Game of Thrones (PC) Review

Game of Thrones (PC) Review

Game of Thrones, the latest videogame version of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, attempts to do everything right. Its developers, Cyanide, take into account the wild success of the televised adaptation and the story’s ability to obliterate generations of fantasy tropes with its cynical view of morality, “righteous” warfare and, even, truth. The designers’ attempt to bring Martin’s complex politicking and multifaceted character creation into the best type of videogame to do so — the role-playing game — is an ambitious project, but one that ultimately fails to live up to either its source material or, worse, its own goals.

The basic conceptual choices behind the game are smart. Rather than drop players into a few of their favourite characters’ boots and slot them into a previously told segment of the story, Game of Thrones creates a (almost entirely) new cast, new locations and a new plot. Beginning just prior to the start of the first book/season of the television show, the videogame revolves around two protagonists, Mors Westford, a member of the west’s devout group of protectors, the Night’s Watch; and Alester Sarwyck, a priest of the eastern god R’hllor.

image

Mors and Alester function similarly to the books’ point of view characters, their disparate paths and objectives working to piece together a larger overarching narrative. This plot unfolds through combat and exposition, bridged by exploration of confined environments and the occasional side-quest. Battles are conducted through a system reminiscent of Dragon Age’s real-time, attack-queuing mechanics, but with much of the tactical edge softened up to leave behind a simpler experience. Mors, Alester (and the extra party members who join them from time to time) are able to draw on the skills selected by the player upon levelling up, slot them into a line-up of upcoming attacks and then wait for them to come up.

These fights end up feeling, for all the gruesome detail of the occasional finishing move, weirdly bloodless. Queuing up attacks and taking hits from enemies is robotic, the sound and animations never providing the sense that the combatants are actually engaged in any kind of real battle. The fights are all swishes and tinny sound effects, mannequins batting at one another until a life bar depletes and one of them falls down. The character customization that forms the backbone of this experience, though, is much better.

Equipping items and allocating skill points is all pretty standard RPG stuff — choose whether to make your character a giant bruiser, agile backstabber, ranged archer or some combination of the above — but the rock-paper-scissors balancing act of choosing the right weapon to go up against an enemy’s armour or choosing to give characters perks that must be balanced with handicaps (earn an extra skill point when levelling up, but sacrifice the ability to regain stamina for instance) adds a good deal to a mostly unimpressive setup.

Game of Thrones (PC) ReviewWhen players aren’t engaged in managing character stats and fighting opponents the story progresses through exposition sequences. The dialogue in these segments is mostly pretty awful and the voices, despite the occasional actor who tries her/his best to sell the clumsy lines, do nothing to improve on this. While something like this could be more easily overlooked in a game based less on (often lengthy) conversations between a handful of characters, Game of Thrones’ dependency on cutsce

nes to further its story makes the subpar writing and acting hard to swallow. Static camera angles and unimpressive scenery only exacerbate this problem.

These failing are truly unfortunate, undercutting what is actually a really good plot. Unevenly written and awkwardly paced as it may be, Game of Thrones becomes absorbing once it finds its pace. The beginning is extremely slow and does very little to put its narrative hooks into players, but after the first few hours some of the apparent aimlessness of the early chapters begins to develop into a compelling tale that goes a long way toward compensating for the limp combat and extremely limited exploration on hand. It

is never so good that it matches the level of narrative propulsion of Martin’s books or the HBO series, but Cyanide has done a fantastic job of crafting a story that feels true to the world it takes place in.

The ability to help determine the outcome of aspects of the story through a conversation choice mechanic (again, taking heavy inspiration from Bioware’s Dragon Age and/or Mass Effect) adds a layer of depth to this as well. Picking what the player feels to be the appropriate answer, interjection or, in certain cases, life-altering decision helps to give the story an extra dimension that pays off with variable outcomes as the story progresses. Deciding to spare the life of a newly repentant mercenary or siding with one playable character’s viewpoint over another’s can greatly alter aspects of the narrative or gameplay over time, making Game of Thrones feel more organic than it otherwise would be.

