Command & Conquer Online: Westwood Classics

This December marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the landmark Real-Time Strategy game Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty by Westwood Studios.  Dune II was not the first RTS game to be developed but its release marked the beginning of RTS as a major genre in PC, and to a lesser degree console, gaming.  It introduced the mechanics and style that would be utilized in RTS games for the next decade, only being superseded by Blizzard’s variation of the genre after the release of Command & Conquer: Generals in 2003.
Since Dune II’s release Westwood Studios developed several RTS titles, with accompanying sequels, before its closure by Electronic Arts in early 2003.  These included the seminal Command & Conquer and its associate spinoff Command & Conquer: Red Alert, as well as a remake of Dune II titled Dune 2000 which featured enhanced graphics and improved gameplay taken from the development of Red Alert.  All of these titles stayed true to their original RTS format and nourished a thriving RTS community.


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Endless Space 2 – Prologue

Endless Space 2, developed by Amplitude Studios and published by Sega, is the direct sequel to Amplitude’s previous 4X title Endless Space and the latest release in the Endless series.  After a widely publicized and well-received early access period Endless Space 2 was released on May 19th, 2017 for PC and Mac.  As yet I have not had the pleasure of experiencing everything the new release has to offer so until there’s some real review material to present I’m going to put up some quick notes about the eager anticipation surrounding Endless Space 2.
Out of the numerous 4X titles released in the last decade few came close to matching the vaunted Civilization series’ quality and appeal as Amplitude’s last title, Endless Legend.  Endless Legend combined Civilization’s highly accessible user interface with the Endless series’ science-fantasy mythos and invigorating territorial control mechanics to make a 4X experience that was able to capture and hold a player’s attention across each game’s progression.  The enjoyment remained consistent across single player and multiplayer and a new take on 4X diplomacy, while not perfect, kept competitive and cooperative play intriguing.


