Thursday, 28 January 2016

Total War: Warhammer - Regional Occupation

There’s been some controversy regarding information released on the new regional occupation system of the upcoming Total War: Warhammer. You can read the official developer post about it here. But as a long term fan of this series, I thought I’d share my own thoughts -

The game I’m most interested in playing this year has to be Total War: Warhammer. I’ve been a fan of the Total War series since the release of the original Shogun, but as much as I’ve enjoyed the historical based titles, I’ve always wanted to see the release of a fantasy based variation.

But I’m more than just interested in this upcoming title for its fantasy world and characters. I’m also interested to see how this game can shake up the franchise and provide a unique and fresh Total War experience.

Because in many ways, I’ve grown rather weary of what many view as the ‘traditional’ nature of Total War. It’s probably why I’ve enjoyed the smaller, yet more focused experiences of expansion titles such as Napoleon, Fall of the Samurai and Attila, to the larger, more expansive core titles.

These titles may not have offered the scope or variety of Empire, Shogun 2 or Rome 2, but they all introduced new dynamics and features to the campaign which, for me at least, provided a more engaging experience.

For me, the Total War ‘formula’ was only about the combination of turn based and real time strategy. The ability to see the translation of the campaign map to the battle map. I never viewed the ability to conquer every region upon the map as a core component to the series because in the 15 years I’ve been paying these games, I’ve never actually done so!

I’d imagine many fans of this series would agree that Total War has always had issues with long term campaign engagement. In other words, the beginning of a campaign is always more interesting than the end. Attempts to combat this issue in the past have been met with mixed results – the Realm Divide of Shogun 2, the Civil War of Rome 2, or the Hun invasion of Attila.

The problem is simple – 50 to 100 turns into a typical Total War campaign, a player is often so powerful and wealthy that conquering the rest of the map is inevitable – victory all but guaranteed. The loss of an army or region is but a minor set-back. There remains little to no risk to the player or their empire, and the chance of failure – the chance to lose – is all but non-existent. Which is why I’ve never conquered the entire campaign map in any of the Total War titles. Because beyond a certain point, there’s no more challenge to your expansion.

The problem is simple enough, so is the solution, equally simple? If the player is growing too powerful, too quickly, then why not restrict how powerful the player can grow? Why not place limitations upon the player to prevent them from ever reaching that tipping point where a campaign ceases to be an engaging challenge, and instead becomes an inevitable chore?

It doesn’t seem like such a radical notion, but in terms of Total War, it’s quite a fundamental departure from the traditional campaign formula of the series. And that’s why, with the announcement of regional occupation restrictions in Total War: Warhammer, it’s caused quite the stir within the community.

In the development post, there’s various discussions about how the team came to this decision, including discussion regarding Warhammer lore. I won’t discuss Warhammer lore here because as I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, I know practically sod all about the licence. I’m looking at this purely from the perspective of campaign gameplay.

In other words, I really couldn’t give a f**k if it’s consistent with Warhammer lore or not. My only interest is this – will this new system solve the issue of long term campaign engagement? Will this provide a unique and fresh Total War experience? I honestly can’t say. Nobody can, not without playing it. But we can sure have a swell time debating the matter!

As I normally do, I’ll adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach to this new system. I don’t believe doing something different is doing something wrong. Certainly there’s truth in the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke’, but I feel it’s time for Total War to take a risk and fundamentally shake up its core gameplay. That said, this wouldn’t be the first time Total War has done so.

In many ways it’s not a surprise that Total War: Warhammer is changing aspects to the Total War ‘formula’ because the series has done so, to one degree or another, with nearly every major release. The transition from the 2D campaign of Shogun 1 to the 3D campaign of Rome 1 was a fundamental shift in how Total War was played, and was also considered quite controversial at the time by many players.

