The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth was very well received by series fans and real-time strategy gamers and is arguably the best RTS representation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy yet produced.  When Electronic Arts announced the upcoming release of The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II fans were energized not so much with the prospect of new campaign content by with a newer and more expanded chance to enjoy the Lord of the Rings mythology.  Its release in 2006 garnered a great deal of praise and sold very well but its failure to continue the Battle for Middle Earth series hints at some unfortunate shortcomings in the design.

Battle for Middle Earth II changed a great deal of the gameplay mechanics that its predecessor introduced.  Bases are no longer static locations but are now made up of individual buildings constructed by workers.  Base size was also indeterminate as resource buildings need a certain amount of free space around them to generate resources efficiently.  A central fortress building constructs workers, trains heroes, and functions as a command center for the player.

Unit production and composition also received an overhaul.  Buildings still need to reach higher levels to produce more advanced units but instead of leveling as units are produced the player must purchase building tier upgrades.  The units themselves increase in squad size with most units now holding ten units and some evil faction squads holding twenty.

There are six factions in BFME II but only two from the first title make an unaltered appearance.  The forces of Good have been merged into the Men of the West, essentially the Gondor faction with Rohan cavalry.  Elves and Dwarves round out the forces of good and are ranged against Isengard, Mordor, and the new Goblin faction.  Each faction features its own unit and building roster and many of the heroes from the previous game have been divided up among their respective races; new heroes were also introduced to round out the new factions.

The single player elements include good and evil campaigns, a War of the Ring mode, and of course skirmish mode.  The campaigns focus on each side’s perspective of the War in the North, a parallel conflict to the battles in the south during the War of the Ring that were mentioned but not covered in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books.  Some battles like Mordor’s attack on Dale and Erebor come from the original work while other missions like the goblin attack on the Grey Havens were developed specifically for the game.

The War of the Ring mode is perhaps BFME II’s most intriguing feature.  The entirety of Middle Earth is divided into a regional world map similar to the mission map from the first game.  Players take on the role of one of the six factions in a battle for supremacy over all of Middle Earth against other factions, which can be of any race regardless of alignment.  Two regional buildings can be constructed in each region and are also present in real time battles that take place in the region. For example the Fortress forces a battle whenever the territory is invaded when normally only strongholds like Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith provoke a confrontation with invading armies.

Each faction has three armies, led by the faction’s three main heroes, that can move one region per turn and re-spawn in the player’s home territory if defeated.  Other armies without a leader can be raised by regional production buildings for defense or reinforcement but cannot invade hostile territories.  Resource buildings on the global map generate resources that are used to purchase buildings in other regions or train units for armies.  A global population cap limits the number of units on the regional map.  Armies always gain a worker unit when engaged in real time combat and can produce any unit or building during the battle regardless of the units the army actually contains.

Another innovation that generated a lot of excitement was the hero creator system.  Utilizing several templates for appearance, race, faction, and class players could create heroes that would utilize certain abilities of various tiers and take on roles similar to those filled by the standard faction heroes.  These created heroes could not be used in the campaign but were available in skirmish, War of the Ring, and multiplayer.  During creation the players adjusted bars that related to stats like health, damage, and special abilities to determine the focus and balance of the hero.  In general these created heroes were not especially comparable to faction heroes but still provided very unique flavor.

These changes made BFME II its own fully enclosed game and EA did a very fine job balancing the different races (except the Elves whose unbalanced archer upgrades had to be fixed through patches).  That is both a strength and a weakness of the game as players who enjoyed the first Battle for Middle Earth because of its gameplay will find little to endear them to the sequel.  At the same time many of the mechanics EA introduced would not have functioned properly in the first game’s style.

In fact that is possibly BFME II’s greatest failing.  Any attempt it made to directly improve upon the original was a failure.  EA advertised larger units and bigger battles and, while squads were bigger, population readjustment ensured that there actually wasn’t a difference in models or numbers of units on the field.  Dynamic base building and the standardization of lower tier unit rosters (every faction has an infantry, archer, pikeman, and cavalry unit) caused the factions to lose a great deal of their unique flavor and feel.  Special powers, which increased in number dramatically in BFME II, also become standardized even at higher tiers among the factions causing a lockstep of strategies regardless of which faction was played.

The campaign also failed to deliver the same feel of epic struggle that the first game provided.  Most of the missions play like the great siege battles from the first Battle for Middle Earth but lack a sense of scale and also restrict gameplay due to map and objective limitations preventing players from exploring the races and mechanics they are using.  Special powers also fell flat as the players are mechanically prevented from generating enough power points to unlock the full tree of powers available and if they finish the missions too quickly may not unlock higher tier powers at all.

The War of the Ring goes a long way to redressing these issues through increased re-playability and greater freedom for the player, but brings its own shortcomings as well.  Movement is far too limited in relation to the player’s ability to defend home territories.  Armies move too slowly and marauding enemies can conquer any region that lacks an army or defending fortress with impunity.  Also aside from annoying and petty tactics the AI is for the most part incompetent, attacking the same territories repeatedly and following little rhyme or reason in its utilization of units and heroes.

By itself BFME II is a decent game with numerous options to explore and a great deal of good old fashioned RTS combat to enjoy.  At higher tiers factions gain a great deal of unique abilities and high level battles can be very entertaining.  The hero creation system is nothing like an RPG but is a fun way to mix up traditional skirmish battles.  Yet anytime BFME II tries to assert itself into the Battle for Middle Earth series as a sequel or improvement it fails to measure up to expectations in almost every way.  Another major point that does little to affect gameplay but is worth mentioning on behalf of Lord of the Rings franchise fans is that the units and heroes EA made up to fill in racial gaps feel downright alien.  They are balanced and they can be fun but in no way would they ever feel natural in the original trilogy’s books or films.

