Well, I suppose I haven’t posted here in quite some while. To say I’ve had a lot on lately would be a bit of a lie. I haven’t had a lot on, although that is set to change with the pre-exam ramp up starting pretty much this week. Honestly, the reason I left this site for a couple of months is because I just couldn’t be bothered. Sorry. Ah well, it’s not as if it matters, no-one reads the damn thing anyway.

So anyways, those videogame things.

It’s been a big couple of months for Strategy games, what with the release of Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2 from Relic, and Empire: Total War from the Creative Assembly (both also use Valve’s Steamworks, to varying degrees). Dawn of War 2 came out first, and aims to bring RTS to a wider audience, apparently by making it Diablo in space.

Show Me What Passes For Fury Amongst Your Misbegotten Kind

This is a good move. It’s a fantastic move. Nothing makes playing a game more compulsive than loot and level progression. Just ask anyone playing World of Warcraft right now. And the implementation in DoW2 is really good. Before every mission, a specific reward is offered, which is usually substantially better than anything you previously had. Your soldiers get exponentially stronger, and their attacks get more and more visually impressive. The game is also exceptionally accessible, far more than any RTS I have ever played. Anything I personally find confusing and irritating about the genre is just about gone. At any one time, you can control only four squads of troops, who are more or less invincible (they can be incapacitated, but the medkit item will revive anyone in range instantly), and base building and mining is completely gone. This leaves the player free to concentrate on the fight, rather than the resource management. Squads are clever enough not to need massive amounts of finnicky micromanagement, meaning more time is spent on thinking up what your little men should do, rather than trying to get them to actually listen to you. So the single player mechanics are pretty much spot on, an accomplished blend of Company of Heroes and a Blizzard RPG. And it looks amazing, of course.

However, what really lets the title down is the flow of the game, and the actual missions. It’s horrendously repetitive, with really only one objective throughout, which is to make your way from the bottom of a multiplayer map up to the top, where you fight a boss. Over, and over, through a considerably long single player campaign. The story is throwaway, although I can’t say I expected anything more from the adorably goofy (and endlessly quotable) 40k universe. Luckily missions will rarely take longer than ten minutes or so, so one can bang through two or three and play something else for a bit, but marathon sessions (which is how I tend to play games) are just tedious. So the single player was almost wonderful, which is more than can be said for a lot of games, but I honestly expected so much more from the creators of Company of Heroes and Homeworld. Speaking of Company of Heroes, the upcoming expansion looks to be doing everything DoW2 promised.

I honestly don’t feel qualified to talk about multiplayer, as I am beyond terrible at multiplayer RTS. All I can say is that it seems a lot more traditional than the single player, and I can confirm that Games for Windows Live is still awful.

Empire: Total War is far too sober for a humourous quote

On then, to Empire: Total War, at pretty much the opposite end of the much feted Hardcore/Casual scale to DoW2.

The Total War series has always received masses of praise, but I’ve never really paid it much heed, as I’m not much of a strategy person. I tooled around with the Rome game a couple of times, and really liked Time Commanders, but apart from that, my contact with the series has been minimal. It was really the 18th century setting that attracted me to the game, but I seriously expected to be completely overwhelmed. And, well, I was right, it is pretty overwhelming, but in a crazy fantastic kind of way.

I should clarify that statement by saying that the game does a good job of teaching the new player (me) the basic mechanics of the game with the storied mini-campaign, The Road to Independance. It constantly drip feeds new functionality from the Grand Campaign, allowing the player to figure things out for themselves, rather than always explicitly pointing things out. In it, you follow the story of America, starting out colonising the New World, through to the War of Independance. When I say, mini campaign, though, I mean mini compared to the rest of the game. There’s easily over twenty hours of play in what is basically the tutorial, which should give you an idea of the massive scale of Empire.

Empire, like all the other titles in the Total War series, is split into basically two disparate games, the turnbased world management, and real-time battles. Both affect each other, so for example, destroying a town’s walls or an important building in a battle will also remove it from the campaign map, and vice versa, of course. Management and recruitment of armies is also done exclusively on the overworld map, leaving battles exclusively about combat, which along with a pause button allows the player to think more about their general strategy than juggling twelve different things at once.  This, along with the rather sedate pace of play, makes battling a relaxing affair, which I rather enjoy. Fighting consists of lining up your men at another line of men and trading shots, which might sound boring, but there is a tremendous amount of strategy in tipping the balance in favour of your line of guys, with flanking, cover, and height all essential to win a skirmish. There’s nothing more satisfying than turning around a battle against overwhelming odds with a few well timed cavalry charges  and good use of trees. Naval battles I found less impressive however, and I find myself nearly always autoresolving sea fights.

It’s the campaign map, however, where the true meat of the game is. It’s astonishingly deep, and a single campaign can take a week or more to finish. Developing cities, protecting and establishing trade routes, piracy,  diplomacy, recruitment of armies, adjusting taxation and government, repression, religion, producing better armaments and ways of thinking, spying and assassination are all dealt with in considerable detail. Once a decent way into a campaign, a single turn can easily take over half an hour. What’s amazing is that the game never feels stodgy, or too realistic to be fun. Empire’s is a kind of pop-realism, with gameplay never sacrificed while still maintaining a veneer of historical accuracy.

All this, along with the considerable romance and nastiness of the period, makes Empire infinitely absorbing. Were I not writing this, I would be playing it right now. I really need to take back Gibraltar from those blasted Moroccans, and expand my Spanish empire across Europe, India, and the Americas.

Note: Again, I really have no interest in the multiplayer, but it certainly seems a lot stabler than DoW2’s. It uses Steamworks, meaning you can invite friends straight from the overlay instead of faffing about with GFW. It also has Steam achievements, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Both Dawn of War 2 and Empire: Total war are available from Steam, amongst other places