This week, I’ve chosen to highlight the soundtrack of Sins of a Solar Empire, the game that enticed me back to real-time strategy after almost a decade of burnout. I associate the three pieces below with the phases of an engagement: “Battle 8”, with its opening drumbeat and ominous brass, makes me imagine the rival fleets jumping in, their admirals manoeuvring into position. “Battle 12” makes me think of the battle itself. And the triumphant “Upbeat 3” makes me think of the moment of decision, when the TEC Marza-class dreadnoughts unleash their missile barrage, when the enemy fleet crumbles and the survivors flee for the edge of the gravity well. Enjoy!
Currently I’m in something of an entertainment downtime. I finished Tactics Ogre a week ago, and I’m replaying it at a leisurely pace to see one of the other storylines, but I’m not particularly engrossed in any works of fiction at the moment. Starting next week, this should change, as I have some new toys in the pipeline…
Already bought, waiting to arrive:
Section 8: Prejudice (multiplayer first-person shooter, PC) (Metacritic) – I’m not much of an FPS player, and this goes doubly so for multiplayer. But I’m making an exception for Section 8 – it comes highly recommended; it’s cheap (I paid US$13.50); and most importantly, it’s supposed to have very good bots, so I should be able to have fun playing single-player or cooperatively (as I’ve discussed with some of you guys!). Downloading this via Steam as we speak.
Jeanne d’Arc (fantasy tactical RPG, PSP) (Amazon; Metacritic) – As you probably guessed from all my Tactics Ogre coverage, tactical RPGs’ blend of RPG storytelling and squad-level strategy gameplay makes them one of my favourite game genres. Jeanne d’Arc, a fantasy game very loosely inspired by the historical heroine, is supposed to be a very good example of its genre; it’s also pretty rare, so when I saw it on sale for a pretty good price, it was a no-brainer to snap it up. My copy should arrive next week.
Persona 3 Portable (urban fantasy RPG, PSP) (Amazon – the US release, not the European collector’s edition I ordered; Metacritic) – The PSP port of a widely acclaimed PS2 RPG, in which the protagonist must juggle daily high-school life with periodic monster-fighting expeditions. While the juxtaposition of high school and life-and-death conflicts always annoys me in anime, I’m very much looking forward to seeing how this plays out in a game. This should also arrive next week.
Already pre-ordered, waiting for release:
A Game of Thrones (fantasy TV series) – HBO’s adaptation of my favourite fantasy novels. Filed under “pre-ordered” because I subscribe to the cable channel that will eventually (in July) broadcast it in Australia.
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (space opera RTS, PC) – I wrote this up in more detail back when it was announced. In addition to the usual expansion pack offering of more, and bigger, spaceships, this also comes with “new victory conditions”, which I hope could deliver a better late/endgame to Sins.
Will definitely buy when released:
A Dance with Dragons, by George R R Martin (fantasy novel) (Amazon – free shipping for Americans!) – The long-awaited next instalment in the aforementioned favourite fantasy series. I’ve waited almost six years for this book, and there’s no way I’m passing on it.
May or may not read/buy:
The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie (fantasy novel, paperback edition – book itself has been out for a while) (Amazon): I remember seeing this book described as the “Rashomon effect” applied to a single fantasy battlefield. Abercrombie is a skilful author and I greatly enjoyed his previous books, but their extreme bleakness is starting to wear on me. I’m not sure if this book will have anything to say about the human condition that Abercrombie didn’t give us in his previous two books. We’ll see…
The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss (fantasy novel, paperback edition – book itself has been out for a while) (Amazon): Second book in a trilogy that I’ve seen described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups”, about the adventures of Kvothe the omnitalented wizard. The books have generated a fair bit of internet buzz, and I enjoyed the first book at the time, but subsequently I can barely remember a thing about book 1. Another “maybe”.
Stardock has just announced Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, a standalone expansion (quasi-sequel?) to Ironclad’s 2008 space opera RTS. Here are some of the promised features:
“New Factions: Players decide whether to become Loyalists or Rebels, which unlocks a unique new tech tree granting them new technologies and ship variants.
New Titan-class ships: Massive warships for each race that dwarf capital ships, these deadly new monsters are capable of wiping out entire enemy fleets single-handedly.
New Capital Ships: A new capital ship class arrives, giving players new strategic options.
New Corvette-class ships: Small, highly maneuverable light ships that are adept at a variety of tasks…. (Snip)
… New Victory Conditions to allow for more variety, differing strategies and shorter game sessions.”
Of all these, the one that really excites me is “new victory conditions”. New units are well and good, and I’m sure the Titans will be as cool as the developers intend, but a dearth of units was never one of my complaints. On the other hand, I do think Sins could do with more ways to win, and I can think of two possibilities that would be particularly suited to the game*:
1. Territorial victory a la Company of Heroes – hold X key points on the map long enough to win. Since the entire game design is built around territorial control (you derive your income from planets, which are discrete locations on the map connected by jump lanes, and hence choke points also become very important), territorial victory is the logical extension of this.
2. Wonder victory – build a megaproject, or megaprojects, and defend them while a countdown timer ticks down to victory. Such a pure “builder” victory condition would be consistent with Sins’ grand scope – and be a welcome import from the 4X genre into a game whose stated ambition is to be a “RT4X”.
