighting, and freshly predatory neighbours.


5. Uncles. Your new character is a 2-year-old with the ‘drooling moron’ trait. He’s rated at 0 in every stat. Even his twin sister hates him. Thanks to dear Daddy’s martial exploits, the treasury is empty, the armies are dead, and family authority shaky. Along comes dear uncle with his shiny blood claim, and it all goes like the proverbial fairytale. In no time at all moron-boy is reduced to count of a single African province which provides no income and no levies thanks to being recently conquered. Did I mention kindly Uncle has a different dynasty name to his darling nephew? Control will not pass to him should Tiny Tim have a tragic accident…



Own Petard, Hoist By


6. Wives. So your wife hates you, you’ve got no children, and she’s just gained the ambition to become your spymaster? She’s got a good intrigue score, and fulfilling her ambition will make her happy. What’s the worst that could happen? This could be the turning point of your relationship, the start of many years’ happy contentment and, more importantly, the source of a child or three. Two months later you notice your wine tastes funny…


7. Wives II: The Revenge. After 20 years of marriage you still haven’t got a child. A beautiful young courtier looks at you in a certain way, and something pops up. No, not that, thank you! An event offering you the chance of an affair. The tooltip says you have a chance at producing a bastard child! You click “Woohoo!” as quickly as your mouse will allow, brain already alight with plans for legitimising your bastard and using it as an heir. Score – one baby on the way! Then you die. Belatedly you recall that your wife has a high intrigue rating and a jealous disposition. Since it’s a mite difficult to rule a kingdom whilst in the womb, game over.


8. Being too liberal. Your son and heir is now a grown man. Capable of making his own decisions. Right? You give him some titles and off he goes, leaving your court to establish his own and begin building his prestige. Wait – you did marry him off before you let him go, right? You didn’t?! Now he’s free to choose his own wife. Next thing you know, you’re pasting a fixed smile on your face, shaking the hand of your chaste, octogenarian daughter-in-law and wondering how much it will cost to get her removed. Then you notice your son’s spymaster is way better than yours, and you’ve no chance of killing her. Oh well, at that age nature will soon take its course, right? Amazingly, this elderly lady out-lives both her husband and her father-in-law.


9. Marriage. You marry your daughter to the son of a powerful neighbour. It’s all good, right? You’ve got a powerful ally, and the next generation on that throne will have your blood – oh crap! Your blood! Thanks to your current laws, that means a claim on your titles, and their army is like ten times bigger than yours! Kill the happy couple? It’s the only hope! Assassin fail, assassin fail, assassin fail, bankruptcy, discovery, pissed off marriage-ally, train headed down tunnel right at your face.


10. Getting too clever for your own good. Family tree grown a bit messy? Too many people got blood links and claims to your shiny stuff? The future could get scary. Why not tidy things up a little with the aid of your good friend, Mr Assassin? Yay! Now the tree is all nice and neat, like a pretty little bonsai. Then your heir discovers he prefers other men, your daughter-in-law takes to religion in a hardcore way, and your sole grandkid dies of the plague. Whoops!



Live By The Sword…


11. Pope-assisted suicide. So you’re the lord of a tiny realm with an income of three goats and a sheep per year? Life’s sweet – in another 70 years you will be able to afford that rickety wooden palisade castle upgrade which you’ve been eyeing for the last 2 generations! Then along comes Il Papa with his talk of glory, religious duty, and sweet, sweet loot, and off you rush on Crusade, eyes a-gleam at the thought of funding a new chicken coop with liberated gold. Only to realise that one province target has a whole alliance network, meaning half of the Muslim universe is now coming to visit you at home. Peace? They don’t want peace – they want your chickens, your palisade fund, and your sole title! Meanwhile, the rest of Christendom wisely decided to sit this one out.


12. Ambitious AI lords. When your liege, King Suicide McDeath III, declares war on a more powerful kingdom for the twentieth time that decade, you’d better find a get-out clause in that vassalage-contract, or you’re going down in a flame of bankruptcy, rebels, stress, battle wounds, and angry mercenaries.


13. HRE. That’s Holy Roman Empire for those of you who don’t have the game. You are a minor lord. You’re outside the HRE. The HRE think that by rights you should be part of it. They declare war. Approximately 100,000,000,000 soldiers are now headed your way, supported by the wealth of half Europe. Your army of 11 people and a pig stand no chance! Swiftly, you send a grovelling peace offer. Denied! They want your title, without you attached. And since you can’t give away your last title, that means…


14. Pagans. Hi, I’m the King of Poland. My realm is compact, and pretty, and peaceful, and rich, and it’s got some nice armies too. Life is happy! Oh look, one of my neighbours is a one-province pagan dude with no allies. He will be easy to crush. Based on the number of soldiers I get from my provinces, he should have around 250 soldiers. War time! Let’s loot – er, convert the savages. Argh! Where did they all come from, the thousands of angry pagans, with the anger and the pointy weapons, and did I mention that there’s thousands of them!? Gah! My armies are all dead without so much as denting the hordes! Now all my other pagan neighbours are declaring war on me too! God? I need some help spreading Your word (and not dying) here. God? Are You there? God? God!?


Being a small collection of ways to win:


1. Survive over 300 years and reach the end date. You’ll get shown your score, and probably be told you did worse than various historical dynasties.


2. Lose.


3. I mean it: lose.


4. Losing is far more fun than building a huge kingdom and holding it until 1453. Thus, winning is losing by another name. Losing, now that’s a whole pile of win!


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.

The Panzer General’s grandson: an introduction to Wargame: European Escalation

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon
Going into action


It took a lot to drag me away from Crusader Kings 2; “ a lot” came in the form of Wargame: European Escalation, the Cold-War-gone-hot RTS from RUSE developer Eugen Systems. I’m still climbing its learning curve, but I’ve played enough to get a decent taste of its campaign, multiplayer, and to a lesser extent, skirmish modes. Several things stand out:


Simulation meets accessibility


Just as Panzer General did for the mid-nineties, Wargame: European Escalation does for 2012. Specifically, it’s a beer-and-pretzels wargame, a title that combines real-world principles such as morale, logistics, visibility, and flanking with a sleek, approachable RTS veneer. Terrain matters: driving along a highway is faster, but leaves you vulnerable to anyone lurking nearby, while forests can provide shelter for special forces raids. Think a deeper version of the tactical battles in Total War, one that also allowed you to call on reinforcements in mid-battle.


For example, take the above screenshot, from the second level of the campaign. My units are blue; the computer’s, in brown. My attack is occurring along three prongs: I have tanks pushing up from the left and the centre, but on the right, hidden by the forest, I have another mixed force of tanks and infantry ready to move up and hit the enemy in the flank. Tanks have much weaker armour on their sides than on their fronts, so this works just as well as it does in Total War. This was a huge risk, because I’d have been unable to see anyone hidden in the middle of the forest – and tanks are horribly vulnerable to point-blank ambushes – but it paid off! If I’d simply charged up the road in the middle, things would have gone much less well. Note the enemy tanks in the hedgerow at the upper middle of the picture – a frontal assault may very well have led to me being the one taking fire from the sides.


Just as important are the other supporting units. Recon units, the ones with the binoculars next to their names, are vital to spotting ambushes and keeping an eye on the enemy’s movements – and in this game, if you can see a unit, you can probably kill it. Anti-tank missile teams can make short work of even the most expensive tanks, but tend to carry little ammo and can’t shoot on the move. Artillery is horribly inaccurate when fired blindly, but when someone – such as those guys with binoculars! – has a line of sight on their target, an artillery barrage can stun, panic, or disorient defenders, and kill the lightly armoured ones outright… such as, say, those anti-tank crews. Helicopters are target practice if you have good anti-aircraft units, and murder if you don’t. What happens if I aim my best artillery not at the other guy’s tanks, but at his AA? Supply trucks and helicopters are unglamorous, but resupplying fuel and ammunition is vital.


Unit variety/unlocks


The tip of the iceberg: some of the game's tanks


Real-world tactics demand real-world units, and Wargame’s metagame revolves around unlocking these. Completing campaign objectives or playing multiplayer (not skirmish!) matches will earn stars, and different units have a varying cost in stars to unlock. Normally I would not be a fan of this; however, earning stars is quick enough for me not to mind.


So, how many units are there in all? According to Eugen, the answer is over 350: light tanks, heavy tanks, old tanks, new tanks, jeeps, scout cars, mortars, artillery, rocket artillery, recon helicopters, attack helicopters, infantry in personnel carriers, infantry in transport helicopters… These vary across a range of dimensions: weapons, armour, accuracy, speed, fuel/ammo capacity, and cost in deployment points. Even accounting for duplicates and units that occupy the same niche, that is a lot of choices. Some are clearly over- or under-powered for their cost, but Eugen’s balance patches are chipping away at this list. Most are situational, and this is the beauty of the unlock system. Stars are abundant enough for me to have lots of cool toys to play with, but not so abundant that I have every cool toy to play with, which forces me to make interesting decisions even before I begin a match.


The single-player campaign


Wargame includes a 22-mission campaign, divided into four smaller sub-campaigns (which you have to play in sequence). So far I’m up to the fifth mission, and I think the best way to describe these would be “challenges”.


The campaign missions are challenges in two senses. First, they’re difficult. Usually, but not always, they require driving the computer from specified locations; this can be tricky for several reasons. First, the computer is often well dug in. Second, while there is no formal time limit to attack (though winning in X time can be a bonus objective), finite supplies impose a practical limit – turtle too long and you could run low on ammo. Third, you have to keep casualties down: there are only finite troops available in each mini-campaign, and keeping units alive from mission to mission allows them to gain experience (once again, a la Panzer General). Fourth, the computer can counterattack – in one mission I didn’t cover my flanks, leading to the enemy rolling up my supply lines and almost wiping me out! I won that mission in the end, but it was by the skin of my teeth: a crazy drive by a single command jeep to the victory objective*. The net effect is that after the first mission (effectively a tutorial), I’ve really had to work for each victory.


Second, the campaign feels as though the game designers have set me a string of problems, each of which is meant to teach me something. “Peter,” Professor Wargame says when I play the campaign, “the computer is dug into positions A, B and C, and it’s scripted to do X, Y, and Z. Given this set of tools, how would you achieve your objective?” And it succeeds at this. At the end of each mission, win or lose, I tend to walk away feeling as though I’ve learned something about modern military tactics. There is an element of hindsight involved when I replay missions, but so far, I feel as though I could have won the first time through with better tactics. For example, the three-pronged attack in the screenshot at the top followed my belated discovery of the perils of a frontal assault, and “okay, I’ll come under attack from this direction, so I’d better place some tanks over there!” could have been avoided had I kept scouts on all approaches. (I’m avoiding the word ‘puzzle’, which implies there’s only one solution to each mission; in a game with this many units, there has to be more than one.)


Note that the campaign is effectively story-less. A brief cutscene outlines the premise of each mini-campaign, but from mission to mission the context is limited to a narrator intoning that the BAOR has entered the fray or that NATO forces are attempting to encircle the Eighth Guards Army. I don’t mind; RTSes aren’t known for their writing anyway.


