Dear Mindy: Origin

Since the success of Valve’s Steam Client in revolutionizing the gaming industry’s distribution and marketing methods many major game providers have developed their own online platforms for supplying clients with products, support, and community.  Origin is Electronic Arts’ digital distribution platform and one of the primary digital outlets for EA games and digital products.

Origin began life as EA Downloader which was released by EA in 2005.  It would transition between various iterations such as EA Link and EA Download Manager, with each new version adding additional features and capabilities.  These older versions provided both an online store for EA products as well as a profile management system and update source for digital products and hard copies.  Origin was released in 2011 and combined all the elements of previous EA online services.

Like its competitors and equivalents, Origin features the staples of a modern digital gaming client system such as a friends list, a profile with achievements and avatar customization, a games library, store access, and automated support for currently owned games.  Any game in the user’s library is available for download any number of times from Origin.  Like Steam and, product keys can be used to redeem physical copies of certain EA produced games; however if the game is already installed on the user’s computer the code cannot be redeemed even if the user does not intend to download the game.

At this point Origin only supplies titles owned and/or developed by EA.  Origin can be accessed on PCs and recently on mobile devices but is not currently available for consoles.  It is currently unknown if EA plans to include titles from other producers in its store selection.  EA has specifically stated that Origin is a competitor with Steam so it is highly possible that Origin will eventually become a digital marketplace.

It’s worth noting that an Origin installation and account are required for more recent EA titles, primarily those released within the last few years, even if they are bought on disc or another form of third party distribution.  Origin itself is a free service and can be utilized in offline mode if the user saves his or her login information in online mode first.  Games installed from a disc do not need to be synchronized with Origin to run their single player and LAN functions.  However they do need to be registered on Origin to receive updates, access multiplayer servers, and communicate with other players in-game.

Origin provides all the services necessary to play and enjoy the games it provides.  It’s only glaring downside is that it is a first and foremost a store.  Navigation is heavily weighted towards the store; and community interaction, such as forums and community posts, is limited.  Games listed inside the user’s library are effectively placeholders and do not have their own pages, in contrast with Steam or which have dedicated displays for each game.  Purchasing and accessing games on Origin is quick and easy but any utility related to the account’s interaction with those games is minimal.  Support is also lacking for older games with newer products receiving most of the attention as far as deals, advertisements, and FAQ posts are concerned.

Like everything EA touches Origin takes a popular concept and puts its own spin on it with rather mixed results.  Origin features all the services necessary for acquiring and using EA products and connecting with the community of EA gamers.  However on the flip-side Origin is heavily geared towards EA’s marketing and sacrifices its community development for customer interaction with the online store.  It’s high quality and no doubt sufficient for EA’s purposes, but Origin will certainly have to be optimized to better support and reflect the gamer culture before it can truly equal its competitors.

Total War: Attila

Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome II was noted just after its release to be the worst Total War title to see the light of day.  Its excessive bugs and poor performance disappointed many fans of the previous Rome: Total War as well as franchise fans in general.  This was perhaps a greater loss for the game itself rather than Creative Assembly.  Numerous patches and quick fixes improved Rome II to make it playable and ultimately even enjoyable; but its place in infamy had already been secured.

Creative Assembly did its utmost to avoid a repeat with its follow-up title, Total War: Attila, which was released in early 2015.  Many of the systems introduced in Rome II, such as the Imperium levels, remain the same while other mechanics like the political system and provincial system have been modified slightly.  Provincial towns can now be upgraded to have walls and all provinces are limited to two towns and a capital.  The political system saw a revival of the traditional family tree within the wider context of faction politics and competing nobles.

Perhaps the largest change from Rome II that Attila brought was the change in setting.  The grand campaign begins in 395 AD as the now divided Roman Empire enters a period of decline.  The game models the catastrophic upheaval of the period with a return of the horde mechanic, first seen in Rome: Total War: Barbarian Invasions, which allows a faction to abandon their home province and form several armies that supply their own food and can make temporary camps to gain special benefits and a relief from income loss.  The Western and Eastern Roman empires suffer several penalties to add to their foreign woes such as historically inept faction leaders, a loss of traditional technologies, and unstable internal politics.

Attila brings an apocalyptic feel to the setting through various mechanics and faction themes.  Climate change; inspired by the historic 6th century Little Ice Age, makes an appearance as periodic global events that lower the fertility of all provinces on the map.  Another world altering mechanic is the ability for armies to raise settlements transforming the settlement into a ruin and blackening that section of the province, temporarily ruining its fertility.  Razed settlements can only be restored by settling army units in the province, restoring the town which must then be rebuilt from scratch.

The thematic presentation of the turbulent 5th century is Attila’s central point, and tragically is probably also Attila’s greatest failure.  The game succeeds so well in making the world a mess that it rapidly becomes frustrating and nearly unplayable.  The climate change unrealistically affects the entire globe, turning even the most fertile provinces like the Nile Delta and Euphrates River Valley into barren desert.  Cities suffer numerous wealth and public order penalties from effects such as food shortages, even when the empire has a food surplus, and immigration, an effect that the player has no control over.

Squalor now plays a proactive role in settlements and provinces; the higher the negative level of total squalor (derived from squalor minus sanitation) the more likely a plague will break out in that settlement.  This mechanic is reasonable in its idea, but its implementation is again excessive and frustrating.  Multiple build slots in the province must be devoted to sanitation buildings to keep the squalor down and even with a total squalor of zero plagues can still spread to and even break out in settlements.

Most factions start out in precarious positions.  The Roman empires naturally suffer from rampant unrest, multiple enemies, and hard-pressed economies.  Barbarian tribes start with strong militaries but are forced by approaching nomads and cooling climate to make for new homelands in Roman territory to the south and west.  The Sassanid Empire, the predominant eastern faction and widely assumed to be the easiest to play, still has its own problems keeping its client states in line and fighting off the White Huns.

These troubles don’t make the game unplayable; but in the wrong circumstances they swiftly make it unwinnable.  Attila is perhaps the first Total War game that will appeal far more to survival gamers than to strategy gamers.  The gameplay experience for many factions, particularly the Roman empires, is more about seeing how long the player can survive rather than trying to win.  The game’s buggy tutorial and abbreviated user interface add to the problem by giving Attila one of the sharpest learning curves in the series.

