Cossacks: European Wars

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.

Military units are divided into melee and ranged infantry, melee and ranged cavalry, siege and field artillery, and naval units.  All military forces are also further divided into 17th and 18th century variants and a nation’s unique units could be found in either century depending on the historical unit they represented.  Technologies, representing economic and military developments from the period, are standard across all factions although their high average cost encourages players to choose carefully which technologies they wish to invest in first.

Historical accuracy was of prime importance to European Wars’ developers and the warfare of the 17th and 18th centuries is very effectively portrayed in the types of units available, like pikemen and musketeers, as well as the tactics and unit commands that the player can utilize, such as pike square formations and artillery battery lines.  Infantry units can attack as large masses, or be assembled into a formation by combining them with a drummer and officer unit.  Formations are overall more effective than masses, but certain units only use their special attacks if left without a grouping.

Perhaps one of the most unique elements of European Wars, and the Cossacks series in general, is the presence of a fully dynamic economy.  Buildings require a fixed price to begin construction, as do units, but once produced all units require a constant upkeep of gold and food to continue functioning.  Ranged units like musketeers and cannons require a constant supply of iron during combat or they will cease to fire.  If food runs out peasants will die of starvation while military units will mutiny, attacking the player’s base if there is no gold.  A large number of peasants and mines, which the game’s massive population cap more than allows for, are usually sufficient to keep even a very large army fed and paid but players still need to beware rapid military buildup and enemy raids against their resource production.

European Wars relies on its historical setting and details to drive the themes of its content.  Several single player campaigns are included and all take place during historical European conflicts of the period.  Most feature set-piece battles were the player is given a large army and no base and is matched against often overwhelming enemy forces, stressing effective use of strategy and tactics.  These missions are widely regarded as being extremely challenging and players seeking a casual single player experience are better off utilizing the game’s custom map mode where up to seven AI opponents can be challenged on a battlefield that is semi-randomly generated based on the amounts of water, mountains, and resources the player selects.

The AI is competent enough to pose a danger to players, especially at higher difficulty levels, but its tactics are straightforward and often force the player into continual shoving matches.  The AI also tends to neglect adequate defenses at lower levels and can sometimes simply stop trying after its field armies are defeated.  The best way to alleviate this is European Wars’ multiplayer option allowing up to seven players to compete against the computer or each other.  European Wars can suffer from joining issues but is overall a simple and stable multiplayer system.

History and RTS buffs will enjoy Cossacks: European Wars’ thematic design and detailed combat mechanics.  Its pacing and learning curve are unstable and steep, but once a mastery of the economic system is acquired then learning the nuinances of Renaissance combat becomes another part of enjoying the game’s full experience.  For those interested in a more modern iteration, European Wars has received a sequel: Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars, and a modernized remake in Cossacks 3 with updated graphics and UI which is available on Steam.

Supreme Commander 2

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.

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 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.

Supreme Commander 2 begins to diverge from its predecessor immediately after the basic mechanics were established.  Tiers of units and buildings were removed and replaced by a research tech tree divided into five parts for air, land, sea, structures, and the command unit.  A third resource, research, was added to the game and is generated by the command unit as well as research stations.  Once enough research was accumulated a research point was unlocked, allowing the player to spend the point(s) on technology in one of the five trees.  Each technology had a point cost, with higher level technologies requiring more points.

Research points, and how fast a player could generate them, defined the pace of the game as only basic units and structures are available at the start of a battle.  Researching upgrades also gives units an edge over their equivalents in other factions.  This carries even more weight in Supreme Commander 2 than it did in the previous game, as many of the units were removed for a slimmed-down, standardized battle array featuring only the essential combat types such as tanks, anti-aircraft, fighters, bombers, and the like.  Instead of producing more advanced units as the game progressed, players simply upgraded their basic units with stronger technologies.