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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, developed by Relic Entertainment and published by THQ in 2009 is the spiritual successor to Relic’s initial adaptation of Games Workshop’s dystopian sci-fi tabletop game, Warhammer 40,000.  Dawn of War II has enough relation to previous titles in the series, namely in the its single player narrative, to warrant its claims as a sequel, but fans of the series will quickly recognize the numerous differences that make this follow-on radically different from its forebears.
Dawn of War II takes much of the inspiration for its gameplay mechanics from Relic’s other successful series: Company of Heroes.  Combat consists of controlling a single, iconic commander unit and small squads (three to four soldiers) of specialized units.  Cover is scattered around the map and divided into light and heavy cover which are identified by yellow and green movement markers respectively.  Larger units and some special abilities demolish cover, exposing any troops that were sheltering behind it.
Each unit available to the player fulfills a particular role and is rarely, if ever, made obsolete by advances in production tiers.  The standard format for each faction’s army consists of light scouts, adaptable main infantry, fire support and anti-armor infantry, super-heavy infantry, and light and heavy vehicles.  The average combat force generally consists of six to eight infantry and one to two vehicles, in the campaign missions the force is limited to four units and the commander.
This style of gameplay actually hearkens more to the tabletop game’s most common format than it does to the original Dawn of War.  The Warhammer 40k universe is well suited to this style and it allows the campaign missions to come off as flavorful, immersive, and dynamic.  The characters take on more importance to the mission and to the player when each individual unit counts for something when the lead starts flying.
Yet this small squad format departs heavily from Dawn of War II’s predecessors.  Large scale combat between armies was far more frequent in previous games and hero units, while still strong, served more as unique tactical assets rather than linchpins around which to form a strike team.  In emphasizing small unit tactics Dawn of War II removed the galactic scale and sense of endless war from Warhammer 40k.  Missions are engaging, but the player rarely gets a sense of how great an impact the victories are having on the conflict as a whole.  Enemy forces, while always numerically superior and still dangerous, seem passive and underwhelming.
Dawn of War II’s campaign follows loosely after the events of the previous Dawn of War series and continues to follow the series’ protagonist faction, the Blood Ravens space marines.  Several characters from previous campaigns appear as AI controlled allies or in cutscenes.  The player controls a Force Commander that serves as his/her avatar and can be named by the player.  Several squads of space marines, each representing a different combat type, serve as the force under the player’s command and are each led by a character that provides flavor and narrative throughout the campaign.
The campaign is played out over three planets.  More missions with varying objectives, including side missions that provide benefits but do not advance the main story, become available as the campaign progresses.  Strategic play is measured in days, with players allowed one deployment per day, although they can gain additional deployments by achieving a high score in missions or completing certain objectives.  Most missions consist of the Force Commander, and whatever squads the player chose before launching the mission, landing planet-side on a tactical map representing desert, jungle, or urban terrain.  The player’s forces progress across the map taking tactically important locations before progressing towards a final objective like a powerful enemy that needs to be eliminated or a strategic location in need of defense.
Dawn of War II’s single player experience is nothing if not character driven.  The slinking and slug fests of the missions would seem meaningless and wearisome where it not for the thematic import that the characters’ perspectives and personalities applied to it.  Cutscenes and in-game commentary bring the dark universe of Warhammer 40k to life, give meaning to the objectives, and explain the motivations and behaviors of the various antagonists.
These squads are also heavily customizable, gaining experience for levels with each mission allowing players to increase their squads combat and support abilities and even defining if the squad is optimized for melee or ranged combat.  Armor and weapons, in the form of Wargear, is randomly dropped by enemies or acquired as a reward for completing missions.  Wargear can be equipped to a squad during the strategic phase of the campaign and each piece of Wargear lists which squads it is suited for.
Skirmish mode lacks this character-driven narrative and noticeably suffers for it.  Skirmish battles are wearisome tug-of-war matches over resource production nodes until the player has built up a strong enough army to actually destroy the enemy’s command center.  In fact the command center, while poorly defended, has so much health and armor that a match’s finale usually consists of one to two minutes of units shooting at a building.  All races and units are available in Skirmish mode thus maintaining some interest for players willing to put up with the repetition for a chance to try out new units and abilities.  However these flashy toys are wasted on a predictable and repetitive AI.
Multiplayer serves as a balance between the two, with the presence and challenge of human opponents compensating for the simple objectives and generic maps.  Dawn of War II is well supported for online play and its integration with Steam’s network makes matchmaking and setup a simple process.  Players are likely to get the most enjoyment out of head to head matches, as opposed to team games against the AI, but this certainly decreases appeal among casual gamers.
Dawn of War II’s close-in, tactical focus demands high performance from graphic and audio processors.  Modern machines are sufficient to run the game smoothly, but any models introduced before Dawn of War II’s release will struggle at higher performance settings.
The shift in mechanical style the Dawn of War II introduces ultimately produces a dichotomy in the game’s appeal to fanbases.  Players that enjoyed Company of Heroes will likely enjoy Dawn of War II’s single player experience if they choose to enjoy Warhammer 40k’s narrative.  Fans of previous Dawn of War titles can still get a thoroughly satisfying experience out of the bloody, lore-heavy storyline but will find skirmish and multiplayer to be lackluster, repetitive, and restrictive.


