XCOM 2 | Game Review

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XCOM 2 is the successor to Firaxis Games’ reboot title of the famous XCOM series: XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  XCOM 2 was produced by 2K Games and released in February of 2016.  An expansion pack, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, was released in August of 2017.  XCOM 2 follows right on the heels of Enemy Unkown’s premise and greatly expands on the story, gameplay, and experience of its predecessors.

XCOM 2 begins its campaign twenty years after Earth’s original attempt to fend off the invading aliens, the XCOM Initiative, suffered total defeat.  The aliens now occupy the Earth through their puppet government, the ADVENT administration, and maintain a benevolent facade while developing their secret Avatar Project.  XCOM has morphed into a resistance movement led by the Commander, the player’s avatar in the campaign.  XCOM’s forces are now based out of the Avenger, a retrofitted alien supply ship that keeps XCOM’s assets on the move and away from ADVENT retaliation.

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Galactic Civilizations III

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Galactic Civilizations III is the long-awaited sequel to Stardock’s enormously popular Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords and the third title in the Galactic Civilizations series.  It was published by Stardock in 2015 and has since then received two expansion packs, Mercenaries, and Crusades, and a third is to be released later in 2018.  Similar in nature to the Civilization series of 4x strategy games, Galactic Civilizations holds one of the premier positions among the space 4x titles of the 21st century.

At its core, GalCiv III follows a familiar pattern of 4x gameplay.  Individual planets take the place of cities or settlements, with each planet featuring a number of build slots where improvements can be added to increase planetary production of such resources as research, credits, and production.  Each planet contributes to a global fund for credits and research but utilizes production individually and production is further diversified into social production, which is used on other improvements, and military or ship production.  All planets that sponsor a shipyard can contribute their military production to the construction of space vessels.

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Total War: Warhammer II

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Total War: Warhammer II, is the sequel to Creative Assembly’s landmark title Total War: Warhammer and is published by Sega.  It is the second title in a trilogy of Total War: Warhammer games based off of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle tabletop game.  Warhammer II was released in September of 2017 and brings with it an abundance of new features to add to CA’s developing Warhammer series including a new narrative campaign, four new races, and an overhaul to many of the campaign map mechanics.

One of Warhammer II’s primary features is its new single-player campaign called the Vortex Campaign.  Unlike previous DLC mini-campaigns in the first Warhammer, the Vortex Campaign covers an entirely new campaign map featuring the fictional New World continents of Lustria and Naggarond as well as the paradise island of Ulthuan and the Old World Southlands.  The campaign is also the primary delivery vehicle for Warhammer II’s new mechanics and campaign overhauls such as the introduction of settlement climates and treasure hunting.

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Cossacks: European Wars

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With the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation’s commencement fast approaching, it seemed appropriate to reminisce on the Renaissance period with a game that covers a large portion of that period.  Cossacks: European Wars was developed by GSC Gameworld and published CDV Software Entertainment in 2000.  Two expansions, The Art of War and Back to War, appeared in 2002 expanding game content with new nations, units, and missions.

European Wars is the first title in the Cossacks series and, like many of its contemporaries, features many of the standard mechanics and conventions that defined RTS titles of the era.  Factions appear as different historical nations from the 17th and 18th centuries and each brings a few unique units and/or buildings to differentiate their approaches to the battlefield.  Base building and resource collection are accomplished by peasant worker units that are trained from the central town hall.

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Supreme Commander 2

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At its core Supreme Commander held true to the overall conventions and mechanics of its series.  A centrally important command unit begins the construction of a base with static resource-generating

Supreme Commander 2, which was developed by Gas Powered Games and released in 2010 by Square Enix, follows in the footsteps of the highly successful real-time strategy game Supreme Commander as a spiritual sequel to the combined arms, free-range style of combat pioneered by Total Annihilation.  The single player campaign continues the story of the three competing human factions, the UEF, Aeon, and Cybrans, and is set several years after the events of Supreme Commander.  Unlike the first game, Supreme Commander 2 did not receive a full fledged expansion, but a large DLC featuring many new units titled the Infinite War Battle Pack was released later in 2010.

structures and unit-producing factories.  Naval, air, and land units could be produced and conduct operations in their respective terrain types across the battle map.  The super-powered experimental units return from the first game with a greatly expanded role and are now divided into two tiers based on their level of power and the effect they could have on the overall battle.  These experimental units are produced from dedicated factories instead of engineers in the field. Continue reading

Episodic Sequels

Recently I watched a gameplay exposition and review for the upcoming Total War: Warhammer II video game, the highly anticipated sequel to Creative Assembly’s landmark title, Total War: Warhammer, set to release on September 28th.  The review itself was straightforward and highly informative and I had no trouble with it.  However it brought up an interesting point that relates directly to the nature of episodic titles in video games.

