Saturday, 19 March 2016

Total War: Warhammer - Battle AI & Magic

I’ve not yet pre-ordered Total War: Warhammer as I’m still waiting to see more non-scripted campaign and battle footage. But I do like what I’ve seen so far. One of my main concerns, however, is how the Battle AI will adapt to the new magic system.

Total War has had ‘magic’ abilities of a sort for some time – buff and de-buff abilities to boost friendly unit morale or apply morale penalties to enemy units. But it’s always been somewhat rare to see the Battle AI make effective use of these skills. So how will the AI in Total War: Warhammer cope with an expanded system of varying magical buffs, de-buffs and offensive spells?

We’ve already seen through a few videos how effective magic can be – how it can turn the tide of battle in your favour if used at the appropriate time against the appropriate unit. But, until recently, we’ve not seen any clear indication of how effective the Battle AI will be at handling magic – at understanding how and when to use it.

That changed during a Total War: Warhammer live stream as part of the Vampire Counts reveal in which we see the AI make surprisingly effective use of the magic at its disposal. You can view a recording of the stream here -

At various times throughout the stream you can clearly see the AI applying magic buffs to its units. A great example is at 01:35:00, when the AI buffs a unit of goblins in pursuit of the player’s heavy cavalry.

At 01:24:00, the player attempts to flank behind the enemy with three units of dire wolves, but the AI uses magic to effectively wipe out all three units before they can even reach its lines. We don’t know which spells are used, but we see at least three separate casts targeting the wolves, including a de-buff effect.

At 01:06:40, we see the AI target the player’s cavalry with an offensive spell. It then immediately buffs two units of spears on its flank to counter the enemy charge.

Obviously, we can’t make any firm judgements about the Battle AI and how it will cope with the new magic system on such limited content, but what little I’ve seen does appear promising. In many ways, I’d argue the AI used its magic far more effectively than the player in these battles, and it will always have the advantage of being able to target and apply these spells much faster than a normal human player.

The question is whether it can target and apply these spells appropriately – at the most effective place at the most effective time. So far, at least, it seems that it can, and that’s gone some way to alleviating my concerns.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Now Playing: Vanquish

Vanquish is your fairly standard, cover based third person shooter. As you’d expect from such a title, you must advance through a series of linear environments, tackling set waves of enemies before waiting for the next checkpoint to trigger. This is followed by a plot progressing cut-scene. Boss fights are sprinkled throughout, some of which are repeated with the addition of a challenging twist.

The core gameplay consists of a cover based system, allowing you to blind fire or snap out of cover and aim. You can also vault over cover and roll to avoid fire. There’s a ‘slow-motion’ mechanic which you can manually activate, but which will also automatically activate at low health. You can carry three weapons in addition to two grenade types. You also have a basic melee attack.

So far, so generic, right? But Vanquish isn’t your typical cover based third person shooter. No. It’s a Platinum Games cover based third person shooter. And what does that mean? It means that whilst many of the elements of Vanquish are exactly as you’d expect for this genre, all of it is dialled up to 11. No, make that 12.

Many games tend to ease the player in. They build pace as they go. Not Vanquish. Vanquish is balls to the wall from the moment you begin and it never lets up. It’s a hard game to pull yourself away from. There’s very little to no downtime or ‘quiet’ moments during or between combat sections. Vanquish isn’t the longest game – only 4-5 hours on the default difficulty – but every single second is pretty damn fantastic.

The action is fast and frenetic. Cover is actually rarely used, as mobility is key. Whereas many similar cover based shooters tend to be more of a slow plod from point A to B, Vanquish is a mad dash with rocket boots. You can perform a powered ‘slide’ across the environments, during which you can shoot and activate your slow-motion ability.

Your boosting and slow-motion does have a cost, however, and its energy reserve must recharge. It can also overheat through over-use, leaving you vulnerable. It’s important to manage the use of this energy and use it to your advantage at the appropriate time. This is where a little strategy and timing becomes involved on the battlefield.

But the more you become accustomed to using the boost and slow-motion abilities and their associated cost, the more effective you’ll become, zipping about the battle and taking down multiple foes without taking so much as a scratch. It may sound easy, but on higher difficulties Vanquish will give you a run for your money – you really have to manage your energy usage efficiently if you want to survive.

Being a Platinum Games title, Vanquish has the kind of ridiculous, over the top story and characters you’d expect. You play as Sam Gideon, a special operative of DARPA on a mission to stop an evil Russian guy from firing a giant laser and destroying New York City. It’s silly, forgettable nonsense, but it will make you smile.

There’s a decent selection of weapons ranging from the standard assault rifle, shotgun and sniper rifle, to the more advanced lock-on laser and LFE gun. All of these can be improved by collecting various upgrades, and all feel satisfying to use thanks to some excellent audio and visual feedback.