It is certainly possible to win a battle with standard units and structures, but the experimental units represent the definitive part of Supreme Commander 2’s endgame.  Follow-on units from Supreme Commander’s original experimental roster make an appearance alongside many new units and structures that cover all theaters of the battlefield.  They range from offensive units like the UEF’s Fatboy II to support structures like the Cybran’s Proto-Brain Complex.  A bit of humor is added to some units and structures like the UEF Unit Cannon, which produces ground units that it can launch across the map to land like paratroopers.

The campaign takes a lot more from Supreme Commander’s vanilla campaign style.  It features three separate arcs with one for each faction and follows new characters struggling to stay true to their morals and their faction as the fragile alliance from the first game begins to fall apart at the hands of power hungry and xenophobic military leaders and terrorists.  Missions start with minor skirmishes and challenges that grow along with the battle map into fully fledged battles.  Supreme Commander 2 takes a more restrictive approach to the battlefields; terrain now plays a greater role at restricting movement and enemy assets are often collected into a single sprawling base rather than spreading across the map at convenient or strategic locations.

The campaign allows the player to thoroughly explore and enjoy the unit rosters of the different factions, but fails to inspire any investment in the story.  The restrictive terrain serves to make the enemy AI predictable and many of the map types remove the naval aspect of the game, an element which the first Supreme Commander made sure to include in its climatic battles.  The campaign’s story is heavily generic and predictable; the player also takes the role of each campaign’s protagonist, which is a risky design move that in this case falls flat due to limited character development and stock personalities.

Supreme Commander 2 functions much better in skirmish and multiplayer where players have greater control over their strategic options.  A wide variety of maps are included in the base game and DLC, although some suffer from presumptuous design restricting maps to symmetrical team matches or free-for-all types of games.  Yet Supreme Commander 2’s matches are streamlined and do not suffer from performance issues as a battle progresses.  They also function on lower bandwidth connections and include a grace period for user lag.

Supreme Commander was not without its flaws, but these were usually a side-effect of design intent rather than a developmental failure.  Supreme Commander 2 fixed many of those flaws with faster gameplay, the removal of little-used units, and a greater emphasis on end-game combat, but it did so at the cost of many things that made its predecessor unique in the RTS market.  Units are generic and uninspiring in their battlefield roles and a lack of offensive and defensive structures leads to most matches turning into a grind-fest until one side amasses enough high-tier experimental units to overwhelm their opponents.  Much of the early and mid-tier aspects are rapidly rendered obsolete in favor of an experimental focus as the high tier units are much easier to produce en mass than their predecessors.

On its own, Supreme Commander 2 is an enjoyable game for multiplayer matches and some light RTS adventure in the single player.  Its battles are large and heavily destructive and its faster gameplay allows multiple matches to fit into a single game play session.  Yet it features nothing that truly sets it apart from other RTS titles or even to elevate it above its predecessors.  Fans of the Supreme Commander series will appreciate its battles and experimental units, and casual gamers will find it easy to learn and enjoyable to explore.  Yet anyone looking for a highly detailed or enduring RTS experience may find the first Supreme Commander to hold an edge over its sequel.

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.

In the review noted above the author commented that Total War: Warhammer II, while more polished and greatly expanded than its predecessor, was essentially the same game.  Mechanics, graphics, and user interface had not undergone any dramatic changes and had not received any significant technological advancements.  There’s no harm in expecting such development in a sequel, but the reviewer seemed to suggest that Warhammer II would only be a worthwhile product if it included such advanced changes and upgrades.

Thus is a critical difference between episodic titles and traditional sequels revealed.  From the beginning Creative Assembly had made it known that the Total War: Warhammer series would be a trilogy of interconnected titles.  During the development process Creative Assembly had also announced that Warhammer II would feature an update that would link the grand campaign single player modes of the two titles to form a unified whole.  This is one of the purest examples of episodic titles that can be found in the modern market.