Fans of Lord of the Rings will have to temper their genre love with appreciation for innovation to enjoy this game, but there is still a lot of Middle Earth to experience with the new single player modes.  Most RTS fans will at least find BFME II a familiar addition to the genre and a far better title than many modern RTS games.  Hard core gamers are ironically the most likely to enjoy BFME II as its gameplay panders to fast battles and micro-management.  In all situations the game would be welcome in any RTS library but probably shouldn’t be purchased outside of a sale.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

Two hefty expansion packs, numerous DLC, and a vibrant modding community combined to give Civilization V a long full life in the gaming community and formed what will probably be an enduring legacy.  When Firaxis announced the development of Sid Meier’s Civilization VI in May of 2016 the fanbase was energized, not so much with dissatisfaction over the current title in the Civilization Series but with gleeful anticipation of the new material Civilization VI would introduce.

Civ VI maintains the core elements of the Civilization series.  Players use Settler units to found cities which generate gold, production, food, science, culture, and faith fueling all the options and projects the player must undertake to achieve victory over competing civilizations.  Regional terrain types also remain alongside bonus, strategic, and luxury resources.  Combat most closely resembles Civ V with single units each occupying a hex; although a new feature allows two or three units of the same type to merge into a corps or army.

City planning is the most noticeable overhaul that the series received in Civ VI.  In addition to a roster of buildings and the tile improvements constructed by workers cities can now produce districts in any workable tile.  Districts resemble great person tile improvements from Civ V in that they focus on one type of resource.  Only one of each type can be built in a single city and the city can produce buildings to improve those districts.  Some districts like the encampment and aerodrome focus on unit production while others like the entertainment district and neighborhood improve the city’s happiness and growth.

Districts emphasize the importance of city tile management in Civ VI.  Districts must compete with world wonders and worker-built tile improvements for space around the city.  Districts also yield more resources if they are adjacent to other districts and some can only be built on certain terrain types.  City specializing is heavily encouraged along with the importance of founding cities early in the game.  Great people, which are now generated in competition with other civilizations, can only be utilized on a district appropriate to their type (holy sites of great prophets, harbors for great admirals, etc.).

Luxuries and population growth have also received an overhaul.  Now luxuries are referred to as amenities and each city has its own count of amenities that affect its populations mood.  Luxury resources provide an amenity to every city in a civilization.  Entertainment buildings and other factors now only affect the city they are constructed in, however cities no longer suffer penalties due to the number of cities the civilization owns.  Also occupied cities do not cause the rest of a civilization to suffer unrest.

Housing is determined by the base capacity of a city and any buildings in that city that increase housing as well as other faction specific research and benefits.  When a city exceeds it’s current housing limit population growth slows significantly regardless of the food the city produces.  District production is also limited by housing as a city can only produce a certain number of districts for each level of population.

The social policies of Civ V have been heavily redesigned to resemble scientific development.  Culture generated by cities contributes to research through a tree of available civic techs.  When a civic tech is researched, new civic policies are made available.  Civics are divided into military, economic, diplomatic, and great person categories and a civilization is limited to the type and number of each civic based on the government they currently have.  Civic techs unlock new governments over the course of play with some governments emphasizing military or economics by by allowing more military or economic civics to be active.  Civics can be swapped out anytime, and can be changed without penalty whenever a new civic tech is researched.

Culture and scientific research now benefit from a bonus system.  Most civic and scientific techs have an optional bonus objective, like clearing a barbarian encampment or constructing a mine, that will decrease the research cost of the tech by half.  These boosts can’t always be easily completed each game but savvy players can use them to jump ahead in certain areas as the game progresses.

Civ VI features the series’ first official religious victory option.  Cities follow a religion if a majority of their citizens convert to it.  The faith resource can be used to purchase missionaries, apostles, and inquisitors that spread the player’s religion or combat opposing religious pressure in friendly cities.  The victory condition is fairly straightforward: simply convert a majority of cities on the map.  Certain religious units can even engage in theological combat, which is functionally the same as combat between conventional units, but cannot be healed.

Diplomacy is all about exploiting in Civ VI.  AI opponents now have one pre-programmed agenda and one randomly selected hidden agenda that dictates their attitude towards the player.  They also receive a randomly generated hidden agenda that is only revealed to players with sufficiently advanced diplomatic relations.  The agendas allow the players to engage more tactfully with the AI, however they also have the side-effect of making the AI very one-dimensional.  AI civilizations will denounce the player if the player’s actions fail to satisfy their agenda within a few turns.  Additionally, even when the AI has moved to this passive aggressive state they still initiate trades with the player giving their convictions a mechanical feel that destroys immersion.

Graphically Civ VI is very beautifully designed.  A more cartoonish approach to details was taken but the colors are vivid and the units and buildings are animated and precisely detailed.  The game also features optional daytime-nighttime transitions giving the effect of passing days although it does not have an effect on the actual speed of play.  Even on lower graphics settings Civ VI is pleasant to look at and meeting the minimum requirements for play is sufficient to enjoy the game completely.

Civilization VI brings no shame to the Civilization series and re-introduces some of the concepts that Firaxis attempted in Civilization: Beyond Earth.  Bugs are virtually non-existent and it’s release is overall very polished.  Some elements could use refining, like the similarities of several civilization’s unique buildings and bonuses, but a good expansion can fix those easily.  One notably pervasive change is the slower environment of play on standard speed.  The early and mid-game are very well fleshed out so it doesn’t detract from the game, but players used to the active and hectic end-game of Civ V may be surprised at the crawling science victory requirements or slow build times for modern units.

Any 4x fan will enjoy Civ VI and even at its release price its a valid purchase for any casual strategy gamer.  Online performance is very stable and playing with friends is one of the hallmarks of an enjoyable Civilization experience.  Not everything veteran Civilization players enjoy may have made it into this latest release but there is still plenty of new and improved elements to warrant numerous playthroughs.

Warlords Battlecry III

In the early 90s, when the limits of the gaming market were still being tested, a 2D turn based strategy game, with some minor roleplaying elements, titled Warlords was released by Strategic Studios Group after it was designed by the series creator and visionary Steve Fawkner.  The game itself was deceptively simple but featured great potential for extended gameplay and was easy to learn.  The Warlords series would go on to spawn three sequels and in 1999 Steve Fawkner developed a spinoff series titled Warlords Battlecry.

Warlords Battlecry shook up the Warlords formula, translating the turn-based strategy and fluid army design into real-time strategy and race-based factions.  Roleplaying elements were more heavily emphasized through four hero classes that any race’s hero could adopt.  The game used a graphics engine reminiscent of Warcraft II and featured a similar economic style and combat system, with worker based infrastructure and mined resources and fast paced combat.

