Saturday, May 27, 2017

Spacebase DF-9 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In Spacebase DF-9, you'll build a home among the stars for a motley population of humans and aliens as they go about their daily lives. Mine asteroids, discover derelicts, and deal with the tribulations of galactic resettlement in Earth's distant future. Meteor impacts! Explosive decompression! Unbearable loneliness!

Previous Playtime

14 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I actually got this game for free and by accident. I bought Broken Age and Spacebase DF-9 showed up in my library at the same time (though it just now occurs to me that it might have been a coincidence and I just happened to overlook the gift message - if someone reading the blog was the one who sent it to me, drop me a line and I'll correct this.)

Because this wasn't a planned purchase, my only associated thought was after the fact. If I recall, it was something like "bonus!"

Expectations and Prior Experience

 I'm not sure I had any idea what this was before I got it. It's possible it was on my wishlist, because I will wishlist any game that even looks halfway interesting to me on the off-chance of picking it up for 90% off. I do remember playing it for a few minutes after my surprise acquisition, just to see what this extra thing was. It looked pretty promising to me at the time, though damn, those Steam reviews are pitiless.

I guess that's what worries me most. I like base building games with cartoony style, so ordinarily I'd be all over this, but if it's a particularly bad example of the breed, I could be stuck with something nearly unplayable.

Then again, No Man's Sky got Steam dogpiled too, and that's one of my favorite games. I guess I'll just have to trust that my taste is sufficiently different than the mob's. Or at least that my suffering is entertaining enough to make a train-wreck worth it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 20/20

Pacifism was actually working out fairly well - until the damned Europeans came. It was completely unfair. They declared a war of conquest on me, and my armies just melted before them. And I outnumbered them! They had just one province on the continent and I had ten. Twenty thousand troops to their 10k. But it didn't matter. My morale broke and the shattered remnants of my forces were quickly mopped up by Spain's native allies. I suppose I should be grateful. Becoming incandescent with rage really makes you feel alive.

I rounded out my time by continuing my United States game, but there's nothing to report. I was already rich and well-developed, and such a powerful presence in the western hemisphere that no one dared attack me (thus I didn't have to throw a tantrum and ragequit).

The lesson I learned from all of this is that if I want to enjoy this game (and I do), then I need to actually get good at it and learn how to pick my battles in such a way that I can eliminate (or at least discourage) my avaricious neighbors and never have anything genuinely important at stake in my inevitable wars. It's tricky, though, because the primary reason I'm so short-tempered at the game is that I know I lack the skill to recover from a major setback. I guess it's just one more reason for me to learn to control my emotions.

If I could change one thing about Europa Universalis IV, it would be to make it more educational. My favorite part of the game was looking at the map on the country-select screen. That's not even back-handed, I genuinely enjoyed it, especially when it came to tracking the changes to borders and place names over time. It was also fun to get country-specific pop-up events. They didn't quite make me feel like I was playing out a living history, but that's mostly because the basic game mechanics are so similar between cultures that you never really forget you're playing a strategy game with its own very specific priorities and biases.

I definitely think I will be drawn back to Europa Universalis IV. Despite not having the sort of robust building mechanics I ordinarily love in a strategy game, its rich historical setting is thoroughly compelling. I've griped a lot over the past few days, but those were more gripes about myself than gripes about the game. If I could somehow get good enough to thrive, I would probably love to play in this vast historical sandbox.

But that's a journey for a different time. For now I will say that I spent most of the last 20 hours feeling pretty frustrated, but I never lost interest in the game itself. That's a pretty decent accomplishment.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 15/20 hours

I've been jumping around from nation to nation for the last five hours. I played as the United States long enough to win the revolution (call it patriotism, if you must) and as the Yamana Daimyo in Japan long enough to lose what should have been an easy war (somehow, forts get me tangled up every time) and then Castille right up until I was betrayed by Aragon (I ran out of manpower after the Reconquista and got slammed at my most vulnerable moment).

I've come to a conclusion - I don't like losing. I know, a real shocking revelation, but that's the essence of it. I have a thing and then some enemy comes along and tries to take my thing away. And to a certain degree, the trying is acceptable, but only if its doomed to failure. Mostly because I don't want to lose my thing.