Warhammer II specifically, and episodic titles in general, are indeed standalone titles and their content should be judged on an individual basis, but their quality should be taken in context of the larger series that they form an essential part of.  The lack of technical and mechanical advancement in Warhammer II doesn’t make it an inferior product, it makes it a direct continuation and expansion to the first part of the Warhammer series of Total War games.  As a stand alone title Warhammer II does include fully developed single and multiplayer components, which it should if its going to be sold at full retail price.  Yet its true potential rests in, and can only be appreciated when taken with, its place in the Warhammer series.

The Starcraft II trilogy also exemplifies these points.  Each title was released in quick succession, featured fully expanded content, and continued the plot and themes of the preceding titles.  Technology and mechanics hardly changed, but they didn’t need to in order to make each title viable and entertaining.

These kinds of endeavors should be encouraged among developers in the gaming community, particularly in the field of strategy games.  Its not unreasonable for design companies to expect gamers to stick with well-made titles if said companies continue to provide large amounts of content at proper rates and intervals, just as it’s not unreasonable for gamers to expect improved graphics and mechanics when a sequel is released four or five years after its predecessor.

Every episodic title is a healthy dose of content that eventually leads up to a massive, dramatic climax and each title should ultimately be judged by the satisfaction of gamers with that climactic finale.  There can be poorly built titles in a perfectly good and successful series, and developers should be held accountable for that, but that is done in the context of content and experience instead of technology.  Warhammer II, with enough content to justify its standalone status, is shaping up to be an exemplary title in what so far has been a very successful endeavor, and a lack of new graphic design or revised mechanics is a small price to pay for a developer to deliver on its promises.

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.

The final single player mode is the WWII mode, which most closely resembles the board game in its design and mechanics.  The mode features a world map where each of the continents are divided into territories.  The territories controlled by the five powers reflect their 1942 distribution and players choose one of the five powers to lead through the conflict.  Players have a global income that they use to purchase new unit tokens which represent the armies around the world.  Armies are moved across the world by the player and the global game play progresses in turns.  Whenever armies from two opposing powers meet in the same territory the player can auto-resolve the conflict or fight a real-time battle against the AI, with the destruction of the weakest model on the losing side following the conclusion of the battle.  The capture of two enemy capitals serves as the ultimate objective of the WWII mode.

In all of these modes the player takes the role of one out of four notable, high-ranking generals from the nation they wish to play as.  The generals feature their own voice clips and icons and each possesses three support powers called Special Operations.  Some Operations are shared between generals and nations, but each general has their own unique combination.  Special Operations require a number of experience points, which accrue over the course of the battle, to be utilized.

Sadly WWII mode is not available in multiplayer.  Players can use LAN to play skirmish games with or against other human players.  Active multiplayer is no longer available after server support ended for Axis & Allies in 2012, although direct connect is still an option.  Once again, up to eight players can fight in a single match and the presence of multiple generals per nation allows several players to utilize the same nation in a single match.

Base building in Axis & Allies is a fairly simple affair.  Structures appear as transport trucks from a central Corps HQ building.  The trucks unpack to place their respective structures which are then utilized to produce combat units, research upgrades, and provide the dynamic resource of money and the static resources of ammo and oil.  Any structure can be rebuilt as long as the Corps HQ is intact, however structures must be deployed inside the HQ’s supply zone or they will suffer attrition damage due to a lack of supply.

Combat units can venture outside the supply zone at any time but only heal wounded and lost units when inside the zone.  Units appear as regiments and consist of anywhere from four to nine units, including one officer unit.  The regiments appear as infantry, mechanized, and armored regiments and come with several specialization roles including anti-tank, artillery, or anti-air.  Heavier regiments like medium or heavy tank regiments are stronger in battle but take more money, ammo, and oil to produce.