The graphics of Attila remain largely unchanged from Rome II and any computer that can handle Rome II will do just as well with Attila.  Sadly frame rate difficulties remain during the AI phase even with high performance machines but actual gameplay, particularly battles, run smoothly.  It’s worth noting that color and toning for battles has been subtlety altered to give a dark, gritty feel to the world to accompany the apocalyptic theme.  This doesn’t bring any mechanical alterations aside from increased rain but the various weather effects can also cause frame rate drops on high graphics settings.

Fans of Empire: Total War will enjoy the updates Total War: Attila brings to the new mechanics that Empire introduced.  Otherwise Attila has been love/hate with fans of the Total War series.  Even veterans of Rome II will have to learn many new mechanics and forget some old habits to play Attila properly.  Those that enjoy grand strategy will find Attila a very challenging addition to the grand strategy market.  Strategy gamers in general however are best served avoiding Attila, or waiting until an 80% off sale, as the game is far too restrictive for a traditional military strategy experience.

Warlock II: The Exiled

After Paradox Interactive’s fun-loving, fantasy-filled 4x Warlock: Master of the Arcane became a surprise success it wasn’t long before fans of the game were delighted to learn that Paradox was producing a sequel.  Warlock II: The Exiled, which was released in 2014, brought improved performance, a greatly improved user interface, and new content to the burgeoning Warlock series.

The first thing that should be made clear about Warlock II is that it should be viewed more as an expansion than a sequel.  Warlock II contains tons of new content and new campaign modes but its foundation remains the same.  Players will recognize the graphics, mechanics, races, units, and terrain immediately.  This doesn’t in anyway detract from the enjoyment of Warlock II or its position as an improvement over its predecessor but it is important for players to avoid the potential disappointment of viewing Warlock II as a true sequel in the same vein as Age of Empires III or Warcraft III.

The story of Warlock II follows the narrative setup by the Armageddon DLC of Warlock.  This is reflected by a major change in the campaign layout.  Players now follow a linear progression of story quests and scripted events to return from the outland shards of the multiverse to Ardania where the United One, a Great Mage who successfully cast the Unity Spell, awaits to confront them.  All of the 4x elements of Warlock remain for this campaign mode (except the Unity Spell victory, which is not available in the campaign mode).  Players can explore the outland shards through portals by completing a quest to open a portal and sending units through to the new world.  Story quests can be completed at the player’s discretion allowing the player to explore all of the randomly generated shards before finally proceeding back to Ardania.

An alternative form of the campaign called Battle for Outlands mimics the outland shard environment of the campaign without the story quests turning it into true 4x freeform gameplay. Each shard is based off of a single terrain environment found in Warlock on Ardania and the various underworlds.  Several new terrain types were added to the previous underworlds of Warlock and seventeen shards can be found in a single game on the largest map size.  Each shard has enough room for three to four full sized cities, but this isn’t a serious problem with Warlock II’s new special city mechanic which allows players to convert unwanted cities into specialized minor cities that can produce gold, mana, or serve as fortresses.  These special cities only occupy the tiles immediately around them and do not count towards the game’s new city limit feature.  A city limit should seem unusual in a 4x game but it can be expanded through research and is sufficient for player needs in all but the largest maps.

All units, structures, spells, and great mage perks from Warlock return in Warlock II and are joined by two new races: the multi-racial Planestriders and the mechanically oriented Svarts.  The new races feature entirely new unit rosters and each brings two Great Mages to the usual selection of Great Mage profiles.  As with the previous races, the Planestriders and Svarts specialize in the production of certain resources and emphasize certain unit and damage types.  They blend in very well with the existing races and add greatly to the sandbox potential of mixing racial combos in large games.  Warlock II also adds several new Great Mage perks and starting spells; including ways to moderate the city limit and the possibility to select starting shards and even a spell that can summon a random lord for hire.  DLC has also been released providing more start locations, starting lords, and unique spells.

Perhaps one of the most notable changes in Warlock II is the enhancement of the spell research system.  In Warlock five low tier spells appeared randomly at the start of the game for the player to research.  Each spell would be replaced by a related, higher tier spell when it was researched.  Now spells have been divided into Sorcery, Wizardry, and Divine categories and further broken up into several tiers based on their cost and power.  Researching a certain number of spells in a category unlocks the next tier of spells for research giving the player much greater freedom to choose what spells to get and when.

Sadly, multiplayer has not seen much improvement since Warlock.  The campaign and Battle for Outlands modes are both compatible with Warlock II and, despite a buggy launch, are for the most part very stable.  However, the lingering lack of simultaneous turns, while appropriate for a 4x game that emphasizes combat, is a real damper for a game with limited demographic and economic micromanagement.  The additional fact that the interface is only somewhat successful at keeping track of units strung out across the many outland shards makes turns in the later game laborious as each player checks on their multiple worlds while the other players idly stand by.

Graphics requirements have not increased by any noticeable amount.  Machines and internet connections that handled Warlock should be able to just as easily manage Warlock II.  The voices and sound for the new units is a welcome addition to the existing cast.  Another minor change was the transition of several of the Great Mage’s expressions into fantasy languages.  This change certainly increased the flavor of encounters with other opponents, but considering the limited number of phrases utilized in diplomacy it can be a minor annoyance as the AI babbles random words at the player over and over.

Warlock II is a very appropriate follow on to Warlock.  Even though it lacks the all-encompassing content overhaul that marks a true sequel, Warlock II vastly improves on every feature of Warlock and fans of the first Warlock game, and the Majesty series of games in general, will certainly enjoy Warlock II.  The added content greatly increases replayability even for those gamers who have already exhausted Warlock as the new races, game modes, and content provide even more options for exploration and racial combos.  Perhaps the greatest mark of Warlock II’s triumph (and tragedy) as a follow-on is that after playing Warlock II, the original Warlock will appear too lackluster and uninteresting to revisit.

Civilization V Complete Edition

No series of games did more to establish a genre in PC gaming than Firaxis Games’ Civilization series.  Since Civilization’s release in 1991 the Civilization series has set the standard by which 4x games are measured.  Civilization V’s, the latest title of the series, has continued this trend alongside its advancement of the series in the gaming industry.

