Where oh where has the summer gone? Well, a lot of it, I admit, went into playing video games. And what does a videogame reviewer play when he’s not reviewing videogames? I’ll tell you. I continued playing Grand Theft Auto 3 after the review was over, and while it gets repetitive after a while, I still think it’s a brilliant game. I also stuck with Jedi Knight 2 as my 1st person shooter of choice. But the two games that really glommed up huge quantities of my time were Dungeon Siege and Warcraft 3. Dungeon Siege I saw as a nearly perfect game – graphics, sounds, gameplay – it had it all. It wasn’t until I had played for more than 20 hours that two things really started to bug me. One, every time a character dies, he drops everything he’s got, including his boots. Two guys dying side by side become a real swap meet, as you have to spend 15 minutes sorting out their belongings and re-equipping them. Would it have been so bizarre to have them just fall down dead and not drop everything? Apparently the designers thought so. The second thing that bugged me was the character movement limiter buttons which let you set how much a character could move on his own initiative – either hold his ground, move a little, or move freely. What I really want is a “don’t do anything stupid and get yourself killed” button that would keep my mages and archers from wandering into close combat situations. Just a thought. Warcraft 3, though the graphics were absolutely stunning, I ultimately found a little disappointing because the single player plotline was utter garbage, and the hero advancement options were so limited (only four spells?). Warlords Battlecry did it better. For those of you who haven’t yet completed it, the final level of Warcraft 3 is an absolute bitch, with multiple level 10 characters coming to stomp on you. And while they have spells such as ‘call forth fireballs from the heavens,’ you play an Elfish hero, and your spells are like ‘rally the trees to your defense.’ As Colorado has taught us all, when trees and fire meet, it is frequently the trees that lose. Oh, and I only rented a single movie this summer – Collateral Damage. I’m not going to make a movie review out of this game review, but it would better have been entitled Collateral Garbage. ‘Nuff said.
But, hey, it’s a new season, and a fresh batch of games is hitting the market. I’ve got quite a few of them on my plate, the first one that I opted to review being Medieval: Total War. Yutz that I am, I didn’t realize when I volunteered to do this one that it was, um, sequel isn’t exactly the right word, but in the same series as Shogun: Total War, which I didn’t play and don’t really know anything about. If you’re looking for someone to compare and contrast the two titles, discuss the lessons learned from Shogun that the developers folded into Medieval, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Sorry. There’s also probably a bunch of historical stuff that this game is on some level delving into – the Saxons and the Sodomites and all that – solid C+ history student that I was, you’re not going to find commentary on that kind of thing here either. That’s what the History Channel is for.
M:TW has two sorta separate parts. The first part is a game much like a modified Risk. A static section of world map shows territories held by you and your enemies, the structures built in those territories, the units stationed there, etc. This portion of the game is turn-based, and in your turn you can build a new building, or train troops, move your troops around, and other tasks associated with the operation of your kingdom. When completed, you end your turn (which are equivalent to one game year), and then the computer or other human players perform their turns. When two enemy units meet, you can either let the computer figure the outcome of the battle statistically, or you can move to the second portion of the game – real time combat. The game zooms in on an expanded playing field, and you can order your units to change formation, march, hold position, or charge and attack the enemy formations. These combats can consist of literally thousands of men, each having armor and skill ratings, fatigue, and morale. There was a game a few years back called Warhammer that was very similar, only this one has predictably newer graphics and a higher level of strategy. As a whole, the entire game together is much like one a friend of mine played all the time in grad school, which would have made it about 1989 – I think it was called Castles for those of you who may remember it.
The real-time combat tutorial, split into about ten parts, does a good job of teaching you the ins and outs of their combat model – holding the high ground, pincer movements, flanking, castles sieges, and such. Vastly inferior forces can rout much larger armies through superior tactics, as history has taught us many a time. In that sense, I am impressed with their combat model. About the only quirk that I ran into is that you determine the direction a unit is facing is completely. Many times I had a battle group hit broadside because I neglected to properly position them and they don’t turn to face the enemy on their own. Sigh. The turn-based tutorial consists of just a single mission, and teaches you only in the most rudimentary way how to run your kingdom and move pieces around on the game map. Given the importance of the turn-based game to the game overall, this is a pretty serious failing after so thorough a real-time tutorial, and the first time starting an actual game I was overwhelmed by the vast numbers of options open to me. Fortunately, you can right click or hover the pointer over just about anything on the map and get more information on it. There is also sort of an advanced diplomacy and trade model in the turn-based game, and the tutorial doesn’t discuss that at all.
Once you start to dig into it, this game is truly vast! You can play as any of a dozen civilizations (Egyptian, English, French, Greek, Italian, German, etc). Each has it’s own unique units and level of technology, leading to probably nearly a hundred different units you can build in the game, each with specific strengths and weaknesses. They each even have their own music. Most importantly, perhaps, given the real-time battle model, each civilization starts in a map location with unique geography – mountainous regions can be very easy to defend...
The graphics are a somewhat mixed bag. The static map is well drawn with units and buildings and all the information you need displayed in a useful manner. The scenery in the combat phase is good as well with weather effects, rocks, trees, and the units are nifty, archers, pikemen, knights, raising clouds of dust as they march to and fro, but the deficiencies crop up beyond that. Units are drawn only at certain perspectives, and they flip (far from seamlessly) from one perspective to another as they move. Combat looks like just a crowd of guys milling about and waving their weapons. The troops don’t even fully engage, with many of them milling around outside of the combat, and then every so often a unit crumples to the ground. There are maybe only a dozen graphics for a dead unit, and on a battlefield littered with over 200 dead bodies, it’s very obvious. There’s just nothing in the graphics that really makes you feel the incredible clash and bloody death that was medieval close combat. Combat sounds likewise lack the punch to really draw you into the battles. The music on the other hand is incredible – Gregorian chants and battle hymns, like having the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the London Philharmonic inside your computer.
Coming on the heels of like a solid month of playing high action, click-heavy games, M:TW is almost relaxing, cerebral. You can take your time, plan your turns, look around your provinces. Despite a slider in the upper corner to control the speed, you have to leave the real-time combat moving at a relatively slow pace so you can keep an eye on everything that you need to. As such, even the real-time combat is sort of chess-like in that you’re not frantically clicking around in rapid combat, but rather watching your units’ position themselves, keeping an eye on their morale, watching enemy formations. I think I can compare this game to Civilization lite, with less micromanaging and more combat. I guess you could also look at it as an RTS, but with the resource management and war machine construction done in a turn-based fashion. However you look at it, it’s a solid title, but it doesn’t break any astonishing new ground, nor does it make your heart hammer as you try and reinforce that borderland province that is the gateway to your entire kingdom. This type of strategy title is not going to appeal to everyone. It’s peaceful, pleasant; a sorbet pallet cleanser between action titles, if you find yourself looking for such a thing.