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.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane

By the time Paradox Interactive released one of its titles set in the Majesty universe game setting in 2012 the 4x genre was well established with the Civilization series and its latest iteration Civilization V serving as standard bearers.  Warlock: Master of the Arcane takes many traditional elements made popular by these other titles and adds a strong fantasy combat aspect to it.  Indeed, saying that Warlock is a ‘fantasy Civ V with more combat’ would be a pretty accurate summary of the game’s overall appearance and performance.

Warlock, despite its similarities, was not meant to be a Civ V clone but rather uses reliable mechanics of 4x play to facilitate its new concepts of fantasy adventure and conquest.  Domestic management, particularly in the areas of ideology, policies, and great people are toned down or practically non-existent.  The centrality and dynamics of military conquest takes a prominent, almost central role with each faction featuring its own unit and unique building roster and special Lord hero units appearing to add their considerable ability to a faction’s might.  Spells also make a significant appearance, providing the only element that could be equated to technology as the spells must be researched before they can be used.

As with many 4x games the storyline is oriented around the characters that represent a faction’s leader, in this case the Great Mages.  When selecting a Great Mage the player can view several paragraphs of biography and backstory.  This ties into the in-game lore, accessible when clicking on the portraits of units, and to a lesser degree the narrator’s exposition when the player achieves victory.  Aside from this there is little story to be found, with most of the in-world immersion coming from interaction with AI Great Mages and the exploring of the uncharted Ardanian landscape.  While this does effectively limit the game to one mode in singleplayer and multiplayer this is not a major detriment to the enjoyment of Warlock.  Just as in other 4x games the narrative is primarily crafted by the player.  Players can even customize or create their own Great Mages by choosing a portrait, name, faction color, race, and starting spells or abilities.

Other prime elements of single player enjoyment stem from exploring Ardania and parallel worlds.  With each new game resources, monster lairs, and neutral cities are randomly generated offering new challenges each time a new game is begun, ensuring that each race can be thoroughly tested before the process becomes routine.  Sadly the AI is less lacking in staying power with limited diplomatic ability and generally simple (if sometimes effective) defensive tactics.  The world’s monsters however form a vastly greater threat, particularly in pursuit of holy sites or rare resources in the parallel worlds.

Although multiplayer doesn’t exactly bring anything fresh to the experience of Warlock (aside from the obvious benefit of another human) the game is fairly easy on internet requirements.  It’s turn-based play is sadly limited to the active player, no simultaneous turns are present, but as a turn-based game with little in the way of In-between-turn processes the game experiences little variance in bandwidth requirement.  Unfortunately random crashes can be more common than one would like and frequent saves are recommended.  Several patches have ensured that primary functionality are maintained so simply playing the game is unlikely to induce an error, yet with the release of Warlock 2 further multiplayer support is not to be expected.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane for all its flaws is a masterful first step in what could become a very entertaining and endearing series.  Warlock 2 (which will be discussed later) follows in its steps with many improvements and gives great credit to everything Warlock served as a proving grounds to develop.  Warlock’s games are lively, humorous, and for the most part fairly prompt with a fair amount of customization options for players to explore.  Any 4x player, skilled or casual, who wanted to see fantasy and more combat in their Civilization games will be more than satisfied with what Warlock: Master of the Arcane has to offer.

Rome: Total War

The third in Creative Assembly’s line of Total War games, Rome: Total War was hailed as a hallmark title in the series and one of the greatest games of its genre.  Like it’s predecessors in the Total War line, Rome: Total War follows a formula of turn-based strategic gameplay where players manage a single faction’s cities, family members, and economic and military capacity to conquer a historical region of the world.  In this case it is most of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.  These elements are backed up by, occasionally optional, real-time tactical battles where the armies raised and equipped in the strategic map are deployed to engage each other in a very well rendered battlefield with terrain and climate indicative of the region it represents (the Balkans in the winter are snowy and dark while Asia Minor shines with golds and greens in summer).

Rome: Total War is an example of fully comprehensive grand strategy done right.  It achieves a very harmonious balance between the detail and sometimes drudgery of global economic and political management with the thrill and challenge of real-time tactical combat.  These elements are also seamlessly blended together, with properly managed economics allowing for powerful units on the battlefield and successful military actions in real-time, such as holding a critical town from a superior foe, paying very high dividends on the strategic scale in allowing your other armies to concentrate elsewhere.