Warlords Battlecry III, developed by Infinite Interactive and published by Enlight Software in 2004, is the last title in the Battlecry series.  Like its predecessors it built off the system and mechanics of the first Battlecry game, using a 2D graphics engine, expansive hero class system, and bringing back the original races and units from previous titles.  Players began a battle with their hero and whatever retinue units they chose to bring along at the battle’s setup.  The hero and worker units construct buildings, including a central keep or fortress that can be upgraded to unlock higher tier units and buildings.

Resources take the form of mines that must be captured by a hero unit or faction general.  Battlecry III features four resources: gold, iron, stone, and crystal, and each race’s strategy emphasizes some resources more than others.  Mines can be filled with up to eight worker units (four for the Dwarves and Dark Dwarves, who have more efficient workers), increasing the rate that resources are extracted.  The workers remain inside the mine and are effectively removed from play; if the mine is destroyed or captured by another faction the workers are lost.  Collected resources are added to their respective pools for the player and the resource cap can be expanded up to 3000 as the central keep is upgraded.

Battlecry III expanded the number of playable races to an unprecedented 16.  Each race generally follows the same tech tree progression and build style with minor exceptions.  For example the Wood Elf builder unit cannot be placed into mines, but several can be combined to form a crystal generating combat unit.  The Undead, for another contrast, only build a few types of units and their basic infantry, the Skeleton, instantly upgrades along two paths into the various combat units of the Undead army.  Each race also features certain technologies and upgrades that it may share with some other races but should not be expected in every race.

Combat takes place purely in real-time and features a surprising potential for micromanagement in an older game.  Units can be set to a variety of different stances that can cause them to automatically use healing spells, follow other units around, and autonomously scout the map.  The factions are balanced more through their number than through specific unit design.  They are heavily thematic and most factions are better in combat against certain rivals (i.e. Knights vs Undead), than against other factions in general.  Each faction has access to at least one spellcaster unit as well as a general unit that can convert buildings and inspire nearby troops in a manner similar to the hero.

The hero is the defining feature of Warlords Battlecry III’s overall gameplay.  The hero acts like a regular unit in terms of movement and combat.  It also features a mana pool and spellbook with which it casts the spells related to its class.  Heroes can also equip items that are found on the map or taken from defeated enemy heroes; some items like weapons and armor are more effective for combat but may harm spellcasting ability while contrasting items can lower hit points and increase mana regeneration.  A player’s heroes are also persistent across the game keeping their level, items, and retinue between games and game types.  Any hero killed in combat is returned to life at the end of the battle and remain with the player unless made using Ironman Mode, which makes hero death permanent.

Heroes are made by the player before beginning a campaign or random map and gain experience during and after a battle.  A hero can upgrade one of its four stats and one of its class skills by one point each when it gains a new level.  A hero can be made from any race and class combination, although some classes are obviously better for certain races than others.  In skirmish mode the race of the hero doesn’t matter in terms of selecting what faction that player will use in the battle.  In the campaign, the player starts with the faction that the hero is a part of, and can play as other factions as the player accumulates allies throughout the campaign.

Warlords Battlecry III’s campaign is partially story-driven and partially open world.  The player’s hero travels across different locations and complete repeat missions and story missions which affect its diplomatic standing with the other races and allow the hero to acquire new items and experience as well as advance primary and localized plot points.  After each mission the hero accumulates crowns, a global resource that can be accessed on the world map to purchase mercenaries and items.

Warlords Battlecry III’s old graphics and less refined RTS style are heavily dated by modern standards but for its time it was revolutionary in its approach to strategy gaming.  It was the first RTS game to feature unique hero and roleplaying elements and was radical in its unprecedented number of unique races.  The game wasn’t without its flaws; primarily an ambiguous learning curve and poorly explained hero revival system.  Its play speed was also quite slow even for its time.  On normal speed common campaign missions can take well over an hour to complete simply because the player must wait to accumulate the resources needed to assemble an effective army.

That being said, gamers will be hard pressed to find a game with a similar formula to Battlecry III.  The unique factions, persistent hero system, and combination of numerous skirmish maps alongside an extensive campaign can make for hours of new and intriguing gameplay.  Battlecry III has been reported to be quite buggy on new operating systems but it is now available on Steam and gog.com.  It also benefits from an extensive online community with help sites for running the game on newer operating systems and advice on which patch version (of which their are three) is best used for the player’s preferred style.

Dear Mindy: Origin

Since the success of Valve’s Steam Client in revolutionizing the gaming industry’s distribution and marketing methods many major game providers have developed their own online platforms for supplying clients with products, support, and community.  Origin is Electronic Arts’ digital distribution platform and one of the primary digital outlets for EA games and digital products.

Origin began life as EA Downloader which was released by EA in 2005.  It would transition between various iterations such as EA Link and EA Download Manager, with each new version adding additional features and capabilities.  These older versions provided both an online store for EA products as well as a profile management system and update source for digital products and hard copies.  Origin was released in 2011 and combined all the elements of previous EA online services.

Like its competitors and equivalents, Origin features the staples of a modern digital gaming client system such as a friends list, a profile with achievements and avatar customization, a games library, store access, and automated support for currently owned games.  Any game in the user’s library is available for download any number of times from Origin.  Like Steam and Battle.net, product keys can be used to redeem physical copies of certain EA produced games; however if the game is already installed on the user’s computer the code cannot be redeemed even if the user does not intend to download the game.

At this point Origin only supplies titles owned and/or developed by EA.  Origin can be accessed on PCs and recently on mobile devices but is not currently available for consoles.  It is currently unknown if EA plans to include titles from other producers in its store selection.  EA has specifically stated that Origin is a competitor with Steam so it is highly possible that Origin will eventually become a digital marketplace.

It’s worth noting that an Origin installation and account are required for more recent EA titles, primarily those released within the last few years, even if they are bought on disc or another form of third party distribution.  Origin itself is a free service and can be utilized in offline mode if the user saves his or her login information in online mode first.  Games installed from a disc do not need to be synchronized with Origin to run their single player and LAN functions.  However they do need to be registered on Origin to receive updates, access multiplayer servers, and communicate with other players in-game.