Skirmish and multiplayer


The skirmish and multiplayer modes feel very distinct from the more rigid campaign. Here, each team starts on opposite sides of the map, with an equally-sized pool of deployment points. There are objective areas scattered around the map, but ultimately the goal is to kill more of the enemy than you lose yourself – victory goes either to the side that first kills X points of units, or to the side with the greater kill score when the timer runs out. Lastly, whereas the campaign specifies the unit types available but lets you add as many as you can afford, skirmish/MP limits you to taking up to 25 different types (your “deck”) into a game.


The skirmish mode (limited to 1v1 matches) is passable, from what little I’ve seen. The skirmish AI plays a lot like an inexperienced human! I’ve seen it drive tanks too close to potential ambush locations, and I recently saw the AI open by spamming helicopters –terrifyingly effective against my initial line-up, but a game-loser once I responded with massed anti-aircraft units. However, these are the sorts of things that newbie players do – I know I’ve made the same mistakes – and as such, I’m not going to cast stones at the AI quite yet. The bigger problem with skirmish, as noted above, is that this mode doesn’t award stars for unlocking units. In other words, you cannot play this as a pure skirmish game. You’ll have to earn stars via the campaign, multiplayer, or both. This has been changed in a patch.


Multiplayer is where I’ve spent the most time. Rather annoyingly, the game often crashes while I’m trying to find/start a match, though it’s rock-solid once play begins. However, the quality of the MP gameplay is good enough for me to forgive the developers. The variety of units, the unlock system, the large map sizes, and the emphasis on tactics combine to create a plethora of interesting decisions: if I unlock this and that, could they form the hammer and anvil of an attack force? Do I hold at this juicy objective, or do I look for a more defensible position that brings in fewer deployment points? How do I ensure my deck can counter this common tactic? Hey, that guy rolled over me with an army of this! What should I unlock to counter it? And what do I have to jettison from my deck in order to make room?


Note that comp stomps aren’t currently in the game – for now MP is strictly PvP. However, Eugen has stated that it’ll patch this feature in within the month, so I look forward to trying it out. Comp stomps have now been patched in.


At this stage, I expect I’ll focus more on multiplayer than on the campaign. While the campaign feels cerebral, so does a maths lesson; I personally prefer the fluidity of multiplayer. However, the campaign’s style of gameplay could be more to others’ liking.


Stay tuned for further updates!


* It’s for this reason that I don’t believe the common forum assertion that the AI is omniscient. If it were, surely it would have pounced on my poor jeep?

Crusader Kings II: Feudalism: domain thing?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden

As everyone and their pot plant will be aware, Crusader Kings II is a medieval-themed strategy game. What comes as a surprise to many people is that it’s a medieval-themed game, not a knights-and-kingdoms themed game. Let me explain.


Your average medieval strategy game is akin to a theme park view of history. You select one of the major kingdoms and, using knights and other period-themed units, seek to kill everyone who is not you. Change the paintwork and the same template is used for Three Kingdoms China, Victorian Europe, Ancient Rome – anywhere. Alternatively, you’re placed in command of a settlement and need to build up breweries and bowyers whilst killing the naughty macemen attempting to knock your settlement down. Meanwhile, Crusader Kings II isn’t afraid to deploy words like “agnatic primogeniture”.


The gameplay structure responsible for much of CKII‘s difference in medieval tone is its incorporation of the feudal system. Or, as the old historian’s joke goes, the feuding system. Whilst much recent debate has occurred on how the feudal system worked, the game uses the classic template favoured by generations of earlier scholars. It’s one many children will have encountered in their text books and which is simple to grasp. Society forms a big pyramid. Emperors sit at the top, then kings, then dukes, then counts, then barons, then the teeming masses of ignoble birth. The church hierarchy mirrors the secular, with the Pope at the top as an honorary king. All land is owned, usually by the person at the top of the title chain. Parcels of land were granted to followers, partly to ensure their loyalty and partly to cope with the administrative difficulties involved in ruling during the period. Anyone holding land from another person is termed a “vassal”.  Land ownership is not transferred to the vassal. It’s easiest for the modern mind to view it as rented, with the rent paid by provision of troops, personal loyalty, and political support. A vassal will expect to pass his lands on to his heir, however, and society views this as a reasonable and just expectation. Go against it at your peril, tyrant! Stripping a vassal of his titles will cause large amounts of ill-feeling across the realm, no matter what the vassal has done to upset you. Far safer to imprison them, wait for them to die of neglect, and hope that their heir is more reasonably disposed towards you. A vassal with a large amount of land may create vassals of his own, using people one step below him on the pyramid.


For the sake of simplicity CKII pairs each parcel of land with a set title: if you have the title then you have the land, if you have a claim on the title then you have a claim on the land and can attempt to win it to your control, and if you lack both then that parcel of land is out of your reach unless it belongs to a non-Christian ruler. Religious warfare does not require legal rationalization; the right of the sword is sufficient justification. The correct name for these parcels of land varies depending on the culture of the people living there, so many players use the old standby name of the strategy genre: provinces. One province gets you a count title, or its regional equivalent. Two or more provinces can join together to create a duchy or equivalent. Multiple duchies form a kingdom, or one of the two possible empires. On the province level, the game takes a lean to the detailed side, and introduces sub-holdings inside each province. A province will start with a city, religious foundation, or castle as its controlling sub-holding. After that, there are up to 6 slots for further settlements of these types inside the province. Each of these sub-holdings can also be handed out to a vassal, giving the holder a minor title like mayor. In the event of conflict, capturing the controlling castle will give an invader partial control over a province. Full control is only gained when every single sub-holding has been taken.




The pictures above and below show a quick example. The entire island forms the Kingdom of Ireland. Each of the green patches with a label is a duchy. Provinces are the smaller divisions visible within each duchy. The second screenshot shows the province view for Thomond, part of the Duchy of Munster. The castle at the top next to the person’s portrait is the controlling castle. Below, two boxes are filled in with settlements and one shows only an empty field, ready for the owner to construct a new sub-holding of his choice. The empty grey space below will gradually open up so that further sub-holdings can be constructed.




Each feudal lord, be he count or king, has what is known as a “demesne” (pronounced “demain”, natch), which counts the total amount of land he can personally control. A player returning from the original Crusader Kings might expect demesne to be measured in provinces. It is not. Instead it is measured in sub-holdings. If the game says you can hold 7 items in your demesne, it does not mean 7 provinces, it means 7 castles or cities. The size of your demesne is influenced by your laws and by your character’s stats. With the right set of circumstances you can hold a lot more land than usual, with all the benefits that brings. Benefits? Land held in demesne will contribute the full amount of troops when you summon your levies. You also gain tax income, which varies considerably depending on your technology level, buildings, and laws. Cumulatively, this demesne limit introduces two new feudal factors. Firstly, it’s possible for a character who holds a lot of titles to have his personal demesne scattered across a wide area. This is as advantageous or detrimental as you make it. Wise demesne selection will let you keep your armies in key locations, and give you control of the richest provinces. Poor selection can leave your forces scattered and your coffers struggling. Sometimes it is better to centralise your holdings. The second factor is that it ensures the creation of sub-vassals, and this keeps the feudal system flourishing throughout the game. It is not possible for a player to blot out half of the game in order to play as a complete control freak.


Simple enough, right? You want to be on the top of the pyramid, and better than your peers. You want to hold the juiciest sub-holdings in your demesne, and to pass the whole conglomerate on to your chosen heir in the hopes he may add to it, in turn passing an enriched realm on to his own heir. That is, in a nutshell, the game.


It’s the systems arising from this that make the game so gripping. Without the feudal system, the game wouldn’t need characters, dynasties, inheritance, or laws. Without claims, intrigue would be much less important, and war would lose its main limiting factor. Without vassals, it wouldn’t need inter-character relationships, and intrigue’s remaining usage would be removed. In short, without the feudal system this would be another game about pushing shiny knights around a map for world conquest. Not terribly medieval.


Some of these topics deserve articles of their own, instead of being stapled onto the end of this one. Character relationships, dynasties, warfare, intrigue – these and more will be covered in the future. For the time being I shall limit myself to two areas which tie in most strongly with the legalities of feudalism: levies, and laws.


Levies are fairly straightforward. Each sub-holding has a pool of men which can be summoned to arms. That pool is determined by a variety of factors, but mainly by the type of sub-holding and its upgrade level. A castle will emphasise heavy troops like knights, whereas a city will produce more militia-grade soldiers, such as bowmen. Each sub-holding can be upgraded with various buildings, increasing the number of soldiers available for the levy. As previously mentioned, when a sub-holding is in the demesne of a character, they can summon the entire levy. If your character personally holds a castle which has 500 men available, you will be able to use all 500 of then. If the sub-holding is held by a vassal, then the overlord only has access to a percentage of the total levy. The percentage is decided by the laws which are applicable to the province where the holding is located, and on the vassal’s feeling towards his overlord. The more a vassal likes his lord, the more troops he is willing to provide. A kingdom might have massive military potential, yet still be hamstrung by an extremely unpopular king using weak crown laws. If such a kingdom ended up at war, the king would need to hire mercenaries or hope his vassals took up arms of their own accord. The classic feudal requirements historically used in most of Europe called for the vassal to do 40 days of military service each year. Anything after that was not required, and performed either out of personal loyalty or in return for pay. The game reflects this, with vassals slowly becoming unhappy if you keep their levies called up for too long. As many historical kings discovered, sometimes 40 days is not even enough time to get the soldiers to the battlefield! If you needed another reason to keep your vassals happy, this is it. Deeply unhappy vassals may well judge abuse of their levies to be the final straw.


Laws split into two main categories: inheritance and realm. Inheritance laws are best saved for another article. Realm laws govern how many troops you can summon from each vassal, the taxes vassals must pay, and how strong crown authority is. The first two are self-explanatory. The third is … interesting. At low crown authority, a king is helpless to prevent his vassals squabbling amongst themselves, even to the point of them taking up arms against each other. The best he can do is support one side or the other. At higher levels of crown authority, private warfare is banned and vassals can only choose to fight outside entities. At the lowest level of crown authority, it is completely impossible to revoke a vassal’s title even if you are willing to be seen as a tyrant. The third drawback to low crown authority is perhaps the most tolerable; you are not permitted to choose the generals in command of your raised armies. In the current build of the game, generals have very little influence over combat results, so it’s not the end of the world when the Earl of Sidethorn insists on placing his cousin Cowardly Noskill in command of his contribution to your feudal levy. I expect future builds will increase the importance of good generals, and this will then become a harsher penalty. At the highest levels of crown authority, vassals can barely sneeze without permission! Naturally they hate this – each increased level of crown authority causes a relationship hit with a character’s vassals.


If after reading this you are thinking that the game sounds complicated, well, it is and it isn’t. Provided you can remember the simple feudal pyramid, and accept that you should be thinking in terms of medieval lords working to improve their family’s circumstances in a world filled with AI-controlled characters seeking to do precisely the same, you shouldn’t have much trouble. If you are under someone’s thumb, work to get free by climbing the pyramid so that you stand at the same rank as your overlord. If you have others under your thumb, work to keep them there and to add to your vassal collection. As you play and see the Crusader Kings II feudal system in action, you will start to pick up the more advanced aspects. Until then it’s possible – and enjoyable – to play the game almost like an RPG, picking options and making decisions according to what you think sounds coolest.


