Move almost complete
See you in the new digs.
Forge of Freedom
But there was enough positive feedback from users that Western Civ and Matrix are teaming up again for another historical strategy game, Forge of Freedom: The American Civil War, 1861-1865. Allen Rausch has an early preview over on Gamespy.
At first glance, the political subgame inspires fond memories of the SSI classic No Greater Glory. The battle engine looks much improved, too, though the two hour tactical battles in Crown of Glory had me reaching for the auto-resolve button every single time.
Still too soon to tell if the game is any good, of course. No release date yet. Stay tuned for more news as I find it.
More than a feeling
The titles of the games themselves are quite evocative: Lost Cities! Ra! Thurn und Taxis! Well, that last one isn't very evocative since I'm not quite sure what it means. But Bruce told me it was about delivering the mail across Germany.
Only it wasn't. Ra wasn't about the Egyptian Sun God either. And Lost Cities was only peripherally connected to the exploration of uncharted lands for undiscovered civilizations. For all three, the mechanics of the game were only tangentially related to the themes surrounding them. Thurn und Taxis could have been about map making or road paving, since it was about tracing routes on a map. It didn't have to be Germany, but it is a German game.
Brett Todd was playing a couple of the games with us, which is interesting since we'd recently engaged in correspondence about the recent Roman city builders and Glory of the Roman Empire and CivCity: Rome. (You can find his reviews of both on Gamespot.) One of the central points we are both interested in for a city builder is whether it "feels" right. Is the historical ambience there? What connects the player to the setting?
No one has these sorts of expectations for a good board game. The very best board games (Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan, even chess) are able to exist simply as rule sets with themes only loosely attached. There are exceptions, of course. Many of the greatest Avalon Hill games were perfect blends of theme, rules and playing pieces.
How many computer games have that luxury? If Stronghold didn't focus your attention on the building of a castle, players would be miffed. Caylus, a game about a castle, can be won without building the castle at all.
It's easy to say that this is natural because board gamers can't process all the stuff that a computer can, but that's putting the question backwards. Abstract design is discouraged and the setting of a computer game becomes the determinant of what goes in and what stays out. Developers seem to start with "let's make a game about World War II" and then try to find a way to make WW2 happen on screen. I doubt anyone sat down and said "We need an Egyptian board game" and then decided that it should involve bidding on cards with point values.
One is not better than the other. And I'm not going to give Glory of the Roman Empire a do-over because it might have been trying to keep things light and abstracted. But it is intriguing that computer game designers clearly put the setting at the beginning of the design phase where many great board games do not.
Oh, and all three are very good games. Ra was being billed to me as "the best 3 person game ever" and pretty much lived up to that billing. It probably helped that I didn't embarrass myself too much in any of them.
While I'm talking about awards...
Ubisoft cleans up in the nomination count, but I find it a little worrying that the only PC games they could think to recognize were the good but not great Supreme Ruler 2010 (from Battlegoat) and Doodlebops Club House Games (a Cookie Jar game based on a very colorful children's show).
Not sure what the release date cut-off was, but the absence of Canadian superstar Bioware (Jade Empire was a month earlier than SR2010) is surprising.
Good luck to Battlegoat. My CGM review called their game a "first draft of the future" and the germs of an excellent strategy game developer are certainly there. (I wish no ill to the Doodlebops game, but I'm still not sure what exactly a Doodlebop is.)
Gphoria 2006 fails to amuse
The strategy nominees were Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, Battle for Middle Earth II, Star Wars: Empire at War, and Age of Empires III.
I'm not too familiar with Fire Emblem and only dabbled with eventual winner Empire at War in the demo. I think Battle for Middle Earth II is the best strategy game of the year so far, but the Gphoria nominees stretch back into last summer when the 2005 awards were held.
Age of Empires III was in Autumn 2005, released a week before Civilization IV.
Which was not nominated.
How can the game of the year for 2005 - not just strategy game, but game period - not get nominated in this category? You can't blame the graphics, since it looks better than either of the console nominees here. It is turn based as are Advance Wars and Fire Emblem.
Now I know I shouldn't take Gphoria seriously. I couldn't even find a list of the winners until today, well after the show aired. And they have awards sponsored by Mountain Dew and Garnier Fructis. I can't quibble with their Game of the Year (Oblivion) since almost everyone is telling me how amazing it is.
But guys. Play Civ IV. And do a recount.
Commander - Europe at War
Though many people would point to Paradox's Hearts of Iron as the ultimate WW2 game, I always look back to SSI's Clash of Steel, a thirteen year old grand strategy game with a simple economic and political model. It had nowhere near the options available to me in Hearts of Iron, but it did have a certain simplicity that let me pick up and play with very little need to invest time in figuring out what I was doing.
Not that I mind the planning phase in HoI. It's just that there are no really good beer and pretzel grand strategy wargames for this most celebrated of conflicts. As much as I love a good, deep game (Europa Universalis II never leaves my computer), there is a lot to be said for just getting down to invading France without trying to make sure I have enough iron coming in.
Judging from what Slitherine has said so far, this could be that game.
Slitherine's games to this point have ranged from good (Spartan) to unimpressive (Legion: Arena). Despite their emphasis, to this point, on my favorite stomping grounds of ancient history, these charming British chaps haven't quite won me over. I passed over Cult of Mithras entirely.
But all of a sudden I am excited about Commander. The look is simple, the demands on the player seem to be few and it has hexes. Slitherine's games have always played fairly easy, though their battle engine has a lot more going on than it appears.
