Monday, June 30, 2014

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare - 8/20 hours

First things first, let me say something nice about this game. I genuinely like the vehicle designs. The tanks and armor are merely serviceable, but the airships are a neat sci-fantasy design, and the ironclads have some real amazing detail on them. So, that's one unironic and unreservedly positive thing I have to say about the game.

Now, let me complain about it a bit. It has Steam achievements, but they are broken. They apparently worked when the game was launched, and after it was patched, but some time in the past two years, the Steam client was updated, and the achievement system broke and was never fixed. It's not a huge deal, but it would be nice to have some intermediate goals to help me fill out the 20 hours.

My other complaint: WHY ARE THE MAPS SO HUGE?! Trying to get across on foot takes forever, and even in a vehicle, the time you spend traveling outnumbers the time you spend fighting by, like, four-to-one. The only way to play as infantry is to observe the map from the overhead view, wait until your troops engage in battle (in deathmatch mode, they always slit up as they run out of the spawn point) and jump into a character while they are fighting the enemy. Then, if you're me, and not especially good at shooters, you almost immediately die while blasting randomly at the air around your targets. And, of course, the 1860s weapons are mostly awful. The standard issue rifle has to reload after every shot, which means that someone as inaccurate as myself will basically hit nothing before dying to enemy fire. It's quite frustrating.

I have, however, found a way to play this game that is moderately fun. Basically, jumping into infantry is a non-starter, because of the aforementioned control problems, and also because the map is so huge relative to the character (plus the enemy is pretty thin on the ground - my theory is that the maps are to scale with the real battlefields they're based off of, but instead of having 170,000 people present, there are only 24). Yet, playing as a vehicle in deathmatch mode is not particularly rewarding, because nothing is a threat to you. The computer will not use them.

However, there is another game mode - Army Skirmish. That is the RTS game mode, where you can issue orders to your troops. It's not a very good mode. The units' low movement rate and the large map size makes your forces very tactically inflexible, and because of the fog of war, by the time you notice the enemy, it is much too late to actually do anything about. Also, many of the orders (such as the basic "attack enemy" command) don't work. So, trying to play it as an RTS is a waste of time.

On the other hand, in Army Skirmish mode, the computer will control vehicles. So, by fielding a squad composed of a single tank, and then directly controlling it, skirmish mode becomes an ersatz tank-based shooter. Enemies are still far enough between that it's not particularly satisfying (there is an "army size" option when you start skirmish mode, but it appears to neither limit the size of your squad nor cause the enemy to field a bigger one) - but it is a passably playable experience.

With the sound turned off, I can listen to a podcast while playing, and, while it will never be my favorite pastime, it is reasonably diverting. I suppose that's not too bad.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare - 2/20 hours

Playing this game has caused me to ponder the purpose of this blog. What, exactly, am I doing with these games? Am I reviewing them? Critiquing them? Showcasing them? All three? Or am I doing something else?

I guess this blog is a kind of diary. A chronicle of my emotional experiences and speculative thoughts as I work my through my Steam Library and reader challenges. It's not really meant to be anything more than personal (although if people find it informative and entertaining, that would please me greatly).

I say this, because I'm kind of baffled at how to approach writing about Gettysburg: Armored Warfare.

After two hours with the game, I see the shape of its ambition. This is a game that was released in an incomplete shape, and it shows. Metacritic rates it at 22/100, and if we're strictly talking about it as a game qua game, that rating is pretty fair, but that rating doesn't tell the whole story. This is less of a 2.2 game, and more a 7.5 game that was cut off at the knees.

Make no mistake, Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is rough. The camera needs work, and the levels are rudimentary at best, but even with its obvious lack of polish, I don't hate it.

At first, I really didn't enjoy myself. There is no tutorial, and no helpful tooltips, so I had to rely entirely on prior gaming experience and the control customization menu to figure out how to play. This resulted in me floundering for my first hour or so, because this game is not like your typical RTS.

I must have skimmed over the Steam description, because I didn't realize when I first started up that it had a heavy emphasis on its 3rd person shooter elements. In fact, in deathmatch mode, you can't give units orders at all. You have to double-click on a unit to take control of it, and then use some fairly standard shooter controls to navigate around the battlefield.

I am probably less of a shooter player than I am an RTS player, and my first couple of matches, I was utterly ineffectual. A large part of the reason for this is because I didn't know what the hell was going on. I'd hop into a guy, get killed, and then hop into someone else, and after about 15 minutes, the match would end, and I would have had no noticeable effect one way or the other on the outcome. There were some counters at the top of the screen that gradually diminished over the course of the battle, and the first team to 0 lost, but I didn't know how or why they changed, or what I was supposed to be doing to get them to do so.

So, after about an hour, I was ready to give in to despair, when the dev popped in to the thread I started on the Steam forum and gave me a link to the game's manual. This really turned things around for me. Once I knew the factors that were going in to victory (basically, there are certain waypoints that if your team occupies them, the opposing side will lose points - also, both teams lose points when their troops are killed), I could at least follow what was going on in the battle.

