Command & Conquer

Discussing Real-time Strategy games without going back to the genre’s roots just feels too much like starting a fiction novel without reading the prologue.  So we’re going to take a look back at one of the games that helped start it all: Command & Conquer.  Sometimes referred to informally as Tiberian Dawn to bring it in line with its sequals, Command & Conquer was developed by Westwood Studios and released by Virgin Interactive in 1995.  While Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (also by Westwood) was the company’s first RTS title and also the first true RTS in the genre, Command & Conquer was the title that would go on to help define the genre and set the standard for Westwood’s style of RTS products.

Command & Conquer refined the building and management process of Dune II into the Westwood style of RTS.  A single Construction Yard assembled all the player’s buildings for a set cost in the game’s resource, in this case Tiberium.  Tiberium was harvested by a heavily armored Harvester unit and deposited at the Tiberium Refinery.  Most structures in the base had to be supplied by power plants.  Infantry and vehicles were produced from the barracks and war factory respectively (Nod’s buildings had different names and styles but were mechanically the same).  Higher level buildings unlocked more advanced units culminating in each faction’s superweapon.

The game’s two factions, GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod, obeyed similar structural rules in their tech trees but were thematically very different.  GDI was the slow, expensive faction with a strong emphasis on conventional firepower and most of the its units outclassed their counterparts in Nod’s arsenal.  This included the thematic Mammoth Tank, which was the strongest unit in the game and one of only three units capable of targeting both air and ground units.  Nod on the other hand emphasized speed, adaptability, and long range.  It possessed nearly twice as many siege units as GDI and was the only faction with cost-effective hard counters against infantry.  Nod also possessed far more powerful defensive structures.

Command & Conquer’s story is set in the near future (early 2000s) from the game’s publishing perspective and depicts an international conflict between the U.N. backed Global Defense Initiative (abbreviated GDI) and the cult style terrorist group Brotherhood of Nod (often simply called Nod or The Brotherhood).  The game features two campaigns where players take on the role of a promising commander in either GDI or the Brotherhood.  GDI’s campaign takes place in Europe and is characterized by missions with strong defensive emphasis and occasionally limited tactical options.  The Brotherhood of Nod’s campaign is set in Africa and features a much higher degree of “commando” missions where the player either does not have a base or must acquire one through subterfuge.

A central element to Command & Conquer’s story and gameplay is Tiberium, an alien substance that gathers minerals from the soil into a highly concentrated, easily harvested form allowing GDI and Nod to quickly amass raw materials for their war machines.  However Tiberium is also highly toxic and its rapid absorption quickly depletes the soil causing severe environmental damage.  The control of Tiberium and protection of civilian communities affected by its spread is a major sub-theme in several GDI missions, sometimes to the point of overshadowing the wider conflict with Nod.  The Brotherhood of Nod on the other hand venerates Tiberium as the door to the future and actively seeks to spread it and manipulate its various properties.

Westwood’s style of RTS, which the mechanics of GDI and Nod very heavily demonstrated, were in contrast to other rising RTS games of the time in that they emphasized tactical and strategic flexibility over army composition.  The factions were markedly different and in some ways unbalanced.  GDI was most vulnerable in the early game where Nod’s speed and adaptability could overwhelm GDI’s limited options.  In the late game the balanced switched to favor GDI’s super heavy Mammoth Tank, all purpose long range weapons, and monopoly on aircraft (save for a single Nod helicopter unit in multiplayer).  Neither side was completely outclassed in any phase of the game, but changing parameters over the course of the game forced players to adopt new tactics to defeat their opponents.

The story of Command & Conquer is extensively developed with live action cutscenes between missions interspersed with CGI videos detailing the backstory of Tiberium and the two factions.  Simple CGI clips also preceded and concluded each mission though they were purely for thematic effect.  The story also helps set the stage for many of the missions for each side as minor plot points come and go, such as a power struggle in the Brotherhood of Nod and GDI’s political battle with the U.N. to secure funding for its operations.  The live action scenes are simple and sometimes misleading in relation to following missions, but are a rare and refreshing element sadly missing in modern RTS games and are perhaps one of the most immersive parts of the game’s whole experience.

Multiplayer is the only form of skirmish that Command & Conquer possesses, although matches can be played against humans or the AI.  The entire faction arsenal is unlocked (with Nod gaining two units not seen in single player) and players compete against each other or the AI on a battle map selected from the game’s map library.  The AI was fairly reliable for its time and could provide a decent challenge, although it lacked the ability to effectively utilize Nod’s speed and unpredictability to its fullest.  Mutliplayer games for the most part ran smoothly and were forgiving with slower internet speeds as it was largely compatible with the dial-up service of the time.

Command & Conquer is obviously heavily dated by modern standards with its non-linear factions, simplistic AI, and obviously simple graphics.  It is available as freeware and with collection packs from Electronic Arts on Origin, although its compatibility with newer operating systems and hardware is variable.  Nevertheless its impact on the RTS genre cannot be overstated.  Command & Conquer would go on to become one of the most iconic and successful series of the RTS genre with three sequel titles and three spin-off titles (not including their respective expansions) continuing and refining its legacy.  The game’s nostalgia may wane a bit for older players after exposure to modern gaming and new gamers will likely see no reason to invest much time in it.  However Command & Conquer is a simple and at this point a rather unique experience that any casual gamer could enjoy and at the very least deserves to be remembered as one of the founding pillars of RTS gaming of its time and for the foreseeable future.

Total War: Rome II

Ever since Creative Assembly’s landmark Rome: Total War catapulted the Total War franchise into the mainstream of strategy gaming fans of the series have eagerly awaited its sequel, Total War: Rome II.  Elements eagerly anticipated in a sequel were increased control over family members, improvements to naval combat, and a greater number of diverse factions.  Rome II promised all of this and more.  In development terms it was also considered the next step in advancing Total War game mechanics and technology as a whole.

