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.

Endless Legend

This past year saw two notable franchises release the latest titles in their series.  For 4x giant Civilization this game was Civilization: Beyond Earth.  Beyond Earth was highly anticipated and featured many revolutionary new takes on elements of 4x play as well as radical departures from previous Civilization mechanics. Yet despite this strong contender for the 4x spotlight the Civilization series’ most recent arrival seems to have fallen behind Amplitude Studios’ latest production in their Endless series: Endless Legends.

Endless Legend is a faithful child of the 4x genre and features many of the elements of the Civilization Series to make a thorough and engaging city and civilization management system.  You build cities which use food to grow workers that can be swapped between resources to increase production or utilized to construct settlers to make more cities.  The resource types generated by tiles and produced by city buildings are Food, Industry, Science, Dust (which appears to be an amalgamation of currency and magical energy) and Influence.  Settlers are trained in cities and can be used to construct new cities in another region.  Regions are collections of tiles defined by a flashing border on the map and only one city can exist in a single region.  Each faction is unique with their own units and preferred path to victory.  Technology progresses in a series of tech web tiers, with each tier unlocking new luxury resources and strategic resources as well as upgrades for units.

Any veteran 4x player will tell you that the 4x genre is not a story-driven genre.  Indeed the appeal of single player 4x games is crafting your own story.  Take a faction that starts out with literally nothing but the clothes on their back and turn them into an empire to dominate the world; success is dependent on your choices and management skills.  Endless Legend is no different; the customization of faction perks and background info is half the fun in starting a new game.  Yet there is one important variance that Endless Legend brings and that is the Faction Quest system.

Each faction in Endless Legend has an unchanging Faction Quest which is assigned on the turn after you settle your first city.  Like the generic quest system the Faction Quest features a flavorful background or dialogue with short descriptors related to the quest objective.  Each individual part of the quest also gives a reward which varies from anything like Dust or artifacts to technologies and even heroes.  The Faction Quest provides the primary flavor for factions with each completed objective unfolding a narrative that describes the faction’s development from their first arrival on the world stage to eventually discovering the secrets of the long-lost Endless and culminated in the Wonder Victory condition.

Unless the Wonder Victory is the only victory selected the Faction Quest is not essential to the game although it is a convenient and reliable source of quest rewards.  It also does not change for custom factions, taking its cue from the baseline race chosen when developing the custom faction.  Although static and linear it is by far one of the best and most flavorful narratives ever inserted into a 4x game and makes the generally tedious Wonder Victory enjoyable and intriguing to pursue.

Multiplayer is seamlessly integrated into Endless Legends regular game mode and the game has no trouble switching between AI and human interaction (it even allows players to abandon their team and take control of an existing AI team in the game lobby after loading a save).  Turns take place simultaneously ensuring that each player stays busy most of the time and turns are only as long as the slowest player.  As with most 4x games data transfer between the host computer and the other machines is minimal and the principle source of lag is the few seconds after a new turn begins when the host updates the AI progression and activities.

The only weakness to Endless Legend’s multiplayer is its strangely bugged performance.  The game occasionally suffers from corrupted save files which are usually caused by the host computer encountering an error and crashing.  Thankfully Amplitude Studio’s has already released one patch which addressed many issues and is continuing to resolve different bugs in the game.  This problem is also curbed in part by Endless Legend’s excellent re-sync system that allows the host to manually reload the players into the game with play resuming at the start of the turn on which the re-sync is initiated.

Like all 4x games Endless Legend’s re-playability is extensive with eight base factions to try and eight different victory conditions to achieve.  Maps are highly customizable with variable terrain features such as rivers and hills as well as settings for temperature and amount of strategic and luxury resources; although this also leaves maps without flavor or a sense of setting and not a prime source of player interest.  Factions however can be customized in many different ways.

The core faction trait, Faction Quest, and faction units will remain the same but all other perks and penalties can be swapped out for new ones from a list of every perk and penalty available to each faction.  A point system with a maximum of eighty governs how many perks can be acquired with stronger perks costing more points and penalties providing additional points.   Persistent gameplay will reveal that some faction builds work better than others regardless of faction race, but the number of possible combinations is quite large and can produce of hundreds of hours of extended play.

Endless Legend’s AI leaves a few things to be desired.  Although adaptable, reactive, and surprisingly capable of adjusting to the wide variety of playstyles found among the factions the AI is diplomatically one-dimensional and heavily reliant on its starting circumstances to succeed.  AI opponents devalue truces, even when severely losing a war, and flatter or insult generically rather than based on their current mood towards you.  The AI is not totally devoid of reactive ability however; its relations will turn sour if you prove aggressive around its borders and AIs that are ‘terrified’ of you will happily embrace offers for peace and alliances, even going so far as to give gifts for free.

Yet the prime source of entertainment when replaying Endless Legend comes from making your faction grow and succeed.  The AI serves more as a barricade and additional factor for determining strategy and should not be the sole focus in the endgame.  Exploring ruins for special quests, finding new minor factions, and uncovering the best locations for new cities provide more than enough variable challenges for watching a custom faction grow from an idea to a monolithic reality.

In conclusion Endless Legend has extensive replay options with entertaining factions and superb customization options.  I am confident that the bugs in its multiplayer system will be gradually eradicated and its simultaneous turns provide for fast gameplay among friends.  This game is certainly worth the price and provides the adventurous and imaginative player with weeks’ of content and entertainment.

OPUS 1

Happy New Year good fellows; I am the San Juan Gamer and this is my blog.  I live on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, USA.

The San Juan Islands are a very rural community; quiet, artistic, with their fair share of farms and woodland parks.  They have been slower to adapt to the Information Age; even today good internet is hard to find and never comes cheap (in some areas on Orcas Island it doesn’t come at all).

This is all to preface the idea behind sanjuangamer.com.  Living in the San Juan Islands with this unusual technological environment gave the islands’ fledgling gamer culture of the early 2000s a deep appreciation for elements like gaming friends who physically lived close, games with strong single player elements, and new games which were compatible with older software and hardware.

I am not saying that mainland gaming communities can’t or don’t appreciate these elements; I am saying that the discussions here will be lead with these facts in mind:

Does the subject game have a good story?

Do elements of its design contribute to poor online performance?  

How many multi-player games can human players run against the AI before getting bored? Or in other words: what is the games re-playability?

So thank you very much for coming along and may you find many helpful, fun, and informative examinations of games new, old, and from many different genres here at sanjuangamer.com.