That basic information has made the game playable. It's not especially good, primarily because both the shooter and the RTS mechanics are extremely shallow, but the underlying architecture of the game is solid. Jump into a soldier, shoot confederates, repeat. Do this at strategically important locations to whittle down your opponent's score, and win the game. With a bit of polish and a few quality of life improvements to the interface (namely a more informative minimap, though I would personally also want controller support and aim assist - any shooter purists in the audience are free to hate me), this could be a perfectly serviceable "beer-and-pretzels" type game. With a large enough group online, even as it stands, it could be a lot of fun (this game apparently supports up to 64 players in an online deathmatch, though I seriously doubt I'm going to see many people playing in the middle of the night when I'm available for gaming).

My main worry, going forward, is that there are not 20 hours worth of game here. Not solo, at least. On the other hand, the best thing about this game is a result of its unfinished state - the 1860s artillery does not have anyone operating it, so if you jump into the unit to take control, it will roll around the battlefield like some sort of demented proto-Herbie, and honestly, I could probably trundle around a battlefield as a driverless Gatling gun, blasting Confederates for at least another 6 hours before it stopped amusing me.

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 The outcome of the Civil War is in peril. Weapons, armor and machinery have been sent back in time. The Confederate forces are now attempting to overthrow the Union and change the course of history. Take control of either side and engage in massive online battles with unique Real Time Strategy / Third Person Shooter gameplay mechanics. 
Customize your army by combining both futuristic and period soldiers, tanks, boats, zeppelins and more. Control your army from above using traditional real time strategy controls. Then take control of any unit in the third person perspective for direct combat. Large scale multiplayer battles, customizable armies and multiple game modes await. 
Prepare for the Alternate American Civil War…

Key features:

  • 64 players per server 
  • 4 maps (9 km x 9 km in size) 
  • Over 1,000 controllable units on the battlefield at once 
  • Play as Union or Confederate 
  • 14 unit types (infantry, cavalry, tanks, ships, zeppelins and more) 
  • Persistent Point/XP system and Statistics Tracking 
  • Steam Achievements 
  • Army Builder with Steam Cloud support for saving your armies 
  • Multiple gameplay modes including Army Skirmish and Deathmatch 
  • Integrated World Editor for creating your own battlefields 

Previous Play Time

0 hours

Prior Experience

None. This game wasn't even on my radar before the challenge. I did do some preliminary research, checked out the game's Steam forum, and apparently, this game was a one person project which ran out of funding and released in an incomplete state, and that accounts for the 22 metascore. The dev seems like a pretty cool guy, though, so I'm going to try my best to be respectful.


The above being said, I'm not expecting to enjoy this game. As I mentioned with A Game of Thrones - Genesis, RTSs are not my favorite genre, and playing an incomplete RTS is not how I would ordinarily spend my time. My biggest worry is that I'll run out of things to do after about 5 hours, and will wind up playing the same repetitive maps over and over again until I reach the deadline. Still, this game was clearly a labor of love, so I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised. 

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale - 20/20 hours

Well, it's time to say goodbye to Recettear. I didn't accomplish a lot with my remaining time, but I had so much fun that my last 4 hours actually took me 5. I didn't mention it previously, because it didn't seem super-important at the time, but one night, while visiting the town, I met a demon named Griff. As one might expect from a demon, he had a less than favorable opinion of humanity. Somewhat more surprisingly, he also hated fairies, viewing them as collaborators who fit into human society by denying their true natures and hiding away any of their number who could not measure up socially (as I said before, this game can be incredibly dark).

Anyway, Griff turned out to be the boss of the Obsidian Tower, and after fighting my way up to the top with Louie, Recette confronted him about his scheme to unleash the arch-demon and rule over a wasted world as a Dark Lord. I don't want to spoil it for anyone looking to play the game, but the result was hilarious. Recette would be one of the dumbest characters in gaming, but her optimism is like a force of nature. It sweeps aside all obstacles, like some sort of overwhelming, cheerful typhoon. A mere dark lord of hell never stood a chance.

That's what I love about this game. It could be incredibly grim - it seems like every adventurer you meet is either an orphan, a drunkard, or desperately poor (or, in the case of Elan, all three), but there is no angst. Everyone has a cheerful can-do attitude. Even the would-be demon emperor of earth takes defeat with equanimity. And yet, I wouldn't call the game saccharine, either. First off, because the darkness is there, and second, you still have characters like Tear, who, despite being introduced as a bit of an antagonistic loan-shark, winds up being the audience surrogate more often than not. Recettear knows it's ridiculous, and it's a joy to behold.

My self-imposed 20 hour deadline was a minimum, so that I wouldn't be committed to spending too much time with games I don't enjoy, so I could go on playing Recettear, but I'm going to stop here. The reason for this is that while I could easily play another 10 hours of this game, I could also stand to play another 20, or another 100. There is no end in sight here. I defeated the Obsidian Tower, but I still have half a dozen under-leveled and under-equipped adventurers. I've barely scratched the surface of the fusion system, and there are still more dungeons to conquer. If Recettear were the only game on my agenda, it could keep me happy for quite some time, but I have a plan, and so the defeat of Griff seems as natural a stopping point as any.

