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Archive for the ‘Previews’ Category

This is a review based on a single, complete play-through of the Prologue and Grand Campaign as Rome, the Brutii faction to be precise. There will be some spoilers in this review; Rome will conquer the world and have a civil war, deal with it.

After six weeks and 120 hours of real-life play time my legions march across Asia. On my desk sits a latin dictionary and a book full of notes on how each of my 15 unstoppable legions and over 130 regions are to be managed. The game map is red from the shores of Ireland, to the dunes of Tunisia, the snowy forests of Lithuania to the Arabian gulf. Just a few more easy victories against the Persians and Armenians and I will be done. They say that Rome wasn’t built in a day. But this far in and a full five weeks beyond the last time this game had actually posed much of a challenge, I did wish that it was possible to build it a little quicker.

Total War games have always been a bit of a slog, but Rome II is even more than most, to the point that it did rather damage the experience. Unlike some previous titles, there’s only a Grand Campaign, no shorter ones, and although there are a few different victory options (military, economic and cultural), they all share “playing for a very long time” as an essential component. I took the military route which required building my aforementioned empire to a scale much larger than real-life Rome, it was just too much.

To make it worse, the things that slowed the game down were dealing with tedious bits of game design, rather than engaging in interesting gameplay. Many hours were spent fighting meaningless battles against insignificant AI opponents or the clunky interface. The biggest challenge, a civil war, happened about a week into proceedings, after which the game was pretty much over. From then on out, a number of features of the game fell away and I was just completing objectives and waiting for the end-game cinematic.

It is a problem I find with most strategy games that set the objective as “conquer the world” as it is logically very hard to turn that into a tension-filled exercise, and of course it isn’t unrealistic for Rome to dominate every army it faces. But surely something needs to be done to make the latter 2/3rds of a game interesting?

Si vis pacem, para bellum

The start of the game is excellent. You emerge in the world with a couple of territories, an army and a dream. Scanning the world you can see over 180 regions, each with their Latin names. The game is broken into chapters and sets neat little objectives for each one, encouraging you to grow the empire in a similar pattern to history.

Along the way you can come across over 100 factions. Some of these exist as the game opens, some emerge over time due to rebellions or being liberated from former owners. While many of these factions are similar to each other, for example all Gallic tribes sharing similar looks and units, variety is never a problem. One of the best features of the game is how different it feels as you travel to different parts of the world. Fighting the Germanic tribes with their bowmen in the snow feels very distinct from the Greek cities and their heavy infantry, or the cavalry and sand dunes of north Africa and Arabia. This is one area where the scale of the game helps, you can be alternating between Legions in each region, and really getting a feel of the size of the empire.

Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!

Speaking of legions, a lot of work has been done to how armies work in this game. In previous games an army was just one or more units moving together. Now each army is a distinct entity. When you create a legion, you give it a name, number and a commander. Every time the legion fights a battle, it acquires history. The results are recorded in-game, and the legion itself earns experience which is spent on a skill-tree which allows you to add abilities and specialisations, such as the ability to build better siege equipment, or better performance from infantry.

The legion system also acts as a way to limit the logistics of the empire. You are only able to have a certain number of legions at a time, starting with only three and ending at fifteen. One of the benefits of this is that you tend to have Legions survive with you the entire game. This led to great stories all recorded within the game, such as my Legion Africana. This legion was founded in Carthage, marched all the way across Europe to fight in Silesia (Poland), where they replaced their Numidian forces with local cavalry, and later went west again and led the invasion of Britain. It was a fun and engrossing system which led me to play with my ratty old Latin Dictionary always at the ready for the naming, or renaming of a legion.

Veni, Vidi, Vici

Most of the appeal of Total War of course, is not naming the Legions on the campaign map, but taking them to battle. The first Rome was a true triumph in this regard, its battle engine was seen as so realistic that it was used by the History Channel to generate the graphics for the series Decisive Battles.

Once again, the engine is visually stunning. Thousands of little troops, running around, forming tortoises and throwing pilums. The game also contains one of the first attempts (continued from Shogun II) to accurately recreate ancient naval warfare in which ships would clash together and create a platform for an essentially infantry-based battle. It also makes an ambitious, if slightly flawed effort to include amphibious battles where armies can converge by land and sea, and fight in both arenas on the same map.

There even appears to be an effort to have the AI fight an intelligent battle. Over the course of the game I saw various attempts at using terrain and flanking my forces. Of course, since I was playing as Rome, things tended to be pretty much over as soon as the infantry engaged, but it was nice to see them trying. The down side was however, that all melees, whether fought by ill-disciplined tribesmen or the most elite Greek phalanx, would immediately devolve into massed blobs of men thwacking each other. I would expect that this may improve in patches over time, units simply need a lot more cohesion and discipline in how they engage,

Where the game falls down more spectacularly, and dare I say permanently, are where it appears to have taken a few too many cues from Hollywood. While I understand that there is a reference to “heated” javelins in Caesars memoirs of the conquest of Gaul, I can’t help but feel that the dominance of flaming ordnance and siege defences in the game owes rather more to the film “Troy” than anything genuinely historical.

