George R.R. Martin wrote in his fantasy novel A Game of Thrones, "Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it." It is unfortunate that fans of that author's A Song of Ice and Fire series must face one such truth: A Game of Thrones: Genesis is as mediocre as real-time strategy games come. That a budget-priced licensed game didn't turn out to be great isn't surprising; what makes Genesis so disappointing is that it had the potential to be great. In AI skirmishes and online, the spotlight isn't on combat but on capturing villages and fooling your opponent with subterfuge and quiet assassinations. Many strategy games allow for stealthy tactics, but few demand them, which makes this one unique from a conceptual standpoint. Every so often, Genesis' more unusual mechanics shine. However, they all too often wither under the blazing boredom of the single-player campaign and are flattened by a shortage of automation features that could have made one-off matches fun, rather than labor.
Political maneuvers are part and parcel of Martin's books, so it's appropriate that Genesis should make them its centerpiece. In a typical RTS, you gather enough resources to build an army to crush your opponent. You do gather resources here--gold for hiring standard units and food for purchasing armies--but much of your maneuvering is subtler than you might expect. You build the foundation of your strategy not on worker bees or armor-clad knights but on envoys. These grizzled messenger-men convert the towns spread across the map to your cause and are the first step toward gaining superiority. As your influence spreads, you must use other underhanded means to diminish your opponent's. Spies dispel the fog of war and allow you to create secret agreements with villages. You use noble ladies to create blood pacts, strengthening your relationships. You use assassins to slice the throats of innocent merchants as they transport resources back to their enemy's feudal home; send rogues to instigate uprisings in unallied towns; and arrest pesky enemy spies with guards, who haul them to prison and hold them for ransom.
These are but a few of the ways you can disrupt the enemies' plans while creating and maintaining allegiances, though of course, you have to also attempt to thwart their attempts to do the same. It's a shame that the inept single-player campaign fails to put these mechanics to good use. Not one mission uses the full extent of the game's features, and few of them require much in the way of strategy. Instead, you get long and tedious games of hide-and-seek, where you either send a single army across the map in search of friends and foes or command a single unit that must avoid the watchful eyes of roaming guards.
In other cases, you accompany an automated unit as an escort--which is neither strategic, nor much fun. You spend far too much time clicking and waiting, without having anything actually happen. "Control a single army and click on things until they die" tasks aren't uncommon in the genre, but they make up a good half of Genesis' campaign. The final mission is not an explosive, nail-biting conclusion that unites the game's mechanics into a satisfying whole but another "click until stuff dies" embarrassment. The campaign is an odd mishmash of random, unrewarding objectives without any sense of momentum--and it rarely uses the game's most interesting elements.
Instead, the campaign turns your attention to the action, which might have at least been entertaining if Genesis' combat were good. Instead, battles are poorly animated messes that don't resemble a clash between mighty forces but a handful of army men thrown into a bingo cage and rattled around until one of the militias emerges victorious. Defeated units might stand upright, and there's no sense of impact between forces; they just wander amid the chaos, swinging swords at nothing in particular until they fall over. These battles aren't given a worthwhile narrative context either. The game acts as a prelude to Martin's series, and if you're a A Game of Thrones fan, you might appreciate having some gaps filled in for you. But the wan storytelling doesn't offer more than a two-page synopsis of the game's events might. You aren't shown the most important events; you are only told of them in end-mission text summaries. Characters banter here and there, but the voice acting is unenthusiastic and the dialogue only serves to move the plot rather than draw you into the world. Furthermore, the script was in dire need of copyediting. This is a game based on literature; it's inexcusable that the written dialogue would be rife with spelling and grammar errors.
Genesis' strongest elements come to the forefront in stand-alone skirmishes against other players and the AI. There are concepts here never explored in the campaign. You must purchase certain moves, such as the assassin's ability to automatically execute enemy units that come near or the spy's secret agreement skill. You win by accruing prestige points, which are earned by forging alliances and performing other tasks, and pulling off some of these tasks can make you feel deliciously devious. Using an assassin to eliminate an opponent's noble lady not only breaks a blood pact, but it's also accompanied by the assassin's wonderful and insincere "I'm so sorry" line. Infiltrating an enemy's feudal home with a spy so that the next unit he produces is a turncoat can make you feel like you got away with murder, but without shedding a single drop of blood. This is where you see what A Game of Thrones: Genesis might have been: a complex strategy game that prizes deceit over full-on fighting--or at least, until one house declares war.
Unfortunately, fascinating features don't necessarily make for a fun time. Having so many units that require direct manipulation leads to frantic micromanagement as you struggle to keep up. Poor AI and a surprising lack of automation elements force you to keep a close eye on every single unit, and the game just doesn't offer the tools or interface elements that you need to keep everything under control. There is no attack-move command, so enemy patrols often pass by each other without engaging, which allows opposing mercenaries to wander right up to your defenseless peasant. You can't queue up orders, so once an envoy captures a town, he sits there until you command him to move on. Units can be turned away from towns and forced to return to your feudal home, but the little icons on the side of the screen that identify them don't indicate their status. (This kind of information at a glance would have been helpful.) When you select a swath of units with your mouse, you can easily rope in noncombat units and send them off to battle with your armies--an obstacle RTSs solved long ago. When you combine the resulting micromanagement with random clusters of confused combat, you get a messy tug-of-war that's better in concept than it is in execution.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that multiplayer matches, where you're most likely to see Genesis' best assets in action, are very difficult to come by. Whether you seek a ranked match or browse for an unranked one, you're unlikely to find many rivals, if any at all. That leaves you with one-off AI matches and the campaign, neither of which makes good on the game's excellent premise. There are a fine number of maps to keep you busy if this distinctive brand of furtive scheming appeals to you, but the best strategy games suck you in, whereas this one fails to use its spark to light any fires--and may leave you feeling as cold as ice.