The introduction of gun line warfare in Empire was a major shift in how a player would approach the real time battles. Shogun 2 introduced more major changes, particularly with region development. In previous titles, settlements could be constructed as the player saw fit, but Shogun 2 introduced restrictions on what could be built and where, in addition to limiting building slots per region.

At the time, this change, much like the recent announcement of occupation restrictions, was met with controversy, a concern that the developers were ‘taking away’ options from the player. I’m sure many still feel this way. But personally, I loved the transition to a restricted building system, because it fixed another issue I had with previous games in the series.

In Rome 1, for example, it was possible to turn nearly every settlement into an economic and military powerhouse. Losing a region had little to no impact on your economy or ability to train new forces. But in Shogun 2, the restrictions in place forced the player to consider very carefully how each settlement should be constructed. Should it focus on economy or military? And losing a region, such as a region with a valuable resource, was far more of a concern, even as the campaign progressed.

It’s a great example of how artificial restrictions placed upon the player resulted in far more strategically important choices. And restrictions on regional occupation feels like a natural progression of this system. In the development post, Game Director Ian Roxburgh argues - ‘Simply painting the map your colour is not always a route to victory, and is arguably the least strategically interesting.’ And I agree, as this has proven true throughout the entire series.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the recent Age of Charlemagne DLC was the introduction of new victory conditions tied to imperium, rather than simply taking ‘X number of regions’. With the addition of new technology and building chains to support this system, it was possible to approach and complete a campaign in a variety of ways, not necessarily through war and war alone.

Obviously, war will play a key role in Total War: Warhammer, but with the introduction of unique characters, quest chains and likely race specific victory conditions, I’m hopeful that we’ll have a far more dynamic and strategically interesting campaign than simply ‘take X number of regions to win’.

Continuing our discussion of how the Total War series has evolved, Rome 2 provides another great shift, with the introduction of the regional province system, a new army recruitment system, army legacy and campaign ‘stances’, battle map capture points, and an entirely new (if somewhat broken) political system. It also introduced a controversial new system of its own – agent and army limitations. But like the settlement building restrictions of Shogun 2, I’d argue this new system didn’t ‘limit’ the experience, but instead forced the player into making more important strategic choices regarding when and where to strike.

Total War: Attila refined, expanded and improved upon many of these systems whilst also introducing new dynamics of its own, particularly the ‘horde’ and ‘raze’ mechanics. There were many who were wary of the horde system but it proved to introduce an entirely new way to play and approach a Total War campaign. And when playing as the Huns, you couldn’t conquer any regions, yet such a restriction introduced a unique and fresh gameplay experience. The ‘raze’ system, though not particularly well balanced upon release, also introduced a new dynamic and strategic option to the campaign.

The point I suppose I’m trying to make is that beyond the combination of turn based and real time strategy, there’s never been a consistent or core ‘formula’ to the Total War series. Nearly every game has, for good or for ill, changed, chopped, cut and added features in an attempt to provide a unique experience.

And I must give it credit for that, even if the changes its made haven’t always been to my personal tastes. It takes balls for a developer to take risks with an established formula, particularly in a series as long running as Total War. And yet, that’s what the developers have done with nearly every major release. It’s a risk, because as much as change and innovation is desired, it is also feared.

But fearing change can also lead to stagnation, to the repetition of a tired formula and the loss of interest in a series. I think it’s a great testament to the series when, at the time of writing, there are five Total War games in the Top Games list on Steam by current player count. It’s why, when you ask what people’s favourite Total War game is, that you’ll get such a mix of responses stretching to every title in the series.

Because each entry in the series is unique in its own way, due the changes to its formula. And Total War: Warhammer is set to continue this trend. I can’t say I’m in favour of, or approve of the changes in this upcoming title until I’ve played it for myself, but I am in favour of change, because I feel that change, on the whole, has benefited the series rather than harmed it.