Origin provides all the services necessary to play and enjoy the games it provides.  It’s only glaring downside is that it is a first and foremost a store.  Navigation is heavily weighted towards the store; and community interaction, such as forums and community posts, is limited.  Games listed inside the user’s library are effectively placeholders and do not have their own pages, in contrast with Steam or Battle.net which have dedicated displays for each game.  Purchasing and accessing games on Origin is quick and easy but any utility related to the account’s interaction with those games is minimal.  Support is also lacking for older games with newer products receiving most of the attention as far as deals, advertisements, and FAQ posts are concerned.

Like everything EA touches Origin takes a popular concept and puts its own spin on it with rather mixed results.  Origin features all the services necessary for acquiring and using EA products and connecting with the community of EA gamers.  However on the flip-side Origin is heavily geared towards EA’s marketing and sacrifices its community development for customer interaction with the online store.  It’s high quality and no doubt sufficient for EA’s purposes, but Origin will certainly have to be optimized to better support and reflect the gamer culture before it can truly equal its competitors.

Total War: Attila

Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome II was noted just after its release to be the worst Total War title to see the light of day.  Its excessive bugs and poor performance disappointed many fans of the previous Rome: Total War as well as franchise fans in general.  This was perhaps a greater loss for the game itself rather than Creative Assembly.  Numerous patches and quick fixes improved Rome II to make it playable and ultimately even enjoyable; but its place in infamy had already been secured.

Creative Assembly did its utmost to avoid a repeat with its follow-up title, Total War: Attila, which was released in early 2015.  Many of the systems introduced in Rome II, such as the Imperium levels, remain the same while other mechanics like the political system and provincial system have been modified slightly.  Provincial towns can now be upgraded to have walls and all provinces are limited to two towns and a capital.  The political system saw a revival of the traditional family tree within the wider context of faction politics and competing nobles.

Perhaps the largest change from Rome II that Attila brought was the change in setting.  The grand campaign begins in 395 AD as the now divided Roman Empire enters a period of decline.  The game models the catastrophic upheaval of the period with a return of the horde mechanic, first seen in Rome: Total War: Barbarian Invasions, which allows a faction to abandon their home province and form several armies that supply their own food and can make temporary camps to gain special benefits and a relief from income loss.  The Western and Eastern Roman empires suffer several penalties to add to their foreign woes such as historically inept faction leaders, a loss of traditional technologies, and unstable internal politics.

Attila brings an apocalyptic feel to the setting through various mechanics and faction themes.  Climate change; inspired by the historic 6th century Little Ice Age, makes an appearance as periodic global events that lower the fertility of all provinces on the map.  Another world altering mechanic is the ability for armies to raise settlements transforming the settlement into a ruin and blackening that section of the province, temporarily ruining its fertility.  Razed settlements can only be restored by settling army units in the province, restoring the town which must then be rebuilt from scratch.

The thematic presentation of the turbulent 5th century is Attila’s central point, and tragically is probably also Attila’s greatest failure.  The game succeeds so well in making the world a mess that it rapidly becomes frustrating and nearly unplayable.  The climate change unrealistically affects the entire globe, turning even the most fertile provinces like the Nile Delta and Euphrates River Valley into barren desert.  Cities suffer numerous wealth and public order penalties from effects such as food shortages, even when the empire has a food surplus, and immigration, an effect that the player has no control over.

Squalor now plays a proactive role in settlements and provinces; the higher the negative level of total squalor (derived from squalor minus sanitation) the more likely a plague will break out in that settlement.  This mechanic is reasonable in its idea, but its implementation is again excessive and frustrating.  Multiple build slots in the province must be devoted to sanitation buildings to keep the squalor down and even with a total squalor of zero plagues can still spread to and even break out in settlements.

Most factions start out in precarious positions.  The Roman empires naturally suffer from rampant unrest, multiple enemies, and hard-pressed economies.  Barbarian tribes start with strong militaries but are forced by approaching nomads and cooling climate to make for new homelands in Roman territory to the south and west.  The Sassanid Empire, the predominant eastern faction and widely assumed to be the easiest to play, still has its own problems keeping its client states in line and fighting off the White Huns.

These troubles don’t make the game unplayable; but in the wrong circumstances they swiftly make it unwinnable.  Attila is perhaps the first Total War game that will appeal far more to survival gamers than to strategy gamers.  The gameplay experience for many factions, particularly the Roman empires, is more about seeing how long the player can survive rather than trying to win.  The game’s buggy tutorial and abbreviated user interface add to the problem by giving Attila one of the sharpest learning curves in the series.

The graphics of Attila remain largely unchanged from Rome II and any computer that can handle Rome II will do just as well with Attila.  Sadly frame rate difficulties remain during the AI phase even with high performance machines but actual gameplay, particularly battles, run smoothly.  It’s worth noting that color and toning for battles has been subtlety altered to give a dark, gritty feel to the world to accompany the apocalyptic theme.  This doesn’t bring any mechanical alterations aside from increased rain but the various weather effects can also cause frame rate drops on high graphics settings.

Fans of Empire: Total War will enjoy the updates Total War: Attila brings to the new mechanics that Empire introduced.  Otherwise Attila has been love/hate with fans of the Total War series.  Even veterans of Rome II will have to learn many new mechanics and forget some old habits to play Attila properly.  Those that enjoy grand strategy will find Attila a very challenging addition to the grand strategy market.  Strategy gamers in general however are best served avoiding Attila, or waiting until an 80% off sale, as the game is far too restrictive for a traditional military strategy experience.

Warlock II: The Exiled

After Paradox Interactive’s fun-loving, fantasy-filled 4x Warlock: Master of the Arcane became a surprise success it wasn’t long before fans of the game were delighted to learn that Paradox was producing a sequel.  Warlock II: The Exiled, which was released in 2014, brought improved performance, a greatly improved user interface, and new content to the burgeoning Warlock series.