Veterans of the first Rome: Total War game will actually find few similarities in the new Rome.  Most of the factions make a return alongside dozens of new ones, but otherwise the game has received an overhaul derived from the years of experience and development Creative Assembly accumulated from its subsequent Total War titles after the first Rome’s release.  The campaign map is populated with numerous towns and cities organized into provinces each composed of a walled provincial capital and one to three un-walled towns.  Local resource deposits provide real economic benefits in the province and indirectly the player’s empire as a whole.  Naval combat can now be fought in real-time and armies are formed around the generals (an army cannot exist without appointing a general).

For all that’s changed, the basic formula of Total War remains.  Wealth is generated in the cities and towns of the player’s empire which is in turn used to raise and maintain armies of period infantry, cavalry, archers, and warships to conquer the ancient Mediterranean world.  The great factions of the period, such as the Roman Republic, Empire of Carthage, and Ptolemaic Egypt are all present.  Historic figures such as Hannibal Barca and Julius Caeser can make an appearance, but are not afforded any prestige or abilities beyond other generals.  City populations must be controlled and diplomatic relations between factions can be manipulated for trade, alliances, and threats.

Like its Total War predecessors Rome II’s single player is at the heart of its entertainment value.  The campaign, with downloaded content, features over twenty playable factions to choose from over one hundred on the campaign map.  Factions are placed into culture categories such as Latin (Rome and its neighbors) and Hellenic (Greek city states) with each culture bringing some faction bonuses in addition to the unique attributes that individual factions gain.  All factions follow the same general rules of economics, internal politics, and Imperium levels (with the exception of Rome and Carthage which also feature political sub-factions within their primary faction).  The Grand Campaign, Rome II’s primary single player element, starts at 272 BC with most of the factions (aside from a few successor states) starting off with only a province or two in their control.

The Imperium level, a new mechanic to the Total War series, is a defining feature for gameplay in Rome II and applies to every faction, not just Rome.  The Imperium level is determined by the number of cities under the player’s control and as it goes up it applies small but steadily increasing levels of empire wide stats such as taxes, morale, and corruption.  The Imperium level also defines how many armies, navies, and agents a faction can maintain.  As a mechanic the Imperium level is a fairly effective way to emulate the feel of an expanding, powerful empire and certainly encourages aggressive expansion on the part of the player.  However its limitations cut into the some of the “total war” aspects of the game; at higher levels players can feel strapped for armies and navies to cover increasingly larger and complicated campaign theaters.

Like in Shogun 2, technology makes an appearance and is divided into three trees.  Research unlocks buildings, units, and empire wide benefits.  The Roman Marian Reform event from the first Rome is gone; now all factions share a similar unit tier system.  Once a technology makes a unit obsolete, all of those units throughout a player’s army can be manually upgraded for a minor sum.  Structures upgrade in similar fashion although the process is far more costly and some higher tier units require the empire to have access to special resources such as lead or iron.

Politics is another new addition that Rome II brings to the Total War series.  The political system is basically an expansion of the loyalty and family tree mechanics for generals and replaces both mechanics with statesmen that become generals or admirals, and a set of statistics that emulate the power struggles of the republican Roman Senate.  Each statesman increases the influence of their family/party in the empire’s political affairs which allows political actions such as assassinations to be used.  Additionally the more influence the player’s family/party has grants increased bonuses and penalties to the empire, but also increases the chance that the other families/parties will rebel and attempt to overthrow the player’s faction.

The political system is a clever and heavily integrated design, but sadly does little to actually improve the gameplay.  Benefits to having political dominance are minor compared to the arbitrary threat of civil war and the other families/parties provide minor but persistent annoyances that cannot be removed.  The system is well thought out and does not hinder overall gameplay, but the lack of control the players can ultimately develop over the gentry of their own empire becomes tiresome and breaks the immersion of world conquest.

Overall single player combat has been streamlined and refined to arguably the highest level to date in a Total War game.  Units are well designed to reflect their historical roles and battlefield performance.  The AI is competent enough to know how to use the different units and abilities under its command.  Empire and city management is easily accessed but incorporates some new details that greatly increases its learning curve.  Naval combat, a feature that’s been greatly expanded since Shogun 2, still needs some work to adequately define and balance the roles of different ship types and thus avoid having all naval battles turn into numbers games.

Multiplayer, particularly the co-op feature for the grand campaign, is very well implemented in Rome II.  For the most part load times and real time combat are amiable to lower internet speeds and the mechanics of cooperative play did not produce any problems.  The only glaring problem with co-op play is the presence of so many diverse cultures in Rome II.  Cultures affect public order and competing cultures generated by allies in close proximity can cause some trouble in border provinces.  This often requires players to choose factions a fair distance away from each other, eliminating some of the elements of cooperative play.

Graphics are certainly fresher and on higher settings require a mid-to-high end machine to run.  This is one of the great tragedies of Rome II.  Individual details have been modeled to an unprecedented degree but the player can rarely enjoy this feature.  Large scale battles require the player to constantly shift their attention to different units with the screen zoomed out, away from the shiny details.

Rome II’s combat is more integrated and diverse, although at times suffers from its own improvements due to the degree of micromanagement brought on by increased options to the player.  Multiplayer is one of the best experiences to date.  Sadly, many of the new features Rome II added to the franchise are as troublesome as they are new.  Seeing historical military tactics pay off is as rewarding as ever and even more accessible with the greatly improved faction and unit designs, but outside the battlefield empire management remains overly cumbersome and sometimes outright frustrating.