Game of Thrones (PC) Review

A good story and satisfying game mechanics often make up for poor visuals, but Game of Thrones’ aesthetic can, at times, actively hurt both of these areas. The aesthetic is an extremely mixed bag, certain aspects of the game obviously having received much more attention and care than others. Lacklustre environment design, atrocious looking characters and an ugly user interface butt heads with strong armour and weapon detailing and a vibrant colour palette, ultimately leaving a bad impression. That this uneven aesthetic is coupled with technical shortcomings — marionette-like animations, dead eyes and unnatural body language, frequent glitches like clipping through doors — only furthers this problem.

All of it works to obscure what could have been something interesting. There is, after all, a pretty good game to be found here, but Cyanide simply asks players to extend more than an appropriate amount of goodwill in order to find it. This is the issue that plagues the entire production. A solid plot is hidden beneath layers of bad writing and voice acting; a decent visual style is covered by technical shortcomings; a fun character customization system is overshadowed by insubstantial combat: the whole thing ends up feeling like an unfortunate matryoshka doll, ugly wooden exteriors hiding a pretty interior that very few are likely to be willing to fully un-nest and discover.

Fans of the source material may be interested to play through Game of Thrones at a reduced price, likely sticking it out until it gets interesting simply due to the cheap thrill of interacting with familiar settings and characters, but others will likely be far too put off by the games’ myriad problems to progress far enough to discover its strengths.

A Game of Thrones: Genesis (PC) Review

A Game of Thrones: Genesis (PC) Review

Fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of books (or of the first novel’s recent HBO adaptation) are usually drawn into the author’s world through the appeal of political intrigue and feudal warfare. Half the fun of A Game of Thrones is in watching the intricate manoeuvrings that go into defining an invented history that says as much about our own world’s past as that of Martin’s fantastic creation. So, it follows that a videogame of thrones (ha!) should allow players to feel some of the thrill of its source’s rich layers of manipulatory diplomacy and large-scale combat. A Game of Thrones: Genesis developer Cyanide has certainly tried its best to incorporate these elements in the world’s first foray into videogames, succeeding in some cases while failing in others.

A Game of Thrones: Genesis, like its source material, is concerned more with the machinations behind the outbreak of war than the fighting itself. Though there is combat, players can expect to spend much more of their time in attempting to gain allies — either openly, with envoy units and the strength of blood-tying marriages, or covertly, through the secret agreements of spies (a covert arrangement wherein an ally pays tribute to you but appears neutral to others) and the seduction of enemy forces. All of this takes the form of hiring the appropriate units, sending them to other villages and castles and carrying out routine check-ups to ensure that none of your forces have been swayed by the enemy’s similarly underhanded strategies.

Pre-war preparations can also lead to open warfare. During peace time, a metre is displayed on the top of the screen that will fill up with red as aggressive actions accumulate from either side’s decisions. Hiring mercenaries to kill peasants and envoys — something that serves the purpose of cutting off an enemy’s access to food and money — will eventually cause peace to break down and open war to break out. Combatants hire army units (knights, bowmen, pikemen, men-at-arms, etc.) and duke it out through supply-line ambushes, open terrain combat or siege warfare. Battles are simplistic and decided through a kind of rock, paper, scissors mechanic where using the “correct” unit against another is more important than strategic planning.

In skirmish and multiplayer modes, a player’s progress in conquering their enemy is represented by prestige points, meaning that a game can be won without once inciting war. Prestige points are won by increasing allied territories, gaining money, winning over temples (or septs for those in the Ice and Fire know) or killing off some of an enemy population; grab up 100 prestige points to win.

All of these gameplay elements come together to make a strategic soup so thick you could stand a spoon in it. Genesis’ gameplay is built on a strong foundation and has a unique feel and pace that is more akin to a complex board game than a traditional computer strategy title. While it is refreshing to see Cyanide develop something innovative (rather than the blander result that would have come about from attempting to ape some of, say, the Total War series’ grand vision), the game’s overall presentation leaves a lot to be desired.

