Posts Tagged ‘ Paradox Interactive

Struggling with Victoria

To my astonishment and horror, Metacritic decided that my B- is a 67 / 100 for Victoria II. Personally I’d put the game in the neighborhood of 75 if I were grading on that scale.

It’s annoying, because Metacritic already weighs on my mind when I’m assigning a score. I had a hard time deciding whether Victoria II was a C+ or a B-, and I decided that Metacritic’s penchant for low-balling letter grades would be the tie breaker. I didn’t realize that it would still interpret a B as disdain. But if I weight Metacritic any more heavily, the scores I assign will be useless for GameShark readers.

However, the Metacritic score is emblematic of a problem I’m having when I talk about Victoria II: I keep coming across as more negative than I strictly want to be. I know why this is, of course. You can analyze and explain problems much more easily than you can express praise, and Victoria II’s best aspects are difficult to put into coherent thoughts. Zoom in on any part of Victoria II, and a lot of problems appear. Look at it more holistically, and it’s virtues are clearer.

The other week on Three Moves Ahead I brought up my concern that it’s harder to strike a middle-ground with reviewing games than it is with other media. For one thing, so much of the audience for games writing seem to interpret reviews and scores through a thumbs-up or thumbs-down lens. For another, games are kind of expensive and playing them takes a lot time, two factors that I think discourage risk-taking on the part consumers. When I write a review of a new game, I have this fear that for a lot of people the decision they make on launch day will be final. That they won’t remember what I or other reviewers said in 3 months when the game is on sale, just that the game didn’t sound like it was worth buying. Plus, anyone who follows the industry knows that publishers and developers live and die with early sales.

Maybe none of this should be my concern. But it’s hard to ignore.

Victoria II is a game that I would buy regardless of its problems. I wrote the opening of my review with myself in mind: someone who loves history and the Victorian Era. Someone whose daydreams are filled with Prussian armies, British ministers, and American progressives. Someone who mourns the world that was lost in the trenches, and the stolen future that might have been ours, if cooler heads and better angels had prevailed. Even though I ultimately shift gears and criticize Victoria II as a strategy game, I think it’s an important game for a certain kind of player. And I hope he’ll read my opening paragraphs and decide that’s enough for him.

Now This Is More Like It

For the past couple weeks I’ve been playing Graviteam’s Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 for an upcoming review, and I spent today finishing up the copy and putting together some screenshots. However, there is one thing I find really impressive about this game that I couldn’t bring up in my review: the limited scope, and the price. Achtung Panzer is representative of almost everything that wargame publishers and developers should be doing.

I’ve written before about how wargame prices are too high, and how that’s a terrible thing for the hobby, so imagine my pleasure to fine a first-rate, brand-new wargame released at $20. Pre-orders got the game for $16 or $17. To offer a game of this quality, with such high production values, for less than half the cost of a typical wargame is both generous and brilliant.

It’s generous because, frankly, nobody ever expects to get this much wargame for so little money. The people most likely to buy Achtung Panzer would probably pay $50 for it without thinking twice, because that’s what that audience pays for a wargame that interests them. There is a possibility that Paradox have left some money on the table here.

But the cheap buy-in might entice non-wargamers to leave their comfort zone and give Achtung Panzer a shot, especially if the game gets good word of mouth. It’s an interesting experiment, and one that I hope pays off. Wargames should be bigger than they are.

The low-price ties in with another important element of Achtung Panzer: it’s not very big. There are only a half-dozen operations, which really means there are only three operations, and you can play them from the German or Soviet perspective. Neither side has a particularly expansive order of battle, and the maps are all roughly similar to one another.

That’s a wise decision, I think. Wargaming is too often afflicted by a sort of gigantism that puts too much strain on developers and scenario designers, and leaves gamers to sort through a lot of chaff. Think about the progression of the Close Combat series up to the third game. From Normandy to Market Garden… to the entire Eastern Front. One of these things is not like the other.

The Combat Mission games were similarly ambitious. The first game covered the Western Front from Normandy into Germany. The second game covered, once again, the entire Eastern Front. The third game covered the Mediterranean theater.

Then you have a game like The Operational Art of War, which explicitly set out to be the last operational level wargame you would ever need. For $50 or $60, you could enjoy, well, just about any and every major campaign from the Franco-Prussian War through Operation Iraqi Freedom. True, the design wasn’t actually that flexible and the game definitely handled certain types of warfare better than others, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was that by the time TOAW3 came out, you had a game that could semi-plausibly claim to model the entirety of modern warfare.

Certain things seemed to get lost in this drive for more. For one thing, the game that models a hundred battles is not inherently superior to the game that models a single battle. Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! and Take Command: 2nd Manassas go into such exhaustive detail on these two engagement that you come to see how they are comprised of dozens of different, smaller engagements, any one of which could have gone a dozen different ways. Plus, focusing on a single battle or campaign lets a developer tailor the design to the subject matter, rather than attempting to create a system that can be adapted to all the myriad situations that arise over the course of a war or an era.

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 focuses on one type of combat at a single engagement, and its low price allows it to do that without apology. It’s not competing with games that let you re-fight the entire war. It has one type of warfare to show you. It wants to tell a smaller story that takes place within a much larger story. I don’t think that’s a weakness, but it’s discount price ensures that absolutely no one can look at this game and say, “That’s it?”

