Why XCOM: Chimera Squad succeeds as science fiction

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series XCOM: Chimera Squad

… because it asks “what if”, and then answers that question.

Chimera Squad takes as its premise something established by the previous XCOM games: most of the alien species that invaded Earth are victims too, twisted and warped into weapons of war. Then, it builds on this. What if their masters’ defeat left the alien army free from slavery, but stranded on Earth? And what if humanity responded by extending a hand to its former enemies?

I love the illustrations of daily life that we see between missions, such as a Viper using an ATM at the bank (right), humans and aliens watching TV together (bottom), at the shop (bottom left), and in the workplace (top), aliens waiting for the bus (left centre), and a Sectoid radio host in his studio (top left).

The result is what we see in game. Once you accept that this is soft science fiction – the sort where aliens wear clothes, work in offices, and eat fast food – this is a remarkably well thought out world; I would go so far as to say this is possibly Firaxis’ best writing since Alpha Centauri (and definitely since Civilization IV). Some of this can be seen in the plot; more can be seen in the background flavour.  Images of daily life, and in-universe posters, show how aliens have adopted human customs: we see aliens on holiday, watching TV, going to cocktail parties, rescuing cats from trees, starring in movies, and wearing make-up. One poster even exhorts them to “dress like humans… [it] will help you fit in!” Is its audience aliens looking to fit in, or humans who need to be convinced? Regular ads for fast food are funny, but also clever: not every species can eat every food, and society has had to work out how to keep diners safe. And not everybody, human or alien, is happy with the new arrangements: there are alien protesters who worship spaceships, and human protesters who want to start a fight. On a slightly meta level, there is even an in-universe buddy detective show featuring an alien and a human lead1.

And just as science fiction can serve as a commentary on the real world, it’s impossible for me not to read meaning into Chimera Squad. The squad is a group of former enemies – in one case, two agents fought on opposite sides of the same battle – who have put the past behind them. A deliberate choice, in response to current times? I can’t help but think so.

That intent, and that willingness to adopt the ethos of “what if”, are why Chimera Squad works. Here the science fiction is not window dressing, but central to the premise. The result is a memorable setting and a world where I’d like to see more stories.

  1. We never see this, but there’s an excerpt from its script at one point.

Video Games and the Law of Conservation of Complexity

While replaying Imperialism II recently, I realised how it illustrates the role of complexity within strategy game design. For every game there is a “right” amount of complexity, and it’s up to the developer how to allocate it.

Resources near my capital in Imperialism II. They are connected by road or rail and I don’t need to use my limited shipping capacity to bring them in. Overseas resources must be connected to a port and then shipped in.

The key is that simplifying one aspect of the game frees up complexity to be used elsewhere. Imperialism and Imperialism II exemplify this. On one hand, they make city management much simpler than in other 4X games: there is only one to manage, the capital. On the other hand, their resource model is much more detailed. Instead of generic “production”, every unit needs specific resources, such as steel, bronze, and cloth for uniforms. Every one of these has its own inputs, and every input resource (coal, iron, timber, wool, multiple types of food…) is represented on the map. They need to be discovered, exploited, and connected to transport; and then there have to be enough ships to bring the resources back  home. Going to war has a real opportunity cost; every ship carrying troops or participating in a blockade is one ship that can’t feed the capital.

This principle can be seen elsewhere. Civilization famously has no tactical battles, because they would interrupt the broader flow of the game. Master of Magic and the Age of Wonders series look very similar at first glance, but playing them back-to-back reveals the extent to which Age of Wonders streamlines city-building in exchange for much more detailed combat.

Even Sid Meier had to watch out for this. As recounted by Soren Johnson, he realised “it’s better to have one good game than two great ones” after falling victim to this when developing Covert Action, a spy game whose management and action layers distracted from one another.

Ultimately, just as the player has to manage finite resources within the game, complexity is a finite resource that the designer must manage outside the game. And as with other types of resource management, the benefits are substantial when done well.

Further reading

Soren Johnsons elaboration of why “one good game is better than two great ones” — and when mini-games can succeed.        

Where do the armies come from?

Many kinds of armies have marched through history: regulars, militias, mercenaries, tribal and aristocratic warriors, and more. Yet while historical strategy games feature a colourful panoply of different troops, with distinct equipment and morale, they have typically skated over the question of how these soldiers were organised and paid. Usually, troops hang around indefinitely after being recruited; this system can be seen in games from Civilization to Europa Universalis and Total War. That said, there have been games with an interesting treatment of this subject.

Alexios Komnenos’ Byzantine army in Crusader Kings II. Currently active are retinue troops and “mercenaries” (as the game represents standing Byzantine units – the Scholae and the Varangians).

The most detailed portrayal can be found in Crusader Kings 2. Realms field four different types of troops: levies, vassals’ levies, mercenaries, and personal retinues. With enough money, the last two can be turned into a de facto standing army, and thus a small but wealthy realm — say, one well-positioned on the Silk Road — can field a fighting force out of proportion to its size.

The genius of CK2 is how it incentivises players to follow history and professionalise their army. Levies take time to muster, and vassal levies have another disadvantage — the player is only entitled to them for a certain number of days. It’s better to ask for taxes to be paid in cash, and use the money to hire troops who are always on call.

Another clever example can be found in the Age of Charlemagne DLC for Total War: Attila. Charlemagne used the Total War series’ traditional systems for upkeep, recruitment cost, and recruitment time to encourage players to build a core of professional soldiers: professionals were slow to recruit but powerful and reasonably affordable to maintain, so it made sense to keep them as a standing force. By contrast, levies were cheap and easy to recruit, so there was no point keeping them around between wars; and mercenaries were easy to recruit but very expensive to maintain, so were too costly in peacetime.

As this highlights, mercenaries are quite common in Paradox and Total War games, where they are treated distinctly from regular troops. Typically they are very expensive in exchange for being available immediately. In Europa Universalis IV, mercenaries don’t drain national manpower; and in Total War games, they offer foreign troops who wouldn’t otherwise be available.

Finally, quite a few games allow the player to invest in militia, who then appear as free-spawn local defenders. These include Imperialism, the Total War series from Empire onwards, and fantasy and science fiction games such as the Dominions series and Age of Wonders: Planetfall.

Personally, I think this is fertile territory for the genre to explore further. From a gameplay perspective, this is ripe for trade-offs and interesting decisions: do you strengthen local defences, at the price of also strengthening local leaders? And from a flavour perspective, this would be another way to differentiate factions. I’d love to see more games follow the trail blazed by CK2.

This post is indebted to the late John Keegan, whose classification of armies in A History of Warfare has stuck with me all these years.

XCOM: Chimera Squad impressions – Really good so far

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series XCOM: Chimera Squad
A Chimera Squad agent arrives on the scene.

Seven hours in, I really like Chimera Squad, both from a mechanical and a narrative perspective.

The game is what I hoped it would be: a brisker, more elegant interpretation of XCOM’s tactical combat. The new turn system means that the old XCOM playstyle, “mow every enemy down in one round”, no longer applies. Instead there are new abilities, and new interesting decisions. With a few upgrades, Axiom, the Muton, can charge across the room and pummel multiple enemies; but is it worth leaving him exposed? Shelter, the psionic, can teleport and swap locations with an enemy. That enemy will become out of position and likely easy prey for the rest of the squad, but Shelter will be surrounded by his remaining foes. Is that worth it? Should I roll the dice on a 70% shot; or go for a guaranteed, low-damage melee attack that will ensure my next character can land a KO? Calculations such as these keep each battle interesting.