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.

Conquest of Elysium 3: The Verdict

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



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.




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.

Conquest of Elysium 3 first impressions: Not quite a chip off the old block

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Conquest of Elysium

Dominions 3, Illwinter’s 2006 magnum opus, is one of my all-time favourite games, but its depth and complexity make it a time-consuming beast. And so I jumped when I heard Illwinter’s latest title, Conquest of Elysium 3, was simpler and quicker-to-play. Dominions Lite, here I come! Instead, I found something very different.


My very first impressions of COE3 were misleading. Setting up a new game was an experience straight out of Dominions: I chose which era I wanted to play in, chose my leader (COE3’s equivalent of a Dominions faction+pretender combination), and emerged on the map screen to see sprites, and hear sound effects, taken straight from Dominions. It was only after playing a few games that I realised how dissimilar COE3 felt.


You call that a treasury?


Dominions 3 is about the clash of empires. Your resources are vast, but so are the claims on them. Every turn, tax revenues and magic gems will flood into your treasury, and even though you will never have enough of each, you will typically have enough to spend on something. You will raise enormous armies across dozens of provinces; script elaborate orders for your sorcerers; constantly research new and better magic. And your rival pretender gods do the same. They are the main threat, not the independent provinces meekly waiting to be bulldozed.


COE3, in contrast, is about scarcity. Your handful of commanders, and their retinues, must explore the map in search of farms and villages and mines, then fight their independent defenders tooth and nail – or, frequently, just move onto easier targets. Once you’ve taken the sites, you can’t just abandon them: wandering monsters are a constant threat. But if you leave 3 men to hold this village, and 5 to hold that gold mine, sooner or later those garrisons start adding up. Then it’s time to march back to your castle to pick up fresh recruits, if you can afford them – early on, amassing enough coin to recruit 5 or 10 soldiers is a big deal. Even later on, an army of 100 human soldiers (a modest task force in Dominions 3) would be an awesome host in COE3. The overall feel is of leading a few small bands through a savage land; think Mad Max or Fallout: The Strategy Game.


The net effect is that Dominions 3 fans shouldn’t go into Conquest of Elysium 3 expecting more (or less?) of the same. After playing heaven knows how much Dominions 3, my early experiences with COE3 have been rather like meeting the child of an old friend. The resemblance is there in the eyes and nose; but the soul behind them is entirely its bearer’s own.


Stay tuned for more!


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

Guest post: One hour with Crusader Kings II, by Rachel McFadden

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden

History is good. Games are good. Vivid, memorable characters are good. Could a historical game packed with vivid, memorable characters, Paradox’s Crusader Kings II, be best of all? In the following guest post, the first of a series, Rachel McFadden (aka frogbeastegg) sets out to answer this.


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



My first hour with a new PC game follows a time-honoured pattern. I read the manual whilst the game installs. In the days of 20GB installs and pamphlet manuals, I usually need to add a chapter of my current book to fill the downtime. Next, I dutifully check for patches. When the game’s finally ready to launch, I do so and watch any opening cinematics. After that, I fiddle with the options screens. If there’s a tutorial, I’ll go there next, whether it looks useful or not. Only after all of this rigmarole do I settle down with a cup of tea to start playing the game proper.


Boring! Traditional. Traditionally boring?


In Crusader Kings II, I spent my first hour running around the game set-up screen whilst my inner history geek squealed with joy.


It all began innocently enough. I scouted around the map a little, looking at the various kings and independent rulers in the ‘William the Conqueror 1066’ scenario. After locating most of the famous names from the period and chuckling at their portraits, I started to look at their vassals. Sure enough, I spotted the obvious names. There’s this king’s brother, here’s that duke’s nephew, there’s that famous daughter, and oh my gosh that’s pseudo-saint Waltheof of Huntingdon prior to his little mishap with a headsman’s axe! Selecting the vassals meant I could see their courts, and another round of name-spotting swept across Europe. Then I did the same thing with the other bookmarks.


Having exhausted the scenarios, I looked speculatively at a certain control which is in most Paradox games, one I’ve seldom found useful as it mainly makes minor changes to national borders. I cautiously clicked on a button. I grinned. Ladies and gentlemen, CKII features a fully functional time machine!



The scenarios act as bookmarks that store specific dates. Using the time machine you can choose your own starting date, right down to the very day. It turns out that CKII has historical data for the entire time range, not just the specified starting points. As you play with the dates the world shifts and changes – characters age or grow younger before your eyes, titles rise and fall, and all sorts of extra historical personages appear onto the scene. Start in 1066 with William the Conqueror and move forward, there’s William II, forward, Henry I, forward, Stephen I, forward, Henry II – the line will continue in historically correct form up to the latest date the game supports, January 1st 1337. It’s not only the English royal line that does this. Every single title on the map will do the same, from the mightiest of Sultans to the most minor of counts. Their vassals and courts will likewise update.


Needless to say, I spent another half hour with this new toy.


With the discovery of the time machine, I pushed the game to what I expected to be its limit. I went in search of my favourite historical personage. First I located King John of England, then worked through his vassals until I found a certain Countess Isabelle, an heiress with huge tracts of land. Selecting her I scanned through her court and … yes, there he was, the husband who derived most of his landed status through her. William Marshal, aka The Greatest Knight. An old man with a bevy of historically accurate children, still wearing his armour with pride.


At this point my inner medievalist had a meltdown. William Marshal is in the game and playable! If ever there was an occasion where the internetism “ZOMG!!” applies, surely this is it.


When you start a campaign, there’s more detail available on the historical characters. You can see the traits they have been assigned by developers and grumble that so-and-so wasn’t that, or nod approvingly because it’s plainly apparent that what’s-his-face was a this. And then I noticed the range of ancestors. Yes, this means you can go on a paper chase to locate personages of the non-landholder variety, including a vast array of female characters.


Might I humbly suggest Paradox start working on a Pokemon-esque sub-game centred around locating historical people in CKII? I’d buy that as £1.59 DLC, especially if I can train my Anna Comnena to breathe fire and shoot ice beams from her fingertips, or make Frederick Barbarossa hurl lightning.


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. 

Dark Souls impressions: The eloquence of the blade

This is part 4 in my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.


1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight


After circa 25 hours in Demon’s Souls, it was time to take a break. I could have played something easier, brighter, more cheerful… but instead, I started its successor, Dark Souls. And no regrets: six or seven hours in, I’m having a good time. Early thoughts below:


Play style: This time, I opted for a build that was the opposite of the first game. In Demon’s Souls, I played a royal, a lightly armoured magic-user for whom melee was almost always the last resort. In Dark Souls, I’m playing a knight: lumbering (by default), heavily armoured, and reliant on melee.  While he does carry a cheapo bow and a painstakingly restocked arsenal of firebombs, most of his work is done up close, with sword and halberd. That has redoubled my appreciation of just how well the Souls games do hand-to-hand combat: even against trash mobs, it is a joy to dance past a zombie swinging his axe, cut him down from behind, and turn just in time to face a swordsman. Larger foes too: duck back from a knight’s enormous hammer and catch him while he recovers, hack away at a stone giant before it can awaken, dodge the whip-branch of an animated tree…


Level design: I think Dark Souls has the edge here. Three of the five worlds in Demon’s Souls, at least at the points where I was, felt like typical video game/fantasy environs: the pseudo-medieval castle; the prison/torture chamber; the ruined shrine. They were well-done, to be sure, but typical all the same. Dark Souls, in contrast, has given me a street battle through a pseudo-medieval town, followed by a dark, lush forest, both of which feel far fresher. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I find it easier to suspend disbelief in the second game*.


Difficulty: Not being able to blow away weaker enemies with the wave of a wand should make my Dark Souls run harder, but so far, with one exception, it doesn’t feel that way. I can think of several reasons: (1) most of the time, Demon’s Souls limits the player to 50% or 75% of maximum health, a restriction missing from Dark Souls; (2) I think my knight’s armour does make a difference; and (3) I now have more practice at the combat system – probably the most important factor, judging by anecdotes from new players who are stuck on the first area. The exception relates to boss fights: in Demon’s Souls magic was the easy way to deal with most bosses, and I suspect that’s still the case. The most recent boss I fought was almost wholly ranged, though luckily, the designers provided a magic-using NPC to assist in the fight. At other times, I rely on the next point…


Multiplayer: This has been the source of some of my grandest moments. Co-op is still a blast – my favourite visual image from the game, so far, is three warriors, male and female, differently armed and attired, advancing across a rooftop to meet a boss. And after regularly dying to PVP invaders in the first game, it was a glorious moment when in co-op, I tag-teamed an invading griefer, shrugged off multiple blows from his hammer in a battle lasting minutes, and finally knocked him to his death off a ledge.


Overall first impression: A more polished version of the same, but that’s not a bad thing! If anybody out there enjoyed the first game but hasn’t picked this up yet, this seems well worth checking out.


* Though to be fair, I wonder if my reduced use of walkthroughs/maps in Dark Souls has something to do with this.

Distant Worlds: The Verdict

This is part 3 of a series on Distant Worlds.


1. First impressions: the galaxy is a big place

2. How the opening moves play out – a mini-Let’s Play

3. The verdict



Note: I am playing a review copy comprising the base game plus both expansions, supplied by the publisher, Matrix Games.



4X strategy games, especially 4X space strategy games, do not think small. They challenge the player to build world- or galaxy-spanning empires, to juggle exploration, economic management, research, diplomacy, and military leadership. Yet even by these standards, Code Force’s Distant Worlds is a behemoth. Big (galaxies span hundreds of stars), complex, and breaking new ground within the genre, it could so easily have been a case of an ambitious indie developer biting off more than it could chew. From what I’ve read, it did indeed have its fair share of rough edges at launch… but as of the second expansion pack, Legends, it’s remarkable how well it works.


At a design level, DW’s distinctive features are:


  • Everything takes place in pausable real-time (which can be slowed down or sped up);


  • No separate tactical battles. As with a Sins of a Solar Empire or AI War, you can zoom in to watch ships fighting it out, at the same time that the rest of the galaxy goes about its business. However, there’s relatively little fine control available here – warfare in DW emphasises logistics and manoeuvre at the galactic level;


  • Relatively little emphasis on planetary management. There are only a bare handful of facilities to build, and they don’t unlock until a ways through the tech tree. As such, there are only a few levers to pull to influence the economy: laying down necessary infrastructure (starbases, especially with commerce centres, and refuelling posts), securing luxuries and resources (via mines and colonies), signing trade pacts with the neighbours, and building the odd wonder.


  • Rewarding goody huts. Finding a derelict cruiser early on is a nice treat. Finding a derelict armada, and making the necessary investment to recover it (the kind of decision that’s the crux of strategy games!), can tilt the balance of power.


The net effect is that the game emphasises exploration (which it does very well), warfare (at the level of the grand admiral, not the captain), and preparing for the above. As such, it’s often likened to Europa Universalis III in space… though a better analogy might be Victoria 2 or Hearts of Iron 3, because Distant Worlds’ other distinguishing feature is the ability to automate almost every aspect of your empire.


