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.

Orcas Online Private Minecraft Server

Attention San Juan Gamers!

Orcas Online is setting up a Minecraft server that any Orcas Online customer can access.  The server is currently set to survival-mode and is open to anyone on the Orcas Online network.  This project is an attempt to create a digital environment that local gamers can enjoy and socialize on.  Bring your friends, build and explore, and find other gamers in the San Juan Islands!

At this time we do not have any plans for a sandbox mode server; but check back for updates on that subject in the future.

Contact Orcas Online for information on how to create a profile and access the server or with questions about the setup.
email: info@orcasonline.com
office phone: 376-4124

Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds Saga

Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds Saga is a real-time strategy game derived from the blending of the Star Wars hype produced by the prequel trilogy, and the golden age of real-time strategy games.  The RTS game Age of Empires II was released in that sweet spot of game development at the turn of the millennium when creative development had caught up to and in some cases outpaced graphic design.  Games in this period were a perfect blend of simple user-interface and complex tactical mechanics that made micromanagement fun but easy to grasp.  It’s no surprise that Age of Empires II, and games like it, manage to stand the test of time and continue to benefit from a dedicated fan base.  Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds is a prime example of this legacy.

Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, released by Ensemble Studios and Lucas Arts in 2001, and its expansion pack the Clone Campaigns, released in 2002 and followed by the Saga boxed set, takes all of its design cues from Age of Empires II and its Genie graphics engine.  Players familiar with the medieval strategy game will recognize most of Galactic Battlegrounds’ conventions and mechanics.  Worker units construct civilian and military buildings and gather the game’s four resources: food, carbon, nova crystals, and ore.  Buildings produce military units of their respective types or conduct research upgrading unit combat abilities, building defense, and resource extraction speed and efficiency.

Ground units are divided into three broad groups: infantry, mechs, and heavy weapons.  Infantry units, which consist of basic infantry and specialized units for combating buildings, aircraft, and mechs, form the workhorses for most of battles as they are cheap, easy to acquire and upgrade, and most factions get the technologies to upgrade them fully.  These are the grunts from Star Wars; the battle droids, stormtroopers, and Naboo security forces.

Mechs are the quintessential armored and/or walker units of the Star Wars universe; AT-ATs, Trade Federation droid tanks, Gungan beasts, and the like serve as the armor and cavalry of the various factions.  Mechs come in three designs capable of effectively combating infantry, other mechs, or most units respectively.  The heavy Assault Mechs can also carry infantry and in some cases have a long enough range to destroy fortifications with impunity.  Heavy Weapons fill the Age of Empires niche of siege weapons and include Assault Cannons, the battering ram-like Pummels, anti-air units, and siege cannons which can out-range any defensive structure.

Air units are also included in the form of multi-purpose fighter units which get bonuses for attacking other aircraft, and ground attack bombers with combat bonuses against buildings.  Technologies can be researched to greatly improve these aircraft including the ability to better target moving units as well as gain personal shields.  The Clone Campaigns adds the Assault Cruiser, a large shielded aircraft with a slow and powerful long range attack.  Aircraft bring their own dimension of combat as they can only be targeted by other aircraft, anti-air units, and anti-air buildings.

In Age of Empires II all factions shared the same building and unit trees, what made them unique were the technologies, buildings, and units that they missed, their faction bonuses, and the unique units constructed at the castle.  In Galactic Battlegrounds this formula is continued but given a Star Wars flare that keeps the franchise themes among the eight playable factions.  Each faction has its own bonuses and unique units and misses some technologies while specializing in others.

Yet the units and buildings of every faction feature their own uniforms, architecture, and vehicle designs.  The Rebel Alliance fighter units are X-Wings which face off against Imperial fighters in the form of TIE Fighters.  Faction bonuses even correspond with their faction’s theme; for example certain Gungan buildings can be constructed underwater and the Trade Federation’s droid armies do not require housing.

Perhaps the least unique but most telling differences among faction units are the Jedi and Sith temples.  In terms of units, technologies, and mechanics the Jedi and Sith are functionally the same.  Jedi/Sith take the place of the monks from Age of Empires II, they convert enemy units and grab holocrons to bring back to their temples for additional resource income.  Unlike the passive monks, Jedi and Sith also have melee attacks in the form of their lightsabers and are very resistant to damage.

