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.

Armed Forces Day 2015 special: the Mammoth Tank

This week in honor of the upcoming Armed Forces Day I decided to do a special themed post about one of the Real Time Strategy genre’s most iconic elements.  This element is the super heavy unit; represented primarily by the infamous Mammoth Tank of Command & Conquer fame.

Dune II Harkonnen Devastator

Since video games have featured conflict there have been representations of colossal weapons platforms and monstrous war machines; with classic arcade games like Raiden serving as prime examples.  However it was Westwood Studio’s early 1992 development, Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, that first introduced the idea of a super heavy tank that would present itself as the single strongest unit on the battlefield.  The Harkonnen Devastator possessed the trio of firepower, armor, and atrocious maneuverability that would become iconic of such units in later games.

GDI Mammoth Tank

Dune II featured the first face of this aspect; but it was another Westwood Studios title, Command & Conquer, that would realize the super heavy tank in its iconic form.  The GDI Mammoth Tank, once again the most expensive, powerful, and slowest moving unit in the game, was notable for also being capable of handling any threat.  In addition to its main twin guns the Mammoth Tank featured missile pods that could target aircraft and infantry with devastating effect (although a bug occasionally prevented it from targeting infantry correctly).  These elements combined to make the Mammoth Tank a fearsome war machine and pinnacle of technological achievement for the player and would go on to set the standard for super heavy tanks of the coming decade.

Soviet Mammoth Tank

The Mammoth Tank itself would go on to appear in Westwood Studio’s next series of C&C games, Command and Conquer: Red Alert, where it would join the Soviet Union as the Red Army’s most powerful war machine.  With improved speed (not saying much) and more effective missile pods the Mammoth Tank was the final say in the tank rushes that became popular in RTS games during this period.

Image result for mammoth mark II

GDI Mammoth Mark II

The Mammoth Tank would even inspire a successor in the Command & Conquer sequel, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, the Mammoth Mark II.  This departed visually from the concept of the Mammoth Tank in that it was a walker unit and not technically a super heavy tank.  However it paid tribute to the Mammoth Tank’s legacy by once again serving as the biggest, baddest, most expensive, and slowest unit available.  The enormous machine’s main weapon, a rail gun, was lethal against infantry and vehicles and the Mammoth Mark II once again carried missile pods for air defense.

GDI Mammoth Mark III (production icon)

Westwood Studios, and later Electronic Arts, would go on to include an iteration of the Mammoth Tank in each game of the C&C series.  The Soviet Apocalypse Tank of Red Alert 2 would suffer from weakened effectiveness against infantry but remain the all around heaviest and most versatile unit available.  Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars’ Mammoth Mark III, once again appearing as a super heavy tank, would be challenged by other factions’ heavy units only to carry the day with its iconic effectiveness against all targets, heavy armor, awesome firepower, and air defenses.

Soviet Apocalypse Tank

 

GDI Mastodon

GDI Mammoth Mark IV

EA would conclude the original C&C series with Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight which would feature the newest editions of the Mammoth Tank and Mammoth Mark II fighting side by side. Although the walker unit would be renamed Mastodon it would surpass the Mammoth Tank by a small margin through its superior firepower against infantry.

Chinese Overlord Tank

Other popular RTS titles would take their cues from the standard of the Mammoth Tank.  Command & Conquer: Generals would introduce the Chinese Overlord Tank which, alongside its unsurpassed armor and firepower, would feature the ability to crush smaller vehicles that was pioneered in Red Alert 2 (ironically though the Mammoth Tank did not introduce this ability).  The Overlord did not come equipped with air defenses but could be upgraded with a Gatling cannon for air and ground defense.

Illustration of the Harkonnen Devastator

Concept art for Harkonnen Devastator from Dune 2000.

The Harkonnen Devastator from Dune II would be re-textured to reprise its role in Dune 2000 and later transform into a walker unit in Emperor: Battle for Dune, where it would gain increased firepower and air defenses.  Command & Conquer 3 would even expand the tradition by introducing the colossal Mammoth Armed Reclamation Vehicle (MARV); the strongest tank ever to appear in a C&C title.

