Total War: Attila (PC) Review

Total War: Attila (PC) Review

Strategy games can afford to be slow. In the world of fast-paced action and expedient RPGs, there’s a place for games that take their time. Strategy benefits greatly from a slower pace, particularly on single-player experiences where the player can take their time to relax if necessary. Hybrid turn-based/real-time games like Total War require a proper balance of this, and Attila seems a tad on the slow side – the multiple mechanics tending to slow everything down.
attilainsert2This historical strategy game is set during the time of Attila the Hun, around the turn of the fourth century, allowing you to play most of the factions of the Western world, from the nomadic Huns to the two fragments of the great Roman Empire, from the Viking lands to the middle-eastern empire of the Shah. All of these factions are playable in grand campaigns lasting over the years, divided into ‘Chapters’ defined by periods of time. The game’s mission system comes in three flavours – the Chapter missions, which last a pre-set amount of years and have several bonus missions based around the history of the factions (that grant money bonuses to you). There’s also random missions with goals such as taking a city, destroying a faction, or building a certain structure in your city, and an overall “Victory” tree that have several complex and ambitious sets of goals, that will result in your beating the game. These missions serve to motivate you on your quest for conquest, and give you direction in dealing with its multiple systems.

I would rate this game on par with Civilization in terms of complexity – that and Dragon Commander are my main experience with games of this calibre. I did find it somewhat daunting to play this game and learn the system, if only because the Prologue – a mini-campaign functioning as a tutorial – is so awful. It deliberately locks game features and requires you to complete specific missions to open those elements – which can be easily broken when other factions do things like obliterate cities you need to capture or sack. There’s an advisor in the main game who explains game mechanics, though he tends to be somewhat erratic in what info he decides to give you – he’s otherwise quite helpful as describing situations and game mechanics. There is, of course, an encyclopedia of all the in-game mechanics and elements, but I found it loaded slowly takes some time to navigate. In the end, I tried learning some things by trial and error, but the broken missions in the Prologue bothered me. In the main game, missions can become impossible if the target is destroyed, and I even had completed goals become undone by the NPCs (such as my attempt to unite the Vikings foiled by one of the kingdoms packing up and becoming nomadic). Since such bonus goals only pay out when the chapter ends, it gives a degree of challenge to the game.
attilainsert6Sadly, I never played Crusader Kings, knowing it only through my History-majoring roommates, so I won’t be making too many comparison, but it does seem like the lineage management element has become quite popular. Your kingdoms have a royal family, with spouses (only males can take positions of power, unfortunately for those who want their Boudiccas in another era) and other nobles. Since the family and nobles comprise your generals who command your armies or governors who command states, you need to manage their traits carefully and plan for if they die (which is somewhat easy in battle). Every so often, random change grants you new traits and experience in battle or governing allows you to build stats. The stat system is pretty clearly defined, and it does add a somewhat enjoyable aspect to the game as you manage your family’s control on your nation.

Micromanaging stats and states is my favourite element of the game, over the battles. States are actually quite simple, with a series of slots where you can put buildings that affect other stats. Some of the variables are not entirely clear at first, with lots of numbers thrown around, and the menus are somewhat cumbersome to navigate. The game warns you of any critical business in an events tab and with warnings should you try to end your turn, but you still should make sure to check all the relevant tabs (family, each province of three stats, and each army) before you go. Armies don’t warn you if they movement left, which I feel is a critical thing to do, since it can be hard to keep track of armies even with the list. While I enjoyed the juggling act of choosing which buildings to fit in the very limited slots (four for most settlements, six for a capitol, of which you have two and one, respectively per province). Hordes – nations with only army units, and no cities, that have their own structures only available when you make camp – are a neat touch that don’t differ too radically from stationary cities beyond resources.
attilainsert7And, of course, there’s the army battles, the mainstay of the series. I will say there is something viscerally satisfying about positioning their armies and seeing them converge on each other, watching their health bars tick down. It’s also somewhat inconsistent on timing, often leaning on the slow side to me. Timing is quite important in order to ensure that the right units hit at the right time, especially considering flanking is a great way to break enemies down. In practice, fights often lasted about ten minutes or so, but it felt like longer, even with individual unit skills. Overall, I’m not sure what I was expecting with this – a game like this requires a certain pace in order to be manageable and still expect a modicum of strategy and tactical planning. A few other factors, such as naval battles being cumbersome and confusing (boarding has a bar indicating which way the battle’s swaying, that I’m not entirely certain about) and it makes the auto-resolution more tempting, even though it often lead to more casualties.