The strategic layer is simple but effective: there are too many things I’d like to do, and not enough agents to do them with. I would love to accelerate my research into new equipment; my agents are becoming out-gunned. I would also love to put my agents through advanced training; send them off to gather more resources; or rehabilitate them after injuries. But I only have so many agents, and each of them can only be in one place at one time.

In an inspired touch, Chimera Squad’s tutorial battle takes place in a museum chronicling the events of the previous games. Here the squad shelters behind a model of the Skyranger, XCOM’s transport plane.

The unexpected delight has been the worldbuilding — hands down my favourite in a Firaxis XCOM game. Humans and aliens living in uneasy peace makes for a great setting, and Chimera Squad brings it to life with details that range from the serious (the agents’ biographies hint at the horrors of the alien occupation) to the absurd (an in-universe ad for breakfast food is both hilarious and underscores the extent to which aliens have integrated into human society). I don’t even mind the wise-cracking dialogue, a clear homage to the “buddy cop” genre.

What could be next for the XCOM franchise? If Chimera Squad sells well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become its own spin-off series: so XCOM 3, Chimera Squad 2, etc, with each having its own distinct mechanics. I also wonder if, like Chimera Squad, XCOM 3 will borrow a leaf from Julian Gollop’s XCOM: Apocalypse. We now have a multi-species squad in an urban setting; what else could be in store?

Touching history in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord

Mounted archery in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord. I downloaded a Pikachu banner to use as my clan emblem.

After playing around 20 hours of Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, I am convinced it is a superb game, for all that it is still (very) Early Access. Bannerlord’s magic is that, while it does not take place in a historical setting, it lets me imagine what history felt like.

This is clearest / most obvious at the micro level — individual battles. Whether fighting as a horse archer in swirling cavalry engagements, or peering out from behind a mantlet to exchange arrows with castle defenders, Bannerlord conveys the chaos, confusion, and spectacle of a medieval battle.

More than that, it sells the illusion of being my character. As I progressed from glorified vigilante to marcher lord, my concerns — and the gameplay — evolved at each step. Chasing bandits at the head of my posse, responsibilities were few: Make payroll and keep the soldiers fed. After I had earned a name for myself, and taken service as a mercenary captain with the Southern Empire, my horizons expanded — and so did the worries. Now I rode as part of the imperial armies, and my opponents were the armies of other kingdoms. I had to help win battles (and hope the general did not get over-confident), look for isolated enemy forces I could pick off, and preserve my own troops — my critical stock in trade. At last, when the Empress Rhagaea granted me lordship of a newly liberated border city, I had a rich reward — and a precarious one. Now it was up to me to strengthen my garrisons, keep the city fed, and watch the frontier like a hawk, lest an enemy army snatch away my prize. My days of criss-crossing the map were over.

Helping this is the game’s sharp distinction between the money and resources available to a landed lord and those available to a landless adventurer. At the start of the game, it was a victory every time I scraped together enough cash to buy a better piece of armour. Saving up 900 or 1,000 coins to hire my first companion seemed as feasible as flying to the moon. As a lord, I pulled in thousands of coins a day. What was the cost of war horses and top-of-the-line armour for my companions?

As a final note, Bannerlord generates the kind of set-pieces that would belong in an Akira Kurosawa movie. At one point during my mercenary career, the army that I’d joined was defeated. My character was taken prisoner, escaped, was caught by bandits, and escaped again. Taking no chances, I limped back to the nearest friendly village and decided to rest and heal. I was still there when a dozen marauding horsemen showed up. And so when the village militia took up arms to defend their homes, one mercenary horse archer fought alongside his hosts. Seven Samurai? There was only one of me!

What I’ve been reading and playing — from the Three Kingdoms to the Alliance-Union Universe

Since my last update, I’ve been lucky to play three excellent (and very different) games, all Game of the Year material: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rule the Waves 2, and Dragon Quest Builders 2. I also reread an old favourite, Lord of the Rings, and ploughed through a new favourite, the works of CJ Cherryh.

Games

Total War: Three Kingdoms is the Shogun 2 successor I’ve awaited for the last 8 years, and the best Total War game to date. Everything I loved about Shogun 2 is back: the challenge, strong execution on both the campaign and battle layers, and a beautiful aesthetic. The challenge hit me very early on — playing Cao Cao (the recommended starting character!), I crashed and burned twice before succeeding on my third try. Even with that experience under my belt, it took me two tries to win as the Ma clan of Western China.

Against stronger opponents, ambushes are the great equaliser. The computer knows how to use them, too…

The campaign layer is immersive and well-designed. Each province is distinct, so geography matters. AI-controlled warlords play like believable characters: they have distinct personalities — Liu Bei will stand by his friends, while Yuan Shu is a treacherous opportunist — and act sensibly, for instance, by bending the knee to stronger powers. Interface improvements make even large empires manageable.

Sturdy shielded infantry make a good anvil on which to break enemy attacks…

The same attention to detail is visible on the battle layer. Each individual battle feels like poetry in motion; even one-sided battles made me consider how I could best win while minimising casualties.  Siege battles are interesting and dynamic for the first time in the series’ history. (Granted, after a certain point the challenge mostly comes from the campaign layer — the computer prefers recruiting cheap early-game troops, no match for a late-game human army.)

… while cavalry is a devastating hammer.

And Three Kingdoms is the best-looking Total War game since Shogun 2. Gone are the dark, muddy graphics of the Rome 2 generation, in favour of vibrant colours. The battle music is good (if not quite “Jeff van Dyck at his best”), and the strategic layer music is lovely and relaxing — the best in the series. I love this game, and I’m so happy that the developers did this period justice.

Flaming shot from trebuchets lights up the night sky.

At the other end of the strategy spectrum is Rule the Waves 2, an indie game covering naval warfare between 1900-1955. What makes it so brilliant is how it captures the essence of strategy — reconciling objectives to limited resources. You are in charge of a Great Power’s navy, whether that be mighty Britain or nearly landlocked Austria-Hungary: you design ships, build them out of a finite budget, and command them in battle, a bit like an oceangoing version of a space 4X game. But unlike a 4X, you are not the leader of your nation. You cannot control world politics, or the rise and fall of international tensions. You cannot control the nation’s economy: the US will always be larger and wealthier than, say, Italy. You cannot control the government, which tweaks the naval budget, makes demands, and if you do badly enough, sacks you — the “game over” condition. You can influence these things – for example, ostentatiously warning of war will give you a bigger budget at the cost of higher world tension – but at the end of the day, it is up to you to make the most of what you are given. I’ve had spectacular results as Austria-Hungary, frugally upgrading my ageing battleships, focusing my meagre budget on fast, modern destroyers trained for night actions, and only picking fights I could win. I’ve had an equally spectacular rise-and-fall as France, building up a proud oceangoing fleet and dominating the Mediterranean, only to be crushed by enemies out of my league — first the British and then the Germans. I was a big fan of the first Rule the Waves, and its sequel has lived up to my expectations.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 illustrates what’s possible by combining the structure and narrative of one genre, the RPG, with the verbiage of another, the builder game. Like an RPG, it’s an epic voyage that takes the heroes across many lands. Like an RPG, you progress by solving NPCs’ quests in each location. But unlike an RPG, those quests typically involve gathering material and building towns.

An early town in Dragon Quest Builders 2. Note the crops and perimeter wall.

It is a pleasure to make each area come to life with homes, workshops, kitchens, dining areas, and defensive walls. Add a localisation brimming with puns and wordplay, and the result is a blend of creativity with charm. I don’t have much experience with the builder genre — beyond bouncing off Terraria years ago — so this has been my pleasant surprise of the year.

Completing a building in Dragon Quest Builders 2.