I did spend some time with "Survival Hell," a post-ending game-mode where you start over at level 1, with no inventory, no story scenes, and only those adventurers for whom you've earned the True Card, and which promises an eternally-escalating debt, but I didn't get too into it. It seems to me more of a mode for experts, or at least, for those who are jaded by the game, but who can't simply put it down (and I'm willing to believe that that group is bigger than anyone would expect). It was worth it for the introduction, however. Like virtually everything else about this game, Recette and Tear explaining the rules of Survival Hell was absolutely adorable.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I move on to the first game on the challenge list. Yet I feel bouyed by Recettear's optimism. The game was a gooey confection of good-will, charm, and gently parodied JRPG cliches, spiced with a light sprinkling of darkness. Though I would not place it in the all-time video game canon (there's a bit too much farming and reliance on random chance for my tastes), it is nonetheless a legitimately great game that I will always remember with fondness.

Capitalism, ho!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale 16/20 hours

Endless mode is proving to be pretty fun. I believe I've unlocked most of the optional content from the main game, and will, upon clearing the fourth dungeon, finally get to the post-game content. The biggest barrier to forward progress I'm facing lies in getting my adventurers to actually buy appropriate equipment. I'll see them in the shop fairly regularly, and yet, half the time, when they pick an item off the shelves, it will either be something they can't use or inferior to their current gear. It's especially problematic because you can only buy limited amounts of the best stuff, so putting top-tier equipment on the shelves just winds up empowering random NPCs (seriously, little girl, what do you need with a demon-slayer sword?).

There is a lot of grinding potential in this game, and if you want to max-out all the adventurers, explore all the dungeons, and unlock all the fusion recipes, you will have plenty to keep you occupied for a long, long time. I'll confess to finding it a bit tempting, myself. Recettear is simple, but diverting, and its low difficulty and steady pacing would make it an ideal game to play casually.

With only four hours left, I'm not sure trying for 100% completion is necessarily a great use of my time, however. My next goal will be to finish the Obsidian Tower and give Survival mode a try.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale - 11/20 Hours

I made it. I've paid off Recette's debt. The ridiculous escalating payments reached 500,000 pix, but I was able to sell enough items to make. All told, Recette had to pay back 820,000 pix. That sounds like a lot, but I'm not sure exactly how much a single pix is. A ham sandwich costs about 3,800, so it might be that 1 pix = 0.01$ On the other hand, a vending machine costs 35,000 pix, so it might be that 1 pix = 0.10$. Thus, Recette owed between 8,200 and 82,000$. Let's call it 45 grand (though that means she was selling 16$ ham sandwiches, which is absolutely criminal).

It wasn't even really that close. I had 600,000 with 3 days to spare. The reason for this is that I forgot my controller when I started playing last night, so I wound up defying my intention and skipping most of the dungeon crawling. It's just not as comfortable. That said, I did get to the bottom of the third dungeon.

In it, I met my rival, who was as contemptuous as always (though frankly, I don't even mind her attitude that much, because whenever she comes into the store, I can overcharge her outrageously). I also found a mysterious girl in the dungeon, who, improbably, claimed to have gotten into it by accident. I eventually learn her name is Nagi, and I'm sure she'll be an adventurer.

At the bottom of the dungeon, I met another girl, who looked a lot like Nagi (and later turned out to be her sister). She was Tielle, the elf, and she proceeded to attack me for basically no reason. I was forced to beat the shit out of her. After it was over, a chest mysteriously appeared containing miraculous elven medicine. Surprisingly, Tear does not get upset at Recette for immediately using the priceless artifact.

Another person likely to be an adventurer is Arma. I don't really know what her deal is, but she talks like a robot, and Recette had to explain to her the concept of money. There's no way that could possibly go wrong.

Charme's destitute friend from the bar turned out to be another adventurer, I found him hanging out near the orphanage in town and learned his name was Elan. He later gave me his guild card. I haven't got a chance to play as him yet, but he looks pretty cool. He's a monk.

I was able to pay off the debt and get all this socializing done because I had the good fortune to get a "decreased cost of precious metals" and an "increased cost of precious metals" event back to back near the beginning of week 4. So, with a couple of days turnover, I was able to make a 400% profit on a 100,000 pix investment.

Looking out for and exploiting those opportunities is, of course, the core of the game, but I have a feeling that this sort of thing usually takes at least a couple more loops. Oh, well, I'm going to go ahead and take credit anyway. As they say, luck is the residue of good design.

After the end credits, we learn that Recette (naturally) has not been keeping proper business records. So, of course, Tear volunteers to stay and help run the shop. The friends remain together. Aww.

This opens up New Game+ and Survival mode (which I will be looking at later) and also Endless mode, which apparently will have more dungeons and unique items. My next goal is to clear out the bonus dungeons, recruit all the available adventurers (you can get a "true adventurer card" which unlocks them in new game+ from the beginning).

I'm looking forward to it. I feel like I could easily play this game for days on end.

Capitalism, ho!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

When you find yourself in a hole . . .

I may have gotten myself in over my head with the whole "Decadent Gamer Challenge" thing. It has been accepted with a vengeance. I have five new games in my Steam Library:

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare
Ride to Hell: Retribution
Secret of the Magic Crystal
Ship Simulator Extremes
Takedown: Red Sabre

Because these games came from my real life friends, in the middle of the Steam Summer Sale, just a week and a half before my birthday, I am certain that they are all top shelf experiences, tailored to my individual tastes and preferences . . .

