They Are Billions: WHY ARE THERE SO MANY?!

Numantian Games’ most recent publication, They Are Billions, has challenged, exhilarated, and frustrated thousands of gamers since its release with its careful blend of strategic management and maddening action.

If you asked me what one of my strengths was in strategy games when I was younger and dumber, I would have puffed out my chest, and proclaimed proudly, “Turtling!“, causing all of my gamer friends to grumble in well-deserved frustration at my “irritatingly cheap tactics”. I don’t blame them at all (it was an annoying play style), but turtling still works as a viable tactic, and it is one that I could proudly say was part of my arsenal and one of the best tools I had. I felt unstoppable

Then I played They Are Billions…there goes THAT hard-earned point of pride.

On paper, They Are Billions sounds like it should be easy: You upgrade your colony of human survivors with impressive steampunk technology to survive in the zombie apocalypse for a set number of days. Okay, maybe not easy, but still manageable and easily comprehended.

Then you notice that you have eight resources to worry about on a procedurally generated map with limited land resources, and of course a metric TON of zombies (up to 20,000 on screen at once, an impressive feat in and of itself) of different shapes, sizes, and health bar lengths all around you.

And then you cry. Because it’s hard…very hard.

I bought They Are Billions when it was early-access, so I cut my teeth on the Survival mode. Basic setup is: Command Center, four Rangers, and a Soldier, go.  A fine start, excepting the fact that if you could see the entire map, you would just see a literal OCEAN of red with a tiny piece of green in the middle (A bit too daunting for me, I think).

It won’t take long to learn that balancing your resources is critical, and sadly there are a few moments of getting bad placements that can be frustrating to impatient players.  However you can just start another round if you’re feeling cheated, so the random map generation is not as problematic as I thought it would be.

Numantian Games created something special. I really wish I was better at it.  I still have no idea if the developers actually intended the game to be beatable, but the time-sink still feels worth it for an experience that few, if any, RTS games have ever delivered, and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.


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Total War: Warhammer II DLC and its effect on Mortal Empires.

Now that the latest release of Warhammer II DLC has settled in, the new trends resulting from the changes and additions of the combined updates are starting to show their latest effect on the campaign overall.  The trend thus far, while showing love to some badly neglected factions, has grown a little disappointing.   So far four different Old World races have received major updates, increasing their competitive ability against the newer races of Warhammer II.  Of those four, three of them have been from the “good guys” or Forces of Order, and it’s starting to show.

After each Old World update, the respective beneficiary race showed massive improvement, normally dominating its regional affairs and easily crushing its traditional rival.  As potential competition was updated and introduced, like the Skaven or Vampire Coast, these dramatic results were curbed to some degree on a global level.  Yet now that the Empire, one of the original superpower factions when Total War: Warhammer was introduced, has been added to the list of updated factions the global balance of power has finally produced noticeable ramifications across the world map.

Forces of Order factions, in this case a colloquial term identifying all Human, Dwarf, Elf, Lizardman, and yes even Tomb King factions, are typically more likely to ally with their neighbors and consolidate their power with peaceful confederations.  This factor combined with the imbalance of Old World updates has resulted, in a frequent but not total basis, in the Forces of Order achieving overwhelming map dominance before Archaon’s Chaos invasion is even defeated.  Greenskins are usually the first to go out, with Skaven relegated to balkanized provinces and the Dark Elves forced on a perpetual defensive campaign.  The Vampire Counts, if fortunate, will survive just long enough for the dwarves to unify their realm and aid the Empire in crushing the remnants of Sylvanian undead.

This is all well and good for peace-loving players and diplomatic challenges, but for those players looking for a long game of global conquest and multi-racial challenges, this can be a bother on both sides of the alliances.  Order players will rapidly find themselves with no one to fight since their beloved trading partners and military allies now likely control all the surrounding territory.  Of course there is no game limitation on who to fight or when, but attacking a former ally typically causes more problems than it’s worth.

On the flip side, factions opposing the general Forces of Order will almost inevitably find themselves embroiled in what is effectively a world war.  Fighting one or two major factions is usually little more than a hassle, but four or more super powers with their hordes of un-killable agents and unpredictable assault routes cause even a victorious campaign to bog down into quagmires of maneuvers, unfixable notifications, and compoundable domestic problems.  Any single difficulty can usually be managed with a few turns of corrective action, but when faced with conflict on a multi-front scale simple problems like agent actions and harmful events grow out of proportion.

