Coffee Dreams

May 26, 2008

There are generally some early warning signs to any form of addiction, and harsh symptoms of withdrawal are a big one.  I know how this feels, because I’m a coffee devotee. 

My last cup of my beloved drink was an extra-strong one at 9pm last night, after which I spent another hour or so wired out of my skull and writing away for  a game site I’m working on. Kelli showed up soon afterward, got a big kiss, and then I stood there twitching and fidgeting like a madman while she did her myspace/facebook message checking- then she boots up “Spider Solitaire” of all things.  I have a game collection that I couldn’t play through in an entire lifetime- all kinds of things from historical wargames to point and click adventures, classic role playing games (Fallout and Planescape Torment anyone?) to slaughter everything that breathes shooters like the Doom games.  3 whole binders of neverending fun to select from, and “Spider Solitaire” is being played instead. Even her addiction to “Sid Meier’s Pirates!” apparently can’t hold up next to “Spider Solitaire”. 

Girls, I really don’t get it.  What’s with the solitaire obsessions and lack of desire to immerse yourselves in some of the more impressive games out there?  I’m not talking about all of the latest trendy shoot-em ups for teenage boys with ADD, or any of that Xbox crap. Some of the lesser known computer games out there (along with a few of the better known ones) are like fine art- something to savor, lose yourself in, and come out hours later thinking it’s been 20 minutes and thoughts such as “When the hell did it become 3am!?!?” running through your mind.  When was the last time “Spider Solitaire” did that?

So 12:30am to 2-something AM was spent in a caffeine-propelled session of playing the game I’d intended to write about, and being so zoned in that the whole hour and a half blew by in what felt like 30 minutes to me. Obviously, I’d gone way overboard on the strength of that last cup of coffee for the night, as even a huge mug of the blessed stuff usually doesn’t affect me for more than a few hours at most.  After finally forcing myself out of my computer chair, knocking down my before bed protein shake, brushing my teeth, and doing my obsessive-compulsive “make sure the coffee maker is turned off so it doesn’t burn the place down” check, I went to bed. If it weren’t for a sort of meditation breathing technique I like to use to kind of zone out and doze off, I’d never have gone to sleep.

The bad part about going to sleep for the night still wired, is that you wake up crashed.  It sort of feels like a hangover without the parched throat and pounding headache- that feeling of pseudo-exhaustion with the desire to keep your eyes slammed shut as tightly as possible.  I managed to crawl into the kitchen, eat my usual quick breakfast of a piece of fruit, protein shake, and glass of water (big breakfasts usually put me right back to sleep), and start the coffee brewing.  While waiting on it, I head back into my room, check my email, then sit on the bed and start petting my giant cat who’s curled up at the foot of it.  I must have just dozed right off again sitting there, because the next thing I know, I’m waking up again out of some coffee-withdrawal induced dreams, freezing and curled up next to the cat.  The dreams give some insight into how much my body craves caffeine.

I was walking around, by myself, in a place that was a sort of combination of the “Medieval Times” tournament show and a big ancient history museum- I vaguely remember complaining to someone that the Roman soldiers depicted in an exhibit were wearing the wrong armor for the time period- go figure.  That’s when I notice the food vendor, behind what looked like a gimmicky bar trying to be passed off as “Medieval”, inspired by all of the bad fantasy movies you could imagine.  So I’m checking out his selections, and the food vendor starts offering me “Coffee Muffins”.  The only thought that comes into my head is “what the…” when I noticed the cooked chickens, sitting there on a hot shelf, covered in coffee beans.  You guessed it, “Coffeed Chicken”.  The light was coming from candles made of a combinatin of wax and molten coffee (I don’t think this is possible-), and what looked like a beer tap behind the counter was actually “Draft Coffees”.  Looking at the menu hanging on the back wall I could read “Coffee Cake”, Coffee Cola (nasty), and my favorite, “Ma Huang (Ephedrine) Muffins”.  This is when I woke up.

