Friday, March 31, 2017

The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom - Gold Edition - 10/20 hours

I thought for sure that I'd have finished the campaign by now, but damn if these last couple of missions haven't spiked in difficulty. One of them, I had to play three times. I wound up bumping the difficulty down to Easy just to get through. At this rate, I don't know if I'll even be able to finish the whole thing.

I've got to at least get to the betrayal though. Bors keeps getting shadier and shadier, and the enemies have finally started talking about their quest for freedom. Since I've now unlocked all the mechanics, defeated Lord Wolvering, and the next mission is called "A Father's Revenge." I am almost certain the next mission is when it all goes down. I don't anticipate being particularly delighted by the outcome, but I am relishing the opportunity to say, "I told you so."

I think, though, that if the difficulty keeps going up, I may have to tuck my tail between my legs and retreat to Skirmish mode. I really need a lot more practice in setting up a smooth supply and transportation chain, and I need to master the game's more general skills to account for the fact that the maps are both very particular about where things can be built and extremely unpredictable in their variations.

Halfway through, and it's looking like I'm going to like The Settlers 7. I'm a still a bit frantic from trying to keep up with the pace, but I suspect that will pass as I acquire more skill. And I think, now that I've gotten to the campaign missions where all the mechanics are active, there are probably no nasty late-game surprises left for me to discover, even if the campaign missions eventually start giving the AI so many extra resources that they are no longer fun to play.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Settler's 7: Paths to a Kingdom - Gold Edition - 6/20 hours

I figured out why it's been taking me so much longer to beat the tutorial missions than my first time through - I've accidentally had the difficulty set to Normal instead of Easy. I'm forced to conclude that, despite doling out the game mechanics one-by-one, these early campaign missions are not actually meant to be "tutorials" per se. It's more likely that they are simply scaled down versions of the skirmish matches and are meant to be fully challenging in their own right.  I say this because I think I'm about to play my first full-featured match and there doesn't appear to be any special story fanfare associated with it.

Which means they're drawing out Bors' inevitable betrayal for far longer than they should. It's like, hey, Settlers 7, we can all see it coming. You're not going to surprise anyone. In fact, I am so confident in this twist that I going to bray about it like a jackass, secure in the knowledge that I will not have to walk my words back later.

I suppose I shouldn't be so churlish, though. The reason this exact same plot has been in games since time immemorial is because it's a perfectly serviceable plot. You fight some people. And then when you beat the people and think that the fighting is over, it turns out that you need to fight some new people. And rather than introduce a whole new set of characters, it's simpler just to have you fight the first people you met and who hitherto were your allies. Intrigue!

(Oh, man, you have no idea how embarrassed I'll be if I'm wrong about this, but it will be the good kind of embarrassment, because I will also be genuinely surprised).

I should wrap this post up by talking about the mechanic introduced in my latest story mission - the victory points system. I like this one a lot. The way it works is that you don't necessarily win the match by totally eliminating the enemy (though you can). Instead, you can chase after "victory points." Once you have a certain number, if you can hold onto them for a couple of minutes, you win the match.

What's fun about this is that each victory point has its own little sub-goal attached to it. You can earn victory points for having the most money, troops, prestige, or territory, over a certain level, or you can earn victory points by accomplishing quest objectives on the map. In the last mission, you had to be the first to deliver a huge shipment of meat to a werewolf, but from what I understand, each skirmish map has its own unique story goals.

Of course I love any mechanic that lets me win the game without trudging through battle after battle, but more than that, I like how the victory point system gives you flexibility in your strategic approach, even up to the very end. In my latest match I was aiming to grab the victory point from owning a certain town, but the enemy conquered it before my clerics could get there and convert it, so I instead diverted those clerics into technological research for a quick prestige boost and won the "most prestigious" victory point instead.

It's possible that, in time, I may find that victory points let me win in implausible tactical situations, and thus feel kind of hollow thereby, but for now I really appreciate the clever way they make every part of the game into something worth pursuing. I'm looking forward to seeing the next few campaign maps. Hopefully the victory point system is as flexible and diverse as I know it can be.

The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom - Gold Edition - 2/20 hours

Well, I'm finally back to where I was before, which is strange because it took me almost a half-hour more the second time around. I'm not sure why that would be the case. Am I just worse at games than I was three years ago? Maybe I'm just more careful. In less of a rush and more willing to take side-paths and let things happen. Or maybe I forgot I could increase the game speed for something like two out of the first three missions.