On top of all the above, evil factions generally have difficulty aligning with each other, making any sort of united front among surviving factions problematic if not impossible.  This first manifests as evil factions are slowly eliminated by their main rivals while quarreling with their minor neighbors.  Any survivors must fight alone against an increasingly growing alliance of opponents.

Now, the Old World updates do need to happen, and have clearly improved the playability and enjoyment of these races, but the weight of focus needs to move a little more towards center.  The Forces of Order have received the overwhelming majority of new content, free or paid, and the Greenskins, Norsca, and other Chaos forces would benefit from an improvement to their now partially obsolete mechanics, skill trees, and traits.  This would go a long way to not only making these races more viable and playable factions, but also permit a more contentious Mortal Empires campaign throughout the course of extended play.

The Aversion and confederation mechanics could use somewhat of an overhaul as well.  Aversion, or the generic diplomatic penalty between races and factions that don’t like each other, was originally used to reinforce lore-based prejudices that existed among said powers.  In the beginning this made sense, Skaven and Lizardmen, for example, hate each other bitterly and only the most determined diplomatic efforts should succeed between them.

Lately however Aversion has been turned into a mechanic that represents any disgruntlement or grievance a faction could have with another.  It’s gotten to the point where almost any faction, including ones of the same race, will have an Aversion to almost all of its neighbors to some degree or another.  Aversion has stopped becoming a mechanic that enhances flavor and has turned into a crutch to make early- and mid-game diplomacy more difficult.

Confederation has, in many ways, followed a similar path.  It’s understandable that confederation is a somewhat divisive mechanic.  Some players enjoy sweeping up large amounts of settlements and collecting Legendary Lords.  Others don’t have the time or desire to mess with that diplomacy nonsense and wish confederation didn’t exist, or was harder, if that were possible.  That disagreement is part of the reason that standard confederation is a favorable option; it gives the players complete freedom to choose if they want to try confederating.  Norsca’s alteration to this formula was a welcome change, since it made confederation a very tangible objective will still giving the player freedom of choice.

Changes like this should be welcomed for future race updates.  Confederation is fun when it is thematic and attainable, all the more so when it is unique between the races.  The standard confederation mechanic, while functional, is becoming dated.  The AI has a far easier time confederating, even among rivals, while players struggle to make even the most trusted friends accept that final step.  Introducing unique, but optional, faction mechanics for confederation would go a long way in smoothing over the diplomatic hurdles and the troublesome mid-game relational challenges that so often bedevil “evil” factions.

The Empire’s new confederation mechanic is not this way.  Now confederation is effectively a mandate for the defenders of humanity, and a very costly and time consuming one at that.  The player suffers tangible penalties for not playing the diplomacy game; relational penalties pale in comparison.  Although the mechanics are detailed and easily understood, they interfere with every aspect of the player’s immersion and strategy.  CA should be applauded for trying a change as radical as they did, and in fairness they chose one the best factions, flavorfully speaking, to try it out with.  Yet their first attempt has, overall, been a failure: the Empire is wearisome to play.

Once again, change is good and Warhammer II is vastly improved beyond its original release.  The recently announced update for the long neglected Greenskin factions should go a long way in addressing many of the above issues and will hopefully encourage CA to take a more balanced approach to further updates and content releases.  They have already demonstrated their willingness to attempt a revision of existing mechanics and with some trial and error already accomplished in previous DLCs there is a high possibility that more thematic and entertaining mechanics will be available in the future. 


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Epic Units: Part 2

This is the continuation of the epic units topic from previous post. Epic units had finally begun to enter mainstream Real-time Strategy gaming. Now it’s time to see what developers did with this growing concept.

When Electronic Arts defied expectations and made their RTS adaption of the Lord of the Rings film series an epic retelling with massive battles, grand fortresses, and larger than life heroes, it only stood to reason that such a game needed at least one super unit thrown in.   The fiery demon of Moria, the Balrog, fulfilled this requirement in every way.  The pinnacle of the evil forces’ power tree, the Balrog required a large number of power points to unlock (or successfully progressing through 2/3rds of the evil campaign).  It was summoned rather than built, and only remained on the battlefield for a limited amount of time.  Yet its raw power and special abilities gave it every advantage against whatever enemies it faced.  Unless the great Gandalf was on the field, the Balrog was pretty much guaranteed to take the day.