In the game’s main campaign the player takes control of a faction from the Classical period of Mediterranean history, which is initially one of the three fictitious but very colorful Roman sub-factions but eventually includes several of the other historical powers of the time such as Carthage, the Greek Cities, and Ptolemaic Egypt.  The game clocks the passage of time through turns which divide a year between summer and winter with the game beginning in 270 BC and ending in 14 AD.  In that time-frame the player must conquer 50 provinces (15 for a short campaign) and capture specific objectives such as Rome itself.  Obviously military conquest is the only way to accomplish this, but a strong army can only be raised and maintained through effective economic, diplomatic, and cultural manipulation.

The entire world map is divided into provinces with a city representing the wealth and capacity of each province as well as the means to take control of that province.  Cities generate wealth through agriculture, production, and commerce and serve as the training centers for military units and special agents like spies and diplomats.  Cities grow in population based on their public order and local food productivity, eventually turning into metropolises which provide increased income and defense as well as unlocking the final tiers of production and economic buildings.

The player’s effect on their faction is represented through their faction’s family.  The family is composed of male characters who serve as generals when on the march or in battle and governors when stationed inside the city.  Generals come with powerful cavalry bodyguards and inspire their armies to fight more effectively when present, making your family a valuable asset in conquest.  Additionally family members are born and die as the years pass making family management important.  Promising heirs must be preserved from death and plague while incompetent administrators should be out of the city and on the march.  If a faction’s family is wiped out the faction dies with it, their units becoming leaderless rebels.

The main campaign, which comes in short and long versions, is the primary element of single player in Rome: Total War and features all the elements of the Total War series.  All playable factions are unlocked after the short or long campaign are completed as a Roman faction.  These factions range in degrees of power and culture across Europe and the Mediterranean allowing for a wide degree of replay options.  Although base-building and family management remain essentially the same among the factions, unit and building rosters, as well as the power and circumstances of neighbors, changes dramatically allowing new strategies to be employed and new enemies tested.  Some of the most spectacular challenges can come to those factions farthest from Rome who will have to face the three Roman factions in the later game where their power is better represented.

Single player also offers historic battles where the player takes control of an army on one side of some of the famous battles in Classical history such as Hannibal’s more notable battles or the Roman defeats at Carrhae and the Teutoberg Forest.  Single player and multiplayer also feature the custom battle option where a predetermined amount of funds is used by the player(s) to assemble and upgrade an army chosen from the unit roster of any faction in the game, including ones non-playable in the campaign.  This only adds to the many options players have to enjoy the rich variety that Rome: Total War brings.  Ambitious players can construct their own ‘custom campaigns’ by battling factions across the different regions represented by the custom map choices.

Without doubt Rome: Total War introduced new elements to the series and to a lesser degree the genre as a whole.  Graphics moved from 2D to 3D, user interface was improved, and greater detail and control was added to the world.  Players were given an increased degree of control over their faction family and unit command and maneuver on the battlefield was greatly improved; indeed many would argue that such tactical effectiveness among formations has yet to be equaled in another Total War game.  Many changes that have appeared in later Total War titles such as real time naval combat, increased model detail among units, and more balance among factions might cast Rome: Total War as antiquated.  However for all its shortcomings Rome: Total War outpaces its predecessors and successors in the combination of detail, simplicity, and enjoyment.

Author’s note:  Rome: Total War has often been criticized for claiming to be historical but featuring many ahistorical aspects, the most notable of these being the three Roman families that together form the Roman faction.  While it is true that many of these elements are fictitious it is important to remember that Rome: Total War is a war game designed to entertain, not a historical narrative designed to teach.  Indeed many of the invented elements make the game more exciting by expanding the role of historically small, elite formations like the Spartan Hoplites into the military vanguard of a vast fictional empire.  Additionally, and I might add on a level that has yet to be achieved by any other Total War game, the vivid coloration of the factions aids greatly in rapid identification of forces on the battlefield.   Though not viable as a presentation in a history seminar Rome: Total War more than suffices for its intended purpose of thorough entertainment.

Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings

The Age of Empires series, originally developed by Ensemble Studios and later published by Microsoft Game Studios after Microsoft acquired Ensemble Studios in 2001, was a relatively late comer to the RTS genre.  Yet it quickly became a hit for the industry and would go on to establish an impressive and iconic legacy in the gaming community.

Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings follows its predecessor Age of Empires as a period development and expansion game.  Players take one of thirteen civilizations (eighteen with the Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Expansion) from Dark Age hunter gatherers through three following ages of technology into the Imperial Age where they deploy highly advanced armored cavalry, heavy infantry, and siege equipment to destroy all who oppose them.