This is when the really horrible feeling hit me.  Caffeine withdrawals usually occur around 12 hours after last ingesting the stuff, and when it’s a big load of it, they’re worse.  It felt like I had the flu, but then I could feel a stronger force pulling and compelling me to rise up and take the day by storm- The coffee maker.  I grabbed the new, giant (nealy 3 cup- hell yeah!) mug that Kelli just bought for me, filled it to the brim with my beloved drink, and drained it in record time.  Obviously it’s working now.

Personally, I really enjoyed myself with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I never got much into Daggerfall, its predecessor, due to the game not getting along with the computer I had at the time- I couldn’t get more than 10-15 minutes into the game before it would either kindly just crash, or more often freeze the entire computer and cause a loud screeching sound that wouldn’t stop until the power cord was pulled from the comp. I recall hearing many diehard Daggerfall fans claiming that Morrowind was “dumbed down”, had lost many of Daggerfall’s gameplay features, and just didn’t feel as fun or complete, to which at the time I couldn’t really relate. Enter Oblivion, and now I can.
 
-Graphics-
 
Well, the elephant in the room so to speak here is the graphics. They’re pretty damn impressive, with the gameworld looking as if it could almost be real. Almost every graphical aspect you could want is here, down to the trees casting shadows on the swaying grass, drab-looking outlying villages contrasted by the towering white walls of the Imperial City, wildlife running around in the outdoors (unfortunately 90% of it is homicidally aggressive and cannot wait to attack you), and plants growing all over the landscape which you can harvest and use (through your alchemy skill) to create potions, poisons, and such.

-Combat Engine-

The one other area in which Oblivion improved somewhat over Morrowind was in its combat engine, although I have mixed feelings about this. As opposed to just pressing the attack button like mad and banging away at your enemy while auto-blocking their attacks if your character was a skilled enough fighter (for those who didn’t play it this is basically all that combat consisted of in Morrowind), Oblivion takes the action up a notch allowing the player to control blocking, dodging, and what kind of attacks to launch. The plus side here is that it gives what used to be a lackluster combat engine a more visceral feel, which overall is really more “fun” than the combat in Morrowind was.

On the negative side of the new combat engine, I am not of the mindset that an RPG player SHOULD have direct control over his character in combat. Regardless of how fast the reflexes of the person playing him/her might be, something like an early level unarmored mage who can barely wield a dagger SHOULD NOT stand a chance in melee battle against much more than an ant. Even if the person playing as that character has voluntarily fried a good portion of their intellect by playing hours upon hours of Halo, said wimpy Mage still shouldn’t have one bit of an advantage in combat because they ARE BEING PLAYED AS A CHARACTER, and NOT AS A REPRESENTATION OF THE PLAYER HIM/HERSELF!!! This is the beginning of where Oblivion takes the “RPG” label, and throws it right out of the window.