Commander has tech research (even Axis and Allies had that) but only 50 techs over five areas. Only 12 unit types, and somehow I doubt there is going to be a lot of national variation. Terrain, morale, leadership...all the things we expect from war games in this day and age.
No word on a release date.
September CGM is out
My own contributions are minimal. I have a preview of Dominions 3, a review of Hearts of Iron: Doomsday (with an embarrassing typo in the final paragraph) and my Alt.Games column covers Flatspace, Crusaders in Space and New Star Soccer. OK, maybe not minimal.
The big preview is the cover story on Sid Meier's Railroads by Tom Chick. I had the good fortune to see Tom at work when he did this story and the resulting article and interview demonstrates why he is in such high demand as a writer. I'll admit to not being fully sold on the idea of yet another railroad business sim, but the game looks good and, in my brief experience with it, it seems to have that Firaxis polish.
Lara Crigger continues her solid work on social issues and gaming with an article on religious expression and games. Naturally, there is a lot on the upcoming Left Behind game, probably my most highly anticipated game of the fall because so much can go wrong with it. I also look forward to the tortured phrasings of my colleagues if the game part actually seems to work well.
On the transition front, there have been some inexplicable stalls on the other end, demonstrating why friends should be careful working with friends. I may just go for some other hosting option, since I have a logo and everything now.
Expect more frequent updates until I can get everything sorted out.
Another brief update
I've been holding back on posting here because I want to save a lot of content for the relaunch, plus I am planning semi-regular features for the new blog and I need to get some outlines squared away for that.
One thought - who at 2k Games thought it would a great idea to launch two games aimed at similar audiences on the same day? Both Civ IV Warlords and CivCity: Rome hit store shelves yesterday and I think that the city builder will get the short end of a lot of sticks because of the piles of awards that Civ IV won. After the uninspiring Glory of the Roman Empire, I would love to have a good city-builder, and both Yahoo Games and IGN seem to like CivCity well enough. The Gamespy review is more worrying; in spite of the good score, the text raises some interesting issues.
When I get back, I promise to have full reports and reviews. And a new look before the school year starts.
Still Alive but Still in Transition
For any Gamesblogs readers, I have been trying to contact the management there to see if I can find a way to merge my stats there with my new domain. I know it can be done since Kyle Orland managed it when he made the leap off blogspot. So if anyone can give me a contact address for those guys (not the site's contact address because no one seems to answer that...) I would appreciate it.
When I start blogging in earnest you can expect a review of the Warlords expansion to Civ IV, some reflections on Gal Civ 2 post-updates, and a long commentary on Pox Nora. As well as some new regular features.
Preparing to Move
Because, finally, I will be moving to my new domain within the week. The logo is ready, the server is ready and my ideas for how the site will be changing are percolating. When the time comes, I'll leave this notice up, but it will simply redirect after a month or so.
So, no new posts until that's all set.
Glory of the Roman Empire
My wife calls historical city builders "ant farm games" and there is a lot to this. You want to see your citizens changing the landscape, go about their business and live almost - but not quite - independent from you. Glory tries to make a lot of this easier on you by not letting buildings degrade in status - only upward mobility - but also requiring you to scatter your city with altars, statues and temples which only push the real estate further up the chain. So you end up with a fishing oriented suburb full of villas. Which means that they will demand a bath. In short, your entire city ends up looking just like what Hollywood in the 50s thought Rome was all about; marble buildings as far as the eye can see.
My review makes a lot of how easy the game is, even in its supposed difficult settings, and there is nothing wrong with easy. For some gamers the entire point of city builders is the sandbox. Start with abundant money and resources and build the city of your dreams. But when the entire game is like that, it loses a lot of the purpose of city builders - to plan ahead, to measure your pace, to keep supply and demand in balance. Glory of the Roman Empire is all forward momentum.
The resource construction and economic model is very similar to Children of the Nile, one of the best city builders in recent memory. But where Tilted Mill's game would let you taste the bitter tang of failure without pushing you over the edge into despair, Haemimont's Rome is nothing but short term success after short success. There are no monuments or wonders to work towards, only small scale challenges based on how many people you have in your city.
Oh, and I'd like to thank the two Game Rankings readers who voted to give my Games Radar review a single star. I'm here to serve.
Fall From Heaven
Fall from Heaven is something special, though. It is a fantasy world adaptation with almost everything remade. New resources, new tech tree, new civs, new skills, new units...but the thing is, FFH has a driving mythology in which the whole thing works. The Civilopedia is a delight to read because the modmakers have taken this job so seriously.
It certainly has its problems. Like many user created adaptations, it errs on the side of too much. The tech tree is so made over that I had to go back to Chieftain level to find my bearings. Though the techs themselves make sense in their own hierarchy, it's not obvious what Arcane Lore will give me. The new religions are a mixture of Tolkien tree-worship and other straight rip-offs from fantasy lit (there is a Cthulhu religion called "Octopus Overlords").
But these adaptations never seem forced. It becomes conceivable that these fantasy societies would have different religions, religions that even shape the look of your cities. Since the modders aren't bound to follow a particular author (though I'm sure there is a Middle Earth mod out there) or a certain established mythos, they take a bit from here and a bit from there, even creating elaborate justifications for the new wonders. Originality and creation and not necessarily the same thing.
The civics are also given some serious teeth. One religious civic offers huge benefits to your state faith, but penalizes you for every heretical religion in your city. Instead of the Civ 4 method of making each civic merely attractive in a different situation, the modders have given you the temptation to mold your civ to fit the needs of an upcoming development.
And it has dragons.