Books

A few months ago I re-read The Lord of the Rings, accompanied by the Extended Edition movies, and rediscovered my appreciation for Tolkien. Intricate, mythic, and at times moving, LOTR is a masterpiece. It is a book that could only have grown out of its author’s lived experience. It makes no pretensions to realism; yet has something important to say. It richly deserves its status as the foundational text of the fantasy genre.

I’ve also finally become a CJ Cherryh fan, after previously finding her books (Downbelow Station) too dry and dense. Her specialties are alien cultures (in both senses of the word) and driven, desperate protagonists; both themes run through my recent reads. The Morgaine saga follows a woman on an obsessive quest, seen through the eyes of her loyal companion. The hero of Merchanter’s Luck is a traumatised space smuggler pushing himself to the edge of endurance. The Faded Sun trilogy tells the story of two tradition- and taboo-bound aliens searching for their homeworld, and the human veteran who helps them. I’ve just picked up another of her series (The Dreaming Tree), have another on my shelf (the Chanur trilogy), and saved the final Morgaine book for later; I look forward to digging in.

What I’ve been playing

A mission in Wargroove’s campaign

Hello! Since it’s been a while since I wrote about games, I wanted to cover off the notable titles that I’ve played in the last few months. Some of these are new releases — Wargroove, Steamworld Quest. Others are old favourites — Firaxis or Paradox games, benefiting from recent DLC. With much of my gaming moving to Nintendo Switch, I’ve broken out Switch and PC games — in general the PC games have focused on strategy, while the Switch games have been more varied.

Nintendo Switch

Wargroove was probably my standout game for the first few months of the year, with its combination of elegant mechanics, a charming aesthetic, and a generally well-designed campaign. A map can be finished in an hour; but that hour can see quick land-grabbing dashes, a meticulous dance as you yield ground or search for weaknesses in the enemy line, and the final decisive moment when your dragons swoop on the enemy stronghold, or you manage to trundle your trebuchets in range. The game is held back by poor skirmish AI – which limits replayability and makes one of the three gameplay modes, a series of linked skirmish maps, rather pointless – and I do wish the last couple of campaign maps offered depth instead of artificial challenge. Overall, though, it succeeds both as an Advance Wars spiritual successor and as its own game – I will be very interested in any DLC or sequels.

Meanwhile, Steamworld Quest has turned out to be very good. It’s built around one of the best turn-based RPG combat systems I’ve come across, both well-designed and well-executed. I think I’m about two-thirds through, and I have a longer blog post half-written, so stay tuned….

Steamworld Quest in action

Temporarily on the back burner is the Donkey Kong DLC for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (I finished the base game last year). It’s more of a good thing, and often laugh-out-loud funny; presumably I’ll return after playing more Steamworld Quest.

I have mixed feelings about Bomber Crew, a game sometimes compared to FTL. Individual missions are very good: enjoyable, often frantic, in the same way as FTL’s encounters. The problem is the overall structure. FTL playthroughs were short: if you died, it was back to square one, but you didn’t lose much time. Bomber Crew is more like XCOM, and not in a good way. There is an ongoing campaign and if you are shot down, you continue with a new plane and crew – the problem is that they will not have their predecessors’ upgrades. I don’t like grinding to re-upgrade the plane and re-level the crew, and I don’t think it makes for a good loop.

Finally, Worms: WMD is a solid franchise game – while the basics remain similar to previous 2D Worms games, I like the additions — vehicles and crafting. The vehicles’ destructive power is classic madcap Worms, while crafting gives the player extra options during a match.

PC

Perhaps the recent standout has been Hearts of Iron IV: first the Man the Guns expansion, then a brief return to the Kaiserreich mod, before moving onto a Fallout: New Vegas total conversion mod, Old World Blues. In general, HOI4 becomes steadily better with each version — Man the Guns and its accompanying patch are solid, without the AI problems that dog the most recent version of Stellaris, and while the new naval system takes a bit of work to set up, I like the power and flexibility that it allows. I doubt any expansion can address several problems with HOI4’s underlying design – the flawed transition between peace and war, the lagging and grindy late game – but for all that, this is a game that’s provided me with significant enjoyment over the last three years.

Old World Blues deserves a highlight for several reasons. First, there’s its sheer ambition: a whole new map, tech trees, and custom factions. Second, I love New Vegas’ setting. And third, it’s functioned as something of an expert-level class in HOI4. For instance:

  • I’ve usually found supply to be trivial in HOI4, except when fighting in remote areas such as the Andes or Central Asia. It is not trivial in Old World Blues. The awful infrastructure of the post-apocalyptic West Coast, unless upgraded, imposes severe attrition on massed troops – a problem when playing as the NCR, a “quantity over quality” faction.
  • Similarly, playing this mod made me realise that historical hindsight let me paper over the gaps in my knowledge of HOI4 mechanics. Yes, a long-ranged escort fighter is a good idea. Yes, armoured divisions should be built around combined arms. Yes, there’s something to these newfangled aircraft carriers. Without this advantage, I’ve struggled. I know the difference between a P-51 and a B-17, but should I build NCR salvaged power armour or Protectron robots? How important is the “Breakthrough” stat? How are supply lines calculated? I think I need to pay more attention to the underlying numbers – and that will make me a better base-game player as well.

Meanwhile, I’m currently nearing the end of my first Civilization VI: Gathering Storm run – it’s been enjoyable, even without making much use of the new features. Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to win! I also made several unsuccessful attempts as Dai Viet in Europa Universalis IV – I think I’m out of practice after not having played for several expansions.

A few non-strategy games stare at me from my Steam library. Yakuza 0 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, both picked up on sale last year; the former unplayed, the latter barely scratched. Heaven’s Vault has beautiful art, and I love its premise – you play a science-fiction archaeologist and the gameplay seems built around dialogue and deciphering alien languages – but I haven’t quite been able to get into it. Next time…

Further reading

Write-up of Old World Blues

Quick impressions: Victory and Glory: Napoleon

Victory and Glory: Napoleon is a simple, elegant PC strategy game that places players in charge of France during the Napoleonic Wars. It bears a heavy boardgame influence, namely a design philosophy that emphasises clever abstraction over detailed simulation.

The strategic layer is a race against time: Napoleon must crush his rivals before Britain can build up an overwhelming coalition. Attrition is the player’s enemy: France starts with the finest troops in Europe, but reinforcements are scanty (and spawn all the way in Paris), friendly German and Italian levies are weak, and the other Great Powers will eventually reform their armies to match France’s standards. And while Napoleon is the most formidable general in the game, he can only be in one place at one time…

The tactical layer, while simple, rewards period tactics. Infantry will automatically form squares to repel horsemen – and in so doing, make themselves vulnerable to artillery. Cavalry get a bonus when counter-charging tired opponents. A special rule incentivises the player, like Napoleon, to keep the Imperial Guard in reserve.

Simplicity should not be confused with easiness. Not understanding the game mechanics, I defeated Austria in the 1805 scenario but lacked the manpower to finish off a newly hostile Prussia or force Russia to the negotiating table. Like a cornered lion, Napoleon and his last remaining army crushed several attempts to invade France, but when the odds grew too overwhelming, I abdicated quit.

Overall, I like this game – it’s both entertaining, and a good example of how a designer can capture the feel of a period without bogging down in detail. I’m looking forward to returning from Elba my next game as L’Empereur!

Further reading

Developer interview on Slitherine forums

Classifying the Total War games

Two different emperors prepare to defend their worlds. In Western Europe, circa 400 AD, a Roman emperor inspects his comitatenses and scholae, the successors to Caesar’s legions. A universe away, a different emperor raises his magic hammer, and beckons his griffon into the skies. They are united by circumstance — and the design of their respective games.