Rome II’s place in the Total War franchise is highly debatable since many of the new mechanics have uncertain futures in upcoming titles.  Fans of the first Rome will miss some of the old simplicity, but those looking for greater options in their conquest of the Mediterranean will appreciate the increased detail.  Casual gamers, especially those new to Total War, should probably refrain from purchasing Rome II until they experience a different modern Total War title to avoid Rome II’s steep and somewhat ambiguous learning curve.

Dear Mindy: Battle.net

Many of the online retail and digital distribution clients for PC games started life as a tool for publishers to easily provide games to customers around the globe.  The success and popularity of this distribution, and subsequently marketing, medium has led to most of these clients becoming general distribution and host services still under their parent companies but now offering thousands of titles from many different developers.  Battle.net, Blizzard Entertainment’s online gaming service and digital distribution platform and the first online gaming service incorporated into company games, has not diversified and has remained an exclusive outlet for Blizzard’s PC games.

In its original iteration Battle.net provided little beyond listings and chatting.  Since then it has expanded to host online games, provide matchmaking and tournament ranking, and account management for players’ online profiles.  In 2009 Blizzard upgraded Battle.net to support its new generation of titles.  Since the upgrade all Blizzard games now require a Battle.net account.  Any Blizzard games purchased after 2009 automatically prompt the player to create a Battle.net account after installation.  An account can also be created at the Battle.net website.

Creating a Battle.net account consists of making a login username and password.  Once the account has been created and the client downloaded this will be the username and password the player uses for all Blizzard games.  Blizzard games, when accessed directly instead of through the Battle.net client, have their own login screens but all use the player’s Battle.net username and password.

Battle.net’s origins as an online gaming support service make the software particularly suited to online gaming services such as match-making, in-game networking, and the release and implementation of patches and downloadable content.  Players who do not necessarily own the same game can become acquainted and chat with each other as long as they both have a Blizzard account.  Each Blizzard game has its own homepage interface on the Battle.net client where updates and advertisements from Blizzard are listed and downloads can be managed and implemented.

To date six Blizzard titles can be purchased and are managed on Battle.net.  Older Blizzard games have their own version of Battle.net known as Battle.net Classic which continues to host multiplayer matches and provide patch downloads but otherwise does not provide digital distribution.  Any games that were originally purchased as CD/DVD can be integrated into the player’s Battle.net online account and interface and will be supported in the same way as completely digital products.  Like all successful digital distribution platforms Battle.net does not require a subscription or charge fees for usage.

Since Battle.net only supplies and supports Blizzard games it should not be viewed as a competitor to other digital distribution clients like Steam or GamersGate but more as a business exclusive niche.  Blizzard does not sell its games through other digital distributors so Battle.net is the only digital source for all current Blizzard titles.

Shattered Union

I unfortunately deprived myself of the opportunity to get into the turn-based tactics genre of strategy games during their heyday in the ’80s and ’90s.  Shattered Union, developed by PopTop Software and released by 2K games, was a relatively late arrival to the market upon its release in 2005 but was nevertheless my first foray into a game whose principle mechanics revolved around turn-based tactics.

Shattered Union takes place in a United States that has been divided into several region-based factions after political disunity and domestic terrorism disrupt the national government.  Seven playable factions are presented (six U.S. factions plus European Union peacekeepers) and each has its own starting difficulties and opportunities.  Players assemble a fighting force on the strategic map and choose territories to attack.  Only one territory may be attacked per turn and all units committed to an attack cannot be used again until the following turn so it is generally advisable to keep units back for defense.  Income is also received at the beginning of each turn and is based on the value of the territories controlled by the player.  Units can be purchased, repaired, and sold any time during the player’s turn on the strategic map.

When a territory is attacked the game enters the turn-based tactical battle phase and this is easily the best and most developed part.  Most of the U.S. ground arsenal is represented with the air force making a good showing but not fully filled out, likely due to redundancy issues, and there is no naval combat.  Units are divided into categories to help the player easily identify their battlefield purposes; i.e. the player may not know what an LAV or Sheridan tank is for but their assignment into the Scout and Light Armor categories respectively puts their abilities into perspective.  Each faction also gets a fictitious unique unit (a heavy armor unit for each faction except the Great Plains Federation which gets an artillery unit) with similar statistics but varying degrees of effectiveness versus specific unit types.

Tactical combat is divided into turns with the attackers always taking the first turn.  Deployment zones are chosen at the start of the map with the attacker usually sequestered against one edge while the defender can deploy into the major cities around the map.  Once units are deployed the battle begins and fog of war covers the map, even for the defender.  Each unit has a specific movement range for negotiating the hex grid map with roads and pathways allowing more movement than forests and hills.  Helicopters move and act in the same manner as ground forces but fighters and bombers are stored an in airfield structure and only move when issued a specific order (such as an air patrol or bombing run).  Units can move until their movement points are used up but can only attack once per turn.

The story behind Shattered Union’s plot is simple and mostly implemented for continuity.  Increased popular dissent across the United States coupled with the elimination of the presidential succession by a terrorist nuclear attack on Washington D.C. prompts the 48 contiguous states to either secede from the Union or simply conglomerate into regional alliances, forming the game’s principle U.S.-based factions.  Very little dynamic is added for the E.U. faction and the Europeans are mechanically treated the same for gameplay.

The Political Reputation element adds some personality to faction AIs and player choices.  The more landmarks and strategic buildings a faction destroys during a battle the more its reputation slides towards ‘evil’ (the red side of a green to red progress bar that can be viewed on the strategic map).  Conversely making attempts to avoid collateral damage and preserve landmarks will slide a faction’s bar towards ‘good’.  To facilitate this every unit in the player’s arsenal has a factor for collateral damage allowing the player to determine which units to use in urban combat versus open range combat.