Experienced RTS players will recognize the basic conventions of RTS combat in Axis & Allies real-time combat.  Infantry units are resistant to anti-tank fire but in turn deal limited damage to armored targets unless they utilize anti-tank weapons.  Very few regiments in the tech tree ever become truly obsolete, as the cost and upkeep of powerful regiments tends to make them rare in most battles.  Each nation also possesses unique regiments indicative of iconic weapons or tactics utilized by those nations in WWII, such as Russian sniper infantry regiments or German King Tiger tank regiments.

Axis & Allies doesn’t add anything especially new to the RTS genre in terms of its subject matter or combat mechanics.  It is however one of the first WWII games to incorporate traditional RTS combat with grand strategy.  Axis & Allies doesn’t carry its tactical elements as far as Company of Heroes, or its strategic elements to the detailed level of Hearts of Iron, but it contains enough content and polish at both levels to satisfy gamers looking for an extended WWII RTS experience.

In terms of content, the single player modes are Axis & Allies’ biggest strengths and contain almost all of its unique content.  Sadly this is marred by the lackluster performance of the game’s tactical and strategic AIs, which while aggressive and mechanically competent are seldom able to provide a serious threat to the player’s existence.  AI teammates are also rarely capable of providing adequate support to the player.  The presence of generic teammate commands helps alleviate this to some degree, but the AI follows these instructions only on a basic level and for an arbitrary amount of time.

The Axis & Allies video game will likely never be as famous as the RTS giants, or as successful as its board game progenitor.  However its blend of real-time and grand strategy elements, along with its very detailed and thematic use of historical WWII units, concepts, and settings provide all the appropriate building blocks for a stepping stone into a truly dynamic and immersive WWII strategy game.

There will always be WWII first person shooters, and no shortage of grand strategy games recreating the great conflict, but large scale yet detailed WWII RTS games that accurately embrace the scale of WWII are decidedly lacking in the modern market.  Any developer willing to take on that challenge need look no further than Axis & Allies for a stepping stone; and any gamer can look to Axis & Allies to know what parameters they should look for.

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.

Computer hardware and software has moved on since the heyday of Westwood’s production, and on average at quite an alarming rate, and it’s not uncommon for these older titles to no longer function properly on newer operating systems.  Additionally Electronic Arts ceased the support for these titles since the closing down of the GameSpy servers, which provided multiplayer support for Westwood’s games, in 2014.  Yet these titles held a strong sense of nostalgia among gamers and many fans considered them to be the best in their genre even twenty years later.

This brings us to the online modding community; the body of gamers and improvised developers that has kept numerous classics from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s alive and active as technology progressed.  Westwood’s titles in particular received strong support from cncnet.org and cnc-online.net, which continued to freely offer multiplayer server support to players of any Westwood RTS game (as well as the first person shooter C&C spinoff Renegade) developed since Command & Conquer’s release.  In addition cncnet.org provides access to freeware downloads of the games it supports in addition to downloads of some of the most popular community mods for those titles.

It never ceases to amaze how eager gamers are to spread the enjoyment they received from these games to other members of the online community.  Both cncnet.org and cnc-online.net offer their services free of charge and function completely by donation.  Their downloads are high quality, expertly crafted, and have been remastered to ensure that these elderly titles continue to function on the latest operating systems.  Multiplayer support is consistent and reliable with ranking systems and support for modding.

It was the gaming community that kept classics like Battlefield 1942 alive and they have done the same with Command & Conquer and its RTS contemporaries, even when the titles’ publishers and developers abandoned them or became defunct.  Now it has delivered the most effective and enduring part of the RTS genre to the modern gamer.  These venerable titles still show their age; they lack the dynamic 3-D graphics, advanced commands, and co-operative support of newer games, but they embody the best of the RTS genre and are more than capable of providing simple and continuous fun for casual and competitive gamers.

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.

This formula actually had its origins in Endless Space, Amplitude’s very first 4X title, which was also very well received in its day.  The formula was so successful that it enabled the Endless series to remain in the 4X market, not as a competitor to other established series, but in the coveted position of an equal.  It was different enough to attract fans of other 4X series, yet was still able to appeal to a wider audience despite its innovative mechanics and themes.