There is no one Total War design; there are several, differing by structure and scope.  This is why different players prefer different entries in the series — the designers were trying to accomplish different things. (How well they succeeded is a different question.) I’ve created the following diagram to illustrate this:

Classifying the Total War games by scope and structure. Source: Author

Structure is measured along the Y-axis of the chart. Games towards the top (Attila, Warhammer I, Shogun 2) have a more defined structure, typically ushering the player towards a do-or-die endgame. Games towards the bottom are more open. Meanwhile, the chart’s X-axis measures scope. Games towards the right (Shogun 2) are smaller and more focused. Those towards the left are geographically larger, encompass more factions, or have more complex game mechanics.

The rest of this post explores, first, the categories that emerge, second, the ones that I prefer, and third, how this system relates to the future of Total War.

The categories

I divide the Total War games in the chart into several main categories:

  1. Rome II & Empire: the big, world-spanning games. These offer faction diversity and vast, exotic settings: Romans play very differently from Scythians, who play differently from Macedonian successor states. There are two downsides. The first is a less interesting late game, due to the lack of structure. The second is that these games appear harder to get right: both were plagued with problems at launch. Overall, they’re perhaps better as “toys” (something you play with) than as “games” (rules-based, win/lose activities). (Many of the older, pre-Empire games also fall into this category.)
  2. Napoleon: the little brother. Napoleon: Total War shed much of Empire’s scope by confining itself to Europe and the Mediterranean. While it added several features that became standard in later games, it still lacked the defined endgame that became increasingly common in its successors.
  3. Attila & Warhammer I: the pre-apocalyptic games. These games are structured around beating back a vast, powerful invader: the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer. Between the two, Attila offers a huge map—almost as large as Rome II’s—and complex empire management, while Warhammer dials this back to focus on conflict.
  4. Shogun 2: the most focused game. Shogun 2 combines limited scope with extreme polish, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The map is geographically more confined—and that makes it easier for the computer to put up a fight. There are fewer units — and each of them has its own useful, distinct niche. It also has the most structured endgame in the series, with the campaign culminating in a march to Kyoto against almost all of Japan.
  5. Warhammer II: still deciding… Warhammer II’s campaign is a race to cast a series of magic rituals, very different from Warhammer I’s struggle against impending doom. As of 100 turns, it feels more like the space race in Civilization— a defined goal that leaves the “how” up to the player. It also feels broader than its predecessor — the world is vast, intricate, and filled with varied factions.

My favourites

My favourites are structured around a challenge… I love Shogun 2 for its polish and elegance, its ruthless AI and climactic showdown. I also love the far more sprawling Attila for its “rage against the dying of the light” zeitgeist, the sense that I was defending civilisation by the skin of my teeth.

… at the same time, I appreciate the others. For all its flaws, Empire still holds a place in my heart for its depiction of the globalising early-modern world. Post-patch, Rome II also appeals when I want a taste of classical antiquity.

The future of Total War

I expect both “broad” and “focused” titles. One of the next two historical Total War games will take the series to a new setting — my guess is this will be large. The other will be the first “Total War Saga” — geographically smaller and focused on a “key, pivotal point in history”. No matter which scope you prefer, I expect there will be something for you!

A plethora of PC strategy game companies

Strategy gaming is vibrant and multi-faceted; that’s my take-away from mapping out selected strategy game publishers, developers, and games.

Selected strategy game publishers and studios.

Here are three observations:

The first is what a broad tent the chart represents. Some of these publishers (Paradox, Slitherine) have a strong overarching brand as strategy game houses, while for generalists such as SEGA, the strategy brands rest at the studio level. Looking at individual titles, we see a broad mix of sub-genres: wargames; fantasy, historical, and space 4X; grand strategy; city-building; squad tactics; and more.

The second is how different this — and strategy gaming itself — would have looked 10 years ago. Firaxis owned the dominant strategy game franchise (Civilization), yet the XCOM remake was many years away. While SEGA acquired Creative Assembly back in 2005, its next strategy acquisition wasn’t for another 8 years (Relic, in 2013). Paradox and Slitherine were highly niche. Shrapnel Games was another contender in the wargame publishing space.

Finally, this is not a comprehensive list. For example, I haven’t shown companies such as Iceberg Interactive (the original publisher of the Endless series), Focus Home Interactive, Stardock (Gal Civ), Eugen Systems (Wargame, Steel Division), Illwinter (Dominions), Haemimont (the Tropico remakes), KOEI (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Nobunaga’s Ambition), and many of the wargaming studios in Slitherine’s orbit.

All this adds up. Multiple publishers and developers — some genre specialists, other generalists — have established themselves in the strategy space, producing a rich variety of games. Things have come a long way since the genre was dismissed as “not contemporary”!

Westerado: a short, sweet journey into the Wild West

Short, clever homage to Westerns. Westerado: Double Barrelled uses a simple premise — find the gunman who murdered your family — to take the player on a romp through the genre’s tropes: bandits, six-shooters, a crooked tycoon, a cowardly sheriff, horseback chases, blue-coated soldiers, and a protagonist who looks awfully like the Man with No Name. Mechanically, it’s a short-form open-world game, mostly top-down, although the occasional horseback sequences are viewed side-on. Solving quests earns clues as to the murderer’s identity; in between quests, the player can hunt bounties, explore the map, and tussle with bandits. That fits the premise, given that the archetypal western is about the stranger riding into town to solve a problem.

Brevity is part of Westerado’s appeal — I clocked in at 4 hours per Steam, after finishing many (not all) the side quests. That, to me, felt about right. First, I don’t think the game’s mechanics could support a much longer run; by the time I wrapped up, I had more than enough clues to find the murderer and was anxious to trigger the final showdown. Second, the designers set up the game to encourage multiple playthroughs — the player can ally with one of several different quest-givers, and following different quest lines will produce different endings.

Strong indie aesthetic — the pixel art can be striking (see above screenshot), and the soundtrack is twangy, catchy, and atmospheric.

Recommended. Since finishing the game a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been digging through spaghetti Western soundtracks on Spotify and contemplating re-watches of genre classics. It’s a good sign when a game prompts me to engage with its source material — especially when that game is a homage!

Further reading

PC Gamer and USGamer offer more detailed discussions of gameplay.

Stellaris, one year on

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Stellaris

Victory!

Amidst the brightly shining stars, the Mushroom Domain’s legacy shall endure. The Mushrooms were not the galaxy’s most populous species. They did not control its largest empire. Yet they were its most influential. It was a Mushroom-created federation that brought peace to the galaxy and defended it against an invading scourge, and it was a Mushroom battle fleet that fired the final, victorious shot.

One year after launch, Stellaris remains best approached as a science-fiction story generator. Its strengths and weaknesses are recognisable from launch: in Jesse Schell’s “toy vs game” classification scheme (a toy is something you play with, a game is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude), Stellaris is still more of a toy than a game — not uncommon in the 4X and strategy genres, where a rich experience such as Total War or Master of Magic can represent more than the sum of its parts. Stellaris is not a balanced set of finely-honed decisions, and I wonder if it ever could be one without jeopardising what it does do well: providing a sandpit to enact grand sagas of galactic ambition.

More detailed thoughts below:

At a design level, this is still one of the most interesting 4X titles around. Thematically, Stellaris‘s well-written flavour events, randomly generated species (peer empires, brooding precursors, upliftable pre-spaceflight worlds, and more), and abundant science-fiction homages combine to produce a galaxy that is “ancient and full of wonders”. Later on, the galaxy begins dividing into blocs, precursor races awaken, and intergalactic invaders emerge, representing radical potential changes to the game board: when the victory screen popped up, my Mushrooms and their federation partners were defending against a mighty “Awakened Empire”, a once-dormant precursor now turned aggressively expansionist.