Whatever the explanation, I'm enjoying myself, and that's all that matters. And it turns out that my biggest problem with the game is not the combat. Fighting in The Settlers 7 is so bland that it barely feels like it exists at all. No, the thing that worries me most now is that certain fundamental resources - gold, coal, stone, and fish - are finite and can be exhausted. And while that turns out to be fine in campaign mode, if I ever decide to just do an open-ended map my city will have a built-in time-limit. That's kind of a bummer.

Though it's not something I have to worry about just yet. I'm not sure how much farther I have to go in the tutorial, given that there's something like a dozen buildings I haven't seen just yet, however, I think I'm pretty close to the end simply because the story is rapidly heading towards a logical act break.

You play as Princess Zoe, a naive young noblewoman who was sent to the kingdom of Tandria by her father. Tandria has recently undergone a large-scale revolt and the king's friend Balderus has become deposed. So Zoe's father (I don't think he's gotten a name just yet) tasked her with colonizing the land and defeating the leader of the rebels Lord Wolvering. In return, he will make her Queen of Tandria.

Seems simple enough, except everything associated with Zoe's father is shady as fuck. Your assistant, Bors, an "old ally" of Zoe's father is clearly holding back information, and in the last mission restrained you from talking to the Bishop about your military use of technology gleaned from his monasteries, even going so far as to say "the cause justifies the means."

So, prediction time: Bors turns out to be Balderus, Zoe learns that the people she's fighting are righteous rebels against a tyrannical regime, and that her father is the mastermind of this oppression. She must then take up arms against him and that will be the subject of the post-tutorial campaign. Things certainly feel like they're coming to a head, and I'm not sure there's much more room for Zoe to keep ignoring all these red flags without looking like an idiot. It's a little weird that none of the underlings you've fought have bothered to say anything about their motivation or ideology, but I'm guessing that's just weak writing that values dramatic irony more than internal consistency.

My next mission is the one where I learn to trade, and I'm looking forward to it simply because it will be nice to do something other than conquer for a change, though I'm starting to think that the city-building is meant to support the warfare, rather than the other way around.

Either way, I think this is going to be a pretty easy game to get through. I like building stuff and the building mechanics look sufficiently deep that I'm willing to pay the price of some occasional tedious combat if it means I get to keep exploring them.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Settlers 7: Paths to Kingdom - Gold Edition - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Choose your own path to victory in The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom™, the long-anticipated sequel to the award-winning strategy game. Embark on an exciting quest to create, build and manage your kingdom in the most innovative, customizable and re-playable version ever!

Immerse Yourself in a Captivating Story…
Unravel an intriguing and unexpected story as you play. Combat enemies all across the land in a quest to conquer a formidable kingdom. Defeat ruthless kings, forbidding lords and dark knights on your quest for victory. Uncover undisclosed traitors along your path and turn enemies into allies to pave your path to victory.

Experience a Vast and Beautiful Kingdom
A beautiful, colorful world awaits you with a level of detail unseen before now! A flourishing kingdom full of bustling Settlers will enthrall you from the very first moment.

Build, Develop and Manage Your Emerging Domain
Enjoy a deep and rich building and production system as you create a kingdom of fortified towns, small villages and productive settlers. Make critical decisions as you expand your realm. Should you optimize production chains, build transport systems, construct new buildings or increase worker efficiency? Every choice you make builds a critical path to victory or defeat.

Previous Playtime

96 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I need very little persuasion to pick up a city-building game, and I liked this particular one's visual style. The fact that I didn't know it required uPlay also helped.

Expectations and Prior Experience

So, I've already played this for an hour and a half, but all my memories of it are "tutorial-esque." I think it's more because this is one of those games that likes to hide its mechanics inside a long, drawn-out story mode than because it's got a particularly steep learning curve, but it's possible it could be both.

One thing I do definitely remember is that Settlers 7 is a city-builder that also inexplicably includes small-unit warfare, which is always something that annoys me, but since I never got past the combat tutorial, I'm holding out hope that it's a minimal part of the game at large.

Overall, I'm pretty optimistic. I like manipulating the lives of virtual people, shaping their environment to my unknowable whims.  As long as I can mostly do that, I'll be fine.

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

Now that I'm at the end of it all, I can say that Sins of a Solar Empire felt a lot better to me than the last 4X/RTS hybrid I played, StarDrive. I think it's because Sins doesn't really let you fall into any serious infrastructure traps. There's a slight credit penalty for new, underdeveloped planets, but it's trivial to work past and you still get the system's full portion of minerals and crystals. So you're never in a situation where expanding to a new planet hurt you. And unlike, say Galactic Civilizations II, the map is small enough that expansion never really felt like a grind. Each individual planet was valuable enough to mount a campaign over.