There are also some quirks in the way the AI acts on the campaign map level. For example, the AI’s favourite tactic appears to be to essentially “blitz” you. They leave their own cities unguarded and sprint straight past your legions to attack one of your unguarded cities (which with up to 15 legions and 140 cities, there will be many). While earning a cheap win, this was inevitably a poor strategic move, leaving their army stuck in one of my towns, where they were easy pickings for a full legion, and enabling me to quickly capture their undefeated empire.

New additions to strategic options, such as ambush and defensive battles almost never occurred, partly due to this behaviour from the AI, and partly because there aren’t enough genuine bottle-necks to create a good old Thermopylae situation.

I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble

If only the management of cities were as fun as the armies. Based on the feature list alone, they’ve done a great deal of work in this area, but it just doesn’t quite work. The 180-odd regions are all broken into provinces of 2-4 regions. Each province consists of one major city, such as Rome, Carthage or Athens, and the remainder small villages. The major cities have more space for building and can build different types of things, such as cultural buildings or plumbing, whereas the smaller villages are primarily limited to farms, barracks and ports.

Most buildings produces wealth, resources or units for the region. Some additionally have bonuses, such as +10% to wealth for all building types across the entire province, which creates an incentive to own the whole province. Most buildings also carry a cost in either food, public order or both. Food is an aggregated total across the empire, whereas public order is a factor only in the immediate province. Run out of food and growth stalls and your armies can’t replace their losses, run up too high in public order and a revolt occurs, creating enemy armies within your borders that need to be defeated before they start taking cities from you. The management side of the empire essentially consists of managing those costs across the empire.

On face value, it’s a good system with some nice touches. The buildings you construct can all be seen on the campaign map. Towns and cities visibly expand as the game progresses, cutting down nearby forests to fuel their growth. There are problems however. The game never really makes it clear how to grow regions. You do work out, often because of mistakes that you need to grow things very slowly. Most “buildings”, such as farmland or barracks have tiers of construction from one to four. Tiers one and two are generally free in terms of public order or food, but immediately hit rather steep costs at tier three. The result is that you tend to keep everything at tier two, and then occasionally have to demolish everything in order to change the focus of a region from troop raising when it is at the frontier of the empire, to an agricultural region as you expand beyond it.

Towards the end of the game turns were taking well over an hour, mainly because I was having to individually go through each region every turn to make sure that it was balanced in terms of food or public order, and building what it was meant to be building. Particular low points included when I became able to build higher tiers of buildings which greatly changed their balance in terms of order/food, and required a complete rethink of how all my regions were constructed. Surely I could have had a little Posca to look after all of this for me.

Et tu Brutus?

The intrigues and family affairs of Rome were enough to spawn two entire, engrossing series on HBO. They’ve made an effort to try and include it within the game, but like so many things, it doesn’t quite work.

The system is most active early on. Playing as one of three families of Rome you make a number of decisions which affect the political balance. Candidates for general and admiral are almost all affiliated with one of the families (there are a few unaligned candidates). Put a man in a position to lead a legion to a few victories and he will level up through a character skill tree and acquire traits, household members and all-around gravitas that will likely lead him to becoming popular with the troops and back in Rome. This, combined with occasional family event decisions, such as how to handle an infanticidal nephew make for a moderately interesting side-game as you seek to keep some form of balance in the Senate while you build the empire. Unfortunately, one week in, the empire grew so large that we had a civil war, which I won, established a capital letter Roman Empire, and all this layer of intrigue ended for the duration of the game. From then on, characters still had an alignment and acquired gravitas, but it meant a grand total of nothing.

I get the feeling that there is meant to be more to this system, if for no greater reason than that each character had an “opening” for a wife which I never had an opportunity to fill. It is also odd that where many of the previous total war games, including the original Rome, had an actual “family tree” to keep an eye on, this one simply doesn’t.

I come to bury Caeser, not to praise him

Overall the game feels like it was a little too ambitious. Certainly the experience of the launch contributes to this. The game was plagued with bugs and foibles, and during my six weeks playing the game I had three patches come through and significantly improve various elements.

Those patches however can’t change elements which are either included or absent, seemingly without reasonable justification. Many of these things, flaming arrows, a lack of a family tree, or needing to check every region every turn would be forgivable and forgettable in a game that took 20-30 hours and a week to play. But over the course of a month and a half, things like that wear you down and lead you to resent your decision to commit so much time.