Players start with the central Town Center, a universal drop off point for resources and the only building that can train the resource gathering villagers and research the advancement tech to a new age.  Villagers collect four types of resources (food, wood, gold, and stone) which are scattered around the map.  Since these nodes are not always near the Town Center villagers may construct repositories like Lumber Camps and Mills to shorten collection time.

Villagers also construct all of the game’s buildings and remain valuable, and oh so vulnerable, through the game.  Several military buildings serve as training sites for the games different types of combat units (Barracks for infantry, Archery Range for all ranged soldiers) and a single Dock building serves as the production center and resource drop point for all naval related activities.  Research buildings like the Blacksmith and University develop technology to improve and refine the civilization’s military and economic capacity.  More advanced buildings are unlocked as the player advances through the ages of technology, for example all of the resource collection buildings are available in the Dark Age but the mighty Castle can’t be constructed until the player’s civilization reaches the eponymous Castle Age.

The Castle is the only building which, despite having generic architecture, is unique to the civilization.  It cannot be converted by Monks (the game’s healer unit and the only unit that can ‘capture’ enemy units and sometimes buildings) and produces the civilization’s unique unit (and with The Conquerors their unique tech).  The Castle is also a powerful defensive building and provides several strong generic technologies and units.

Overall unit design in Age of Empires II is generic.  Units are divided into the five categories of Infantry, Archers, Cavalry, Siege Weapons, and Naval units.  Each individual unit has a set of statistics for its hit points, attack, and armor.  Players accustomed to the unique faction skins of Command & Conquer or Starcraft may find the presentation a bit bland; but it is this generic approach to development that make civilization bonuses and unique units more applicable.  For example the Frankish Throwing Axeman unique unit has a ranged attack but is classified as an infantry unit allowing it to defy other aspects of the game (such as ignoring the bonuses of counter-archer Skirmisher units).

Age of Empires II is nothing if not a historically based game.  All of the civilizations, units, and even campaigns are designed after historical models.  Five campaigns are available in which the player controls a single civilization through five missions that follow a historical figure during the pivotal events of their life (like Joan of Arc’s battles against the English and Genghis Khan’s uniting of the mongol tribes and subsequent conquest of Asia).  Each mission is heavily scripted and expansive providing hours of game play.  Several different skirmish modes against AI opponents with five difficulty levels are available and Age of Empires II also includes a scenario editor allowing players to duplicate the tools used in making the campaigns to develop their own scenarios and even campaigns.

The scenario editor is perhaps Age of Empire II’s greatest asset for replayability.  With The Conqueror’s adding three new campaigns and several single mission historical battles the single player modes can provide at least forty hours of game play but restrict the player on available civilizations (many civilizations are never playable in the campaigns).  Difficulty and victory conditions can be adjusted in Skirmish mode but the AI remains generally predictable and its competency tends to degrade as games run on.  The scenario editor makes Age of Empires II the player’s sandbox and while primitive by modern standards is more than enough to flesh out the Age of Empires experience to the max.

Multiplayer is a very intriguing aspect of the game and one of the reasons Age of Empires II has remained popular over the decades.  Multiplayer uses the same settings and victory types of the skirmish mode (scenarios can also be used if the scenario supports the right number of players) but the rest is up to the players.  Using Siege Onagors to make a back door into an enemy’s base through the woods is a tactic the AI would never use and is legendary for its effectiveness.

Sadly multiplayer is touchy in Age of Empires II.  Movement in the game is rapid and a relatively strong internet connection is required for all parties involved.  Game crashes, while rare, are also a danger and can lead to a half hour of downtime.  Players living in areas of limited connectivity will find Age of Empires II to be more valuable for its single player elements.

The release of the Age of Empires II: HD Edition on Steam has revitalized the game’s relevance to the modern gaming community.  Now, anyone who expects the HD Edition to be an updated remake of the original will be sorely disappointed.  The HD Edition is not a remake, it adapts the game’s graphics to be compatible with high resolution displays and makes the game acceptable on newer operating systems.  The HD Edition also includes The Conquerors expansion and all of the original game’s modes and content.  Mod support has also been added through the Steam Workshop and a new expansion from Microsoft, The Forgotten, has added four new playable civilizations and campaigns.  This expansion, while officially published, is based off the community mod Forgotten Empires and features a noticeably unique style.  With the HD Edition players familiar with the Age of Empires series can now enjoy what is quite easily the best of this classic series and hope for continued expansion and improvement in the future.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