I think that this is what Firaxis had in mind when they said they wanted Civ IV to be mod friendly. This is a wonderful achievement, and I'm not one drawn to radical makeovers of my games. I have yet to finish a single Fall From Heaven game because there is so much I want to see that I get bogged down in the details. What does Mana do? How do I upgrade my Adepts? Why are Great Works worth so little in culture? Is that a hell hound?
Civilization IV was, of course, in no danger of disappearing from my hard drive. But more intriguing mods like this could mean that it never leaves.
The Ten Best Years
Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh proceeds chronologically, freeing him from the burden of ranking all these years in some sort of hierarchy. The story itself, however, is very console heavy, especially once we get past the 1970s. The PC isn't absent but it's a footnote. Lip service is paid to the shareware boom in the early nineties and the boom of 3D in the mid-nineties, but even here there is a concentration on the contribution of shooters to the industry. The story would be better sold as "ten years of platform wars".
Mostly devoid of non-business commentary, Waugh cites the division between "technologists" and those who want games to be more culturally significant as being in 2001. This split is certainly older than 2001, so I wonder why that topic is raised at all, especially in that year.
There is a risk inherent in any list of this sort, especially if you focus on the games, like I would. Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden once wrote that everyone's golden age is when they were twelve, when things are fresh and new. The golden age of baseball for me is the mid-80s, for example (Schmidt, Ripken, Hershiser) and there's something to that when I think of my best gaming years.
I think of 1990-91 when some of dorm mates got seriously into computer gaming and I discovered the glories of F-19 Stealth Fighter, Civilization and Wing Commander. A great year, to be sure, (I still think of years as determined by the school calendar) but primarily because it was my first deep introduction to the hobby.
I think of 1996 when I first had near complete control over a PC of my own, meaning I could game for as long as my new wife would let me. Also the year of Civilization II, by the way; a game that almost completely consumed me.
I think of 2000, when I began writing for a now defunct website (on a volunteer basis). People started sending me games - good and bad - but I thought it was just cool to have a small audience interested in my opinion. And here I am now blogging for (at most) a few dozen regulars and, more importantly, reaching a larger throng through Computer Games, Games Radar and Strategy Zone Online - all of whom pay. Imagine that. It's also the year that I went out and bought Europa Universalis on release day.
Of course, with some research I could make an objective case for a lot of events with no personal connection. The founding of Electronic Arts. The bundling of game software with new PCs. The last wargame sold at EB. I could just point to a list of good games released in any given year, but this would be inevitably colored by the way that those games fit into my life at that time.
Strategy Games of the Half-Year 2006
I have also disqualified any game that I haven't finished diagnosing yet, possibly knocking a credible European RTS from the list. OK, it was a long shot, but it's not fair to include any game I haven't played extensively. To that end, games I haven't played at all don't count either, same as before.
I've also decided to leave off board games I just happen to play online or on my computer, putting Caylus and Ticket to Ride (the CD-ROM edition) off the radar.
And that still leaves me with at least five games I want to reward. But this is all about the hard decisions. The two games that just missed the cut are Birth of America, an excellent wargame set in 18th century America, and Take Command: 2nd Manassas, the sequel to last year's third place finisher.
Number 3: Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends (Big Huge Games/Microsoft) - I'll admit to being a little disappointed that this wasn't the runaway winner. RoL is the sequel to, in my opinion, the best designed RTS yet. And it took me a while to get over the disappointment that the game looked very little like the glorious screenshots. Now, there are a lot of criticisms that can be made about Rise of Legends. Its multiplayer is broken for some people, the end game takes on the swirling mass of crap look, the factions suffer from a cool imbalance with the Vinci being the kings of the neat-o units. But there is a lot going on here. The sides are very balanced in term of options, they are cleanly distinguised from each other in look and strategy and even if the end games all look fairly similar, there's a myriad of ways to get there.
Number 2: Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords (Stardock) - A lot of observers were surprised by how well GC2 sold in the early going. This is your typical "long tail" game; releases to some buzz but continues to sell based on word of mouth. This isn't a blockbuster title with a huge ad campaign, after all. I was not surprised. Not only was the community starving for a good 4x game in space, it knew where its next meal would come from. After the acclaim for the original GalCiv, the sequel could hardly be a surprise. No should people be surprised by the constant updates/patches/enhancements that have streamed from Stardock since the game's release. Like Rise of Legends, there was a sense in the first couple of months that every game would end in the same general manner. Because it happens in space, there is less to distinguish one session from another than there is in Civ IV. But every update, every tweak, every addition makes GalCiv2 even closer to being the perfect turn-based game.
Number 1: Battle for Middle Earth II (New Line Cinema/Electronic Arts) - I feel a little dead inside putting a movie licensed game on the top here. But there is no denying that, aside from last year's game of year, Civ 4, this is the game that I played the most. I played it the most in single player, I played it the most in multiplayer. I played all the factions. I played the freaking campaigns. The "War of the Ring" mode is the game's single misstep; it's a convoluted effort to integrate a turn-based campaign similar to the Rise of Nations campaign mechanic. BfME2 is not only beautiful, it is in your face with decision making at all times. What power do you burn those palantir points on? Is it worth building a tower in that pass to channel my enemy somewhere else? If I go for the ring, can I protect it long enough to summon my super-unit? How far into neutral territory do I build my economy? All of these are major decisions, all must be made quickly and many simultaneously.
This list is very different from last year's six month check in. Last year we had a bunch of developers saving their energies for the last quarter, when a spurt of major titles were released. So my top three games had two indie titles and one obscure still underappreciated RTS. 2006 has one plucky indie TBS that is hardly obscure and two RTS publised by industry behemoths. This shows, I think, just how wide and varied the range of quality strategy games is. No other genre can boast as many good games made by marginal players as well as strong and serious attention from the giants.