Single player and multiplayer in Civ V are effectively the same experience.  As with most 4x games Civ V does not have a story driven element.  Players start with a settler and a warrior unit from which they must construct a capital city and go on to lead their chosen civilization to greatness.  The game world is divided into tiles, hexagonal spaces that units move over and cities work to produce resources, of which their are four primary resources.  Strategic, bonus, and luxury resources can appear on terrain tiles and are worked by the owning city to provide benefits to the player’s civilization, research, and the city itself.

Cities produce citizens depending on the food available to that city with higher food increasing citizen production.  Citizens work the tiles that the city owns, adding the tile’s yield to the city’s base production.  The more citizens a city has the more food it consumes thus requiring increasing supplies of food to support large cities.  Worker units can construct buildings on tiles and special resources to increase their resource yield and provide stockpiles of those resources for trade.  Workers can also construct roads between cities and into the countryside to increase unit movement on road tiles.

Civ V is turn based so combat takes place between civilizations as the turns rotate.  Military units are divided into ranged or melee categories.  Melee units may not have melee weapons (Great War Infantry for example) but are classified as melee because they can only damage units in adjacent tiles.  Ranged units can attack units one or more tiles away without fear of retaliation.  Each unit can only make one attack per turn and only certain units can move and attack in the same turn.  Military units can be upgraded into more advanced versions as the player researches technologies and advances in eras.

The core experience of Civ V comes from managing the myriad strategic, domestic, and diplomatic aspects of a growing civilization.  Technologies must be researched to unlock new units, buildings, and bonuses as well as allowing the player’s civilization to progress through the games eras, groupings of technological level that range from the Ancient Era to the Information Era.  Cultural policies must be enacted to grant empire wide bonuses and set the civilization’s ideology.  Income, and the trade that helps it flourish, must be carefully managed and exploited to maintain building and unit upkeep while providing a surplus for quick purchases and negotiations.

There are five ways to achieve victory and each one focuses on, but does not require, certain playing styles.  Like any good strategy game there is a Conquest victory; the player must capture the capital of every other civilization while defending their own.  The player can win a Cultural victory by producing enough tourism from Great Works and Great People, items and units generated by culture buildings, to become the dominate culture in the world.  The Science victory involves constructing the parts of an interstellar colonization spaceship; a laborious process but that one that is completely contained inside the player’s own borders.  The Diplomatic victory involves the player’s civilization becoming leader of the world through election by the United Nations.  Finally, if a turn limit has been set, the civilization with the highest score at the end the in-game year 2050 wins a Score victory.

Many of the Civ V’s gameplay features occupy the player’s attention simply for the sake of surviving one turn to another, but it is the player’s preferred victory path that truly determines the focus of overall gameplay.  Different civilizations have unique units, buildings, and bonuses that aid them in achieving one victory type over the others, such as Germany’s reduced upkeep for military units and Babylon’s science boost from Great Scientists.  However, the beauty of Civ V is that no component of a developing civilization is obsolete.  Trade, Great People, and even religion can be leveraged to speed the player toward any of the victory options throughout the eras.  Certain aspects can be sacrificed to prioritize a chosen strategy, but no amount of culture or diplomatic weight can protect a civilization from a military superpower.  A truly successful civilization will master, if not dominate, every aspect of Civ V.

The AI in Civ V is well designed for a game with such layered complexity.  Each civilization has its own flavor that bends them toward a particular path to victory, but the AI will also adjust to accommodate shifting developments as the game goes on.  However AI diplomacy can still be one dimensional, with the AI rarely forgiving past wrongs and making illogical economic and military decisions.  It also has some trouble going beyond the swarm mechanic for unit combat.  This doesn’t inhibit the AI’s ability to be a true threat, but does decrease its capacity to hinder the player as games progress.

Multiplayer provides an added benefit over the somewhat predictable patterns of the AI.  Players take their turns simultaneously, which can cause some lag on lower quality connections as the game tries to resolve all actions at once.  However this does ensure that players aren’t stuck waiting for a single player to finish his or her turn.  Diplomacy also takes place interactively, with a player’s offer displayed for the other player to modify, accept, or reject at their leisure.  Civ V does feature an automatic re-synchronization system, which can be surprising during play as the game activates it automatically, but it does ensure that progress and continuity are preserved over game sessions.

Civ V’s graphics requirements were extensive for its time, but present little problem for modern computers.  Full maps covered with development and activity can cause long load times on some older machines but do little to impact actual gameplay.

Ultimately, in what is perhaps Civ V’s single greatest feature, this latest title in the Civilization series cannot be fully experienced in a single game.  A multitude of civilizations, maps, and paths to victory are available in myriad combinations.  Random maps can also be generated for additional variety.  The Complete Edition offers a total of 43 civilizations and any gamer should find at least half of those appealing for multiple games.  Any strategy gamer would find Civ V fresh and thoroughly entertaining over multiple playthroughs.  Fans of previous Civ games should note that Civ V brings new material to the genre, wisely choosing not to attempt to rehash Civ IV.  This doesn’t make it better or worse than its predecessors but rather it is a new way to play Civilization; which is precisely what it should be.

Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath

A Command & Conquer title is just not the same without an expansion pack to accompany it and flesh out its content.  C&C expansions come from the golden age of expansions when gamers could expect at the least new units, missions, and multiplayer maps if not full fledged campaigns and new factions.  Thankfully Electronic Arts has not departed from this model with its expansion to Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars; Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath.

Each of the three main factions receives new units and support powers.  Many of these units, like the GDI Slingshot anti-air unit, were added to remove deficiencies in existing faction rosters or new gaps that arose as a result of the new minor factions.  Epic units, one for each side, were also introduced as super powerful vehicles capable of crushing lesser units and could be customized by loading infantry into their hard points to add secondary weapons.  The new toys are worth a few games just to play with and are enjoyable for the most part but can still be overshadowed by high tier units.