-Gameplay-

Speaking of combat, we come to the next big problem in the game- Level Scaling. What this means is that when you’re playing a level 1 weakling (who thanks to the combat engine could already have the reflexes of Gilgamesh), EVERYTHING that you encounter in the game will be “levelled” to the same strength as your level 1 character. Whether you’re facing an angry rat, a goblin scout, or a huge, lumbering Troll in the forest, none of them will provide a real threat/challenge, as they will all be virtually the same strength level as each other and of your character. Remember sneaking into a dungeon in Morrowind, narrowly avoiding several beasts that would annhilate your character on sight, and coming back out with a nice, shiny, high value piece of armor/weapon that you could then show off, sell, or use as you pleased? Those days are gone now. Traded instead for the boredom of fighting through a dungeon of enemies which provide no real challenge, to emerge instead with items ALSO LEVELLED TO YOUR CHARACTER. Nothing like the thrill of slaughtering hordes of bandits and being rewarded with a basic, crappy dagger and some arrows for your trouble, is there? This continues on forever, meaning that your level 30 fighter never has any sense of really being powerful, instead still meeting custom-tailored to your level adversaries, whacking them, and finding items once again common for a level 30 fighter. It’s just flat out boring, and there’s neither any challenge or sense of achievement to gain.
Still on the subject of combat, we come to the next problem- virtually every quest in the damn game requires you to “go here and kill this or that”. Even the Mage Guild quests, which you’d think being the Mage Guild would have something to do with Magic or Alchemy, are generally also of the “Go here and kill this!” nature. If you want to play as a peaceful, good looking, and smooth talking “agent” in order to complete the game, you’re simply out of luck here, as most of the side quests require combat to complete, and the game’s main quest is virtually NOTHING BUT combat after repetitive combat.
 -Storyline-
“Cliched, Dull, and Full of Holes”
In Oblivion, the plot of the game is that your Emperor has been assassinated by agents from the plane of Oblivion, who then begin attacking the province of Cyrodiil with the goal of killing everyone in it and conquering the whole thing. Exactly why they want to do this is never really revealed, I suppose it’s because “they’re just EVIL!”. “Oblivion Gates”, portals which allow the demonic forces to cross over into Cyrodiil (the game’s setting) and rape, pillage, and burn their way to happiness, are popping up all over the land, and the game presses you urgently the hurry and close them before it’s too late! However, feel free to slowly take on all of the side quests you want at your own leisure. The demons of Oblivion will kindly wait inside their gates for you to get around to shutting them down, while the hapless guards scattered all over Cyrodil in the many cities are content to just make their rounds, stand guard, and occasionally complain about how horrified they are of the impending invasion while happily expecting you, possibly a wimpy, first level pilgrim with no combat skills to speak of, to save the world on your own good time. The story is inconsistent and full of holes, and this didn’t fare well toward my enthusiam for completing the game.

-More on Role Playing-

Remember what I said before about Oblivion throwing the “RPG” label out of the window? Well, that’s because there aren’t any more in depth “Role Playing” opportunities in Oblivion than there were in Doom II. You cannot “play” a character here any more than you could in Doom, or Wolfenstein 3-D, or The Legend of Zelda. Every quest has the same requirements to complete (including the main one which requires you to shut down many demon-filled Oblivion gates single-handedly), and all of your dialogue options are canned and unchanged whether you’re playing as the typical dumb as a brick fighter, or a highly intelligent mage. You can join every faction in the game from the get-go (a fighter can march right into the Mage Guild and join right up- no magic skills required!) and nothing you do affects the gameworld in any way other than the linear path through quests. NPCs (Non Player Characters- everyone besides you) aren’t any more exciting either. “Quest Characters”, those who are needed to progress the storyline, are the only ones who ever say anything slightly original or interesting, while the others say all of the same canned responses to the 2-3 questions you can ask them, and all in some of the worst voice acting heard in a game to date. One liners such as “I saw a mud crab the other day… Horrible creatures.” become too much to take after a point, and my favorite was something along the lines of “Did you hear? The Emperor has been killed!” being spoken weeks into the game and well into my way of repelling the Oblivion attack all by myself, while the brave city guards stood around idly.

 -More Dumbing Down-
A quick question for the developers at Bethesda: What the hell happened to the spears!? You could use a spear as a weapon in Morrowind, so why not in Oblivion? If you’re going to make a generic Medieval fantasy world, the very least that could be done is to include the weapon that was the mainstay of any Medieval army! You’ll notice as well that “Axes” are now categorized as “Blunt” weapons along with clubs and hammers. Why?? Since when is an Axe a “blunt” weapon? These skill paths (Axes and Spears), along with several spells and the “Medium Armor” skill, have been either lumped into smaller skill sets (now you have only Light or Heavy armor, previous Medium armor became “Heavy”, go figure), or done away with completely.
 -Specially Tailored for the XBox-
One last complaint here, is that the first thing anyone who played Morrowind will notice is the game’s “New Steamlined!” interface. It was made for an Xbox and a controller, and is nothing but a big pain in the ass to navigate for those of us used to a decently made PC interface.

