All About TechnologoDoom
The turn-based strategy genre has long counted sci-fi galactic settings among its repertoire. The Masters of Orion series and the Galactic Civilizations series are both excellent (not to mention the masterful Alpha Centauri), and for faster-paced real-time play Sins of a Solar Empire has in recent years been at the top of the heap. So what does Endless Space bring to the table? Primarily this: since Galactic Civilizations, there has yet to be a killer turn-based space faring game. Second, Endless Space innovates in the genre in interesting ways by combining gameplay aspects successful elsewhere but as of yet not introduced into this specific medium. Third, no other contemporary 4X strategy game in space feels as authentically sci-fi compared to this. Endlessly interesting technologies, beautifully rendered planets with diverse bonus phenomena, a synth-heavy score; rather than add a coat of paint, the science fiction universe laid out in Endless Space is aesthetically superb and imbedded into just about every aspect of play.
Endless Space is a sci-fi geek's wet dream - which is not to say is without its blemishes, far from it. Despite the incredibly useful and clear UI (User Interface: menus, etc) some important parts of play feel surprisingly under-communicated. For instance, there are a variety of different ways to win (most all of them traditional), but you'll have no idea what goes into it or what these ways are; only a percentage on that victory's likelihood - a tab for victory conditions would be quite useful. Also, there's no encyclopedia, which would've been especially helpful in a game world which is almost entirely fictional yet incredibly deep and complex. See a wormhole you want to pass through? You need the right tech, but sadly that involves visually looking at each of the over-100 individually to find it, hoping you might recognize it. Finally, even on the easy settings, the early hours of play including perhaps the first few entire games, will feel as confusing as exhilerating precisely because of the complexity and lack of hand-holding. If you can't do experimentation and trial and error, Endless Space is not for you. However, for those bold enough to brave the outer reaches, and are intrigued by the freedom the game offers, Endless Space is just what you've been waiting for.
It's rare to laud a game initially based on UI, but in this case Endless Space deserves special recognition. This game was built for your computer; that means that mouse right and left clicking and hovering are the prime modes of interaction with the screen, and moving through charts, planets, maps, etc is slick and intuitive. Hitting the Esc key or Enter is never a requirement, and the controls are so intuitive that you'll wonder why just about every other PC strategy game doesn't flow as well - it just works, an astounding accomplishment in its own right. Zooming around the galactic map is therefore surprisingly enjoyable rather than a chore, with information boxes popping up under solar systems as you near them, expanding as you approach to reveal even more. Upon clicking on a star, you move to the Solar System map which is a better and more appealing version of what you'd see in Galactic Civ or MoO3. Even better, you can zoom to any planet and get your sci-fi senses buzzing with planet-art that makes Mass Effect planets look like stone-age 8-bit bowling balls. A wide variety of planet types can be found, each with the possibility of positive or negative bonuses (not unlike the effects of 'moral dilemnas' in Galactic Civ) and resource bonuses, which are revealed given proper research.
Each of the currently eight playable races has an intriguing mixture of strengths and weaknesses (each of which can be adjusted) and moral alignments appear as well, though the depth of them does seem illusory. Diplomacy and trading options require research, but feel responsive, balanced, and intelligent once explored. Moving an armada to your border planet alongside a neutral empire will cause suspicion immediately, trades for techs and resources is intuitive, and each race feels interesting to play with. Heroes also join your empire (as in MoO), are upgradable, and can support either solar systems or fleets, depending on your interests. In either case, heroes provide massive bonuses and are crucial to success.
