Posts Tagged ‘ strategy

I’m Big in Herring

What do you get when you put my busy schedule together with GameShark’s technological sophistication? Timeliness, my friends. Like this review of Patrician IV (NA release date: September 21).

GameShark assigned the game to me while I was digging myself out of a massive hole, and it went to the back of the line. Truth be told, it wasn’t something I was particularly excited to play, and so I installed it feeling nothing beyond professional obligation and unprofessional annoyance.

Naturally, it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

RUSE Roundup

It’s funny to think how unenthusiastic I was about 2010′s strategy prospects when the year began. I was indifferent to Starcraft II, had no idea a new Civilization was in the making, and had never heard of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. The only game that sounded interesting, and this was me really reaching for something to care about, was Ubisoft’s gimmicky-sounding RTS, R.U.S.E. But nothing beyond the deception mechanics sounded interesting, and the thought of a WWII RTS from a developer I’d never heard of was profoundly unappealing.

But here we are in the September of what has been a solid year of strategy gaming, and RUSE has proven to be one of the best entries so far, and an almost ideal cure for what ails the RTS genre. The beta showed that RUSE had a great interface and some good faction balance, and the final product confirms that Eugen Systems unexpected bridged the gap between wargamers and RTS gamers, and put the  casual gamer first.

My review is up at GameShark. It’s the highest score I’ve awarded a game yet, but I simply adore the genre blending at work in this design. I’m in good company. The gentlemen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun have said that, “It’s a game men should play.” And indeed they should.

However, my review would have been even more positive had Eugen Systems not created an utterly dreadful campaign. Almost against my will, I had to dock the game for making something so shoddy a part of this excellent package. Over at Gamers With Jobs, I explored some of the major sources of disappointment with this campaign, and some of the troubling things it, and other games, have revealed about the state of game development in France.

But really, there’s no limit to the nasty things one could say about this campaign. It’s sexism is utterly appalling, with a completely fictitious femme fatale introduced as a major player in shaping Allied strategy in WWII. Okay, we know that’s pretty much crap, women working for the War Dept. in the 1940s were more likely to be stuck in the typing pool than made an emissary to front-line generals, but we can roll with it. Except that the only reason this woman is a part of the story is to play the role of Lady Macbeth, using sex and manipulation to bring men to ruin and turn them against one another.

You know, like women always do.

But all of that is secondary to what RUSE is really about: multiplayer WWII combat. On those grounds, it’s a smashing success. Now go read my review and learn why.

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.

Caught in Translation

My GameSetWatch column returns with a piece on DLC for Napoleon: Total War. I couldn’t resist checking out the “Peninsular Campaign” Creative Assembly released a month or so ago, because I could not for the life of me imagine how Creative Assembly were going to translate that fascinating, messy campaign to the highly conventional, orderly Napoleon: Total War campaign engine.

Now that I’ve spent a lot of time playing with it, I have to say “The Peninsular Campaign” is a minor masterpiece of scenario design and maybe the best campaign yet for Napoleon. I explain why over at GameSetWatch.

My interest with “Keys to the Kingdom” is one of translation. Games so often take their inspiration, their theme, from complicated real-world subjects. But it’s always interesting to see what designers choose to emphasize. Sometimes they do nothing more than take their appearance from history, as in Empire: Total War. That game had a great deal of 18th century flavoring, but very little of the gameplay bore any resemblance to what you might find in a history of the Seven Years’ War. It was a bad costume-drama without a shred of substance beneath it.

On the other hand, a flight of sci-fi fantasy like Sins of a Solar Empire made a valiant and partially successful effort to make players role-play their empires by introducing co-operative mechanics into an ultimately competitive game. “Frienemy” mechanics are familiar in board games, but unusual in an RTS.

When I write about something like the “Peninsular Campaign” DLC or Europa Universalis III, I try to make the reader see the connections that I see. That these design decisions don’t just come out of the ether, and they are not purely driven by a desire to create a good game. There are a lot of ways to reach that destination, but the choices along the way are often made with an eye toward something that happens in the real-world. The goal with games like this is not just to give the player a good time, but to make him face decisions that other people, in other times, also faced. Games like this are, in part, attempts to let you live the fantasy of being a desktop Wellington or Richelieu. Much of what makes them unique and interesting is owed to the negotiation between game design and the concepts being translated into design.

Anyway, go check out the new piece, and leave comments on it at GSW.

Making It Suntory Time

Last week, MK and I blew out of town to go hang out with Julian Murdoch for a few days, and the ensuing visit was like a G-rated Swingers: hard drinking, gaming to exhaustion, running around in a forest, playing games with Jen and Peter, dinner with Hasbro’s Rob Daviau and Lindsay Braun, and a surprise visit from the ATF.

OK, that last part isn’t strictly true. But it was pretty awesome nonetheless.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the board gaming strategy scene is far healthier than what we generally have on PC. It’s not that the games themselves are superior, but their variety and playability leaves me envious. So many board games can be fully understood by the end of the first or second turn, while I can play a game like Europa Universalis or Starcraft II for months without really grasping what’s happening underneath the hood. If strategy depends on understanding, then board games get players strategizing almost instantly. With PC games, there tends to be a long, perhaps endless, period of fumbling in the dark before the game becomes clear. Board games have a short run-up from Learning to Fun. PC games tend to play a more dangerous game, promising that more and deeper fun awaits if you’re just willing to play these half-dozen tutorials and wear out your “alt” and “tab” keys  flipping between the game and the PDF manual.

Different platforms, different markets, I know. But still, I love the straightforward trade-offs of Fresco and Agricola, with their cruelly limited number of actions per turn and scant resources. I was amazed at how Formula D, a board game about auto racing, so successfully translated the essence of racing onto a playing field of spaces, dice, and counters. Rob and Lindsay brought over a game, Catacombs, that involved little more than hurling little blocks across a board and stealing turns, but it managed to offer great team play and fast-changing tactics.

On the other hand, board games have it easy because the game’s community is right there in the room with you. Who cares how big the player base is, when all it takes to get a game going is one copy and a couple friends? Board games can court minimalism, and choose oddball themes, because they require so much less of an audience than do PC games.

Beyond that, I also learned valuable information such as: G’vine gin makes a brilliant martini, Suntory’s Yamazaki single-malt is a solid but indistinct scotch, and the new Sherlock is brilliant except for one little problem: the mysteries and plotting are actually not very clever at all, which leaves Moffat’s Holmes looking uncharacteristically dense and careless at times.

Final thought: I love the setting and the themes behind Bioshock Infinite, but I hate the Bioshock branding. More than that, however, I resent a gaming community that complains about branding and lack of “original IP” (a term which adopts the bloodless corporate term for what we used to call an idea) while doing nothing to create an environment that fosters risk-taking and originality.

Thank God, I Have Done My Duty

You may have heard something about me working on a review. The game was Making History 2, and the review just went up at GameShark.

This was a game I volunteered to review because I was interested in it, and I liked the guys making it. Had I known, going in, that I would dislike the game so much, I would never have volunteered for the assignment. With something like this, you go into it hoping you’ll have something to champion. Unfortunately, there’s always the chance that something you wanted to like will turn out to be a huge disappointment.