And that leap of logic is my big problem with this survey as it is presented. Even when coupled with data on the hardcore/casual distinction derived from the same data set, there is a lot we don't know about these gamers. Even leaving aside that the sample size is only 319 gamers, split into a number of overlapping catergories, the deciding factor in what gamers look for in a game might be determined by more boring stuff than genre boxes.
How old are people who prefer progress to sandbox games? Are student gamers more or less sociable than adult gamers? Until this basic and obvious question is answered, you really can't draw a lot of firm conclusions about what gamers are looking for. How long have they been gaming? How many games do they buy a year? Console or PC?
In fact the Demographic Game Design 1 survey used as the basis for this study doesn't even track this sort of information, sort of missing one of the big parts of demography. Gender, education, etc. - these sorts of things determine who has the time to play certain types of games and the environment in which they do so.
But real insight into what types of experiences certain gamers prefer is clearly not the purpose of the study. The purpose of the DGD is to slot gamers into four archetypes of game players (Conqueror, Manager, Wanderer, Participant) so that designers can build around these archetypes. I'm a Wanderer (according the survey) but this is based entirely on the boxes I clicked in regards to what I look for in games.
Take a look at the DGD. It asks the respondent for three games they like and a single game that captures what they don't like about gaming. (My responses were Civ 4, EU 2 and with Baldur's Gate with Superpower 2 as my bad experience.) There is no way that this information can be used to generate the result unless the surveyor knows what I like and don't like. After all, the design documents for Superpower 2 and Europa Universalis 2 are pretty similar. How can the computer survey slot me in as a Wanderer without asking me what separates these two broadly similar games?
The survey is too short to be useful in drawing any meaningful conclusions about gamers, especially by using mere percentages as your analytic tool. While I support and encourage the use of data collection and analysis by anyone interested in gaming, no one should make too much of the DGD.
Sid Meier is always right
At the time, I smirked a little on the inside, mostly because I don't usually have enormous problems installing games. We have a wide range of machines with a wide range of abilities. I like this flexibility and the install time gives me opportunity to read the manual.
But today I spent well over 90 minutes trying to get a single game to install. First the game was on a 16x DVD-R, so that ruled out the first machine. So I moved up a level and the installer kept starting and stopping. Starting and stopping. Sometimes not starting at all.
Then it started well, but prompted me to register. No problem. I always register. This crashed the install.
Finally I get it on the computer. But wait - it has to update my DirectX. Actually, it doesn't since we keep Dx up-to-date at all times, but games now require that you use their Dx installer. Fine.
Oh, and it's Starforce. So it has to install "additional libraries". Install those. But before I can play, I need to reboot so that installation can complete.
Done. Everything installed. This being a press review copy, I put in the "start disk" (some European thing...) so I can actually launch the game.
"The code you have is invalid or incorrect. Please enter a code or contact customer service."
Code? CODE!? There is no code on any of the stuff they sent me.
Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed.
A Sense of History
But the most recent episode caught me short when Editor-in-Chief Dan Morris said that he wasn't sure who Chris Crawford was.
This admission came by way of commentary on gaming's Jeremiah once again emerging from the wilderness to say that gaming has lost its way and that it can only be saved by innovation, whatever that means. The PCG discussion followed the expected form of talking about what innovation there was in the industry, a recognition that there is a lot of me-tooism in the industry and some curiosity that Crawford can make these claims when he cops to not really following the game industry that closely.
But the EIC of computer gaming's number one publication saying that he didn't know who Crawford was stuck with me. True, he hasn't made a game in a very long time. But this is the founder of the Game Developer's Conference. One of the fathers of war and strategy gaming on the computer. The first real analyst/practitioner of electronic game design.
I'm not going to say that these credentials mean that his opinions on the current industry automatically have merit. I think he's a bit of a crank, divorced from the market pressures that exist today and blind to all the great stuff going on in the industry.
I will say that a man of Crawford's stature should at least have his name recognized by computer games journalists/analysts. If this is the fate of Crawford, who emerges from his cabin to rant every year or so, what has become of the reputation of the late Dani Bunten, probably the single most creative and wide-ranging talent of the early days of the hobby?
In a way, this is a result of the now-ism of the hobby. It's mostly about "what have you done for me lately?" which is perfectly reasonable if you see your job as a critic to simply be reporting on what is on the shelves. But not knowing what has gone before makes it impossible to recognize how far game design has come.
It is the mirror image of Crawford's problem. He was powerful and important when the industry was in its infancy; a time when everything was new and everything seemed possible. Games had little hope of going mainstream. So he sees everything around him today as a pale shadow of those glorious days of invention and creativity. Could there be a time in the near future when journalists forget when there were no RTS games? When MP was either absent, unreliable or hotseat? When Sid Meier made flight sims?
The historian in me naturally thinks this sort of stuff matters somewhere along the line. No, your average gamer doesn't need to know this; your average American doesn't need to know about the Shay's Rebellion to be a good citizen, either. But a little perspective on where the hobby has been can give game journalists and critics some clue as to how it has gotten where it is.
In other words, to know Crawford, you must know his opinions on Balance of the Planet and why he thinks it failed.
If you want some insight into the company, they have a podcast now. I mean, why not? Everyone else does. It's pretty short - less than a half hour - and will be monthly. The purpose behind the podcast seems to be to show how cool Firaxis is as a workplace. But there is also some insight into how the games industry works with some discussion of what exactly a producer does and how QA may not be the most exciting job in the world.