The AI automation is a joy to work with. It can be toggled off area by area, allowing you to concentrate on what you find the most rewarding part of the game. It smoothes out what would otherwise have been a fearsome learning curve – for instance, in my first game, I let the AI handle research and civilian construction while I learned how to play admiral. It takes care of tedious busywork, such as raising troops, fighting off pirate raiders, escorting civilian ships, or garrisoning outposts. As of Legends, it can even be given an intermediate level of autonomy: you can assign fleets an area of responsibility, either to defend or subdue, which allows you to dictate the “big picture” to the AI and let it handle the details. The AI, in short, is the assistant I wish every strategy game offered.


My main criticism of the game is an occasionally subpar interface. For example, I would love an easy way to route newly built ships to a given fleet, instead of having to select them one by one. I can only imagine how much of a hassle this would be on large maps, or when adding lots of smaller ships to a fleet! I’d also like to be able to see the total troop strength on a planet, not just the number of units. Still, this isn’t a deal-breaker for me.


Diplomacy is relatively simple, but works well. Here the various alien races’ personalities shine through: playing as the humans, I soon found out that the Space T-Rexes are much friendlier than their fearsome appearance suggests, whereas starting next to insectoids guaranteed an early war. Computer players will sue for peace if they’re losing a war or if someone jumps them on another front. They’ll even butter you up with tribute when they want something, if they fear your power, or, more benevolently, if they’re on especially good terms with you.


And that’s emblematic of all the cool things to discover in DW. If this game had a motto, it would be, “the dev team thinks of everything”. Time and again, Distant Worlds has enthralled me with little touches that sound trivial on paper, but that helped bring its universe to life. The light-bulb moment when I realised why my AI neighbours were showering me with gifts. The nasty shock of seeing colonies revolt when I declared war on their ethnic kin – something that should happen in games, but never does. The awe of first starting the game and seeing how big the galaxy was. The thrill of discovering a derelict space fleet, waiting for me to defeat its guardians and send in the construction ships – and the moment when, upon seeing another empire’s construction ships butt in, I wondered if it would be worth a war to keep the derelicts to myself. Perhaps the most impressive part: there’s so much of the game I still haven’t seen! I haven’t tried many of the setup options (including an entire gameplay mode), and I’ve only played the humans, leaving 20 alien races, each with certain unique victory conditions, to go.


All in all, Distant Worlds lives up to its promise. Vast, unique, and packed with the sense of wonder that lies at the heart of science fiction, I’d recommend it to any grand strategy fan – and to any strategy developer in search of good ideas. Thumbs way up.


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.



The basis of my review


Length of time spent with the game: Roughly 30-40 hours.


What I have played: I’ve won two games on small maps, and walked away from many more on a variety of map sizes. Generally, I like my maps small enough to finish over an afternoon, and small enough for each individual colony or fleet to really count.


What I haven’t played: The “Return of the Shakturi” mode, any species other than the humans.

Opening moves in Distant Worlds: a mini-Let’s Play

This is part 2 of a series on Distant Worlds.


1. First impressions: the galaxy is a big place

2. How the opening moves play out – a mini-Let’s Play

3. The verdict


Note: I am playing a review copy comprising the base game plus both expansions, supplied by the publisher, Matrix Games.


The very first screen I see, when I set up my second game of Distant Worlds – my first was a practice game – looks like this:



It’s a lot of options, isn’t it? I choose the standard number of stars but accidentally make the map “large” instead of “medium”, a mistake I don’t realise until later.


Next up are race selection and empire tweaking. I choose the humans, and name my empire the “Republic of Lune”. Here, we encounter one of my niggles with the game: while it allows great flexibility when setting up the galaxy, unfortunately you can’t customise your race within the game*. As such, this is closer to Alpha Centauri than it is to Master of Orion (with its potential for hilariously unbalanced builds) or even Space Empires. Last I choose victory conditions – these are pretty much the default, except that I’ve disabled the Return of the Shakturi (first expansion pack) victory conditions.


Time to begin the game. Here’s my starting position:



Around my homeworld, I have a small fleet and several mining bases in nearby systems. This is the “early exploration” phase of 4X games, the time when players discover the lay of the land, look for city/colony sites and future chokepoints, and uncover goody huts. Distant Worlds has particularly useful goody huts (of which we’ll soon see more), and as such, I start building extra explorers and construction ships so I can quickly find and exploit them. Otherwise, I leave my empire to manage itself. I don’t know the tech tree very well, and my invisible AI viceroys can build mines and order scouts just fine on their own.


Soon, my scouts find what I’d hoped for, the independent world of Sol I:



To put this into context, colony population in Distant Worlds seems to grow very, very slowly compared to other 4X games, so your homeworld will still account for the lion’s share of your economy well into the game – no infinite city sleaze here! Thus, independent worlds, which already start with a moderate population and are undefended by spaceships, are a valuable prize early on. If their residents are friendly, you can simply claim them by sending in a colony ship; otherwise, you can send in the marines. You can’t wait too long, however, because by default** they will turn into new players if left alone.


Thus, I quickly order the construction of a colony ship, to be subsequently dispatched to Sol I.


Fully armed, not yet operational


Eventually the colony ship is ready, and Sol I joins my empire peacefully. I start building a starbase above the planet, and send out my navy against some nearby pirate bases, but otherwise the game proceeds uneventfully.


Then my scouts stumble upon a second type of goody hut:



This is Distant Worlds’ shout-out to the “big, dumb objects” beloved of science fiction authors, and I know just how valuable these particular BDOs are. In my first game, I had a hard time fighting past the space monsters guarding the derelict fleet, and it took forever to rebuild the capital ships I found, but once I did… wow. They swept all before them.


As such, I start beefing up my main strike force, the “Expeditionary Fleet”, in preparation to recover the derelicts.


A fly in the ointment


Eventually, one of my scout ships runs into two more independent planets in the Boskar system, a long way from my homeworld.


This is what the game has to say about the Boskara:



Clearly, these are not people I want as my neighbours. The potential threat on my southern border, so close to my homeworld, is unacceptable. With colony ships unlikely to succeed, it’s time to build some invasion transports and nip the potential threat from Boskara in the bud.


However, by the time I’ve built the first transport, loaded it with troops, and sent it to Boskara, it’s too late. Boskara I, still an independent world, falls easily to my ground troops. But Boskara II has now morphed into a single-planet empire: the Boskara Authority, complete with its own small space fleet. This is what the map now looks like (the Boskara are the purple blotch):



The threat remains. So does the logic of an early strike: better to smother the Boskara Authority while it’s still a single-planet empire than to allow it to grow into a mortal foe. I rename my main force the Southern Expeditionary Fleet and send it to defend my new outpost in Boskara (though it won’t have the firepower to win a war by itself). With the Southern Expeditionary Fleet unavailable, this means I’ll also have to start building a new force, the Northern Expeditionary Fleet, to recover the derelict ships.


The road to war


Preparations for war go well. My tech base reaches the point where I can start building cruisers, and I promptly order up a batch – at first, most go to the Northern Expeditionary Fleet, but I also build a couple at Boskar to form the backbone of the Southern Expeditionary Fleet. The Boskara, evidently daunted by my military might, even pay me some tribute; this ends up ploughed right back into my fleet.


Soon, the Northern Expeditionary Fleet is ready for battle. In my first game, sending token forces to derelict fields did not work well. This time, things go differently: the Northern Expeditionary Fleet carves through the space monsters like a hot knife through butter, and my construction ships can safely begin work.


As I build up my forces in the Boskar system, the AI viceroy is seemingly able to read my mind:



I don’t pay close enough attention to see what effect that has, but judging by the Boskara AI player periodically yelling at me to stop my attacks, it must be doing some damage. I also accept the game’s suggestions to send out my intelligence operatives to sabotage Boskara facilities.


All this is a prelude to the real blow. My transports are headed back to Boskar, after picking up troops at my homeworld; the Southern Expeditionary Fleet is growing in strength; and my AI-controlled 1st Fleet has also showed up in Boskar. But my opportunity is ebbing away; I can see the Boskara fanning out to the south.


It’s time to go to war.


No plan survives contact with the enemy


Of course, my “short, victorious war” is anything but. The moment I declare war, one of the coolest, most unexpected events I remember seeing in a 4X game rears up and bites me. Remember that ethnic-Boskara world that I conquered earlier? The moment I declare war on their neighbours, my Boskara subjects rebel, kick me off their planet, and join the Boskara Authority.


That dishes my dreams of conquest. The Southern Expeditionary Fleet blasts the Boskara space fleet to scrap, pulverises their space ports, blockades their worlds. But now I don’t have a forward base, my troop transports have a habit of running out of fuel, and what ground troops I can get to the Boskara system prove to be insufficient. With bigger fish to fry elsewhere in the galaxy, I settle for a face-saving compromise: the Boskara accept a treaty of subjugation, and my ships pull back from their system.


In the end, my fears about the potential threat from Boskara turn out to be groundless: sandwiched between myself and another empire on their southern border, the Boskara never expand far. When the dust settles, the whole war turns out not just to have been completely unnecessary, but also counterproductive.


With a whimper, not a bang


The early moves, culminating in the Boskara conflict, end up being the most exciting part of my second game of Distant Worlds. After that, my expansion is peaceful. The other computer players I encounter are mostly friendly, and those who aren’t are still smart enough not to declare war – remember, I recovered a lot of derelict capital ships? I generally don’t like starting naked wars of aggression in 4X games, and anyway, by the mid-game, the galaxy is just too sprawling for me to look forward to long-distance wars.


Unfortunately, Distant Worlds doesn’t seem particularly well suited to long periods of peace. Compared to Civilization or Master of Orion 2, which I had a lot of fun playing as “giant tycoon games” (as one forum poster memorably put it), DW doesn’t offer much in the way of colony development – it’s closer to Dominions 3 or maybe Europa Universalis 3, a few expansions ago.


In the end, with my empire tied for equal #1 place in the race for the victory conditions, I quit. Here’s how the game ended. The dark-blue empire in the NW corner is me, the purple dot at 9 o’clock is Boskara, and the small medium-blue empire interwoven with mine is an AI protectorate.



Observations from Game #2


(1) The “Normal” number of stars does not mix with the “large” galaxy size – everything is too spread out. This is further exacerbated if you spawn at the edge of the map.


(2) On large-sized maps and up, and also on smaller maps if you set overly ambitious victory conditions or if point (1) is in play, I suspect DW is one of those titles, like Europa Universalis or most of the Total War franchise, where you play through to the midgame and then walk away once you meet your own personal objectives. Since I would like to see a victory screen, my third game will probably be on another small map.


(3) That said, the early game in DW is a lot of fun, probably even better than in Civilization. The potent goody huts, the scarcity of worlds that can be colonised with early tech, and the importance of claiming independent worlds before someone else does/before they turn into new empires all contribute to an exciting exploration phase.


(4) With the default settings, the AI in DW is very peaceful compared to every other 4X game I’ve played. It’s almost impossible to play Civilization without at least one computer player picking a fight. In DW, on the other hand, I always find myself in the unexpected position of being the aggressor. Next game, I’m dialling up the AI’s aggression (remember, this is one of the options at startup).