Bwah, hah, hah, hah!

Because my friends were "generous" enough to give me these games, I will prioritize them highly. I'll finish Recettear first, because dividing my attention between games is how I got this huge backlog in the first place, but after I'm done, Gettysburg will be my next game. Then, I'll work my way down the challenge list until my brain is useless mush, whereupon I'll take a break and recharge my batteries by playing a game I actually expect to enjoy. I'll repeat this process until the challenge list is cleared.

I be not afraid.

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale: 5/20 hours

Shortly into the second week, the game introduced a new mechanic - customers could request specific items that are not on my shelves. At first, this was somewhat aggravating, because my inventory was not diverse enough to satisfy my customers, but after awhile, I stocked up on various low-cost items and could, at least, make a few quick sales.

At the end of each day, the game grades you on your performance, and this is another fun bit of humor. The lowest rating is "Like Father Like Daughter" and the highest is the wonderfully understated, "Exceeds Expectations."

In the interest of exploring more of the game, I sponsor a couple of dungeon expeditions. My first adventurer is a kid named Leo, who is your typical perky JRPG swordsman. I learn, from events in town that he is kind to animals and desperately poor (at one point, you meet him in the chapel, praying for food - as I said, this game can be grim if you think about it).

Every five dungeon levels, there is a boss. They are pretty simple to beat, but each one has a fun little twist. My favorite was Reginald Drisby, a giant mouse with a grudge. While fighting it, red and purple mushrooms sprout out of the ground, and if Reginald eats a red one, he heals, and if he eats a purple one, he falls over and becomes vulnerable, so you have to run around, dodging attacks, and smashing the red mushrooms before they can be eaten.

I enjoyed myself so much that I wound up failing my second loan payment. My plan was to get the money in the last couple of days, but I got hit with a couple of negative events that halved the price of the bulk of my inventory, and was unable make it.

Poor Recette got kicked out of her house, and had to live in a cardboard box. . .

But it appeared to be just a dream. The game restarted on day 1, and I had my entire inventory, but none of my money. It was a little annoying, but on the balance it helped me more than hurt me. Leo retained his xp and equipment, and after unlocking the second dungeon, my warp points were retained.

This allowed me to get to the end of the dungeon, where I met Charme, the Lady Thief (that's literally how she introduces herself). Naturally, I had to fight her, but it was a pretty easy battle. Because she is an NPC with a character portrait, you don't kill her. Recette even invited her to the shop (my reaction was exactly the same as Tear's). The reward for this is a "very odd vase" worth 21400 pix! That's enough to almost single-handedly satisfy my week 2 bill.

Selling it is a bit tough, though. And my financial situation isn't made any easier when I accidentally buy a 5000 pix statue (I thought I was selling one). Luckily, I get a customer who wants a special order for a treasure, and I'm able to unload both at once.

When the special order mechanic is introduced, the first person to take advantage of it is Caillou, a kid mage (and colossal asshole) that I'm sure is going to be another adventurer. Speaking of which, when Charme visits the store, she gives me her adventurer card, but I haven't yet had a chance to use her. I have, however, had a chance to discover her serious alcohol abuse problem, and to meet another, as yet unnamed adventurer who is also knee-deep in debt (because everything in this game is both adorable and dark).

So far, I'm enjoying the hell out of Recettear, and I expect the next 15 hours to fly by.

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale - 1.5/20 hours

Capitalism, ho!

I'd forgotten how delightful this game is. The writing is bright and clever; there is a fun, odd-couple dynamic between Recette and Tear; and the game's goofy optimism and gentle parody of rpg cliches makes for a fun contrast with the game's ridiculously dark plot.

Basically, Recette has the worst father in the world. He racked up a ton of debt, went out "adventuring" and wound up either dying or mysteriously disappearing atop a volcano. This results in poor Recette being forced into debt slavery by the shady as fuck Terme Financial Company, which threatens to repossess her house and leave her homeless if she does not pay back the money her father borrowed from them.

Honestly, if I were in Recette's position, I'd tell the Terme Financial Company to sue me, because in any sort of just legal system, there's no way that contract holds up in court (Tear, the company representative, won't even tell Recette how much she owes, and the repayment schedule is, frankly, absurd), but I'm just being a killjoy. I doubt Recette v. Terme: A Bankruptcy Litigation Tale would be an especially interesting game.

So, lucky for us, Recette is kind of a ditz, who faces her incredibly depressing situation with admirable, if unwarranted, pluck. She's a fun character, and it is a hoot to see her interact with the various townspeople and her more staid best friend/taskmaster, the fairy from the collection agency, Tear. (And, on a personal note, let me say how much I appreciate the character design - it's nice to play a Japanese game with a young girl protagonist and not feel like a total pervert).

Although, now that I think about it, Recette's optimism may be the only possible course of action, because as you explore the setting, you discover that the world of Recettear is surprisingly grim, so much so that my expectation of getting redress from the courts is probably madness. The first place you visit is the Merchant's Guild, where the kindly-looking Guildmaster straight up (and cheerfully) admits to price-fixing. The name of the game, Recettear is a portmanteau of the two main characters' names that is supposed to be a pun on the word "racketeer" (which is one of the game's few missteps in its writing, because I think very few native English speakers would actually make that connection), but Tear's worry about people misreading the name is somewhat justified - you wouldn't want your customers to get the right idea.