Stay till the end for the Meier Minute. The podcast looks like it will be slowly releasing information about an unannounced Firaxis game.
Developer Interview: Xavi Rubio
To that end, my latest developer interview is with Spanish wargame developer Xavi Rubio, the brain behind Hyperborea's upcoming ancient naval wargame Galley Battles.
Naval warfare is an underserved topic, and ancient naval warfare doubly so. What brings you to this period?
Ancient naval warfare is pretty simple stuff. Ram another guy and either board or sink him. Is it a challenge to make this material compelling?
Moreover, reading ancient primary sources you notice that there were complex "multi-ship" maneuvers, like kyklos (hedgehog formation), periplus and diekplus (flanking attacks, deep formation attacks), etc. so in fact the type of battle was quite more technical that the ones of other naval eras like Napoleonics or First World War.
What experience do you have in developing wargames?
Except for the high points like Salamis and Actium, the ancient sources are mostly vague in how these battles transpired. Do you find the lack of solid material an obstacle to design?
The screenshots of your game look, frankly, old - something from the early 90s at best. Is this a choice, or just a stepping stone to something better?
How did you come to work with Shrapnel?
Time and money are always issues for the indie developer. How would you describe your process so far?
about it, because it's a tough task!
Wargames are tough sell, and hard to make profitable even when costs are low. But you wouldn't be doing this if you didn't have some hope. Who is your audience?
After realizing that some people could be interested on the result, I contacted with Ruben Zubillaga, the artwork designer, and started to make it a professional product. As the game has been focused on a "niche" sector of the market, we know that we won't get millionaire sells, but we are sure that there exists an audience insterested on this kind of game. In fact, the existence of several publishers of this kind of indie games is the proof.
What has been the most difficult decision so far?
(acceleration, weight, inertia, ...) with the common factors of wargames (maneuverability, toughness, etc.).
If a mysterious investor showed up and gave you 15,000 dollars to spend on the game, how would you spend that money?
As a developer, which other games or game designers do you look to for inspiration or ideas?
and surprise the player.
When will we finally get a chance to see Galley Battles in action?
But I can't say that I'm sad that it is over.
Plans for the summer:
1) Finally get this blog on to my own domain.
2) Deliver all my promised articles on a more regular schedule.
3) Get a couple of chapters written on my book.
4) Get this blog on a routine, with regular weekly features.
5) Clean my house.
6) Play more games.
Top of that "play" list is to play more Gal Civ 2. This is one of my favorite games of the year so far, but I haven't had much time to play it since the review was written. It has been continually updated since release, and the new 1.2 update is supposed to be a big one. Stay tuned for my opinion on that.
Rise and Fall - Between Good and Average
At Gamespot, Jason Ocampo ruled it "fair" - a 6.6 score that would have given me an out if I was allowed to use decimals. Over at 1up, Tom Chick ruled the game barely average with a 5/10, though the conclusion sounds like he almost gave it a three. There is actually quite a bit of difference in those two reviews, but both are let down by Rise and Fall. I wasn't, but then my expectations were really low.
I went back and forth a long time on what score to give R&F. I know that the score isn't the important thing, but I was held to a pretty strict word limit (and still went over...) and there was a lot I wanted to say about R&F. I had to decide whether this was a good game (a seven) or a solid game (a six). Then I had to choose my text to fit the conclusion.
Why the indecision on my part? Because, in many ways, those guys are right. Rise and Fall fails at a lot of what it sets out to do. The action part of the game is cool for a while, but ultimately unfulfilling. There is no sense that this is anything new or novel; it's the same historic RTS that people have been making ever since Ensemble made Age of Empires. The campaigns are terrible.
But for me, the good outweighed the bad. No other RTS this side of Cossacks promises you huge armies and epic sized battles - and delivers. Sure, battles degenerate into swirling masses of crap, but that's true about Rise of Legends, too; the big difference is that BHG's swirling crap is usually very large and easy to notice. The siege warfare component is excellent - you can man the ramparts with archers and force your opponent to build weak ladder carriers to take them out. Civilian advisors are hired by spending "glory" a precious resource that can only be rapidly increased by going into battle. Choosing when to posess your hero can turn the tide of a major battle, or not if your opponent holds of on posessing his/hers until your Cleo in a miniskirt is seriously drained.
And, unlike some observers, I think Rise and Fall is actually a very attractive game. The trees wobble when struck by an axe, the flora and fauna frolic, the battles are appropriately gory. The buildings are a little dull, but really that's about it as far as graphics complaints go.
None of this, however, makes me blind to the problems that neither Ocampo nor Chick spent much time on. (Ah, the tyranny of the word count.)
Take hero selection. Each nation gets two heroes, but for some of them there is only one real choice. Alexander is always a better bet than Achilles, Julius Caesar always trumps Germanicus; both favored heroes are faster, stronger and better with a bow. The Persians have the crappiest heroes (which isn't surprising since they're not even Persians) but Sargon's Bow of Many Killings is almost always a wiser choice. They could have easily made this decision more interesting by making one hero cost more than another, making you choose between an early hero attack or a later one, or giving you the option to switch from a lame hero to a cool one once you had amassed a certain amount of glory.
Take naval combat. This game has great naval combat. Galleys ram each other, troops have to disembark and not just leap off en masse, you need drummers and sailors to perform sophisticated maneuvers...all very cool stuff. So why are there so few naval maps? Or so few maps that balance the new and wonderful ramming battles with the familiar archer/spearmen/horse-dude circle?
So, as you can see, I'm still a bit on the fence between good and average. (I'm on the fence about Rise of Legends, too, but it's in a better neighborhood.) And this is why I wish I had more words. There are never enough words, even on the infinite page of the internet.
