Galactic Civilizations III

Galactic Civilizations III is the long awaited sequel to Stardock’s enormously popular Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords and the third title in the Galactic Civilizations series.  It was published by Stardock in 2015 and has since then received two expansion packs, Mercenaries and Crusades, and a third is to be released later in 2018.  Similar in nature to the Civilization series of 4x strategy games, Galactic Civilizations holds one of the premier positions among the space 4x titles of the 21st century

At its core GalCiv III follows a familiar pattern of 4x gameplay.  Individual planets take the place of cities or settlements, with each planet featuring a number of build slots where improvements can be added to increase planetary production of such resources as research, credits, and production.  Each planet contributes to a global fund for credits and research, but utilizes production individually and production is further diversified into social production, which is used on other improvements, and military or ship production.  All planets that sponsor a shipyard can contribute their military production to the construction of space vessels.

Spaceships are the units of GalCiv and serve utility or economic roles as scouts, surveyors, freighters, and colonizers; as well as forming fleets of warships and invasion transports.  The GalCiv series is famous for its ship designer feature, a tool which allows players to customize existing spaceship templates or design new ships using the graphic components included in the game.  The customizations are cosmetic and/or practical in nature, with a ship’s role in a fleet determined by the equipment that has been applied to it.  Each ship can hold a number of components, or modules, as determined by its overall mass versus the mass taken up by each module.  Technology and larger hull designs increase the number of modules that can be applied to a ship.

Unlike many 4x games the GalCiv series has a detailed and expansive single player story arc.  GalCiv III continues were GalCiv II ended in its progression through galactic events, primarily from the Terran (human) faction’s point of view.  Yet it is not the story line itself but the universe that is built around it that forms an important part of the game’s design.  There are eight initial playable factions including the Terrans, with each of the alien races featuring their own abilities and traits derived from their lore.  Each race has built in opinions towards the other races, some of them drastically so, as well as preferred ideologies and methods of victory, and unique aesthetics for their ships.  A custom race generator is also included where players can mix and match existing traits, abilities, and aesthetics to create their own playable race.

Another factor that sets GalCiv apart is the nature of a space setting.  Ships can move onto any tile anywhere.  Certain “terrain features” like asteroid fields and nebulae can affect ship performance, but do not damage the ship or prevent its movement.  Under this system, faction borders are a much more fluid concept and are determined by the influence production and proximity of nearby planets and any starbases that the player has constructed.  This zone of influence is the sole determining factor for faction territory and planets that are swallowed up by another faction’s zone of influence have a chance to “culture flip” and convert to the other faction.

Culture flipping represents one of the sneakier ways to gain territory in GalCiv III and is primarily considered to be a pacifist corollary to military conquest.  Players can achieve a military victory by wiping out all other factions, a technology victory by researching a string of top level techs, a diplomatic victory by confirming an alliance with every remaining faction, and an influence victory by dominating seventy five percent of the planets on the map.  GalCiv III also includes the new Ascendant Victory, which is achieved by acquiring ascension crystals from randomly placed Precursor Ascension Relics across the map.

GalCiv III’s numerous factors and mechanics ensure a variable experience with each playthrough.  Not only are there multiple paths to victory, but oftentimes each race will need to modify their chosen path to counter the efforts of other races.  No aspect, especially warfare, can be neglected for too long or another race will leverage their advantages to achieve supremacy.  This encourages numerous playthroughs and makes games very unpredictable and exciting.  Unfortunately this also leads to a very steep learning curve.

Veterans of the GalCiv series can dive into GalCiv III without much trouble, but a new player will need to experience multiple defeats to learn the importance and nuances of each aspect of the game.  Much of GalCiv III’s beautiful details, like planet design and ship combat, are lost by the need to remain zoomed out on the strategic level.  Additionally, no matter how skilled a player is at managing planets, their race will always be eclipsed by other races that managed to acquire more colonized worlds, leaving all but the most experienced players at the mercy of the random-number generator.