The alignment of a faction’s political reputation affects some of its abilities, most importantly support powers and the number of partisan units that appear in tactical battles.  Factions with good reputation will attract partisans in defensive battles and make use of support powers that repair units and buff defense.  Evil reputation drives partisans toward a faction’s opponents but unlocks powerful offensive abilities that damage units en mass and lower unit defense.  Story-wise, political reputation does not affect the progression of scripted events but does influence the narrative of the player’s ending; different cutscenes are shown at the end of the campaign based on if the player’s faction was primarily good, evil, or neutral.

With little storyline, most of the game’s single-player content revolves around the tactical battles.  This element is by far the best developed and most important part of Shattered Union.  Players assemble a pool of up to 42 units and deploy any number of them into offensive and defensive battles.  Depictions (not to scale) of real landmarks, cities, even interstate highways make the map come alive as the factions battle over familiar locations.  Rivers, bridges, and mountains all contribute to make the tactical experience engaging and challenging while bringing the in-game world to life.

Shattered Union’s multiplayer aspect is limited to the tactical battles in the form of a skirmish mode.  Players determine beforehand the amount of funds used to purchase armies, then purchase units and engage in a tactical battle across one of the maps used in the Campaign.  Power types and levels are chosen through the assignment of a political reputation level for each player during the setup.  As turn-based game Shattered Union’s multiplayer quality demand is low and should perform adequately on lower internet speeds.

The game’s limited story, two-faction unit roster, and large but static campaign map can devolve into repeating situations and strategies.  Since the bulk of the game’s enjoyable content is found in the tactical battles this is only a partial handicap to long term replay options.  However aside from each faction’s unique unit most of the enjoyment comes from a player’s improvisation and willingness to explore new and even potentially handicapped strategies.  Certain elements of the campaign, such as how many times a player can be attacked each turn, are constrained by difficulty level.  Thus a greater challenge can be acquired by raising the campaign difficulty however the AI’s competency does not improve vs its ‘cheating’ tactics, such as ganging up on the player or knowing where the player’s units are even without scouting.  This can lead from entertainment to frustration.

The Skirmish mode offers far more variety for tactical battles.  Players can explore different unit combinations, play the Russian faction, and explore the full range of support powers in the good, evil, and neutral levels of political reputation.  This is also a much faster and easier method of exploring the factions’ unique units.

Shattered Union is almost on the level of a tactical simulation game; most of its strategic and story elements are background for the tactical battles of the campaign.  The campaign itself is enjoyable and worth playing at least once for the excitement of conquering the United States and fighting off the Russian invasion.  However this game is appropriately termed a tactical strategy game; only in the tactical battles do the game’s design elements and enjoyment value come into their own.  Shattered Union is dated by modern standards and even casual gamers will likely find it to be little more than a distraction good for a dozen or so hours of gameplay.  However the game is cheap, easy to learn, and on modern machines has virtually no load time.  Its genre is also a fairly rare perspective and focus for PC games and is worth the experience for that element alone.

Note: Shattered Union is available on Steam but has known loading errors for most recent operating systems.  The Steam Community has very helpful guides and quick fixes which should allow Shattered Union to operate with little or no difficulty.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War Gold Edition

Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise (often abbreviated Warhammer 40k), like its predecessor and source of inspiration Warhammer Fantasy is rich in the lore and military diversity that Real-time Strategy games thrive on.  It should come as no surpirse that Relic Entertainment’s RTS adaption of this universe, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, is not only a superb rendition of this dark science fiction future but also a splendid RTS game overall.  Dawn of War, and the first of its expansions Winter Assault (bundled together in the Gold Edition) brings the dystopian universe of Warhammer 40k to life with intense and bloody combat, superb visuals, and deeply immersive factions.

Dawn of War follows the basic RTS conventions of gameplay.  Players start with a single command center (or equivalent) which produces workers and a basic military unit.  These military units are used to capture strategic points, static markers around the map that passively generate one of the game’s two basic resources.  Resource generation can be improved by constructing Listening Posts on these points once they are captured.  Workers construct the various buildings that train and upgrade units and heroes as well as the generators that produce the second resource: plasma.  Tier upgrades at the command center unlock more advanced buildings which in turn allow the construction of stronger units and vehicles.

Aside from workers, heroes, and vehicles, all units come out as squads with most squads starting at four units.  Squads can be reinforced for an additional cost in resources up to a maximum that varies depending on the unit and the race (the hefty Space Marines have an average squad size of 8 while the numerous Orks can field squads as large as 14).  Squads may additionally be upgraded with special weapons that can enhance the squad’s overall performance or make it more effective against one unit type versus another; as well as leader units that improve morale and combat effectiveness.  Morale itself is a key factor in combat; units under fire take a steady morale loss.  When morale drops to critical levels the squad ‘breaks’, an effect marked by red icons around the squad units, and loses most of its combat effectiveness.  Most vehicles and some special units do not have the morale feature.

The Gold Edition features five playable factions: the Space Marines, Eldar, Forces of Chaos, and Orks of the base Dawn of War and the Imperial Guard from Winter Assault.  These factions follow similar build styles and combat capability, although specifics like raising the population cap and which units can detect invisible squads do vary.  The true differences lie in the offensive and defensive tactics represented in their units.  Chaos and the Orks tend to be heavily melee focused with overwhelming numbers while the Elder and Space Marines are expensive, skilled combatants, with a strong emphasis on ranged combat.  The Imperial Guard and Space Marines additionally are notable for being “Jacks of all trades” where their basic units are highly adaptable; the Orks, Chaos, and the Eldar often have to field many different unit types for a balanced force.