Mechanically, Stellaris is still strongest early on. Since the Utopia expansion came out, I’ve started four campaigns, shelved three after reaching the mid-game, and finished one. Early-game exploration remains the highlight; the mid-game is weakened by bland mechanics such as planetary construction and ship design. Patches and DLC have helped to some extent, providing new mid/late-game foes (Leviathans DLC), internal politics that feel rewarding instead of punitive (the 1.5 patch), buildable megastructures (the Utopia DLC — I’ve only built a few so far), and a Civ 5-style traditions system (Utopia again).

Applying mods and experimenting with custom game settings let me address the game’s weaknesses, build on its strengths, and tailor the experience to my preferences. In 4X games, I hate micromanaging large empires — I prefer a smaller scale where every settlement matters — and I prefer to play as a peaceful builder. I was able to achieve this in my completed Mushroom Domain game, a relaxing experience in which I let federation allies extend our control across the galaxy while I focused on building and exploration. To do so, I opted for a small galaxy with the proportion of habitable worlds set to 25% of the default. Meanwhile, I installed the More Events Mod (more to discover), Megastructures, Improved Megastructures, and Stellar Expansion (more to build), and assorted quality of life mods (AutoBuild). For future games, I intend to install Guillis Planet Modifiers (more planet variety) and perhaps The Zenith of Fallen Empires (ambitious endgame options).

Endless Space 2 impressions

I have mixed feelings following my first game of Endless Space 2. I went in with high hopes: after bouncing off Endless Space 1, I went on to love Endless Legend. At first, I had a great time. Six hours later, by the time I finished my beginner game, I was bored.

Its strengths and weaknesses are those of Endless Legend at launch. Re-reading what I wrote about Endless Legend in 2015, much of my critique applies equally well here. Endless Space 2‘s headline strengths are gorgeous art and imaginative worldbuilding, while several aspects of nuts-and-bolts gameplay deserve praise – spaceship design is simple and elegant (I set up two main ship classes: one fast and powerful for my field forces, and the other well-armed, slow, and cheap for my garrisons), while building up planets is pleasant and satisfying. Its weaknesses include bugs, what seems like an AI inability to upgrade spaceships, and something more fundamental: the late game is a slog. While I was willing to forgive Endless Legend at launch, and that game went on to take significant strides, I’m a little disappointed that after several years, Endless Space 2 has gone back to square one.

Stellaris presents an interesting comparison. Both games enliven early exploration with quests, events, and anomalies to investigate. Both games reflect their developers’ pedigree – Endless Space 2 has superior ‘4X’ mechanics (ship design, planetary buildings) while Stellaris has more interesting diplomatic options (a successful military campaign in Endless Space 2 took me over my planet limit, at which point I wished I could set up unwanted planets as a vassal buffer state). Both suffer in the mid-to-late game, although Stellaris tries to address this with endgame crises and the War in Heaven.

… highlighting underlying issues in 4X game design. Most 4X games are built around the player acquiring more stuff, and with it, more to do (more units to push around, more cities or planets to manage). Mechanics that work in the early game, such as managing city build queues, fail to scale in the late game. At the same time, the late game loses much of its challenge as the player snowballs across the map. A handful of games address these problems: the recent Total War games add powerful late-game foes (the rest of Japan in Shogun 2, the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer); Imperialism centralises all production in the capital city, reducing micromanagement; similarly Armageddon Empires restricts the player’s production to whatever is in his/her hand of cards.

What next? While I’d like to play more of Endless Space 2, I’m not whether I’ll do so as-is (perhaps on a higher difficulty setting or playing a different faction) or whether I’ll put it back on the shelf for now. If Endless Legend is any indication, I may well be more positive in several months.

Further reading

Troy Costisick at Explorminate has a positive and very detailed review.

Chris Thursten at PC Gamer argues that the game needs more polish.

A world at arms: thoughts on Hearts of Iron IV

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Hearts of Iron

HOI4 French Battle PlansVive l’Entente! My first “proper” game of Hearts of Iron IV was a journey from desperation, through grind, to eventual triumph. Playing as Britain, World War II began a year early, in 1938, when I backed Czechoslovakia at Munich. This defiance came to little avail, as the German war machine rolled over Czechoslovakia, and British workers raced to equip an unprepared military.

Finally, the Axis marched into the Balkans — and stalled in the face of dogged Yugoslav, British, and Commonwealth resistance. As British troops helped stabilise France’s Alpine front, and the United States entered the war,   I dared to think Germany’s days were numbered. Would the Soviet Union take advantage of German preoccupation to march on Berlin?

The Soviets entered the war, all right — on the wrong side. Stalin sent an ultimatum to British-aligned Romania. The Romanians refused. Now, the Allies were at war with both the Axis and the Soviets. Stalemate — and a little frustration on my part — set in.

In time, I broke the stalemate. In Europe, I unleashed the “Brits-krieg”: my armoured spearhead, now lavishly equipped with tanks, trucks, and self-propelled artillery, shattered the totalitarians’ lines. In the Pacific, British marines and aircraft carriers pushed up towards Japan. After a long, gruelling war, final victory came in 1946.

HOI4 RN vs IJNVive la France! Several more attempts, this time as France, went less well. In one game, I defeated Germany single-handed, only to be bulldozed by the Soviets pushing from the east and Spain coming from across the Pyrenees. Eventually, the stars came into alignment. Shielded by an extended Maginot Line, I built up my strength, overpowered Germany, and sat down with Stalin to determine the fate of Europe. Then when World War III broke out in response to a Soviet attack on Turkey, I did it all over again, pushing the Red Army back from the Rhine and avenging Napoleon’s defeat.

Possibly the best Hearts of Iron game yet. I’ve played this series for over a decade, since the original Hearts of Iron, and for most of that time my affections have belonged to Hearts of Iron 2. Now, I can’t imagine going back: HOI4 combines great alternate-history potential with a solid underlying design and improved quality of life. At present, as is so often the case with highly complex strategy games, its greatest limitation is the AI 1.

More detail below:

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  1. See also Dominions and Total War.

Shield of civilisation: Thoughts on Total Warhammer

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Total War: Warhammer

Total Warhammer - the emperor strikes backI am the shield that guards the realms of man. When the Vampire Counts marched west into the fragmented, bickering human principalities, it was the recently crowned Emperor, Karl Franz, who came to the rescue. And when the battle hung in the balance, the weary human warriors struggling against the Vampire Count himself, it was the Emperor who charged up on horseback to deliver the final blow.

When the forces of Chaos swept south and west, razing all before them, it was the Empire that rallied resistance. My first pitched battle against Chaos was Pyrrhic, as charging Chaos monsters trampled my infantry. Only weight of numbers saved the day. I rebuilt, and with help from the free peoples of the world, my new, improved armies – bristling with greatswords, knights, and artillery – defeated the last Chaos hordes.

And finally, when Chaos was no more, and the orcish hordes to the south were beaten back, it was time to settle the final score with the Vampire Counts.  An uneasy peace had prevailed in the face of the common enemy, Chaos. Now it was the Vampires’ turn to experience the power of the human war machine. Sandwiched between me to the west, Chaos to the north, and orcs and dwarfs to the south, the Vampires had lost their chance to expand, so my campaign was anticlimactic. My troops swept the Vampires aside, fought off an orc army eager for a rematch, and occupied the last settlement required to win. Victory!