The AI in GalCiv III is also grossly simplified and relies on inherent bonuses to match player performance.  AI attitudes towards the player are difficult to modify and trade deals tend to be heavily imbalanced.  A race that at one time was an amiable trade partner will attack without warning and races will ignore past aid if their current intolerance of you is too high.  Their level of tolerance is determined partially by behavior like trespassing in their territory, but also by factors like ideology and military strength which the player has little opportunity to modify without immense sacrifice, making most diplomatic relationships fixed from beginning.

One great strength and weakness of GalCiv III is how easy it is to modify.  The online community has already produced numerous customized features and most of the game’s files can be changed.  The level of modification increases GalCiv III’s potential immensely, but also makes it quite buggy.  It’s performance is usually stable but occasionally the game will crash or malfunction without obvious cause.

GalCiv III, as a 4x game, has fine visuals but is not too graphically demanding.  Maps with a great deal of explored terrain can cause older machines to slow down, but for the most part turns are quick and smooth and internet matches are stable even on low-bandwidth connections.  As long as the game itself does not malfunction, single and multiplayer matches can be enjoyed on most modern machines.

Galactic Civilizations III is the best 4x game to enjoy space with.  It features heavily detailed aspects of ship design and combat, planetary colonization and management, and a sense of galactic scale.  Yet all of its elements are tedious and frustrating to learn and some of its detailed design leaves the AI and the player struggling to catch up.  As a space game it is top-tier for gamers in general, but as a 4x title it will leave many genre fans with much to be desired.

Total War: Warhammer II

Total War: Warhammer II, is the sequel to Creative Assembly’s landmark title Total War: Warhammer and is published by Sega.  It is the second title in a trilogy of Total War: Warhammer games based off of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle tabletop game.  Warhammer II was released in September of 2017 and brings with it an abundance of new features to add to CA’s developing Warhammer series including a new narrative campaign, four new races, and an overhaul to many of the campaign map mechanics.

One of Warhammer II’s primary features is its new single player campaign called the Vortex Campaign.  Unlike previous DLC mini-campaigns in the first Warhammer, the Vortex Campaign covers an entirely new campaign map featuring the fictional New World continents of Lustria and Naggarond as well as the paradise island of Ulthuan and the Old World Southlands.  The campaign is also the primary delivery vehicle for Warhammer II’s new mechanics and campaign overhauls such as the introduction of settlement climates and treasure hunting.

The narrative of the Vortex Campaign centers around the Great Vortex, a siphon of magical energy that keeps the demonic forces of Chaos at bay.  The four new factions of Warhammer II, the Dark Elves, High Elves, Lizardmen, and Skaven, are each competing to gather a unique resource to perform five rituals which will grant that faction control of the Vortex and its immense magical power.  In practice this involves not only the standard Total War fare of engaging in expansionist diplomacy and warfare but also maintaining control of special resource sites and enacting the ten-turn rituals.  Players also have to fight off attacking AI Chaos armies that target their ritual sites; and they can send special AI “Intervention Armies” against other factions to disrupt their ritual attempts.

Intervention and Chaos armies always target factions that are attempting a ritual, but Warhammer II also introduces rogue armies.  These armies appear as their own distinct faction that starts at peace with all factions, but can be swayed or aggravated into attacking one or more factions.  Rogue armies also merely occupy settlements and have a more limited, and sometimes multi-faction, unit roster.

As with the starting factions in the first Warhammer, Warhammer II’s four new factions each feature two legendary lords with their own subfaction and starting locations.  Each subfaction and lord brings its own bonuses and penalties and for campaign purposes is fully independent of its other half, although only one of the two subfactions will enact the rituals for each race.  Confederation is a much more prominent mechanic than in the previous title as numerous minor factions of the four races exist and it is the only way to acquire both of a faction’s legendary lords.  However chances at confederation are highly variable among the factions, with the High Elves having an exceptionally easy time enlarging their territories while other factions stubbornly refuse even generous offers.