The first thing that should be made clear about Warlock II is that it should be viewed more as an expansion than a sequel.  Warlock II contains tons of new content and new campaign modes but its foundation remains the same.  Players will recognize the graphics, mechanics, races, units, and terrain immediately.  This doesn’t in anyway detract from the enjoyment of Warlock II or its position as an improvement over its predecessor but it is important for players to avoid the potential disappointment of viewing Warlock II as a true sequel in the same vein as Age of Empires III or Warcraft III.

The story of Warlock II follows the narrative setup by the Armageddon DLC of Warlock.  This is reflected by a major change in the campaign layout.  Players now follow a linear progression of story quests and scripted events to return from the outland shards of the multiverse to Ardania where the United One, a Great Mage who successfully cast the Unity Spell, awaits to confront them.  All of the 4x elements of Warlock remain for this campaign mode (except the Unity Spell victory, which is not available in the campaign mode).  Players can explore the outland shards through portals by completing a quest to open a portal and sending units through to the new world.  Story quests can be completed at the player’s discretion allowing the player to explore all of the randomly generated shards before finally proceeding back to Ardania.

An alternative form of the campaign called Battle for Outlands mimics the outland shard environment of the campaign without the story quests turning it into true 4x freeform gameplay. Each shard is based off of a single terrain environment found in Warlock on Ardania and the various underworlds.  Several new terrain types were added to the previous underworlds of Warlock and seventeen shards can be found in a single game on the largest map size.  Each shard has enough room for three to four full sized cities, but this isn’t a serious problem with Warlock II’s new special city mechanic which allows players to convert unwanted cities into specialized minor cities that can produce gold, mana, or serve as fortresses.  These special cities only occupy the tiles immediately around them and do not count towards the game’s new city limit feature.  A city limit should seem unusual in a 4x game but it can be expanded through research and is sufficient for player needs in all but the largest maps.

All units, structures, spells, and great mage perks from Warlock return in Warlock II and are joined by two new races: the multi-racial Planestriders and the mechanically oriented Svarts.  The new races feature entirely new unit rosters and each brings two Great Mages to the usual selection of Great Mage profiles.  As with the previous races, the Planestriders and Svarts specialize in the production of certain resources and emphasize certain unit and damage types.  They blend in very well with the existing races and add greatly to the sandbox potential of mixing racial combos in large games.  Warlock II also adds several new Great Mage perks and starting spells; including ways to moderate the city limit and the possibility to select starting shards and even a spell that can summon a random lord for hire.  DLC has also been released providing more start locations, starting lords, and unique spells.

Perhaps one of the most notable changes in Warlock II is the enhancement of the spell research system.  In Warlock five low tier spells appeared randomly at the start of the game for the player to research.  Each spell would be replaced by a related, higher tier spell when it was researched.  Now spells have been divided into Sorcery, Wizardry, and Divine categories and further broken up into several tiers based on their cost and power.  Researching a certain number of spells in a category unlocks the next tier of spells for research giving the player much greater freedom to choose what spells to get and when.

Sadly, multiplayer has not seen much improvement since Warlock.  The campaign and Battle for Outlands modes are both compatible with Warlock II and, despite a buggy launch, are for the most part very stable.  However, the lingering lack of simultaneous turns, while appropriate for a 4x game that emphasizes combat, is a real damper for a game with limited demographic and economic micromanagement.  The additional fact that the interface is only somewhat successful at keeping track of units strung out across the many outland shards makes turns in the later game laborious as each player checks on their multiple worlds while the other players idly stand by.

Graphics requirements have not increased by any noticeable amount.  Machines and internet connections that handled Warlock should be able to just as easily manage Warlock II.  The voices and sound for the new units is a welcome addition to the existing cast.  Another minor change was the transition of several of the Great Mage’s expressions into fantasy languages.  This change certainly increased the flavor of encounters with other opponents, but considering the limited number of phrases utilized in diplomacy it can be a minor annoyance as the AI babbles random words at the player over and over.

Warlock II is a very appropriate follow on to Warlock.  Even though it lacks the all-encompassing content overhaul that marks a true sequel, Warlock II vastly improves on every feature of Warlock and fans of the first Warlock game, and the Majesty series of games in general, will certainly enjoy Warlock II.  The added content greatly increases replayability even for those gamers who have already exhausted Warlock as the new races, game modes, and content provide even more options for exploration and racial combos.  Perhaps the greatest mark of Warlock II’s triumph (and tragedy) as a follow-on is that after playing Warlock II, the original Warlock will appear too lackluster and uninteresting to revisit.

Civilization V Complete Edition

No series of games did more to establish a genre in PC gaming than Firaxis Games’ Civilization series.  Since Civilization’s release in 1991 the Civilization series has set the standard by which 4x games are measured.  Civilization V’s, the latest title of the series, has continued this trend alongside its advancement of the series in the gaming industry.

Single player and multiplayer in Civ V are effectively the same experience.  As with most 4x games Civ V does not have a story driven element.  Players start with a settler and a warrior unit from which they must construct a capital city and go on to lead their chosen civilization to greatness.  The game world is divided into tiles, hexagonal spaces that units move over and cities work to produce resources, of which their are four primary resources.  Strategic, bonus, and luxury resources can appear on terrain tiles and are worked by the owning city to provide benefits to the player’s civilization, research, and the city itself.

Cities produce citizens depending on the food available to that city with higher food increasing citizen production.  Citizens work the tiles that the city owns, adding the tile’s yield to the city’s base production.  The more citizens a city has the more food it consumes thus requiring increasing supplies of food to support large cities.  Worker units can construct buildings on tiles and special resources to increase their resource yield and provide stockpiles of those resources for trade.  Workers can also construct roads between cities and into the countryside to increase unit movement on road tiles.

Civ V is turn based so combat takes place between civilizations as the turns rotate.  Military units are divided into ranged or melee categories.  Melee units may not have melee weapons (Great War Infantry for example) but are classified as melee because they can only damage units in adjacent tiles.  Ranged units can attack units one or more tiles away without fear of retaliation.  Each unit can only make one attack per turn and only certain units can move and attack in the same turn.  Military units can be upgraded into more advanced versions as the player researches technologies and advances in eras.