Following after its successful implementation of minor factions in Command & Conquer: Generals EA chose to add two minor factions to each major faction in Kane’s Wrath.  The minor factions focus on a particular strategy or aspect of their parent faction; like flame weapons and heavy infantry for the Brotherhood of Nod or sonic weaponry and tiberium immunity for GDI.  Minor factions also receive build restrictions in exchange for their specializations; one GDI minor faction can only produce basic infantry units but gets a strong boost to its armored units.  Many of the new units added by Kane’s Wrath are unique to the minor factions; some are entirely new and others are improvements of existing designs to match them with their respective minor faction’s emphasis.

The campaign for Kane’s Wrath is less filled out then the rest of the game as its 13 missions only feature the Brotherhood of Nod as the playable faction.  The campaign is still very well done with strong narrative and many entertaining missions.  Players will also get to utilize each of Nod’s minor factions to their fullest and will also encounter the other minor factions as enemies throughout the course of the campaign.  Sadly it can only serve as a blueprint for the campaign experience that could have been; the lack of a similar model for the other two factions puts a damper on the player’s ability to enjoy the new minor factions in a narrative environment.

Perhaps the most innovative addition that Kane’s Wrath brings is the Global Conquest mode.  This single player options presents a turn based world map where the player, as one of the three major factions, builds bases, raises armies, and conducts global warfare against the other two factions.  Bases can be upgraded with defenses and tech levels to allow them to produce armies with stronger units.

Armies can be moved a set distance across the map, or ferried between bases on different continents.  When opposing armies meet or an army attacks an enemy base the battle can be auto-resolved or played out in real-time in a manner resembling a skirmish battle.  However if the attacking army does not include base-building units it will not be able to construct a base and if the defending base has high enough technology and defenses it will be able to produce advanced units a the start of the game, tying in developments on the strategic level with tactical combat.

The Global Conquest mode compensates somewhat for the lack of a full campaign.  Players can enjoy what each faction has to offer at length.  The AI in this mode is essentially a basic Skirmish AI and is competent enough to manage the world map effectively.  However its tactical capacities are lacking on lower difficulty settings and don’t always mesh in capability with the AI’s performance on the world map; making for a somewhat dichotomous experience.  On the flip-side it is usually fairly easy for the player to establish a continental stronghold thus allowing the full extent of the mode’s options to be tested at length.

Multiplayer sees little improvement from C&C 3.  The new minor factions can offer interesting tactical opportunities, but some limitations on their tech tree limit tactical flexibility; generally making the main factions the safer and well-rounded option.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy for multiplayer was the lack of inclusion for Global Conquest mode.  Granted the mode features only three factions so a multiplayer version would have been either incredibly limited or PvP only but the option still would have been a great benefit to the game; all the more so if a co-op feature had been included.

Kane’s Wrath isn’t needed to make C&C 3 a great game; the full package was already there.  The minor factions are a welcome addition for expanding skirmish and multiplayer gameplay, but the lack of campaign options to enjoy them at leisure detracts a bit from their impact.  However the Global Conquest mode suffers only from the somewhat mediocre performance of the AI at lower difficulty levels.  In all other aspects it is a very ambitious and enjoyable experience with a smooth design that needs only the ability to share it with a friend.  Kane’s Wrath isn’t its own game, but it expands C&C 3 to the fullest possible extent.

Total Annihilation

The Real-time Strategy genre was already established as a primary market for Mac and PC games when Cavedog Entertainment released its first title, Total Annihilation, in late 1997.  The Command & Conquer and Warcraft series, soon to be joined by Starcraft, had set the standard for RTS gaming and many producers were attempting to make inroads into the market with their own take on the familiar genre conventions.  Total Annihilation broke this mold by completely redefining what the genre was capable of.

The basic gameplay of Total Annihilation departs from the standard RTS mold almost immediately.  Each game, whether in single or multiplayer, with a few campaign exceptions, starts with the Commander Unit, a powerful mech that produces a modest amount of resources and can construct the basic buildings needed to start a base.  The Commander is also very tough and possesses the D-gun, a disintegration weapon that can destroy anything in one shot.  Structures are built over time by the Commander or other construction vehicles, with higher tier vehicles required to produce higher tier structures.

The game’s two resources are metal and energy.  Metal appears as tinfoil-like deposits on the map (or anywhere on Core’s metal homeworld) while energy is simply generated by buildings like solar collectors and fusion reactors.  Both resources are harvested at a fixed rate by buildings and provide both a stockpile and income rate.  Players can produce units and buildings within the income limits, or can deficit spend by overclocking their resource requirements and dipping into the stockpiles.  Resource harvesting is fairly easy to manipulate; certain buildings can convert energy into metal and some worlds have high wind speeds or tidal force for alternative energy generation.  However proper management is extremely critical in the early game where resource shortages can slow production to a crawl.  Most units also require energy to fire their weapons and high energy output is needed for higher tier weapons to function.

Total Annihilation is set in the distant future where the technology to transfer the human mind into a machine body has caused a galactic civil war between the robotic Core and the biological Arm.  Both sides employ analogous units with similar functions but different aesthetic designs.  Arm units have a more terrestrial design while Core units tend to be skeletal and lack cockpits or other indications that they might have a pilot.  Arm units are for the most part faster, possess rapid fire weapons, and have lighter armor.  Conversely Core units are heavier, slower, and feature high powered, slow firing weapons.

Each faction has its own campaign with twenty five missions, for a total of fifty in the base game.  Each campaign starts on the faction’s homeworld and takes the player through the final stages of the galactic war before climaxing in an assault on the enemy’s homeworld.  Most missions begin with the Commander and a small starting force from which the player must construct the army necessary to destroy the enemy’s fortified bases.  Occasionally a special objective will be featured, but for the most part the only requirement is the annihilation of the opposing force.

Total Annihilation’s story is told purely through a brief opening cinematic and text based mission briefings, each with an audio narration providing some additional flavor.  Little in the way of character is presented and there are no characters mentioned by name except for the Core ruling entity, a super computer called Central Consciousness.  The missions follow a linear progression of the player’s conquests, with roughly three to four missions taking place on a single world before the player moves on to a new world.  The lack of flavor keeps the immersion level somewhat low and sometimes fails to give the player an adequate sense of his or her accomplishments.  However the campaign is very detailed in its mission designs and tech progression allowing the player to fully enjoy the different strategic options each faction presents.