Each of the four playable factions’ units now have a racial trait indicative of their nature and in both flavorful and mechanical form.  The Skaven, for example, are fast and cowardly and their units will often break quickly, flee from the fight, then recover just as quickly and are ready to be sent back in.  High Elves are masterful fighters with an inherent bonus to their combat abilities, but this bonus vanishes as the unit takes casualties.

This ties in with the new climate mechanic, which causes settlements in regions that are unpleasant for a certain faction to suffer penalties to income, construction, and public order for that faction, to create very sharp distinctions between the races.  Now even though each race utilizes many of the core Total War mechanics of base and empire building they feel very alien to each other and provide very diverse geo-political, strategic, and tactical experiences.

Tactics are another critical difference between the factions that is routinely highlighted when they meet in battle.  The armies are not balanced around tech tree or unit equivalency, but in composition and application.  Lizardman infantry are naturally stronger than the other factions’ equivalents and can rarely be defeated in a straight fight.  Other factions like the precise and delicate High Elves must employ proper tactics to overcome the Lizardmen’s brute strength or routinely suffer defeat even when using their own high tier units.

The idea of tactics trumping technology has been present in Total War for decades but in Warhammer II it cannot be emphasized enough that equivalent tier units are not equivalent power units.  This is best illustrated with the Skaven, whose heavy infantry are two-thirds of the cost and upkeep of other factions’ heavy infantry, but are totally outclassed in combat.  As with all Skaven frontline units, their purpose is not to defeat their opponents in grim melee, but to hold out long enough for the Skaven’s many diabolic contraptions and monsters to get into position and do their nasty work.  Baring a complete imbalance of numbers, there is hardly ever a situation where the aforementioned scenario does not play out in similar fashion.

Warhammer II’s primary accomplishment is to introduce a campaign experience that is distinct in its form and features from the first Warhammer’s campaign, and the interaction of the factions with each other, in combat and strategy, is a critical part of accomplishing that.  Warhammer II’s Vortex Campaign is a complete package, with a fully formed campaign map and factions that clash or co-mingle in a variety of different ways depending on the player’s preferred strategies.  Many of the Old World factions from Warhammer are present as minor factions that have carved out their own small sections of the New World, thus preventing stagnation in diplomacy and combat as the player’s empire expands.

Total War: Warhammer’s cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes return in Warhammer II alongside a recently released free DLC, the Mortal Empires, which combines the two game’s campaigns into one monolithic experience as long as players own both games.  Mortal Empires can also be played in the multiplayer modes by players that possess the DLC.  The DLC is not completely finished, as the new Norsca faction has not yet been implemented, but Creative Assembly has given assurances that everything will eventually be updated.

The multiplayer connection required for cooperative play and custom battles is very low but not very forgiving with little tolerance for de-synchronization, and Warhammer II’s graphics requirements are not as easy to accommodate.  Modern computers should be able to run them without much difficulty, but higher end machines are required to truly enjoy the full experience that the detailed graphics and animations provide.  Additionally, the Mortal Empires DLC highlights the need for strong processing power as over forty factions’ moves are processed each turn.

Creative Assembly has done a masterful job providing a fully developed sequel game that fits perfectly into its middle slot while still supplying very satisfying content for single and multiplayer gamers.  Total War: Warhammer II’s difficulty curve is slightly higher for new players and it adds a few minor mechanics that are not very well explained, but fans of the first game will be able to pick it up with little difficulty.  For newer players there is a wealth of online resources and tips to help them get a handle on another superb title in the Total War: Warhammer trilogy.

Cossacks: European Wars

With the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation’s commencement fast approaching, it seemed appropriate to reminisce on the Renaissance period with a game that covers a large portion of that period.  Cossacks: European Wars was developed by GSC Gameworld and published CDV Software Entertainment in 2000.  Two expansions, The Art of War and Back to War, appeared in 2002 expanding game content with new nations, units, and missions.