Since that time, the Endless series has been thoroughly played through.  Endless Space and Endless Legend received numerous expansions and additional content and have enjoyed a solid fan-base.  Now it is time for another title to pick up the baton and demonstrate how the Endless series can interact with the most recent advances in technology, genre mechanics, and gaming trends.

It’s too early for an Endless Legend or Endless Space with fancier graphics.  Players are expecting something new and fresh, and they have a right to until a few more years pass and the older titles start generating nostalgia.  Of course the fans still want their Endless Series but now we will be paying to see how the Endless formula can grow and improve.  There are high hopes that Amplitude has succeeded in this endeavor, due in part to their extensive use of early access, and already Endless Space 2 has been received favorably.

Finally, regardless of how successful Endless Space 2 is at fulfilling series fans’ expectations, it still needs a rundown from gamers far and wide.  If it is successful then it deserves to become popular.  If it has failed then gamers need to find those flaws, point them out, and hold developers to higher and grander standards.

For my part I intend to give Endless Space 2 a long workout.  It shouldn’t be long before the game is familiar enough to provide adequate commentary, but Endless Space 2’s true success will be how long I keep playing it after its many reviews have faded into cyberspace.

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.

Small World 2

Small World is a strategy board game, published in 2009 by Days of Wonder.  It is also hardly something that would seem at home in the realm of computer games.  Yet in 2013 Days of Wonder released Small World 2, a digitized version of the game for computers and mobile devices.  The game is available on Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux; the Appstore for Apple devices; and GooglePlay for Androids.

In the far off ages of early computers, particularly the late 90s and early 2000s, desktop computers came with a complement of simple games like Solitaire, Hearts, and Chess.  These games were very simple, easily to repeat, and required little on the part of the gamer to utilize and enjoy.  Small World 2, being a digital projection of a token-based strategy board game, follows a very similar vein.

A game of Small World 2 consists of a static landscape with plain, hill, mountain, swamp, forest, and ocean terrain tiles.  Players are given an option to choose a randomized mix of race and type, the type being a single word that describes the style of mechanic for that race.  Each race and type comes with a special ability.  For example the Troll race always places a lair when placing a token on the board.  If the Troll race had the Mounted type, the Trolls would get a bonus to taking over occupied plain and hill tiles.  The game features over two dozen different races and types with no limits on which types and races can be mixed.

Each race and type comes with a number of tokens.  These tokens are placed on tiles of the map that the player wants to control, with each tile providing one victory point per turn.  When the player runs out of tokens their chosen race goes into decline.  The tokens are flipped over and continue to generate points, but can no longer be moved and their abilities cannot be used.  There is no limit to the number of times players can put their races into decline, however it normally takes a full turn to put a race into decline.

On a player’s turn they take all the tokens in their pool and begin placing them on valid tiles.  Normally a tile requires two race tokens to be initially occupied with an additional token required for each enemy token on that tile, if any.  Once all possible tokens are placed, the player can redeploy excess tokens (only one is required to hold a tile once taken) to other friendly tiles, then end the turn.

A four player game runs for nine turns and the player at the end with the most victory points is the winner.  Territory control is the obvious method of winning in Small World 2 and there are a number of ways to go about this.  Other players’ tokens can be eliminated by placing a superior number of tokens onto their occupied tile.  Only one token is lost during a hostile takeover, any excess tokens are returned to their player’s pool.

Some races and types have abilities that generate additional victory points for occupying certain tile types like forests, or for controlling certain locations like mines or mana nodes.  This allows some races to gain a large number of victory points without being spread too thin.  On the flip-side it is rare for such sites or locations to border each other, and tokens can only be placed an tiles adjacent to a tile that is already controlled by the same player.