And that’s why I’m willing to keep an open mind about the new region occupation system. Do I share concerns regarding replayability? Regarding the possibility of a more ‘rail road’ experience? Of course! But I’m also interested to see if this system does provide a fresh Total War experience. I feel that many of the controversial ‘restrictions’ that have been incorporated into the series down the years have enhanced the campaign rather than detracted from it. And I hope this new system does the same.

How? Well, previously, despite alternative options, occupying a region was always the best long term choice. There was no downside to doing so – you gain new land, a new source of income and a new foothold from which you can expand your empire. As a result, campaigns often followed a repetitive pattern of expand, conquer, replenish and repeat.

The new system of regional restrictions may change this in two positive ways. The first, as I’ve already discussed, is that it will serve to limit player power and prevent the player from ever growing so powerful that mid to end game conquest is no more than a tedious and inevitable chore.

The second, is that the new system will force the player into making different strategic decisions regarding particular regions. Even with multiple options available in previous games, occupying a region was always the best long term option. By taking that option away, the player will be forced to consider the alternatives.

This system will also undoubtedly influence how you advance into certain territory. Without being able to capture a string of settlements on the way, your armies will be all the more vulnerable the further they advance from your borders. The player won’t have the safety net of retreating to a friendly nearby settlement. They’ll have to consider very carefully how far they’re willing to push their forces into hostile territory.

Of course now, I’m simply speculating. I don’t really know how this new system will work in practice. But I see potential here, so I’m keeping an open mind. I want mid to late game campaigns to remain fresh, exciting and challenging. And maybe this new system will provide that. All we can do now is wait and see.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Now Playing: Deserts of Kharak

Deserts of Kharak began life as a ‘spiritual prequel’ to the Homeworld series by the name of Hardware: Shipbreakers. It was a game I intended to keep an eye on, at least until Gearbox bought the rights to the Homeworld licence and news about Hardware fell dark. But a year or so later, Hardware reappeared, retitled as Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.

Which is great! Because it’s a new, now ‘official’ Homeworld game. A new Homeworld game. That’s something I thought I’d never get to say. I’ve seen some people say it can’t be a ‘proper’ Homeworld game because it’s not set in space. But we’ll ignore those people because they’re dumb. Space or not, Deserts of Kharak is a Homeworld game. And I really couldn’t be happier.

So what makes a Homeworld game so special? For me, it’s all about the story and the tone. Homeworld was always about a journey. A great quest. And that’s what DoK is all about. It’s a prequel to the original game, telling the story of a dying world and a final, desperate mission to save its people. All the HW games had this wonderfully haunting theme of desolation and survival, which is something DoK captures perfectly.

The story is told across a thirteen mission single player campaign. It was the campaign of DoK that I was most interested in. I know there are many people who love the HW games for their skirmish/MP aspects as much, if not more than, the story driven campaigns, but for me, the campaigns were what made me fall in love with the series. And getting to return to this universe, with such a rich history and lore, is fantastic.

Deserts of Kharak also captures that classic Homeworld vibe through its visuals and sound. The look and design of the units is perfect, with a lovely attention to detail, especially in terms of unit animations. But it’s the audio where DoK really shines. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the VA work is of a high quality.

The unit chatter is great, with fun little conversations playing out between combat. I’ve said before how I feel it’s important for an RTS to have ‘personality’ for its units, connecting them to the player. This is something DoK does very well, if not in some ways better than the original Homeworld games. Also good is the battle/unit sounds, with satisfying weapon, engine and explosion effects. All the audio work in DoK is superb.

Although set entirely in a desert, the maps of the campaign are fairly diverse and mix things up quite nicely, with missions set in canyons, during storms, at night etc. Although some texture work can be a little low quality here and there, graphically, DoK is a great looking game. And as for technical performance, overall, it’s pretty good, although there are odd times when the FPS noticeably drops for no obvious reason.