The beauty of both these win conditions is that they add tension to the late game – can I break through player X’s defences and tear down his/her Wonder, or snatch enough victory points, before I lose? This tension (at least, in single-player) is something sorely lacking from the basic “kill ‘em all” victory condition once the player reaches the “tipping point” where victory is inevitable, but still requires long, hard fighting. Sins already took some steps down this path with the diplomatic victory introduced in the Diplomacy expansion, and it would be great to see this continued.
No launch date announced yet that I can find, but I look forward to further details, particularly on the victory conditions. Here’s hoping Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion will live up to the promise of its predecessors.
There have been many innovations in the RTS genre since it crawled out of the Garden of Herzog Zwei. But when I recently played a number of pre-2007 games, there was one innovation in particular that I sorely missed: the ability to zoom all the way out to see the entire map at a glance.
This is what Supreme Commander 2 (2010) looks like, fully zoomed out:
And this is what Sins of a Solar Empire (2008) looks like:
In both cases, I’ve zoomed out to see the whole play area. There is no minimap in either screenshot, because one isn’t needed: Sins doesn’t even have a minimap, while SupCom 2 allows players to call one up (see the top right-hand corner) but leaves it off by default. While fully zoomed out, I can easily give commands to buildings and even to groups of units (note that individual units are represented as radar blips in SupCom 2, and, even more abstractly, as horizontal bars in Sins).
Now, if we go back just a few years, things are very different. Take a look at Rise of Legends (2006):
Note the minimap in the lower-left hand corner. My field of vision, the white trapezium, only covers a tiny proportion of the play area. And remember, this is fully zoomed out! If I’m watching point A on the map and something happens at point B, I have to dart over to B using the minimap, click a bunch of units, and then find my way back to A again.
Being able to fully zoom out, as seen in Sins and SupCom 2, is clearly a boon. It makes a game easier, and quicker, to control; vital in a genre where, by definition, multiple things happen at once. Just as importantly, it helps the “feel” of the game. When I can survey the whole battlefield or star system with just one flick of my scroll wheel, that contributes to the illusion that yes, I really am an interstellar warlord, not a mere glorified platoon commander.
So it surprises me that this is such a recent development – it seems to have been pioneered, under the name “strategic zoom”, by the original Supreme Commander (2007). Like many innovations, it does seem obvious with hindsight. Perhaps the technology didn’t support it prior to then*? But the important thing is that it’s hard to go without it. I miss it in old games, such as Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends. And I’d miss it in new games that have a restrictive zoom (Starcraft 2, from what I’ve seen, fits this bill). In that regard, too, it’s like so many other successful innovations: couldn’t imagine it beforehand, can’t live without it afterwards.
* Apparently the Supreme Commander engine “was built from day one with this technology in mind”, according to “Servo” from Gas Powered Games. And in this forum thread, Ryan McGechaen (aka “tribalbob”) from Relic, the developer of Company of Heroes, explains: “Supreme Commander’s high-altitude camera zoom works because as you zoom out; assets are replaced with lower res assets and then eventually become dots. Unfortunately, the Essence engine does not support this LOD (Level of Detail) swapping; we can’t increase the zoom distance without increasing min spec requirements.”
I’m pleased to present this blog’s first cooperative after-action report (AAR)/Let’s Play (LP)! For today’s post, The Stompers of Comps #1, we played one of my preferred timekillers, a polished and, I’m glad to say, profitable space-opera RTS from a small developer that punched well above its weight.
The game: Sins of a Solar Empire, with the Diplomacy expansion.
The rules: Two human players versus two Hard AI players. Locked teams. Diplomatic victory DISABLED.
The teammate: Josh.
One of these days, I will write about losing in games and how to make it fun. But for now, I will just say, I know when it isn’t fun: when the player feels cheated out of victory. This is probably a major part of why I cannot compensate for bad AI in games simply by dialling up the difficulty level to give the computer bigger and bigger bonuses. It also explains why the outcome of my latest game of Sins of a Solar Empire aroused such fury in me.
I had set up a 1v1 game against a Cruel AI — the second-hardest difficulty level, which gives the AI plenty of bonuses. I had finally destroyed the bulk of the AI fleet by luring it close to a mighty starbase… then triggering the self-destruct. Now the initiative was mine. My fleets drove back the AI. My coffers were filling. My research led me towards the Novalith Cannon, a superweapon that could level the computer’s worlds from across the map. After two-and-a-half hours and numerous setbacks, I knew I had finally turned the corner.
Then out of the blue, a message popped up that the AI had won a diplomatic victory (based on reaching a certain threshold of “diplomacy points”, which are awarded based on a player’s relations with the other players in the game).
A diplomatic victory? In a 1v1 game where we’d been doing our best to slaughter each other the whole time???
I reloaded. Looked more carefully at the relationship screen. I saw the AI was, indeed, getting diplomacy points from positive relationships. How on earth was the AI getting that from me, though? I hovered the cursor over my portrait.
“AI Relationship Bonus: +10”.
In other words, the massive AI Relationship Bonus (presumably due to the high difficulty level) meant I’d have to race the clock to beat the AI before it racked up enough diplomacy points to win.
On any objective reading, the fault was mine for not turning off diplomatic victories (because I thought they’d be redundant in a 1vs1 game) and for not realising the significance of the AI Relationship Bonus. Yet I still felt enraged and robbed of victory. And my experience, I think, underscores what Sid Meier and Soren Johnson have said about human players tending to feel cheated when a game or a die roll goes against them (see this write-up of Sid Meier’s GDC 2010 address, and Soren Johnson on randomness and cheating AIs).