I know I should take the loading screen's advice and not simply give up just because I've suffered a defeat in war, but the thought of my enemies using my stuff against me, to steal more of my stuff, it fills me with resentment.

Of course, this is entirely hypocritical on my part. I'm not averse to using the territory of others to take over their remaining lands, but that's because I'm a human and they're the AI, so I'm more important than them . . . right? I'll admit, I do feel a little dirty for being disgruntled about the consequences of a war I started. Not so dirty that I'm going to learn to take defeat with equanimity, but that should go without saying.

My plan for the last five hours is to try and play a pacifist game. No starting wars at all, spreading through colonization, and keeping my fingers crossed that I can stay strong enough to not get attacked. I'll probably still bail and quit when an opportunistic neighbor tries to take a bite out of my territory, but at least I'll feel like my outrage is justified.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 10/20 hours

I think I'm starting to get a handle on the game, though I have yet to grow attached enough to a particular nation to see their story through to the end. I think it's because I keep making what must be beginner's mistakes. Every time I've had a major foreign war against a serious rival, I've wound up simultaneously having to deal with a domestic uprising. I'm sure that's not a coincidence, but damned if I know how to stop it.

I also think I'm starting to get a feel for the larger ethos of the game itself. It's not so much a "strategy game," or even a "simulation," so much as it is a "story generator." It's a bit like Crusader Kings II in that regard, except where Crusader Kings II generates these highly biographical tales of courtly intrigue, Europa Universalis IV seems more geared towards those dreary 19th century treatises with titles like "On the Destiny of the Race." It's not bad, in and of itself, but it is reminiscent of the bad habits of my own personal history education, and thus I feel like I have to approach it with a certain critical distance.

I want to tread carefully here, though, because I've only seen a fraction of the game and it's possible that the reason it seems so Eurocentric is because the bulk of my time has been spent in Europe (although, with a name like Europa Universalis . . . ), but all of this stuff with "alliances" and "rivals" and "causus beli" . . . Not to imply that African or Native American peoples didn't have diplomacy or inter-group friction or reasons for going to war, but it feels very "outdated high school world history textbook" to me.

Although, I suppose it's come full circle - Europa Universalis IV is a video game based on the sort of history education that makes history feel like a video game.

And I don't know if I'm necessarily okay with that. It's fascinating, taken on its own terms, but, you know, this whole "war is a continuation of politics by other means" thing is actually kind of depressing.

I think the sticking point for me is the way that the game puts its thumb on the scales in favor of Europe. I first noticed this the hard way. I was playing Castille on ironman, but I wasn't getting any achievements. When I loaded up my game, I noticed a tooltip that said achievements were disabled because I had set the "lucky nations" on "none" instead of "historical."  When I saw the setting in the first place, I had just assumed it was purely a flavor thing. Similarly, when I played briefly as Mali, I noticed I was getting a huge tech research penalty for not being sufficiently feudal.

The purpose of these mechanics is to make the game world develop in a similar way to the real world, but in doing so, they can't help but feel just a little bit ideological (or more than a little bit, if you read some of the online debates about the subject - yikes). It's like they're saying that way things played out in the real world was inevitable, but I'm sure that if you replayed human history 1000 times, starting in 1444, in 999 of those timelines, China would be the preeminent global power going into the 19th century. So why not let the game play out that way? Why pretend that the real world outcome is the likeliest or most plausible?

There probably isn't any kind of sinister agenda there, but I think tying the technological and social progress of non-European nations to European cultural markers like the Renaissance (or, for that matter, the calendar year) smacks of a kind of unexamined historical progressivism, perhaps one that puts civilizations on a ladder and judges "lower" civilizations for insufficiently emulating "higher" ones - and that is the sort of thinking that drove the worst excesses of European colonialism.

Which, I suppose, is what the game is actually about. So call this a big, mystified shoulder-shrug on my account. It makes sense for a game about a certain historical period to replicate that period's mindset, but when the period is one of the most shameful chapters in human history and the mindset is the sort of haughty racialist triumphalism that allowed unaccountable despots to despoil continents, is it really necessary, appropriate, or wise?