The campaign was a lot of fun, and certainly something I’ll be playing through again. That said, I do have a few issues with it. The first is simply that it’s rather short. Even playing on the hardest ‘classic’ difficulty, I breezed through the campaign in about 8 hours, and that was even when I was taking my time. The final mission is also a little lacklustre, followed by a rather abrupt cinematic.

Speaking of difficulty, I also never needed to restart a mission because the campaign, honestly, isn’t particularly challenging. A part of this issue is due to the way mission triggers are too obviously signposted, allowing you to prepare for the next ‘stage’ of a mission for as long as you’d like.

My only other issue with the campaign is how it never really mixes up your enemies. There’s no missions where you have to combat a new threat. It’s always you versus the same bad guys. There’s no ‘third’ faction for you to contend with, even for a single mission, and this does harm the campaign in terms of variety.

The UI of DoK is very Homeworld, with a tactical sensor overlay and a movement disc to highlight terrain height. Because terrain plays a key role in DoK. As an RTS, DoK is a very solid and enjoyable title. It doesn’t stray too far from the formula you’d expect, but it does add a few neat little dynamics to its gameplay. The first, as I’ve mentioned, is terrain, with high ground providing a useful bonus. Line of sight is equally important, as units can’t hit what they can’t see.

The unit roster is quite small, which may disappoint some, but every unit fulfils a very specific role and many have multiple special abilities. Units also rank up and carry between missions, meaning it’s important to try to keep them alive. I love the mobile ‘mothership’ which serves as a giant, sand crawling aircraft carrier. That said, it could really use more aircraft landing pads, because once you have several squadrons on the go, it’s a nightmare bringing them all in to dock.

As you would expect in an RTS, you’ll be harvesting resources, building units and researching upgrades to smash your enemy. It’s not the most complex game in terms of strategy, even with the addition of the line of sight and terrain systems – ultimately it’s still a game of hitting your enemy with superior numbers.

Overall though, despite my few issues with it and its relatively short length, I really liked the campaign a lot. The developers have done a fantastic job of transitioning the Homeworld experience from space down onto the ground, and I have to give them credit for that. But what does DoK offer beyond its good, but somewhat limited campaign? Sadly, not very much.

There’s a skirmish mode, as you’d expect, but it provides barely any customisation options in terms of match set ups. It’s a fun mode, nonetheless, but it’s also a mode which really highlights the flaws in the game AI. The campaign disguises these flaws quite effectively but in skirmish, with the AI on equal footing to the player, it’s way too easy to beat. That’s not to say the AI can’t surprise you, but it’s something they really need to improve. To make skirmish even more limited is the lack of maps. There’s only five. But they have said more maps will be released for free, which is nice.

Skirmish mode is really meant to be the warm up for the MP though. Unfortunately, from what few games I’ve played of the MP, DoK is the type of RTS I can’t say I really enjoy playing online. It’s very much of the ‘spam and rush’ type gameplay, where it’s all about employing an ‘efficient’ build order and then hitting your opponent as quickly as possible.

This makes games, especially the 1v1 mode, very dull to play, because people just end up repeating the same tactics every match. In fact, there’s already a popular rush strategy which I’ve encountered in nearly every 1v1 I’ve fought. I can’t blame people for using it. It’s fast, efficient and it works, but boy does it make playing 1v1 a tedious experience.

I know some people enjoy this style of play, and I really don’t have an issue with rush style strategies, but there needs to be a balance. A certain risk/reward. That balance doesn’t exist right now, so if you don’t roll with the most popular strategy, you’re kind of screwing yourself. And I hate feeling forced into playing in a very specific way. That really kills the experience for me.

I was hoping the ‘artifact retrieval’ game would introduce a different dynamic to the MP. The idea is to retrieve more artifacts than your opponent within the time limit. It’s a really good concept for a mode, with the potential for a lot of back and forth power struggles across the map. In concept. In reality, the mode is totally f**ked.

