Saturday, March 25, 2017

Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity - 15/20 hours

The last five hours took me several days, thanks to Zelda, but those five hours were densely packed. Once I got into the game, I focused on it pretty hard. The RTS mechanics are still stressing me out, but the underlying game is solid enough that I'm willing to overlook them.

Although . . .

The diplomatic victory is kind of silly. If you have positive diplomatic relations with your AI neighbors, a counter will tick up. Once it reaches a certain point, you win the game. Getting the computer to agree to peace treaties and whatnot is kind of tough, but once you do, the final victory is sudden and arbitrary.

I guess I like it for letting me sit back and build up my territory, but ultimately, it has the same fundamental problem as most other 4X diplomatic victories - NPC empires are scored like human empires, and thus have no reason to help you win the game. Thus, you either have a situation where the diplomatic victory is virtually impossible - like in Endless Space or the AI simply can't register the possibility and does nothing to stop you - like in Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity.

 The only game to ever get it right was The Last Federation. That game was centered around the idea of diplomacy and though you could build and fight and research, all these things existed primarily for their broader political implications. And it's unclear to me whether it would be possible to transfer those lessons to a more traditional 4X game without also turning that game on its head.

I think the issue here is that the 4X genre started as a pure war-game and then branched out. Consequently, most alternate victory conditions feel like they are short-circuiting the intended mode of play. You don't really have the same back-and-forth or multi-sided rivalry in cultural or diplomatic victories as you do with military conquest. Civilization V's cultural victory comes close, but archeologists tend to have too high an opportunity cost and are blocked by closed borders, so it's usually easier to exploit other mechanics than to engage with the whole "globe-trotting tomb raider" thing the system could potentially be.

And I think that's just another piece of evidence for the pile. Borders being closed to civilian units by default only makes sense if you view civilian units as specialized military units. Of course you wouldn't let even a friendly nation's tanks and/or super star-destroyers pass through your territory unless you were close military allies, but their merchants, priests, and archeologists?

It's a flaw in the genre, this open assumption of hostility. If we really want satisfying non-military victory conditions, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room - military conflict is literally the only field of endeavor where we humans don't at least pretend to help each other out. I mean, sometime commerce can be a little cutthroat, but even then the idea is that each party in a trade walks away with something they consider to be more valuable than what they had before.

So no game that bases itself around the assumption of a zero-sum conflict can ever completely actualize diplomacy, trade, science, or culture. The central idea behind most of these things is that sharing and trust make both parties richer than before. Culture spreads beyond borders, scientists publish their findings, traders open new markets, and diplomacy sells the idea that more communication, more openness, and more thorough contact makes everything easier. In the real world, it is harder to contain an idea than it is to spread it, and ultimately, the attempts of the powerful to do so can lead to poverty, ignorance, and possibly even war.

Although, how do you distill something like that into a concept as concrete as "victory?" None of that good stuff I mentioned ever has an end. We're never going to know so much about the universe that we just decide to stop performing science. We're never going to be so rich that we decide we've run out of use for commerce. It might be possible to unify the world diplomatically, but if it happens, it's not going to look like one nation overcoming all the others. In truth, a "diplomatic victory" is going to be virtually indistinguishable from a"diplomatic loss." The "world leader" must sometimes be a "world follower" or that's just conquest by another name.

I don't have any solutions so I guess I can't be too hard on Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity. The game saying "well, you've been doing a lot of diplomacy, so I guess we'll let you win now" is not an ideal way of doing things, but it does have the appeal of simply cutting the Gordian Knot. Diplomacy has no natural end, so they just imposed an artificial one. I'm not sure it "works" per se - the game suddenly cut out just as I was starting to come to terms with a galaxy at peace - but it does at least have the advantage of not drawing things out.

I don't know if I'll go for the diplomacy victory again, but luckily, that's not a decision I have to make until late game. This game has so much war and fighting, that only the truly powerful have the luxury of negotiating for something better.

I'm going to choose to believe this isn't true in the real world as well.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Sins of a Solar Empire - 10/20 hours

At hour nine I finally won my first match. It was also, not coincidentally, the first match I played all the way through. The key, it turns out, was relentlessly bribing the pirates. It kind of sticks in my craw a little, because who the hell do these guys think they are, seriously, but in the end the expedience of it was motivation enough. All it took was a little bit of my economic surplus and they acted as a second front against my worst enemy. In a wartime situation, that's a bargain.

In peacetime, though, it feels a little icky. I'm not technically attacking them, I'm simply giving money to mercenaries to attack them by proxy. Knowing how much pirate attacks ruined my day, I willingly inflicted that on another player. But then again, it was either them or me, and the bribes themselves are anonymous . . .