Part of this is my own personal hang-up, I know. The more strategy games I play, the more I yearn for a game that will decolonialize history. Now, what that would look like, I don't know. In fact, as near as I can reckon "decolonialized strategy game" is close to an oxymoron. Which isn't to say that historically colonized people were angels - they had wars, many every bit as awful as anything in Europe, and those wars surely involved strategy and definitely had the aim of seizing territory and resources. Rather, the very language of statecraft (borders, sovereignty, treaties, statecraft) is bound up in the perspectives and priorities of European aristocracy. And while there are many places (such as much of Asia) that track with that, there are plenty more (such as much of the pre-Columbian Americas) that don't.

And that's the thing, places that did not have large-scale, cohesive social structures were not, thereby terra nullius. The people who lived there weren't simply waiting to be colonized.

But, like I said earlier, I don't know how you make a strategy game out of that, so it's a bit unfair of me to judge Europa Universalis IV by that standard. Instead, I will just say that this game does a very good job at making you think like a villain, and I'm not yet sure whether I'll beat the game by becoming a superior villain or whether I will beat the game by resisting its manipulations to the end.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 5/20 hours

I want to like this game so much. There are so many buttons and they all look important. It makes me feel important, being able to press them. Only problem is, I don't know what they do.

Oh, I can read a tooltip, so I have a pretty clear idea about the immediate effects of my actions, but I'm at sea when it comes to the long-term consequences. Is prestige more useful than power projection? Is it better to use your Administration points to develop a province or save them to unlock a technology? For that matter, is a technology better than an idea? I have no idea.

I expect that such an intuition for the game's larger strategy will come in time, but I don't think I've had a game with such a brutal learning curve (AI Wars, maybe). I haven't even figured out how to keep my economy out of debt yet. I've started four games (two England, one Portugal, and one Iroquois) and every single time I started hemorrhaging money before the end of the first decade. As near as I can tell, my issue is that sources of new income are pathetically small and expenses are really big. It costs you 200 ducats to build a castle or 2 ducats a month to support a colonist, but sending half a dozen ships to defend your trade routes nets you 0.15 a month.  I feel like my best move is to just not buy anything, ever.

Which is silly, of course. I think if I played more than 45 minutes on a single file, I'd probably start to get to a point that is at least somewhat financially secure . . . except I've yet to go 45 minutes without getting attacked and I'm not sure what the hell I'm supposed to do about. The enemy forces are always bigger than mine, and I never have the money to build troops to match them, even if I wanted to go into the red on maintenance costs.

It's been incredibly frustrating. I just know there's an enjoyable (to me) game inside of all this stuff, but I also know that it will require me to first become competent, and that may be a long time coming (I'm pretty sure it took me a similarly large number of failed Crusader Kings II games before I got a handle on what I was doing).

What I need to do is tough it out. Ride my country's history into defeat. Allow myself to accumulate as much debt as I'm allowed. I usually like to learn from the easy version of the game, but that's not an option here, so I'll have to learn from failure instead.

I hate learning from failure.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 2/20 hours

Here's hoping the third time's the charm for the Europa Universalis IV tutorial. I remembered most of the basic stuff (setting the game speed, using the various map modes, building troops, etc), but I'm still unclear on the strategy behind things like trade routes and national ideas. I suppose it's not really the place of a tutorial to give you in-depth information about long-term strategy, but even so, I don't really feel prepared for the game yet.

Which is thrilling, in a way. There is a great deal to explore and learn, or, at least, there appears to be. Whatever faults Europa Universalis IV may turn out to have, one thing it absolutely nails is selling its world. I haven't picked my nation yet, but just looking at the map, seeing the unfamiliar names for familiar places, the borders that make no logical sense to my modern perspective, the sheer variety of religions and cultures, it transports me to a far-off and exotic time. I could (and did) spend 20 minutes just looking at the starting map.

It's now time to start a real game and I'm a little torn about my future course. Common sense dictates I should pick a major European power, one that could evolve in a global colonial empire, but I kind of want to upend human history. Maybe correct the injustices of the Columbian Exchange or colonize Europe with China.

I think I'll go with Europe, though. Only because I have no idea how to play the game and thus attempting to flaunt its basic assumptions would be the height of hubris. I'll save that for my second game.

Europa Universalis IV - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Paradox Development Studio is back with the fourth installment of the award-winning Europa Universalis series. The empire building game Europa Universalis IV gives you control of a nation to guide through the years in order to create a dominant global empire. Rule your nation through the centuries, with unparalleled freedom, depth and historical accuracy. True exploration, trade, warfare and diplomacy will be brought to life in this epic title rife with rich strategic and tactical depth.
 
