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Within the next few weeks, the Xbox One and PS4 will both hit the marketplace. This essentially marks the beginning of a new generation of games and consoles. With that in mind, we thought it would be good to quickly revisit the impact of what we like to call the “three” generation of the Xbox 360, PS3 and their old rival, the PC.

Here are the five storylines from that generation.

New storytelling techniques

The techniques for storytelling in games has evolved over the 8 years of the three generation. Much of this can be attributed simply to the evolution of the medium. Gaming has become a big business and more mainstream, this has led to bigger budgets and the ability to draw on more and more talented people, enabling the discovery and development of new ways of telling stories interactively. The increased graphical and computational power that the generation brought with it certainly can’t be ignored either.

Perhaps the strongest new developments over the three generation has been the move of games to be more cinematic in scale and scope, as well as the increased use of the environment to tell stories. While neither are completely new ideas in themselves, they have taken a particular form in this generation, specifically;

–          Shorter 10-30 hour games

–          Snappy dialogue, frequently delivered during “down time” while travelling between encounters

–          Separation of a main plot told through dialogue, and a ‘world story’ told through found items, radio chatter, looted items, and the art design of the world

–          Increased use of significant NPCs to create an emotional attachment with the player, these NPCs are frequently companions and things that happen to them are used to drive the drama of the final segment of the game

In my opinion, Grand Theft Auto IV was the first big “blockbuster” title of the three generation, and established both of these elements. Despite its length, GTA:IV told a very film-like story, a three act drama of a refugee finding his way in America, full of conflict and sub-plots. It also oozed story out of every part of the environment, from the posters on walls, to the chatter on the radio and all the little bits you could interact with such as watching TV.

If it was GTA: IV that heralded this type of storytelling for the generation, it was the Bioshock series that took the idea of environmental storytelling and really developed it. These ideas and techniques have now become incorporated into almost all big-budget, story-based games, and at the end of the generation, games like The Last of Us are a sign of just how far we’ve come.

 

Bioshock showed the world how a story could be told using the environment.

Bioshock showed the world how a story could be told through environment details like the layout and appearance of objects.

The death and resurrection of the PC

The PC has faced a remarkable cycle during the three generation. Much of this was as a result of the generational shift in TV screen technology. For much of the generation all three platforms competed on the equal playing field of the ubiquitous 1080-line resolution.

In the early years of the generation, the Consoles appeared to have a clear ascendancy. In addition to operating at an equivalent resolution to most PCs they had a cheaper entry point, hardware consistency, effective online stores and DRM. They also had the benefit of big-spending owners who ensured that developers prioritised the development of games as console-first, often to the detriment of PC versions.

Naturally this led to a lot of stories about the “death of PC gaming”, which for a while seemed to be sustained exclusively by World of Warcraft and a few die-hard FPS enthusiasts who refused to give up point-and-click shooting.

Things have changed towards the end of the generation however. Predictably, over the eight year cycle, the power available to PCs has increased well beyond what the consoles can manage. Less predictably, digital distribution on PC, particularly through Steam store has grown to rival anything on the consoles and the PC has actually found itself at the forefront of business innovations with the emergence of web-based and free-to-play gaming.

Content and services beat hardware?

Sony clearly went into the three generation with the most powerful console. It wasn’t really until the Kinect came out in 2010 that you could really say that there was anything that the Xbox could do better than the PS3 (is this perhaps why it is such a big part of the Xbox One?).

Tech gear is typically sold on power and features. And yet, despite the power disparity, the two consoles maintained a relative stalemate in terms of market share.

It’s hard to ignore the aggressiveness of Microsoft releasing a year before the PS3, and spending big on exclusive content as being part of the reason for their success. Early in the generation, Xbox established a strong exclusives line-up involving Halo, Gears of War, Viva Pinata and the GTA:IV DLCexpansions.

Cross-platform publishing

Once parity was established between the two platforms, it became entrenched. The large third-party publishers such as Ubisoft, EA and Activision all maintained a largely agnostic approach to the two consoles and PC. Games were built to look and play as identically as possible on all three. Arguably this was to the detriment of the PC and PS3 who had their versions restricted to what was possible on an Xbox 360.

It is also fair to say that the PS3 proved to be simply too difficult to write for. Only a very small number of first party games really showed that the PS3 was capable of doing more than the 360, and almost all of those seemed to suffer blowouts in terms of release schedules. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this is that the hardware for the PS4 is no-where near as idiosyncratic as its predecessor.

Changing of the guard of dominant franchises?

The eight years of the three generation also saw a shift in the dominant franchises in gaming.

Arguably the biggest franchises coming into the generation were GTA and Halo. Both had huge releases within the first year or so, but then had a large hiatus in which they dropped out of the public consciousness. In the case of GTA it has only just re-emerged 5 years later, having had 3 major releases in the 5 years before GTA IV.

In the middle of the cycle, the rhythm game phenomena of Guitar Hero and Rock Band dominated Christmas shopping and DLC purchases, but both died out during the course of the generation.

Now at the end of the cycle, Call of Duty is the biggest game in town. It has managed an annual release through the entire generation, and has really kicked on since the landmark Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. If you only see one TV ad for a game this year, it will almost certainly be for Call of Duty.

Speaking of annual releases. There has also been a bit of movement in the sports games genre. Early in the generation EA Sports managed a complete victory in NFL by wrapping up an exclusive license for the game and shutting down all competition. They won it the right way in football however. Fifa adapted better to the generation than PES, and since 2009 has been the clearly dominant game. It hasn’t all been good for EA Sports however, as the NBA 2K series has established itself as the premier basketball franchise, perhaps because 2K sports doesn’t have to invest in NFL rights and development any more.

Conclusion

That’s our five top storylines from the generation. What do you think are the biggest developments and changed in the gaming landscape that have occurred over the past 8 years?

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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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