Then there's the technology tree, a feast for your imagination but likely a bit more frustrating for your reasoning. There are many innovations here, but primarily they consist in a Witcher 2-esque branching system with four main poles. This means that making strides in one area does not require advancement in another, something quite different than your typical Fraxis tree. Furthermore, advancements on different core paths are linked, such that one must reveal a resource in one area before one can use that resource for a military, industrial, or terraforming upgrade elsewhere: webs within webs. Furthermore, each technology feels significant and presents its details with a simple mouse-over, with zooming in and out working precisely the same as with the map. However, the lack of an encyclopedia here, and the creativity of the technologies (part of the game's strength), also means you'll definitely feel like you're in the dark at first, presented with a wall of very interesting but deep material to work through, which can be intimidating and frustrating without patience. The depth here is worth the patience, but the superb UI ought to be have extended to this area as well, or perhaps the tutorial ought to have done more to flesh out a first game concretely.
Combat in Endless Space is quite interesting and innovative as well, with less of the drawbacks the tech tree has. Ships are customizable (in content, not appearance aside from initial form - so no Galactic Civ crazy constructions) and doing so is, again, quite intuitive and clear. Fleets can be created and expanded and lead by heroes, can combat enemy ships and invade solar systems, and rely on the principle of strategic skill over statistics alone. In the first place, combat consists of six periods with three main phases (long, medium, and short range), during which a different weapon type will be more effective (there are three main types in the game) and the same holds for defense - a little paper rock scissors, except for the card system. Each phase requires you to pick a card from a growing list, each of which presents a maneuver and counters a different maneuver (for instance: sabotage, engineering, defense, retreat, etc). The variety is great enough, and the perks and drawbacks of each are intriguing enough, that rather than feel flat, combat feels much more alive than any other turn-based game, where a bit of skill and luck might turn the tide, or sink you. The battles themselves take place in that system's space, displaying grand vistas highly reminiscent of Star Wars (but with less ships etc.), blowing Sins of a Solar Empire out of the water.
Endless Space is a fantastic real-time strategy space faring game, standing tall alongside the genre's greats, and besting them in more ways than one. Endless Space isn't an indie throwback, it's a forward-looking game built to stand on the shoulders of its predecessors. While the complexity is mitigated in most ways by an exceptionally well-thought UI, it's staggering in other ways, meaning Endless Space is long-form, requires failure and replay to learn, and could be intimidating to those new to the genre. For veterans, however, Endless Space feels timely, and perhaps a little timeless.
"Killing as an art form!" proclaims doggedly likable space pirate and protagonist Grayson Hunt, as he accidentally causes an elevator to crush a mutant, only to get in and ride it up. Thus Grayson condenses Bullestorm's essence: killing as creative act.
Bulletstorm is on the one hand a game of pure spectacle. Like Bayonetta, it is its excessiveness which is entirely pleasurable, the degree to which it achieves a sublimity whereby the rational mind is surpassed by the vision before it. The only response is, did that really just happen? The sequence when Hunt and cybernetic partner Ishi storm the miniature city, attaining the stature of Godzilla in a world harkening to Japanese cinema, is one of many fine examples. Bulletstorm may not be as psychedelic as Bayonetta, but in place of the surreal it substitutes the exaggeration of a summer movie blockbuster. Only this exaggeration isn't concerned with reality at all, only with stretching it as far as it will go. It is the pure spectacle of Bulletstorm that gives the breath of inspiration to all the killing that needs to be done.
For killing itself desires to become spectacle too. The reigns are handed to the player, the brush and oils to the artist who might conceive in her imagination a form which her being works to unfold in the material itself. A corkscrew-like projectile punctures the momentarily aloft mutant, stunned by a kick to the head which is submerged already in a pumpkin-like pod, and carries him through space past the devilish spikes and into the mouth of a giant man-eating plant. To achieve a moment whereby the artist, staggered by her composition, steps back and asks herself, did I just do that? At times, the production surpasses even the mind who accomplished it. If the player experiences moments like these, even in brief, she links her consciousness to all the players who have gone before, those skilled enough for their play to pass into beauty in every game. In this, Bulletstorm may not be unique. What is precisely unique about Bulletstorm is the game's explicit and constant push to make the player realize it.