The five good-aligned factions construct the Jedi Temple and train Jedi Padawan, Knights, and Masters while the three evil-aligned factions train Sith Apprentices, Knights, and Masters from a Sith Temple.  Thematic flavor abounds: Jedi use blue lightsaber blades and the Sith use red; the Sith Master shoots lightning from his fingers as his attack.  Most Jedi factions also can be considered the most proficient in this aspect of the game, with only the Galactic Empire faction possessing reasonable competence in Sith technologies and units.

The translation of a well-known medieval strategy game into a sci-fi strategy game is actually quite smooth mechanically as well as thematically.  Understandably most combat is done at range instead of melee but distinctions of infantry, cavalry, and siege weapons remain in their strategic forms.  Mechs for example are superior to infantry in every way, but many have a minimum weapon range and are vulnerable to specialized units.  Walls and defensive towers still abound and are resistant to most attacks but vulnerable to the siege attacks of the cumbersome Heavy Weapons.  Shields are also introduced in the form of Shield Generator buildings and the Gungan unique mobile shield generator.  Shields basically act as secondary hit points for all buildings and units in their radius, healing over time and absorbing damage until depleted by enemy fire or deprived of a nearby power source.

The Galactic Battlegrounds Saga includes one tutorial campaign and seven primary campaigns.  Each faction except the Naboo get a campaign of six to eight missions inspired by the movies or the expanded universe.  Each campaign features at least one bonus mission relating to great battles from the Star Wars prequel or primary trilogies such as the Battle of Hoth or the Battle of Endor.  The Trade Federation and Galactic Empire bonus missions feature what-if scenarios from the Battle of Naboo and Battle of Endor where the Dark Side has the chance to prevail.

Skirmish battles against the AI and multiplayer random maps are also included.  The game takes its cues directly from Age of Empires II in this format, featuring standard map (including some parodies that AoE fans will recognize like Fortress and Highlands), Death Match, King of the Hill, and Nomad options.  Up to eight players can join one game and the population cap, starting resources, and starting age of technology can all be preset.

Hero units are also included, usually in the form of infantry or Jedi but occasionally as vehicles like the Millennium Falcon, and appear in most campaign missions.  Each hero has their own vocal script and features the special abilities of their unit type.  They are also available in the scenario editor, an in-game tool players can use to make their own maps and scenarios using every unit, tile, and trigger built into the game.

The original Star Wars saga has its share of epic battles and grand scenes but it is an adventure at its heart.  It’s no surprise that few strategy games have been produced around the Star Wars universe.  As such it might seem that saying Galactic Battlegrounds is one of the greatest Star Wars RTS games is superfluous.  Yet it truly is one of the best strategy experiences that gamers can find for the Star Wars universe.  It features the perfect blend of flavor and accessible mechanics that make it appealing to Star Wars fans, casual gamers, and hardcore strategy gamers.

The fact that it was developed on the foundation of one of the most endearing RTS games of all time only adds to its appeal and staying power.  If there was a flaw in this formula, it would only be that Galactic Battlegrounds strays too close to Age of Empires II’s general style while failing to equal or surpass it.  Yet obviously that was never what Galactic Battlegrounds was meant to accomplish.

While Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds Saga is without a doubt a Star Wars game and deserves its place in the universe it is important to remember that this game is first and foremost a terrestrial RTS.  Cloud and space tiles, which can only be crossed by flying units, can create the impression of space battles but the great Imperial Star Destroyers do not make an appearance; missions and scenarios take place planetside.  Jedi are powerful and unique but cannot deflect blaster bolts or force choke enemies (except in cutscenes).  Anyone looking to enjoy some classic RTS action Star Wars style will love Galactic Battlegrounds.  Age of Empires fans will have to unlearn a few habits but otherwise should feel right at home.  Those looking for the grand experience of the Star Wars space epic might find the Galactic Battlegrounds Saga’s generic RTS mechanics restrictive and should engage the game mindful of the older RTS legacy it is based off of.

Civilization: Beyond Earth & Rising Tide

The news that Firaxis was developing what would essentially amount to a combination of one of the principle 4x in space games, Alpha Centauri, which was released in 1999 to wide acclaim, and the hugely popular Civilization V, released in 2010, created a great deal of excitement in the 4x community; particularly from fans of both previously mentioned titles.  It was prime time for a new title to be released and after the history-centered Civ V a fictional change of pace was welcome.  Civilization: Beyond Earth, published by 2K Games in 2014, and its expansion Rising Tide, released in 2015, was the final result of this ambitious development.