The AI opponents in Total Annihilation leave something to be desired.  Even for the time the AI was considered simple and this is a side effect of the game’s innovation.  The combined arms tactics and strategic planning required for a truly challenging situation are difficult even for modern AI to accomplish properly.  For the most part Total Annihilation does the best it can and the AI is capable enough to utilize its tech tree and create thorough defenses inside its bases. These deficiencies somewhat hamper the enjoyment of the game’s skirmish mode and to a degree the player must explore strategies on their own initiative rather than be forced to adapt by the AI’s maneuvers.

The skirmish and multiplayer modes would be familiar for the time period.  Elements like fog of war, population cap, and victory conditions can be switched between a limited number of options.  Sadly a cheat code is required to unlock more than four player slots.  This can allow up to ten players, but cannot be used in multiplayer.  Multiplayer is no longer officially supported but fan sponsored servers now host multiplayer games, although matchmaking is not supported.

Total Annihilation was one of the first games to introduce 3D graphics.  Units make a full revolution instead of shifting to a different model stance when turning.  Structures with moving parts operate seamlessly, bringing a surprising degree of life to the world.  The most notable effect this innovation has is on the interaction between units and terrain.  Artillery shells smash into hillsides while the cannon adjusts its aim; units can hide under trees and must adjust their shots when shooting up hillsides of varying height.  The units themselves follow a polygon style of graphic rendering typical of the period of early 3D development and can at times look goofy or abstract.  The technology is certainly dated by today’s standards but is still sufficient and supplies some of the best explosions and flying shrapnel that a RTS game has ever produced.  It was also very gentle on processors of its day and modern machines should have no trouble running even large matches.

Total Annihilation may not have possessed some of the qualities that today are considered necessary for longevity such as a deep thematic campaign, dynamic AI, and a variety of factions.  However its combined arms emphasis, strategic breakdown of tiers, and 3D terrain modelling and interaction were revolutionary for their time and even today have not been seen on such a detailed and well built scale except in Total Annihilation’s spiritual successor, Supreme Commander.  These are the elements that not only make Total Annihilation a centerpiece of RTS history but also an enjoyable, engaging, and fulfilling exercise in true strategic, combined arms combat.  Everything that the RTS genre was meant to be and can possibly deliver can be found in Total Annihilation.

Author’s note: Total Annihilation is available digitally on and Steam and is compatible with current operating systems.  The digital product features the base game, official expansions, and DLC released during Cavedog Entertainment’s existence.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War – Dark Crusade & Soulstorm

The last two expansions to Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Dawn of War – Dark Crusade and Dawn of War – Soulstorm, are best looked at as a separate bundle from the main game as both bring new life and dramatic changes.  Both games are standalone expansions developed by Iron Lore Entertainment and supported by the original Dawn of War developer Relic Entertainment.  Each expansion adds two new races (Necrons and Tau in Dark Crusade and the Dark Eldar and Sisters of Battle in Soulstorm) and feature new non-linear campaigns loosely connected to the narratives of the previous game and expansion.

Each race’s tech tree is reworked to more heavily emphasize thematic strategies and limit the number of top tier units.  The new races , except in part for the Sisters of Battle, also feature new mechanics for base building, population, and special resources opening up a number of new tactical options and styles for players to explore.  The Necrons, for example, train all their units from a single structure and only use one of the two resource types; the other resource type is subverted into expanding the Necron’s population cap.  Existing races received minor changes and a new unit with each expansion.  The air units, added in Soulstorm, provide a new but limited level of tactical flexibility, particularly to those races who’s air units utilize high explosives.

Alongside new races, both expansions feature a complete overhaul in campaign style and content.  Instead of the story driven, race-limiting missions of the previous Dawn of War titles, Dark Crusade and Soulstorm utilize non-linear, world map campaigns.  Each race is fully playable with its own narrative and small set of in-game cutscenes.  Dark Crusade’s campaign takes place on the fictional world of Kronus and much of the planet’s landmass is used as the world map and divided into regions of varying size.  Soulstorm expands this concept by broadening the campaign map into the four planets, each divided into a few large territories, and three moons of the fictional Kaurava system.  Players choose a race and lead that race to conquer the campaign map by taking their faction’s hero-led army and moving it into hostile regions.

There is no overarching plot and story elements are based off of each individual race’s motivations and long term goals.  Most of the battles take place in skirmish style against AI forces with varying levels of strength and skill based on the campaign’s difficulty level and the strength of individual regions.  Each conquered regions unlocks an honor guard unit that accompanies the player’s army throughout the campaign and is available at the start of each mission (as opposed to regularly trained units which do not carry over between missions).  Some regions instead offer special bonuses to the player’s faction or army on the campaign map.  Hostile races are eventually eliminated when the player attacks their headquarters region in highly entertaining scripted missions with intense battles and multi-tier objectives.  Once all headquarters have been captured the campaign ends with a final in-game cutscene and narrative that describes the long term effects of the player’s conquest on the galaxy.

The single player campaigns place these expansions head and shoulders above their predecessors.  Individual skirmish style missions can get repetitive as races are eliminated and the AI looses strategic assets, but the overall conquest aspect combined with the scripted finale missions make these campaigns a singularly enjoyable experience that few if any RTS titles have been able to match.  Players can utilize the full range of combat options for each race across a wide variety of maps and even on lower difficulty settings the scripted missions are still quite challenging, very satisfying, and even comically entertaining as the races’ leaders banter with each other over the course of the battle.  The option to replay these campaigns with every race extends the lifespan of the single player element immensely.

The AI’s performance in skirmish and multiplayer modes remains effectively the same as in previous Dawn of War titles.  It falters somewhat in Soulstorm as it struggles to effectively use the latest units; but remains competent enough to provide a challenge for any level of gamer.  The AI was also somewhat cured of its tendency for predictable build patterns and, depending on difficulty level, now makes effective use of higher tier units.

Multiplayer remains strong with Dark Crusade and Soulstorm as it was in previous titles.  The new races are very well balanced (although a patch is required for Soulstorm to fully iron out some exploits in the game mechanics), and a host of new multiplayer maps are available supporting anywhere from 2 to 8 players in a number of layouts for team play and free for all.  Multiplayer connections remain stable when faced with lag.  A sixty second timeout is granted to lagging connections and de-synchronization is virtually unheard of.  However battles in Dark Crusade and Soulstorm are quite large, and can actually be even larger than Dawn of War and Winter Assault due to the change-up of unit build limits, and low tier connections will struggle to keep up during pitched battles.