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The balrog assails the men of Gondor.

By this point an epic unit of some kind was practically expected in any true RTS publication that was not a strictly historical/contemporary setting.  If  the game’s genre was sci-fi or fantasy, an epic unit was almost guaranteed to appear.  This became readily apparent when Big Huge Games announced Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, the series’ first foray away from historical settings.  The epic units, or Master Units as they were called, were advertised from the beginning and no one was surprised at their inclusion.  Indeed, their presence was a source of great excitement and anticipation among the RTS community; and they did not disappoint.  Each unit was worth an army by itself, and possessed capabilities beyond what any other single unit-class in the game could deliver.

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The Vinci master unit, the Land Leviathan

Now that epic units had become commonplace in RTS titles, it was time to make them a central part of game design.  Gas Powered Games’ Supreme Commander was released to great excitement in the RTS community as it was billed as the spiritual successor to the much beloved Total Annihilation.  Supreme Commander featured a full tier of epic units, dubbed experimental units (and buildings in the some cases), and a great deal of the game’s overall strategy revolved around acquiring these units quickly, or ensuring that opponents could not acquire them easily.

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UEF mobile factory

Some such units were so powerful that they were classified as “game-enders” and could be disabled in online or skirmish matches if the player(s) so choose.  Surpreme Commander 2, a sequel released three years later, not only featured even more experimental units, but made them almost ubiquitous by going so far as to sideline conventional combat units to the pure rolls of cannon fodder and swarm tactics.

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A Cybran Monkeylord. Note the regular units for scale

Even though the Command & Conquer franchise had been one of the first to introduce a super unit worthy of the title, it became rather anomalous by staying in production for over a decade without an epic unit of note. This would change with the release of Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath, which introduced three epic units, one for each game faction.  These monstrous war machines physically and statistically dwarfed any other unit, and featured customization slots allowing them to be equipped with a variety of secondary weapons systems.  Each epic unit could only be produced from an advanced version of the war factory and cost more credits than any other unit in the game.

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GDI Mammoth Armed Reclamation Vehicle (MARV)

Another Command & Conquer title, Red Alert 3, would be released later the same year.  It never approached Kane’s Wrath’s level of epic integration, but it included a campaign only epic unit, the Shogun Executioner, that the player was allowed to control on a few occasions.  On an interesting note, this would mark one of the rare times in all of RTS history that a campaign only epic unit was given freely to the player.  In fairness, the Shogun Executioner was far from invincible, but its destructive capability surpassed even the faction super-weapons.

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The Shogun Executioner emerges from its assembly area

The epic units of RTS were the arcade bosses of old brought into the RTS genre.  They were rarely the centerpiece of the game’s design or story, but each one almost always left a notable impression on the players that encountered them.  As the years passed some players used them as a sort of handicap mode to test unique strategies or challenge themselves to defeat otherwise unbeatable opponents.  Designers and producers that had grown up experiencing these battlefield giants in action now applied the concept to new genres and mediums; with movies, card games, literature, and video games on other platforms all featuring super units in one variation or another.  The RTS genre may have become obscure as the new millennium moved on, but its contribution to the media presence of epic units is undeniable and will continue to be felt by gamers of all genres for generations to come.

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The GDR from Civilization 6


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Epic Units: Part 1

For a Real-Time Strategy player, there are few things more satisfying than the comprehensive act of causing immense digital destruction in a short amount of time.  Traditionally this is accomplished utilizing super weapons like nuclear missiles or orbital bombardment, but starting in the mid-90s game developers provided players with a new way to devastate their opponents on the battlefield.  Epic units, as they would come to be called, were powerful creatures or war machines that were incredibly durable, possessed immense destructive power, and were typically the pinnacle of the player’s economic and technological development.  Their presentation and themes took different turns over the years, but the trend is unmistakable.