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Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 was developed by Westwood Studios, officially re titled Westwood Pacific, and published by Electronic Arts in 2000.  The fourth Real-Time Strategy title in the Command & Conquer franchise; Red Alert 2 was the direct sequel to Red Alert and followed its predecessor thematically and mechanically.  It would be followed in 2001 by an expansion pack, Command & Conquer: Yuri’s Revenge, which added a third faction as well as additional units and fourteen new single player missions split up into two campaigns.
Red Alert 2 was also the first title to be finalized after Westwood and Electronic Arts had completed their merger and did not suffer the development problems that had plagued the previous title in the series: Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun.  It also reflects some of the design changes that EA would begin to implement in the series, such as an increased focus on setting-based tropes (in this case Golden Age America and the Cold War) as well as a gradual lessening of the dichotomy that factions had displayed in previous games.  Yet EA wisely chose to keep the story premise largely intact and to build closely off of developments that had occurred in Red Alert.
Red Alert 2 picks up where its predecessor left off.  The Allies defeated the aggressive Soviet Union and established a puppet government to oversee reconstruction.  Thus the Allies, including the newly arrived United States, were caught completely off guard when the Soviets began a secret re-militarization and launched a surprise attack on the United States from three directions.  Initially the other Allied nations are not involved, but gradually join the war effort as Soviet aggression continues.
The player takes the role of a specially appointed American commander in the Allied campaign, or an up-and-coming Soviet commander in the Soviet campaign.  Most of the missions take place in the United States and its territories, with Europe and Russia itself also featuring a number of locales in various missions.  The missions, and the regions they take place in, are heavily thematic and geared towards making the game’s challenge, and Cold War feel, the centerpieces of design.
The Command & Conquer series always did a masterful job keeping the player at the center of the campaign’s narrative.  The most important battles of the conflict serve as the missions of each campaign, with the commander taking a pivotal role in either stopping the Red Menace for good or completing the final conquest of the various Allied nations.  The cutscenes and in-game cinematics are campy and perfectly reflect Golden Age Cinema techniques; they also don’t distract the commander from the RTS experience, keeping such elements as moral choice and NPC involvement to a minimum.
The portrayal of in-game units in the cinematics, as well as the perception that the commander is one of the first officers to gain access to new technology when it becomes available, keeps the immersion throughout cutscenes and missions.  Some missions contain segments where particular units are required, but for the most part the player may choose whatever strategy that their current unit roster will facilitate.  More advanced units and buildings are unlocked as the player progresses through the campaign; in multiplayer each faction’s roster is completely available for use.
Westwood RTS products have always been a little finicky when it comes to multiplayer games, but Red Alert 2 had a strong online following in its heyday, although it was admitted that the vanilla game was unbalanced in several aspects.  Connection issues once a match has begun are rare and often more indicative of localized malfunctions instead of issues with the game itself.  In the present day no public servers exist for online matches, but community run servers are still available for games between friends.
Red Alert 2’s AI does what it can given the conventions of RTS design at the time.  In the campaign the AI can prove to be a very enjoyable opponent given its terrain advantages and often superior positioning.  Most campaign missions are also of a substantial duration and can be accomplished through multiple strategies and tricks, warranting each faction’s campaign at least two-playthroughs.  The Skirmish AI suffers without its campaign bonuses, as it follows predictable patterns and often fails to keep consistent pressure on the player.  There are even cases where the AI will stop trying after a suffering a certain degree of setbacks.  Yet for all its weaknesses, Skirmish mode does allow players to explore the game’s nuances at their leisure and test the capabilities of units in a more relaxed environment.
Red Alert 2 is widely considered to be one the of best Command & Conquer titles of all time.  Its combination of fast-paced dynamic combat, traditional mechanics, and campy fun appealed to a wide range of gamers and also made it easy to learn and enjoyable to explore.  Ironically the expansion pack Yuri’s Revenge upset that balance in the online arena, but self-imposed moderation in the online community as well as a host of balancing mods have kept the core game’s online experience intact.  Red Alert 2 marks the high point of RTS gaming in the industry’s history and rightly remains one of the most beloved RTS titles of the first decade.