If the game were just buying and selling, it would be engaging enough, but you live in a fantasy-adventure world, and thus you can also acquire items for your shop by sponsoring adventurers. You have to get to know the adventurer NPCs before they'll let you sponsor them, but when you do, you can then go to the Adventurer's Guild, lend your friend some equipment, and take control of them in a fun (if a bit shallow) action-rpg minigame.

You get to know the adventurers by visiting various areas in town and conversing with them, but it can be tricky, because while places like the Chapel or the Pub will flash when there is an available conversation, there's no way of knowing in advance whether it's an adventurer conversation, or a less useful encounter with a random villager. That's not a problem, per se, because these cut-scenes are uniformly delightful, but the time management aspects of the game mean that if you waste too much time exploring the town (or for that matter, playing around in dungeons), you could miss a loan payment and get a game over.

Last time I played this game, I tended to avoid the town exploration and dungeon-crawling aspects of the game to focus on keeping the shop open, and I feel like I must have missed a lot of content that way, so this time, I'm going  to be a bit more cavalier. I'm certain that I'll get at least one game over before I get the balance right (embarrassingly, I almost missed the first loan payment, due to excessive dungeon crawling - luckily I was able to squeeze by at literally the last minute).

When I left off, at the start of the second week, the game had just introduced Recette's self-declared rival, the wealth heir to the "Big Bash" franchise (Tear estimates their gross revenue as 500 billion Pix per year, which sounds like a lot), Alouette. She is exactly as pompous as you might imagine, though she is more of a mirror to Recette than either would admit. She too, has a fairy companion, and a similar tenuous and romantic connection to reality (Recette first meets her as she attempts to infiltrate the shop by hiding in a box, Solid Snake-style).

I've now spent more time writing this post than actually playing the game, but that's only because the game is so unique and interesting that it makes it easy to talk about.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Recettear is the story of an item shop, the girl who lives in it, and the fairy who turned her life upside down. Recette Lemongrass finds herself in charge of an item shop built into her house, in order to pay back a loan her father took and then skipped out on - and Tear, her newfound fairy "companion", won't take no for an answer! As Recette, you have to decide how you'll get your stock - either through playing the markets in town or going out into the wild with an adventuring friend and thrashing beasts until they give up the goodies - how much to sell things for, what the shop should look like, and how to best go about getting the money Tear needs to pay off the loan. If you can't come up with the money... well, hope you like living in a cardboard box.
Key features:
  • Manage all aspects of an item shop – from stock to interior design!
  • Explore randomized dungeons – never quite the same twice!
  • Multiple adventurers to choose from when dungeon-diving – no two play the same!
  • Plenty to do after beating the game – challenge yourself with Survival Mode or play to your heart's delight in Endless Mode!
  • Engaging story, localized by Carpe Fulgur – get to know the people of Pensee!

Previous Play Time

 8 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Like most of my games, I bought this when it was on sale, but I was looking forward to it for awhile. I saw a Let's Play on's video game board, and thought it looked adorable. The idea of running an RPG item shop is so fresh and original that I just had to give it a try.

Prior Experience

I played through the entire game, and paid off my debt on the first try. From what I understand, that's pretty tough, but as a long-time player of The Sims, I'd already had a head start on developing the time management skills necessary to succeed. That said, I'm also certain that, in focusing so strongly on the game's stated primary goal, I also missed out on a lot of side content. I do recall passing up a lot of potential rpg-style interaction and adventure in order to spend more time on shop business.


I don't remember any specifics of how the game is played,  but I expect it will all come back to me. I'm a little worried that the second time through might seem repetitive, but I will try to be more adventurous this time through, and hopefully see some things I missed the first time. I'll also try and be less afraid of failure. I've already beaten the game, so I have nothing left to prove.

I anticipate, that after, at most, an hour or so, I will be sucked back into the world of Recettear and have plenty of incentive to explore it to its utmost.

A Game of Thrones - Genesis - 20/20 hours

Well, my first game was a trial by fire. The last eight hours were rough. The strangest thing about House vs House mode is that the available houses depend on the map. So you can't play a map with just the Starks vs the Lannisters, for instance, because the two houses are too far from each other, so the only way to get them both is to play the larger 6 player or 8 player maps. I guess this is another example of the game's commitment to the series' lore, but it just strikes me as an odd decision. Why wouldn't you put in a duel-style map where people can play whatever house they want?

This is especially baffling because the game offers a multi-player mode. You can use the game's matchmaking to play with random people on the internet, but only if all of you want to play one of the pre-made scenarios. Strange. Perhaps the oddity of that decision is the reason the multiplayer lobbies seem so desolate and underpopulated.