Previous Playtime

4 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Honestly, I think the name just filtered into my consciousness through general internet osmosis. I'm pretty sure that the game I intended to buy was Europa Universalis III, given that I'd first heard of the series a couple of years before I actually bought it. What I can say with certainty is that I had no idea what I was getting into with this game. "I guess it's about European history" was the extent of my foreknowledge.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I should probably start by addressing the elephant in the room - I once had a goal of completing a full Crusader Kings II game and then importing the map to Europa Universalis IV. I even wrote a whole long post about how that was something I always wanted to do and how I was really looking forward to the challenge. Unfortunately, I underestimated, by quite a lot, exactly how long Crusader Kings II would turn out to be. My old save file still exists, and I did lay it a few times over the last year, but I'm still nowhere near the end date. So my choice is to either take a 60 hour detour or just suck it up and admit defeat.

Maybe I'll do it one day. So long as there's life, there's hope.

Anyway, as for Europa Universalis IV, specifically, I've played the tutorial a couple of times and had two very short and painfully unsuccessful where I attempted to play the Iroquois and China and managed to completely bungle my military. I'm hoping that I've gained enough gaming wisdom over the past couple of years that the learning curve becomes manageable, but, realistically, my hope is slim.

Here's my prediction - I will, against my better judgement, refrain from being aggressive in the early game and try to pursue an isolationist, trade, and infrastructure-focused policy. My neighbors will blob alarmingly and at some point my territory will seem like a valuable prize. I'll lose my first game by being absorbed by some imperialist asshole. And then I'll write a post complaining about it.

That inevitability aside, what it's really going to come down to is whether or not playing as a doomed pacifist feels productive. As long as I have the sensation that my power is growing, I'll be happy.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion - 20/20 hour

The biggest obstacle to me enjoying this war-game was all the war in it. No, no, I know it's absurd, but I dragged my feet on a game I otherwise wanted to complete quickly, and that's more or less the entirety of the reason - the very premise of the game sapped my enthusiasm.

Which is silly. I don't know how it's even possible to enjoy the strategy genre without embracing war, but here I am. I like colonizing planets, setting up trade routes, and researching technology, but I don't like the one ting you're supposed to do with all those resources.

Sins of a Solar Empire was thoughtful enough to include other victory conditions, so I wasn't completely out in the wilderness here, but after my third technological victory, I started to get the feeling that it wasn't the "right" way to play the game. Mostly because pursuing a technological victory is a dire slog where you put the bulk of your research on hold and simply wait out a slow as hell timer. After about 40 minutes, when your last research reaches 100%, you win.

Which doesn't really bother me as much as one might think. No, what really bothers me about the technological victory (and, to be fair, this complaint is not unique to Sins of a Solar Empire) is that it promises you this fabulous, world-changing technology, and then end the game right when you get it. I get that having a fantastical high-tech reactor that gives your civilization near-infinite resources breaks the game's balance something fierce, and I get that most people would prefer to simply take the inevitable curb-stomp as a given and skip over all the tedious mopping up. But I have to think that I'm not entirely alone in my desire to at least experiment with the godlike power the game's flavor text suggests.

Although, more and more I'm coming to think that victory conditions themselves are what bother me. Not necessarily that they're there, but that a game with a victory condition is one that necessarily has an upper bound. It is a game that is meant to end.

And that is natural and proper, of course. It wouldn't really be a game, per se, if its various obstacles and challenges didn't have a point. If it's a game, then you can either win or you can lose, and most of the game's mechanics revolve around getting you to one end or the other.

But what if they didn't?

Some games are like that. There's no real end to Minecraft or The Sims or No Man's Sky. These games, instead, are about a process of living. You set your own long-term goals and then the game provides you with a series of hurdles towards achieving your goals, but the reward for overcoming those hurdles is nothing more than seeing the world or your character's circumstances transform according to your vision. And then you get to set another goal.

And while there may come a time when your accumulated wealth and power become tiresome and there is no longer any thrill in overcoming obstacles because your resources render them trivial, that is more of a soft ending than a firm one. You can still play the game in this world and the basic mode of play remains the same, you just no longer derive the same satisfaction from transforming a world that has already bent so severely to your vision.

