Wargame design has developed so profoundly over the past four decades that a collection spanning this era almost feels like a series of geological strata. From the perfunctory Nixonian arithmetic of military integers dressed up as history in early SPI games, to the multilateral multi-impulse area movement Avalon Hill games of the first Bush Administration, to the Clintonesque triangulation of the card-driven games that moved history from the rulebook to a little story you held in your hand, the chase of verisimilitude has seen a steady stream of devices meant to get us to that ultimate grail: to touch history. Modern designers have an impressive arsenal of mechanics to assist them in this quest. Yet the goal too often, for one reason or another, eludes them.Continue reading →
Fighting games are a form of puppetry. You pull the strings, an insensate doll animates, videogame violence ensues. Most of the puppetry has gotten really complex because most of the puppeteers have gotten really good, and therefore more demanding. They expect long deep learning curves and literal split second timing. Those learning curves get deeper and that timing gets more precise as brawlers like God of War and Devil May Cry lure away the more casual players like me.
But One Finger Death Punch believes we should all be puppeteers.
Sometimes when you’re playing The Swindle, a steampunk heist game with cool steampunky progression to pull you through procedurally generated heists, you get a gimme. A lightly defended computer stuffed with cash, right next to the entrance, with only a couple of robot guards strolling by on their preset patrol paths. Knock out the robots, hack a couple of thousand quid out of the machine, and beat feet back to your airship pod. With that kind of gift laid at your feet, there’s no question of pushing the risk/reward calculations any further. With pockets that full, why risk running deeper in to scoop up whatever change is lying around on the floor?
But other times, you get a network of defenses sealed tight behind brick walls, swarming with guards, festooned with landmines, eyed jealously by overlapping cameras wired to alarms. No point bothering. Make do with the scant money you found in the foyer and call it a day. The procedural generation giveth, the procedural generation sometimes don’t giveth.
It’s been 25 years since I was captivated by Simtex’s Master of Orion and Master of Magic games. Since then, no one has understood Simtex’s appeal to my imagination as well as Triumph Studios with their Age of Wonders series. After wallowing luxuriantly in rich (if somewhat generic) fantasy, hammering away at their design like a dwarven smith banging on a mithril battle axe, they’ve pivoted to science fiction. With Planetfall, they’ve given me everything I want in a 4X, but this time with robots, lasers, alien bugs, hovertanks, extradimensional threats from beyond the galaxy, all that jazz.
But this isn’t science fiction among the stars. It’s planet-bound, and to Triumph’s credit, that’s clear in the name. This is hoverboots-on-the-ground sci-fi in the tradition of Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri, itself a vividly reimagined science fiction version of Sid Meier’s Civilization. You won’t be mastering Orion because Orion is a star. You will instead be mastering Ringworld, Hyperion, Hoth, Pandora.
And Triumph makes it look easy, because they understand how simple it is to make a great 4X. Just put interesting units with interesting abilities in battles against interesting enemies for the interesting development of an interesting place. That’s all there is to it. I mean, duh. Right?
As soon as you boot up Field of Glory: Empires, you can tell what you’re getting. Just look at that patchwork map with those little armies standing around. Look at all those numbers and tooltips and region labels. Looking at the adoringly historical spreadsheet propping it all up. This is a clone of a Paradox game.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Almost all strategy games are based on either the Sid Meier’s Civilization model or the Paradox spreadsheet model. Consider Aggressors: Ancient Rome, which covers the same part of the world during the same time period as Empires (the ancient Mediterranean is a popular playground second only to World War II). Aggressors hews so closely to the Civilization formula that it can feel a bit like Civilization, but with an arbitrary cutoff date before you get to the fun stuff with caravels, gunpowder, and railroads. It raises the question, “Why aren’t you just playing a Civilization?” The answer, of course, is that you want more historical specificity, and that’s what Aggressors has to offer in its Civilization-shaped package. But will that answer work for Field of Glory: Empires when Paradox already has games with the same historical specificity?