Vanquish is looking a little rough around the edges these days, but it’s still a very nice looking game, with some great enemy design and variety. You’re mostly fighting robots which come in all shapes and sizes. The environments are fairly small and linear, but they do allow a degree of freedom to flank behind an enemy position. And the game certainly pushes itself (and the framerate) to the limit at times as hundreds of missiles blast through the air, or giant lasers rip their way through the scenery. Despite being a cover based shooter, you’ll never want to sit in one place for too long and it’s actually rather dangerous to do so.

There’s not much more I can say about Vanquish. It may be somewhat short and limited in terms of content, and it’s true that the gameplay never really evolves beyond ‘go really fast and shoot a lot’, but what more does it need? I suppose you could argue a few changes of pace wouldn’t have been so bad, although it does regularly introduce new enemy types and weapons, which helps keep you on your toes.

The ending feels a little abrupt, and the final level and boss fight isn’t quite the exciting climax you might hope for. I would have also preferred some mixing up of the gameplay in terms of environments. There’s a great rotating zero gravity section for example, and I would have liked a few more unique situations like this.

I wouldn’t say Vanquish is a title with a great deal of depth, although playing on the harder settings does require a little more thought and strategy, particularly in terms of managing your energy expenditure. It’s a game which is a fun rush to play, and I don’t think it’s really trying to be much more.

If I had to compare it to another Platinum title in terms of gameplay, I’d say Metal Gear Rising offers a combat system with more depth and scope to master. Vanquish may be a little simpler, arguably more shallow, but certainly no less ridiculously fun. Fun! Remember that?


Friday, 11 March 2016

Death Tank Zwei

Death Tank Zwei is a 2D real time multiplayer game that was bundled as a bonus game in the Sega Saturn version of Duke Nukem 3D. And as much as I enjoyed playing Duke 3D, I actually spent far more time playing this bonus game. In fact, Death Tank Zwei is probably the game I sunk more time into than any other on the Saturn.

So what is it, and why is it so good? It’s a 2-7 player free for all deathmatch game. Each player controls a single ‘tank’ which is represented by a different coloured block. The tanks are dropped at random onto the map screen – a solid yellow terrain with a purple sky. Movement of the tanks is slow and steady, but their range is limited somewhat by the generated terrain, which creates all manner of varying dips and hills.

The objective is to destroy all other tanks. Each tank has a standard shot which reloads every 2-3 seconds and you can aim by adjusting a targeting arrow to determine the angle of the shot and the range. The longer the match goes on, the more the terrain lowers and flattens until it eventually becomes a single plain.

By destroying enemy tanks, you’ll earn money you can spend on additional weapons and upgrades between rounds (and you can set how many rounds you want in a match, anywhere from 5-200). These weapons include things such as nukes, rolling mines, missiles, machine guns and my personal favourite – the Death’s Head – a devastating cluster bomb (although very embarrassing when you miss with it).

Obviously, the more powerful the weapons and upgrades, the more they cost. So do you save your money for the good stuff, or buy cheaper weapons to give you an immediate edge? Other upgrades include a deflecting shield, an explosive charge (which releases shrapnel on death, hopefully taking the enemy out with you) and my other personal favourite – the jump jets – which allow you to bounce across the battlefield. Weapons, such as the nukes, will also degrade the environment, and can actually be useful for punching a hole through terrain that may be blocking your line of sight, or for creating your own cover.

So whilst Death Tank may look like a rather simple game by its graphics, there’s actually a lot of depth to its gameplay. Its short rounds and the escalation of the conflict as heavy weapons come into play create an addictive and very enjoyable multiplayer experience. I actually bought a Saturn multi-tap just for this game, but I rarely got to use it.

I don’t think everyone appreciated Death Tank as much as I did. It was all about the fancy 3D graphics back in 1997 and there I was raving about a 2D game with a yellow map, a purple sky and various coloured blocks. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my love for the game, as a friend and I both got hooked and would spend hours battling one another. What else? The game has a great intro theme which I still recall to this day, as well as a fun little random ‘blitz round’ where all tanks can fire repeatedly without the need to reload.

Death Tank Zwei is another of my all time favourite games and simply one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s something I break out and play whenever I get the chance. Just writing this post has made me want to play it again. Unfortunately, I’ve got no one to play it with right now which kind of sucks. DEATH TANK! DEATH TANK! DEATH TANK! YEAH!

Monday, 7 March 2016

Now Playing: Dragon Force

Originally released on the Sega Saturn in 1996, Dragon Force is a mixture of turn based strategy and real time tactical battles. Set in the fantasy world of Legendra, you begin your campaign by choosing one of eight factions. Your choice of faction determines your start position on the campaign map, your Monarch and your initial set of Generals.

Although the overall story is the same regardless of faction, each faction has its own unique story based cut-scenes and events. Each faction is also initially tailored to a specific type of unit. There are ten different unit types, ranging from the standard soldier and cavalry units, to the more exotic zombie, dragon and harpy units.