Game of the Year contender. A triumphant fusion of theme and mechanics, Total War: Warhammer is intense, challenging, and often spectacular1.  From the early game, when I plotted how to bring a wealthy city-state into the imperial fold, to the mid-game, when I juggled human and inhuman foes, to the late game, when I led a Lord of the Rings-style alliance that saw armies marching from the far corners of the earth to help fight Chaos, Total Warhammer cast me as the star of a fantasy epic about uniting humanity against the coming darkness. This was the experience promised before release, and wow, did the game deliver.

More detailed thoughts below:

Continue reading “Shield of civilisation: Thoughts on Total Warhammer”

  1. I played on Hard campaign difficulty, Normal battle difficulty.

Space Opera, Act I: Thoughts on Stellaris

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Stellaris

Stellaris ESS startHumanity triumphant! My first game of Stellaris was a short one, as my fledgling humans were ground to dust by a nearby computer player. My second was more successful. Under the banner of the Empire of the Shimmering Stars, humanity spread out from the Deneb system – befriending the pre-spaceflight Immathurans, bringing more species and more worlds under its sway.

Stellaris - Immathurans encounteredSome of humanity’s neighbours turned out to be friendly, or at least benevolent neutrals. I signed migration treaties, allowing us to populate one another’s worlds. Some were hostile. When my first spacefleet was destroyed in a bid to protect my Immathuran proteges, I built a second one, the Remembrance Fleet. The Remembrance Fleet went on to turn the tables, and the would-be aggressors became first vassals and then subjects.

On and on the human tide rolled, until finally I stretched too far. The Ubaric Progenitors, an ancient “Fallen Empire” (ornery precursor races populating the Stellaris galaxy), objected to my colonies near their borders. The Remembrance Fleet fought them off – just. I attempted to take the war to the Ubari capital, an ancient ringworld. It was a disaster: the combined Ubari forces crushed mine. In the ensuing peace treaty, the Ubari forced me to abandon a swathe of colonies, and to add insult to injury, assassinated my leader.

Fortunately, the Shimmering Stars had the size and strategic depth to recover. Rebuilt newer and stronger, my Grand Fleet fought off an extra-galactic invasion (one of Stellaris’ “late-game crises”)… and returned to unfinished business. Once again, a human fleet, supported by allied and vassal contingents, appeared above the Ubari ringworld.

Stellaris grand fleet 2This time, the allies outgunned the Ubari several times to one. One by one, the Ubari warships and starbases winked out. The Ubari leaders surrendered. The bronze eagle flag of the Shimmering Stars flew over a ringworld that was already old when the first humans rubbed sticks together to make fire.

Stellaris defeated UbaricHumanity now presides over the galaxy’s dominant empire. No threats remain. The empire itself is home to many species, most co-existing happily, and its highest offices are open to leaders from all species. That, for me, is victory!

Stellaris end mapGood game, 1-2 expansions away from potential greatness. Stellaris’ appeal rested on two promises: (1) a vibrant science-fiction universe, and (2) blending Paradox’s specialty, the grand strategy game, with the established space 4X genre. It delivers on the first; I am not convinced it delivers on the second, as its limited internal politics feel more like a traditional 4X. I suspect players will enjoy it to the extent they’re looking for an interactive science fiction epic rather than a crunchy GSG. Overall, I enjoyed my 20 hours with Stellaris, and I look forward to playing again several patches down the road. (Update: the developers have posted their roadmap for the next few updates, which look great! They address many of my issues with the game.)

Below, I elaborate:

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Thoughts on XCOM 2

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

XCOM 2 victoryWorthy successor. XCOM 2 is game of the year material for me, building on what worked in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. I look forward to what Jake Solomon and team do next!

More detailed thoughts below:

This is how to balance a single-player game — “give the player interesting decisions” means “give the player an impressive choice of tools” 1 The punishing early game teaches several lessons: Protracted shootouts are dangerous. Guaranteed damage is better than relying on the odds. Stack the odds wherever possible. By the mid-game, we’ve unlocked enough abilities to put those lessons into practice. Every XCOM 2 class can do something cool: rangers can stealthily scout, sharpshooters can engage multiple targets on overwatch, grenadiers can choose between high single-target damage or area-wide de-buffs & damage over time, specialists can heal from a distance or inflict guaranteed damage, and psionics can do most of the above. (While XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within also had plenty of impressive tools — snipers in Archangel armour, run-and-gun plus rapid fire, using Mimetic Skin to sneak heavies in range for an explosive barrage — I feel XCOM 2 does a better job of making every class feel powerful, with psionics the big winner.) Balance is driven by limitations on what the player can deploy, not by making the player feel weak.

Successful fusion of strategy and RPG. At a tactical level, the Firaxis XCOM games revolve around choosing one’s favourite tools (equipment and especially character abilities), understanding how they interact, and applying that knowledge to solve individual problems — a description that could also apply to a well-designed party RPG. In turn, those problems involve multiple dimensions, such as the number and type of enemies, terrain, positioning, the mission timer, and the resources already expended (health and consumables, plus any abilities on cooldown) — factors usually associated with the strategy genre. That interplay gives these games their richness.

Music the biggest let-down. I like XCOM 2’s visuals — the architecture of the new human/alien civilisation is surprisingly lovely, masking the iron fist beneath. The ADVENT soldiers’ big, imperious arm gestures cement them as pulp baddies. XCOM operatives’ animations are as satisfying as ever, from shimmying down drainpipes to whipping out pistols, and late-game equipment looks fantastic. Set against this, the music is merely decent — a big step down from the great soundtrack of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM lategame characters

  1. Contrast Civilization: Beyond Earth, which gave the player underwhelming choices instead.

XCOM2 first impressions: Good luck, Commander. You’ll need it!

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

XCOM2 Briggs Misses His ShotI did it! I finally did it! At the start of my third campaign, I finally beat the aliens with no fatalities — on ironman “Commander” difficulty, the new name for “Classic”, no less! The stars aligned, the aliens walked into my operatives’ sights, and I breezed through the campaign’s first mission.

On the next mission, my operatives never even made it as far as the objective. There was a time limit; I took too long to dispatch the first two groups of aliens; and with one turn to go, the third group of aliens gunned down my point man, the only one in range to reach the objective. It was a lost cause. I called for evac. My survivors slunk home, empty-handed.

On the third mission, I ran. My soldiers tore through the aliens, losing one veteran in the process. They ran for the prison cell where their target, a friendly scientist, was held. Two more aliens appeared. My squad fought through. As the mission timer hit its final turn, and an alien transport disgorged reinforcements, my soldiers — and the rescued scientist — made it to the evacuation point.

Whew. Welcome to XCOM 2, a tense, exhilarating, thrilling ride. In fact, I may well drop my campaign down to a lower difficulty — I think I’d rather play a relaxing game than a tense one. Several factors make it harder than the original:

*Mission timers, which force more aggressive, dare I say reckless, play. They’re the most controversial aspect of the game — there are already mods that extend or remove them. Personally, I like the idea; I’m reserving judgment on how well they work until I have the chance to play more.

*Alien health. Gone are the days when explosives were a guaranteed kill. On Commander difficulty, even the lowliest ADVENT trooper (4 health) will often survive a single grenade (3-4 damage). The new, improved Sectoid has 8 health and appears from the second mission on!

*Alien abilities — Sectoids can use mind control and panic from the start, allowing them to incapacitate one member of a 4-soldier squad1. Another alien disguises itself as a civilian during retaliation (the renamed terror) missions. And I haven’t even made it past the first game month…

Wish me luck! I look forward to posting more detailed thoughts.