Both audio and visual design range from mediocre to downright bad. Genesis’ characters and environments are entirely forgettable, conjuring up none of the breathtaking locales of the novels or show. The units are poorly drawn and the rendering of the world is tasteless and uninspiring — every village, castle and mine is essentially the same, with only minor variations in climate appearance (desert with palms, forests with occasional mountain passes, snowy fields near a diminutive version of the Wall). Though these maps have been loosely drawn from Martin’s settings, Cyanide misses many opportunities to increase immersion by incorporating any of the fiction’s slavishly detailed geography and place names. Castles and towns are always just “Castles” and “Towns”, maps feature few distinctive features and there is never a sense of actually playing in the fictional world of Westeros — something that is probably the single most important goal of any game based on well-loved fiction.

Slow mouse movement (with no option for sensitivity adjustment) also hampers the experience. It isn’t bad enough to make the game unplayable but, coupled with minimal

hotkey support, the sluggish cursor makes basic command input a bit of a pain. Considering how easily these sort of problems could have been avoided, it’s unfortunate that they exist. Bland visuals and sloppy controls combine with frequent typos (including the odd occasion where French words have been left untranslated) and poor grammar to complete a sense of rushed development.

And, while fans of Martin’s books and/or the Game of Thrones TV show are more likely to appreciate Cyanide’s apparent reverence for the source material, the homage paid to the series is still not enough to excuse the game’s poor combat, user interface and aesthetics. The game takes place in the pre-established time before the opening of A Game of Thrones: Genesis, detailing the events that lead up to the beginning of the series. Because of this approach, the fiction is palatable for both newcomers and Game of Thrones vets — but the narrative remains far enough in the background (mostly being fleshed out through loading screen preambles and some level-opening and -closing character conversations) that it likely won’t win converts or impress existing fans.

This is made worse by an atrocious campaign mode that is by far the weakest style of play in Genesis. The single-player narrative, bafflingly, chooses to ignore some of the most interesting aspects of the game’s mechanics (prestige points, flexibility in conquering a map) and instead leads players through short, rigidly designed chapters that fail to take advantage of the best design decisions made in the multiplayer and skirmish modes. There are a number of incredibly irritating stealth sections, ridiculously out of place, that task players with precise objectives, such as waging guerrilla warfare on peasants while a much stronger force patrols an area (or avoiding troops with a single commandable character in one particularly ill-conceived stealth sequence) and lack any forgiveness. Coupled with painfully

slow loading times and the absence of quicksave or quickload options, these segments sap any momentum that the campaign mode is able to generate and quickly sink what should be exciting narrative points (like the impending conquest of an entire continent!) into tedium.

House vs. House, the (slightly gussied-up) skirmish mode, also fails to capitalize on the possibilities inherent in the game’s setting. Choosing from a fair-sized list of houses (like the Starks, Baratheons, Targaryens and others) does give bonuses to certain stats (the Lannisters, of course, practically defecate gold) but does not make a substantial difference in more substantial style of play — or castle/unit design, aside from the appearance of distinctive sigils and colours. Genesis’ multiplayer play works in much the same way as HvH but is more enjoyable simply because it involves facing off against human opponents who easily outstrip

the game’s often simplistic AI. The mechanics used in other areas of play become much more fun when they can be used as bluffing tools. A large-scale game can easily turn into an enjoyably paranoid experience that capitalizes on Genesis’ premise in the best way.

But limited successes, like the multiplayer, still add up to an ultimately frustrating experience. A Game of Thrones: Genesis isn’t a horrible game, but the fact that it’s so full of promise makes its numerous failings hard to swallow. More time in development — time that could have been spent in tightening up and enriching the overall presentation or rewriting the campaign — would have helped to make an ultimately average experience into an outstanding one.