I've gradually come to realize that this is exactly what I want from a 4X game. It's a ridiculous thing to want, given that no 4X game has ever promised (or indeed been capable of delivering) such a thing. Indeed, the genre is practically defined by drawing a very concrete border around the things you can and can't do. At it's most abstract, it's just picking items from a menu in a particular order in the hopes of filling all the available slots in another, complementary menu. But even so, the dream is there - that the menus might be large and diverse enough and the opportunity costs high enough that your forced to make your empire your own, to have ownership of a unique thing that you nurtured through its perilous growth.

The innate finiteness of the 4X genre works against this, though. Any empire that endures long enough is going to lose its uniqueness, simply as a function of running out of things to learn and build. And while I'm coming to realize that this is a fundamental flaw, given my particular gaming agenda, I've also come to realize that this horizon is farther away in some games than in others, and it is easily possible for it to be far enough away that it doesn't really bother me.

Unfortunately, in Sins of a Solar Empire, it's too close. Even on a huge map, the time comes quickly when you have nothing left to do but win. Even expansion loses its appeal when the culture system punishes you for having colonies more than 4-5 jumps away from your homeworld. Call me weird, if you must, but my favorite part of any 4X game is the tedious micromanagement, especially if I'm still doing it in the late game. Some might regard the generic planetary improvements, limited number of orbital buildings and strict logistics limits as a boon to the game's speed and playability, but subtle nuances of infrastructure are the only things that interest me in these sorts of games, and they ran out far too soon.

In the end, Sins of a Solar Empire is a decent war-game. You assemble fleets of ships and throw them at other fleets of ships and the back-end of your economy is just complex enough that it feels like your decisions make a difference. It's not the game's fault that what I really wanted was a virtual garden to tend towards no particular purpose. However, I have games that are closer to what I want, so I'm likely only going to play this one for the sake of hanging out and chatting with my strategy-gamer friends.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion - 10/20 hours

So, halfway through the game I learned something a little distressing - if you don't manually activate the alternate victory conditions at the start of the game, the only way to win is through eliminating all other factions. It's especially annoying because I'd already spent five hours on a Huge map, took out all but two of my rivals, and forged alliances with the remainder. For the last hour or so, I've mostly been waiting for the diplomatic victory to trigger. It was only when I looked it up that I learned it was never going to come.

I've decided to count that map as a personal victory, regardless.

Although I wonder how far the game would have allowed me to go. I set the map to be deliberately underpopulated, six factions instead of ten (mostly because I don't like repeat factions and there are only six in the game) and managed to destroy my two closest enemies with decapitation strikes early in the game. The other three factions were in a completely separate star system and by the time I started signing treaties, two of them ganged up to eliminate the third. Now, there are three more-or-less empty star systems with dozens of planets between them and plenty of room for all three of us to expand. It would have taken hours for us to even get to the point where our expansion would come into conflict.

Could we have existed in that equilibrium forever? Is there some sort of mechanic that would have forced my hand, sooner or later? I'm almost curious enough to keep playing the same save file, despite the likely pointlessness of such a course.

I'll save that for later, though. Just in case my game with fully-enabled victory conditions doesn't work out.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

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

Real talk, here - I am learning that my playing Breath of the Wild last time I was set to play Sins of a Solar Empire was, indeed, just an excuse. By "sheerest coincidence" I got back into playing Starmade right around the same time I was set to start Rebellion. I think I may be avoiding this game.

I'm not entirely sure why. It's not unpleasant to play. There's a lot of micromanaging production queues, which I like. And at least on easy mode, the combat is forgiving enough that I almost forget it's an RTS. There's a lot to pay attention to at any given moment, sure enough, but the more I play it the more I get used to it.

I think what it boils down to is that I don't care much for the game's implicit story. It's all about expanding until you run out of room, and then absorbing the territory of anyone who does not seek your favor. I guess that's what the different factions are about. Aliens that more or less hate each other and can coexist only with great difficulty.

Which I suppose is fair enough. The opening cinematic told me I was being dropped into the middle of a war, and I guess the defining aspect of war is that the people involved don't want to be friends. The problem is that I'm not really emotionally invested in the outcome. Obviously I want my guys to survive and thrive, but I don't even know who those other guys are. We're enemies because our ships automatically attack each other when entering the same star system and it's hard to build up enough trust to get them to stop doing that, but since it's automatic, it never really feels raw.