How did I finally decide? Well, I took my screenshots, wrote my two or three drafts...and did not uninstall. In fact, once the review was sent off, I played it again. And again. Is it the pull of material that I find inherently interesting? Considering my rapid uninstall of Legion: Arena, I don't think so. Yes, I wish the AI was more aggressive. Yes, I sometimes wished the early economy wasn't so weighted towards waiting.
But mostly I wished for a little more stamina so I could finish off those elephants.
Peace, Love and Understanding - Zero Coverage
This has nothing to do with me. I was curious about the title, but was waiting on requesting a review copy until my desk cleared of other stuff. My editor pre-empted me by asking if I would write it, so there I was. And, if you are familiar with the magazine, it even gets one of those gray backgrounds that make it look special. (I use the "give peace a chance" line twice because...I'm an idiot, I guess.)
The game itself is good. Not great. It has some repetitive bits, and I think succeeds more as a management sim than as the edutainment title it pledges to be. But it is undoubtedly a game - a strategy game even. It's just one with an overt message.
The lack of mainstream gaming press coverage of this, admittedly marginal, game is a little disappointing. I know that "serious games" are usually outside the bailliwick of the gaming press, but I think that A Force More Powerful is actually something special in spite of all its faults.
A Force More Powerful works as a game because it takes its message completely for granted. There is never an option for your movement to escalate to violent action. Usually constraint of action is a bad thing in a game; you want to give players lots of options. But this overarching constraint doesn't limit all the peaceful actions available to you. Do you rally the troops this time or call a press conference? Does Susie need more training? Is getting that newspaper out more important than passing out pamphlets in the boonies? These are make or break decisions.
And there is no single way to win a scenario. The government response to your action may vary from game to game, and you might have assets available to you at a crucial time this session that were lacking in the previous session.
I won't re-review the game - I have misgivings that were given ample airing in CGM. And you should buy the magazine anyway. (Not for me, mind you. Do it for the children.) But I would like more people to give AFMP a look. It looks ancient, but plays out today's headlines and reinforces an important point that all us bloodthirsty strategy and wargamers should be reminded of from time to time.
King and Gandhi remade the world without firing a shot.
What I've Written for Games Radar
Macedonia: Total War
The download only Alexander expansion has none of the innovation of Babarian Invasion but it does put the phalanx in its proper place as a major military innovation. Rome left open the possibility for a powerful line of spearmen, but there were so many swordsmen and cavalry available that these brave front line troops were often easily outflanked and destroyed.
This is actually pretty common in wargames. GMT's Great Battles series - both in tabletop and computer form - were often criticized for underestimating the strength and longevity of a phalanx on the battlefield. Strong up front but weak in the rear and flanks, phalanxes were easy rout points if you could make a gap somewhere in the line. Though intended to be the anvil to a heavy cavalry hammer, phalanxes are often stuck in place and then routed in a gaming exchange.
A big part of this is the inevitable result of hindsight. Though contemporary Romans described the Macedonian phalanx as one of the most terrible sights they'd ever seen, modern historical wargamers know that the low mobility and poor performance on rough terrain means that the phalanx is dead meat to a group of disciplined swordsmen or light cavalry.
Hindsight is a big problem in most historical strategy and wargaming. Unless design forces it, who would repeat Pickett's Charge? Or Dieppe? Who would waste Me-262s as fighter-bombers instead of bomb group destroyers? Or underestimate the value of gunpowder weapons?
So we are never really "there" no matter how much game designers promise it. I would tell Pompey to charge at Pharsalus. I would tell Ney to move faster at Waterloo. And I would tell Darius to draw Alexander into the hills.
New Paradox Expansion
It looks like they have finally straightened out the kinks to their own satisfaction. Victoria: Revolutions will be available later this summer. It extends the calendar into the interwar period (making a converter for Hearts of Iron II a no-brainer) and revises many of the troublesome areas of the game.
Colonization will be slowed by requiring states to reach tech levels consonant with living in the severe climates of tropical Africa. Certain government policies will restrict the amassing of a large mobilization pool or the construction of factories. The election system will be reworked, hopefully to the point where the player won't be able to manipulate it so easily.
Victoria was my first print review and it was a modest recommendation. I haven't played it much in the last year or so. Crusader Kings - a much better game - followed closely on its heels and the patching team at Paradox seemed to be at a loss when it came to fixing their sad little 19th century strategy game.
Part of the problem is that Victoria tried to set Europa Universalis in an era that was ill-fitted to that model. Hearts of Iron has the war already pre-ordained, so the diplomacy and domestic policy it sets for the twentieth century can be shallow. The entire point of the game is to win a war. But Victoria has to have domestic policy to reflect the shift from monarchies to democracies, the rise of nationalism, the effect of railroads on industry and mobility, the migration of hundreds of thousands of people for a better life...all the things that make the 19th century the 19th century.
So they threw out the simple economic and military models of EU - too abstracted to capture the radical changes in post-Napoleonic Europe - and tried to capture every major trend in what was a pivotal hundred years in human development. The result was confusing at best. You could tax your lowest class at 100% with no negative effects. Historic events were few and far between, and those that were there never fired right. Immigration was hard-coded to certain geographic regions, frustrating those who thought Australia could be a land of opportunity. Great innovations like the domestic politics model seemed to be only partially implemented.
I am glad that they are taking another crack at it though. Victoria has been cast aside for too long and it has too many interesting ideas to not get another chance.