The thing is, I do find myself getting into the swing of this game, and being unable to put it down, until some of the bugs affect it. This game takes many hours to play a campaign, which is a definite plus, but those hours can be quite tedious when cutscene loading and strange hang-ups occur. My units would get stuck on the coast when disembarking from the sea on some occasions, presumably locked own by nearby hostile units, but in practice locked forever with an inability to interact with the world (an enemy’s High King was trapped a city of mine like this).
attilainsert8In the end, all of these systems are interesting, but they fail to wow me. While this isn’t a new series, this kind of hybrid of turn-based management and real-time strategy tends to suffer from a lack of focus. The lineage, city and army management aspects and the real-time army management are all right on their own, but they’re limited by the need to offer time to the other ones. That the game outlines different factions in terms of difficulty for the player means you’ll be able to choose your challenge, but in all difficulties, you’re still playing about four miniature games in one. And if you’re playing that for hours upon hours, that will get somewhat repetitive.

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon (PS3) Review

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon (PS3) Review

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon is designed as a mindless arcade-style action game in which you shoot insects and robots until there aren’t any more insects and robots left to shoot. At that level, it’s at least a functional experience. The game is halfway decent when you’re playing co-op and the by-the-numbers gameplay is competent enough to be inoffensive.

The problem, unfortunately, is that Insect Armageddon just doesn’t have any kind of lasting appeal. Once the game starts the bugs just…keep…coming, and the complete lack of mission variety rapidly becomes tedious when you’re shooting the same three insects in the same crumbling urban locations. Insect Armageddon ultimately feels like a modern descendent of Space Invaders and Missile Command, and while that might have once been a compliment, those arcade games were mean to be enjoyed one quarter at a time and fleeting thrills aren’t enough to sustain a modern retail release.

As for Insect Armageddon, you’re playing as members of the Lightning Squad sent in to fight off an invasion of alien Ravagers, who arrive on Earth with an army of giant robots, giant insects, and giant robot insects. The plot is mostly on vacation, but it is occasionally entertaining (the people running the EDF need to work on their communication skills) and the tone matches the game’s arcade style.

Other than that, there’s really not all that much to say. Bullets go in the direction you tell them to, insects die when they get hit with those bullets, and there are a slew of weapon upgrades and other unlockable features that reward players for racking up the kills. The game supports solo, split-screen, and online co-op play for both the campaign and the arcade survival mode, and there are four different unit types that all have distinct strengths and weaknesses.

Sadly, the actual gameplay is severely unbalanced in a way that mitigates the apocalyptic chaos. Insect Armageddon is at its best when you’re battling massive hordes and some of the warzones deliver appropriately intense quantities of ants and spiders. Once you’ve cleared those out, however, most encounters are reduced to lazy struggles against robots that can absorb literally dozens of rockets before going down. It takes far more time to mop up the non-threatening mechs than it does to deal with the spiders, so your lasting impression will probably be one of busywork instead of genuine Armageddon.

 

The creature design is similarly lackluster, which is disappointing for a game in which giant monsters are the sole aesthetic selling point. Most of the boss battles are simply larger versions of enemies you’ve already defeated, and bipedal robots and fighter jets feel entirely out of place in a game called Insect Armageddon.

Couple all of that with an occasional sound glitch that makes the game virtually unplayable (imagine a hideous squelching noise that sounds like a whoopee cushion dying inside your television), and you have a budget title that still isn’t worth the $40 price of admission. I know that Insect Armageddon is supposed to be the sort of game that allows you to turn your brain off, but there are dozens of titles competing for that mind space and there are far better ways to spend the rest of your brief summer vacation.

Dungeon Siege III (PS3) Review

Dungeon Siege III (PS3) Review

Another Early Crest In The Diablo Wave

The big tsunami for an entire genre, Diablo III is still gathering momentum somewhere out in the sea of game development, but there are plenty of titles attempting to fill the dungeon crawling void until it comes in. The indie hit Torchlight is one example, the recent Dungeon Hunter: Alliance was another and now, with mild surprise, we have the arrival of Dungeon Siege III, a series best known as an action RPG for the PC that now finds itself on the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well. In making the transition to consoles, it also jumps into the age of modern multi-player, and it succeeds on all but one of the most important fronts.

Join The Legion. Run For Your Life.

Dungeon Siege III is a separate, entirely new adventure that takes place in the same world as the first two games, but 150 years later, with little past knowledge of the franchise required to play the game. The 10th Legion is a combination of military unit and semi-ruling authority over a small kingdom, until they are all but annihilated by a woman known as Jeyne Kassynder, “the living saint.” The players choose characters to take up arms and the expected epic quest begins.

As dungeon crawlers go, Dungeon Siege III holds up well, with colorful, detailed art direction, although the PC version looks cleanest and sharpest. The console versions can struggle somewhat in the framerate department during heavy environmental scenes, such as when players arrive at their first city, Stonebridge, and chugging occurs as the buildings give Obsidian’s custom Onyx engine a workout. Happily, this isn’t the case where it counts most, which is combat. A ridiculous number of particle effects, lights and enemies can all be on screen with four players simultaneously and there’s nary a hiccup. The audio side of the game also holds up well. While the vocal performances are uneven, ranging from competent to somewhat flat, there’s no terrible performances anywhere. The music is appropriate to the setting with the expected soaring orchestral compositions, and the combat effects come fast and hard, though it’s not quite the surround sound experience of a first person shooter. Don’t expect your subwoofer to work a lot on this one if you’ve got an elaborate sound set-up.