Usually, when I go into a video game war, it's because my hand is forced. I expand as much as feels reasonable in the early game (usually less than is wise, but that's just my way) and then I start to focus inwards. I will build up my society as much as possible and seek ways to advance my technology and economy with the minimum of aggression. Then some bastard NPC will swoop in out of nowhere and interpret my peaceful ways as a sign of weakness. I'll have to hastily abandon my self-improvement to focus on my long-neglected military and if the war happens late enough or slow enough, I wind up striking back at the attacker with overwhelming force.

That's how I like to fight wars, when I have to fight them at all. Starting off at war, as a default, really changes the calculations though. I tend to stop thinking of the game as a high-level abstraction of a human (or alien) society and start thinking of it as a living organism, one that must, inevitably, expand to the limits of its available space.

It's a perspective that makes me a little uncomfortable, but only a little, because otherwise I'd hardly be able to play strategy games at all.

Anyway, I've been going through Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion a lot slower than I wanted to, and that has got to change. I've got to embrace my inner virus - all matter in the universe shall be converted to copies of myself!

Monday, May 8, 2017

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

So, taking this long to get to two hours probably doesn't have anything to do with the game itself. I kept falling asleep while playing it, but that's most likely because my last couple of days have been pretty busy.

As far as the game itself, it is a lot like Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity, so much so that I've realized I am completely unclear on the basic structure of the series. Is this a sequel, a standalone expansion pack, or something else (looked it up - Trinity is a bundle of the original game and the first two expansions, Rebellion is a standalone expansion)? There are some new factions, which is nice, though I'm playing one of the originals, and it feels very familiar. There's also some new planet types and new ship classes, but I haven't found any of those yet either.

This wouldn't be the first time that I've played two more or less identical games for the blog. It's always a tricky line to walk, because I want to engage with each game on its unique merits, but I tend to start thinking of the series as a single unit. Sins of a Solar Empire isn't doing itself any favors in this regard, but I'm hoping that there will be more divergence in the late game.

In the meantime, the basic Sins of a Solar Empire gameplay remains pretty solid, if not in a genre I particularly enjoy. I'll probably just keep plugging on . . . provided I can keep my eyes open.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The Next Installment to the Award-Winning RTS.
While many were hopeful that diplomacy would finally end the war, differing opinions on what should be done, along with the depleted power of the controlling factions, has led to a splintering of the groups involved.

The loyalist members of the Trader Emergency Coalition adopt a policy of isolation, focusing on enhanced defenses to ride out the rest of the war. Those who rebel against the coalition take on a purely militant view, coming to the opinion that the only way to bring peace is by ultimately crushing all who oppose them - especially xenos.

For the first time in their history, the war creates a schism in the Advent Unity. The loyalists seek to continue their policy of revenge against the Traders, and to assimilate all others to the Unity’s influence. However, others amongst the Advent suspect that a corrupting influence from within has diverted the Unity from its proper destiny.

The divide created in the Vasari Empire is less pronounced, but just as severe to their people. With the Vasari now practically frantic to move on to new space, the loyalist faction abandons cooperation and decides to take the resources they need by any means necessary. Having accepted the need to work together, the rebel faction feels that their best chance for survival is to work with the other races and bring them along to flee the approaching enemy.

Take the battle for galactic supremacy to its ultimate level in Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion – a standalone RT4X game that combines the tactics of real-time strategy with the depth of the 4X genre (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate).

Previous Playtime

2 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

"Oops, Rebellion is the new one and Trinity is the old one, oh well, I've already bought so many games this summer what's one more for the pile." Which is to say, that 2014 Steam Summer Sale got pretty ridiculous for me. I don't quite think this was the nadir, but it wasn't my finest hour either.

Expectations and Prior Experience

It took awhile for me to warm up to Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity, but it eventually grew on me. Not so much that it became one of my favorite games, but enough to significantly mitigate my usual pre-RTS dread. Whatever else happens, I'm sure that I won't be totally miserable.

As far as Rebellion, specifically, though. I don't really know what to expect. I played it once before on multiplayer, but I was on a team with my friend, so I didn't exactly need to learn the game at a detailed level. I'm still entirely unclear on what makes it different than Trinity and what I should focus on to get the most out of the game.