Because despite the objective, you can still win the game simply by destroying the enemy carrier. And so, people just ignore the artifacts and spam and rush. If they actually tied victory conditions to the artifact retrieval count, then I think you’d have something quite enjoyable and fun, a mode that required more thought and long term strategy. But as it exists right now, you can just ignore the artifacts and rush your opponent’s carrier to win, making the entire mode utterly pointless.

Of course, playing MP, at least at the time of writing, is a bloody nightmare anyway. It seems to be region locked, so trying to find a game takes forever, particularly in the team modes. It might be that the rush strategies of 1v1 aren’t quite so prevalent in the 2v2 or 3v3 matches, but I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never been able to find a game using the auto-match system.

I have played a few team games by joining public matches, but even these are thin on the ground, with only one or two on the go at a time. They really need to remove whatever restrictions they have in place on the auto-match system or the MP for DoK is going to be dead before it’s even begun.

Another annoyance, which applies to both SP and MP is the zoom range. I’d love to be able to zoom out more without relying on the sensor view. Also, it’s not possible to rebind keys and I can’t stress how much this f**king irritated me. I got used to the default keys over time, but I really wanted to set up my own configuration, especially for camera controls and unit hot keys.

I should probably wrap this up. Deserts of Kharak is worthy of the Homeworld name. It’s a great prequel and hopefully a step towards a new, space set, Homeworld 3. The campaign, despite a few issues, is very good. But the skirmish and MP modes are pretty weak and shoddy to say the least, although both of these may improve over time if properly supported.

If you’re like me, and you just want a new Homeworld campaign set in this rich and fascinating universe, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with Deserts of Kharak. But if you’re expecting more from it than that then I probably wouldn’t recommend it, not in its current state or price. That said, it’s a new Homeworld game. A new Homeworld game. And that’s good enough for me.


Sunday, 17 January 2016

Now Playing: The Last Roman (DLC)

The Last Roman is a mini-expansion to Total War: Attila. Compared to the recently released Age of Charlemagne, this DLC is a far smaller and limited piece of content. It revolves around the General Belisarius, a hero sent to reclaim the lost lands of the Western Roman Empire by the Emperor Justinian.

The Last Roman features a new campaign map which is focused almost entirely on Italy, the north coast of Africa, and Spain. Although these regions are more detailed here than in the base game, the map feels disappointingly small, an issue compounded by the fact that the territory is split between a very small number of large factions. 

As you would expect, there are new units to recruit and technologies to research, but nothing that’s a great departure from the core game. What makes The Last Roman unique is choosing to play as the Roman expedition. It’s essentially the horde mechanic of Attila with the twist that it’s now the Romans who are the ‘barbarian’ invaders.

And initially, this twist provides quite an enjoyable experience. You begin in Africa with two separate camps, and very rapidly find yourself under threat. But this early struggle to survive and reclaim land for Justinian sadly doesn’t last very long.

After a single large land battle, I effectively wiped out all opposition within the starting region, leaving me free to march from settlement to settlement, capturing them with zero resistance. And from there, things only got easier. At points in the campaign I was rewarded with new forces, free of any upkeep cost for several turns, allowing me to blitz my way across the map, capturing territory with little effort.

Because although the factions you’ll be fighting control large areas of territory, they seem to lack any serious military force. I swept through Africa and Italy, completing my campaign objectives with only a handful of serious or challenging engagements. The vast majority of my time with The Last Roman was spent fighting weak garrisons in unprotected settlements.

Perhaps this was a difficulty issue, or perhaps it was simply how this campaign played out. After all, each campaign will be different. I could have also chosen not to reclaim land for Justinian, but to claim it for myself and establish my own faction. But doing so discards the only truly unique feature that The Last Roman offers – playing as a Roman horde.

The same is true of the other major factions, all of which are playable, although I see no reason to bother. After all, I have the core game with a far larger map for something like that. No, the only reason to play this DLC is for the unique experience of the Roman horde, but sadly it’s something of an underwhelming experience.