* I believe you can mod in custom factions.


** I left this option checked at the start of the game.

Distant Worlds first impressions: The galaxy is a big place

This is part 1 of a series on Distant Worlds.


1. First impressions: the galaxy is a big place

2. How the opening moves play out – a mini-Let’s Play

3. The verdict



Note: I am playing a review copy comprising the base game plus both expansions, supplied by the publisher, Matrix Games.


The first time Distant Worlds, the 4X space game from Code Force, impressed me, I was a few clicks into the tutorial.


The tutorial began in the usual way: camera focused on my homeworld, instructions on how to move the map.  Following the on-screen prompts, I scrolled around, hit “continue”, zoomed out. And then I saw the galaxy. Do you remember the godlike feeling of first zooming out in Sins of a Solar Empire or one of the Supreme Commander games? Distant Worlds brought that back for me.


To put this in perspective, consider that Master of Orion II, still the gold standard for the genre after 15 years, had 36 star systems in its normal galaxy and 72 in its huge galaxy. Well, in Distant Worlds, the normal galaxy has 700 systems, each with its own features (planets, black holes, etc). The largest galaxy has 1400, and even the tiniest dwarf galaxy has 100.


That sheer scope extends well beyond map size. There are 41 different resources, 20 different races, up to 14 AI players at the start of a game, multiple planet types, espionage, ship design, and a tech tree. There are separate private economies and government budgets. There’s even tourism*. It would be unplayable were it not for the game’s signature feature, and the second way in which it impressed me: automation.


Pretty much every aspect of your empire can be handled by the AI. Freighters and passenger liners will shuttle about your empire, construction ships will build mines and resorts,  research will proceed automatically, governors will auto-assign themselves to colonies. Even the military can be automated. In Distant Worlds, warships will auto-escort colony ships and other civilian vessels; patrol colonies; and fend off raiders. They’ll even automatically form up into task forces, and if you choose, the game will periodically ask if you want them to sortie against nearby targets (which could be anything from a pirate base to an enemy fleet).


This doesn’t mean you can simply become a spectator and let the game play itself. You can take manual control of most aspects of your empire (with the exception of NPC civilian ships), and for obvious reasons, this seems to work better for anything that’s a strategic priority: diplomacy, major fleet operations, and such. However, the automation largely frees you from the mundane work that is the bane of strategy games. Remember the “joy” of nursemaiding settlers in Civilization, playing whack-a-mole with rebels in older versions of Europa Universalis, or making up for passive unit AI in an RTS? In Distant Worlds, your virtual underlings can handle those for you.


So far, the game has been at its weakest when it didn’t free me from mundane work. Not surprisingly for a complex indie strategy game, the interface is not great. For example, fleets are the basic building block of military operations in the game – but there’s no way to set their targets, merge them, or disband them from the fleet overview screen, and no way to have newly built ships auto-join an existing fleet. You have to click-select the fleet to set its objectives, and you have to order ships in or out of the fleet by hand. As such, this is one aspect of the game that could still use some work.


When it comes to system requirements, don’t be fooled by the “indie” label. Even on a small galaxy, after 6-8 hours of play, the game became rather laggy – particularly noticeable when zooming in and out, or when scrolling the map. Tweaking a couple of settings today seemed to make my old saved game run faster, but this could have been illusory as I didn’t run it for very long.


Still, the technical issues are survivable. After having a lot of fun with my first practice game (I quit when I achieved my personal goals – it turns out cranking up the threshold for the victory conditions was not a good idea in a game this large), I’m looking forward to playing again. The galaxy is not just vast, it’s also full of cool things, so stay tuned for the next update…


* Oddly enough, resorts in the Distant Worlds-verse are under government control.

Difficulty in Demon’s Souls: what we can learn from… behavioural finance?!

This is part 3 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.


1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight



Here’s a thought experiment to chew on. In each case, the alternatives are mathematically identical:


Scenario A. You can win a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either winning $2 or winning nothing. Which do you choose?


Scenario B. You can lose a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either losing $2 or losing nothing. Which do you choose?


You would expect these answers to be consistent – someone who chooses the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario A should also choose the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario B. However, this isn’t the case. On average, people will choose the certain gain in Scenario A, but run the risk of the double-sized loss in Scenario B. Why? Because, according to behavioural finance researchers, a loss is felt more acutely than an equally-sized gain (a phenomenon known as loss aversion*), hence the willingness to take the chance of an even greater loss just to avoid the agony of the small one.


Extrapolated to video games, loss aversion could probably explain a lot of player behaviour – abusing save/reload, anyone? It surely must explain why we feel death penalties so keenly, and since death penalties are so inescapable a part of Demon’s Souls, it helps explain why the game’s difficulty is often exaggerated.


Yes, I said “exaggerated”. This does not mean it’s easy; far from it. Even playing an easy class, using a walkthrough, and looking at a map, I died twice in PVE today, while PVP invaders routinely slaughter me. It does mean that the death penalty, loss of unspent souls if you fail to pull off a corpse run, is nowhere near as fearsome as it sounds. Souls might be easily lost, but they’re also easily acquired – co-op is the safest and best way, but even for a low-level character, it is not that hard to farm them. However, loss aversion would exacerbate the harshness that players perceive.


In my case, while having to replay a level does frustrate me, I don’t especially mind the death penalty. While I am very careful on corpse runs, I can shrug off failing and losing my souls for good. Partly, this is because I know, and thus can control for, the game’s mind tricks. Partly, this is because I’ve never lost a truly whopping number of souls – I’m always careful to return to safety and spend my souls whenever I have enough saved up. Appropriately, there’s another technical term relevant to that


* If you’re interested, you can read more e.g. here and here.

Civilization V: One year on

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Civilization V
The eve of my invasion of the Aztecs


Last night, I sat down to play Civilization V for the first time in most of a year. There have been a lot of patches in that time, and I’d grown pretty rusty. How well does it stand the test of time?


What happened during the game


I played as Siam on a Tiny map (four players, eight city-states), Continents, on King level. As it turned out, the other three players all ended up sharing the main continent while I had a large island/small continent to myself (big enough for three of my cities plus one city-state, and I could have shoehorned another city or two in there if I really wanted to).  Throughout the game, I followed my classic Civ play style by building a small but rich and technologically advanced nation, and eventually won a diplomatic victory.


However, my game wasn’t wholly peaceful. Montezuma, just across the sea from me, spent the game slowly gobbling up the other civs and city-states on the main continent. He knocked out Japan and one of my allied city-states, as well as grabbing some territory from Russia. So in the modern era, I decided to do something about it. I somehow made my way to Electronics (which allows mechanised infantry) when all the other AI players were around a generation or two behind militarily, so after training a small force of mechanised infantry and constructing a few battleships, I invaded the Aztecs*.


And I pulled it off. Between my technological superiority, the Aztec army being at the wrong end of the continent fighting the Russians, and my city-state allies gnawing at the Aztecs’ flanks, I went through Montezuma’s heartland like a hot knife through butter. Mounting unhappiness from my conquests, and the need to rest the troops,  made me settle for a peace treaty in which I took all of Montezuma’s cities except for the ex-Japanese Kyoto; that spiked my unhappiness even further, so I donated several of the Aztec border cities to my ally Russia. With the exception of a second, brief war later on that saw Russia gobble up the Aztec remnant, after that it was pretty much just a countdown to the diplomatic victory.


My observations


The naval AI really is broken: No invasions, no colonisation, minimal fleets. This meant once I had wiped the barbarians off my continent, I could safely neglect my military until it was time to invade the Aztecs. When that occasion came, I encountered absolutely no naval resistance…


… but I wouldn’t be so quick to rag on the land AI: My ground war didn’t last long , and mostly consisted of me besieging cities defended by entrenched artillery rather than fighting Montezuma’s armies in the field, so I can’t comment on how good the AI’s unit deployment is. However, judging by the large, artillery-supported armies I saw the Aztecs and later Russia pushing around, their sheer weight of numbers would have given me a much harder time if I’d spawned on the main continent.


Improved build times: Even on Quick speed, IIRC it took ages to build anything in the earlier versions of Civ V. In contrast, build times feel very reasonable now.


At first glance, I like the use of empire-wide happiness as a check on conquest: … although this really is only a first glance, since it only arose for me towards the end of this game and I don’t remember it being much of an issue when I originally played.


Diplomacy still feels rudimentary, but it has its moments: Russia and I were best buddies for most of the game, but once the fall of the Aztecs left the two of us sharing a land border as the last civs standing, Catherine’s attitude cooled very quickly. Shades of the Cold War…


My overall conclusions haven’t changed. Civ V was decent to start with, and it’s better than it was a year ago, mostly due to the faster build times. But while I had fun, I still don’t consider it a great game. Even without the dysfunctional naval AI, the patches have done nothing to address my fundamental gripes with the game. In particular, diplomacy and the lack of religion make it feel more soulless than Civ IV or even Alpha Centauri (note, for example, this podcast discussion on the importance of faction personalities in that game). Back onto my Steam shelf it’ll go for now, I think…


* Appropriately enough, the  great general who spawned after my first couple of victories was named “Hernan Cortes”.

Demon’s Souls: Progress, progress, progress

This is part 2 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.


1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight


In a game as unforgiving as Demon’s Souls, I have no pride. To me, there is no such thing as a “cheap” or a “cheesy” tactic in Demon’s Souls – either it works or it doesn’t. And in a game this unforgiving, there is no such thing as a “spoiler”. In search of advice, I will watch videos; read forums, walkthroughs, and wikis; gladly bypass trial and error.


It was those forum threads that led me to the Shrine of Storms, a ruined cliffside stronghold, in search of its fabled loot. I wasn’t too worried about the opposition – until then, I’d never met a trash mob I couldn’t handle with my starting spell, Soul Arrow. Sure, I’d be in trouble if tough foes survived the first couple of Soul Arrows and closed into melee range, but they were slow enough for that not to happen very often. The player character’s strength is his/her agility, and I was grateful for it.


The Shrine of Storms loaded up. I advanced. A skeleton sprang to its feet. I lobbed a Soul Arrow. And to my horror, the skeleton rolled at me – as nimbly as I could roll. “YOU HAVE DIED,” the game told me soon afterwards.


Bad enough that the skeletons were strong enough to survive a couple of Soul Arrows, and fast enough to close the distance. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) Bad enough that my rapier was about as effective as poking them with a cotton bud. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) The icing on the cake was that my reliance on magic meant I’d never properly learned the game’s melee combat system, and thus, I had a tendency to panic and button-mash when foes got too close. “Fear is the mind-killer,” says Dune, and in Demon’s Souls, that makes it a player-killer as well. As such, I soon grew used to the aggravation of watching the skeletons turn and swagger away* while “YOU HAVE DIED” burned on my screen.


But I was having too much fun to give up. I practiced my swordplay against the skeletons, ran the level again and again as a blue phantom, discovered to my joy that the Shrine of Storms is in fact a great place for newbies to farm souls. Once, as a blue phantom, I even made it as far as the boss room; the host and I took down 75% of the boss’s life bar, before I discovered the hard way that the boss could hit the ledge where I was standing.