So I'm torn about this pirate mechanic. It's an interesting moral question, but also kind of annoying. You have to pay attention to this constantly-ongoing auction and up your bid every so often, because the pirates claim the bribe money piecemeal and if your bribe drops below your enemy's, then you'll draw the pirate aggression. Honestly, I'm much rather cooperate with my opponents to end the pirate threat once and for all, but then, surely I'd be doing much of the work and committing resources that would leave me vulnerable to betrayal . . .

Which is, I guess, a way of saying that Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity does have a knack for making your enemies feel like your enemies. Often, in a 4X game, I view the AI empires as terrain obstacles at best, things to build around, and potential sources of danger, but mostly things that can safely be ignored. Not in this game. I feel like I'm in constant peril, and the only way to safety is to grab as much territory as possible as quickly as possible.

Though, that may just be me not being very good.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity - 5/20 hours

So, Breath of the Wild is a pretty great game. Not really related except that by an astonishing coincidence, I haven't really been in the mood to play Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity lately. Mostly I've been too tired. Despite having plenty of time to play at work, it's hard to concentrate on a complex strategy game when operating on 4-5 hours of sleep (let's just agree not to speculate on my job performance).

That being said, I was able to get a couple of hours in, and I can feel myself improving, though I'm still far from being actually good. The latest obstacle is pirates. I'm not entirely sure why the game even lets me build scout ships if they're just going to get swarmed every time they enter a new system.

What I wound up doing was just exploring new systems with a full military fleet. It puts my core worlds at risk, but after the delay in initial startup, it's slightly more efficient.

I guess I wasn't prepared for the fact that pirate raids are a fundamental part of Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity's gameplay. Every inhabitable planet in my current map had a pirate fleet around it and it took me more than hour to notice that my interstellar rivals were bribing those pirates to attack me.

Once I realized that, things started to turn around. So long as I was quick enough to bribe the pirates first, I could pick my battles with them, and exploring with my fleet got me those extra planets with a minimum of fuss.

Overall, the game is going well. I like managing logistics and trade routes, but keeping my empire defended still feels like a chore to me. I understand there's a diplomatic victory, but I have no clue how to go for it. In fact, victory of any sort seems a far-off fancy at this point. But I'm surviving, and for now, that's enough.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity - 2/20 hours

Starting a new game naturally comes with a bit of a learning curve, so I shouldn't be surprised that my early Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity matches have been a series of disasters, but I somehow keep fooling myself into thinking that this time is the time I'm going to skip all that tedious "gaining mastery" stuff.

Blame my own fecklessness. I've started about three or four games so far, but kept getting quickly overwhelmed. There's so much to pay attention to. I've got to move my fleets to the front lines, scout for potential expansion sites, fight off pirates and nosy npcs, coordinate infrastructure and research (which use the same resources as your military, but come from separate build queues) and all of this while the clock is ticking, because it never stops, not even while you're in a menu.

I mean, I get it. It's an RTS. Actions per minute are very important. That doesn't mean I don't feel overwhelmed. It's a longstanding personal weakness. Dividing my attention stresses me out. It's not necessarily a deal-breaker, though. There are real-time games I enjoy (such as Stellaris). A lot depends on the pacing, the complexity, and how forgiving it is of mistakes.

It remains to be seen whether Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity will fall in that category, though. I still have a lot to learn about how it works, and familiarity can mitigate many of my problems with the genre. Once I discover an efficacious build order and learn which technologies give me the biggest bang for my buck, that will significantly reduce my cognitive load. With a little experience, I'll be able to make basic decisions by reflex and thus devote more of my attention to the actual strategy.

For the purposes of this blog, it's a race against time. If this is another one of those games where the first 20 hours are just the training period, then I'll likely never get to the point where I feel comfortable. If, however, the learning curve is generous enough, I may wind up finding a strategy that plays to my strengths and thus enjoy my remaining time immensely.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity, you are the leader of a civilization embroiled in a galactic war, fighting for the survival of your entire race against relentless foes. Your success will depend entirely on your ability to manage your empire and command your vast fleets of starships to victory.

Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity is a “RT4X” game, blending the epic strategy and empire management of the 4X genre (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) with the fast-paced and tactical elements of real-times strategy. 

Previous Playtime

20 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I have multiple friends who have played the sequel to this game and had nothing but good things to say about it. So during the 2014 summer sale, I resolved to buy it . . . and then I wound up accidentally buying this one instead. Oops.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I really don't remember at all. With 20 minutes, I think I must have started the tutorial, but I don't think I finished it. It only took me a day to realize my mistake and once I did, I more or less wrote this game off permanently. . . or so I thought.

