Sunday, February 21, 2016

Age of Wonders 2 - 20/20 hours

There's a long gap between my Age of Wonders 2 posts. It's because my last 12 hours or so were almost entirely uneventful. And that is because I decided to play the game in the silliest way possible.

I had just beaten a simple 1v1 scenario and it was kind of a slog. Balancing the gold-economy with the time-economy was a chore, and units' movement rate, given their vision radius, and compared to the size of the map meant that reinforcement took forever and deployment was always a calculated risk. I won, but I didn't really enjoy the victory.

So what I did was fire up an eight-player scenario and set every player to "human," in the hopes of being able to explore the various tech trees without any pressure to "win." And then I continued to play that scenario for twelve hours.

Of course, most of that time was taken up with just the sheer mechanical repetitiveness of controlling the movement and production of eight fantasy civilizations. My total number of turns was about 60, so that works out to five turns per hour, which translates into one civilization-turn every 90 seconds or so.

Obviously, this time wasn't uniformly distributed. Sometimes I had a long, complex turn with a lot of movement and production and sometimes all I had to do was press the "next turn" button. I imagine it all averaged out in the end.

What didn't average out was my interest in the various factions. The draconians had a great ultimate unit (red dragons!), but disappointing intermediate units. The archons had great ordinary units, but I felt like their ultimate (some kind of giant) was thematically out of place. And the halflings were just all-around disappointing. I liked the dwarves, because they had berserkers on the low end and steam-powered tanks on the high. And the elves were all right, but I got a little bored of the fact that all their high-level units had the same teleport ability.

What I wound up doing was trying to "win" with one of eight factions. Just out of curiosity, to see some of the units face off against each other head to head. It took freaking forever. Even accounting for the fact that I was playing eight turns, there was just so much back and forth, with promising units getting torn apart by damage, but in the process severely weakening the enemy, cities trading hands repeatedly, and economic resources in the countryside falling prey to any unit that just happened to pass by.

In the end, only one of the eight races fell (halflings, because why the hell are halflings a major faction in a war game) and while another one (humans) was close, as of the 20-hour mark, I was still hours away from finding a decisive victor.

I guess I learned three things from this experience. One: I really like dragons and steam-powered tanks (though this is not that shocking a revelation, all things considered). Two: It takes a really long time to complete an Age of Wonders 2 match. Three: I don't really care for this game all that much.

After finishing the first Age of Wonders, I was inclined to give the series a bit of a break, because it was clear that it was being held back by its age, but this more recent version doesn't have that same excuse. Maybe I'm making too big a deal about it, and Age of Wonders fans didn't really have problems with the game's user interface, but I don't understand why it wasn't improved in the sequel.

But really, I just didn't buy into the game's central premise. It's actually kind of odd, because I've played war games before, and while they always tend to stress me out, I could swear I've enjoyed them more than this (though no particular example leaps to mind at this time). I think the problem might be that Age of Wonders 2 is too similar to other games I enjoy a lot more. All through my time playing it, I couldn't help but wish that it was more like Endless Legend, or even Fallen Enchantress, fantasy turn-based strategy games with more of an emphasis on empire-building and exploration and which put me under a lot less defensive pressure. I wasn't able to appreciate it as its own thing because I was constantly being reminded of my thwarted expectations.

I know that's not a fair expectation to lay on the game. I mean, what do I want, that every game I ever play be a cogent commentary on every other game I've other played? Obviously any even remotely ambitious game is going to try and be its own thing, with its own priorities and merits. The real failure is here is a failure of objectivity.

However, I don't think the issue is whether or not I should be objective, but rather whether or not I can be objective. Is it even possible to separate oneself from the context of your past history? Like, I must have some faculty, derived from the knowledge gained through experience, to discern meaning inside a game. That's part of being an adult. Presumably, if you showed Age of Wonders 2 to a baby, they would not enjoy it, and that would almost certainly be because the baby wouldn't understand the game at all.

But understanding isn't a process ex nihilo. It is something built up over time. My red dragon unit is just a collection of pixels, and relies for a lot of its power on cultural touchstones like Smaug from The Hobbit and the rainbow of chromatic dragons from Dungeons and Dragons - it's stories like these that let me know that dragons are cool. And my understanding of the red dragon as a unit comes from experiences with other games that provided me with units. Every other top-tier unit I've ever used goes into the general subconscious stewpot that allows me to judge things like the dragon's place in the tech tree, its resource and opportunity cost, and its power relative to low-tier units. It becomes a powerful unit by being compared to other powerful units and emerging favorably from the comparison.

Perhaps it is the role of the critic to take individual works and put them in their context, to illuminate the connection between the present and the past, between a game and its influences. And thus it is not unjust of me to place Age of Wonders 2 into an unwinnable comparison with other games in its genre, but rather the heart of what the whole enterprise is about.

Or perhaps I'm just coming up with an elaborate justification that I hope will be more interesting than simply saying "I didn't like it."

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