I decided I’d clear out the boss later. I retrieved the sword for which I had originally come, then travelled to other levels. I killed the dragon who had previously tormented me, then took down another boss (via Soul Arrow, which turned the fight into a piece of cake; I understand that boss is a lot more difficult in melee…).


Beating that other boss restored me to body form and allowed me to bring in blue phantoms. And with that, I was ready to return to the Shrine of Storms.  Two blue phantoms and I overpowered the early skeletons, made short work of the level’s sub-boss, pressed on. About halfway through, I lost my first blue phantom to a booby trap; it was me who set off the pressure plate, but the resulting volley of arrows impaled him instead. There was a hairy moment after that, a point-blank fight on a dangerously narrow cliffside path, but with the help of my remaining blue phantom, I made it through. We fought our way to the boss room…


… and promptly died. After seeing how much health I lost to the boss’s first blow, I ran around like a headless chicken and ended up trapped in a corner. On my next two attempts to reach the boss, I didn’t even get that far – both times, I died right before the boss room. The first time, the boss’s “doorman” one-shotted me; the second time, I almost won the swordfight, but “almost” wasn’t good enough.


I think that is the game’s way of telling me I need to try another approach. A buff spell, one that significantly reduces physical damage taken, would be a huge help in the Shrine… and as it happens, I’ve fulfilled one of the two conditions to unlock that spell. I know which level I need to visit to meet the other condition (thanks, Demon’s Souls wiki!), so it’s probably farewell to the Shrine of Storms for now.  But I will return. And when I do, stronger and quicker and better prepared, the boss had better watch out.


* I’m sure it was just their usual walking animation, but at that moment, it felt like a gloating, troll-faced swagger.

Demon’s Souls: Misery loves company


This is part 1 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.


1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight


Last weekend, flush with victory over the first boss of Demon’s Souls, I cheerfully declared, “Much less difficult than I was expecting!” I suspected I’d have to eat those words sooner or later, but hey, they were true at the time.


This weekend, Demon’s Souls fulfilled my expectations. Over the course of a circa two-hour play session, I was repeatedly BBQed by a dragon; made it past the dragon only to be carved to bits by a waiting knight; poisoned; ambushed from behind; and blew most of my precious healing items. What kept this fun rather than frustrating was that for most of this time, I was playing co-op.


While every game is better in co-op, this is doubly so in Demon’s Souls. This is partly due to the usual “many hands make light work” effect, partly because of what a relief it is to see friendly faces, but also partly because the game’s penalty for dying doesn’t always apply in co-op. For background, in Demon’s Souls, you can exist either in “body” or “soul” form. Dying in body form will send you into soul form, and dying in either form will make you drop all your accumulated souls, the game’s titular substitute for currency/EXP. If you die again before retrieving your souls via a corpse run, they’re gone forever.


Co-op works when a “soul” player leaves a marker indicating his/her availability to be summoned by a host, “body” player. The visiting soul will then drop into the host’s world as a blue phantom – and the beauty of playing a blue phantom is that in this form, you don’t lose souls from PvE deaths, making this a great, lower-stress way to explore a new level while building up a nest egg. If you die as a blue phantom, or the host dies (which results in all blue phantoms being booted), no problem – just lay down your marker again and wait for another player in body form to wander past. (I wasn’t the only one to do this, as I ran into the same blue phantom twice.)


I largely played my first few hours (single-player) cautiously, methodically, keeping an eye out for sudden death, and as such, they felt like hours. In contrast, those two hours of co-op flew past, laden as they were with memorable moments.


There were moments of endearing etiquette, when blue phantoms or the host would bow upon arrival.


There were moments bordering on farce, as three “mighty” warriors huddled together, cowering just out of reach of the dragon’s flame, before sprinting for their lives. (As such, this is the most realistic dragon encounter simulator I have played. You can in fact kill the dragon with enough patience, but evidently none of us had a bow with sufficient arrows.)


There were moments of wordless teamwork. Once, our way was blocked by a row of boulder-flinging monsters. The warrior next to me hesitated. And I realised this was a job for my spellcaster: I stepped forward, raised my silver catalyst, and began blasting away to clear our path – just as the third player present emerged from behind the boulder-tossers and caught them between hammer and anvil. This worked both ways – as a weedy spellslinging princeling, I loved having beefy, armoured knights around who could wade into melee and draw fire from me.


There were  moments of high adventure: the host player and I made it past the boulder-throwers and eventually came across the level’s boss, a giant, flame-lobbing spider who blocked the far end of a tunnel. (We lost the other blue phantom somewhere along the way – did he lose sight of us and disconnect in frustration? Did an unseen demon do him in? Did he fall to his death?) It was wonderful to watch the host player at work, shooting arrow after arrow at the boss, rolling left and right to avoid fireballs, taking the odd hit but always managing to heal in time. (As far as I could tell, the host was the one doing the dangerous part of the work – my contribution was limited to lobbing Soul Arrows from the back of the tunnel and hiding whenever a fireball came near me.)


And there was a moment of triumph, when the giant spider finally fell. “THE DEMON WAS DESTROYED” took over my screen, and souls flooded into my possession. I gave the other player the highest possible rating (I hope he/she reciprocated!), and back in my own world, took great pleasure in spending my newly acquired souls on a shield and some skill points. I didn’t push my luck after that in single-player – with that, I logged off for the night.


All in all, I had a great time playing Demon’s Souls co-op. And my advice to anyone scared by the thought of visiting the Kingdom of Boletaria: try it with a group! Safety in numbers might be a relative term in this game, but you’ll also enjoy camaraderie and the spectacle of seeing other brave souls in action. See you on the other side of the fog!

The Witcher 2: Strengths and weaknesses, so far

This is my second post on The Witcher 2.


1.  First impressions

2. Strengths and weaknesses (as of early Act 2)


I’ve now played a bit more of The Witcher 2 – I’m now up to early Act 2 – and I can elaborate on when it works best for me… and when it doesn’t.


My starting point is the familiar argument about whether games should focus on scripted storytelling or open-world gameplay. As an argument, this is silly – the only correct answer can be, “It depends” – but it provides a useful framework for thinking about the experience Witcher 2 offers, because the game’s strongest suit is its story. I like talking to NPCs, I like watching the more compelling NPCs in action, and I like finding out what happens next.


As such, the game’s prologue, steep learning curve aside, made a great first impression on me because it had such a high ratio of (quality) storytelling to gameplay: plenty of cutscenes, plenty of NPC interaction, and because it was so heavily scripted, every minute of gameplay pushed the story forward by directly advancing Geralt towards his goals.


In contrast, I didn’t enjoy Act 1 as much as I did the prologue because it reduced that storytelling : gameplay ratio. It did this in a couple of ways – first, the game opened up, but as a result, I spent much more time running around a town and surrounding environment that I didn’t care much for, and much less time actually progressing the story. In some games, such as Fallout 3, just wandering about in the open is a pleasure, but for me, Act 1 of The Witcher 2, with its narrow paths, was not. And crucially, the pacing of the story quests themselves sagged – while I disagree with Edge’s review of the game*, I do agree that much of Act 1 felt like a diversion. I realise these are very subjective complaints, and they carry a big disclaimer – I missed most of the side quests in Act 1, so quite possibly I made things worse for myself.


However, I will stand by my other bone of contention with Act 1: its difficulty spikes. By the middle of the chapter I could comfortably handle most battles, but the exceptions were still jarring. Even leaving aside boss fights, one sequence required me to fight a whole squad of guards in a little corridor – wide enough for them to swarm me, but not wide enough to take advantage of Geralt’s superior mobility. I reloaded again… and again… and again… and again… and this is where I’ll reiterate my comment from last week that the game needs a difficulty setting in between Easy and Normal, for action-challenged players like me. Outside of boss fights and other scripted sequences, it’s almost impossible to die on Easy (seriously, in that corridor fight I mentioned, on Easy Geralt could stand in the middle of five guys swinging their swords and still survive), and that reduces potentially epic moments to anticlimactic clickfests. On the other hand, on Normal, non-stop wiping at that same point wasn’t just annoying. It again negated potentially epic moments (instead of “oh, cool”, my reaction became “just get it over with!”), and it was immersion-breaking, which hurt a story-driven game such as this.


Now that I’m up to Act 2, I’m happy to report that the game has picked up again. Without spoiling anything, the scripted sequences that open the act are strong and even after getting past those, the story density remains high – I can find, and solve, a bunch of quests all in the main hub. Some of the side quests lead into cool fights that, while minor, help flesh out Geralt as a character (the fights became extremely easy once I realised how to cheese them, but that’s a story for another day). And I really like how Act 2 actually tries to justify the usual RPG “run around a new town, helping a bunch of complete strangers” trope. The Witcher 2 has returned to form, and I hope to play more soon.


* I consider the score too harsh based on what I’ve seen of the game; at least as of the latest patch, the combat system is much, much better than described; I actually like the prologue “fights and QTEs” that the reviewer pans; etc etc.

The Witcher 2: first impressions

This is my first post on The Witcher 2.


1.  First impressions

2. Strengths and weaknesses (as of early Act 2)


I picked up The Witcher 2 when it went on sale a couple of weekends ago, and so far, I’m a little way through the game – I’ve finished the prologue and I can’t be far off from the end of Act 1. My first impressions: “Everything you’ve heard about this game contains a grain of truth.” Specifically:


Not needing to play the first game: I’ve barely touched the original game, but I’m managing well. There is a huge qualification here, though – I’ve read the stories on which the games are based, so I already know the major characters and a bit about the world.


Storytelling: So far, I like it, starting with the prologue, which captured a “cinematic” feel through a combination of cutscenes, QTEs and gameplay. It dragged a bit through Chapter 1 when I had to do more running around the map with fewer cutscenes to reward me, but now it seems to have picked up again. I also like TW2’s characters, starting with protagonist Geralt, who shows how to pull off the “lethal-but-principled deadpan badass” archetype. This extends to the NPCs: the king feels like a leader should, larger-than-life, sometimes generous, sometimes ruthless. As for the world, the obvious comparison is Dragon Age (disclaimer: I never got that far into DA), another brutal take on the traditional elves-and-dwarves high fantasy world. There seem to be precious few heroes in TW2; corrupt lawmen grow fat from shaking down merchants, while elves and dwarves repay human oppression with nasty insurgency. I think if you’re interested in that kind of setting, you’ll like its depiction in TW2.


An imposing learning curve/difficulty level: I agree with the reviewer (Todd Brakke at Gameshark) who commented that this game could do with a difficulty setting in between Easy and Normal. As a general rule, outside of boss fights, Easy feels like god mode while Normal feels like God Hand. Enemies hit hard, especially when they attack from behind! Sure, Geralt is tough enough to take any trash mob one-on-one in a fair fight – but three, or four, or five trash mobs are a completely different story. (I was completely unsurprised to learn that Demon’s Souls was one of the inspirations for the combat.) So the trick is using the tools at your disposal – stun bombs, throwing knives, buffs, crowd-control magic, and more – to ensure that 1 vs many fights aren’t fair. This is why the game’s prologue has such a steep learning curve – it hurls the player into the deep end without properly explaining those tools. Eventually I did get the hang of things, and combat is starting to become more enjoyable. On the other hand, I find boss fights perilously close to being frustrating* rather than fun, so hopefully this will improve later on.