Dark Crusade is a must for any gamer that enjoyed Dawn of War and Winter Assault.  Its new and innovative campaign provides a full and satisfying experience and the new races offer some play styles not yet seen in the Dawn of War series.  Soulstorm’s contributions are less dramatic in the face of Dark Crusade’s rapid advances; this is in part due to the dissolution of Soulstorm’s primary developer, Iron Lore, prior to its release.  Soulstorm’s campaign changes its scale but not necessarily its size and the scripted missions are toned down and lacking in immersive flavor.  The new races do offer more diversity for gaming options, particularly in multiplayer formats, but struggle to find their place among the older races.  However Soulstorm is still a fine expansion and its content only adds to the overall Dawn of War experience.

Dawn of War was already a fine title and these expansions make it truly great.  Their story, gameplay, and re-playability are top of the line and can be enjoyed in many ways by gamers of every level.  Fans of the Warhammer 40,000 universe who were not fully satisfied with the original Dawn of War and Winter Assault should certainly give Dawn of War another chance with these new expansions as more races, expanded flavor, and a deeper portrayal of the universe’s fiction bring the grim future of the 41st millennium to life.

Starcraft & Brood War

With the release of Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void in late 2015 the sci-fi saga that started with Starcraft II’s predecessor Starcraft and its expansion Brood War has finally come to a grand conclusion.  Starcraft II as a whole is a true sequel.  Much of the gameplay remains unaltered and the single player campaigns are heavily story driven and populated primarily with characters from the first Starcraft game.  It’s story is rich and its gameplay heavily steeped in conventions developed by a decade of Starcraft competitive gaming.  Most of the enjoyment the average gamer receives from Starcraft II stems from these core elements and, while they are adequately self-contained within Starcraft II, the richness of the story and gameplay can only be fully experienced by gamers who have played through Starcraft and Brood War.

Starcraft, released by Blizzard Entertainment in 1998 and followed later that year by its official expansion Brood War and a mission and map pack titled Insurrection, was the start of the second major franchise that Blizzard Entertainment would develop.  It followed on the heels of Blizzard’s highly successful Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (to which it was excessively and somewhat unfairly compared) and made several revolutionary additions to Blizzard’s style of gaming and to the Real-time Strategy genre as a whole.  It was slow to catch on during the first few years following its release but eventually grew to become one of the most popular and influential RTS games in history.

Starcraft builds heavily on the Blizzard style of RTS mechanics for its groundwork.  A central building produces worker units which harvest resources from nearby static resource nodes.  The workers construct buildings and each tier of structures unlocks more structures granting the player access to more powerful units and abilities.  Time and economic management are critical components to success and a heavy emphasis is placed on micromanagement of individual unit abilities and unit formations; particularly as they relate to combined arms tactics.

Beyond these basic mechanics is where Starcraft’s innovation begins to stand out.  Starcraft was the first RTS to present factions that were completely different in form and function.  Previous RTS titles had introduced elements that made faction styles different, but these factions still shared some units and combat options.  Each faction in Starcraft has a unique unit and building roster and its own style of economic and military strategy.  For example Terran workers must individually see a building through to completion while Protoss buildings are constructed autonomously and Zerg workers must be sacrificed to build a Zerg structure.

Combat between the races fluctuated heavily based on the strategies players and the AI employed for each race.  Zerg units tend to be cheap and suited for mass attacks, but the Zerg just as often have to leverage their unconventional air units and special abilities to counter Terran area-of-effect attacks and Protoss special abilities.  On the other hand Protoss units are by far the strongest in the game but require substantial unit diversity in most of their strategies.  This exceptional degree of unit and strategy variance has kept Starcraft’s overall gameplay surprisingly balanced and perfectly suited for competitive play.

Starcraft’s storyline does not stray far from typical sci-fi stories of conflict.  The game is set at the transition into the 26th century and takes place in a remote part of the Milky Way Galaxy called the Koprulu Sector.  The Terran faction is composed of human exiles from Earth and makes first contact with the alien Protoss and Zerg races at the start of the game.  Each race has its own campaign which comprises ten missions divided into episodes for continuity.  The player takes on the role of each race’s equivalent of a generic commander and follows several characters through the missions as Starcraft’s story unfolds.  The campaign’s menu screen even recommends that players complete the episodes in order.  Knowledge of the story is not necessary for the player to adequately complete missions or understand the races’ mechanics, but half of Starcraft’s quality content can be summed up in its highly developed fiction.

Starcraft is nothing if not thematic and flavorful.  The game’s overarching story drives the missions and develops the characters.  Mission briefings feature unit portrait animations of the characters while an audio of their voice actors narrates their interactions with each other.  By modern standards it’s a primitive system but the voice acting talent is well chosen and the narrative keeps the player immersed in the fictional universe.

The other half of Starcraft’s quality and the primary source of its popularity is multiplayer.  Skirmish modes against the AI as well as LAN and internet multiplayer are available.  Internet hosting is provided by Blizzard’s hosting service and is a very reliable and consistent support platform.  Starcraft’s AI is fairly one-dimensional and generally favors wave-expand-wave patterns that can intimidate younger players and bore experienced players.  With that being said the AI is at least competent enough to use each race’s abilities properly and fully explore its tech tree and is sufficient for casual gamers to enjoy co-op LAN games.

Starcraft’s multiplayer demands little of an average internet connection.  If connectivity problems arise the game provides players with a short lag timer when a connection is slow or fails, then the players may vote to kick the lagging player if the connection has not been restored.  Indeed Starcraft is legendary in the multiplayer community with national tournaments held among pro-gamers annually.  As mentioned before the races are well balanced and offer multiple strategies that gamers of all levels can adopt and improve upon.

Starcraft also features a comprehensive map editor with numerous customization features.  Everything that the developers used to make the campaign missions (except the voice actors and their corresponding audio files) are available to a prospective designer and in its heyday thousands of custom maps were available to online players to enjoy.  Starcraft’s graphics utilize 3D modelling for units and objects but the game still operates a 2D interface.  The Starcraft is nevertheless very colorful with a surprising degree of unit detail which was gentle with processors of the time and no problem to even low-tier modern computers.