The actual House vs House mode is not especially fun. Contrary to my usual expectations, playing against more opponents feels easier than 1v1. I guess that's because a single computer opponent will focus on you exclusively, whereas multiple opponents will waste effort on each other. The AI is not especially good, but for a novice player (especially if they're like me and not very good at RTSs), the sheer number of things you have to keep track of is overwhelming. You have to watch out for spies and assassins (which are mostly invisible unless they're spotted by a spy or run out of their stealth timer), counter enemy envoys, and keep producing units, despite the punitive economy.

I actually won my first game, though, entirely by luck. The computer had a dramatic prestige lead, but for some reason moved their feudal lord into a village right next to my territory. On a whim, I dispatched an assassin, and killed him. This lead to a last minute upset, when the computer was about 5 points away from victory.

In House vs House mode, the different houses have their own special abilities and unique units. These are kind of interesting - ranging from House Arryn's Thief (are they especially larcenous in the books? It didn't seem like it), to House Stark's dire wolf, which acts like a body-guard with a spy's ability to spot invisible units. The units can be handy, but none of them seems like a game-changer (I did use House Targaryen's Raven unit, but it didn't come close to helping me win). I actually played about 4 games without realizing that the Houses had a separate special ability, so they must be pretty subtle (I actually found out about them by reading the Encyclopedia, and most of the bonus are small things like a bonus movement rate for certain units, or faster diplomatic actions - some of them seem like they could be potentially exploitable by a skilled player, but I am not good enough to take advantage of them).

My 20 hour playtime actually includes about a half hour where I left the game running while I went out and bought cat food. While it may seem like I'm fudging the rules by counting that time, I'm going to allow it - and here's why. I was playing the full 8-player Westeros map with the Prestige threshold for victory cranked up to 300%. After I'd played the map for about 2 hours, when I was only about half way to victory, I was interrupted by a necessary errand (the aforementioned cat food), and I could not save my progress in order to suspend the game until a more convenient time.

It's not something I noticed in campaign mode, because the campaign had a checkpoint saving system that, while not great, was still adequate to my needs. The missions were short enough that I never lost all that much progress. Yet my epic House vs House game was not so fortunate. To leave such basic functionality out of a strategy game is utterly unacceptable. It is a basic conceit of the genre that strategy games involve meticulous planning and careful thought that might not be able to fit in a single session. So, to require all of your maps to be played in a single sitting is ridiculous.

Final Thoughts

It should be obvious that I did not enjoy this game. Nonetheless, I'm glad I played it. Prior to this experiment, A Game of Throne - Genesis was a nagging mystery, a game I'd never heard of and barely played that sat in my Steam Library and rebuked me with its very existence. Was I afraid of the unknown? Was I ungrateful for the gift my friend gave me? Was I, in fact, missing out on a unique and fulfilling strategy experience because I wanted to cleave to the familiar?

Now, at least, I can say with confidence that this game is not for me. I've experienced what it has to offer, and it is no longer a mystery - and that's what this experiment is all about.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Game of Thrones - Genesis - 12/20 hours

I've finished the campaign, and I'm going to try and keep this post short - the campaign does not get better in the back half. Strangely, none of the last 6 chapters has more than two missions, so the parts of Westeros' history that might be most interesting to fans of the series get the least support. Also, the game has a weird habit of having you play the historical loser in its various missions, so you have the odd and frustrating experience of winning the mission and then being informed that the character you were playing later met an ignominious death..

Luckily, none of the later missions are as frustrating as some of the early escort missions, although they do have some problems of their own. The last mission, in particular, is not very good. You control Stannis Baratheon's troops against the wildlings at the Wall, and it is, relative to the forces you typically control, epically huge. Unfortunately, the AI is terrible, and you can manage to fight one enemy unit at a time, rendering the battle trivial.

With the campaign out of the way, I will now attempt House vs House mode, which is undoubtedly the real meat of the game.

A Roadmap to the Future

It occurs to me that the scope of this project might not be entirely clear. So, here is a list of my current Steam Library. The games with an asterisk, I have played less than 5 hours. Italicized games are ones I've played extensively on the console or with non-Steam PC versions.

A Game of Thrones - Genesis
Anno 2070*
Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition*
Borderlands 2
Breath of Death VII*
Crusader Kings II
Cthulu Saves the World*
Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble*
Democracy 3*
Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition*
Dungeons and Dragons Online*
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Endless Space
Europa Universalis IV*
Fable: The Lost Chapters*
Fallen Enchantress
Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes
Fallout 2*
Fallout Tactics*
Fallout - New Vegas*
FTL: Faster Than Light*
Galactic Civilizations 2: Ultimate Edition
Half-Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy*
Kerbal Space Program
The Last Federation
The Last Remnant*
Long Live the Queen
Might and Magic Heroes VI
Mount & Blade*
Mount & Blade: Warband
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword*
Portal 2*
Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale
Rogue Legacy*
Rome: Total War*
Saints Row 2*
Saints Row IV*
Saints Row the Third*
The Settlers 7: Path to a Kingdom*
Shadowrun Returns
Sid Meier's Civilization V
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion*
Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity*
Space Empires IV: Deluxe*
Space Empires V
Tropico 4
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines*
X-Com: Enemy Unknown*

So, some of these are redundant, because I got them in a bundle, and some were free, but even leaving those aside I still have a long way to go. This project is going to take awhile. It doesn't help that I plan on playing even the games that haven't cost me any real money. I said I'd play my entire Steam Library, and I meant it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Game of Thrones - Genesis - 9/20 hours

Wow, this game is really testing my resolve. I think the issue I'm having is that I don't especially care for RTSs. I've never been particularly good at multi-tasking, and games that require me to divide my attention kind of stress me out. That said, I have been known to enjoy an RTS if it is good (and I'm a real fan of the closely related genre of city-building games), but A Game of Thrones - Genesis does not clear that bar.