Civilization: Beyond Earth took a lot from Civilization V, which can be considered its closest predecessor in terms of its mechanics, display, and user interface.  Expansion, exploration, exploitation, and extermination are still conducted in the traditional formulas that players of Civ V and the Civ series in general are familiar with.  Settlers are used to start cities, which gradually grow their citizenry over time depending on their food supply; land and sea units, particularly scouts, reveal unexplored terrain to find new resource deposits and treasure caches.  The five resources of food, gold (restructured as energy), production, culture, and science make their return to drive the player’s faction as it develops into a mighty and advanced empire.

Technology is perhaps the most obvious change from the tech-tree of older Civilization titles.  The progression of technological research is now a web of interconnected and often inter-related technologies.  Players can expand on certain aspects of their scientific development to a very advanced degree while leaving others for later, or can pursue a very exhaustive but well-rounded sort of clockwise research program.

Players need not even complete all technologies to qualify as a superior civilization and it is not uncommon for a game to end before the entire web is researched.  Researching new technologies doesn’t just unlock new buildings and units but also reveals certain resource types and makes new abilities available to certain units, particularly where the toxic and alien miasma tiles are related.

Miasma makes up one of the alien aspects of the game, the others being wild and potentially friendly or hostile alien creatures and the long lest ruins and relics of the planet’s bygone days.  Miasma is a constant effect, similar to radioactive fallout, that damages units that remain on the tile.  Technologies can be researched to clear miasma or even spread it to hostile territory.

Along with worker units one of the principle methods of manipulating miasma, and terrain in general, is to utilize satellites.  Satellites are units that are produced in cities and made available for launch when completed.  When launched they go to a separate layer of the game board that players can toggle on their interface.  Satellites effect all tiles in their range with a variety of abilities depending on their type like increasing tile yields, finding new resources, or attacking enemy units.  Certain ground units can destroy satellites, and satellites expire after a certain number of turns.

Culture has also received an overhaul in Beyond Earth, particularly in the limited but detailed scope of options now offered.  Players can invest in four culture trees representing social, military, scientific, and industrial development.  The trees are divided into four tiers and additional bonuses are unlocked whenever all traits in a tier are purchased.  Each tree aids the player in pursuing one of the victory options available; the traits are also slow to unlock and it is rare for more than two trees to be fully unlocked by the end of the game.

Culture and technology are important in the function of Beyond Earth’s primary new mechanic: the affinity system.  Three factional ideologies, dubbed affinities, are available for the player’s civilization to pursue.  Each affinity, Purity, Supremacy, and Harmony, effects the technological development of all military units as well as the player’s most profitable attitude toward the indigenous alien creatures and miasma.  Affinity also effects the player’s standing with other civilizations; sharing affinities is a good start to friendly relations and the opposite is also true.

Players advance in affinity levels by researching technologies and unlocking cultural traits that grant points in their particular affinity.  As the player’s affinity level progresses passive benefits are unlocked and eventually the way is made available to conduct the affinity’s unique victory condition.  Purity constructs a massive warp gate to bring settlers from Earth; Supremacy constructs a similar gate with the intention of conquering Earth; and Harmony constructs a massive brain that will bring about a single collective consciousness.

Although victory conditions are exclusive to each affinity, players do not need to stay true to one affinity and this is especially true in Rising Tide where hybrid affinities are introduced.  Players can upgrade their units with a number of options from strict or hybrid affinity lines.  All bonuses from each affinity can potentially be unlocked if the player has the time and the resources to do so.

Apart from the affinity victories players can also pursue the traditional conquest victory by taking their opponent’s capitals or a sort of science victory where they receive and de-crypt an alien signal, then construct a massive beacon to send a message to a mysterious progenitor race.  This victory is by far the shortest and easiest to achieve requiring little expansion for the player’s civilization and it can be hurried along by finding traces of progenitor technology in alien ruins.  Once the beacon is finished and activated all civilizations have thirty turns to destroy it before the civilization that constructed the beacon wins.