European Wars is the first title in the Cossacks series and, like many of its contemporaries, features many of the standard mechanics and conventions that defined RTS titles of the era.  Factions appear as different historical nations from the 17th and 18th centuries and each brings a few unique units and/or buildings to differentiate their approaches to the battlefield.  Base building and resource collection are accomplished by peasant worker units that are trained from the central town hall.

Military units are divided into melee and ranged infantry, melee and ranged cavalry, siege and field artillery, and naval units.  All military forces are also further divided into 17th and 18th century variants and a nation’s unique units could be found in either century depending on the historical unit they represented.  Technologies, representing economic and military developments from the period, are standard across all factions although their high average cost encourages players to choose carefully which technologies they wish to invest in first.

Historical accuracy was of prime importance to European Wars’ developers and the warfare of the 17th and 18th centuries is very effectively portrayed in the types of units available, like pikemen and musketeers, as well as the tactics and unit commands that the player can utilize, such as pike square formations and artillery battery lines.  Infantry units can attack as large masses, or be assembled into a formation by combining them with a drummer and officer unit.  Formations are overall more effective than masses, but certain units only use their special attacks if left without a grouping.

Perhaps one of the most unique elements of European Wars, and the Cossacks series in general, is the presence of a fully dynamic economy.  Buildings require a fixed price to begin construction, as do units, but once produced all units require a constant upkeep of gold and food to continue functioning.  Ranged units like musketeers and cannons require a constant supply of iron during combat or they will cease to fire.  If food runs out peasants will die of starvation while military units will mutiny, attacking the player’s base if there is no gold.  A large number of peasants and mines, which the game’s massive population cap more than allows for, are usually sufficient to keep even a very large army fed and paid but players still need to beware rapid military buildup and enemy raids against their resource production.

European Wars relies on its historical setting and details to drive the themes of its content.  Several single player campaigns are included and all take place during historical European conflicts of the period.  Most feature set-piece battles were the player is given a large army and no base and is matched against often overwhelming enemy forces, stressing effective use of strategy and tactics.  These missions are widely regarded as being extremely challenging and players seeking a casual single player experience are better off utilizing the game’s custom map mode where up to seven AI opponents can be challenged on a battlefield that is semi-randomly generated based on the amounts of water, mountains, and resources the player selects.

The AI is competent enough to pose a danger to players, especially at higher difficulty levels, but its tactics are straightforward and often force the player into continual shoving matches.  The AI also tends to neglect adequate defenses at lower levels and can sometimes simply stop trying after its field armies are defeated.  The best way to alleviate this is European Wars’ multiplayer option allowing up to seven players to compete against the computer or each other.  European Wars can suffer from joining issues but is overall a simple and stable multiplayer system.

History and RTS buffs will enjoy Cossacks: European Wars’ thematic design and detailed combat mechanics.  Its pacing and learning curve are unstable and steep, but once a mastery of the economic system is acquired then learning the nuinances of Renaissance combat becomes another part of enjoying the game’s full experience.  For those interested in a more modern iteration, European Wars has received a sequel: Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars, and a modernized remake in Cossacks 3 with updated graphics and UI which is available on Steam.

Supreme Commander 2

Supreme Commander 2, which was developed by Gas Powered Games and released in 2010 by Square Enix, follows in the footsteps of the highly successful real-time strategy game Supreme Commander as a spiritual sequel to the combined arms, free-range style of combat pioneered by Total Annihilation.  The single player campaign continues the story of the three competing human factions, the UEF, Aeon, and Cybrans, and is set several years after the events of Supreme Commander.  Unlike the first game, Supreme Commander 2 did not receive a full fledged expansion, but a large DLC featuring many new units titled the Infinite War Battle Pack was released later in 2010.

At its core Supreme Commander held true to the overall conventions and mechanics of its series.  A centrally important command unit begins the construction of a base with static resource-generating structures and unit-producing factories.  Naval, air, and land units could be produced and conduct operations in their respective terrain types across the battle map.  The super-powered experimental units return from the first game with a greatly expanded role and are now divided into two tiers based on their level of power and the effect they could have on the overall battle.  These experimental units are produced from dedicated factories instead of engineers in the field.