The core experience of Civ V comes from managing the myriad strategic, domestic, and diplomatic aspects of a growing civilization.  Technologies must be researched to unlock new units, buildings, and bonuses as well as allowing the player’s civilization to progress through the games eras, groupings of technological level that range from the Ancient Era to the Information Era.  Cultural policies must be enacted to grant empire wide bonuses and set the civilization’s ideology.  Income, and the trade that helps it flourish, must be carefully managed and exploited to maintain building and unit upkeep while providing a surplus for quick purchases and negotiations.

There are five ways to achieve victory and each one focuses on, but does not require, certain playing styles.  Like any good strategy game there is a Conquest victory; the player must capture the capital of every other civilization while defending their own.  The player can win a Cultural victory by producing enough tourism from Great Works and Great People, items and units generated by culture buildings, to become the dominate culture in the world.  The Science victory involves constructing the parts of an interstellar colonization spaceship; a laborious process but that one that is completely contained inside the player’s own borders.  The Diplomatic victory involves the player’s civilization becoming leader of the world through election by the United Nations.  Finally, if a turn limit has been set, the civilization with the highest score at the end the in-game year 2050 wins a Score victory.

Many of the Civ V’s gameplay features occupy the player’s attention simply for the sake of surviving one turn to another, but it is the player’s preferred victory path that truly determines the focus of overall gameplay.  Different civilizations have unique units, buildings, and bonuses that aid them in achieving one victory type over the others, such as Germany’s reduced upkeep for military units and Babylon’s science boost from Great Scientists.  However, the beauty of Civ V is that no component of a developing civilization is obsolete.  Trade, Great People, and even religion can be leveraged to speed the player toward any of the victory options throughout the eras.  Certain aspects can be sacrificed to prioritize a chosen strategy, but no amount of culture or diplomatic weight can protect a civilization from a military superpower.  A truly successful civilization will master, if not dominate, every aspect of Civ V.

The AI in Civ V is well designed for a game with such layered complexity.  Each civilization has its own flavor that bends them toward a particular path to victory, but the AI will also adjust to accommodate shifting developments as the game goes on.  However AI diplomacy can still be one dimensional, with the AI rarely forgiving past wrongs and making illogical economic and military decisions.  It also has some trouble going beyond the swarm mechanic for unit combat.  This doesn’t inhibit the AI’s ability to be a true threat, but does decrease its capacity to hinder the player as games progress.

Multiplayer provides an added benefit over the somewhat predictable patterns of the AI.  Players take their turns simultaneously, which can cause some lag on lower quality connections as the game tries to resolve all actions at once.  However this does ensure that players aren’t stuck waiting for a single player to finish his or her turn.  Diplomacy also takes place interactively, with a player’s offer displayed for the other player to modify, accept, or reject at their leisure.  Civ V does feature an automatic re-synchronization system, which can be surprising during play as the game activates it automatically, but it does ensure that progress and continuity are preserved over game sessions.

Civ V’s graphics requirements were extensive for its time, but present little problem for modern computers.  Full maps covered with development and activity can cause long load times on some older machines but do little to impact actual gameplay.

Ultimately, in what is perhaps Civ V’s single greatest feature, this latest title in the Civilization series cannot be fully experienced in a single game.  A multitude of civilizations, maps, and paths to victory are available in myriad combinations.  Random maps can also be generated for additional variety.  The Complete Edition offers a total of 43 civilizations and any gamer should find at least half of those appealing for multiple games.  Any strategy gamer would find Civ V fresh and thoroughly entertaining over multiple playthroughs.  Fans of previous Civ games should note that Civ V brings new material to the genre, wisely choosing not to attempt to rehash Civ IV.  This doesn’t make it better or worse than its predecessors but rather it is a new way to play Civilization; which is precisely what it should be.

Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath

A Command & Conquer title is just not the same without an expansion pack to accompany it and flesh out its content.  C&C expansions come from the golden age of expansions when gamers could expect at the least new units, missions, and multiplayer maps if not full fledged campaigns and new factions.  Thankfully Electronic Arts has not departed from this model with its expansion to Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars; Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath.

Each of the three main factions receives new units and support powers.  Many of these units, like the GDI Slingshot anti-air unit, were added to remove deficiencies in existing faction rosters or new gaps that arose as a result of the new minor factions.  Epic units, one for each side, were also introduced as super powerful vehicles capable of crushing lesser units and could be customized by loading infantry into their hard points to add secondary weapons.  The new toys are worth a few games just to play with and are enjoyable for the most part but can still be overshadowed by high tier units.

Following after its successful implementation of minor factions in Command & Conquer: Generals EA chose to add two minor factions to each major faction in Kane’s Wrath.  The minor factions focus on a particular strategy or aspect of their parent faction; like flame weapons and heavy infantry for the Brotherhood of Nod or sonic weaponry and tiberium immunity for GDI.  Minor factions also receive build restrictions in exchange for their specializations; one GDI minor faction can only produce basic infantry units but gets a strong boost to its armored units.  Many of the new units added by Kane’s Wrath are unique to the minor factions; some are entirely new and others are improvements of existing designs to match them with their respective minor faction’s emphasis.

The campaign for Kane’s Wrath is less filled out then the rest of the game as its 13 missions only feature the Brotherhood of Nod as the playable faction.  The campaign is still very well done with strong narrative and many entertaining missions.  Players will also get to utilize each of Nod’s minor factions to their fullest and will also encounter the other minor factions as enemies throughout the course of the campaign.  Sadly it can only serve as a blueprint for the campaign experience that could have been; the lack of a similar model for the other two factions puts a damper on the player’s ability to enjoy the new minor factions in a narrative environment.

Perhaps the most innovative addition that Kane’s Wrath brings is the Global Conquest mode.  This single player options presents a turn based world map where the player, as one of the three major factions, builds bases, raises armies, and conducts global warfare against the other two factions.  Bases can be upgraded with defenses and tech levels to allow them to produce armies with stronger units.

Armies can be moved a set distance across the map, or ferried between bases on different continents.  When opposing armies meet or an army attacks an enemy base the battle can be auto-resolved or played out in real-time in a manner resembling a skirmish battle.  However if the attacking army does not include base-building units it will not be able to construct a base and if the defending base has high enough technology and defenses it will be able to produce advanced units a the start of the game, tying in developments on the strategic level with tactical combat.