  1. The counter is flashbang grenades, which interrupt Sectoid psionics; however, every soldier carrying a flashbang is a soldier not carrying a regular grenade. There is also a rumour that flashbangs are bugged and give aliens a 100% critical chance; I don’t know if this is correct.

Nobunaga’s Ambition: late-game observations (and reflections on AI automation)

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

Nobunaga's Ambition - VictorySurprisingly satisfying. Now that I’ve finished my campaign, I thought I’d comment on the late game of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, a topic on which I initially reserved judgment. Strategy endgames are plagued with two problems, (1) snowballing and (2) micromanagement, and NA illustrates how AI automation can help with the second.

Continue reading “Nobunaga’s Ambition: late-game observations (and reflections on AI automation)”

Shining in the darkness: playing the Eastern Romans in Attila

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Total War: Attila

Attila - ERE at nightThe East endures. I closed out 2015 by returning to the grand campaign of Total War: Attila, this time as the Eastern Roman Empire. Like its Western sibling, the ERE is beset with enemies. Unlike my WRE game, I’ve been able to fight them off, a journey both exciting and memorable.

When the Visigoths rampaged through Thrace, and wiped out (at great cost) the first army I sent against them, I hunkered down, raised a new army under the Emperor’s personal command, and caught their weakened force in a night battle, depicted in the screenshot above. The survivors paid an indemnity for peace.

When a column of Huns razed a town along the Danube, I mustered an army four times their size, tracked them north, and brought them to ground.

Since then, I’ve fought off an invasion of North Africa. I’ve maintained an uneasy peace with Sassanid Persia, plying them with gifts while keeping a legion close to hand. I’ve built farms, aqueducts, and barracks; encouraged religious tolerance; and kept the Empire mostly in one piece.

Ahead, I see danger — and opportunity. With the Goths on the march again, and my WRE allies collapsing, I’m preparing a new campaign in the west. Against that, I’ve unlocked higher-tier units, my economy has stabilised, and to the east, the Sassanids are distracted by enemies of their own. If the situation can hold a little longer, I should be well-placed for the midgame. And all this has taken just 28 turns.

Attila - ERE map turn 28Below, I have a few more thoughts:

Continue reading “Shining in the darkness: playing the Eastern Romans in Attila”

Age of Charlemagne – a worthy complement to Attila

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Total War: Attila

Attila - AoC Cavalry croppedAge of Charlemagne offers the basics, done right. If Rome II was about conquering a huge empire, and Attila was about defending it, Age of Charlemagne offers a tight, focused campaign that can be finished in a reasonable time. In this regard, it reminds me of Shogun 2 and particularly its expansion Rise of the Samurai, the most elegant and pared-down of the Total War campaigns.

More details below:

Fun challenge. Playing as Charlemagne on Hard campaign difficulty/Normal battle difficulty, my initial situation resembled a smaller, less dire version of that facing the Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne starts with long borders, an awkwardly shaped empire, and enemies at either end, in the southwest and northeast:

AoC - Charlemagne start Continue reading “Age of Charlemagne – a worthy complement to Attila”

Fallout 4: Early impressions

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Fallout 4

The deal was done. The merchant would trade me a stimpak; I would trade junk and a handful of cash. We agreed. The goods changed hands. And moments later, gunfire ripped through the night sky.

Something flared red. Was that a rocket? Whatever it was, as the merchant yelled, instinct took over. I ran for cover. When I reached safety, I stopped. Regained my cool. Looked for the raiders. Fought back.

When I combed through the bodies afterward, I realised the raiders had been armed with nothing better than home-made pipe guns. In the surprise and confusion of the ambush, I’d assumed far worse. In that unscripted moment, Fallout 4 brought its world alive.

A minute later, I approached the merchant, as well as another group of civilians that had blundered past. They reacted as though nothing had happened. And understandable though that was — should I have expected an unscripted response from characters in a video game? — it yanked me back out of the game’s world.

That episode sums up my experience so far with Fallout 4, about five hours in. As a moment-to-moment experience, it’s very good. Creeping through a underground raider camp, going room-to-room in a building harbouring raiders and incongruous Revolutionary War mannequins, and scavenging building material from rubble felt natural and immersive. In addition to the unscripted moments, scripted set-pieces seem fairly common so far. I can already feel the lure of crafting and settlement-building, although it’s too early to tell how much depth the settlement system has, and I have some concerns about the UI for settlement management. Is there some way of assigning settlers to tasks from a central screen, or do I have to walk around town and assign them one by one?

While I’m pretty happy with Fallout 4’s mechanics, I do have a couple of concerns about the writing. I loved Fallout 3’s opening (growing up in the Vault), and I loved Fallout: New Vegas’ opening, “reverse Western” setting, and plot hook. I liked Fallout 4’s opening — but this was followed by a moment of mood whiplash, and an early plot hook that felt contrived. To give due credit, Fallout 4’s protagonist benefits from being voiced, which allows him/her to respond to the environment in a believable and, at one point, sympathetic way.

A few more quick points: Character appearances have improved from previous games, although people still look odd when they run. I like the balance between VATS and ordinary actions — it looks like it’s better to use VATS up-close or against fast-moving enemies. And I like the diegetic interface that appears when you wear power armour. EDIT: Oh, and the UI seems to have been designed around a gamepad rather than a keyboard & mouse.

My tentative impression is that Fallout 4’s combat is at least as good as that in Fallout: New Vegas, while crafting and settlements are promising. Conversely, in terms of writing, New Vegas appears to have the edge. Overall, I like what I’ve played of Fallout 4 and I suspect it will come in as, at least, “good” to “very good”. Time will tell if it can pip its great predecessors.

A Return to Adventure: Thoughts on Conquest of Elysium 4

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

When the giant demon attacked my fortress, I cursed.

The fort was my newest and proudest conquest, wrested from a nearby computer player. I left a small garrison, stiffened by two ballistae, to hold the walls while my main army subdued the nearby hinterlands. Now that demon, with its vast pool of health and huge spell list, was going to snatch away my prize.

The battle began. Because it was a siege, my ballistae were allowed a number of free shots. A bolt slammed into the demon. A big chunk of its health disappeared. And that was just the start.

CoE4 Ballista vs HeliophagusBy the time the perforated demon limped up to the castle gates, a humble bowman was able to administer the coup de grace. Ballistae (and Human Ingenuity) 1, Demon 0.

Continue reading “A Return to Adventure: Thoughts on Conquest of Elysium 4”

From the archives: Tactics X-COM: Jagged Ogre Chronicles, or a guide to squad-level strategy/tactics/RPGs

I originally wrote this post in 2012 during the lead-up to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, proposing a classification system for squad-based games and tactical RPGs across PC and consoles. Since then, to my delight, the genre has gone from strength to strength. XCOM: Enemy Unknown turned out to be superb – it was definitely a hybrid, by the way, combining the lethality and dynamic campaign of Type 1 games, the Type 2 emphasis on careful movement and not triggering too many enemies, and the soldier customisation of Type 3. XCOM 2 is due out next year for PC. The Fire Emblem series is posting strong sales on 3DS, and Valkyria Chronicles has been ported to PC. Indie titles such as Expeditions: Conquistador have added spice. Welcome back, old friends – we missed you.

***

Guide to TRPGs - Matchsticks for my Eyes

This is a good time to be a fan – as I am – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).

The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.

Read more here.

Friends in Need: Diplomacy in Nobunaga’s Ambition

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

Akechi Mitsuhide did not have long to gloat.