The single player campaign in Dawn of War follows one of these factions, the Space Marines, through a series of linear missions where the player faces the Orks, Eldar, and Chaos in an expanding plot about Chaos influence on the planet Tartarus.  The missions are very well detailed and quite challenging allowing the player to experience the full extent of the Space Marine arsenal and the dynamics of their combat tactics against the other races.  Yet while the story and experience are immersive and enjoyable the Space Marines are the only faction with a campaign, the other factions can only be used in skirmish and multiplayer.

This downside is solved somewhat in Winter Assault where every race, except the Space Marines in a very ironic design twist, gets a piece of another story based campaign of five missions divided between the order (Eldar and Imperial Guard) and disorder (Chaos and the Orks) teams where each factions attempts to gain control of an Imperial Titan super mech.  Both campaigns begin with missions introducing the factions followed by a shared level where the player chooses which of the factions in their team they want to continue with (represented by a ‘falling out’ of the factions in game).  The final mission takes place at the Titan regardless of which faction the player chooses; although the methods of victory differ.

The Winter Assault campaign is very flavorful and its highly interconnected missions give the player a strong sense of interactive narrative.  Unfortunately the campaign’s very short duration and partial restriction on what factions are playable severely limits the opportunity the player has to engage and enjoy each faction.  The highly enjoyable final mission, modified for each race, alleviates this shortchange to some degree but overall players will find Winter Assault’s replay-ability to be heavily dependent on their willingness to test the skirmish AI’s varying difficulty levels.

Upon its release in 2004 Dawn of War’s graphics and presentation were top of the line.  Individual units are highly detailed and many feature very entertaining (and sometimes quite bloody) killing animations (in which the units are mercifully invulnerable to damage).  Graphic detail also brings the faction flavor to life with numerous details like facial icons shifting and warping on Chaos buildings and goblin-like Gretchin crawling around the debris of Ork structures.  All this detail does tax the video card to some degree and mid-line machines from the period (usually XP operating systems) may struggle with long skirmish and multiplayer games.  Modern machines should have no trouble with large scale skirmish games.  Dawn of War’s multiplayer is equally well done, with simple setup and connection interfaces that suffer few if any malfunctions on any connection capable of handling RTS play.

Dawn of War, Gold Edition features five levels of Skirmish AI difficulty which provide a decent challenge for players of all experience levels and, except for the hardest AI setting, do not appear to cheat.  Multiplayer is even more entertaining with teamplay against the AI and player vs player matches providing ample opportunities to experiment with different faction strategies.  Loading time for most multiplayer matches is more dependent on individual PC performance than shared internet connectivity and overall is quite fast allowing for multiple matches to be played over the course of a single session.  The factions themselves naturally have some early game build patterns that can sideline the first five minutes into routine, but the unit trees are diverse enough to facilitate widely fluctuating combat scenarios throughout a session.

The Dawn of War Gold Edition is a very well designed strategy game with a rich plot, thematic and well balanced factions, and easily managed skirmish and multiplayer capabilities.  While the single player is very linear and lacking in scope its missions and plot line are rich in flavor and abound with opportunities for intense combat.  Resource and base management have been sidelined in favor of more detailed unit and army management leading to expansive and satisfying battles against the AI and other players.  The graphics and UI options may seem somewhat dated by modern standards; but with the RTS market so sparsely populated gamers will be hard pressed to find a more satisfying RTS experience than Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War.

Dear Mindy: Steam and the Steam Client

With the digital age in full swing it should be no surprise to any of us that the digital distribution of computer and console games has not only become a major part of the industry but also a preferred part for the emerging and existing gaming communities alike.  There are several digital download platforms providing the gaming community with quick, 100% digital access to games but Steam, the platform developed by Valve Corporation and released in 2003, is by far the biggest and most well known.

Steam itself is completely digital and shares features with online matchmaking, online stores, blog forums, and cloud databases, and even wiki pages.  Steam is available to computer and Playstation users and requires an active internet connection for most of its features; although games with single player modes can be accessed and played offline.

The services the Steam Client provides can be grouped into three broad categories: Steam provides a game library, a place to purchase those games, and a forum and profile system where a gamer can meet and communicate with other gamers.  The Steam Client itself is the interface through which gamers access Steam’s services.  Newcomers to Steam create an account online, then download the Steam Client onto their desktop.  Through the Steam Client gamers can browse the store for new releases, sales, and of course view Steam’s ever increasing library of games.

Games purchased through Steam and added to the gamer’s profile and can be downloaded onto any computer that the gamer installs the Steam Client onto.  A library keeps track of all purchased games, installed or otherwise, and Steam automatically downloads patches and updates to all installed games (these settings can be changed by the gamer).  Gamers can also access guides, forum discussions, and downloadable content (DLC) for their games through the Steam Client.

Perhaps one of Steam’s best features is the ability for gamers to find friends who also use Steam.  ‘Friends’ can view each other’s profiles, send messages through a simple instant messaging system, and receive updates on what games their friends are currently playing.  Steam’s invite system allows multiplayer between friends to be seamlessly and swiftly initiated.

Although Steam is managed by a game company with its own products, Steam offers thousands of titles, including several main franchise such as Elder Scrolls, Half-Life, and Fallout.  A select few titles already owned in CD/DVD format can be unlocked by their owners who then receive the digital versions for free.  Purchases on Steam are facilitated through a number of options such as the Steam Wallet, Paypal, and direct credit and debit card transfers.  Gamers receive a digital receipt and the game is added to their library to be downloaded at their convenience.

 

Dear Mindy: The basics of the gaming community

Greetings all; this is the introductory post for a special series of features highlighting the basics of the gaming community, specifically tools that facilitate online gaming and interaction as well as basic conventions that influence gaming life.  Most readers will no doubt be familiar with most if not all of these elements, and that’s not only fine but good for all of us gamers.  The information in our following Dear Mindy articles is primarily for those new to gaming or at least to the major online aspects of it.