CGM Summer Issue
Lots of great strategy stuff in this issue, including a delicious preview of Medieval 2: Total War by Kelly Wand and a preview of the three upcoming Roman city-builders, co-written by Alex Handy and Cindy Yans. My interview with Firaxis' Jesse Smith is there, too. The wargame Birth of America gets a big thumbs up from Bruce Geryk.
Two reviews from me this month. I gave Take Command 2: Second Manassas a strong endorsement; Mad Minute Games should start getting some serious money behind them, because I think they could do some great things if they had things like a staff.
The other review is of the non-violent edutainment title A Force More Powerful. I have some issues with the game, but this is my favorite review of the year so far. AFMP is a game with ideas, and I'll write more about it later. The review was hard to write since the game fails in its primary mission, but succeeds in ways I wasn't quite expecting. Not a great game, but an interesting one.
Be sure to check out Steve Bauman's opening editorial, wherein he writes that New Media sucks. Well, that's an oversimplification. But he makes some very good points about how New Media isn't all that new, and is held to different ethical standards than the print media.
Then there were three...
Reading interviews and seeing screenshots of the Roman SimCities still leaves me with the disturbing sensation that there will be nothing to distinguish one game from another. If I had to bet now, it would be on Caesar IV being the best of the three, mostly because of Tilted Mill's beautiful and underappreciated Children of the Nile.
In the meantime, you can build modern cities in the new release City Life from CDV and Monte Cristo. It has been getting good reviews, even from the hardasses at PCGamerUK and Eurogamer (the Old World is mean).
It's the little things...
So they go through the units and the heroes and something is a little off. Well, more than a little off.
Persia, like all the nations, gets two heroes. Theirs are Nebuchadnezzar and Sargon II. Two great rulers. Conquerors, diplomatic masterminds, both builders in their own way.
Of course, neither is Persian. Nebby is the great Babylonian king who hauled Judah into exile and promoted the prophet Daniel as his right hand man. Sargon is considered the most important of Assyrian kings.
The rest of the article makes reference to Persia's wars against Greece and Macedon, so they know who Persia is.
Is this just a nitpicky point that doesn't really affect the game. Sure.
But it's not like there is a dearth of great Persians to choose from. Where's Cyrus the Great, the builder of the Achaemenids? Darius who reformed the administration and suppressed the Ionian Revolt? Stick a Sassanid or two in there. But a Babylonian and an Assyrian? Both of whom died before Persia was even an empire?
Things like this bug me. Not enough to write off the game, but enough to make me roll my eyes once or twice.
Subscriptions are often pushed on consumers (It's the world's "#1 Computer and Video Game Magazine" because of its brick-and-mortar discount, not its editorial chops), the reviews are usually quite short and descriptive, and it uses some .25 based scoring system that is even more ridiculous than a one-hundred point scoring system, exaggerating the fineness of their game quality antennae.
Of course, these sorts of things can be said about many magazines. GI is no better or worse than any of the "official" console magazines. Nothing says fair and balanced coverage like the word "official" in your title.
But Kotaku has held up Game Informer's inability to keep up with console naming conventions as evidence that the entire print magazine world is irrelevant. GI calls the upcoming Nintendo machine the Revolution and not the Wii. Therefore, the print world can't keep up with the fast paced world of game marketing.
This implies that it is the job of magazines to keep up to the minute with news and information. Publishing lag means that the print world would have to stay ahead of the news to compete with gaming websites and blogs. Plus, the prevalence of review websites means that readers can find out about the latest games the day they hit the shelves and not wait a month to see what PC Gamer thinks about them.
The tension between the internet and print gaming press has already led to some changes. Computer Gaming World has changed its game review policy, ditching scores altogether, in favor of more detail analyses of particular games. The magazine covers fewer games than it used to, but in greater depth, leaving the mass coverage to its sister site 1Up.com. Some articles refer the reader to the website for the complete story.
PCGamer's website is mostly editor blogs and a place for their user forum. The podcast is an attempt to supplement their magazine. Parent company Future Publishing has recently launched Games Radar as a review site, so it will have an online presence to compete with rival Ziff Davis.
Computer Games Magazine has the smallest online presence, with a website apparently only tangentially connected to the magazine. You can subscribe there and complain about the Vanguard beta codes in the mostly desolate forum.
Each of the magazines offers content that is not available online, but not because it can't be. CGW's editorials and features could be done online, as could those of the other magazines. Still, magazines persist, and they probably will into the near future.
In my house, magazines are still an event. Every month they arrive and the house stops while me or my wife read. Even though it is possible to write a long feature for a website - Gamespot does it regularly - it is still much more comfortable to read them in paper form. We call our internet windows "browsers", but no gaming website is really set up for casual reading. You go there with a purpose, not to leaf through until something strikes you. Magazines make it easier for me to find bylines - there are some reviewers I will read even if I have no interest in the game itself.
Blogs will never replace magazines, especially if they print every rumor that comes down the pike. The peril of infinite space and the demand for constant content makes many of the more popular blogs, including Slashdot and Kotaku, of minimal utility for me. I only visit if Gametab gives me a headline worth clicking on.
Print irrelevant? Not for me.
Any good gaming pod/videocasts?
But I can't find that many of them.
Not that there aren't popular ones out there. The 1up Show was recommended to me, and it's pretty good as these things go. Well produced, just about the right length, etc. But there are too many people for me to keep track of, and something like this depends on personality as much as content. A strong show should have a limited cast; following 1up around E3 was a bit of a chore.
PCGamer's podcast is quite good and is also PC focused; Dan Morris is a strong host but his guests and co-hosts vary in ability from episode to episode. The camraderie is clear, but sometimes the inside jokes can take over the conversation.