 -Some Good News, Finally-

As usual, the modders out there have fixed or improved a great deal of Oblivion. Contrary to my writing above, I actually DO enjoy this game after a literal 4+ gigs worth of mods, most of which either work to completely change the gameplay mechanics (no more level scaling), add challenge (no more compass markers, more realistic fatigue and weapon damage, etc), and a few graphics mods which can really speed the frames per second up. I highly recommend “Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul” (OOO) mod, which gets rid of the level scaling crap and adds some actual, honest to God challenge back into the game. OOO plus a few extra quest mods, most of which are written better than the main quest, can turn Oblivion into more of a 3D Diablo-style hack and slasher that still contains no role-playing to speak of but does make for an entertaining power-levelling action game with stats.

OOO can be found here: http://jorgeoscuro.googlepages.com/

 -Overall-

Basically what we get here is an action game with stats, an open ended and pretty but shallow and boring gameworld, and no “role playing” to speak of, but nearly non-stop combat. It feels like Morrowind dumbed down for the Halo kids, and IMO that’s exactly what it was intended as. The really disturbing trend, and the reason I lash out at it as hard as I do is that Oblivion is constantly referred to as a “Hardcore RPG!”, and nearly every review by any mainstream (go figure) game publication of it just didn’t bother mentioning any of the game’s flaws, instead going on and on about “graphics” and “immersion” (which IMO the lack of any substance to it killed) and then giving it either an extremely high rating, or the title of “Best Game EVAR!”. If this is the new standard for “RPGs”, then consider me happy to continue replaying Fallout (1 and 2), Planescape Torment, and the Baldur’s Gate games until the end of time- Oblivion just leaves me feeling empty.

Positive:

– Beautiful Graphics

– Engaging Soundtrack

– Combat more involving than previous Elder Scrolls Series games

– Impressive Mods available online that change most of the gameplay mechanics and finally make it enjoyable

 
Negative:
– Boring main quest
– Game world is large but sorely lacking in depth
– Level Scaling, which succeeds at taking all of the challenge out of the game
– Inability to turn off the “Quest Markers”, another challenge-sapper, without mods
– “Radiant AI” is anything but
– Combat is the only solution to nearly everything in the game, no matter what character class or attributes you choose.- Canned dialogue choices which remain the same no matter your character’s attributes.
– Xbox-centric Interface
 
 
*I don’t know why I can get spaces between the “positives” above, and the text editor here refuses to let me do the same with “negatives”- I’m about to rip my hair out over this now, so just leaving it as is*   
* #2    Same thing now with the damn “storyline” section!  I keep editing it, spacing it properly and saving, and it just changes back to the awful crushed together way it looks now!  This sort of thing drives me nuts, but I’m going to leave it alone for now as I have to get going.  Just making it clear that this wasn’t a deliberate sloppy mistake* 

 

For those of you who haven’t tried it, I recommend giving Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat beer a shot. I’ve gotten myself hooked on this stuff and am even drinking one down in between sentences as I type.

I’m generally not a big fan of fruit-flavored beers- the idea doesn’t sound appealing to me in the first place, and the few I’ve tried (with names I don’t remember) were either “not so good” or “god-awful” on the taste scale. This stuff is different, and I would never have even tried it if not for my good friend Brian. It all started one night having beers with friends, Brian brought the Cherry Wheat beer and told me to try it out, and get ready to go back to the best of the “Fat Kid Days”- let’s rewind a bit here…

The Fat Kid Days, for me, were roughly from the age of 9 or 10 until 15. Normally, I comment on how scrawny I used to be as a teen, and believe me, I was- however, there was a time before then when I was a little butterball. I wasn’t one of those REALLY fat guys that everyone refers to as the “fat kid”, but I was pretty chubby, didn’t exercise unless walking to the fridge counts, and spent most of my time playing video games or reading- great activities for fun and learning, but not so so much toward being in good physical shape. If there was one thing I loved as a fat kid (well, besides my Red Baron computer game and internet porn), it was Cherry Coke. I drank them constantly, at school and at home, and couldn’t get enough of the stuff until I finally dropped sodas altogether when I got into working out. I remember it like yesterday- my parents would be on a golf tournament trip (my dad both played and coached), I’d be out of school for spring break, would wake up around 10am, stretch, grab a Cherry Coke, and start my day of net porn surfing and playing Red Baron until the sun went down. Obviously I have a few fond memories of those otherwise hated days.