For everyone not familiar with programs like Steam and Origins or services such as Mumble and Battlenet it is my objective to inform and assist you with these posts.  If you find this helpful in any way please refer your burgeoning gamer friends to the information presented here that they too may experience the myriad options available to gamers of all levels and preferences.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth

Its inevitable that successful book, and to a greater degree film, franchise will spawn numerous titles in different media.  The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth is not Electronic Arts’ first foray into J.R.R. Tokien’s Middle Earth but is certainly EA’s best.  Following on the heels of Liquid Entertainment’s and Sierra Entertainment’s The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring, The Battle for Middle Earth is the second real time strategy game to be set on Middle Earth during the War of the Ring and events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Unlike many previous game titles The Battle for Middle Earth is based exclusively off the interpretation of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

The Battle for Middle Earth takes a new approach to RTS play.  Bases are now constructed from pre-located build slots in circular base layouts of varying sizes, each categorized by the number of building slots it provides (i.e. a stronghold provides six build slots while a citadel provides eight).  Units are unlocked as their production centers level up through increased use.  Most troop units come in groups, with five being standard for cavalry and human units while ten is more common for orcs.  Upgrades are applied to each individual unit for a price and remain fixed, even if the unit suffers losses.  Special powers, familiar to players of EA’s Command & Conquer Generals, make a comeback as special or passive abilities acquired by purchasing them from a tree that unlocks more options as the player purchases more powers.  Power points are acquired through destroying enemy units and structures.

The power trees are divided between good and evil teams.  In the campaign these are shared by the two factions that make up each team, but the trees are split in multiplayer with the factions sharing some powers but keeping others for themselves.  The four playable factions are the great participants in the War of the Ring: Gondor, Isengard, Mordor, and Rohan.  Good and Evil aligned factions share similar traits, for example only Good aligned factions can build walls and only Evil aligned factions have powers that boost their economic ability.  In keeping with the thematic presentations of the films each faction features its own artistic style and for the most part possess unique unit and building trees.  The designs are very flavorful and surprisingly well balanced.  Some factions lack the diverse build options of others (Isengard is pretty one-dimensional and Rohan can only choose from six units) but their unique designs leave few holes for enemy teams to exploit.

The heroes of Middle Earth make an appearance as well.  Seven of the Fellowship can be trained between Gondor and Rohan (only Sam and Frodo are restricted to the campaign), and these are supplemented by the royals of Rohan and Boromir’s brother Faramir.  Heroes are a lacking aspect for the Evil team, with Isengard offering two and Mordor deploying three aerial Nazgul.  These are powerful heroes, but far less flashy and unique than their good counterparts.  This is not a design error so much as a thematic choice; the Evil factions are able to field a far greater amount of troops and unit types than the Good factions, making the heroes more of a counterweight than an exploitation.

The story for the Battle for Middle Earth’s campaign is the story of the Lord of the Rings, primarily as told by Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.  Players can come to this game and reasonably expect its story to be entertaining.  Even knowing the ending is no spoiler since the outcome hinges on the player’s success in scripted mission such as the Siege of Minas Tirith or Sam’s liberation of Frodo at Cirith Ungol.  While the game’s cinematic openings may promise a grander scale than the mission’s scripting and capacity can actually deliver players trekking through the Good campaign can expect massive battles and sieges where their hero units can shine against overwhelming numbers of orcs, Uruk-hai, and trolls.  The Evil campaign is even more exciting to experience as the player challenges the established outcomes of the trilogy.  EA admittedly had to take some creative licensing with missions like Mordor’s subjugation of Harad or Isengard’s assault on Edoras, but since the Evil campaign boils down to the forces of darkness winning the War of the Ring scenarios like these are logical conclusions.

All of the fantastic elements of Middle Earth make an appearance including Ents, giant eagles, the Army of the Dead, and even the Balrog.  Battles between scripted missions generally play like skirmish battles which can lead to some repetitive experiences depending on how long the player wants to continue the campaign (the player can finish the campaign before all of Middle Earth is conquered).  However each mission has a minor bonus objective unique to that region; they don’t need to be completed to win the region but completing the objective eases the player’s fight against their opponent.  Once the player finishes a capstone scripted mission (Minas Tirith for Good and Osgiliath for Evil) towards the later half of the campaign all of southern Middle Earth is available for conquest by any of the armies the player previously used in earlier missions.

For its time Battle for Middle Earth was a graphically advanced game.  There are few flashy explosions but the minutiae of the game is very well detailed.  This does the story of the War of the Ring the service its due, but can lead to massive performance issues on a machine which runs closer to the minimum system requirements.  Little of the gameplay experience is lost on lower graphics settings, but having to play in fear of a game ending crash is a worry that can always be done away with.  As with most EA RTS games the multiplayer connection can be finicky during launch; dropping players for no apparent reason.  Thankfully this is not a crippling side effect; it has no long lasting effects and is a fairly rare occurrence.

Playing through the campaigns for the Good and Evil teams pretty much encompasses the full single player experience.  Eighteen scripted missions and over thirty regions to conquer make for hours upon hours of gameplay.  Each faction’s full tech tree is available as the campaign progresses, with the power point special powers taking the longest to unlock.  Available skirmish maps include all of the non-scripted missions (sadly, the Siege of Minas Tirith can only be replayed through saves and new campaigns).  Supporting two to eight players with several different types player setups (some regions only have outposts for starting locations where others offer citadels).

