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).

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