The game is divided between two modes – the real time campaign and the tactical battles. The campaign map gives you an overview of Legendra, with your armies represented by a single soldier based upon your Monarch. Each army can contain up to five Generals, each of which can lead a single unit of up to 100 troops. Movement on the campaign map is restricted to set paths between villages and castles, the latter of which can be occupied to expand your territory.

All of this might sound a little like a Total War game. And in many ways, it is. In fact, Dragon Force is probably the only reason I began playing Total War. I never came across another strategy game which offered a similar set up of turn based campaign and tactical battles until I saw the original Shogun on sale.

But Dragon Force isn’t quite the same. The campaign, although split into timed ‘turns’ (each representing a week) actually moves in real time (although it can be paused to issue commands). So you really need to keep an eye on what’s happening all across the map, as the AI factions advance, retreat and occupy all at the same time.

When two opposing armies meet (all factions are at war, there’s no diplomatic options or alliances) you’ll enter a real time tactical battle. The enemy will select one of their Generals to fight. Each General has their own level, stats and unit type. The player will then select a General of their own to face them on the battlefield.

The battles, like the campaign, are entirely 2D with sprite based units, animations and effects. Before the battle you can set a unit formation (offence / defence / raid / breach) and then issue commands when the battle begins (advance / charge / disperse / hold). The two armies will clash on the field, but the battle won’t be won until a General is defeated or retreats.

Each General has their own health bar and special skills which can turn the tide of battle to their favour. They’re essentially ‘hero’ units, and fighting battles will grant them experience enabling them to level up, grow more powerful and learn new skills. But Generals alone won’t win you battles. You’ll also need to select the right kind of troops.

Some unit types are more or less effective depending on what type of unit they face. For example, the monk unit absolutely destroys zombie units, but performs very poorly against archers and dragons. Knowing how effective each unit type will be against another is the key to victory. Which is also why it’s important to build varied armies of multiple unit types.

Defeating a General and capturing them will also give you the option to recruit them, enabling you to build more armies and expand your territory more rapidly. Occupying castles is important, as they serve to reinforce your men from a growing pool of reserves. They also offer an important terrain bonus depending on the level of the castle.

At the end of the every turn, you’ll enter the ‘administration’ mode of Dragon Force. This is where you’ll typically see story based events, but it’s also where you’ll bestow awards upon your Generals (giving them more troops to command), recruit more Generals from those you’ve captured, fortify castles (to increase their level) and also search castles for useful items such as weapons or stat boosts which can be equipped to individual characters.

Regardless of which faction you choose, this is how you’ll spend the first ‘half’ of Dragon Force. You’ll be expanding across the campaign map, occupying castles, recruiting new Generals, levelling up your Generals and increasing their unit counts. Over time, you’ll destroy the other factions, and once you’ve captured their Monarch, they’ll then join your army.

I won’t get too much into the story, but it’s fairly straightforward. There’s an evil God and eight chosen heroes on a quest to defeat him. Eight heroes. Eight faction Monarchs. Yeah, it’s not hard to figure out. And that’s when Dragon Force takes a neat turn and transforms almost into a traditional party based RPG.

Because once you’ve conquered the entire map and all the other factions, you must then embark on a quest with those eight heroes to recover certain items which will help you defeat the evil God. This all builds to a final showdown where you’ll face the evil God himself and destroy him. It’s pretty cool.

Dragon Force still looks and sounds great even today. And although the story is fairly serious, there’s a lot of humour injected throughout thanks to the varied characters. There’s also a lot of hidden / bonus content, as certain characters will interact differently with others, and there are also special Generals you can find by exploring certain locations on the campaign map.

With each faction having its own unique story based events, it makes playing each faction a somewhat unique experience, at least in the early game. Oh, and one thing I can’t not mention, although it is a little bit of a spoiler, is the giant robot that crashes onto the campaign map and starts tearing up your shit with lasers. No, I’m serious. There’s a giant robot in this fantasy based game. It’s so bizarre, especially when you have to recover a legendary magic sword to destroy it.

Okay, so what about some more negative aspects of Dragon Force? Well, I guess my main issue is that it’s all a little too easy. The AI factions rarely consolidate their forces in the same way you do, meaning it’s far too easy to whittle an opposing faction down one General at a time. They also never really expand beyond one or two extra castles, so once you’ve absorbed 2 or 3 other factions, taking the rest of the map becomes a matter of time rather than skill.

Something that always irritated me is the re-spawning ‘evil’ Generals. There’s a pair of them that reappear every 3-4 turns. They can prove troublesome early on, but as they never grow more powerful, they become more of an annoyance than a threat. You get some similar armies towards the end game that keep reappearing, but that’s when things are wrapping up so it’s not such an issue.

Overall, Dragon Force remains an engaging and enjoyable title. It’s still fiendishly addictive, and I’d often find myself playing ‘just one more turn’ of the campaign rather than quitting when I’d intended to. It’s a shame I never got to play the sequel which was only released in Japan. Dragon Force is one of the key games that got me into strategy, and it’s the entire reason I began playing Total War. Not just one of my all time favourite games, but one of the best, too.