You can play X-com for the first time exactly once. And what a precious time that once. All the mystery and uncertainty, the danger, the discovery, the horror of what those weird little aliens were doing to our cows. Our innocent cows! What else were they up to? What would you reveal when you finished researching this thing that you found? What startling discoveries would you make on the UFOpedia? What new powers and weapons would your soldiers carry down the ramp of the Sky Ranger? What horrific things would happen out in the field? What was out there, in the darkness, just outside the range of your flare? And what is that? You’ve never seen one of those before!
Even after Firaxis picked up the mantle and applied lessons learned from a decade or so of game design, it was a reboot of some of the same mysteries, the same settings, the same aliens, the same weapons. It was familiar territory, which is partly the point of a reboot. UFOs invading Earth is old-school comfort food, familiar and delicious. Even XCOM 2’s slightly forced concept of a rebel uprising against conquering aliens was mostly familiar. New words for the same concepts.
Then there’s Phoenix Point.
In modern aerial combat, aircraft fight against blips on screens. Maybe — just maybe — they might fight against a speck far off in the sky. Conflict and technology has advanced in such a way that combatants stand farther and farther apart. From the bow to the gun to artillery to aircraft to ballistic missiles to remotely piloted drones. In future combat in the vacuum of space, combatants will stand even farther apart.
What’s an arcade space game to do? The best it can. Even then, you’re usually fighting specks far off in space. If you squint, you just might be able to make out a shape. Is that supposed to be a spaceship? Yes, it’s supposed to be a spaceship. Then when you get closer, spaceships are so fast and a monitor only affords so much screen real estate, that you’ll miss it if you blink. When things get really up close and personal, you can try to follow a reticle some distance in front of whatever you’re trying to shoot. Blips, specks, and reticles.
To some people logistics is a chore. A necessary part of getting to the fun stuff. The vegetables. To others — me, for instance — logistics is a foundation for the fun stuff. Without logistics in a game, you’re sort of cheating. How did those bullets get into that gun? How did that fuel get into that spaceship? How did that party get its rations for the trip to Evil Wizard Castle? What’s in that caravan you have to escort? How did this tavern get its mead? To be perfectly honest, I’d rather move something from point A to point B than shoot a bad guy, slay a monster, or even build a fort.
One of my favorite things in Master of Orion wasn’t any black hole generator or Darlok espionage mission or huge ultra rich gaia planet. It was getting food from farm planets to the colonies that needed it to grow. This is as good a place as any for a quick shout-out to Star Ruler 2, one of the most lovingly logistics-intensive science fiction strategy games you will ever play. I’m making that chef’s kiss gesture as I type this.
And who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?
-Leonard Cohen, “Who By Fire”
It’s the summer of 2114. South America just collapsed into anarchy due to, I’m told, “cataclysmic heat stress”. It joins North America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Russia, Europe, and Oceania still stand, each shoved closer to chaos by this year’s heat stress. The world will probably end next year. It might hold out until 2116 if it’s lucky. There’s nothing I, or the board of directors, or our company, or the European government, or anyone else can do. Which is especially disappointing, since my new body would have lasted until 2120. Those are four years I’ll never see. I paid dearly for them. 200 million for the body, 400 million for the tank it grew in.
Did I mention that we just launched a new Autoposter into the Russian market? Just Russia. Europe and Oceania have banned Autoposters. To appeal to the Russian predilection for privacy, we called it Never Bare Again. “Do we really have to bare all on social media?” our messaging suggested to shy Russians. “Do we have to share our deepest secrets, confess our truest selves? No. With Autoposter, we’ll fill your feed with content that has zero personal info.” A $30 million launch that will only make $6.36 in its first year. Minus whatever losses are caused by next year’s cataclysms. It’s not easy to turn a profit as the world burns.Continue reading →
Red Faction: Guerilla not only introduced the idea of a fully destructible world, but it remains the only example of it 10 years later. It could have been a revolution. But fully destructible worlds are hard to do. Level designers also have to be architects, because understanding how a building collapses also requires understanding how it’s built. The ingame physics require elaborate rules for destruction. Weight distribution, stress, intricate collision detection, gravity, kinetic energy, all interacting to do something that would be much easier to script with a set of canned animations. It’s much easier to fake it. The rules for chaos are many and complex. That’s why it’s called chaos. So videogame developers carried on, pretending like Red Faction: Guerilla never happened. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. It’s also a perfectly viable approach to game design.