An episodic series of video games is a run of at least two titles with a single, overarching plot that runs through each title, tying the series’ storyline, characters, and even mechanics and themes together across the series.  Normally the release dates, intended consoles, and even genre of the titles don’t define if a title is part of the episodic series; content is the only determining factor.  Yet perhaps the most important aspect of an episodic series versus a franchise or saga is the proximity of each title’s release to the releases of the other titles in the series.  It’s not enough to share the title, setting, and mechanics of prequels and sequels; an episodic title must be an indispensable part of a larger whole. Continue reading

Axis & Allies

Axis & Allies is a video game adaption of Milton Bradley’s Axis & Allies strategy board game of the same name.  Both games simulate the broad strategic situation of World War II at the beginning of 1942.  Players take on the role of one of the five great powers: Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  The original board game focused on the strategic aspects of gameplay, while Axis & Allies the video game emphasizes real time strategy combat.

Axis & Allies features three single player modes.  These include the campaign, in which the player takes the role of various Allied or Axis factions in key battles throughout WWII, with fictional “what-fi” scenarios serving as the majority of the Axis missions.  Skirmish mode is a one-off match between the player and up to seven AIs played out on of the maps featured in the campaign or in WWII mode.  Since there is no resource harvesting in Axis & Allies the size of the map is the only limiting factor for the number of players.

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Command & Conquer Online: Westwood Classics

This December marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the landmark Real-Time Strategy game Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty by Westwood Studios.  Dune II was not the first RTS game to be developed but its release marked the beginning of RTS as a major genre in PC, and to a lesser degree console, gaming.  It introduced the mechanics and style that would be utilized in RTS games for the next decade, only being superseded by Blizzard’s variation of the genre after the release of Command & Conquer: Generals in 2003.

Since Dune II’s release Westwood Studios developed several RTS titles, with accompanying sequels, before its closure by Electronic Arts in early 2003.  These included the seminal Command & Conquer and its associate spinoff Command & Conquer: Red Alert, as well as a remake of Dune II titled Dune 2000 which featured enhanced graphics and improved gameplay taken from the development of Red Alert.  All of these titles stayed true to their original RTS format and nourished a thriving RTS community.

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Endless Space 2 – Prologue

Endless Space 2, developed by Amplitude Studios and published by Sega, is the direct sequel to Amplitude’s previous 4X title Endless Space and the latest release in the Endless series.  After a widely publicized and well-received early access period Endless Space 2 was released on May 19th, 2017 for PC and Mac.  As yet I have not had the pleasure of experiencing everything the new release has to offer so until there’s some real review material to present I’m going to put up some quick notes about the eager anticipation surrounding Endless Space 2.

Out of the numerous 4X titles released in the last decade few came close to matching the vaunted Civilization series’ quality and appeal as Amplitude’s last title, Endless Legend.  Endless Legend combined Civilization’s highly accessible user interface with the Endless series’ science-fantasy mythos and invigorating territorial control mechanics to make a 4X experience that was able to capture and hold a player’s attention across each game’s progression.  The enjoyment remained consistent across single player and multiplayer and a new take on 4X diplomacy, while not perfect, kept competitive and cooperative play intriguing. Continue reading

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, developed by Relic Entertainment and published by THQ in 2009 is the spiritual successor to Relic’s initial adaptation of Games Workshop’s dystopian sci-fi tabletop game, Warhammer 40,000.  Dawn of War II has enough relation to previous titles in the series, namely in the its single player narrative, to warrant its claims as a sequel, but fans of the series will quickly recognize the numerous differences that make this follow-on radically different from its forebears.

Dawn of War II takes much of the inspiration for its gameplay mechanics from Relic’s other successful series: Company of Heroes.  Combat consists of controlling a single, iconic commander unit and small squads (three to four soldiers) of specialized units.  Cover is scattered around the map and divided into light and heavy cover which are identified by yellow and green movement markers respectively.  Larger units and some special abilities demolish cover, exposing any troops that were sheltering behind it.