I also found, that while the game provides you with a toolkit to create a remarkably “truthy” ancient empire, it seems determined to encourage you not to at every turn. I made an active effort to create legions with local flavour, variation and a realistic balance of units. I would, however, had been better off packing them all together with nothing but invincible Praetorian Guards and hordes of ridiculously overpowered gladiators.

Likewise, in terms of region management, you are strongly pushed to min-max regions to get on top of the food/order mechanic, and will almost always conquer a territory to gain food and access to auxiliary troop types, rather than more realistically building a network of suzerains.

It’s a pity, because all of that crap which bothers you in the later 60-100 hours of this game wastes the amazing promise of that opening night, where the ancient world and it’s latin names sprawls out before you calling for the establishment of an empire worthy of the Senate and Public of Rome.

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So far 2009 has been a rather quiet year, so much so that despite our best intentions to the contrary we simply couldn’t bring ourselves to do this little article on the games we are most looking forward to.  Ok, it is only mid-February, but at Piranha Poodles we like to have high standards.  Anyway, now that F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin has finally graced us with its eerie presence (stay tuned for our impressions of that one) we’ve been reminded that 2009 actually does have some real gems and here are our picks for your enjoyment, the 100% official Piranha Poodles “games to watch for” 2009.  Interestingly we agree on absolutely none of these, so we’ll do them separately.

Senortubbs

The Sims 3

I must admit that I was a bit of a late-comer to the digital dolls-house that is the Sims.  This is doubly strange as I have always been a huge fan of designer Will Wrights’ more “personal” simulations in the past, SimTower and SimTown.  It wasn’t until I received a free copy of the original Sims that I even began to get into it, and despite having enjoyed that experience quite a lot I still waited four years before finally trying out Sims 2 and all of its expansions.  This time however I am determined to get in on the ground floor and was quite disappointed actually when the release date got pushed back by a few months.  The game is actually looking a little bit more like SimTown with its larger area to spread out in, something that can only be good for the series.  As with all editions of the Sims thus far I also can’t wait to see what the user-generated content community will be able to achieve.

Empire: Total War

These days that gun-smoke would be accused of causing global warming.

These days all that gun-smoke would be accused of causing global warming.

Back when I was a purely Mac gamer, the Total War series was one of those games that I was extremely envious about.  The mix between the Risk-esque grand campaign and beautiful real-time battle interfaces was everything I had ever wanted in a strategy game and inevitably it was one of the first things I picked-up when I finally bought a PC in 2006.  Strangely though, I just haven’t been able to get excited about the games enough to actually play them properly thus far.  All of that has changed though with Empire: Total War.  Bringing the series further forward in time and introducing ship battles and artillery is just what the series needs as far as I am concerned, and I’ll be there on day one wearing my tricorn hat, affecting a dodgy accent, and trying to take over the world!

Oldgaulian

Resident Evil 5 :

The follow up to the brilliant Resident Evil 4, sees the return of Chris Redfield as the main character, and has built on the improved gameplay mechanics from Resident Evil 4.  This will be a strong contender for Game of the Year come January 2010.   Being a staple of console gaming through the latter half of the 90’s, the Resident Evil series had a slump in form for a few years.  Resident Evil 4 reinvigorated the series, with a shift from fixed camera angles to a dynamic over the shoulder camera and a movement away from the traditional zombies leading a major overhaul of the game’s mechanics.  Resident Evil 5 is set to continue with this evolution of the series, again leaving the slower zombies for faster more aware ‘human’ enemies, and the introduction of both a partner character in the solo game and the ability to play through the entire game in co-op mode is yet another reason to spill out the money on this one.  You can be sure to expect a good variety of weapons, fantastic visual flair and enough scares with this one.

Persona 4

I call this my "mellow yellow" persona

I call this my "mellow yellow" persona

Firstly, kudos have to go to Atlus and Ubisoft for actually bringing this to Australian shores.  Secondly, this is the game that will single handidly kill any remnant of a social life I have left.  Persona 3 was the greatest JRPG (S: that’s Japanese Role Playing Game for those playing at home) of our generation – and Persona 4 may well become the greatest JRPG of all time if it can improve on its predecessor.   Atlus has moved Persona from it’s traditional modern day Shibuya stylings to a more ‘humble’ rural Japan to keep things interesting for those of us still making their way through the additional content in Persona 3 FESPersona 4 continues the series’ mainstay mix of turn-based RPG combat and dating simulation aspects with hopefully more ‘teenage kids shooting themselves in the face’ infused action (S: what the..?).  Maybe with less shooting in the face.  But what really makes Persona a seminal RPG series (besides the style it absolutely exudes) is the sheer balance of the combat where enemy weaknesses can really be exploited to your advantage, which is truly highlighted by the fact that your friendly AI, which you do not directly control in battle, is actually, Intelligent.  And the impact that social links have on the strength of your character’s persona (similar to the ‘summons’ in the Final Fantasy series) really give you a reason to play and explore all aspects of the game.