Back to the Sam Adams Cherry Wheat, this stuff is like the Cherry Coke of beer. It tastes like it- really, it does, and can be a little off-putting at first, but once I’d had a couple, I started really craving this stuff. It’s brewed with mashed cherries and honey, supposedly in a “traditional American recipe” which might be true and which I highly doubt coming from any large company, but the stuff really is damn good. My favorite part is, if you pour it correctly, it gets a nice little creamy foam head that stays there and keeps the beer smooth while you drink it. This is one of those “clear the whole mug in 3 swigs” types of beer for me, along with my beloved Guinness and Boddington’s Pub Ale, because it feels so good going down. Give me a good, creamy beer to relax with, and I’m happy.

My only complaint about this one is that the cherry taste kind of overpowers everything else, and so it doesn’t have much of beer taste to it at all. I love the Sam Adam’s original brew as well, and would like a stronger beer kick to go along with the cherry. Every sip of this beer brings back nostalgic memories of days filled with the immortal Red Baron and Chasey Lain pics that took 5 minutes to load on my crappy 14.4k modem of the time, and to top it all off, I still have my original Red Baron Mac game, AND my old printed off Chasey pic collection. Some things are just never meant to die.

Rebellious Kids

May 20, 2008

So as I’m driving along earlier, I have the misfortune of pulling up next to a couple of high schoolers (I hope to god they weren’t older) with a real identity crisis going on… Here they are, middle class suburbanites driving the car their parents bought them, dressed up as poverty-stricken thugs in an effort to look tough and rebellious, while blasting that noise known as rap loud enough for everyone to hear in the damn city.

When are these kids ever going to learn that their “individuality”, and of course the “I’m a bad ass” look they’re trying to portray, are being sold directly to them, as is the music, and they’re buying right into like the little consumerists they are? I hate to tell you, but that “tough” music and clothing line are being sold to you by the old, white businessmen who syndicate the music, pay the artists to portray it, and design the clothes- all in order to make loads of money off of kids taught not to think who genuinely believe they’re somehow sticking it to the system.

Looks like you might as well be listening to Hanson, kiddo.

 

 

A Beginner’s Guide to Wargaming
For anyone just breaking into the world of Wargames, starting out can be truly daunting! These aren’t like any other games out there, and going into many with a “beer and pretzels” mindset will ensure that you lose, and if you aren’t sure why you’re losing, could even cause you to become discouraged, leave, and miss out on all the fun and learning involved! This is a brief, basic guide to several main tenets to always have in mind when playing, which will apply to everything from your most basic, “Beer and Pretzels” games, all the way off of the deep end of the more “hardcore” offerings out there.
 

Always keep these priorities in mind:
 

 

#1. Your mission-

What are you attempting to accomplish, and how much time (usually measured in turns) do you have to achieve it? Are you assaulting a fixed enemy position, or attempted to delay an enemy advance while keeping your own casualties to a minimum for future battles? Knowing and understanding your mission is the first step to realizing how to best use your force to achieve victory.

#2. Your forces-

Most wargame scenarios include a wide variety of units, and most have areas in which they excel, along with weaknesses that you’ll need to protect! For example, a high caliber anti-tank gun may be your best bet for knocking out enemy tanks at a long range while keeping it concealed, however if it’s spotted and assaulted by enemy infantry, chances are that it won’t last long. Firing away at a heavy enemy tank with a lighter tank of your own is usually guaranteed to be a bad idea, while sending a heavy tank of your own up close to a building which may be hiding enemy infantry is a recipe for disaster if they possess any decent anti-tank weaponry!