As with all ideas, however, its significance is in the degree to which the execution follows. It is on this level that I think Bulletstorm both succeeds and fails. Bulletstorm at times seems to merely provide training wheels to the flourishing biker. For each weapon there are already designated forms by which the player might achieve a creative act. Points are earned by the originality of the kill, but it is an originality already thought, contained in the game's own systems. Though initially the creative impulse is helpfully guided by these forms, there may come a point where the creator says to herself, why only these? Certainly, Bulletstorm tries to ameliorate the problem through secret and special kills, often based on local context (always a source for the inspired creator), but even this are limited in number if not scope. In sum, the game can only reward the players creation to the extent that it is foreseen, hence already created, the simple chemical consequence of the elementary parts. What a creator really wants to realize, however, is not what is foreseen but the unforeseen original act.
Thus the ideal of creation discovers its limit in a playground circumscribed by a pen. Bulletstorm is simply not designed with enough openness to account for the unforeseeable, in a way that perhaps Scribblenauts is. Certainly, this is due in part to the limited horizon of the game world which proceeds by its relatively simple components: grab, kick, shoot, in conjunction with the environs of burn, shock, melt, fall, chop. Perhaps if the creator is felt a little empty, missing that color which would achieve just the right contrast, it is due to this calculable limitation. That being said, Bulletstorm presents enough sublimity in its playground to keep any artist occupied for at least one time through its course. Whether it achieves what Grayson proclaims it does, however, might belong to the eye of the beholder.
On the one hand, King Arthur II: The Role-Playing Wargame is brilliantly conceived, has a compelling role-play component, and displays a wonderful aesthetic. On the other hand, the real-time strategic battles don't function properly, the engine is finicky, and despite the beautiful broad brush strokes there isn't much content or complexity below the skin. To be sure, King Arthur II has many problems – so much so that at times the whole thing becomes far too tedious and bothersome. However, if a player can stomach the bad, there is a surprising level of rewarding experience to be had here.
Developed by Neocore Games and produced by Paradox Interactive, King Arthur II sequels King Arthur (2004, PS2) and King Arthur: Fallen Champions (2011, PC). It has multiple modes of gameplay, namely real-time combat juxtaposed to a semi-strategic overland management. The later is composed of diplomacy, research into lore, and troop movement. In a way the game resembles the Total War series, though with a fairly robust role-playing element layered into the management section. Heroes, like generals, gain experience and learn new skills, but can also be assigned fiefdoms which depending on their development add significant boosts to their army. Troops also level up, with gained statistical (numbers) increases and perks. Troops can be recruited once you have possession of a town or landmark from which they can be cultivated, the towns able to be upgraded and developed in the winter season (in which no troop movement is possible) for bonuses as fiefdoms. On top of that, players can craft new weapons and equipable items at special forges from loot that you collect through battle and role-playing missions, which can buff heroes exponentially.
Guiding the player through the experience is a poorly communicated narrative which sets tasks for the primary hero, William Pendragon, son of the ailing King Arthur, and other special heroes the player recruits rather further into the game. The overarching narrative is unfortunately very shallow, positing significant events with little context or attention to delivery. As such, it mostly stands as a framework with which to guide the player through the game. The overland play is not 'open world' per se, as only by following through the missions does the player progress, with very few exceptions. Diplomacy offers a little spice to overland management, as depending on certain factors you can gain alliances with smaller kingdoms which grant different opportunities, from the financial to the militaristic. Of course, you can always forgo diplomacy and just run all the other kings out if you like. Interaction with other kingdoms and the occasional random enemy troop suffice for what isn't scripted in the game.