The Global Conquest mode compensates somewhat for the lack of a full campaign.  Players can enjoy what each faction has to offer at length.  The AI in this mode is essentially a basic Skirmish AI and is competent enough to manage the world map effectively.  However its tactical capacities are lacking on lower difficulty settings and don’t always mesh in capability with the AI’s performance on the world map; making for a somewhat dichotomous experience.  On the flip-side it is usually fairly easy for the player to establish a continental stronghold thus allowing the full extent of the mode’s options to be tested at length.

Multiplayer sees little improvement from C&C 3.  The new minor factions can offer interesting tactical opportunities, but some limitations on their tech tree limit tactical flexibility; generally making the main factions the safer and well-rounded option.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy for multiplayer was the lack of inclusion for Global Conquest mode.  Granted the mode features only three factions so a multiplayer version would have been either incredibly limited or PvP only but the option still would have been a great benefit to the game; all the more so if a co-op feature had been included.

Kane’s Wrath isn’t needed to make C&C 3 a great game; the full package was already there.  The minor factions are a welcome addition for expanding skirmish and multiplayer gameplay, but the lack of campaign options to enjoy them at leisure detracts a bit from their impact.  However the Global Conquest mode suffers only from the somewhat mediocre performance of the AI at lower difficulty levels.  In all other aspects it is a very ambitious and enjoyable experience with a smooth design that needs only the ability to share it with a friend.  Kane’s Wrath isn’t its own game, but it expands C&C 3 to the fullest possible extent.

Total Annihilation

The Real-time Strategy genre was already established as a primary market for Mac and PC games when Cavedog Entertainment released its first title, Total Annihilation, in late 1997.  The Command & Conquer and Warcraft series, soon to be joined by Starcraft, had set the standard for RTS gaming and many producers were attempting to make inroads into the market with their own take on the familiar genre conventions.  Total Annihilation broke this mold by completely redefining what the genre was capable of.

The basic gameplay of Total Annihilation departs from the standard RTS mold almost immediately.  Each game, whether in single or multiplayer, with a few campaign exceptions, starts with the Commander Unit, a powerful mech that produces a modest amount of resources and can construct the basic buildings needed to start a base.  The Commander is also very tough and possesses the D-gun, a disintegration weapon that can destroy anything in one shot.  Structures are built over time by the Commander or other construction vehicles, with higher tier vehicles required to produce higher tier structures.

The game’s two resources are metal and energy.  Metal appears as tinfoil-like deposits on the map (or anywhere on Core’s metal homeworld) while energy is simply generated by buildings like solar collectors and fusion reactors.  Both resources are harvested at a fixed rate by buildings and provide both a stockpile and income rate.  Players can produce units and buildings within the income limits, or can deficit spend by overclocking their resource requirements and dipping into the stockpiles.  Resource harvesting is fairly easy to manipulate; certain buildings can convert energy into metal and some worlds have high wind speeds or tidal force for alternative energy generation.  However proper management is extremely critical in the early game where resource shortages can slow production to a crawl.  Most units also require energy to fire their weapons and high energy output is needed for higher tier weapons to function.

Total Annihilation is set in the distant future where the technology to transfer the human mind into a machine body has caused a galactic civil war between the robotic Core and the biological Arm.  Both sides employ analogous units with similar functions but different aesthetic designs.  Arm units have a more terrestrial design while Core units tend to be skeletal and lack cockpits or other indications that they might have a pilot.  Arm units are for the most part faster, possess rapid fire weapons, and have lighter armor.  Conversely Core units are heavier, slower, and feature high powered, slow firing weapons.

Each factions has its own campaign with twenty five missions, for a total of fifty in the base game.  Each campaign starts on the faction’s homeworld and takes the player through the final stages of the galactic war before climaxing in an assault on the enemy’s homeworld.  Most missions begin with the Commander and a small starting force from which the player must construct the army necessary to destroy the enemy’s fortified bases.  Occasionally a special objective will be featured, but for the most part the only requirement is the annihilation of the opposing force.

Total Annihilation’s story is told purely through a brief opening cinematic and text based mission briefings, each with an audio narration providing some additional flavor.  Little in the way of character is presented and there are no characters mentioned by name except for the Core ruling entity, a super computer called Central Consciousness.  The missions follow a linear progression of the player’s conquests, with roughly three to four missions taking place on a single world before the player moves on to a new world.  The lack of flavor keeps the immersion level somewhat low and sometimes fails to give the player an adequate sense of his or her accomplishments.  However the campaign is very detailed in its mission designs and tech progression allowing the player to fully enjoy the different strategic options each faction presents.

The AI opponents in Total Annihilation leave something to be desired.  Even for the time the AI was considered simple and this is a side effect of the game’s innovation.  The combined arms tactics and strategic planning required for a truly challenging situation are difficult even for modern AI to accomplish properly.  For the most part Total Annihilation does the best it can and the AI is capable enough to utilize its tech tree and create thorough defenses inside its bases. These deficiencies somewhat hamper the enjoyment of the game’s skirmish mode and to a degree the player must explore strategies on their own initiative rather than be forced to adapt by the AI’s maneuvers.

The skirmish and multiplayer modes would be familiar for the time period.  Elements like fog of war, population cap, and victory conditions can be switched between a limited number of options.  Sadly a cheat code is required to unlock more than four player slots.  This can allow up to ten players, but cannot be used in multiplayer.  Multiplayer is no longer officially supported but fan sponsored servers and the Steam servers now host multiplayer games, although matchmaking is not supported.

Total Annihilation was one of the first games to introduce 3D graphics.  Units make a full revolution instead of shifting to a different model stance when turning.  Structures with moving parts operate seamlessly, bringing a surprising degree of life to the world.  The most notable effect this innovation has is on the interaction between units and terrain.  Artillery shells smash into hillsides while the cannon adjusts its aim; units can hide under trees and must adjust their shots when shooting up hillsides of varying height.  The units themselves follow a polygon style of graphic rendering typical of the period of early 3D development and can at times look goofy or abstract.  The technology is certainly dated by today’s standards but is still sufficient and supplies some of the best explosions and flying shrapnel that a RTS game has ever produced.  It was also very gentle on processors of its day and modern machines should have no trouble running even large matches.

