Monthly Archives: November 2016

Opinion – Endless Space 2 Early Access

Master of Endless Space

Turn-based strategy games are enjoying a small renaissance due to the efforts of Amplitude Studios and their “Endless” series.  Endless Space kicked it off with a host of smart additions to the standard Master of Orion formula.  Endless Legend confined the series to a single planet, but added a collection of unique factions who played in radically different ways.  Amplitude Studios is now heading back to the stars with Endless Space 2 and, thankfully, I can say that the early access version shows considerable promise.

The basics of the game are familiar to anyone who has played a 4x space game.  The player starts with a planet and a small fleet which become the seeds of a galaxy spanning empire forged through exploration, research, and conquest.  Endless Space 2 doesn’t radically change that formula, but it includes some nice tweaks.  The first is a carryover from Endless Legend: races with distinct playstyles.  While most 4x games include a variety of factions, they usually emphasize a particular strategy rather than represent new ways to play the game.  Even with just five races available, it’s clear that Endless Space 2 wants several of its races to radically alter the player’s experience.  For example, the Vodyani don’t build colonies.  This race of space particles travels the stars in enormous arks which hover over planets to claim their resources.  Furthermore, the Vodyani population primarily increases by abducting colonists turning other civilizations into resources for this race.  The trade based Lumeris and warlike Cravers round out the available nontraditional races.  This new focus on distinct races should add much needed variety to this venerable genre.

Companies and culture victories are other interesting additions.  In companies, Amplitude fleshes out the economic victory by allowing players to set up powerful corporations to invest in and trade with.  The player establishes corporations on a colony and then gets additional money and resources from that planet.  Given the increased need for luxury resources, companies should provide players with the means they’ll need to advance in the game.  Culture victories are another stand out change.  While other games include culture victories, they are generally treated as passive games of lining up the right buildings and hitting end turn.  Endless Space 2 adds a bit more to it by speeding up the process and allowing players to “buy” systems outright through spending their influence.  This turns culture victories into an active strategy rather than a boring slog.

With all this said, Endless Space 2 is still very much a game in alpha.  While the foundation is solid, plenty of features are missing.  Only military and score victories work (culture victories turn into de facto military victories) and the game abruptly ends at turn 200.  Three of the promised races are missing along with the final technologies and a competent AI.  In short, the game has a way to go.  That being said, there’s enough there to be worth a purchase if you also want to support the developer.  I’ve had fun with Endless Space 2, even if I can’t recommend the game purely on its merits right now.

The original Endless Space reconstituted the then moribund genre’s best hits through refined gameplay, customizable factions, and varied win conditions with a few neat features such as quests, and slick interface design (no seriously, it’s awesome enough to mention).  While serving as a fine return to form for 4x games, Endless Space never felt like the innovation needed to move on to the next step.  Endless Space 2 doesn’t yet feel like that step either, yet it undoubtedly represents the greatest change in 4x gaming in some time.  If you’re not interested in support the studio, wait and keep an eye out for this game.  It looks like it’ll be a lot of fun.

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Review – Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV

Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.

Square Enix and its previous incarnations don’t have a great track record with movies.  Final Fantasy: Spirits Within and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children are extremely pretty bundles of complete nonsense.  While Square Enix displays some of the finest visual effects in both movies and games, it can’t seem to create a coherent, grounded story.  The developer consistently falls into the trap of deus ex machinas, not explaining key concepts, writing flat characters, and assuming the audience will go along with whatever craziness they put on screen.  Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is the next movie in this failed series, except it shoulders greater responsibility than just being a good movie.  Charged as the opening act for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV game, we must not only ask is the movie any good, but also what it says about the next iteration of this venerable series.

The story begins with a rushed introduction of the war between the Kingdom of Lucius and the Empire of Niflheim.  The evil, technological Niflheim is threatening to overwhelm Lucius and its magic wielding king.  The movie follows Nyx Ulric, a member of the titular Kingsglaive as they repulse Niflheim’s attempts at domination.  Being something of an Achilles heel for the series, I am delighted to say that the story for this movie is fine.  Nyx leads a cast of understandable characters (an achievement, considering the pedigree) whose grounded motivations help overcome Square Enix’s desire to do too much with too little time.  Approaching Kingsglaive as the introduction to the game, the developer crammed in too many concepts without giving them time to develop.  Character motivations and the broader narrative arch jam in new concepts right until the final scene with a desire to brief the future players overcoming the need for a contained movie experience.  It’s frustrating when the setup obscures the movie narrative, but the story beats and characters are strong enough that viewers can follow the broader plot and enjoy the action.

Speaking of action, Kingsglaive excels at it.  One of the opening scenes includes a battle that stands out as one of the greatest CGI fights ever made.  The sense of scale and delightful light show reinforce Square Enix’s reputation as one of the finest purveyors of visuals anywhere.  Square Enix uses the Kingsglaive’s method of transportation, throwing a dagger and teleporting to it, to setup fantastic aerial stunts.  Even without giant war engines and wild spells, the developer manages to imbue its world with a sense of wonder.  The Lucian capital city of Insomnia blends modern technology with a magical twist that turns the mundane into the wonderful.  Kingsglaive is a feast for the eyes and can almost be watched on that basis alone.