Still, I don't want to be entirely negative. The designers of the game did make one choice which I greatly respect - they started the campaign mode with the Rhoynar invasion of Dorne. I don't think I would have made the same decision. I'd have thought that, in designing a game based on a popular series of novels that in turn spawned a hit TV show, it would be best to try and appeal to the fans of the source material - people who, upon seeing a Game of Thrones video game might be excited to play as their favorite characters - Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, Tywin Lannister, etc.

Instead, the first character you control is Queen Nymeria - best known as the namesake of Aria's Direwolf. And, controlling her, you play out the history of a region that doesn't even show up "onscreen" until the 4th book (and has not yet appeared on the show).

Granted, the game is subtitled Genesis, which does indicate an intent to cover the series' backstory, but if it were my call, I'd have gone with Robert's Rebellion as the first campaign, and then players could unlock other historical periods by accomplishing various tasks in the main campaign. But then, my thought would be that most people do not finish video games, so the early levels should appeal to the widest cross-section of fans, whereas later levels (or unlockable bonus levels) could reward the sort of hardcore fan who stuck with the game until the end.

It seems obvious to me that the Rhoynar invasion was chosen as the first campaign because it was the earliest chronologically. And that is something I respect, because it seems to me to be a decision that could only be motivated by a genuine love of the setting. Were this purely a cynical tie-in to a popular franchise, surely someone, somewhere in the process would have argued for putting the most marketable part of the game in a greater position of prominence. Instead, they went for a mission order that prioritizes story.

It's a shame then, that the story is not told very well. The dialogue isn't horrible, but it is fairly bland, and at times it sacrifices character and setting specificity to relay gameplay information, but honestly, video-game storytelling was never best handled through cutscenes anyway. The real meat of a video game's story is in the gameplay itself, and unfortunately, the actual mechanics of the game get in the way of the story it's trying to tell.

For example, I said that you start the game controlling Queen Nymeria, who by all accounts is something of a badass. So, how is that represented in the game? By giving you a Queen Nymera unit . . . who is completely useless. Actually, strike that. It's worse. She's a liability. She has no combat, diplomatic, or support abilities, a ridiculously low hp total, and if she dies, it's the end of the game.

At first, that doesn't matter much, because you just park her in your starting castle and forget about her, but the last mission of the campaign has you touring the map with her equally useless husband, Lors Martell. That's right, this game has escort missions. Escort missions where the thing your guarding dies in one hit.

That was a frustrating mission. But at least it was the end of the campaign.

The second campaign has you controlling Aegon the Conqueror. It was pretty easy, for the most part, and of course, you get a DRAGON!

The dragon is a pretty powerful unit, and it's kind of funny the way you can send it to a village and get an automatic alliance (I guess you could call it a kind of diplomacy), but this is another example of the gameplay undermining the story.

The way it works is you select the dragon, right click on some enemy (be it a holding or an army) and the dragon flies out and destroys whatever you targeted. Then it flies back to your home base, and while it is en route, you cannot give it any orders. In effect, the dragon is an ability with a cooldown period proportional to the distance at which you use it. Which may be easier to balance mechanically, but leads to some odd results - like sending the dragon to attack an enemy army, having it obliterate a single unit, and leaving the rest of its friends untouched.

There's a mission halfway through the second campaign where you have to use the dragon to destroy your enemy's forces, and it's tedious. If I hadn't experienced it myself, I wouldn't have believed it possible. Raining fiery death down upon helpless knights and spearmen as an unstoppable hell-beast should not be dull.

The second campaign finishes up with a stealth mission. I understand that in any game, having a variety of mission types and victory conditions can be useful for maintaining interest, but when both your mission objectives and the things you're trying to avoid are hidden in the fog of war, it just makes the whole thing an exercise in frustration. (It took me forever to find that 12th peasant).

The third campaign was a single mission - The Dance of Dragons. As far as I know, dragons do not play into it. Basically, it's a civil war between Rhaenyra and Aegon II. The game allows you to pick either one, so I chose Rhaenyra, because the argument against her was pure sexism, and was treated to a spy-heavy mission involving the creation and maintenance of secret alliances (maybe Aegon II would have given me a dragon, though I suspect I'd have just had to play the same scenario, but on the defensive side). It was a perfectly adequate map, but having won, the game then informed me that it was actually on rails the whole time, and Rhaenyra was later executed by her brother.

The fourth campaign had two missions (I'm getting the feeling that they may have run out of time and/or money, because campaigns one and two had five missions each) that took me through the conquest of Dorne, but the missions themselves were pretty unremarkable.