The game board and available races and types don’t change over the course of games, but they don’t really need to.  It’s the combination of races and types that keep Small World 2 new and interesting over each play-through.  Different threats and options necessitate different strategies each game, yet through all the random shifting the moves and actions required of the player never really change and that is what makes Small World 2 a simple yet attractive distraction.  Players can relax in front of the computer enjoying the art and shenanigans of the AI or their fellow players while trying out whatever strategy suits their whims.

Small World 2 features a single player mode against up to four AI opponents and a multiplayer mode against up to four human players.  The AI can be predictable and easy to manipulate, but is quite random and very well served by the random assortment of races and types generated anew for each game.  There are no teams in Small World 2, but depending on the races and types available players don’t necessarily need to fight each other to achieve victory, although such situations are rather rare.

As a stop motion board game with about eight different sounds the Small World 2 has very enjoyable, cartoonish visuals and practically no operating requirements.  The games are turn-based and playable on the lowest level of internet connections.  The animations of AI movement and tile scoring at the end of each turn can drag on, but the game does feature a skip-phase button speeding up the process.  The average load time in Small World 2 is about 0.8 seconds and the game can be saved and closed with the push of a button at any time making it one of the most manageable distractions available.

Small World 2 doesn’t break new digital ground and doesn’t awe with graphics and design, but that isn’t the point.  This simple adaptation exists merely to entertain the average gamer, or even just the average computer user, in a casual way.  It might seem like a meaningless distraction given all of the impressive current and future titles in the modern market, but if a gamer ever desired a little simplicity in their day Small World 2 is the game to turn to.

Total War: Warhammer

In 2015 Creative Assembly celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Total War series of turn-based/tactical strategy games.  A few days later it officially announced the upcoming release of its latest Total War title, Total War: Warhammer.  For the past few years Creative Assembly and its current publisher Sega had been teasing the development of a Warhammer title in partnership with Games Workshop, the producers of the Warhammer Fantasy tabletop battle game.  Finally fans were formally introduced to one of the most ambitious strategy projects of the decade and the first Total War game to not take place in a historical setting.

Total War: Warhammer is rooted in the revised Total War formula that had been fully developed in Total War: Rome II and its Total War: Attila standalone expansion.  Regions of the game’s world map are divided into provinces, which are further divided into two to four territories each containing a single settlement with one of these settlements serving as the provincial capital.  The settlements generate income, provide build slots for the construction of economic and military buildings, and list provincial statistics for growth and public order.  Armies are led by a general unit, termed “Lords” in Warhammer, and each have a distance they can move each turn and various stances they can enter to generate effects on the strategic world map or the tactical battle map.

Other mechanics also remain in their traditional forms, such as the interaction of agents, now called “Heroes”, with armies, provinces, and other agents.  Heroes retain the ability to be embedded into an army to provide a passive buff and to gain experience over time.  Settlements include a garrison of troops that don’t count towards army upkeep and cannot be ordered away from the settlement’s control zone.  Certain terrain types hinder movement or cause attrition damage to armies moving through them.

Beyond these is where Warhammer’s unique nature and radical development noticeably change and improve the established Total War formulas.  Warhammer features four playable factions which can be expanded to seven plus six minor factions with free and paid DLC.  Each of these factions feature new racial mechanics as well as completely distinct unit and building rosters.  The Dwarven faction can only settle in special settlements called “holds” and are notable for having no cavalry units but some of the strongest heavy infantry.  Alternatively the Wood Elves can settle in any province on the map, but only construct outpost style settlements with a single build slot; elven units are also light and quick with the Wood Elf faction possessing more archer units than any other faction.

Faction armies also benefit from unique mechanics and traits.  The Chaos Warriors, as a horde faction, have no permanent base and must conserve some of their movement each turn in order to encamp and construct horde buildings, but as a result can simply run away to avoid danger to their faction.  By contrast the Vampire Counts’ undead armies decay when outside specifically designated undead territory unless the level of vampiric corruption is high enough in the province they are invading, but at the same time areas of high corruption provide increased healing for undead units and cause attrition damage to armies of living units.