The game’s AI is competent but not spectacular.  It follows logical paths for the deployment of infantry, cavalry, siege units and such.  However its use of powers is quite predictable and on anything below the hardest difficulty the AI’s penchant for expansion is little to none.  As a flip side however this one of the few EA RTS games were the learning curve is more stable.  Casual players may find even the normal AI to pose little challenge but the more relaxed pace allows players to level their heroes and unlock powers before the end game.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth is by far the most flavorful and thematic Lord of the Rings RTS to date with immaculate attention to detail and a very immersive and entertaining single player campaign.  Fans of the trilogy, especially the movies, will enjoy the movie references and familiar scenes.  RTS gamers may find the unique game elements confusing and perhaps boring, but like any good RTS game the heart of the experience is combat and here Battle for Middle Earth does not disappoint.  For whatever reason the Battle for Middle Earth is not available for online download through any store; but even at full price this game is worth the purchase for any player, casual or skilled, who wants to run the battles of the War of the Ring.

 

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars

After the dissolution of Westwood Studios in 2003 the Real Time Strategy market experienced a general stagnation in productivity.  Several companies continued to produce stand alone RTS titles and some spinoffs but suffered from a lack of stylistic direction as they attempted to formulate new templates of RTS gameplay separate from the Blizzard and Westwood formats.  In this period gamers were introduced to a lot of different RTS mechanics and interfaces; yet none of them were able to compare with the genre setting giants of old until Electronic Arts introduced a new title in the Command & Conquer series: Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars.

Command & Conquer 3 revived the long absent Command & Conquer series; bringing with it the familiar standards of the Westwood RTS format such as a central Construction Yard, refinery resource processing, and flashy explosive late game battles.  Most skirmish battles, multi-player battles, and single player missions start the player off with little more than a construction yard from which the player must construct a base and army in order to crush their opponents.  Base and army building follow the standard Westwood format with higher tier buildings unlocking more advanced units and abilities.  Power plants are required in increasing numbers to maintain a growing base and base defenses are divided by their effectiveness against different unit types.

The series’ principle factions, GDI and Nod, return to continue their struggle over the eponymous resource tiberium and their differing views on its terramorphic properties.  The game’s storyline picks up not long after the series’ previous title Command & Conquer Tiberian Sun and its expansion Firestorm.  Reminiscent of previous C&C games players begin the campaign with a limited tech tree; benefiting from more units and abilities as the campaign progresses.  Missions include the old RTS fares like escort missions, base defense, and territory control.  Yet unlike older RTS titles Command & Conquer 3 spices up these familiar missions with more appropriate strategies and units; often taking the unique tactical situation of each mission as a chance to introduce the player to a new unit type.  Stealth missions will utilize Snipers teams and Juggernaut artillery or Commandos and Stealth Tanks.  A feature not unheard of but seriously underused in previous RTS games.

Support powers, available on the left hand side of the screen as the buildings required for them are built, make an appearance in the mainline C&C series for the first time.  These powers require a certain amount of cash to be used and must recharge between uses; they also require a line of sight on their target.  Some powers are more useful in a multiplayer setting against human players and, sadly, many rapidly become obsolete as the tech tree is unlocked.  However many can be used to game changing effect and overall the support powers should be actively utilized; particularly in the single player campaign.

The single player campaign is undoubtedly C&C 3’s strongest feature.  Following the vein established by earlier Westwood games the campaign for both factions follows a series of story-driven missions where the player completes a series of objectives, often gradually unlocked as the player progresses through the mission.  New units and structures are made available each mission until the faction’s full arsenal is unlocked.  The enemies each faction faces vary as the missions go by and some missions will involve the player facing off against two enemies. Unlike older titles which feature supposed ‘bitter enemies’ ignoring their differences to attack the player; in C&C 3 three way battles remain a constantly fluctuating contest between all three factions (some brief ceasefires do appear).

The Scrin, a new playable race that EA has introduced to the Tiberium series of C&C games, is an alien race based off of hints and plot elements from earlier titles in the Tiberium series.  The Scrin are very dependent on tiberium and many of their strategies revolve around it; they also feature more heavily specialized units and a greater reliance on aircraft than other factions.  Although their short, unlockable campaign provides only a brief glimpse at their faction history and story it still provides challenging missions and entertaining cinematics (all CGI however).

Live action cut scenes and cinematics reappear with renewed visual splendor.  Each mission is interspersed with a live action briefing prefacing the situation the player will face in the upcoming mission and its relevance to the faction’s overall goal.  The acting and dialogue could certainly be called campy but is far more enjoyable as the characters struggle with the increasingly complex situations the game’s plot thrusts them into.  For what could be the first time in RTS history the characters actually sympathize with the player when real time situations turn grim.  Settings come alive with numerous extras and improved background visuals.  The only thing sadly missing are the old Westwood endgame videos; sadly few if any in-game units are seen in CGI animation.  In a masterful move by EA the story of C&C 3 is concise enough that players need not have played the older C&C games to follow the story (although their enjoyment of the cutscenes is enhanced by familiarity with the series).

Following on the heels of EA’s last C&C title, Command & Conquer: Generals, C&C 3 features a very vivid display with heat waves, sonic pulses, and dust clouds all beautifully rendered alongside vibrant explosions and flying wreckage.  While beautiful this does exact a heavy toll on graphics utilities and PCs with up to date graphics cards and drivers are recommended for anything beyond the barest visual experience when running C&C 3.

Skirmish mode varies little from previous C&C titles.  Map options ranging from 2 to 8 players are available and players can set the amount of starting cash they begin with as well as special options like bonus crates and allowing superweapons.  Although playing with a faction’s full tech tree is inevitably entertaining the game’s AI can be predictable and varies widely in its skill between difficulty levels making for a poor learning curve.  EA mitigates this somewhat by allowing players to select archetypes for the AI personality such as Rusher or Turtler.  Games also tend to be fast paced with the winner or loser often decided within the first ten minutes.  While this is preferable for many gamers it does deprive anyone wishing to explore and enjoy a faction’s tech tree of more than a few opportunities to test strategies and units.