Each unit available to the player fulfills a particular role and is rarely, if ever, made obsolete by advances in production tiers.  The standard format for each faction’s army consists of light scouts, adaptable main infantry, fire support and anti-armor infantry, super-heavy infantry, and light and heavy vehicles.  The average combat force generally consists of six to eight infantry and one to two vehicles, in the campaign missions the force is limited to four units and the commander.

This style of gameplay actually hearkens more to the tabletop game’s most common format than it does to the original Dawn of War.  The Warhammer 40k universe is well suited to this style and it allows the campaign missions to come off as flavorful, immersive, and dynamic.  The characters take on more importance to the mission and to the player when each individual unit counts for something when the lead starts flying.

Yet this small squad format departs heavily from Dawn of War II’s predecessors.  Large scale combat between armies was far more frequent in previous games and hero units, while still strong, served more as unique tactical assets rather than linchpins around which to form a strike team.  In emphasizing small unit tactics Dawn of War II removed the galactic scale and sense of endless war from Warhammer 40k.  Missions are engaging, but the player rarely gets a sense of how great an impact the victories are having on the conflict as a whole.  Enemy forces, while always numerically superior and still dangerous, seem passive and underwhelming.

Dawn of War II’s campaign follows loosely after the events of the previous Dawn of War series and continues to follow the series’ protagonist faction, the Blood Ravens space marines.  Several characters from previous campaigns appear as AI controlled allies or in cutscenes.  The player controls a Force Commander that serves as his/her avatar and can be named by the player.  Several squads of space marines, each representing a different combat type, serve as the force under the player’s command and are each led by a character that provides flavor and narrative throughout the campaign.

The campaign is played out over three planets.  More missions with varying objectives, including side missions that provide benefits but do not advance the main story, become available as the campaign progresses.  Strategic play is measured in days, with players allowed one deployment per day, although they can gain additional deployments by achieving a high score in missions or completing certain objectives.  Most missions consist of the Force Commander, and whatever squads the player chose before launching the mission, landing planet-side on a tactical map representing desert, jungle, or urban terrain.  The player’s forces progress across the map taking tactically important locations before progressing towards a final objective like a powerful enemy that needs to be eliminated or a strategic location in need of defense.

Dawn of War II’s single player experience is nothing if not character driven.  The slinking and slug fests of the missions would seem meaningless and wearisome where it not for the thematic import that the characters’ perspectives and personalities applied to it.  Cutscenes and in-game commentary bring the dark universe of Warhammer 40k to life, give meaning to the objectives, and explain the motivations and behaviors of the various antagonists.

These squads are also heavily customizable, gaining experience for levels with each mission allowing players to increase their squads combat and support abilities and even defining if the squad is optimized for melee or ranged combat.  Armor and weapons, in the form of Wargear, is randomly dropped by enemies or acquired as a reward for completing missions.  Wargear can be equipped to a squad during the strategic phase of the campaign and each piece of Wargear lists which squads it is suited for.

Skirmish mode lacks this character-driven narrative and noticeably suffers for it.  Skirmish battles are wearisome tug-of-war matches over resource production nodes until the player has built up a strong enough army to actually destroy the enemy’s command center.  In fact the command center, while poorly defended, has so much health and armor that a match’s finale usually consists of one to two minutes of units shooting at a building.  All races and units are available in Skirmish mode thus maintaining some interest for players willing to put up with the repetition for a chance to try out new units and abilities.  However these flashy toys are wasted on a predictable and repetitive AI.

Multiplayer serves as a balance between the two, with the presence and challenge of human opponents compensating for the simple objectives and generic maps.  Dawn of War II is well supported for online play and its integration with Steam’s network makes matchmaking and setup a simple process.  Players are likely to get the most enjoyment out of head to head matches, as opposed to team games against the AI, but this certainly decreases appeal among casual gamers.

Dawn of War II’s close-in, tactical focus demands high performance from graphic and audio processors.  Modern machines are sufficient to run the game smoothly, but any models introduced before Dawn of War II’s release will struggle at higher performance settings.

The shift in mechanical style the Dawn of War II introduces ultimately produces a dichotomy in the game’s appeal to fanbases.  Players that enjoyed Company of Heroes will likely enjoy Dawn of War II’s single player experience if they choose to enjoy Warhammer 40k’s narrative.  Fans of previous Dawn of War titles can still get a thoroughly satisfying experience out of the bloody, lore-heavy storyline but will find skirmish and multiplayer to be lackluster, repetitive, and restrictive.