Retro Game Challenge

Having grown up on 8-bit (and an Amiga 500) I can’t wait to experience this game.  Recreations of seminal NES era games (with different names of course) and a self-referential steeped in videogame culture, this is the DS game to look out for (providing you’ve already imported Order of Ecclesia.)   In truly Japanese fashion the story (or curiously the strangeness of it all) behind this one is enough to get me excited.  Based on a Japanese game show called “Retro Game Master”, you are challenged by a games master to complete simple tasks and objectives in representations of old japanese Famicom  and arcade games including Dragon Quest, Star Soldier and Galaga.  Sound excting?  Well combine that with references to videogames of old and videogame culture and you’ve got yourself a winner.

Madworld

Madworld celebrates getting past the Classification Board with a little wanton violence
Madworld celebrates getting past the Classification Board with a little gratuitous violence

Ultra stylised – ultra violence on the Wii. From former head of Clover Studio, Atsushi Inaba-san, this Platinum games debut is sure to deliver a spark of creative genius not seen since God Hand and Viewtiful Joe.  This may well be the Wii’s greatest moment since Super Mario Galaxy.  This graphic novel inspired ‘artwork’ is the very reason, alongside a handful of other titles, that videogames could be considered art forms.  Like Smash TV a LONG way before it, mixed with some Manhunt story premises, the game places your character in a world controlled by terrorists who have turned the world into one giant, violent television gameshow.  This game will no doubt have me swinging around my nunchuck and wii-mote crazily as I dismember, decapitate and impale people as streams of bright red blood fill my television screen.  Of course all this violence is treated as comical.  Tom and Jerry eat your heart out.

Red Faction Guerilla

I’m not a shooter fan.  While I love Half Life and everything it continues to do to enrich my life, I don’t eagerly await many First Person Shooters .  There are a number of exceptions, one slot of which I dedicate to the Red Faction series.  And a seven year absence has been too long.   So when it was announced that the next installment of the series would be third-person, I was intrigued.  What originally made Red Faction stand out way back in 2001 was its use of Geo-mod technology to allow level and environment destruction.  Blowing up walls in a videogame was special back in those days.  But now thats all day to day business for most developers, what interests me the most here is what developer Volition brings to the table to make Red Faction: Guerilla stand out.  And the game’s transition from a first person perspective to a third person has me awaiting this one even more if only to see if they can pull it off.  The return of the evil empire, Ultor, just sweetens the deal.

Star Ocean : The last hope

Tri-Ace are one of the underdogs in the JRPG landscape.  Yet their catalogue exudes charm, style and most of all, brilliance.  The PSP ports of Star Oceans 1 & 2 have been a wonderful distraction that have reminded me of why I am waiting for this game.   While Star Ocean doesn’t stray terribly far away from traditional JRPGs, what it does do well is spin a good yarn.  While more ‘real time’ than other JRPGs, it still in essence is a team-turn based RPG.  And the Japanese take on a sci-fi universe in an RPG sense is a unique one.  For these reasons alone, Star Ocean is worth picking up, certainly in my mind, while waiting for Final Fantasy XIII.

Patapon 2

Pata Pata Pata Pon…  Like Loco Roco 2, more of the same of what was in the first game is reason enough to NEED this game.   Patapon is synonymous with style.    Taking on the role as a god in the first saw the player sidescrolling their way through combat situations, inputting, or drumming different commands to your units in order to defeat enemies and progress.  The successful melding of rythym and strategy made this an instant cult classic.  While information on the sequel is scarce, following the same formula would be enough to win me over in a sequel – which means that any improvements that make makes it a must buy game.

Others?

There’s also a few more games that we’re certainly very interested in but we will hold off getting excited about them until we see a confirmed date with an 09 on the end of it.  These could well be the 2009 pre-christmas rush, but don’t start writing your letter to Santa just yet.  Just so we can laugh about what we thought would come out, here’s a list:

Beyond Good and Evil 2

Bioshock 2

Brutal Legend

Diablo III

Gran Turismo 5

God of War 3

L.A. Noire

This is Vegas

So that’s it, the games that the Pirahna Poodles are personally keeping an eye on, and in most cases have plonked down cold hard cash on pre-orders for.  Feel free to comment with any other games that we may have missed (and to be honest, there’s probably many) or to whinge about the ones we have picked – just don’t expect us to change our minds!

 

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