Supreme Commander 2 begins to diverge from its predecessor immediately after the basic mechanics were established.  Tiers of units and buildings were removed and replaced by a research tech tree divided into five parts for air, land, sea, structures, and the command unit.  A third resource, research, was added to the game and is generated by the command unit as well as research stations.  Once enough research was accumulated a research point was unlocked, allowing the player to spend the point(s) on technology in one of the five trees.  Each technology had a point cost, with higher level technologies requiring more points.

Research points, and how fast a player could generate them, defined the pace of the game as only basic units and structures are available at the start of a battle.  Researching upgrades also gives units an edge over their equivalents in other factions.  This carries even more weight in Supreme Commander 2 than it did in the previous game, as many of the units were removed for a slimmed-down, standardized battle array featuring only the essential combat types such as tanks, anti-aircraft, fighters, bombers, and the like.  Instead of producing more advanced units as the game progressed, players simply upgraded their basic units with stronger technologies.

It is certainly possible to win a battle with standard units and structures, but the experimental units represent the definitive part of Supreme Commander 2’s endgame.  Follow-on units from Supreme Commander’s original experimental roster make an appearance alongside many new units and structures that cover all theaters of the battlefield.  They range from offensive units like the UEF’s Fatboy II to support structures like the Cybran’s Proto-Brain Complex.  A bit of humor is added to some units and structures like the UEF Unit Cannon, which produces ground units that it can launch across the map to land like paratroopers.

The campaign takes a lot more from Supreme Commander’s vanilla campaign style.  It features three separate arcs with one for each faction and follows new characters struggling to stay true to their morals and their faction as the fragile alliance from the first game begins to fall apart at the hands of power hungry and xenophobic military leaders and terrorists.  Missions start with minor skirmishes and challenges that grow along with the battle map into fully fledged battles.  Supreme Commander 2 takes a more restrictive approach to the battlefields; terrain now plays a greater role at restricting movement and enemy assets are often collected into a single sprawling base rather than spreading across the map at convenient or strategic locations.

The campaign allows the player to thoroughly explore and enjoy the unit rosters of the different factions, but fails to inspire any investment in the story.  The restrictive terrain serves to make the enemy AI predictable and many of the map types remove the naval aspect of the game, an element which the first Supreme Commander made sure to include in its climatic battles.  The campaign’s story is heavily generic and predictable; the player also takes the role of each campaign’s protagonist, which is a risky design move that in this case falls flat due to limited character development and stock personalities.

Supreme Commander 2 functions much better in skirmish and multiplayer where players have greater control over their strategic options.  A wide variety of maps are included in the base game and DLC, although some suffer from presumptuous design restricting maps to symmetrical team matches or free-for-all types of games.  Yet Supreme Commander 2’s matches are streamlined and do not suffer from performance issues as a battle progresses.  They also function on lower bandwidth connections and include a grace period for user lag.

Supreme Commander was not without its flaws, but these were usually a side-effect of design intent rather than a developmental failure.  Supreme Commander 2 fixed many of those flaws with faster gameplay, the removal of little-used units, and a greater emphasis on end-game combat, but it did so at the cost of many things that made its predecessor unique in the RTS market.  Units are generic and uninspiring in their battlefield roles and a lack of offensive and defensive structures leads to most matches turning into a grind-fest until one side amasses enough high-tier experimental units to overwhelm their opponents.  Much of the early and mid-tier aspects are rapidly rendered obsolete in favor of an experimental focus as the high tier units are much easier to produce en mass than their predecessors.