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Red Alert 3

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 is a real-time strategy game developed and produced by Electronic Arts, released in late 2008.  EA had finally gone back to a longtime staple of the RTS genre, eight years after the release of the previous title in the series, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, and five years after closing down Westwood Studios, the original developer of the Command & Conquer franchise.  EA had already released Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars in 2007 to great success and was wisely pursuing its foray into RTS with a revival of the other half of Westwood’s RTS legacy.
Red Alert 3 follows roughly the same formula of its predecessors.  Players construct their chosen faction’s base around a central building alongside such requirements as power and proximity between structures, as well as requirements for unlocking higher level structures and units.  Units are produced from their respective production facilities and Red Alert 3 features land, air, and naval combat, with many units capable of transitioning between these battle spaces.  Resources take the form of ore, which in previous Red Alert titles was represented by fields of golden nuggets, but in Red Alert 3 has been boiled down to a neutral mine structure, reminiscent of Warcraft style gold mines, that harvesters automatically collect from.
Three factions are playable in Red Alert 3.  The Allies and Soviets return with many familiar units as well as completely new developments, and the Japanese Empire of the Rising Sun is introduced combining tactical and strategic elements of both sides.  The Soviet faction focuses on overwhelming numbers and powerful tanks and warships.  The Allied faction features more heavy combat units than in previous Red Alert titles but still emphasizes defense and long ranged, powerful attacks.  The Empire of the Rising Sun strikes a balance between the two with large numbers of adaptable, hard hitting units.
Three story campaigns allows players to fully utilize each faction as they play through the faction’s path to eventual victory in the three-way war that dominates the main plot.  Here is where Red Alert 3’s innovative failures start to show.  Instead of picking up where the series last left off, the current story begins by erasing everything that occurred in the previous games.  The campaigns commence with a three-way brawl that plays out as a series of loosely connected missions chosen more for their memorable locales than for their relevance in the strategy of global war.
Red Alert 3 is the first Command & Conquer title to introduce campaign co-operative play, allowing two players to proceed through the missions against the AI.  In single player mode a friendly AI represented by one of the faction’s characters takes the place of the second human player.  This marks one of the first RTS titles to take the step into co-operative story modes and the missions are well balanced around them.
Unfortunately they are a bit too well balanced and suffer when a co-op player is not present.  The AI replacement for a second player tends to lack the strategic finesse and resilience of a human player.  While the player is still fully capable of handling the mission alone the imbalance of proficiency makes many of the challenges, especially timed missions, frustrating and stressful.  Additionally the co-op feature was hosted through GamepSpy servers which were shutdown in 2013, rending the feature useless without a third party server hosting.
EA didn’t spare any expense when adding its own innovations to the Command & Conquer formula.  The shift to mine based resource harvesting, the addition of unique abilities and modes for each unit, and the emphasis on rapid, high cost battles are all new to Command & Conquer’s style of play; and they don’t necessarily mix well.  Strategic management and defensive tactics take a backseat to rapid key-binding skills and fast paced reactions.  Units are, on average, lightly armored and heavily armed making battles costly and quick.  The one-dimensional resource system also prevents the player from increasing or otherwise modifying their income without simply capturing more mines, a situation compounded by the fact that the limited income is rarely able to supply enough forces to hold off enemy attacks and secure a new location simultaneously.
Red Alert 3’s graphics introduce another of EA’s innovations, the Sage 2.0 graphics engine.  The engine provides bright and somewhat cartoonish effects, which given the game’s camp portrayal is actually appropriate.  The graphics moved easily even on modern machines of the time and most devices should have no trouble operating it.  Sadly multiplayer for Red Alert 3 is officially non-existent, although third party servers provided by C&C Online support multiplayer and co-op.
As far as strategy games go Red Alert 3 is a fair presentation.  One of EA’s traditional failings is to take familiar titles and re-brand them with what it believes to be market selling points, usually patterned off of Blizzard games.  This is effectively what has been done here and many Starcraft players would recognize familiar traits and tropes in Red Alert 3’s gaming style.  The game itself is entertaining although the story-line sacrifices immersion for comedic presentation.  Yet as it is Red Alert 3 falls from a continuation of a legendary RTS series to just one more title among many in the strategy gaming market.