GDI MARV

Since the Mammoth Tank’s arrival on the scene RTS games of all genres have aspired to design powerful, high tech units that would serve as versatile, nearly unstoppable game ending units.  This trend would progress to the Epic Unit aspect (of which the MARV is an example) that would soon appear in most recent RTS titles (more about that later). Dragons, spaceships, deities, and walkers have all followed in the Mammoth Tank’s treads to inspire fear among enemies and awe among allies as the kings of RTS combat.

Soviet Apocalypse Tank

Dishonorable mention: Electronic Arts’ production of Red Alert 3 introduces a new edition of the Soviet Apocalypse Tank that did not feature air defense; breaking the trend of all around versatility the Mammoth Tank is known for.

Age of Mythology: Extended Edition

When Age of Mythology and its expansion pack The Titans first came out in the early 2000s I was sure that Real Time Strategy games had entered an era of improvement and advancement.  Microsoft Game Studios had already delivered the stellar Age of Empires series and built an impeccable track record from which to pioneer new developments in strategy gaming.  Now, with the release of Age of Mythology: Extended Edition on Steam, I look back at the old style graphics and gameplay and realize that Age of Mythology was not so much a precursor of things to come as it was a development studio experimenting with new concepts as it prepared to embrace the new millennium.

Age of Mythology brought the myths of antiquity to the RTS genre.  Now players could command the heroes of Greek myth as they opposed legendary monsters like Minotaurs and Cyclops or marched alongside ranks of hoplites to fend off Viking raiders and their Giant allies or conquer Egypt with its incarnate demigods and mummified pharaohs.  Microsoft Game Studio’s superb attention to historical detail exhibited in Age of Empires II returns here with lore for each unit as well as an amazing variety of obscure mythical creatures to populate each of the four playable civilizations’ unit rosters.

Made back in the era when multiplayer and LAN was still coming into its own; Age of Mythology features a very well developed single player story mode.  The campaign guides the player through an ever expanding storyline with separate sections focusing on Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythology.  Alongside an engaging story and a very diverse set of challenging missions the campaign also gives players a full experience of the game’s content; familiarizing players with the differences among the civilizations and showcasing the different units and god powers.  The campaign isn’t perfect; Age of Mythology abandons the traditional method of specially scripted and constructed cut scenes and uses its own in-game graphics to animate the characters and events.  The voice acting is marginal and those characters that aren’t mythically based are rarely sympathetic and often annoying.  Occasional touches of humor alleviate the disappointment to some degree.

The wide variety of information inherit in the unique civilizations can feel overwhelming if taken all at once and the single player campaign, while long, is easily the best resource for becoming familiar with the variations among and within the different civilizations; and there are many.  Players familiar with Age of Empires III will recognize precursor elements in the choice between minor gods that represent advancements to higher ages.  Each civilization has nine minor gods to choose from, with three major gods dictating which minor gods are available.  Once a major god is chosen, the minor god choices come in pairs with each minor god offering a myth unit, god power, and set of unique technologies upon reaching the next age of development.

The game doesn’t start with the myths either.  Mundane workers and soldiers are different for each faction with the Greeks taking the traditional approach of infantry, cavalry, and archers supported by a multi-tasking villager.  The Egyptians on the other hand, while still using simple laborers, must empower their resource and production buildings with their unique Pharaoh hero to increase their productivity and efficiency.  Egyptians military units are also more specialized, with each unit designed to counter another type; unless you construct the mighty war elephants which are effective against anything smaller than them.  The Norse throw an even bigger variation by having their soldiers construct all their buildings.  Dwarf units serve as specialized gold miners and Ox Carts are mobile drop off points following the gatherers and dwarfs to each new resource node.