When I first experienced Firaxis Games’ and 2K Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the original UFO: Enemy Unknown, developed by Mythos Games and MicroProse and marketed as X-COM: Enemy Unknown, had already existed for nearly a decade and established itself and the resulting series of X-COM games as favorites of the turn-based and tactical strategy genres.  Within a few years the game had become a cult classic and would continue to be a major influence to tactical strategy, adventure, and turn based games for the next decade.  Thus its fair to say that XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as a reboot to the original UFO: Enemy Unknown, has an impressive legacy to uphold.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts its players in the role of the Commander of the XCOM initiative, a secret organization formed by a council of select nations to combat a new and mysterious alien menace that has begun abducting people around the globe.  Gameplay is divided into two parts; the player commands individual soldiers in turn based tactical combat as they go on missions to stop alien abductions, investigate crashed UFOs, and save civilians from terror attacks.  The second part of the game involves managing and upgrading the XCOM Headquarters, an underground base that the player views via a cross section type display and features the barracks, research lab, engineering department, and other areas where the player’s soldiers and resources can be managed and upgraded.

Single player is the heart of the XCOM experience.  The principle plot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown follows its predecessor: a previously unknown extraterrestrial enemy has started abducting citizens from cities around the globe.  The XCOM Initiative is an attempt by most of the worlds advanced nations to combat this threat.  It could be said that the base plot of the game is not highly original; however it’s in the execution of this plot throughout the game that the story becomes intriguing.  The aliens are expertly portrayed as an advanced and unpredictable threat, with the player having no sure way to predict where they will strike next or in what form.  As the months of in-game time pass new types of missions appear and new alien species are added to the enemy’s growing arsenal.

Following a famous trend set by earlier X-COM titles the player is ‘invited’ to become attached to soldiers in their squad.  Each soldier the player recruits starts with a random appearance (which the player can customize), nationality, and gender.  As these soldiers advance in rank they gain a specialized class which defines the abilities the player can use to upgrade their combat performance.  The soldiers can even be renamed, allowing the player to follow in the X-COM tradition of naming and designing soldiers to resemble friends and acquaintances.

There are few characters with actual identities and they play a supporting role for the player (none of them appear in combat missions).  They advise the player on new developments, serve as voice assistants, and provide a conduit for the advancement of the single player story line before and after each scripted mission.  The missions, aside from a few scripted missions that serve as boss encounters to advance the main objective, are also randomly generated based on what type of mission is currently in progress.  The terrain is chosen from a series of pre-built levels and enemies are seeded on the map (although as the game progresses higher level enemies become more frequent).

XCOM is at its heart a single player game.  It’s multiplayer aspect consists of matches similar in design to single player missions in which players are pitted against each other after selecting a team of XCOM soldiers, alien troops, or a mixture of both based on a purchasing system that is set by the match host.  Combat in XCOM is turn-based, an element that is far more forgiving on lower bandwidth connections.  Sadly no multiplayer aspect exists for the campaign mode with no possibilities for such an improvement in the foreseeable future.

XCOM’s lack of a heavily plot-driven campaign makes replayability a far more entertaining aspect of the single player mode.  The many randomly generated aspects of the game ensure a wide degree of fresh experiences; the player can select additional features for single player to add random effects for their soldiers and special missions or increase the difficulty.  The end game remains the same but the bulk of the game remains unpredictable and, depending on the player’s preferences, quite challenging.

The release of a dedicated expansion, XCOM: Enemy Within, increases replay options substantially.  New sub-plot missions and enemies are added as well as additional upgrades and features for XCOM soldiers, including a new class of soldier, the powerful Mec Trooper, through the appearance of a new type of collectible resource called Meld, which the player must gather from the enemy during missions.  Once again the endgame remains the same, which depending on the difficulty selected can feel a bit anti-climatic but overall has little negative effect on the experience.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown has many aspects which old fans of the series will recognize and enjoy.  New players may find the wealth of different aspects overwhelming at first, but the game features a tutorial integrated into the campaign and very forgiving game play on lower difficulty levels.  Also a single failed mission does not spell defeat for the player and a degree of sacrifice is to be expected throughout the campaign.  Once familiar with the game’s aspects turn-based tactics fans of all skill levels should enjoy this remake of a venerable, time-tested series.