I'm sure it will come with time, though. I feel pretty optimistic and engaged, all things considered. It doesn't hurt that this is my second-to-last game before I complete my original 2014 list. I just know that I'm going to try and rush it as quickly as possible, because I really want that milestone, but we'll have to see what sort of distractions and obstacles the next week throws in my way.

My big hope is that I will proceed briskly and forthrightly, not dragging my feet for any reason, but by similar token not forcing myself to take this game as a time challenge. Ideally, I want to appreciate its unique virtues and come away with the feeling that I made the right decision, all those years ago. Realistically, this is a sequel to a game I liked, but didn't love in a genre that puts me on my defensive. Keeping on the straight-and-narrow is going to be tough.

Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword - 20/20 hours

I should be careful what I wish for. Joining the Cossack Hetmanate gave me all the action and adventure I could want (and then some), but it came at a terrible cost. First, my relations with the Crimeans took a serious hit, then, later, the Polish joined the war, and suddenly in two out of the five factions, I was an enemy. My previous freedom of movement was gone. It made me sad, you know, like I destroyed something fragile and precious for the sake of excitement.

And on a less ridiculous note, I will say that seeing my trading empire hollowed out on account of a single bad political decision has solidified something for me - I really, really like Mount & Blade . . . and I can't stand Mount & Blade.

It's one of those occasions where the game is so close to being exactly what I wanted that the small gap between it and perfection becomes completely insurmountable. I find myself unable to silence the tiny critic and just accept the game for what it is. I keep dwelling on all the improvements (a few big, but mostly small) that would make it into my ideal game.

In my last post, I claimed that gating so much content behind your renown score was a major flaw in the game, but having gone from about 20 renown to nearly 100 in the space of a few hours has taught me that the problem is actually deeper, but more nuanced than that.

The short version - many of the quests are terrible. The long version - the game has only an incidental story, but in that skeleton of a story there is a natural arc. You start as a wandering hero, evolve into a mercenary, then either a political power player or warlord, and possibly from there into an emperor. And as far as I can tell, the game doesn't acknowledge that. And not out of a principled commitment to verisimilitude, either, but just because what it has you do seems to be more or less random.

For example, you could be just starting out, a nobody with no reputation, and wander straight up to a feudal lord (why you're even allowed to see him anyway is never quite explained) and he will task you with collecting a substantial debt from one of his fellow gentry. On the one hand, this seems like an incredibly sensitive task to entrust to some rando off the street. On the other hand, it's implemented in a way that sucks all the fun and dramatic potential out of the event.

Because it always unfolds the exact same way - go to the debtor's home, ask them to repay the debt, pay them your share of the reward money (possibly modified down an insignificant amount pending the results of a Persuasion check) and then deliver the rest back. It's possible to skip the bribe, if you are already friends with the noble, but that isn't going to happen at the start of the game, so why are you even there?

All-in-all, it's something you shouldn't be doing, story-wise, for a virtually non-existent reward, that involves no challenge or interesting gameplay. But what's really frustrating is that the game could potentially ask you to hunt down bandits or slay a fugitive, and those are things that are both thematically appropriate and actually fun to play.

And its because the game assigns you quests seemingly at random, with no respect for your powers, interests, or skills, that the implicit narrative arc never really builds any momentum. You have to hunt for the fun in the game, and it only really comes regularly if you successfully get yourself in trouble. You can't just pop into a random village, because most of the time the elder doesn't even have a quest for you, and while nobles are more reliable about assigning jobs, most of those actual jobs are not things you'd really want to do. Only when you are actively at war with one or more factions are you guaranteed to run into interesting challenges.

But what makes Mount & Blade so uniquely aggravating is that its central vision is so . .  fucking . . . amazing that it almost works in spite of this. It is a living medieval (or in this version, late 18th century) world that allows you to participate in grand strategy and world-shaking politics from a ground's-eye-view. It absolutely nails the scope, but flubs the scale. The map should be 100 times as big and villages should be ten times as far apart, and you should have a dozen random encounters of all sorts (from friendly and beneficial to "omg how am I going to survive this") whenever you travel between them. Providing the logistics and support for your mercenary band should be hard. Individual villages should matter. The supplies-to-party-size-to-speed ratio should be so unforgiving that you'll need to plan out a detailed village-by-village travel route to get all the way across the map. Those pointless quests where a noble gives you a letter to deliver to another noble should be fucking chapter breaks.