The differences among civilizations make for a very interesting multi-player experience.  As with all of the older RTS titles Age of Mythology’s core concepts remain the same such as base building, resource managements, and large scale unit combat.  Once the unique aspects of each civilization enter play things become much more interesting.  Different combinations of minor gods keep each civilization fresh and observing the variations in each civilization’s economic system can lead to unusual strategies; particularly where Favor is concerned.  Favor is the new resource that allows the production of myth units, the monsters that make heroes what they are.  Each faction gains favor in different ways; the Egyptians construct increasingly large monuments while the Greeks need only assign villagers to pray at their temple.  The Norse must engage in combat with their foes, with hero units gaining more favor than myth units.

Modern RTS players may find Age of Mythology’s dated graphics, somewhat simple AI, and more varied civilization design primitive compared to more recent RTS titles.  Multiplayer matches can be routine, especially against weaker AIs, but players willing to invest the time in learning the finer parts of each civilization will find many new challenges to oppose other players.  It should be remembered that Age of Mythology: Extended Edition is a remake not a sequel.  Players who enjoyed Age of Mythology in its early days will find all their nostalgia return for the modern PC.  Newer players may question the game’s novelty but some patience and a little enthusiasm are all that’s needed to find one of the finer titles in RTS history.

Supreme Commander

Those of us who remember playing Total Annihilation recall what was easily one of the most unique Real Time Strategy experiences in digital gaming history.  Total Annihilation was an ambitious game with dynamic base building, expansive resource collection, a heavily detailed unit roster, and a physics simulator that was ahead of its time.  It was the closest thing to war simulation that the technology of the 90s could bring.

Gas Powered Games, now formally Wargaming Seattle, made Supreme Commander to be the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation and in this they succeeded brilliantly.  Supreme Commander continues to capture the epic scope of strategic warfare that Total Annihilation first envisioned.  Hundreds of air, land, and naval units clash in small or large engagements in an attempt to assault bases defended by gun emplacements, artillery cannons, and shields.  A large unit roster features scores of units encompassing nearly any conceivable combat role.  Each of the game’s three factions utilize the same unit types, but subtle differences in design give each faction its own strengths and preferences in combat style.

Coming to grips with the staggering number of units and the different faction abilities is perhaps the chief purpose and accomplishment of Supreme Commander’s single player mode.  Each faction’s campaign encompasses six separate missions with each mission progressing in stages of increasing difficulty and scope as the player completes objectives.  Often the player has to start with little more than their Commander unit, a strong but critically important mech unit with tremendous construction capacity, with which they must construct a fortified base to begin driving back the enemy.  Base building and map expansion can take several hours per mission leading to over twenty hours of gameplay in single player.  This is a two-edged sword where Supreme Commander is concerned.  The first half of the campaign limits the technology tiers, of which there are three plus the mighty Experimental units, that the player can access and thus the units available.  This slow progression gives the player a chance to get familiar with units and structures as they become available. Yet the slow pace of each mission can leave players impatient for higher technology tiers.

Although the campaign’s scripted fortifications and unique terrain features can lead to impressive clashes it is in multiplayer and skirmish that the combat becomes truly dynamic.  Forty different maps capable of supporting up to eight players offer a wide range of options for multiplayer and skirmish matches.  Some of these maps are quite large and allow for multiple combined arms conflicts; while smaller maps make quick victories possible by forcing two or three player matches into close quarters.  The game’s online performance is surprisingly lenient given the large numbers of units generally on the map making most matches seamless on a wide variety of speeds.  However the enormous numbers of units that can appear with six or more players can lead to a general decrease in speed without higher end machines.

Supreme Commander’s skirmish mode is very well developed for a modern RTS.  Four different levels of AI difficulty can be chosen and the AI’s personality can be further customized with options like Turtle or Rush causing the AI to focus on specific strategies and their appropriate unit types.  While this can make the AI predictable it also makes a wide range of battles possible allowing players to determine what sort of war they are interested in fighting.

A special mention should be given to the game’s expansive zoom ability which allows players to move from up close unit examination to a map-encompassing eagle eye view.  The system is perfect for managing battles on the scale that Supreme Commander delivers and is meticulously designed for easy control and management.  The only tragic aspect of this system is that when the action heats up players tend to spend more time gazing down on a world of dim terrain features and unit markers instead of watching the colorful explosions and dramatic unit destruction.