Multiplayer in C&C 3 is smooth and consistent.  Sadly it suffers from the same flaws as the skirmish mode, namely predictable AI and a poor learning curve.  However the large number of map options and quick gameplay fare far better in a multiplayer setting and combine with easy multiplayer setup to allow a large number of diverse games to be played in short order.

Newer gamers, particularly those familiar with RTS games but not with older C&C titles, might find C&C 3’s rehash of Westwood’s style dated and perhaps even simplistic.  Fans of the C&C series will love this game and although EA’s touch has made subtle changes to the old Westwood formula the favorite elements of C&C, particularly its entertaining and immersive single player experience, return in new and vibrant glory.  Command & Conquer 3 brings back all that was good about old school RTS gaming.  Newer gamers will also enjoy C&C 3’s rich single player campaign.  Anyone who is a fan of the RTS genre should find this title a refreshing rework of the old RTS giants and C&C 3 by far is the best RTS game to be produced in the late 2000s.

 

Warhammer: Mark of Chaos

Since Games Workshop released Warhammer: The Game of Fantasy Battles which began its Warhammer Fantasy tabletop line the Warhammer Fantasy setting has become a prominent and tragically underrepresented franchise in fantasy gaming.  Its diverse army lists, refined combat model, and well-developed setting and narrative make Warhammer Fantasy the perfect playground for role-playing games, video games, and even movies if anyone would care to invest the effort.

All this is probably the most prominent reason why Black Hole Entertainment’s production Warhammer: Mark of Chaos deserves notice from the gaming community.  Mark of Chaos is not the first tactical strategy computer game made for the Warhammer Fantasy setting but it is the first one to integrate tactical battles, strategic army management, and hero leveling elements on a level indicative of the table-top game’s detail and complexity.

Players familiar with Creative Assembly’s Total War series will recognize many gameplay elements in Mark of Chaos such as regiments of units, rather than single unit models; static battle maps, and combat elements like unit morale and obstructive terrain features.  Mark of Chaos features a single player campaign where the player chooses to command either the Empire and Elves in a good aligned role or fight for evil as Chaos and the Skaven.  The campaign is played out through a series of what essentially amount to scripted battles where the campaign’s iconic hero and the player’s ever growing army face various challenges such as rival hero units looking to dual or organized regiments defending a strategic location.  Between battles the player may spend gold looted from their victories to upgrade the units in their army with better equipment and add-ons.  As the campaign progresses additional elite and specialized units can be recruited into their army, although each battle has a maximum number of units that can be deployed forcing players to choose what strategy to adopt in the later game.

Battles are where the single player section of the campaign shines.  Most of the units from each faction’s tabletop armies are present in the game and are very well adapted to their respective roles on the battlefield.  Cannons are long ranged and effective but slow and vulnerable to enemy cavalry units.  Monsters are equally powerful but prone to drawing enemy fire and can become unruly during combat.  The user interface is fairly simple and straightforward ensuring players can rapidly move between regiments to issue orders.  Traditional military roles are present in some form in each army with pikemen, archers (or musketeers), light infantry, and cavalry all available to balance out an armed force.

Sadly the campaign’s story does not equal the luster of the battlefield.  Voice acting is fair, with most of the cut-scenes taking place ‘in-game’ using unit graphics.  The story line itself is properly done, but rather predictable and for the most part unaffected by the player’s choices on the campaign map (except for a very entertaining choice point for the Chaos faction).  The campaign for both factions is worth playing through and the developers were generous enough to allow the player to experience most of the game’s units over the course of the missions (with a tragically notable exception in the High Elf Dragon Prince).  However once finished there is little to endear the game to further single player activity.

A skirmish mode, treated as a subset of multiplayer by the game, is available where the player can run single fixed battles.  A small selection of maps is available with three battle types.  Arena is a simple army vs army clash; Siege is similar to Arena with the objective switching to defending or conquering a fortified position, and Reinforcement where strategic points around the map can be captured to generate income that allows reinforcements to be called during the course of the battle.  These modes allow the player to experience the well implemented army and unit designs, but a lackluster AI and absence of any driving narrative quickly become repetitive.

Multiplayer follows the same options as the skirmish mode.  Up to 4 players can participate in a single battle.  A preset number of points provides the basis for players to assemble their army with stronger units costing more points.  As in the campaign each army is led by a hero unit with different powers, abilities, and focus such as army command, dueling, and personal combat.  As the part of the game that most closely resembles its tabletop roots the multiplayer has the potential to be Mark of Chaos’ best aspect but unstable internet connections can quickly ruin any session and the game lacks diversity in its map choices, particularly for Siege and Reinforcement battles.

Warhammer: Mark of Chaos is a proper forerunner to what could have been and still could be a very entertaining series of games.  Replay options are low and it features few if any groundbreaking design elements, but what it does have, namely detail, an effective control interface, and entertaining combat are all things that great tactical and strategic level strategy games should strive for and the groundwork requirements for any game seeking to faithfully adapt the Warhammer Fantasy setting.  The game is entertaining enough to warrant purchase and play-through.

After the announcement of Creative Assembly’s Total War: Warhammer it seems that Warhammer Fantasy strategy gaming is moving to a different medium but that doesn’t mean Creative Assembly and other developers can’t learn from what Mark of Chaos did right.  Games like this need to be supported at least to show developers that Warhammer Fantasy can and should become a leading title in the fantasy section of RTS and Grand Strategy gaming genres.