Yup, It’s A Dungeon Crawler

If anyone is waiting patiently for a release date on Diablo III, then the short version of this review is; this will keep you quite happily occupied in the meantime, with one glaring caveat. Anyone familiar with the genre is venturing into well known territory here. You pick one of four characters, you wander various dungeons, you kill things, you get experience points and you get loot like weapons, armor and accessories. This is the basis of the genre, and Dungeon Siege III covers all the basics more than adequately.

The four available characters are all distinct, and though any one of them can be used in solo play, there are obvious, desirable combinations, usually involving Lucas, the only pure melee character, and someone else. Each character has two “stances,” which in the case of the other three means longed range and close range styles and in the case of Lucas, means a more defensive sword/shield combo versus the more damaging two handed sword. They each have enough variety and uniqueness that any player will likely find a favorite.

A minor disappointment on the character side is the RPG component. Characters do get XP and they do level up, getting to choose new skills, but the skill sets and player progression are not as comprehensive as more recent titles like Borderlands or the Dragon Age series. Granted, this is an action-RPG, but then so is Borderlands, and that gave players the option of dropping points into specific attributes, whereas here, attribute progression is dependent entirely on the gear equipped.

In terms of loot, which is the heart and soul of a dungeon crawler, Obsidian have handled things intelligently. A lot of features for loot and its management have previously appeared in games going as far back as Diablo II to more modern loot-fests like the recent Dungeon Hunter: Alliance. Loot is color coded to indicate value and rarity, and inventory management has the much appreciated “transmute” feature that allows players to sell equipment on the fly, but at a lower cost than if they’d taken it to a merchant in town. Loot is randomly generated, so aside from a few, fixed, story-related items here and there, opening a chest—even after something like just reloading to the last checkpoint, can yield radically different results.

In general, the gameplay is also up to the task of handling dungeon crawling duties. The controls are responsive, there are some nice interface touches, such as players being marked out by a colored circle on the ground to better keep track of position during hectic fights, and the difficulty always manages to provide a distinct challenge without feeling unfair. You can play the game either solo, with an AI companion, or with friends locally or online, but the game is clearly designed as a co-op experience. Solo play works, but the balancing of the game and the tactics available for use clearly are meant to be experienced by friends playing together. And this is where Obsidian dropped the ball.

In local co-op, the game is for two players only, and this mostly works, except for the irritating design decision to not give individual players individual menus. In Borderlands for example (which, is a split-screen game in local co-op; Dungeon Siege III shares the screen between two players) player one can open up a menu at anytime while player two keeps right doing whatever they’re doing. In Dungeon Siege III, the entire game is paused for both players. That minor annoyance is nothing however, compared to when you try to take your experience online. Only the host player keeps their character progression. That’s right, if you get invited to someone’s game, play for two hours and go back to your own game, all that XP and loot you just acquired is gone. It effectively kills any reason for friends to get the game so they can play together online. Borderlands, once again, has already shown this kind of online player progression is possible, and more baffling still, Diablo II got around this by simply forcing players to create a specific, designated, online multi-player character that was separate from the offline campaign. Why Obsidian didn’t implement either solution when both of them have been known and available for sometime now is a mystery. And it’s a shame, because the online infrastructure for playing Dungeon Siege III is actually fantastic, with nice touches such as AI taking over for players when they open up menus, or a “take a break” option in the menu for players to manually implement the same mechanic when they need to take a bathroom break. In every way, Dungeon Siege III is technically geared for a great, online, multi-player experience, except that there’s no point in using it outside of the occasional high-level character helping out a newbie.

Dungeon Siege III was almost a fantastic multi-player experience. Even as is, the solid game mechanics provide a lot of fun for solo and local co-op players. In that sense, I say go out, get it and you won’t have any regrets with this very good Diablo-style dungeon crawler. But it is far from a “complete” package as Obisidian hamstrung themselves by making online play essentially meaningless. If you don’t plan to play online however, this is a very good game.

R.U.S.E (PS3) Review

R.U.S.E (PS3) Review

Fight The Good Fight

It’s a pity that Eugen Systems didn’t have slightly more confidence in their game. It’s a small thing, but taking the title of their game and pointlessly making it an acronym can immediately set off warning signs with jaded or sceptical gamers. This is compounded by the fact that said game is in the real-time strategy vein, a genre that has traditionally fared pretty badly on consoles thanks to a much faster and more efficient interface found on the RTS’s traditional home, a PC with a keyboard and mouse. It’s all the more surprising then when R.U.S.E. turns out to not just work, but provide one of the best RTS experiences on a console to date.