The best part of King Arthur II is most definitely the missions themselves. Though they're not without fault, they present an interesting storytelling twist on top of a compelling reward system. Though a few consist only of battles, and some simply the possibility of one, by far the majority of missions the player engages in pertain to the unfolding of the, albeit very weak, plot. Yes, you will encounter some of the fabled heroes of legend, but they're too shallow to sympathize with. It isn't the plot which is compelling; rather it is the Choose Your Own Adventure st*yle of the missions as they unfold. Circumstances lead to decisions which in turn divide into further decisions and consequences. For instance, when William Pendragon enters London, a whole host of possibilities open up from government overthrow, backroom dealing, and cordial diplomacy, each of which has its own minute complexities. While unfortunately these events give little context for what a character might do, who to trust, or general motivations, that doesn't stop them from being surprisingly engaging. What replaces context (which ought give some motivation or momentum) is the desire to gain specific bonuses towards your 'morality', possibilities for expansion, financial gain, and military assistance among others. The morality system is also original, composed of four quadrants granting bonuses via right/tyranny and Old Gods/Christian God. The consequences of mission decisions often turn on a possible reward which is instantly practical: troops, cash, or power. In a real sense, these are the core narratives of King Arthur II; the Arthurian plot be damned.
It's unfortunate, then, that the combat is as thin as the teetering plot. Anyone expecting a Total War caliber RTS will be disappointed. Squad movement and organization is very similar, but the A.I. is generally very poor, on top of being much too overaggressive. Battles are won and lost on mobbing your army against smaller fragments of your opponent's. Unfortunately, once the A.I. of a squad is in battle with an opponent, or even near an opponent, directing them to take any action is off the table. Combat becomes strangely mindless and a matter of brute force, assuming the player doesn't charge an army of archers against some dragons or some such nonsense. There are few complex scenarios either, for instance where danger could come from multiple directions or there was a need to take down castle's walls. Camera movement is also more annoying than it ought to be, as especially during the set-up phase the camera can't move back behind the troops. Just getting a good view to organize can be a chore. The troop interface is also a tad too large to see the on screen action, aggravated by the lack of camera freedom. Though the addition of heroic powers employable on the battlefield seems promising, even that doesn't do enough to really make the combat more than tolerable, at best. The auto-battle button will likely see far more use than normal.
It's a double ill fortune then that the combat is so poor because King Arthur II looks so great, especially in combat. Though the frame rate can chug on higher settings, the landscapes are marvelous. At times a rugged wilderness with tremendous use of the vertical dimension, at other times a hellish wasteland with horns breaking the dry ground's crust, this theatre has a grand stage. The overland map is equally exquisite. All of Britain is laid bare, carved into fiefdoms and transversed by verdant hills and valleys, cracked plateaus, and desolately smoking black ranges. The sound design comes through most in the game's score, much of which is reminiscent of a sort of mystical world, voices pitched to high fantasy but the beat driven by a darker insistence. Most of the mission texts are fully voiced, all by the same actor who does a passable job at least, with a quality reminiscent of listening to an audiobook.
The overall aesthetic of a dark fantasy world seems to teeter on the edge of a truly great instantiation, with only a matter of shallow and inane content holding it back. Narrative or no, King Arthur II could have used more flesh on its bones, a complexity of character or a life beyond a trope. In the end, it's very hard to care about any of the heroes or the narrative events, at times making even the enjoyable missions feel entirely arbitrary – clearly, an opportunity was missed here. Still, the art and sound do wonders to make the time spent with King Arthur II enjoyable, and in their own right are quite superb.
Sadly, the game's engine is rather finicky, especially on high setting. Running the game on a high-end laptop (which runs Witcher 2 beautifully) the game crashes incessantly. Dropping all the settings can help smooth things over, but doesn't seem to ditch the problem altogether. On top of that, the load times are be atrociously long even for a game of its kind, and other quirks seem frequent, for instance the experience of a line of shadow falling over the overland map in sync with the player's camera movement.
As such, King Arthur II, if it is to be recommended (and I think it can be) ought to be recommended only to a role-playing audience, those interested in making interesting role-playing decisions and reading a good amount of text. The world is certainly beautiful, but rather shallow on both a strategic and investment level. Yet some of the role-playing elements are really satisfying, from the interesting mission structure to crafting and leveling each hero. King Arthur II is almost a really good game, one that just can't quite make it, with one too many problems. Still, an interesting dark fantasy world is hard to come by. That it could be more than a fine diversion is unlikely, however.
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