And yet, as your personal power becomes greater, you should be able to abstract a lot of that away by acquiring companions and hirelings to take care of the details for you. Your band has a skilled quartermaster and suddenly that detailed list of foodstuffs you carry around in your wagons becomes a weekly purchase with currency that you can still optionally micromanage if you so choose. You acquire a trusty lieutenant and you can fast-travel a set distance based on your officer's skill on the assumption that their scouts and vanguard will automatically clear out troublesome random encounters for you. But the abilities are tied to characters in the game, and if they die, you have to take their responsibilities on yourself until you hire a replacement.

And the NPCs should recognize this. Villages will have plenty for a lone adventurer or small band to do, so much that you could grind for hours without visiting a second location, but then they will know better than to ask trivial favors of a traveler with a lordly retinue. And hell, maybe those warring armies don't let you into a besieged city at all (though you might sneak in if you're alone), but will attempt to threaten, bribe, or otherwise co-opt a powerful military force with no known allegiance.

Of course, designing hypothetical video games is easy. There are almost certainly a lot of technical barriers that would stop my vision from becoming reality, and it is completely unfair of me to judge Mount & Blade by what my wildest imagination can dream up, unconstrained by budgets or the actual difficulty of implementing my desired features. Yet that's what the series does to me. It gives me a taste of a world of incredible depth and potential and then frustrates me with an uneven and unfocused implementation.

On an intellectual level, I know it's unreasonable to ask for a single game that gives me a whole game's worth of action-rpg wandering that seamlessly transitions to a whole game's worth of small-unit real-time action-strategy that in turn seamlessly transitions to a whole game's worth of top-level grand strategy while allowing me to directly control the same character the whole time, maintaining a continuity of resources (ie the noble has the same stuff as the adventurer, just more of it) and letting me lead from the front in massive battles. But that's what Mount & Blade makes me want. I love the game, but it makes me hungry.

So I don't know, I guess I'll just wait for the sequel.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword - 15/20 hours

Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword has two major flaws.

The first is the hats. They are just ridiculous. No one looks good in them and the necessity of wearing protective headgear ensures that most of the time you are looking at your character, any elegance they might have in their design marred by a goofy fucking hat.

The second flaw is perhaps a bit more serious - too much of the game is gated behind your renown totals. It won't even let you join a faction until you're already famous from winning a large number of battles. Which is especially annoying when you consider that you don't get renown if the enemy force is significantly smaller than yourself, and thus it's incredibly easy to build up a force where none of your random bandit encounters is large enough to earn you fame.

I suppose you could deliberately keep a small band in the early game in order to have your battles be more glorious, but it seems more likely to me that the intended way of playing is to either grind away on dozens of side missions until you attract the attention of a lord or to just pick a fight with one of the factions preemptively, so that you can face larger and more powerful enemies and then ally with your punching bag's rivals once you have a few battles under your belt.

What makes the second course hard for me, emotionally, is that none of the factions ever seems to go out of its way to hassle you. You can cart goods from one end of the map to the other and the only people who ever pose a threat are bandits, raiders, and deserters. The nobles are even gracious enough to let you into their castles mid-siege.

I guess I just have a hard time with my only justification for aggression being naked ambition. If I could intervene to stop the looting of villages or challenge unchivalrous nobles to a duel, that would be something. As it is, I just have to wait around staying out of everyone's way until I'm finally famous enough for a king to order me around.

Or do I? For shits and giggles, I cheated myself up a maxxed-out character with a ton of money and learned that it is possible, with a well-armed entourage, to start your own faction by assaulting a random castle. It's still a case of just randomly stealing shit, but at least it's honest in its unjustifiable greed.

All I want to do is buy my way into the gentry and then expand peacefully through well-developed infrastructure. Is that too much to ask?

I mean, yes, clearly it is, because the name of the game is "Mount & Blade" and not "Accounting & Negotiation." Still, my brief time as a renegade feudal lord did teach me that you can improve your territory with money and thus, presumably, expand your wealth with reinvestment. If only I were famous enough for someone to give me a chance . . .