Hefty system requirements: This game is indeed a beast. I have a reasonably powerful machine (i7 7200M processor, Mobility Radeon HD 5730, 4GB RAM) and I still had to turn down the settings to Low.


Dialogue: Yes, the characters say “ploughing” and “witcha” a lot…


So far, early impressions are promising, hair-pulling boss fights aside, and I look forward to uncovering more of the game’s story. I’ll keep you posted on The Witcher 2!



* Days later, I can still recall, “Trap it with the Yrden!” and, “Why are you hounding me?!”

Persona 3 Portable: Finished! Initial (spoileriffic) thoughts on the ending

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

Over the weekend, I finally finished Persona 3 Portable (not long after I finished my Conan the Barbarian post, in fact). In the coming weeks, watch this space for a spoiler-free review, and possibly a “Storytelling in Games” analysis piece. For now, I can say, wow, it was a very good game, maybe even a great game (I’ve yet to make up my mind). Very brief, and very spoileriffic, first thoughts on the game’s ending below the cut:


Continue reading “Persona 3 Portable: Finished! Initial (spoileriffic) thoughts on the ending”

Europa Universalis III: The price of freedom is deficit spending

This is part 2 of an irregular series on Europa Universalis III.


Part 1: The Byzantine Empire and puzzle-like gameplay.

Part 2: The Manchus, hordes, and the consequences of deficit spending.



I recently picked up Divine Wind, the Asian-focused expansion for Europa Universalis III, and I’ve had a lot of fun playing the Manchus, the people who would eventually conquer China and constitute its last imperial dynasty. The screenshot above shows the Manchu starting position in 1399 AD. To the south is the game’s sleeping giant, Ming China, and Korea.  To the east, Japan. To the north, unclaimed wilderness. And to the west, the nomadic hordes of the steppe.


This last point needs a bit of explanation. Divine Wind introduced a new type of nation to the game: the “horde”. Whereas sedentary nations are at peace with each other by default, they are automatically at war with hordes, broken only by temporary truces. Those truces must be bought with either prestige (via an admission of defeat) or tribute, from one side to the other. And rather than exchanging land as part of a peace treaty, possession is ten-tenths of the law – to claim land from the horde, first you have to occupy it with soldiers, then send in colonists who will eventually bring the province under your control. The hordes on the Manchu border are small and weak, but as we’ll see, even a small enemy can be dangerous in unexpected ways…


When starting a game of EU3, it’s usually necessary to cut military funding to the bone during peacetime, and so I did that. This worked out just fine, as for the first few decades I played like an East Asian Netherlands or Switzerland – colonising unclaimed patches of land such as Taiwan and bits of Siberia, sending out merchants to Nanjing and Malacca, and building up my infrastructure. What I didn’t realise was during that time, my game was affected by a glitch that prevented my armies from moving – and I strongly suspect this also prevented computer-controlled armies from moving, thus effectively enforcing world peace. In other words, things should not have been so easy for me. Eventually I cleared up the glitch, but I was able to enjoy a few more years of peace as a result of the Ming armies marching out onto the steppe to deal with the nomads.


Then the Ming struck a truce with the hordes. And the hordes, now free to attack me, flooded across the border, crushed my small standing army, and sacked half the Manchu kingdom.


But I still held half the nation. And in that half, I rebuilt the army, making it larger, stronger, more cavalry-heavy. This cost money, and lots of it, but I didn’t care. I wanted the invaders out! And with my new army, I was able to drive them back, before eventually settling for a truce that would get them off my land.


Five years later, the truce expired. But I was ready. My expanded, and now lavishly funded, army surged onto the steppe. This time, the shoe was on the other foot – the nomads stood no chance. And behind the soldiers came the settlers. The hordes had started this mess, but I was going to end it.


Well, I did end it – but not for the reasons I envisioned. Raising my new model army cost money. Maintaining that army cost money. Starting those colonies cost money. Maintaining those colonies, before they became self-sustaining, cost money. Sending out more colonists to make them self-sustaining cost money. When there was no money, I borrowed it. But paying the interest on the debt… cost money.


In the end, my budget was being chewed up by interest payments. My inflation* was dangerously high, far higher than I would have let it get had I been playing a Great Power. My technology and infrastructure were suffering. I could no longer afford my campaign. So I opted for peace, though this time I was able to exact tribute from the nomads.


In due course, I turned around my economy and paid down the debt, and my future campaigns were much more affordable. But for me, that episode – the diciest so far – will be the high point of the Manchu game. Historical strategy games tend to be about the extraordinary: extraordinary conquests, extraordinary empires.  (Just look at the victory conditions in most of the Total War games – historical kings would have given their right arms to rule over that much land.) Even EU3 is no exception, once you get past the early game. It’s far rarer that they convey a sense of limitation, of why these conquests and empires were so exceptional in the first place. But that costly steppe campaign was one of those rare cases. The limitations imposed by the game helped to drive home why civilised emperors, from Rome to China, opted to throw tribute to the barbarians rather than sending in the army**. It was an example of games allowing me to “reach out and touch history”, and I’m glad to have had the chance.


* In real life, inflation would reduce the value of my debts, but I don’t think that’s represented in the game.


** For example, every year, Sung China (circa-11th century AD) sent 300,000 bolts of silk and 200,000 ounces of silver to the neighbouring Liao dynasty – and the Liao were just one of the two nomadic states on China’s frontiers.

Combat in Persona 3 Portable: The quick and the dead

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

As you can see above, most of my previous discussion of Persona 3: Portable has focused on one half of the gameplay: the social/high school life simulation. But what about the other half of the game, the dungeon crawl?



You’ll tackle Tartarus, the game’s dungeon, one randomly generated floor at a time. Each floor may contain chests or a portal out. It will contain the staircase leading to the next — and it will almost certainly contain groups of monsters, depicted as black blobs that wander about the dungeon floor. Bumping into these blobs will trigger a battle (no annoying random battles here, thank heavens!). They’ll chase you if you come within their sight, and if they run into you, odds are the monsters will get the first turn in the resulting battle… but strike a blob with your weapon, which is easier if you sneak up from behind, and you’ll move first.


Once combat begins, it looks like your typical menu-driven, turn-based JRPG: each party member* can attack, defend, use the special powers conferred by his/her inner spirit, the titular Persona, etc. Unique in the party, the main character can switch between different Personas, each with different strengths, weaknesses and powers; other party members are stuck with just the one set of abilities.


The twist to this system is the critical importance of targeting vulnerabilities. Attacks in the game are divided into nine types — Pierce, Slash, Fire, Electricity, Light, etc — and different party members, and different enemies, are weak against different types of attack. If a combatant is struck by an attack that targets his/her weakness, the resulting critical hit will knock him/her/it flat. And every time a foe is knocked down, the attacker will get an extra turn. Finally, if all monsters are knocked down, the party can launch a devastating “all-out attack”.


The significance of this is that the game encourages you to chain multiple critical hits in the same turn, culminating in an all-out attack. So if you get in the first move — remember, by striking monsters with your weapon on the dungeon map — and the party has the right damage types at its disposal, you can go through trash mobs like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western, where he could pull his gun and mow down three bandits before they even blinked. Conversely, if the monsters move first and they’re especially powerful, or you’re especially unlucky, it’s possible to wipe in a single volley of queued critical hits (luckily, monsters can’t launch all-out attacks…).


For most fights, this system works very well. It pushes you to prepare for battle by using a well-balanced party and keeping a varied selection of Personas on hand. It means there’s a bit of tension on the dungeon map, as you take care to sneak up on monsters, or conversely run like blazes to avoid having the monsters run into you. And given the number of trash mobs you’ll fight, it keeps ordinary battles moving at a good, brisk pace.


Where this system doesn’t work so well is in boss battles. It takes a long time to defeat the typical boss monster, and a simple, elegant system built for speed is not well suited for protracted pounding matches. My boss fights tend to turn into repetition of the same pattern of moves over and over – A attacks, B buffs then attacks, C debuffs then attacks, D heals. And as a result, I am often all too glad when boss fights are over.


Still, on the whole, I like Persona 3: Portable’s battle system. It’s not every boss fight that stretches on for too long. And even those that do are outweighed by the fun I have as I tear through the game’s ordinary encounters.


* This is a change from the PS2 version, in which you only directly controlled the main character — your party members had their own AI.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together – The Verdict


This is the fifth post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my earlier impressions of the game’s character profiles; four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); how I used different character classes in battle; and an unfortunate mishap later in the game.




Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, the 2011 PSP remake of the SNES/Playstation tactical RPG, is a labour of love, and it shows wherever you look. It shows in the game’s beautiful character designs and in its soundtrack, performed by an orchestra even though players might only hear it through the tinny speakers of the PSP. It shows in the sweep of the game’s plot; in the natural sound of its mock-Shakespearean localised dialogue; in the lovingly written character profiles given to even spear carriers; and in the fluff text accompanying every bit of terrain. And it shows in features such as what is, effectively, an in-battle autosave; a perspective that can switch from top-down to isometric; and the ability to jump straight to important points in the game’s timeline during a replay instead of having to redo everything from scratch, all of which speak to thought and effort put into eliminating annoyances.


The gameplay


Most importantly, the basic in-game task, moving party members around on the grid so they can attack or use their special abilities, feels satisfying. The balance between offence and defence feels just right – blows do enough damage (generally, squishies will crumple after a few good hits, whereas heavily armoured warriors can keep fighting for longer) to keep things moving quickly and maintain tension, but not so much damage as to turn the game into an exercise in luck or frustration. Positioning matters, too: archers can shoot farther from the high ground; front-line fighters project zones of control to prevent enemies from rushing past to the weaker characters; wizards may be unable to cast spells if friendlies are in the way.


In between battles, you’ll choose classes and skills for your party members – in broad terms, knights tank; archers and ninja are the main damage-dealers; and mages are used for debuffs and crowd control. Archers in particular are devastating, but as not even the mightiest archer will be able to stand unsupported, it remains important to maintain a good mix of party members*.  And here, the gameplay’s main flaw reveals itself – the levelling system fails to eliminate grinding. All characters of the same class will share a level, and switching classes will change a character’s level. This works better than the traditional system found in, say, Final Fantasy Tactics, since now you only need to level a class once. Unfortunately, not only do you still need to level newly unlocked classes (of which there are quite a few) from scratch, high-level NPCs in new classes will revert back to level 1 when they join the party! By the end of the game, I was leaving even interesting-sounding new party members on the bench, because my patience for grinding had run out. And that is a frustratingly imperfect element of the system.


The story


As a storytelling experience, Tactics Ogre reaches for greatness, but doesn’t quite get there. This is not because its creators were untalented or unimaginative. Instead of  a stew of quest fantasy clichés, they attempted to give us a tale of ambition, compromise, loyalty, and love, set in a land riven by feuding pretenders – “A Game of Thrones” for the JRPG genre, if you would. The player’s choices will then drive that story down one of three branches that recombine for the game’s final act.