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Small World 2

Small World is a strategy board game, published in 2009 by Days of Wonder.  It is also hardly something that would seem at home in the realm of computer games.  Yet in 2013 Days of Wonder released Small World 2, a digitized version of the game for computers and mobile devices.  The game is available on Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux; the Appstore for Apple devices; and GooglePlay for Androids.
In the far off ages of early computers, particularly the late 90s and early 2000s, desktop computers came with a complement of simple games like Solitaire, Hearts, and Chess.  These games were very simple, easily to repeat, and required little on the part of the gamer to utilize and enjoy.  Small World 2, being a digital projection of a token-based strategy board game, follows a very similar vein.
A game of Small World 2 consists of a static landscape with plain, hill, mountain, swamp, forest, and ocean terrain tiles.  Players are given an option to choose a randomized mix of race and type, the type being a single word that describes the style of mechanic for that race.  Each race and type comes with a special ability.  For example the Troll race always places a lair when placing a token on the board.  If the Troll race had the Mounted type, the Trolls would get a bonus to taking over occupied plain and hill tiles.  The game features over two dozen different races and types with no limits on which types and races can be mixed.
Each race and type comes with a number of tokens.  These tokens are placed on tiles of the map that the player wants to control, with each tile providing one victory point per turn.  When the player runs out of tokens their chosen race goes into decline.  The tokens are flipped over and continue to generate points, but can no longer be moved and their abilities cannot be used.  There is no limit to the number of times players can put their races into decline, however it normally takes a full turn to put a race into decline.
On a player’s turn they take all the tokens in their pool and begin placing them on valid tiles.  Normally a tile requires two race tokens to be initially occupied with an additional token required for each enemy token on that tile, if any.  Once all possible tokens are placed, the player can redeploy excess tokens (only one is required to hold a tile once taken) to other friendly tiles, then end the turn.
A four player game runs for nine turns and the player at the end with the most victory points is the winner.  Territory control is the obvious method of winning in Small World 2 and there are a number of ways to go about this.  Other players’ tokens can be eliminated by placing a superior number of tokens onto their occupied tile.  Only one token is lost during a hostile takeover, any excess tokens are returned to their player’s pool.
Some races and types have abilities that generate additional victory points for occupying certain tile types like forests, or for controlling certain locations like mines or mana nodes.  This allows some races to gain a large number of victory points without being spread too thin.  On the flip-side it is rare for such sites or locations to border each other, and tokens can only be placed an tiles adjacent to a tile that is already controlled by the same player.
The game board and available races and types don’t change over the course of games, but they don’t really need to.  It’s the combination of races and types that keep Small World 2 new and interesting over each play-through.  Different threats and options necessitate different strategies each game, yet through all the random shifting the moves and actions required of the player never really change and that is what makes Small World 2 a simple yet attractive distraction.  Players can relax in front of the computer enjoying the art and shenanigans of the AI or their fellow players while trying out whatever strategy suits their whims.
Small World 2 features a single player mode against up to four AI opponents and a multiplayer mode against up to four human players.  The AI can be predictable and easy to manipulate, but is quite random and very well served by the random assortment of races and types generated anew for each game.  There are no teams in Small World 2, but depending on the races and types available players don’t necessarily need to fight each other to achieve victory, although such situations are rather rare.
As a stop motion board game with about eight different sounds the Small World 2 has very enjoyable, cartoonish visuals and practically no operating requirements.  The games are turn-based and playable on the lowest level of internet connections.  The animations of AI movement and tile scoring at the end of each turn can drag on, but the game does feature a skip-phase button speeding up the process.  The average load time in Small World 2 is about 0.8 seconds and the game can be saved and closed with the push of a button at any time making it one of the most manageable distractions available.
Small World 2 doesn’t break new digital ground and doesn’t awe with graphics and design, but that isn’t the point.  This simple adaptation exists merely to entertain the average gamer, or even just the average computer user, in a casual way.  It might seem like a meaningless distraction given all of the impressive current and future titles in the modern market, but if a gamer ever desired a little simplicity in their day Small World 2 is the game to turn to.


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