I have played the sequel online with my friend Daniel, and that was pretty fun, though since we only played once, I can't say whether it's the game itself or just hanging out with my friend that I enjoyed.

I'm a little gun-shy about RTS-4X games after my unsatisfying time with StarDrive, but this game is rated much higher than the other one that maybe they're not in the same class. If I can build a lot of different things and delay fighting for a long time, I'll probably be all right. If I'm constantly having to be aggressive, or defend against the same, I'll probably feel pretty frustrated.

So, you know, the usual dilemma.

Might & Magic: Heroes VI - 20/20 hours

Well, that wasn't as bad as I feared. I went into this game thinking it would be an ordeal and I finished it in three days (this post is four days out because yesterday was my weekly tabletop game).  I think my quickness here is due to one main factor - the campaign missions are long as hell. I think they average about 3 hours each, at least.

Yeah, I went back to the campaign. What can I say, I liked having a story to give my monster slaying context. For all my complaining in the first post, it turned out to be not that bad . . . forgiving the fact that I only had one real hero and that made playing both offense and defense simultaneously a tremendous chore. But since the second campaign level didn't even have a base to defend, it actually proved to be fairly easy . . . so you know, all that stuff I said about easy mode being bullshit is only half true.

It's tough to separate out my feelings for this game from the embarrassment I feel for having run off at the mouth earlier. It was a lot better at hour 15 than it was at hour 4, but am I going easy on it because I overplayed my hand earlier or is my diffidence now merely the product of me not wanting to admit I was wrong?

Either way, I don't think I've been converted to a Might & Magic: Heroes VI fan. I really liked seeing those monsters fight each other and I notionally love the idea of recruiting new heroes from the surprisingly deep pool of candidates. But I hated the feeling of being under a time constraint, and I resented the fact that splitting my forces is basically just suicidal. In fact, I'm so at odds with the game's fundamental mechanics that it has me thinking that maybe I wouldn't enjoy Heroes of Might & Magic III, were I to go back and play it again after all these years.

It's a sobering thought. That maybe the happy memories of my youth are a result of confabulation and nostalgia and that if I could go back with what I know now, I would just take my adult cynicism with me.

Or maybe I'm just being overly melancholy. There's no denying that Might & Magic: Heroes VI sucked me in. It's one of my faster finishes and wasn't expecting that at all. So maybe the fact that I was grumbling half the time is not so big a flaw after all. It could be that "enjoyment" is merely a subset of a broader state of being distracted mentally.

The question is, is it distraction I crave? It seems that way sometimes. And if so, then this game is a good candidate to provide it to me. However, I just can't help feeling that maybe there's something out there that can give me the same mental diversion, but without annoying me quite so much.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Might & Magic: Heroes - 13/20 hours

This is embarrassing. It looks like I might have to walk back my first post just a little bit. I was, in fact, able to beat the tutorial without too much trouble. I didn't even have to start from scratch. All I needed to do was load an autosave from about 3 or 4 turns back, buy tier-2 units from my home base (instead of the tier-1 units from the more conveniently-placed wilderness forts) and have my backup hero ferry them to me over the course of a half-dozen turns.

It's a tactic I read about online, but didn't attempt on the first go round because it's absolutely inane. Hero characters are supposed to be these powerful leaders who command armies and have complex rpg-style stats, but any hero past the first is good for nothing but playing taxi for your reinforcements. That's because there's a finite number of xp on the map and only so many troops available per week and a single unit, with bigger troop stacks, led by a high level character is better than two weaker units in every particular situation.

So I learned that I was capable of playing the game the "right way,"  but also that the "right way" is kind of weak. You've got these wide open skill trees, but only a narrow path actually works. You've got a whole stable of heroes to recruit, but you shouldn't actually use them. You've got a half-dozen monsters per faction, but you should win the game before the last ones are unlocked. It's sad.

However, it's not as hard as I thought it would be. And when you're winning, it's easy to forget that you're not winning the way you want to. I really hoped to be able to play in a dilatory fashion, just getting into random scraps, improving my towns, and gathering up artifacts. If I'm forced to be more focused, well that's just the way it's got to be.

And it's not totally bad. I'm at 13 hours already, and I barely noticed the time pass. On the advice of MoogleEmpMog, I tried some skirmish games and those worked out pretty well, though I only played on a small map that forced an end-game confrontation after about a half-hour. Despite the time limit, it did seem to allow more freedom of choice. Perhaps if I play on a larger map, I'll be able to use the tier-3 creatures. That's all I really want. To have an army of angels, dragons, or legendary beasts at my command.

My interim verdict - Might & Magic: Heroes VI is moderately diverting, when it works. I just wish the state of it working felt less like a tight-rope walk.