By this point Starcraft’s graphics, cinematics, and trigger mechanics are thoroughly outdated.  However it remains a hallmark among the more advanced games of its generation and continues to provide fast paced action for competitive gamers and rich story and editing ability for casual and inventive players.  Blizzard support for Starcraft remains consistent and the main game and Brood War can still be acquired online through  Now that Starcraft II’s trilogy has been released Starcraft forms the linchpin of one of the most inventive and successful franchises’ in RTS gaming history.

Command & Conquer

Discussing Real-time Strategy games without going back to the genre’s roots just feels too much like starting a fiction novel without reading the prologue.  So we’re going to take a look back at one of the games that helped start it all: Command & Conquer.  Sometimes referred to informally as Tiberian Dawn to bring it in line with its sequals, Command & Conquer was developed by Westwood Studios and released by Virgin Interactive in 1995.  While Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (also by Westwood) was the company’s first RTS title and also the first true RTS in the genre, Command & Conquer was the title that would go on to help define the genre and set the standard for Westwood’s style of RTS products.

Command & Conquer refined the building and management process of Dune II into the Westwood style of RTS.  A single Construction Yard assembled all the player’s buildings for a set cost in the game’s resource, in this case Tiberium.  Tiberium was harvested by a heavily armored Harvester unit and deposited at the Tiberium Refinery.  Most structures in the base had to be supplied by power plants.  Infantry and vehicles were produced from the barracks and war factory respectively (Nod’s buildings had different names and styles but were mechanically the same).  Higher level buildings unlocked more advanced units culminating in each faction’s superweapon.

The game’s two factions, GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod, obeyed similar structural rules in their tech trees but were thematically very different.  GDI was the slow, expensive faction with a strong emphasis on conventional firepower and most of the its units outclassed their counterparts in Nod’s arsenal.  This included the thematic Mammoth Tank, which was the strongest unit in the game and one of only three units capable of targeting both air and ground units.  Nod on the other hand emphasized speed, adaptability, and long range.  It possessed nearly twice as many siege units as GDI and was the only faction with cost-effective hard counters against infantry.  Nod also possessed far more powerful defensive structures.

Command & Conquer’s story is set in the near future (early 2000s) from the game’s publishing perspective and depicts an international conflict between the U.N. backed Global Defense Initiative (abbreviated GDI) and the cult style terrorist group Brotherhood of Nod (often simply called Nod or The Brotherhood).  The game features two campaigns where players take on the role of a promising commander in either GDI or the Brotherhood.  GDI’s campaign takes place in Europe and is characterized by missions with strong defensive emphasis and occasionally limited tactical options.  The Brotherhood of Nod’s campaign is set in Africa and features a much higher degree of “commando” missions where the player either does not have a base or must acquire one through subterfuge.

A central element to Command & Conquer’s story and gameplay is Tiberium, an alien substance that gathers minerals from the soil into a highly concentrated, easily harvested form allowing GDI and Nod to quickly amass raw materials for their war machines.  However Tiberium is also highly toxic and its rapid absorption quickly depletes the soil causing severe environmental damage.  The control of Tiberium and protection of civilian communities affected by its spread is a major sub-theme in several GDI missions, sometimes to the point of overshadowing the wider conflict with Nod.  The Brotherhood of Nod on the other hand venerates Tiberium as the door to the future and actively seeks to spread it and manipulate its various properties.

Westwood’s style of RTS, which the mechanics of GDI and Nod very heavily demonstrated, were in contrast to other rising RTS games of the time in that they emphasized tactical and strategic flexibility over army composition.  The factions were markedly different and in some ways unbalanced.  GDI was most vulnerable in the early game where Nod’s speed and adaptability could overwhelm GDI’s limited options.  In the late game the balanced switched to favor GDI’s super heavy Mammoth Tank, all purpose long range weapons, and monopoly on aircraft (save for a single Nod helicopter unit in multiplayer).  Neither side was completely outclassed in any phase of the game, but changing parameters over the course of the game forced players to adopt new tactics to defeat their opponents.

The story of Command & Conquer is extensively developed with live action cutscenes between missions interspersed with CGI videos detailing the backstory of Tiberium and the two factions.  Simple CGI clips also preceded and concluded each mission though they were purely for thematic effect.  The story also helps set the stage for many of the missions for each side as minor plot points come and go, such as a power struggle in the Brotherhood of Nod and GDI’s political battle with the U.N. to secure funding for its operations.  The live action scenes are simple and sometimes misleading in relation to following missions, but are a rare and refreshing element sadly missing in modern RTS games and are perhaps one of the most immersive parts of the game’s whole experience.

Multiplayer is the only form of skirmish that Command & Conquer possesses, although matches can be played against humans or the AI.  The entire faction arsenal is unlocked (with Nod gaining two units not seen in single player) and players compete against each other or the AI on a battle map selected from the game’s map library.  The AI was fairly reliable for its time and could provide a decent challenge, although it lacked the ability to effectively utilize Nod’s speed and unpredictability to its fullest.  Mutliplayer games for the most part ran smoothly and were forgiving with slower internet speeds as it was largely compatible with the dial-up service of the time.

Command & Conquer is obviously heavily dated by modern standards with its non-linear factions, simplistic AI, and obviously simple graphics.  It is available as freeware and with collection packs from Electronic Arts on Origin, although its compatibility with newer operating systems and hardware is variable.  Nevertheless its impact on the RTS genre cannot be overstated.  Command & Conquer would go on to become one of the most iconic and successful series of the RTS genre with three sequel titles and three spin-off titles (not including their respective expansions) continuing and refining its legacy.  The game’s nostalgia may wane a bit for older players after exposure to modern gaming and new gamers will likely see no reason to invest much time in it.  However Command & Conquer is a simple and at this point a rather unique experience that any casual gamer could enjoy and at the very least deserves to be remembered as one of the founding pillars of RTS gaming of its time and for the foreseeable future.