Heir to the Throne Sale

I don’t normally post about particular sales, but this seems topical. EU3: Heir to the Throne is on sale for $10 at GamersGate. For what it ads to the game, this is a pretty great price. Since EU3 Complete itself goes on sale fairly often (Direct2Drive was selling it for $7.50 only last week), you can count on getting the whole package for less than $25. This is one of the all-time great bargains in strategy gaming, and it’s worth taking a chance on even if you’re unconvinced by the various love-letters I’ve written to Paradox lately.

A New Column and Addenda

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a new column for GameSetWatch, and it went up today on Gamasutra. It will probably be appearing on GameSetWatch in the next few days. My goal is to examine how social and political issues are translated into videogame elements, and to identify the assumptions that underpin a developer’s approach to those issues.

With this first piece, I stayed on terrain I know pretty well: Europa Universalis III. It’s such a rich game that I could have focused on any number of elements, but what I really found fascinating was how it represents sociopolitical change. Here is a game that starts in the twilight of the Middle Ages and concludes on the edge of industrialization, and the player has to guide his country through all the upheavals that occurred within that historical span. How does it describe that process, and the role of government within it? That was the question I attempted to answer, and you can let me know how well I did with it.

One thing I fervently wished as I formatted the post is that EU3 screenshots did not all look so hellishly boring. While I find its aesthetics wonderful, it takes about the least interesting pictures possible: “Look at this exciting popup! Craaaazy!” The irony, of course, is that people who ignore EU3 because it looks boring are missing one of the most exciting games in strategy.

EU3 aficionados might notice that the story I tell in this column is a bit condensed. I had to cut out some of the context and some of specific events that contributed to the wave of misfortune that befell me. Early drafts read too much like, well, a blog entry. The important part was to illustrate the effects of the game’s mechanics, not give Gama/GSW a detailed after-action report.

I must also admit that my story shows EU3′s mechanics at their best. Readers and TMA listeners might recall that when we did a show on Heir to the Throne, both Tom and Troy had misgivings about how well the stability mechanic worked over the long haul. I argued that the mechanics worked fine. Having played much, much more of the game, I can see now that my fellow panelists were correct. In the end, a decent EU3 player will break the game wide open.

A full campaign in EU3 covers 421 years, but the mechanics really only work for about half that. Once the player has had some time to start working his will on the gameworld and provide the kind of strategic continuity that his state’s historical counterpart never possessed, the mechanics start to break down. They cannot overcome the money and power the player will eventually possess. The challenges stay the same, but the player’s capacity to meet them only increases.

Truthfully, I think the problem would be solved if Paradox changed the stability mechanic. Rather than having it act like a series of steps, it should be more like a steady slope. If the player wants to keep increasing stability past the level equilibrium point, he should be forced to keep putting forth effort to do so. At the highest levels of stability, the marginal cost should be dissuasive. As things stand now, once the player gets his society to the highest stability level, it stays there until something bad happens.

Anyway, during those turbulent decades that follow the beginning of a new campaign, those mechanics work well, and make some trenchant observations about just how national mismanagement can happen even under responsible rulers. EU3 does a wonderful job of puncturing the judgments of the armchair emperor. Here’s how it pulls it off.

Still Engrossed

Looking through the contents of this blog’s slender archive, Europa Universalis III seems to come up more often than any other game. If you click on the tag to the left of this post, you’ll find a bunch of posts on it that are of admittedly varying quality and interest.

I mention this because it has become undeniable that EU3 has absorbed me more completely than any strategy game since Civilization IV. In the past couple weeks I’ve been working on another EU3-related project and wound up sucked into a playthrough of the grand campaign. I only wanted to verify a few things to myself before I wrote about them, but the moment I started time moving and received a mission to start annexing French vassals, I was hooked.

Yet despite my obvious affection for EU3, I’ve always been rather qualified with my praise. This is an acquired taste. The learning curve is steep. The interface is opaque. It’s a game for people who like history.

All of that might be true, but I just don’t care, and I don’t think you should either. So what if the game is tricky to learn? I’m still learning it, but I started having a blast with it after only a few hours of play. Scores of hours later, and I’m having even more fun. I go from cheering to wailing and back again in the space of only a few minutes. I will be just about to quit for the evening when some backstabbing sonofabitch declares war on me and rolls into my territory with 30,000 men. Am I supposed to go to sleep after something like that happens? No. I drop what I’m doing until I hammer out a peace settlement. Preferably one that ends in his abject humiliation.

I’m about to go to bed, and there should be a lot of important things on my mind. But really, tonight I’m more preoccupied with whether or not I should embrace the Counter-Reformation and start trying to quash Protestantism, or whether I should get behind the Protestants and sever my ties with the Vatican. And what should I do about the Reformed church?

On top of everything else, the Heir to the Throne expansion is just a huge win for the team at Paradox. I am so very glad they did not leave off their work with In Nomine, because Heir to the Throne just makes the entire game system more comprehensible and interesting. It takes me just a moment to check whether or not I have a plausible casus belli against another country, and how my country would react to a new war. Peace negotiations make crystal clear how much I will be feared, loved, and hated for imposing a harsher settlement on a vanquished enemy. Sometimes, even though I know it will make me a pariah, I just pile on the penalties against a country that had the audacity to make me fight a war. As my man Tiberius said: “Let them hate so long as they fear.”

So if you come to the end of this month and find some extra money burning a hole in your pocket, or if you someday see EU3 Complete on sale, I suggest you grab it along with the Heir to the Throne expansion. It might not be for everyone. Few games worth playing are. But if it turns out that you’re the kind of person who likes EU3 (and you won’t know for sure until you’ve put a few hours into the game), then you will find this is a game that fires the imagination like few others.