At times, this works very well. Some individual moments, in their injustice, left me shocked and appalled. In another scene, a tyrant sounds all too human, all too real, as he attempts to rationalise his misdeeds. And a  dying foe might show a hint of nobility that leaves the question of what could have been. At other times, it doesn’t. One of the two storylines I played is noticeably better than the other, which is more black-and-white and doesn’t hang together very well. Once the storylines do recombine, the plot feels rushed: key characters act on inconsistent or poorly explained motivations, some of the later twists and turns pop up out of nowhere, and good luck getting the desired outcome from one vital story decision without a FAQ. And characterisation of party members suffers as a result of the gameplay format. There are dozens of potentially recruitable characters, so they can’t be given much time in cut-scenes. (While party members do influence the ending, you can only see one character’s epilogue per game, an incomprehensible hold-over from the Playstation version and a noticeable flaw compared to Valkyria Chronicles, a game that was far inferior story-wise.) Party members do get in-battle dialogue, but consistent with other TRPGs, there’s no ability to talk to them in between battles. And this is a pity, because the one brief scene I saw where several party members hang out in town, bantering and enjoying everyday life, was done so well that I’d have loved more moments like that.


The verdict


All in all, Tactics Ogre is a very good game, and close to the borderline with greatness. Gameplay-wise, this is the highly polished epitome of turn/party-based combat,  for all it ends up too grindy as it wears on. And story-wise, while it suffers from flawed execution, it aims high enough, and gets enough right, to leave me glad that I played it. If you like turn- and party-based RPGs, and you have a PSP, I would recommend this game.


* I’ve seen the point made elsewhere on the internet (on a forum or by another reviewer? I can’t quite remember) that this is in contrast to Final Fantasy Tactics, where the key was mixing and matching class abilities to create unstoppable characters.


You can buy Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together from Amazon here.


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.


The basis of my review


Time spent with the game: My playtime clocked in at around 80 hours, though there would have been times when I’d left the game on (either on AI control, or completely idle) while I did something else.


What I have played: The Chaos route, most of the Law route, the good ending, the first few minutes of the postgame.


What I haven’t played: The last few battles of the Law route, the Neutral route, most of the postgame content.

Persona 3 Portable’s setting: A pop-cultural window onto the world

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

Compared to other RPGs, Persona 3’s modern-day world may seem mundane. The main character buys healing items not from armourers and apothecaries, but from the pharmacist at the shopping mall. He/she traipses through school hallways rather than half-sunken temples or bridges in the sky, and his/her haunt is the dormitory lounge rather than a castle.


But there are a couple of twists. First, Persona 3 is set in modern-day Japan, and to a Western gamer, odds are that will be at least a little exotic. The game takes place in the big city, so many of the differences will be muted. But there are some you’ll notice straight away. The dialogue is laden with “-san”, “-kun” and other Japanese honorifics. The main character can pray at a Shinto shrine, either to boost Academics before an exam, or divine his/her fortune and strengthen a relationship. School clubs are a Big Deal. There are even love hotels.


Second, Persona 3 contains a bunch of little touches that help preserve the internal consistency of that setting, and hence, the player’s suspension of disbelief. Trees change colour in between seasons. NPCs change their outfits depending on the weather and on whether they had school that day. But for something a bit more substantive, take the game’s scheduled exams, two sets a semester. They form part of the time management aspects of the game. They’re well flagged, in dialogue and on the in-game calendar. They do have an in-game effect. And so, it makes perfect sense that right before exam-time, your party members lock themselves in their rooms to study – leaving them unavailable for dungeon-crawling.


That said, Persona 3 mostly limits you to a single city, unlike the typical RPG, which has you travelling across cities and continents. While this is also consistent with the game’s premise – most high school students stay put in one place – it does mean that this isn’t really a game about the joy of exploration. Still, when the characters do get out of town, on holiday or on school excursions, the destinations are well-realised enough for me to delight in running around and talking to every NPC – and they’re also host to some of the funniest scenes in the game*.


How does that single city hold up over the course of the game? Pretty well (though not perfectly), actually, helped by the little touches and the odd change of scenery I mentioned above; by plot sequences that take place in new parts of the town; and by constant interaction with NPCs through plot sequences, other social encounters, and  even the periodically refreshed dialogue from nameless townspeople. That’s no small feat, after all the time I’ve spent with the game. I’m not that far from the end, now, and I‘ll be interested to see how the designers might wrap up the player’s experience with this world…


* Which, I suspect, owe more to anime tropes than to real-life Japanese culture.

Roleplaying and time management in Persona 3 Portable: Who says there’s no roleplaying in JRPGs?

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

As far as I can tell, the core of Persona 3 (refer to my initial post for the premise of the game) is its dungeon-crawling RPG combat. From a min-maxing perspective, the other, social aspects of the game ultimately seem to boil down to the bonuses they confer in the RPG element*. Even raising the main character’s stats by studying, singing karaoke or going to trendy coffeeshops will ultimately affect his/her ability to strike up relationships with certain other characters, which in turn, affects the bonuses carried into the dungeon crawl.


Note my use of “as far as I can tell” and “seem”. Except when looking up specific, narrow questions, I’ve departed from my usual RPG practice by minimising my use of FAQs for this game. And that is because Persona 3 is the most I’ve ever roleplayed in a single-player RPG. Back in my “intuitive gameplay” post, I talked about two different ways of looking at a game – as a set of rules to be mastered; or as a story to be acted out. And there is a certain tension between those two mindsets: when I can see that the “optimal” choice is grossly out of character, “unrealistic”, or ”ahistoric”,  this hurts my suspension of disbelief. For Persona 3, I’ve gotten around this by simply not looking up the optimal choices.


So, free from concern about min-maxing, I’ve been spending the game’s precious resource, time, in a way that best brings the “Japanese schoolkids” theme of the game to life. My main character, Arthur, raises his Academic stat by paying attention in class, praying at the local shrine in the afternoon, and studying in the evenings, not because I think it’s optimal, but because it’s what I think he would/should do. He raises his Charm because that stat will be used in his relationship with one of my favourite NPCs in the game, and if I want to see that dialogue, so does Arthur. And he spends his time with people whose company he enjoys, not necessarily those who’ll give him the most useful bonuses. (The one time powergaming concerns drove me to hang out with a NPC I found annoying, I imagined Arthur gritting his teeth and making noncommittal remarks the whole time.) It’s a liberating feeling to simply play “naturally” and focus on my favourite character interactions, without worrying about the minutiae of builds, boosts, and seeing every last bit of content!


About two and a half months have elapsed since the start of the game. Arthur is all set for a certain storyline event in a week’s time, and he’s well on track for his exams in two weeks…
* Specifically, social links will affect the EXP/levels of your created “personas”, the spirits that do the heavy lifting for you in battle.

Persona 3 Portable: A promising start

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

Plan for the day

Morning – Go to school.

Afternoon – Hit the books.

Evening – Fight monsters?!


The average high schooler who thinks his/her life is in turmoil has nothing on Arthur, my name for the hero of Persona 3 Portable. It’s not just that he’s a transfer student, the new kid in school. For Arthur is one of a handful with the ability to fight the “Shadows” that rob people of their will to live, and so, despite his tender age, the fate of the town is in his hands.


Not wholly in his hands, luckily. For backup, most visibly, Arthur has the schoolmates with whom he goes dungeon crawling – the friendly Yukari, Junpei the class clown, and cool older kids Akihiko and Mitsuru. They’ve proven their worth so far, Yukari with her healing and wind magic, Akihiko with his fists and lightning magic, Junpei with his whacking great two-handed sword, and Mitsuru radioing in directions and calling for backup if the team gets separated.


But building social links (“S-Links”) to others will also boost Arthur’s inner powers, and there are a lot of potential friends he can make: the elderly couple who run the local bookstore, the little girl who hangs out at the shrine on Saturdays, his buddy from the kendo team, even the person he plays MMOs with on the odd Sunday.  He doesn’t know anybody especially well yet, but he’s made a decent start.


It’s only been a little over a month since Arthur moved into his new school and discovered his powers, but he’s settling in well. He’s aced his midsemester exams (for which Mitsuru owes him a present). He’s making a fair few new friends. And last but not least, he’s defeated several tough bosses and plenty of lesser foes. Things are looking up for our young hero – and they’re most definitely looking up for Persona 3 Portable.


Total War: Shogun 2 – The Verdict

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

This is the third post in my series on Shogun 2. You can find my early impressions here and my write-up of the game’s diplomacy here.



Total War: Shogun 2 is the latest entry in Creative Assembly’s grand strategy, conquer-all-before-you franchise, and its core strengths are those of the series as a whole. Play Shogun 2 for making you feel a master strategist as you build cities; develop farms and mines; raise armies and march them across a beautifully drawn map of Sengoku Japan. When those armies meet, play Shogun 2 for making you feel a natural general as your samurai flow across the battlefield with an easy click of the mouse. Play Shogun 2 for the tension as you wonder how long your beleaguered men can hold, and for the thrill of triumph as you tilt the balance with one well-timed charge.


But unlike its predecessors, Shogun 2 offers more than that, for this is the game where Creative Assembly applied the lessons learned from earlier missteps. Where previous Total War titles started strong but wore out their welcomes with boring late games, Shogun 2 is about planning and preparing and gathering momentum for a decisive endgame showdown. Where previous Total War titles were aptly named because diplomacy was so dysfunctional, Shogun 2 makes diplomacy not only viable, but a vital part of the preparation for that showdown. Where previous Total War titles were buggy and often crash-prone, Shogun 2 seems much more stable. Where previous Total War titles suffered from risibly inept AI, Shogun 2’s computer opponent appears more capable (though it still sends generals on suicidal cavalry charges, while failing to repair ships). Last but not least, where it was painful to keep track of a growing empire in previous Total War titles, Shogun 2 offers a far more user-friendly and better-documented experience.


In technical terms, then, Shogun 2 is a very good strategy game, one from which other developers could learn, and one that benefits from being built upon the foundations of previous mistakes. It even nails pacing and diplomacy, two elements that strategy games struggle to get right. The question of whether it is a great game is more subjective. As a game, Shogun 2 is so much better implemented than Empire: Total War that it makes me sad for the wasted potential in the latter, but I will still cherish how Empire brought to life a pivotal historical period and the real-world importance of seapower. Shogun 2 sheds no such light for me, but this is more a function of my own interests* rather than being any fault of the game’s. All in all, I would recommend Shogun 2 to any strategy gamer (especially one interested in the Sengoku era!) who would like to see the series’ core mechanics at their most refined.


*  While I am interested in Shogun 2’s subject matter, the Sengoku era in Japan, I am even more interested in Empire: Total War’s scope and subject matter: the Enlightenment, the wars of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the modern world.


You can buy Total War: Shogun 2 from Amazon here.



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.



The basis of my review



Length of time spent with Shogun 2: Roughly 29-30 hours’ playtime (adjusted for time spent away from the keyboard).


What I have played: Two short campaigns (one aborted as the Oda, one won as the Shimazu), two historical battles, several custom battles, several “classic mode” multiplayer battles.


What I haven’t played: The avatar conquest multiplayer mode, the multiplayer campaign.