Age of Wonders III

After a healthy experience of the Eternal Lords expansion to Triumph Studio’s latest title in its Age of Wonders series it seemed like a good time to mention recent 4x contender Age of Wonders III.  The Age of Wonders series has brought up 4x fans since 1999 and features many traditional elements of 4x play such as turn based strategic and tactical modes, city building and management, and multiple resource requirements such as gold, production, and research.

Faction design in Age of Wonders III takes two intertwined forms.  Players must choose a class from six choices (seven with the latest expansion, Eternal Lords) and a race, of which there are a total of nine with all the expansions included.  Each race comes with a set of generic units as well as strengths and weaknesses in their economics and unit abilities.  Player classes determine what the player’s faction leader class is as well as what spells, technological upgrades, and specialist units are available.  Any combination of race and class is allowed and part of a successful strategy is determining which class and race best combine to fit a player’s style.

Leaders are chosen at the beginning of a random game or scenario (and preselected in the campaigns).  Players can also create custom leaders, allowing them to customize the leader’s appearance, starting preference, and adept and mastery spell skills.  All adept skills are available at the beginning and mastery skills can be chosen once the corresponding adept skill is selected.  A leader can have a maximum of three skill selections and does not need to choose a mastery.  Skills contain a set of spells that correspond to their type (Air, Earth, Fire, and Water originally with several more added in the expansions) and are useful in supplementing racial and class strategies.

Notably among most 4x games Age of Wonders III focuses heavily on combat.  Players will quickly learn that two moderately prosperous cities are superior to one large, wealthy city.  Thus the ability to conquer new cities and protect existing ones is paramount to success.  Triumph Studios put a lot of effort into the detail of class and unit designs and perhaps the most strategically critical and unpredictable part of the game is the tactical combat mode.  Racial and class units all have their own strengths and weaknesses and most classes are not necessarily all encompassing.  The Rogue class for example has a wide range of stealth and support units and is very flexible in most combat environments.  However the Rogue class is the only class which lacks a Tier IV unit (the highest unit tier) and can be swiftly overwhelmed by more martially focuses classes.

Combat is certainly the prominent feature in the single player story mode.  Players can choose between two campaigns, with each campaign following a faction on one side of a global war for racial and ideological supremacy.  Each mission in the campaign begins with a pre-chosen leader and a small army.  A settler is usually included, although in roughly one third of the missions the player must conquer a nearby neutral city to begin building their economy.  Several types of objectives like recovery or conquest appear throughout the campaign but the usual formula for victory involves keeping your leader and hero units alive while eliminating the AI factions.

While this is a fairly common approach to campaign development in 4x games it tends to lend a fairly abstract difficulty curve to the campaign.  Oftentimes the player is simply dropped into fog of war with no ability to sustain an army no indication on the best route of exploration to take; all while the AI opponents are building up their forces and claiming treasure sites.  Additionally the requirement to keep certain heroes alive, while certainly flavorful and effective at giving the leaders importance, discourages the player from using that leader unit in all but the safest and most secure combat encounters.  It can be a frustrating feature in a game where just one wrong move or a lucky shot can turn a battle.

The Random Map and Scenario part of the single player experience has much more potential and opens up the full race, class, and leader customization options.  Scenarios are single, pre-build maps with pre-selected leaders and races for the player to choose from.  Each scenario has a storyline governing its setup but once the game begins it functions more like a Random Map with the players free to develop their chosen factions as they please.

Random Maps are blank slate single and multi-player maps for 2-8 players.  At setup the player or host can adjust such features as the percentage of different terrain types, the number of monster lairs and treasure sites, if there is an underground level to the map, and other options.  Players can start with anything from their leader with a small army and settler to a large army and a metropolis level city.

The standard AI, while certainly an able opponent, tends to be more frustrating than dangerous.  Players can usually spot an AI’s advancing army through effective use of watchtowers and/or flying scouts; yet its complete awareness of the map means it can always find any vulnerable or unguarded cities.  The AI will target wounded and valuable units in combat even if it puts its own forces in danger.  It also behooves new players in Random Map games to leave the hero resurgence option checked when generating the map as the AI is fond of attacking leader and hero units.

Most 4x fans will enjoy the familiar genre elements in Age of Wonders III.  However those players accustomed to styles emphasizing economic or diplomacy victories may find Age of Wonders III underdeveloped in those areas.  However strategic and tactical combat elements are among the most detailed for a 4x game in the diverse number of units, abilities, and options available to the player.  Players seeking familiar 4x play with a strong fantasy setting will not be disappointed in the latest of the Age of Wonders series.