Anyway, I'm about halfway through with both the campaign mode and my self-imposed 20 hour goal, and my opinion of the game has not substantially improved. It is at turns tedious and frustrating, and even if it were good, the style of game is not a good match for my personal preferences. Yet, I can't help but admire the game's respect for the series lore, and its ambition in trying to add variety to the basic RTS template (I only wish the storytelling and gameplay were better executed).

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Game of Thrones - Genesis - 2/20 hours

After two hours with A Game of Thrones - Genesis, I have to say, I think this experiment of mine might get a little rough. This game is . . . not good.

Part of it is technical problems, like the floaty mouse that plagued me when I first started the tutorial, or the inexplicable glitch that granted me a bunch of achievements (most laughably - the 50 hrs of gameplay achievement), or the crash to desktop that occurred in my first half hour.

Part of it is presentation. The relatively unpolished graphics don't bother me - I've been gaming since the early 90s, so anything that looks better than A Link to the Past qualifies as incredible in my book. But there are a lot of little details that aren't quite right. The fact that you "hire" Noble Ladies and Peasants, for instance (and while I'm on the subject, it's kind of offensive that the Noble Ladies' anti-unit ability is to "seduce" the enemy - yes, there aren't a lot of opportunities for women in the source material, but this is not a mechanic that lends itself to verisimilitude either - I don't believe for a second that a Noble Lady would go after some grubby mercenary). Likewise, the minimap is overly simple, and the screen that pops up when war is declared is just . . . odd. I suppose the best way to describe it is "cartoony."

More generally, the presentation simply fails to capture the scope and grandeur of either the books or the tv show. I can't quite articulate why, but the game feels small. It probably has something to do with the way it divides the land into villages and castles, each of which is little more than a waypoint for your troops and/or envoys. The sense of scale is also not at all helped by the way food and gold costs for your units increase each time you buy one, so you can only really field a small force at any particular time (yet, on the other hand, there's not a lot you can do to micromanage your troops, so these small armies also lack intimacy).

Finally, the actual mechanics of the game feel a little off. A huge aspect of the strategy lies in diplomacy, and yet the game's diplomacy doesn't really feel like diplomacy. It feels like another sort of combat (though, to be fair, this is true to the game's source material). I'm a huge fan of games that let me advance and solve problems through non-violent means, but A Game of Thrones - Genesis doesn't really satisfy in that regard.

I think the problem is that the way the diplomacy system is set up, it is very difficult to get the sense that your are doing something constructive by avoiding war. The basic gist of it is that you "ally" with castles and towns by moving your envoys onto them and parking them there, but your enemies can oppose this by sending envoys of their own to eject yours, or by sending spies to create "secret alliances" (which means the game lies to you and shows the towns as allied on your screen, but denies you their resources and guarantees that they'll flip to the enemy if war is ever declared), and then rogues can subvert your diplomats and spies, so that when they create their alliances, nothing will happen, but the game will show you as being successful diplomatically. And it all adds up to the fact that, barring massive suspicion of your own units, it is incredibly difficult to know who your friends actually are.

I know, I know, "just like the show," and I agree that it's an intriguing idea, but in practice I'm finding it a little frustrating, because it's not so much a battle of wits (because of the binary nature of the politics - an apparent ally is either genuine or not) as it is a test of one's attention span. The game asks the question - "do you have the mental stamina to constantly check and recheck your troops and holdings for signs of betrayal?"

On the balance, I wouldn't say this game is terrible. It does have some unique ideas, and the plot of the ASoIaF backstory is strong enough to keep me interested in the campaign mode, at least, but I would say that, after two hours with the game, my first impression is that it is the very definition of mediocre.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Game of Thrones - Genesis - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

What King will you be? 
Conqueror, Usurper or Diplomat? 

"A Game of Thrones - Genesis" immerses you into the heart of the battles and intrigues between the Houses that shaped the Kingdom of Westeros. From Nymeria's arrival in the Kingdom of Dorne to the awakening of the "Others" beyond the Wall, you'll live the origins of A Game of Thrones saga through more than 1000 years of history, by taking part in Westeros' founding events and largest battles. 

In this great strategy game, victory does not necessarily result from brute force. You can choose to use a military approach and besiege your opponents, strangle them in an economical war, or even use dirty tricks and diplomacy to politically crush them. Treachery and deception are everywhere and can be more efficient than the most powerful army. So watch your back and show no mercy if you want to keep sat on the Iron Throne. 

Previous Play Time

68 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I'd actually received this game as a gift. Before my friend gave it to me, I'd never even heard of it. Still, I like A Game of Thrones, so it was probably a well chosen gift.

Prior Experience

As I recall, I played the tutorial, but then stopped. At the time I was really into Crusader Kings 2, so my medieval-style political strategy game urge was already fulfilled. I suppose I never really gave it a fair chance.


My memories of playing the tutorial are vague, but I remember thinking that it had an odd sort of RTS approach to diplomacy, one that I did not find particularly immersive, but then again, I was playing a lot of CK2 at the time, so that may have skewed my perceptions. I anticipate having difficulty acclimating to the style of strategy at first, but then gradually getting into it. Whether or not I have an enjoyable time getting to my self-imposed 20 hour playtime goal will depend greatly on the difficulty of the main campaign missions. RTS's are not one of my favorite genres, and if the game requires an excessive amount of micromanagement, it may well break me.