How all these unique factions mesh together and balance out is one of the primary design triumphs of Warhammer.  Players are no longer promised the balance set of units and counter units from previous Total War titles; now faction compatibility depends on the player’s ability to utilize a faction’s existing units properly.  An army designed to deal with monsters and heavy infantry will struggle against opponents fielding artillery and quick ranged units, yet each faction possesses the units and strategies to deal with both.

The units in each army are one of the two primary components of flavor, the other being faction mechanics, that enriches overall gameplay and are also one of the reasons Warhammer has a strong custom battle and multiplayer scene even within the Total War series.  In previous titles it was not uncommon for a majority of factions to possess slightly altered unit rosters from a single template.  In Warhammer the differences are so distinct that some preferred strategies from previous games aren’t even possible now.

Hero units are also a noticeable change, and improvement, from previous agent systems.  When embedded in an army, heroes actually become powerful units with their own special abilities and combat statistics.  They still provide passive benefits to the army they are embedded in but their true strength is revealed on the tactical battle map.  Embedded heroes take up one of the twenty slots available for army composition, but the loss is rarely felt as only the lord units possesses more raw power and potential in combat.

Heroes, and lords, are also the medium for a completely new mechanic in Total War: magic.  Heroes and lords with the spellcaster trait can learn magic spells as they level up.  These spells are utilized in tactical combat and use a power reserve system dependent on the Winds of Magic mechanic, a constantly shifting pattern of strong and weak power reserves that covers the strategic map and changes the amount of power reserve available for tactical battles in the different regions.  The magic system in Warhammer is another great design triumph as the new mechanic is woven seamlessly into the game.  Spells are intuitive, easy to manage, and for the most part powerful enough to warrant their continual use but not so powerful as to break game balance.  Each faction also possesses its own variations of spellcaster heroes and lords.  The spells available to these units are determined by the magic lore of that unit and not all lores are available to each faction.  Except for certain legendary characters, each spellcaster has only one lore.

Legendary lords take the mechanics of lords and heroes even further.  These units are similar to generic lords of their respective faction, but feature unique appearances, voice acting, unique unit upgrades, and even unique mounts for tactical battles.  Legendary lords can not be permanently killed, if they fall in battle they remain wounded for several turns then become available for recruitment once again.  These special lords can be used in custom battles, but it’s in the grand campaign where their power and potential truly shine.

When choosing a faction for the campaign the player also chooses which legendary lord they would like to be the faction leader.  Each of these lords brings its own command bonus and set of starting units.  The other legendary lords are made available for recruitment when the player completes specific tasks like constructing special buildings or conquering certain cities.  Throughout the campaign players are given objectives from a quest chain tied to a unique item for each legendary lord they control.  These quests are optional and if completed allow the player to fight a special quest battle against pre-determined enemies using only the relevant legendary lord’s army.  If the player is victorious, that lord gets the corresponding unique item permanently.

Many more subtle yet flavorful improvements populate the grand campaign and custom battle experience.  The grand campaign itself can occupy many hours of gameplay per faction and with up to seven distinct experiences it makes Warhammer’s replay value one of the highest for Total War games of the decade.  Even players dissatisfied with a faction’s campaign style can still enjoy its army roster in custom battles.

Multiplayer continues the Total War conventions of competitive custom battles and a co-operative grand campaign, both of which are stable and viable even on lower internet connections.  The unique factions break up the metagame to a greater degree than any previous title.  A competitive grand campaign between two players was also introduced, differing from coop in that the players are not linked by an unbreakable military alliance and do not share objectives.  The players can still ally over the course of the campaign but need not even encounter each other if their faction objectives don’t call for it.  This is a strength in that it gives players a great degree of freedom to interact with the AI and each other, but also a weakness in that the potential lack of interaction takes most of the enjoyment of the multiplayer experience away from overall gameplay.