Supreme Commander is the success story that Total Annihilation deserved to have in the modern gaming community.  With an expansive single player aspect and high potential and reliability in multiplayer it caters to any level of RTS preference.  The game features a rather high management learning curve for new gamers but its single player campaign and skirmish customization options allow players to become accustomed to the game at their own pace.  Supreme Commander isn’t perfect and suffers from unit-pathing issues, particularly among naval units, as well as a weakness for large slow operations.  Yet it is a welcome addition to the modern RTS community and a necessary experience for any dedicated RTS player.

Total War: Shogun 2

TotalWarShogunII

Ever since the release of Total War: Medieval II Creative Assembly’s Total War series has been undergoing constant changes as experiments are conducted to increase the level of depth Total War games are able to provide.  Total War: Shogun 2 has continued that development by departing from several notable aspects of the Total War genre; namely in its graphics design and technology development system.

It’s important to note that unlike other Total War games (with the exception of the original Total War: Shogun) Shogun 2 focuses solely on the islands of the Japanese homeland.  Factions, units, and architecture are homogenous with alterations of existing units and different faction economics providing the only variation among playthroughs.

Shogun 2 covers the period of Japanese history called the Sengoku Jidai or Warring States period in which the central authority of the Ashikaga Shogunate collapsed allowing the many clans of Japan to make their own bids for regional and even national domination.  Ten of those clans (increased to twelve with DLC) provide the playable factions that players can use to achieve dominion over feudal Japan.  Each faction possesses a unique faction trait which provides a single economic benefit as well as benefits to a specific type of warfare that the faction specializes in.  A few factions also emphasize alternative religious aspects providing unique challenges and opportunities when dealing with the other factions.

Analyzing Shogun 2’s campaign story is difficult for a variety of reasons.  The backdrop of events is, for the most part, historically based and most of the starting characters among the factions actually existed (albeit sometimes in different roles).  Additionally in Grand Strategy games, much like 4x games, the single player story is crafted for the most part by the player.

This blend of a simulated starting situation with personally crafted narratives creates a situation where the game’s ‘story’ as it were is quite often only as developed as the player is willing to invest in it.  Yes, characters like your generals develop certain traits that can distinguish them from others in the same role, yet how much these transform from numbers and stats in the game to living personalities is dependent mostly on the player’s immersion in the game.  This immersion is facilitated primarily by the introductory video of each faction which displays the faction’s strengths in practical terms and also introduces potential enemy factions in the surrounding area.  The motivational speeches given by generals at the start of the RTS style battles also provide flavor, with specific references to the general’s status in the faction as well as the nature of the foe.

Shogun 2 is the first Total War game to offer multiplayer co-op.  Players take turns in sequence with the host serving as first player. Mercifully players are able to manage their cities, unit production, and tech research during another player’s turn.  Co-op is shared victory for the players and during real-time battles the currently active player can gift units to the other player for the duration of the battle providing a unique cooperative combat experience.   Interaction between players is heavily integrated and de-synchronization can slow down play; however recent patching has largely removed any performance issues.

If there was a weakness in Shogun 2 it would be the homogeneous nature of the setting.  Naturally nothing more than Japanese factions fighting over the Japanese mainland should be expected from a game of this nature and focus.  The narrowed focus also keeps the central importance of the office of Shogunate, the campaign’s principle objective, as the single motivated factor and ultimate goal for the player.  Yet the similarities in faction builds, units, and for the most part religion gives play-throughs a depreciating factor of enjoyment.  This aspect presents Shogun 2’s novel co-op multiplayer as the primary factor for enjoying additional playthroughs once players have mastered Japan two or three times.

Overall Total War: Shogun 2 is an excellent showcase for the changes and improvements that Creative Assembly is applying to its venerable series.  It also provides a marvelous historical overview of Japan’s history during this period.  It shouldn’t be considered a sequel so much as a remake to the original Total War: Shogun.  It may not possess the geographic and historical scope of most Total War titles but is still a welcome and necessary, as gaming technology improves, addition to any Total War library.