As with Westwood Studio’s iconic Mammoth Tank, the development of epic units had a slow and indeterminate start.  In Blizzard’s landmark title Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, each race is able to use its highest tier caster to summon a powerful, temporary unit; the Water Elemental for the humans, and the Daemon for the orcs.  While both units were not in the strictest sense epic, they were notable for requiring the highest possible concentration of resources to produce, and possessed combat abilities far beyond anything else the rest of the army rosters could muster.  Despite this being something of a hallmark for things to come, Blizzard would never fully pickup on this trend.
WC1PWaterElemental.gif     WC1WaterElemental.gif                    WC1PDaemon.gif     WC1Daemon.gif

 

That Westwood Studios would be the next developer to produce an example of a proto-epic unit is quite ironic given the rivalry it shared with Blizzard.  Red Alert: The Aftermath, the second expansion to the popular Command & Conquer: Red Alert title, featured a single mission with three AI controlled “super tanks”.  Although un-buildable and uncontrollable for the player, these tanks had all the features of an epic unit, which the mission proceeded to showcase as the tanks shrugged off tesla coils and nuclear warheads while laying waste to an extensive Soviet Base.  Editing the unit files would allow modders to gain access to the super tanks, but as yet a true epic unit would remain out of reach of players for a few more months.

 

In March of 1998, Cavedog Entertainment would release the first expansion to its seminal product, Total Annihilation.  The Core Contingency, as the pack was titled, introduced a host of new units to the base game, including the mighty and powerful Krogoth Experimental K-bot (k-bots being essentially single-purpose mechs).  The Krogoth was a surprise for many Total Annihilation players as it had no direct counter or equivalent in the opposing faction.  Additionally, its only weakness was its inability to cross water; in all other respects the Krogoth annihilated any form of opposition that could be sent against it aside from massed, accurate, long range firepower.  The Commander unit could destroy it easily with its disintegrator, but only a skilled player could micro a Commander close enough without being obliterated in turn.  Krogoths required immense time and resources to produce, and typically necessitated an immediate response by the opposition before the battle was swiftly resolved.

 

Westwood Studios would take a cue from the arcade and console traditions of the previous decade and introduce a “boss battle” in their Firestorm expansion to Tiberian Sun.  The Core Defender was an enormous humanoid mech that towered over every unit and structure in the game.  It activated after players completed the pen-ultimate objective in the final mission; with no warning or foreshadowing given that the Defender would even appear.  Capable of dispatching the strongest units in seconds, the Defender’s only weakness was a lack of air defense, yet its enormous pool of hit points necessitated some very creative tactics that can still be found on various forums and videos today.

 

As the development era of the 2000s came into full swing, developers knew that super units were a rare but accepted aspect.  The only challenge was balancing them, if they were available to the player at all.  Ensemble Studio’s Age of Mythology featured several in-game cutscenes were deities and similar beings appeared on the battlefield and wrecked havoc, but it wasn’t until The Titans expansion came out that the enormous Titan units were made available to the player.  Titans were far from invincible as they lacked air defense and the ability to traverse water.  Yet they had the largest hit point pool of any buildable unit by a vast margin, and their attack could level buildings and finish off most units in a couple of hits.  The most impressive feature of the titan was its scale, the enormous model was quite often the largest single object on the map.

 

After the success of Starcraft, and the publishing of expansions like the Core Contingency or The Titans, two developments became increasingly apparent.  Firstly it was possible to safely provide players with epic units, secondly the standard “heavy” or “high tier” units like Terran Battlecruisers had slowly become just expensive cannon fodder in the faster paced meta of modern RTS games.  Relic Entertainment’s Warhammer 40k franchise, Dawn of War, took this to heart by providing each playable faction in the base game and its expansions with a top tier unit.  Typically these took the form of super heavy armored vehicles or supernatural gods and demons.

Each of them was, by default the last thing unlocked in a battle and required more resources than any other technology or unit.  Additionally, players had to control at least one relic resource on the battlefield in order to even build these epic units, and only one such unit could be built at any time.  Once constructed, these epic monsters and machines typically required an opposing epic unit to stop them, otherwise the battle was often resolved quickly.  Another new development was the uniqueness of each epic unit.  Each had its own quirks and mechanics, and they were not balanced around each other, but around their faction as a whole.  Some were more effective as support weapons, others as frontline units or building destroyers.  For the first time, epic units had transitioned from a class or type to an actual unit tier.

 

This topic turned out to be a bit longer than expected, so it’s being broken up into two releases.  Now that we’ve had a chance to see where RTS epic units got their start, next time we’ll see what they turned into as the concept entered mainstream RTS gaming in force.