On its own, Supreme Commander 2 is an enjoyable game for multiplayer matches and some light RTS adventure in the single player.  Its battles are large and heavily destructive and its faster gameplay allows multiple matches to fit into a single game play session.  Yet it features nothing that truly sets it apart from other RTS titles or even to elevate it above its predecessors.  Fans of the Supreme Commander series will appreciate its battles and experimental units, and casual gamers will find it easy to learn and enjoyable to explore.  Yet anyone looking for a highly detailed or enduring RTS experience may find the first Supreme Commander to hold an edge over its sequel.

Episodic Sequels

Recently I watched a gameplay exposition and review for the upcoming Total War: Warhammer II video game, the highly anticipated sequel to Creative Assembly’s landmark title, Total War: Warhammer, set to release on September 28th.  The review itself was straightforward and highly informative and I had no trouble with it.  However it brought up an interesting point that relates directly to the nature of episodic titles in video games.

An episodic series of video games is a run of at least two titles with a single, overarching plot that runs through each title, tying the series’ storyline, characters, and even mechanics and themes together across the series.  Normally the release dates, intended consoles, and even genre of the titles don’t define if a title is part of the episodic series; content is the only determining factor.  Yet perhaps the most important aspect of an episodic series versus a franchise or saga is the proximity of each title’s release to the releases of the other titles in the series.  It’s not enough to share the title, setting, and mechanics of prequels and sequels; an episodic title must be an indispensable part of a larger whole.

In the review noted above the author commented that Total War: Warhammer II, while more polished and greatly expanded than its predecessor, was essentially the same game.  Mechanics, graphics, and user interface had not undergone any dramatic changes and had not received any significant technological advancements.  There’s no harm in expecting such development in a sequel, but the reviewer seemed to suggest that Warhammer II would only be a worthwhile product if it included such advanced changes and upgrades.

Thus is a critical difference between episodic titles and traditional sequels revealed.  From the beginning Creative Assembly had made it known that the Total War: Warhammer series would be a trilogy of interconnected titles.  During the development process Creative Assembly had also announced that Warhammer II would feature an update that would link the grand campaign single player modes of the two titles to form a unified whole.  This is one of the purest examples of episodic titles that can be found in the modern market.

Warhammer II specifically, and episodic titles in general, are indeed standalone titles and their content should be judged on an individual basis, but their quality should be taken in context of the larger series that they form an essential part of.  The lack of technical and mechanical advancement in Warhammer II doesn’t make it an inferior product, it makes it a direct continuation and expansion to the first part of the Warhammer series of Total War games.  As a stand alone title Warhammer II does include fully developed single and multiplayer components, which it should if its going to be sold at full retail price.  Yet its true potential rests in, and can only be appreciated when taken with, its place in the Warhammer series.

The Starcraft II trilogy also exemplifies these points.  Each title was released in quick succession, featured fully expanded content, and continued the plot and themes of the preceding titles.  Technology and mechanics hardly changed, but they didn’t need to in order to make each title viable and entertaining.

These kinds of endeavors should be encouraged among developers in the gaming community, particularly in the field of strategy games.  Its not unreasonable for design companies to expect gamers to stick with well-made titles if said companies continue to provide large amounts of content at proper rates and intervals, just as it’s not unreasonable for gamers to expect improved graphics and mechanics when a sequel is released four or five years after its predecessor.

Every episodic title is a healthy dose of content that eventually leads up to a massive, dramatic climax and each title should ultimately be judged by the satisfaction of gamers with that climactic finale.  There can be poorly built titles in a perfectly good and successful series, and developers should be held accountable for that, but that is done in the context of content and experience instead of technology.  Warhammer II, with enough content to justify its standalone status, is shaping up to be an exemplary title in what so far has been a very successful endeavor, and a lack of new graphic design or revised mechanics is a small price to pay for a developer to deliver on its promises.

Axis & Allies

Axis & Allies is a video game adaption of Milton Bradley’s Axis & Allies strategy board game of the same name.  Both games simulate the broad strategic situation of World War II at the beginning of 1942.  Players take on the role of one of the five great powers: Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  The original board game focused on the strategic aspects of gameplay, while Axis & Allies the video game emphasizes real time strategy combat.