Taken as a movie, Kingsglaive is an enjoyable experience.  Better movies certainly exist, but this one is worth the five bucks for an Amazon rental (get the HD).  Taken as an introduction to its video game counterpart, Kingsglaive achieves what it sets out to accomplish.  In showcasing an inviting world of magic and technology, the movie provides a clear hook for players to explore that world through the game.  The background information, largely superfluous for the movie, provides a workable primer for the players.  Even the story’s penchant for doing too much seems less like a flaw given that the considerably longer run time in the video game will give Square Enix time to flesh out the concepts it crammed in to this movie.  The fact that Square Enix didn’t completely bungle the narrative gives me hope that the game will avoid the major narrative pitfalls for which the developer is known.  All told, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is a decent movie and an excellent lead in to what will hopefully be another success for the video game franchise.

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Opinion – The problem with the world of The Witcher

I’m midway through The Witcher 2 and I’m struggling to love the series the way reviewers and audiences seem to.  The issue isn’t the production values.  The Witcher 2 is very much a Mass Effect style game with all the technical qualities that come with such a statement.  What Witcher has in technical quality it lacks in setting.  For all the obvious love that went into this game, I’ve noticed several reasons why it just can’t measure up.

 

It’s predictable

When I first jumped into The Witcher, I was impressed by the consistent moral grey area and lack of obvious choices.  It felt like a world where unpredictable things happened and the best of plans didn’t always work out.  A game and a half in and I’ve noticed the patterns.  The humans are some combination of ignorant, racist, and smug.  Non humans are old Tolkien stereotypes under persecution that Dragon Age modelled better.  The foundation exists to say something about race relations or to build an interesting history, but instead The Witcher squander’s that potential to rehash the same views and stories with little variance.  The world always seems characterized by humans ignorantly hating non humans and non humans fighting a guerilla war in response.  The series has many variations on that theme (human pogroms against non humans, attacks by non human resistance, discriminatory lords abusing non humans, etc), but doesn’t move beyond that one note.  I hope CD Projekt Red evolves the world beyond the limit direction it has taken it so far.

 

It lacks wonder.

The opening of The Witcher 2 is truly grand.  The Witcher (Geralt) walks through a camp readying for war.  In front of him are soldiers checking their gear, explosions from enemy munitions, and a grand battle on a massive scale.  It’s a great introduction and inspires a sense of epic adventure.  Unfortunately, just about every scene after that is cramped villages and generic forests with a hefty coating of dirt and grime.  While The Witcher’s universe is meant to be bleak, it doesn’t need to be boring.  One of the great advantages of a fantasy universe is how it creates opportunities for wonder on a scale unshackled by reality.  Fantasy universe’s have infinite opportunities for wonder that ought not be wasted on the mundane aspects of existence.  The developer should use this opportunity, not waste it.

 

It thinks high politics matter

I haven’t seen this sin in a while and it hasn’t improved any with age.  No one cares about the high politics of a made up universe.  Seriously, we can barely get people to pay attention to the politics of the universe that they live in which people actually die.  You think anyone cares about the potential for war between two made up countries or the clash between nobility shown entirely off screen?  If a developer is going to introduce this kind of politics, they need to work hard to make it personal to the player.  Otherwise, the player will skip over your long, detailed story about the fight between Temeria and Nilfgaard.

 

It has a teenage sense of maturity. 

I remember the early days of video games as they took their tentative first steps into the world of mature themes.  Back then, developers defined maturity like your average teen rebelling from their parents.  Cussing is shocking!  Boobs are so hot!  It’s hard not to see parallels with The Witcher’s universe.  The relentlessly dark aesthetic doesn’t add weight to the universe, it’s just bleak to the point of dull.  Constant cussing imparts no additional edge to the characters.  Treating women as sex dolls (did you know everyone wants to sleep with Geralt?  They do.) and adding nipples on dwarven statues doesn’t make a game sex, just misogynistic and embarrassing.  It’s time to age the maturity of The Witcher beyond kids getting aroused from Victoria Secret catalogues.

 

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Opinion – Organization in RTS Strategy

Sun Tzu’s Art of Zergling

Real Time Strategy games will oftentimes explain their strategy in terms of mechanics.  Their tutorials lay out how one unit counters another or how a researched technology grants benefits against unupgraded foes.  Explaining the mechanics gets to the unique part of a game and teaches experienced players about the new concepts they will need to succeed.  Unfortunately, it leaves out a very key aspect of RTS strategy: organization.

Organization is how players position their units and buildings to achieve victory. It covers everything from unit formations to building strategy and plays a key role in increasing the value of a player’s units while putting his opponent’s units in sub optimal roles.  Despite what your average tutorial says, organization is often more important than straight technology and unit counters.  Though developers often intend for units to fulfill certain roles, they program units to achieve those goals within certain confines.  Units attack range, rate of fire, hit points, area of effect, etc all impact their ability to perform their function.  Organization can enhance those strengths or, alternatively, diminish the strengths and enhance the weaknesses.   Consider the following example.