Total Annihilation may not have possessed some of the qualities that today are considered necessary for longevity such as a deep thematic campaign, dynamic AI, and a variety of factions.  However its combined arms emphasis, strategic breakdown of tiers, and 3D terrain modelling and interaction were revolutionary for their time and even today have not been seen on such a detailed and well built scale except in Total Annihilation’s spiritual successor, Supreme Commander.  These are the elements that not only make Total Annihilation a centerpiece of RTS history but also an enjoyable, engaging, and fulfilling exercise in true strategic, combined arms combat.  Everything that the RTS genre was meant to be and can possibly deliver can be found in Total Annihilation.

Author’s note: Total Annihilation is available digitally on gog.com and Steam and is compatible with current operating systems.  The digital product features the base game, official expansions, and DLC released during Cavedog Entertainment’s existence.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War – Dark Crusade & Soulstorm

The last two expansions to Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Dawn of War – Dark Crusade and Dawn of War – Soulstorm, are best looked at as a separate bundle from the main game as both bring new life and dramatic changes.  Both games are standalone expansions developed by Iron Lore Entertainment and supported by the original Dawn of War developer Relic Entertainment.  Each expansion adds two new races (Necrons and Tau in Dark Crusade and the Dark Eldar and Sisters of Battle in Soulstorm) and feature new non-linear campaigns loosely connected to the narratives of the previous game and expansion.

Each race’s tech tree is reworked to more heavily emphasize thematic strategies and limit the number of top tier units.  The new races , except in part for the Sisters of Battle, also feature new mechanics for base building, population, and special resources opening up a number of new tactical options and styles for players to explore.  The Necrons, for example, train all their units from a single structure and only use one of the two resource types; the other resource type is subverted into expanding the Necron’s population cap.  Existing races received minor changes and a new unit with each expansion.  The air units, added in Soulstorm, provide a new but limited level of tactical flexibility, particularly to those races who’s air units utilize high explosives.

Alongside new races, both expansions feature a complete overhaul in campaign style and content.  Instead of the story driven, race-limiting missions of the previous Dawn of War titles, Dark Crusade and Soulstorm utilize non-linear, world map campaigns.  Each race is fully playable with its own narrative and small set of in-game cutscenes.  Dark Crusade’s campaign takes place on the fictional world of Kronus and much of the planet’s landmass is used as the world map and divided into regions of varying size.  Soulstorm expands this concept by broadening the campaign map into the four planets, each divided into a few large territories, and three moons of the fictional Kaurava system.  Players choose a race and lead that race to conquer the campaign map by taking their faction’s hero-led army and moving it into hostile regions.

There is no overarching plot and story elements are based off of each individual race’s motivations and long term goals.  Most of the battles take place in skirmish style against AI forces with varying levels of strength and skill based on the campaign’s difficulty level and the strength of individual regions.  Each conquered regions unlocks an honor guard unit that accompanies the player’s army throughout the campaign and is available at the start of each mission (as opposed to regularly trained units which do not carry over between missions).  Some regions instead offer special bonuses to the player’s faction or army on the campaign map.  Hostile races are eventually eliminated when the player attacks their headquarters region in highly entertaining scripted missions with intense battles and multi-tier objectives.  Once all headquarters have been captured the campaign ends with a final in-game cutscene and narrative that describes the long term effects of the player’s conquest on the galaxy.

The single player campaigns place these expansions head and shoulders above their predecessors.  Individual skirmish style missions can get repetitive as races are eliminated and the AI looses strategic assets, but the overall conquest aspect combined with the scripted finale missions make these campaigns a singularly enjoyable experience that few if any RTS titles have been able to match.  Players can utilize the full range of combat options for each race across a wide variety of maps and even on lower difficulty settings the scripted missions are still quite challenging, very satisfying, and even comically entertaining as the races’ leaders banter with each other over the course of the battle.  The option to replay these campaigns with every race extends the lifespan of the single player element immensely.

The AI’s performance in skirmish and multiplayer modes remains effectively the same as in previous Dawn of War titles.  It falters somewhat in Soulstorm as it struggles to effectively use the latest units; but remains competent enough to provide a challenge for any level of gamer.  The AI was also somewhat cured of its tendency for predictable build patterns and, depending on difficulty level, now makes effective use of higher tier units.

Multiplayer remains strong with Dark Crusade and Soulstorm as it was in previous titles.  The new races are very well balanced (although a patch is required for Soulstorm to fully iron out some exploits in the game mechanics), and a host of new multiplayer maps are available supporting anywhere from 2 to 8 players in a number of layouts for team play and free for all.  Multiplayer connections remain stable when faced with lag.  A sixty second timeout is granted to lagging connections and de-synchronization is virtually unheard of.  However battles in Dark Crusade and Soulstorm are quite large, and can actually be even larger than Dawn of War and Winter Assault due to the change-up of unit build limits, and low tier connections will struggle to keep up during pitched battles.

Dark Crusade is a must for any gamer that enjoyed Dawn of War and Winter Assault.  Its new and innovative campaign provides a full and satisfying experience and the new races offer some play styles not yet seen in the Dawn of War series.  Soulstorm’s contributions are less dramatic in the face of Dark Crusade’s rapid advances; this is in part due to the dissolution of Soulstorm’s primary developer, Iron Lore, prior to its release.  Soulstorm’s campaign changes its scale but not necessarily its size and the scripted missions are toned down and lacking in immersive flavor.  The new races do offer more diversity for gaming options, particularly in multiplayer formats, but struggle to find their place among the older races.  However Soulstorm is still a fine expansion and its content only adds to the overall Dawn of War experience.

Dawn of War was already a fine title and these expansions make it truly great.  Their story, gameplay, and re-playability are top of the line and can be enjoyed in many ways by gamers of every level.  Fans of the Warhammer 40,000 universe who were not fully satisfied with the original Dawn of War and Winter Assault should certainly give Dawn of War another chance with these new expansions as more races, expanded flavor, and a deeper portrayal of the universe’s fiction bring the grim future of the 41st millennium to life.