Axis & Allies features three single player modes.  These include the campaign, in which the player takes the role of various Allied or Axis factions in key battles throughout WWII, with fictional “what-fi” scenarios serving as the majority of the Axis missions.  Skirmish mode is a one-off match between the player and up to seven AIs played out on of the maps featured in the campaign or in WWII mode.  Since there is no resource harvesting in Axis & Allies the size of the map is the only limiting factor for the number of players.

The final single player mode is the WWII mode, which most closely resembles the board game in its design and mechanics.  The mode features a world map where each of the continents are divided into territories.  The territories controlled by the five powers reflect their 1942 distribution and players choose one of the five powers to lead through the conflict.  Players have a global income that they use to purchase new unit tokens which represent the armies around the world.  Armies are moved across the world by the player and the global game play progresses in turns.  Whenever armies from two opposing powers meet in the same territory the player can auto-resolve the conflict or fight a real-time battle against the AI, with the destruction of the weakest model on the losing side following the conclusion of the battle.  The capture of two enemy capitals serves as the ultimate objective of the WWII mode.

In all of these modes the player takes the role of one out of four notable, high-ranking generals from the nation they wish to play as.  The generals feature their own voice clips and icons and each possesses three support powers called Special Operations.  Some Operations are shared between generals and nations, but each general has their own unique combination.  Special Operations require a number of experience points, which accrue over the course of the battle, to be utilized.

Sadly WWII mode is not available in multiplayer.  Players can use LAN to play skirmish games with or against other human players.  Active multiplayer is no longer available after server support ended for Axis & Allies in 2012, although direct connect is still an option.  Once again, up to eight players can fight in a single match and the presence of multiple generals per nation allows several players to utilize the same nation in a single match.

Base building in Axis & Allies is a fairly simple affair.  Structures appear as transport trucks from a central Corps HQ building.  The trucks unpack to place their respective structures which are then utilized to produce combat units, research upgrades, and provide the dynamic resource of money and the static resources of ammo and oil.  Any structure can be rebuilt as long as the Corps HQ is intact, however structures must be deployed inside the HQ’s supply zone or they will suffer attrition damage due to a lack of supply.

Combat units can venture outside the supply zone at any time but only heal wounded and lost units when inside the zone.  Units appear as regiments and consist of anywhere from four to nine units, including one officer unit.  The regiments appear as infantry, mechanized, and armored regiments and come with several specialization roles including anti-tank, artillery, or anti-air.  Heavier regiments like medium or heavy tank regiments are stronger in battle but take more money, ammo, and oil to produce.

Experienced RTS players will recognize the basic conventions of RTS combat in Axis & Allies real-time combat.  Infantry units are resistant to anti-tank fire but in turn deal limited damage to armored targets unless they utilize anti-tank weapons.  Very few regiments in the tech tree ever become truly obsolete, as the cost and upkeep of powerful regiments tends to make them rare in most battles.  Each nation also possesses unique regiments indicative of iconic weapons or tactics utilized by those nations in WWII, such as Russian sniper infantry regiments or German King Tiger tank regiments.

Axis & Allies doesn’t add anything especially new to the RTS genre in terms of its subject matter or combat mechanics.  It is however one of the first WWII games to incorporate traditional RTS combat with grand strategy.  Axis & Allies doesn’t carry its tactical elements as far as Company of Heroes, or its strategic elements to the detailed level of Hearts of Iron, but it contains enough content and polish at both levels to satisfy gamers looking for an extended WWII RTS experience.

In terms of content, the single player modes are Axis & Allies’ biggest strengths and contain almost all of its unique content.  Sadly this is marred by the lackluster performance of the game’s tactical and strategic AIs, which while aggressive and mechanically competent are seldom able to provide a serious threat to the player’s existence.  AI teammates are also rarely capable of providing adequate support to the player.  The presence of generic teammate commands helps alleviate this to some degree, but the AI follows these instructions only on a basic level and for an arbitrary amount of time.