The Beaches Of Normandy Beckon Once More

First off, yes, this is another World War II game. The most famous war of the 20th century gets dragged out once again for set-piece battles in all the familiar locales, from the tank wars of Africa to the beaches of Normandy to the disaster of the Market Garden campaign. This time the war is viewed through the eyes of American strategist Joseph Sheridan, a Major who rises quickly through the ranks as he proves his talent for directing soldiers. The story here is workable, if a bit predictable with a plot twist telegraphed right in the opening cutscene and dragged out to the ¾ mark of the tale. After the galactic soap opera of Starcraft II, the workmanlike story of R.U.S.E. is tolerable at best, irritating at worst.

In the presentation department, R.U.S.E. continues to be a no-nonsense, functional game that is light on frills. Being an RTS, you expect more of a “God’s Eye View” on things, without the insane detail of an FPS, and you get that. R.U.S.E. manages—with some performance hitches—to seamlessly allow you to zoom in so you seem to be only a hundred feet over the action. It then allows you to zoom all the way out an overall map of the battle zone, where the background now changes so that you’re peripherally aware that you’re actually in a comfortable military HQ, presiding over a strategy table. This is matched by the audio, that, at closer ranges, fills your speakers with the sound of tank treads grinding, planes zooming overhead and anti-air flak exploding in the skies, gradually morphing into the beeps and static of a military compound as you, the strategist, view the battle from your table. Voice acting in cutscenes is competent, though again, the largely unpolished story doesn’t give the actors much to work with. The music is what you’d expect from a military game, with a booming orchestra, martial rhythms and drums, punctuated by a lot of horns to emphasize the “military-ness” of the experience. Aesthetically, R.U.S.E. does what it needs to, but no more than that.

War Is Hectic

An important note that needs to be made about R.U.S.E. is that there are essentially three ways to play the game. It’s a traditional RTS on the PC with the expected mouse and keyboard set-up and for people that want the absolute best control set-up, this is obviously the preferred option. Then there’s the traditional console set-up on the PS3 and Xbox 360, and surprisingly, it works. The left analog stick moves the camera, while the right stick rotates and zooms in and out. R.U.S.E. is a more thoughtful, measured—though no less frantic—RTS and so selecting your units by centering them in the camera will get the job done. However, the PS3 has the option of using the new Move control system, and if you’re limiting yourself to a console version, R.U.S.E., enabled with Move, is the absolute best way to play on consoles. It’s still not quite as fast and precise as a mouse and keyboard, but it gets reasonably close and allows you to play the game the way it was intended. It also gives you a slight advantage in multi-player if you can select units faster than your traditional controller-wielding opponents.

The game itself lives up to its title with the central mechanic being the use of “Ruse cards” that are assigned to you from headquarters. These cards do everything from hide your HQ from enemy intelligence, to drowning an area in propaganda to make enemies more prone to retreating. Far from being a gimmick, they are absolutely vital to winning the many varied battles R.U.S.E. puts you through. R.U.S.E. truly is a war of intelligence, and in the single-player mode, creates very specific conditions of battle that rarely stray into the traditional “destroy that base to win” scenario symptomatic of most RTS games. Players can start rounds with little more than a group of infantry and some anti-tank guns and be forced to rapidly improvise from there, with the various Ruse Cards being played out to ensure survival and even re-direct the enemy away from your weakened forces with decoys until you can build up a proper defense. This is complemented by a complex system of paper-rock-scissors gameplay that allows for some incredibly creative use of combined arms strategy and significantly negates the ability to Zerg opponents with sheer numbers.

One thing that players need to keep in mind is that this game is built, from the ground up, with experienced RTS gamers in mind. While things are relatively manageable in the early levels at normal difficulty, later levels quickly demand that you think fast and multi-task faster. If ever there was an argument against waging a two front war, R.U.S.E. is it, when you find yourself in a near panic fighting off enemies from multiple directions because you failed to routinely check to see if paratroopers had landed behind your lines to quietly build bases or set up ambushes. This is all quite clearly seen in the multi-player, which sports traditional one on one, two on two and even co-op matches in the various operations and ranked matches. Here, experienced players can show off a stunning amount of ingenuity, particularly in team matches, with coordinated efforts to distract, confuse and outthink opponents in battles.

The RTS has always had a tough time of translating over to console play. While R.U.S.E. lacks the sheer variety and consistent, across-the-board production values and design of Starcraft II, it manages to surprise RTS fans with one of the best titles in the genre on a current generation console. It is complex, and opens up a massive toybox of strategic possibility for armchair generals. If, for whatever reason you love RTS games, but only have a console, this is one you need to add to your collection.