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.