In its favour, when playing as the Roman expedition, The Last Roman does offer a lot of story based events with choices to make that will affect your campaign. But there’s nothing here that will radically alter how things play out – it’s more of a choice between X increase in Y, or X increase in Z.

There’s little more I have to say about The Last Roman. Compared to Age of Charlemagne, it’s a weak piece of content that I couldn’t recommend, even for the novelty of playing as a Roman horde. Whereas with AoC I’ve already completed campaigns as three factions and I’m ready to get stuck into a fourth, I have no desire to revisit TLR after completing my expedition campaign. Because outside of that, it offers nothing of note.


Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Suburban Killbot YouTube Channel

I had my internet upgraded last year, which was nice. It meant I no longer had to wait 10-20 hours for a single game to download. It also meant I was finally able to upload videos. I wasn’t quite sure what sort of videos I should do. Initially I thought about doing video reviews to accompany my written reviews, but I don’t have a fancy microphone or editing software and it seemed like an awful lot of effort for something that just wasn’t worth the hassle.

Instead, I figured I’d just upload raw gameplay footage. No fancy editing or commentary, just pure gameplay. I know when I want to see a new game in action, I like to just watch raw footage of it without people talking over it or describing everything they’re doing. So I thought, why not do just that? It’s also a lot easier and requires far less effort. I just hit a button, record my footage and upload.

I use NVIDIA ShadowPlay to record, which isn’t the best in terms of quality, but it works with everything I’ve tried, keeps the file size fairly low and is nice and simple to use. Due to a limitation with Windows 7, it splits recordings at a certain size, which means I have to use the YouTube video editor to combine and process each part into a complete video. This further reduces the quality even compared to a regular upload, but there’s not a lot I can do about that.

I’ve currently got three playlists of videos on the go with a new one starting soon. I’m not going to adhere to any kind of upload schedule or anything like that. I’ll just post stuff as and when I have it/feel like it. And I won’t post everything I record, only the stuff I think is interesting to watch for one reason or another.

I haven’t monetised any of my videos because that’s another hassle I don’t need. Like my blog is ad free, I don’t want to start worrying about this channel as some sort of revenue stream. Playing, writing about and now posting videos of games I enjoy is my hobby and I’d rather it stay that way. After all, I already have a career. Maybe not a particularly successful career, but maybe things will turn around this year.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Blog / Gaming Update

It’s a new year for Suburban Killbot! I can’t say it’ll be a good year, but let’s hope for the best, eh? I’ve now completed the blog overhaul I mentioned back in December. It mostly concerns posts between 2012-13. A lot of my old reviews were split between multiple posts, but I’ve now merged these into single entries. I’ve also reformatted a lot of other posts to tidy them up and hopefully corrected any remaining typos. I think everything is mostly okay now, but I’m sure I’ve missed one or two things.

I’ve also added Contact links to the side of the main Blog page, which just makes them more visible than on their own dedicated page. You’ll notice a YouTube link which I’ll be doing a post about soon. In terms of other upcoming posts, I expect to do a writing update this month or in early February depending on how things go with my current project. I also have one or two game reviews lined up. I’d also like to do a Top 10 Favourite Games post, but it’s bloody hard picking what titles to include. I wouldn’t expect that any time soon, if at all.

Speaking of games, it’s looking like something of a sparse year. A friend gifted me Far Cry 4 in the Steam sale, so I’ve got that to play, but the only thing I bought for myself was another Attila DLC. There really wasn’t anything else that interested me too much. In fact, looking ahead, there’s not much coming out I’m particularly excited about.

There’s Total War: Warhammer. There’s the new Tomb Raider, I guess. The new Deus Ex. Oh, and a new Mirror’s Edge which hopefully won’t be shit. Dishonored 2? Is that 2016? Yeah. I guess I can always do some more retro reviews or something.