The Axis & Allies video game will likely never be as famous as the RTS giants, or as successful as its board game progenitor.  However its blend of real-time and grand strategy elements, along with its very detailed and thematic use of historical WWII units, concepts, and settings provide all the appropriate building blocks for a stepping stone into a truly dynamic and immersive WWII strategy game.

There will always be WWII first person shooters, and no shortage of grand strategy games recreating the great conflict, but large scale yet detailed WWII RTS games that accurately embrace the scale of WWII are decidedly lacking in the modern market.  Any developer willing to take on that challenge need look no further than Axis & Allies for a stepping stone; and any gamer can look to Axis & Allies to know what parameters they should look for.

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.

Computer hardware and software has moved on since the heyday of Westwood’s production, and on average at quite an alarming rate, and it’s not uncommon for these older titles to no longer function properly on newer operating systems.  Additionally Electronic Arts ceased the support for these titles since the closing down of the GameSpy servers, which provided multiplayer support for Westwood’s games, in 2014.  Yet these titles held a strong sense of nostalgia among gamers and many fans considered them to be the best in their genre even twenty years later.

This brings us to the online modding community; the body of gamers and improvised developers that has kept numerous classics from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s alive and active as technology progressed.  Westwood’s titles in particular received strong support from and, which continued to freely offer multiplayer server support to players of any Westwood RTS game (as well as the first person shooter C&C spinoff Renegade) developed since Command & Conquer’s release.  In addition provides access to freeware downloads of the games it supports in addition to downloads of some of the most popular community mods for those titles.

It never ceases to amaze how eager gamers are to spread the enjoyment they received from these games to other members of the online community.  Both and offer their services free of charge and function completely by donation.  Their downloads are high quality, expertly crafted, and have been remastered to ensure that these elderly titles continue to function on the latest operating systems.  Multiplayer support is consistent and reliable with ranking systems and support for modding.

It was the gaming community that kept classics like Battlefield 1942 alive and they have done the same with Command & Conquer and its RTS contemporaries, even when the titles’ publishers and developers abandoned them or became defunct.  Now it has delivered the most effective and enduring part of the RTS genre to the modern gamer.  These venerable titles still show their age; they lack the dynamic 3-D graphics, advanced commands, and co-operative support of newer games, but they embody the best of the RTS genre and are more than capable of providing simple and continuous fun for casual and competitive gamers.

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.

This formula actually had its origins in Endless Space, Amplitude’s very first 4X title, which was also very well received in its day.  The formula was so successful that it enabled the Endless series to remain in the 4X market, not as a competitor to other established series, but in the coveted position of an equal.  It was different enough to attract fans of other 4X series, yet was still able to appeal to a wider audience despite its innovative mechanics and themes.

Since that time, the Endless series has been thoroughly played through.  Endless Space and Endless Legend received numerous expansions and additional content and have enjoyed a solid fan-base.  Now it is time for another title to pick up the baton and demonstrate how the Endless series can interact with the most recent advances in technology, genre mechanics, and gaming trends.

It’s too early for an Endless Legend or Endless Space with fancier graphics.  Players are expecting something new and fresh, and they have a right to until a few more years pass and the older titles start generating nostalgia.  Of course the fans still want their Endless Series but now we will be paying to see how the Endless formula can grow and improve.  There are high hopes that Amplitude has succeeded in this endeavor, due in part to their extensive use of early access, and already Endless Space 2 has been received favorably.

Finally, regardless of how successful Endless Space 2 is at fulfilling series fans’ expectations, it still needs a rundown from gamers far and wide.  If it is successful then it deserves to become popular.  If it has failed then gamers need to find those flaws, point them out, and hold developers to higher and grander standards.

For my part I intend to give Endless Space 2 a long workout.  It shouldn’t be long before the game is familiar enough to provide adequate commentary, but Endless Space 2’s true success will be how long I keep playing it after its many reviews have faded into cyberspace.

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.

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.