Which speaks well to the game's balance. I'm not usually a big RTS guy, but I did find myself becoming invested in my war of interplanetary conquest. Or, at least, I did once I realized the AI would stab me in the back at the first sign of weakness and thus I had to over-fortify my border planets with a full complement of defensive starbases to compensate for my under-developed fleet. The way fleets work in this game, you pay a maintenance penalty based on the maximum size of your fleet, regardless of how many ships you have, and thus I had the idea that it would be best to research new fleet size technologies last so as to delay the penalty as long as possible. This led to me being slammed by pirates and/or ambitious neighbors more times than I care to admit. And now that I think about it, building all those Gauss cannons and defense hangars probably ate up more resources than I saved with the lower maintenance costs . . .

Whatever. Like I wasn't going to build everything at every planet anyway. As of my last game, my strategy was working, and that's all that matters. I may have my doubts about RTS games, but winning goes a long way towards soothing those doubts away.

To sum up, I went into this game with a smidgen of diffidence, and I'm coming out of it only slightly ambivalent. There were frustrating parts, but I could clearly see how my actions connected to the outcome and subsequently improve my performance. I didn't like that there was so much unrestrained warfare, but once I figured out how to keep myself safe, there was plenty still left to do. All in all, I'm looking forward to Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion more than I was before, so in that sense Trinity was a success.

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 so 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.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Might & Magic: Heroes VI - 4/20 hours

Oh, for fuck's sake! I died on the second mission of the tutorial campaign. On easy mode. What are you trying to teach me Might & Magic: Heroes VI

It's startling how quickly and profoundly I've grown to hate this game. I think it's because I'm so close to loving it. I love commanding a whole menagerie of fun, fantasy creatures. I love poking around in caves for gold and magical artifacts. I love leveling up my heroes through a complex skill tree. I love getting side-quests that invite me to wander away from the main plot and search for extra rewards.

You know what I don't love? Being blind-sided by an enemy hero with enough tier-two troops to rip my tier-one army to shreds, despite being half my size. And even less do I love going online to read a strategy guide that tells me the solution is to "not lose any troops in run-up battles and to make sure I have my hero specialized for healing." Well, geez, thanks, I guess I'll just go back to the beginning of the campaign and play perfectly this time.

Easy mode is generally considered embarrassing by serious gamers. And the reason for that is that usually, on easy mode, you don't have to play well. You can just dick around smelling the flowers and trying out goofy, impractical character builds. This tolerance for sloppiness makes it laughable, but it's also easy mode's primary virtue. It's why I usually start strategy games in easy mode - the rules and nuances are usually so complex that it's worth scouting out the combos that yield the most dramatic victories as potential basic strategies in higher difficulty settings.

But as near as I can tell, Might & Magic: Heroes VI does not give me that ramp. The penalty for failing to learn is death, even in the easy-mode tutorial. I suppose, if I were a mature, responsible adult who reacted appropriately to setbacks I could just cope with the whole "learning through failure" thing. But a single campaign mission is close to two hours long. And if a mistake in the early game leads to me losing at the end, and if it takes me just three tries to get it right, then that's still six hours on a single mission.

Now, as it so happens, the tutorial campaign only has two missions (I looked it up), but there are five more campaigns with four missions each. If the pattern holds, we're looking at 24 hours per campaign, or 120 hours to get through them all. Yikes.

Realistically, this estimate is probably too short at the front end and too long at the back end. The skills you develop over the course of the first couple of campaigns will likely help you in the last couple of campaigns.

And it's not as if I despise long-running games in general. There are many games that I enjoy that treat the first few dozen hours as pure practice time. I mean, how many times did I lose in my first 20 hours playing Civilization IV . . .

Oh, wait, not that many, because its easiest difficulty level is actually easy!

I don't want to let bitterness consume me, though. I'm going to try and tough it out. Play the tutorial mission as many times as it takes to get it right. Maybe I'm being too pessimistic, and all it will take is a slightly different build order to set things right. Maybe my very next attempt will be a successful one. Maybe I'm letting my negative expectations cloud my perceptions and it's actually a lot easier than I thought, if only I could commit to playing with "good" strategy.

Regardless, I've still got 16 hours to go, so I'd better find some rapprochement with Might & Magic: Heroes VI or I'm going to have a very miserable week.

Might & Magic: Heroes VI - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The adventure in Heroes VI, starting 400 years before events in Heroes V, catapults a family of heroes into a fast-paced epic story where Angels plot to end -- once and for all -- an unfinished war with their ancient rivals, the Faceless.