There is no such excuse for why more games don’t copy Depths of Peril, an action RPG with a dynamic world instead of a field that grows loot and monsters to be harvested and grown all over again. Depths of Peril was a revolutionary action RPG in which the world changes as much as the hero. 12 years later and there’s only one guy copying this idea. And he’s the same guy who made Depths of Peril. It’s a failure of videogame development that Soldak Entertainment’s Steven Peeler doesn’t have any competition.
I just got a new car and, let me tell you, it is something else. It feels remarkable. The steering wheel under my fingertips, the responsive grip of the tires on the road, the graceful suspension, the throaty purr of the engine. And the interior! Plush seats that feel like they were made to fit me, fancy leather, lots of cool lights on the dashboard. It’s a dream to drive this thing, to sit in it, to take it across town, to admire it.
Well, it would be if it weren’t for a couple of features.Continue reading →
There is a long stretch of six-lane blacktop going from Kuwait City to Basra, officially known as Highway 80. To most of the world, it’s the Highway of Death, and it’s the home of the most enduring images of Operation Desert Storm. You’ve probably seen them. Hundreds of burnt vehicles littering a desolate road. Mangled metal and smoking rubber for miles. The aftermath of Mad Max. Multiple Mad Maxes. There are pages of scholarly debate on the subject of the Highway of Death. I won’t bore you with the details, but the summary is that on February 26th, 1991, Coalition forces, led by the U.S. military, targeted the retreating Iraqi army just north of Al Jahra. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were bombed, shot, or roasted along the road during the 10-hour assault. One pilot later said the battle was “like shooting fish in a barrel.”
In Call of Duty Modern Warfare, the Highway of Death has moved to the fictional country of Urzikstan, and it’s the villainous Russians that did the deed instead of us. That may be the most telling bit of how this Call of Duty treats war.Continue reading →
I couldn’t tell you much about the national character of Finland. Unlike their Scandanavian neighbors, Finns don’t often express themselves in my preferred media of movies and videogames. Some of the world’s best and boldest filmmakers are from Denmark. Swedes have made some of my favorite videogames, and a couple of my favorite movies. Even Norway has gotten into my head. But Finland? I’ve seen two Aki Kaurismaki movies and I can’t even remember their names. I just remember concluding Finland is a bleak place with strange ideas about humor. For a sense of the deadpan minimalism of Finnish humor, look at the website for My Summer Car. Better yet, play My Summer Car, which might be a prank.
One of my touchstones for Finnish storytelling is a movie called Sauna, historical horror about a joint Finnish/Russian expedition to map the border between the two countries. It sounds like an oddly specific subject if you don’t appreciate Finland’s fraught history with Russia, especially during the 20th century. This fraught history is why Finland is one of two countries whose name is also a verb (Vietnam being the other). Finlandization means trying to not get swallowed by a hungry, vast, ruthless, bureaucratic nightmare crouched right next to you. The geopolitical equivalent of standing completely still and hoping the T-Rex doesn’t see you. So perhaps it’s a matter of national character that Control is a horror story about a hungry, vast, ruthless, bureaucratic nightmare.Continue reading →
The elevator pitch for Children of Morta isn’t exactly encouraging. A pixel-art action RPG. From the creators of nothing you’ve played, because I’m pretty sure you didn’t play Shadow Blade or Garshasp. Hold on, let me make sure I spelled that right. Yep. Garshasp.
You can see a screenshot up there of Children of Morta in action. Like I said, not exactly encouraging. It doesn’t help that Steam is lousy with these things.Continue reading →
I was crestfallen when Marvel Heroes, an online action RPG that ran for nearly five years, shut down in 2017. Not necessarily because I played it a lot. I didn’t, really. I indulged in fits and starts. Bursts of colorful nonsense now and then, here and there. Whenever I wanted I could drop in and make some little Wolverine or Iron Man punch things and shoot lasers. A colorful swirl of whooshing effects, leveling up, and loot scooping. I even learned things. Did you know there’s a superhero named Squirrel Girl? She was to squirrels what Willard was to rats, except with the chipper demeanor of an Eisenhower-era sorority girl on her way to the malt shop. Oh, Marvel.