In one of the most memorable games of Starcraft 2 I’ve ever seen, the Zerg player attacked his Terran opponent with zerglings.  His opponent, knowing of the coming attack, rushed out to meet him with the Terran counter unit, the hellion.  According to Blizzard, the hellions should have destroyed the zerglings without much trouble.  According to the Zerg player, zerglings do just fine against hellions, thank you very much.  Not only did the Zerg player defeat the hellion counter, but he went on to crush his opponent with that same attack.  All thanks to organization.

Zerglings are tiny units that do little damage and so succeed by overwhelming their opponents with numbers and chipping away at them from all sides.  Hellions are fast attack units that send out a stream of fire that washes over a collection of units roasting them all.  In theory, the Terran player should fend off zerglings by constantly pulling his hellions back only to stop briefly to fire.  After a few volleys, the zergling mass dies leaving the hellions relatively unscathed.  Aware of this, the Zerg player decided to minimize the hellion’s strengths while enhancing the zerlings’ own positive attributes.  The Zerg player kept his zerglings hidden, waiting to catch the hellions unaware.  He pounced and quickly surrounded the hellions thereby achieving two important things: immobility and diffusion.

Firstly, the zerglings pinned the hellions down so that they couldn’t retreat and fire.  This allowed the Zerg units to constantly damage the hellions without having to catch up every time they drove away.  Immobility maximized the zergling damage while minimizing the hellion speed.  Secondly, the diffusion of the zerglings provided both additional damage output and greater defense while undermining the hellions attack.  By surrounding the enemy, the zerglings could attack from all angles allowing them to do damage collectively rather than individually.  10 zerglings doing 2 damage a hit is much stronger than 10 zerglings with only 2 attacking at a time.  As it turns out, diffusion bolstered the zergling’s defense by minimizing the effect of the hellion’s weapons.  The hellions fire in a straight line doing serious damage to units caught in the blast.  If the zerglings chase after the hellions as intended, then they’re damaged at the same time.  If they surround the hellions, then the attack hits them one at a time thereby weakening the effect.

This is just one of many examples of how organization impacts gameplay.  Many of these lessons carry over to other games and are used in a similar fashion.  While the average RTS game teaches players about the game mechanics, it behooves those players to look beyond the basic lessons and learn how organization, and other strategic aspects, can improve their play.

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Review – First Impressions of Civilization VI

Baby steps.

I’ve played Civilization VI for 10 hours and largely enjoyed it.  Here are my first impressions.

Unpacking cities is pretty neat

The biggest innovation of Civ VI is expanding cities beyond their single tiles.  Whereas previous games confined the city to a single spot on the map, Civ VI requires that the player place districts on nearby tiles to then build associated buildings on them.  World wonders now require specific tile combinations in addition to their technological and labor costs.  Unpacking cities succeeds in two ways.  The first is to turn district placement into a minigame where districts derive benefits from nearby districts and territory enhancements.  Skilled players can arrange a city to max out these benefits to specialize the city’s production.  The second way is how it interacts with combat.  Unpacked cities force players to defend larger swaths of territory and allow attackers to destroy meaningful aspects of a town without overrunning it.  Cities effect the landscape of combat in a way that territory improvements simply didn’t.  This makes terrain matter more too as now the player is incentivized to keep enemies outside of their territory in order to defend districts.  On the whole, unpacking cities adds new levels of welcome complexity and shakes up the formula.

Eureka moments are pretty neat too

In addition to the unpacking of cities, developer Firaxis added puzzle elements to research.  Each technological and cultural advance now has an associated quest (called a “eureka moment”) that reduces the cost of that advance.  Killing three barbarians halves the cost of Bronze Working, for example.  Players are now rewarded for pursuing a path as these quests are often tied to the playstyle that wants that particular technology.  Once again, this innovation integrates many aspects of the game by turning them into meaningful boosts for advances.  While casual players will probably never fully take advantage of the system, more devoted players will quickly develop strategies to glide through the tech paths.

Barbarians are the opposite of neat.  One might even call them not neat.

Like Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians randomly pop up in the uncolonized places of the world and send a stream of angry relatives to go forth and murder.  Unlike Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians took a remedial planning course and now attack in larger numbers with coordinated strikes and weaponry beyond what they player might have.  Uncolonized areas aren’t just dangerous, they are now the home of hellspawn who penalize the player for daring to live without a coastline or mountain range.  In one game, I fought barbarians in my home territory for over 30 straight turns because of three encampments placed equidistant from my capital.  Boo.  If ever there were a feature in need of a slider, barbarian spawn rates is it.  On the upside, if you can get past the angry bastards…

Expansion isn’t penalized.  Huzzah!

Civ III had corruption which turned every city after the first few into tax absorbing vampires.  Civ IV made everyone cranky once the player established too many towns.  Civ V cut off the cultural aspect of the game for daring to have an empire.  Civ VI lets you build however many cities you want.  There’s no penalty!  It’s the first time since Civ II where the player can expand without their empire collapsing.  Finally.

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