 


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Hearts of Iron II

First published in 2005, Hearts of Iron II, with its accompanying expansions, is considered one of the flagship titles of Paradox Interactive and the title that launched the Hearts of Iron series, which at the time of this writing is on its fourth iteration. Following a design formula that would become Paradox’s standard, Hearts of Iron II, abbreviated Hoi2 by the fanbase, is one of the largest scale grand strategy games about WWII that has ever been produced.

Hoi2 takes the setting of WWII and puts the player in an almost godlike position of control over a country. The player must manage national resources, production, politics, and the command logistics and organization of their nation’s military. Many mechanical liberties are taken to showcase the level of removal that the player has from the day to day business in their nation, and to simplify complex processes like weapons research and industrial production. The smallest controllable unit is a division, air squadron, or naval flotilla, with brigades appearing as dependent attachments to divisions and ships. Industrial production involves simply ordering a unit to be produced with parallel and/or serial runs, while ensuring there is enough Industrial Capacity, or IC, to complete the process on time.

Yet the simplification of most of the specific processes in Hoi2 has resulted in many general processes being included, such as the management of specific territorial infrastructure, the direct diplomacy between over fifty potential nations, and the hidden nature of combat modifiers such as weather, terrain, and division overcrowding. This has all resulted in one of Hoi2’s biggest noted flaws: abrupt complexity. Beginner players see the exact same user interface as advanced players do, and must manage all of the same systems. The tutorial covers the basics of gameplay, particularly the movement and organization of divisions, as well as the basic controls for diplomatic and political interaction, but fails to accurately inform and test the player on the nuances of combat or the potential optimizations of even basic systems like industrial modifiers and chains of command.

All of that is to say that Hoi2 is very hard to learn; it’s not to say that Hoi2 is a bad or poorly designed game. Once a player has broken through the wall of ignorance that effectively locks all but the easiest playable nations, they are able to explore and enjoy a wide range of options and possibilities. Although the game is primarily a WWII simulator, with historical events coded in and most national AIs programmed to follow historic courses, the player can take their nation in any direction they please. Radical changes like turning the United States communist or Japan allying with the Soviet Union take time and skill, but more subtle actions such as successfully defending France can be accomplished with only a modest level of familiarity with the game.

An introduction to Hoi2 cannot be made easier for new players, but is absolutely worth the effort for anyone looking to take on the roll of a major world power in one of the most significant periods in human history. Obviously the major powers of the period are the ones with the most capacity for flexibility and outright conquest, but any nation that was present at the period can be played. Most importantly, the game proceeds in a sort of real time, with each hour of each day from the start point (as early as 1936) to the game’s end (as late as 1964) proceeding at a rate between 1 hr every five real seconds to 4 hrs per real second. The player can adjust that rate at will, and even pause the game to issue detailed orders and react to events and notifications at their leisure.

If any gamer every looked at a map, illustration, or diagram of a WWII front or operation and imagined moving those unit markers and shifting vector arrows, than Hoi2 is their dream game. It’s primary learning method is failure, but the player loses nothing but time by exploring different nations and strategies that might end in defeat in order to acquire essential familiarity with the game’s mechanics and nuances. Hoi2’s simple graphics and well designed processes ensure that it runs smoothly on old and new machines with minimal software requirements. The grand strategy genre will not appeal to all strategy gamers, but for those that enjoy the complexity of large scale command, Hearts of Iron 2 is a title worth mastering.


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XCOM 2 | Game Review

XCOM 2 is the successor to Firaxis Games’ reboot title of the famous XCOM series: XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  XCOM 2 was produced by 2K Games and released in February of 2016.  An expansion pack, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, was released in August of 2017.  XCOM 2 follows right on the heels of Enemy Unkown’s premise and greatly expands on the story, gameplay, and experience of its predecessors.
XCOM 2 begins its campaign twenty years after Earth’s original attempt to fend off the invading aliens, the XCOM Initiative, suffered total defeat.  The aliens now occupy the Earth through their puppet government, the ADVENT administration, and maintain a benevolent facade while developing their secret Avatar Project.  XCOM has morphed into a resistance movement led by the Commander, the player’s avatar in the campaign.  XCOM’s forces are now based out of the Avenger, a retrofitted alien supply ship that keeps XCOM’s assets on the move and away from ADVENT retaliation.


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