Total War: Rome II

Ever since Creative Assembly’s landmark Rome: Total War catapulted the Total War franchise into the mainstream of strategy gaming fans of the series have eagerly awaited its sequel, Total War: Rome II.  Elements eagerly anticipated in a sequel were increased control over family members, improvements to naval combat, and a greater number of diverse factions.  Rome II promised all of this and more.  In development terms it was also considered the next step in advancing Total War game mechanics and technology as a whole.

Veterans of the first Rome: Total War game will actually find few similarities in the new Rome.  Most of the factions make a return alongside dozens of new ones, but otherwise the game has received an overhaul derived from the years of experience and development Creative Assembly accumulated from its subsequent Total War titles after the first Rome’s release.  The campaign map is populated with numerous towns and cities organized into provinces each composed of a walled provincial capital and one to three un-walled towns.  Local resource deposits provide real economic benefits in the province and indirectly the player’s empire as a whole.  Naval combat can now be fought in real-time and armies are formed around the generals (an army cannot exist without appointing a general).

For all that’s changed, the basic formula of Total War remains.  Wealth is generated in the cities and towns of the player’s empire which is in turn used to raise and maintain armies of period infantry, cavalry, archers, and warships to conquer the ancient Mediterranean world.  The great factions of the period, such as the Roman Republic, Empire of Carthage, and Ptolemaic Egypt are all present.  Historic figures such as Hannibal Barca and Julius Caeser can make an appearance, but are not afforded any prestige or abilities beyond other generals.  City populations must be controlled and diplomatic relations between factions can be manipulated for trade, alliances, and threats.

Like its Total War predecessors Rome II’s single player is at the heart of its entertainment value.  The campaign, with downloaded content, features over twenty playable factions to choose from over one hundred on the campaign map.  Factions are placed into culture categories such as Latin (Rome and its neighbors) and Hellenic (Greek city states) with each culture bringing some faction bonuses in addition to the unique attributes that individual factions gain.  All factions follow the same general rules of economics, internal politics, and Imperium levels (with the exception of Rome and Carthage which also feature political sub-factions within their primary faction).  The Grand Campaign, Rome II’s primary single player element, starts at 272 BC with most of the factions (aside from a few successor states) starting off with only a province or two in their control.

The Imperium level, a new mechanic to the Total War series, is a defining feature for gameplay in Rome II and applies to every faction, not just Rome.  The Imperium level is determined by the number of cities under the player’s control and as it goes up it applies small but steadily increasing levels of empire wide stats such as taxes, morale, and corruption.  The Imperium level also defines how many armies, navies, and agents a faction can maintain.  As a mechanic the Imperium level is a fairly effective way to emulate the feel of an expanding, powerful empire and certainly encourages aggressive expansion on the part of the player.  However its limitations cut into the some of the “total war” aspects of the game; at higher levels players can feel strapped for armies and navies to cover increasingly larger and complicated campaign theaters.

Like in Shogun 2, technology makes an appearance and is divided into three trees.  Research unlocks buildings, units, and empire wide benefits.  The Roman Marian Reform event from the first Rome is gone; now all factions share a similar unit tier system.  Once a technology makes a unit obsolete, all of those units throughout a player’s army can be manually upgraded for a minor sum.  Structures upgrade in similar fashion although the process is far more costly and some higher tier units require the empire to have access to special resources such as lead or iron.

Politics is another new addition that Rome II brings to the Total War series.  The political system is basically an expansion of the loyalty and family tree mechanics for generals and replaces both mechanics with statesmen that become generals or admirals, and a set of statistics that emulate the power struggles of the republican Roman Senate.  Each statesman increases the influence of their family/party in the empire’s political affairs which allows political actions such as assassinations to be used.  Additionally the more influence the player’s family/party has grants increased bonuses and penalties to the empire, but also increases the chance that the other families/parties will rebel and attempt to overthrow the player’s faction.

The political system is a clever and heavily integrated design, but sadly does little to actually improve the gameplay.  Benefits to having political dominance are minor compared to the arbitrary threat of civil war and the other families/parties provide minor but persistent annoyances that cannot be removed.  The system is well thought out and does not hinder overall gameplay, but the lack of control the players can ultimately develop over the gentry of their own empire becomes tiresome and breaks the immersion of world conquest.

Overall single player combat has been streamlined and refined to arguably the highest level to date in a Total War game.  Units are well designed to reflect their historical roles and battlefield performance.  The AI is competent enough to know how to use the different units and abilities under its command.  Empire and city management is easily accessed but incorporates some new details that greatly increases its learning curve.  Naval combat, a feature that’s been greatly expanded since Shogun 2, still needs some work to adequately define and balance the roles of different ship types and thus avoid having all naval battles turn into numbers games.

Multiplayer, particularly the co-op feature for the grand campaign, is very well implemented in Rome II.  For the most part load times and real time combat are amiable to lower internet speeds and the mechanics of cooperative play did not produce any problems.  The only glaring problem with co-op play is the presence of so many diverse cultures in Rome II.  Cultures affect public order and competing cultures generated by allies in close proximity can cause some trouble in border provinces.  This often requires players to choose factions a fair distance away from each other, eliminating some of the elements of cooperative play.

Graphics are certainly fresher and on higher settings require a mid-to-high end machine to run.  This is one of the great tragedies of Rome II.  Individual details have been modeled to an unprecedented degree but the player can rarely enjoy this feature.  Large scale battles require the player to constantly shift their attention to different units with the screen zoomed out, away from the shiny details.

Rome II’s combat is more integrated and diverse, although at times suffers from its own improvements due to the degree of micromanagement brought on by increased options to the player.  Multiplayer is one of the best experiences to date.  Sadly, many of the new features Rome II added to the franchise are as troublesome as they are new.  Seeing historical military tactics pay off is as rewarding as ever and even more accessible with the greatly improved faction and unit designs, but outside the battlefield empire management remains overly cumbersome and sometimes outright frustrating.

Rome II’s place in the Total War franchise is highly debatable since many of the new mechanics have uncertain futures in upcoming titles.  Fans of the first Rome will miss some of the old simplicity, but those looking for greater options in their conquest of the Mediterranean will appreciate the increased detail.  Casual gamers, especially those new to Total War, should probably refrain from purchasing Rome II until they experience a different modern Total War title to avoid Rome II’s steep and somewhat ambiguous learning curve.