It’s easy for players familiar with Civ V to dive right into Beyond Earth; in fact familiarity with the latest Civilization games eliminate most of the learning curve.  It is in those new areas that Beyond Earth introduces that it struggles the most to portray.  The technology web was thankfully patched in Rising Tide, color coding the numerous units, structures, and upgrades each tech made available as the unfamiliar names and icons make color coding the only visual aid the player has to sort through numerous technologies on a freeform path.

Most unit types are intuitive in their battlefield roles, but don’t always seem to perform as they should in given situations.  The combat breakdown of Civ V is gone and there is really no way of knowing why a unit does so much damage in a single attack.  Siege battles in particular are very cumbersome with cities easily shrugging off regular units but folding rapidly in the face of a few siege units. However those same siege units actually lack the maneuverability of their 20th century counterparts in Civ V which contributes to the crawl that most campaigns of conquest are reduced to.

On the flipside the technology, and themes behind it, is a very immersive and entertaining feature in Beyond Earth.  Culture, trade, and even to a point Diplomacy have been sidelined in favor of the technology and research narrative.  This may be disappointing to some fans and rightly so, but for the most part it cuts down more on the re-playability of Beyond Earth than the actual enjoyment of each game.  Most games rarely follow the same technology path and the mixing and matching of affinity bonuses alone can occupy an entire playthrough.  Beyond Earth is not so much a game about creating a civilization from primitive barbarism, but expanding an existing civilization and seeing what new advances it can achieve in the many scientific fields.

As a science fiction fun-ride Beyond Earth excels.  It modifies the Civilization formula just enough to keep the idea of exploration and advancement on a new alien world central to the gaming experience.  Sadly this comes at the cost of losing many of the elements that make 4x games what they are.  Culture is mostly a grind for bonuses and Diplomacy, although expanded on in Rising Tide, is hindered by apathetic and one-dimensional AI.

Gamers who want to experience something new in the sci-fi field, particularly in the 4x genre will find that Civilization: Beyond Earth is good for enough playthroughs to be worth the investment.  Of course Rising Tide is pretty much a requirement as well since Beyond Earth isn’t truly complete without the changes and upgrades the expansion brings.  However casual 4x players may find the experience of more complete 4x games to be much more gratifying and dedicated fans of the series are better off investing time and money in Civ VI.

 

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight

After Electronic Arts successfully continued the Command & Conquer saga with its releases of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars and it’s expansion Kane’s Wrath in 2007 and 2008 respectively there was a great deal of hype and excitement when EA announced the fourth and final title of the current Tiberium saga: Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight.  EA added to the hype by promising that Tiberian Twilight would introduce new mechanics and concepts never before tried in a Real-Time Strategy game.  These would of course be appearing alongside such iconic C&C staples as live action movies, familiar faction units, and the desolate landscape of a tiberium-scarred earth.

One of the most important aspects about Tiberian Twilight is that it is a server based game requiring an active online connection to update the player’s profile.  EA utilizes what they called an RPG style approach toward player profiles.  As the player completed missions and won skirmish and multiplayer battles their profile gained experience which unlocked units and technologies of the faction that they played as.  Once their profile reached enough experience for each faction they would be able to utilize all of the units, buildings, and technologies of those factions in any single player or multiplayer game.  Each faction levels up separately, although the player need not create a different profile to play both factions.  The game can be played without an internet connection and single player games are not interrupted if the connection is somehow lost, but the player’s profile will not gain experience in offline mode.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight does away with the old C&C convention of a single unit providing a central building from which a static base grows to provide the player with a fully advanced and capable army.  Instead at the start of a game the player receives the option to choose  from three different crawler units.  Each crawler represents offensive, defensive, and support classes and the player will have access to different types of units and abilities depending on which class is chosen.  The chosen crawler appears in a deployment zone and serves as both a unit and factory for all of the player’s units.

Crawlers are heavily armored and as the player unlocks more technologies the crawlers gain weapons, armor, and other defensive abilities.  Like their MCV predecessors from previous C&C games crawlers must deploy to produce units which are produced almost instantly.  The support class emphasizes air units and their crawler appropriately is an air unit, but it must still deploy to produce or call down other aircraft.  If a player’s crawler is destroyed, or if the player wants to switch classes, a new crawler can be chosen and will appear in the same manner as the first one.