A legendary Archangel General is resurrected, but with his powers crippled. Plagued by horrible memories of the Elder Wars, he plots to recover his powers and take control of Ashan while destroying both Faceless and Demons in a series of carefully orchestrated attacks and betrayals. He underestimates, however, the power of the all-too-human Griffin dynasty.

The destiny of these Griffin heroes will be determined by our players.
Previous Playtime

18 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I'd played Heroes of Might & Magic III many years prior and had fond memories of the experience. So I figured that a 3rd-degree sequel, with more than a decade's worth of refinement would be a sure bet.

Expecations and Prior Experience

I've been dreading this game for awhile not. I so wanted to like it. I tried. I played it for longer than was entirely reasonable, even after it became clear the game wasn't for me.

It just has so much going for it. A richly-detailed fantasy world with appealing art design, and multiple factions to play, each with their own units and tech trees, in wide-open maps with treasure to find and all sorts of spells and artifacts and other fantasy rigamarole.

However it had one serious flaw - the game is just too damned hard. I could barely get past the tutorial and from what I understand, that is a not uncommon state of affairs. As near as I could tell from online strategy guides and various grumbling forum posts, the issue is that it is balanced around the assumption of optimal play. I.e. if the game were winnable by dawdlers like myself who like to poke around for treasure chests and clear out monster nests rather than directly engage the enemy, it would subsequently be a cakewalk for the sort of people who chart out precise build orders and rush the enemy while they're still low on the tech tree.

I suppose they have to know their audience better than I do, though. In all likelihood, I was in a minority with my desire to do nothing more than futz around in a fantasy world and have pet dragons. Presumably most of the people playing this turn-based strategy game would rather focus on the strategy aspects.

Which means, going forward, that I have a serious choice to make - do I continue to be the round peg in a square hole, or do I focus on playing the game the way it was meant to be played?

I think we all know the answer to that, but I'm just going to document the dilemma here so that when, in 10 hours or so, I complain about being tortured by the game, there will be no denying that I'm a whiny hypocrite.

Then again, maybe it won't be so bad. It's been years since I played the game and maybe it's been patched to be more casual. Or maybe I've grown enough as a player of games that I will be able to handle its strategic challenge.

Hey, stranger things have happened.

StarDrive - 20/20 hours

Another space 4X in the bag and I think I may actually be starting to get jaded with the genre, at least a little bit. So much of my time playing this game I spent wishing it was Stellaris. I had the hardest time engaging with StarDrive and I'm not really sure why.

It could be the lack of lore. Nothing I did was really connected to the broader story of the game in a clear and interesting way. However, I'm not sure that's truly a problem. Space Empires IV didn't have much lore either, and I enjoyed the hell out of that game.

I think sometimes mechanics tell an implicit story. You're a spacefaring species and your people are expanding and building and transforming new worlds into a massive transstellar civilization and it is all driven by that sense of activity. Your colonies have these build queues that they must grind through and new technology brings new buildings and obsolete things must be upgraded and it just keeps going until the endgame, where you're terraforming planets and throwing around massive amounts of resources and just generally feeling like you've unlocked terrible powers of advanced science.

StarDrive, by contrast, is very stingy with that sort of thing. There are several chokepoints to expansion that never really open up, even in the late game. Most planets have a very restrictive population cap that limits their total contribution to your empire's tax income. And of those, most also have an infertile environment environment that means they have to import food and thus are unlikely to reach even their modest population caps. In fact, most of the planets were completely unviable economically, not being large enough to break even on the infrastructure necessary to make them livable. Even in a huge universe, it's better to just settle the 3-4 fertile terran planets closest to your homeworld. Since interstellar movement is so slow, a true galaxy-spanning empire is not practical.

Indeed, at one point I'd used diplomacy to form a federation with three of my six remaining foes and the immediate acquisition of a dozen new planets tanked my budget hard. With four times the territory, I was barely able to support twice as large a fleet. On the one hand, it's nice to play a space game that doesn't force you onto the endless expansion treadmill. On the other hand, it is kind of demoralizing to play a game that slaps you on the hand for reaching for the new shinies.

In the end, I'm just disappointed. I was really anticipating this game and it just fell flat for me. Maybe it's not the game's fault, though. I can see that there might be a niche for a small-scale space 4X with a shallow tech tree, small empires, and a focus on ship combat. However, that niche is not my niche and I couldn't escape my more usually grandiose mindset to appreciate StarDrive for what it was.