Some people have suggested the Gaming Steve podcast, but it often clocks in at over an hour - sometimes almost two. I hope the theme song is a joke, because it's terrible. Steve's enthusiasm is good, but I find it hard to keep focused on one voice for so long. The developer interviews are decent, but suffer from the same problem that keeps me from paying much attention to interviews with movie directors or actors; asking people about their work is much less interesting when they are also plugging a project.
I've been listening on and off to the Poweruser podcast. Most of it is tech news I have no interest in, but they've isolated the game segment for listening ease. It's part of the media empire of Stardock's Brad Wardell, so he is a regular panelist though moderating duties are left to someone else. Some people have found a change in quality from the point when the ubiquitous Tom Chick was succeeded by Joel Hulsey. I don't see that. I do think that Wardell is sometimes too dominant a presence in the podcast, and Chick could usually match him - though then the third guy was left aside. My major complaint is one that applies to many podcasts - I have a very hard time telling the male voices apart.
I've dabbled with others, but for the most part the limitations of the form become clear. This sort of thing really depends on personality. It's one thing to read a guy's 1000 word review of a game, but a really different skill to come across in conversation as an interesting person. People need personality and not everyone does, no matter how well meaning or enthusiastic they seem. A lot of chemistry can come across in video, but it's not easy to demonstrate this on a radio program.
Plus, as interesting as games are, if you need to fill forty minutes it's almost impossible to avoid hitting the same topic over and over again. Episode 1: World of Warcraft! Episode 2: Girls in Games! Episode 3: Jack Thompson sucks! Add in an annual E3 episode and you have your schedule for the year.
I've often joked that we need a gaming Siskel and Ebert, or even better, McLaughlin Group - put some strong opinionated people in a room, give them an outline of what's being covered (too many podcasts seem improvised) and see what happens. Maybe not Derek Smart strong opinionated, but at least people interesting enough to generate some heat.
Is this too showbiz? Maybe. But few things are as dull as people who agree with each other all the time. You do want people to laugh at each other's jokes. And be professional. But why not put up some topics that gamers really disagree on? Is the Action-RPG a step back in game design? Is World of Warcraft actually bad for the industry? Is innovation dead? Is PC gaming?
These topics could get tired, too. And maybe somebody has covered them and I missed the debate. But have game developers ever been asked really interesting questions on these shows? Gaming Steve is so big on Spore that he mentions it every chance he gets - his interview with some of the Spore people was short on really interesting stuff that we couldn't figure out from the movies.
So help me. Help me find a podcast or video cast that I could listen to weekly. Because I can't believe that there's nothing great out there.
Rise of Legends Packaging
Since I have no intelligent commentary on the game for the moment, I'll talk a bit about the box.
First, DVD cases should have DVDs, especially if they don't have room for four CDs. Three were stuck on the spindle of the box and a fourth was in a paper sleeve tucked behind the manual and reference card. And the sleeve protected one wasn't the play disc, either.
Second, I love the artwork on the box. Stylish lettering, nice drawings. But the screenshots on the back of the box are much too small. The words "real time strategy" are on the front of the box, but someone taking this box off the shelf could still have little sense of what this game looks like or how it plays. The back of the box is taken up with literary descriptions of the three factions, each one getting a tiny a little screenshot that shows next to nothing. The Vinci one is drawn from the campaign, I think.
Third, the box says that Rise of Nations was "The 2003 Game of Year". It was? Where? The AIAS gave the PC Game of the Year title to Call of Duty. Rise of Nations didn't even win PC strategy game of the year; that went to Command and Conquer: Generals.
Rise of Nations was Gamespot's Game of the Year for 2003, so this must be what they are referring to. Makes sense. Gamespot is the biggest gaming site, so their choice has a certain cachet to it. And I agree with the choice, actually. But the label "2003 Game of Year" sort of suggests that this was some official decision by some official body like the Oscar people.
But it's still a very pretty box.
Turn based is not the same as smarter
I wrote a defense of the RTS a while ago, so you can compare our notes and see that we are in agreement on this. But check out Bruce's post first. As prone to old-fogeyism as I am sometimes, I'm not so vain as to think that my games are better than somebody else's games, or that they are testimony to my superior intellect.
The Perfect Strategy Game?
Lubker's strategy vision has elements from a bunch of other games cobbled together with no real sense of how the game would actually play. You have vehicles with riders like Act of War, custom units like Galactic Civilizations II, units requiring training and equipping like many RPGs, weather like Empire Earth II...there is not any real sense of what the goals would be, let alone the setting. This is a laundry list of features and not really a game idea properly understood. Lubker's design looks like a standard RTS in many ways (resources, vehicles, tech trees) but it's clear how the training of workers into soldiers would interrupt the flow. I know that I hate sending peasants into buildings in the Cossacks games just so I can get a guy with a gun.
Lubker is not alone, of course. If you ask people what their perfect game would be, most think of a game that lets them do everything that they want to do. But games are really about limits. You need boundaries. Structure. Rules. And throwing a bunch of different cool things into a game design means that you need a lot of structure to make sure that everything fits together properly.
Even Will Wright's magnum opus in the making, Spore, is structured in discreet units. You won't always be evolving a new creature. Once you get to a certain point, you stop evolving (biologically speaking) and the game rules shift. Now you are building a city. Then a civilization. Then you do interplanetary exploration. It looks like a game of everything, but its really not; it's a series of different games that just happen to take place in the same general setting.
GameSetWatch is looking for more descriptions of "perfect games" and you can send your vision to them at email@example.com