Each map in single player or multiplayer has several small landing pads on which green and blue tiberium crystals will routinely spawn.  These crystals can be collected by ground units and carried back to the player’s deployment zone to unlock technologies and are an important point of contention for players as the player who gathers more crystals more quickly will have the better army in the early game.  Once a player unlocks all of their units and technologies, the crystals provide small boosts to their victory point track.

Single player missions still feature traditional objectives and follow the game’s storyline in terms of the enemies and maps encountered.  In skirmish and multiplayer modes victory is determined by a point track.  The principle way to gain points is to control a majority of tiberium nodes around the map.  Nodes are structures that can be captured by stationing more units than an opponent near the node for a certain amount of time.  Battles over these nodes take place on arena style maps with AI controlled structures defending each faction’s deployment zones while the nods themselves are situated in the map’s central no-man’s land.

EA finalizes its changes to the C&C formula by introducing rock-paper-scissors style interaction between units based on their type and weapon.  For example, machine guns are effective against infantry and light vehicles while laser weapons are effective against heavy vehicles and structures.  A heavy unit with machine guns will be effective against infantry, but vulnerable to lasers, and vice versa.  Some units deal enough raw damage to be somewhat effective against any threat, but the formula holds true for the arsenals of each class and faction.

The many changes to the RTS and C&C formulas that appear in Tiberian Twilight practically make it its own game with unique style and strategies.  Sadly, this is perhaps the single greatest failure of the game and EA.  If Tiberian Twilight had been produced as its own game, distinct from the style associated with its predecessors, it may have been far more successful and well received.  Unfortunately it turns out to be another attempt by EA to project their own creative designs onto a classical franchise in an attempt to sell their own ideas on the shoulders of someone else’s giant.

The profile leveling system ensures that players cannot experience the full game until they’ve played dozens of hours of meaningless grinding.  The fact that profiles can’t be leveled in offline mode slaves the players to a continual internet connection and makes offline mode a pointless option.  Poor or even moderate latency will result in continual disconnects forcing players to reload games to continue gaining experience.  The single player missions do not restrict a player’s units and buildings and are thus not balanced for any level of technology, which can confuse and frustrate new players.

The crawler based combat is hectic and clumsy at best.  Units are thrown into a mosh-pit style battles with little chance for strategic planning and no possibility for territory control.  The rock-paper-scissors dynamic to weapons is also a disappointment.  Units have been marginalized from their distinctive roles in previous C&C titles into generic types that have little use if their intended opponent type is not present.  Combat also devolves into players trading unit types as endless counters are swapped.  Units die quickly to their hard-counters but practically ignore attacks from any other weapon type.  This leaves players who maxed out their limited population cap with the wrong types completely out of luck until they suffer enough casualties to allow rebuilding.

The faction’s distinctive styles have also disappeared.  The fast and stealthy Nod no longer clashes with the slow and steady GDI; now each faction is essentially a mirror match.  Resources are no longer present so the only limitation on a player’s production is the population cap.  This cap is far too small to control a significant portion of the map and players can find themselves kitted around by small groups of fast units stealing tiberium nodes while avoiding direct conflict.

Finally the game itself, for all its nostalgic units and references to previous C&C titles, lacks theme and flair.  It is a boring slug-fest where units without identity or history clash on generic and alien battlefields for objectives with no tangible accomplishments or definable impact on their opponents.  There is no sense of accomplishment or ownership for the player profile, only a grind to unlock units, which should rightly be available from the start, until the full tech tree is unlocked.  The fact that players have to work to experience and enjoy a game they paid for in full is itself an unforgivable sin.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight had a lot of ideas that, taken by themselves, could have been very successful.  Mashed together they ensure that yet another attempt by EA to match the MOBA and Starcraft environments has only succeeded in ruining another beloved gaming franchise.  If Tiberian Twilight had at least been marketed as a different game instead of trying to usurp the C&C series it might have stood a chance; but many fans were left feeling cheated and frustrated by the alien style and disorienting focus of gameplay.

Fans who want to see the Tiberium saga played out need only invest about a dozen hours into completing the campaigns and will find that purchasing the game on sale is about equal to the value; but they should avoid buying the game at EA’s full retail price.  Any other gamer hoping for a fulfilling RTS experience, or gaming experience in general, should not waste the money and time on Tiberian Twilight; a sad end that such a storied franchise did not deserve.

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.