Total War: Warhammer, is truly the crowning achievement for the Total War franchise and perhaps the greatest title of the series since Rome: Total War.  It demands the most stringent graphics requirements of any Total War game, but is perfectly enjoyable on lower graphic settings and playable without error on systems that meet the minimum requirements.  The game over-relies on DLC content and Creative Assembly rightly took a lot of heat from the gaming community for its overuse of the sales gimmick, yet with the DLC Warhammer becomes a masterful work of game design that can be enjoyed by gamers of any level including those who have never picked up a Total War title before.  The gaming community deserved a cross-title compilation like this for decades and now that its finally here it’s a must for any strategy gamer.

 

Dear Mindy: GOG Galaxy

With the advent of digital distribution in the gaming industry a number of companies have supplied digital distribution platforms for gaming products.  GOG Galaxy is one of the more recent additions to this developing market and, unlike the other platforms which grew out of a gaming company seeking a way to more efficiently provide their products to consumers, GOG Galaxy springs from a dedicated retail company that specialized in releasing digital gaming content.

GOG, or Good Old Games as it was first called, was launched in 2008 with the goal of providing digital, updated copies of old games without any digital rights management schemes.  Since then GOG has expanded to become one of the primary parties in the digital distribution market.  Consumers create a user profile on gog.com for free.  The profile allows them to setup payment information and provides a library where their gaming purchases are stored and can be downloaded to any computer the consumer desires.

GOG Galaxy continues this service as a fully fledged personalized distribution platform.  Customers can browse games, edit their profile settings, and link their library to the computer that Galaxy is installed on.  Galaxy is an optional add-on for subscribers and is not required to access the GOG website or the subscriber’s game library.  The platform is currently available for Microsoft Windows and macOS with a Linux compatible version currently in development.

Once downloaded and installed Galaxy will automatically be linked to the user’s profile and game library after the user has signed into Galaxy with their GOG profile.  The interface is fairly simple in terms of tabs and menu options and it uses drop-down buttons liberally.  The game library and the GOG store feature prominently and include a search function for quick access to any game title.

Users can utilize Galaxy to install newly purchased games and games already listed in the user’s library.  To interface with the computer Galaxy must run a synchronization check on all game files in the registry, including games that have already been downloaded directly from GOG’s website.  This is also the method Galaxy uses to recognize Steam games for its crossover feature, an option that allows owners of game titles on Steam to add the game to their GOG library for free.

Galaxy is very simple and easy to utilize; these aspects are both a benefit and a hindrance to its functionality.  It serves GOG’s primary intent to link GOG users and provide store and library access.  However as a networking platform its does little beyond allowing GOG users to establish a Friend connection and connect for multiplayer purposes.  Galaxy has nothing in the way of community forums or producer update pages.

It is important to take this fact with a grain of salt as GOG is first and foremost an online store.  Unlike Steam and Battle.net, which aim to not only provide games but to facilitate the utilization and networking of those games, GOG is a provider of existing gaming titles and its primary business is to sell items.  In this matter Galaxy serves its purpose admirably, providing quick and easy access to GOG’s listings and allowing for easy purchase and rapid acquisition of gaming titles.

One thing to note is Galaxy’s download functionality.  Galaxy is evidently able to access servers with greater ease than Steam and boasts a much faster download ratio with the user’s connection.  However Galaxy offers very few options for active downloads, for example downloads cannot be paused or queued, only started or aborted, and users will need to manage their activity on Galaxy to avoid interference with other online programs.

As an extension of GOG’s site, GOG Galaxy performs admirably and its very easy to access and utilize its core functions.  At this point there is little beyond its storage and retail purposes that Galaxy can adequately perform.  Granted, GOG may not need or want Galaxy to be anything more than a personalized store interface and that’s not unreasonable for them.  Yet Galaxy is not needed for gamers to access and enjoy the good old games of the past; and if GOG expects it to enter the realm of dedicated game distribution and networking platforms then it has a long way to go.