After he betrayed and killed Oda Nobunaga – per historical event – I rallied a coalition of Nobunaga’s generals and surviving sons against him. From the west came Hashiba Hideyoshi, the man better known to history as Toyotomi Hideyoshi. From the northeast came the Oda remnants. And from the southeast, my own Tokugawa forces. I coordinated a three-pronged attack – you can see allied (green) military units in the southwest and northeast of the following screenshot, with my own (blue) units in the centre:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition at war

Mitsuhide was squashed flat:

Nobunagas Ambition - Naomasa Defeats Akechi

Two years after Nobunaga’s death, my armies marched into Mitsuhide’s final stronghold:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition Destroyed Akechi

Continue reading “Friends in Need: Diplomacy in Nobunaga’s Ambition”

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Strong First Impressions

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

In Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, opportunity comes in many forms.

When my Tokugawa clan was small and insignificant, sandwiched between the rival Imagawa clan and our mutual ally Oda Nobunaga, opportunity came when the Imagawa let their alliance with Oda lapse. My armies marched against Imagawa — and true to the Oda/Tokugawa pact, Nobunaga himself came south to fight by my side.

When the Imagawa were defeated, and I found myself locked in bloody stalemate against the much larger Hojo clan for 15 years, my hopes turned to an alliance with a third power — the Takeda. When scripted historical events derailed the Takeda alliance — not once but twice — my first reaction was frustration. My second reaction was to think outside the box. The Oda were pressing the Takeda further away. The Hojo were quiescent. Why not bury the hatchet with Hojo and descend on the distracted Takeda?

Messengers went out. I gifted the Hojo with a precious tea set, reversing their opinion from “hostile” to “friendly”. The Tokugawa armies crossed the border into Takeda territory, seized their first castle…

… and another event popped up. Oda Nobunaga, my faithful ally from the start of the game, was dead, murdered by a treacherous vassal. The Oda domain – the huge blob that both anchored my northern flank, and blocked my expansion – dissolved, its settlements going to Nobunaga’s kinsmen and generals.

This is the situation a couple of years before Nobunaga’s death – I (Tokugawa) am the yellow-on-green faction towards the south of the map. Oda is red-on-white:

Nobunaga's Ambition - Pre Honnoji 1And this is the situation immediately after Nobunaga’s death:

Nobunaga's Ambition - Post Honnoji 1The game has gone from “deadlock” to “wide open”. Where I had been on the verge of restarting, now I see — opportunity.

After spending the weekend with Nobunaga’s Ambition, my impressions are positive. I’d say it’s a very promising grand strategy game, combining solid execution, interesting mechanics, and a great aesthetic. So far, worth what I paid at launch!  My main question is how well the mechanics will scale to large empires, the traditional 4X/GSG late game problem – my own empire is quite modest.

Below, I have a few more thoughts:

Continue reading “Nobunaga’s Ambition: Strong First Impressions”

Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Crusader Kings II

COTC Interesting CharactersI am pleased to present an interview with Gregory “Galle” Hayes, project lead for Crisis of the Confederation – the “Crusader Kings II in space” mod I recently covered. Below, we discuss COTC‘s inspirations, the interplay between game mechanics and a space-feudal theme, where new players should begin, and more. Enjoy!

 

Development of the mod

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

Crisis of the Confederation is one of the most interesting mods I’ve encountered, a homage to science fiction classics such as Dune and Foundation. What made you decide to translate those influences into a total conversion for Crusader Kings II?

Gregory Hayes: I happen to like applying game mechanics to new story concepts in general, and I’m a firm believer that everything is better in space, but COTC specifically actually had its origins in a game mechanic idea that I was never able to implement. Way back when I was working on A Game of Thrones, I was struck by the idea of using the Investiture mechanics to represent martial law versus civilian law. That created the need for a setting in which the spread of martial law made sense, which inspired the civil war backstory, which in turn led to me to think back to the great science-fiction cliche of the rebellious space colonies.

Another factor that probably influenced my decision was that I was replaying Emperor of the Fading Suns at the time. EotFS is a lot like CK1 – a broken mess of a game that is nevertheless fun because of how great its central ideas are. COTC isn’t really that much like EotFS in gameplay, but the desire for a good space feudalism game was definitely a big influence.

Continue reading “Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes”

The OTHER space grand strategy game: Crisis of the Confederation

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Crusader Kings II

COTC - Coup

Grand Admiral Wei Luo is about to betray everything for which he’s fought.

For the last fifteen years, the Admiral has headed Confederate Space Command – the crowning glory of a life devoted to the Terran Confederation. He stood by Earth when the frontier broke away. His son Tao would, he hoped, have followed in his steps. While they didn’t see eye to eye on politics, he knew Tao was brilliant – the finest admiral in the galaxy. One day, he thought, Tao could have led Earth to victory.

Tao’s death broke his father’s faith. Accident or “accident”? Whatever1. In public, the Admiral mourned, and commissioned a clone. In private, he decided that since his son would never have the chance to restore order to the galaxy… perhaps he could.

The plotters fell into place. The warships of the Confederate Space Command formed up in Sol. The stage was set for a coup. I clicked the “Send Ultimatum” button, and the Admiral transmitted his message to the government of Earth: hand over power to me, or else.

Continue reading “The OTHER space grand strategy game: Crisis of the Confederation”

  1. By the way, I checked the save game file. It really was an accident.

Point, Click, Solve Puzzle: Reflections on the Adventure Game

Kings Quest hatchet

Traditionally, adventure games have been defined by two elements: (1) reliance on narrative; and (2) solving puzzles in order to progress. While the former has always been the genre’s strong suit, I would argue that puzzles have been a mixed success. Puzzles can be too obtuse, necessitating a trip to GameFAQs to obtain the solution, or may clash with the narrative. Particularly problematic puzzles, such as the infamous cat-hair moustache, can be guilty of both. Developers have tried to combat this problem in several ways, and interestingly, their approach appears to be evolving over time.

Continue reading “Point, Click, Solve Puzzle: Reflections on the Adventure Game”

Quick Impressions: Vietnam ’65

2015-08-01_00003Vietnam ’65 is an iPad/PC strategy game with a deceptively simple concept: patrol villages on a randomly generated map (above) and prevent the Viet Cong & North Vietnamese Army from doing the same. It’s simple, short, and sweet; after two matches, I am impressed.

V65 is built on extreme asymmetry. When all goes well, US infantry can race from village to village in their transport helicopters, while tanks, gunships, and howitzers dominate the countryside as far they can reach. Not everything will go well:

  • There are 10 villages to cover, and too few soldiers and helicopters to protect them all.
  • There are a lot of demands on those helicopters – ferrying troops, resupplying them (out-of-supply units are eventually destroyed), and evacuating injured units.
  • The helicopters have finite fuel, limiting the time they can spend away from base.
  • Enemies can be difficult to find, spawn continuously, and lay ambushes of their own…

At times, there were moments of panic: when supply convoys came under RPG fire, making me wonder if my distant troops were cut off; when the Viet Cong emerged at 2-3 points and I only had enough firepower to respond to one; when my only helicopter gunship came crashing down.

Eventually, I won both games1 with a two-pronged strategy: I carpeted the map with outposts, extending the range of my helicopters and artillery, while training enough South Vietnamese troops to hold the line. Now, I feel that I have a good enough grasp of the basics that I can experiment with different game modes, or just move onto another title.

Overall, V65 turned out to be precisely what I wanted from a strategy game: quick to play (a few hours per match), simple to pick up, and at the same time, fresh and thematically evocative. For $10, this is well worth a look for genre fans.

Further reading (and listening)

The Three Moves Ahead episode that sold me on V65. Contains a great discussion of the game, its depiction of its topic, and some really handy tips.

Tim Stone’s review.

Rob Zacny’s review.

  1. One on “regular” difficulty, the other on “veteran”.