I was a late-comer to the whole Game of Thrones phenomenon. I had never even heard of the books (I stopped reading medieval fantasy novels in Junior High) and even when there were blogs and articles with Sean Bean's somber form plastered all over the Internet, my attention was never grabbed. When I finally did settle down to run through season one of the HBO series, I found it to be good but not great. While I'm certainly not rabidly chomping at the bit in anticipation for season two, my curiosity was certainly piqued for this under-the-radar game installment.
The reason I mention the context with which I approached this game is that I believe developer Cyanide Studios is counting on the GoT faithful to glom onto this title. The problem is not that the story in the campaign is incomprehensible without first reading the books, like The Witcher games tend to flirt with. Rather, the story is handled in a limp-wristed, colorless way that seems as though the game were looking to me for excitement, instead of the other way around. "I bet you always wondered how the Kingdom of Dorne was founded, right?! Oh wow, now we are heading to the Frozen North! Aren't you excited?!" Meanwhile, random lords talk to each other in the most expository way possible, essentially reading bullet points off a teleprompter. Everything that made the Game of Thrones TV show (and presumably, the novels) unique is lost here, with nothing but the mention of characters and places to tide you over. Needless to say, for me, this could have been any generic strategy game of the late nineties.
So if it's not the characterization or the intricate storytelling that draws you into A Game of Thrones: Genesis, what is the game going for? Boiled down to its essentials, this is a boardgame.
Graphically the game is...unimpressive. The units are tiny and were it not for the (equally small) banners above their heads, it would be impossible to tell who was whom. The colors are muted and gritty, but not in a stylized, Company of Heroes kind of way. It's as if someone left the game sitting out in the sun too long where it shriveled and dried up. Animations prove to be stiff and in the case of battling armies, it all just turns into an incomprehensible, dog-pile mess of units; the sounds of swords clanging are really the only indicator of battle, as the units themselves look at though they could be engaging in some close-talk mingling at a cocktail party.
Since relying on visual unit selection is spotty at best ("No I wanted my spy...no, not my assassin...no, not the damn lady-in-waiting!"), all gameplay rests on the functionality of the user interface. You get the standard interactive minimap, the unit selector menu that runs along the left side and the unit build menu on the right. It all works adequately except for the unit selector. Cyanide Studios clearly understood that it was near-impossible to manage units by sight, but the selector has the opposite problem; clicking on the right type of unit is easy but trying to remember which spy or assassin you want is the tricky part. Eventually one must learn to always center the camera on the selected unit to make sure that it's the guardsman stationed on the front lines, not the one guarding your mine shaft. Needless to say, this is not an elegant solution.
So it looks bland and controls awkwardly, are the game mechanics solid? A standard game plays out in two stages: the "peace" stage, where diplomacy reigns as the weapon of choice, and the "war" stage where the game essentially transforms into standard real time strategy fare. During peacetime, players must send envoys to various towns, castles and mines to forge alliances. Starting from that general game plan, many more units are added into the mix to make things more interesting. Stealthy units such as rogues can start riots in enemy-allied towns, assassins can run around executing anyone they see, and spies can infiltrate player headquarter buildings and actually assume the form of a recently hired envoy, creating "fake alliances".
It all ends up being one giant game of rock-paper-scissors and in this peacetime mode, the game shines with whatever small amount of innovation it brings to the table. Positioning your spy such that he can catch and arrest enemy agents becomes all important, and there's a ubiquitous, palpable sense of nervous suspicion hanging in the air. Unfortunately, since the user interface is so clumsy, you must constantly cycle all over your territory, checking to make sure everyone is safe, and when the shit does start hitting the fan, it always takes that precious ten seconds or so to even figure out what is happening and where.
Sadly, even that small amount of positive gameplay is totally destroyed once the war phase starts. As assassins kill enemy agents and guardsmen defend farms from marauding mercenaries, tension grows in the kingdoms (represented by a red/blue bar at the top of the screen). Once enough underhanded mayhem has occurred, a general free-for-all war is declared. Any and all kingdoms immediately become overtly hostile to each other and from that point on, the only way to take more territory is through force. At your disposal for recruitment is a basic collection of archers, infantry, cavalry and a supporting general unit.
At this point, the game is played like a clumsy, ham-fisted RTS, with players just mindlessly throwing their armies at enemy troops and hoping for the best. The battles, as mentioned above, look like a cluster of nonsense and there's no real way to impact the proceedings besides the basic "fight or flight" decision. Taking towns amounts to steamrolling your units into them and after a few seconds, you are declared the new sovereign. This continues until...well honestly until people get bored and turn the game off.
Speaking of which, when I mention "people", I really mean you and any AI opponents you created. There is no multiplayer. Oh sure, there's a button for it on the main menu and what appears to be a very basic matchmaking system. But there is literally, and I do mean "literally", no one playing. So the only hope you can have for a real MP game would be if you could somehow convince your friends to spend $40 to play with you, in an attempt to justify your own wasted $40 investment.
A Game of Throne: Genesis does nothing particularly well. It's a fairly boring board game at the start of each round, and by the end, it's just plain awful. I imagine that lots of people may have jumped on the GoT bandwagon and simply bought this out of "brand loyalty", but given the multiplayer ghost town, it's clear that no one stuck around for very long. Personally, I'll be glad to simply move on and forget this whole experience. I just hope Genesis doesn't haunt me as I watch season two of the TV show when it comes back on.