Learning how to best use the units at your disposal is a major part at becoming adept in wargaming!

#3. Reconnaissance-

The best way to guess at what your enemy’s plan is, is to put your own “lighter” units, usually geared for this purpose, into positions which allow you to watch the moves they are making. Scouting an enemy position can reveal weak points, and also where their forces are concentrated, both of which can be vital knowledge for achieving victory. If you can see your opponent making an advance that they think is concealed, you can set up a nasty ambush for that advance and not only wreck his day, but potentially disrupt his plan badly enough to prevent him from winning. On the reverse, proper reconnaisance could also detect an ambush waiting for your own forces, which could then be dealt with, reducing his own forces while bringing you own to bear as planned.

#4. Time, tied in with Terrain-

While this one sounds obvious, it’s one of the most overlooked by novices- I know I didn’t use it to my advantage! In most wargames, “time” is usually measured in how many turns you have to complete your objective, and for many new players, it seems as if there just isn’t ever enough. I remember for the longest time in my games, I’d end up unleashing a risky, sometimes suicidal assault way too early in the game due to believing the turn limit was forcing me into such a plan, or thinking I wouldn’t have enough time left if I moved my forces into their proper positions first. Part of this was due to being too impatient to really read and utilize the terrain to my advantage. Thoughts such as “I’ll have to go a few hexes out of my way to use that road, and then it’ll only allow me a few extra hexes per turn, surely that isn’t worth the hassle and I might as well just keep plowing through this forest instead” were pretty common, and so I ended up having my poor virtual soldiers charging machine gun nests head on in a vain effort to take that last victory hex, which of course the damned game just wasn’t giving me enough time to do correctly. ALWAYS inspect your map before you even begin your first turn, and figure out the fastest and most effective route(s) to wherever you want to move. On the reverse, if you’re holding down a position under attack, do the same as if you were your advancing opponent, to get a better idea of where they’ll be coming from.

#5. More Terrain-

Another often confused idea is that of “Cover and Concealment”. These two are NOT the same things! “Cover” generally means a protected hex/position, maybe in a forest or behind a wall/fortification, etc. Cover generally conceals as well, but concealment does not always double as “cover”! The best analogy of this that I’ve heard ties in with Paintballing. Imagine if, during a paintball match, you wanted to sneak up on the opposing team. Crawling behind a bush could make for excellent cover so long as you’re quiet, as the bush could block the view of anyone who would otherwise see you. However, if someone were to hear you crawling around and start firing away into the bush, you’d learn quickly and painfully that while it did work well for concealment, the bush was a terrible excuse for “cover”. Keep this in mind, as in many wargames terrain that does work well for concealment (tall grass or etc) won’t actually give you any defensive benefit at all if fired into.

#6- Have Fun-

This one sounds obvious and out of place, but do keep it in mind! Many of these games can seem overly complex at first (and some are), and sometimes the best way to learn them is to just boot up a scenario (maybe one you aren’t too interested in if you don’t want to “ruin the surprise” of some that you are) and start playing with them. This is how I’ve learned to hold my own against the AI in Talonsoft’s Operational Art of War (now re-released in a great package at matrixgames.com), which was the first “deep end” wargame that I got into. Just playing around with the game, and looking up anything you don’t understand in the manual as you go along, can help you to learn the system in even the more complex offerings out there.

 

 

Wargaming to me is about history coming alive.  That’s the main fascination for me, being able to see and actually manipulate an historical event and in doing so gain insight as to why it happened the way it did, and maybe even a better understanding of how such an event was brought about to happen in the first place.

My fascination with history really started back in 1995, when I was 12 years old.  I bought a game for my old Mac called “Red Baron”, which I now consider my favorite game of all time, and was almost solely responsible for the passionate interest I have today. The game was a flight simulator based in World War I, allowing you to fly a full career through the course of the war for either Great Britain or Germany, and to this day has the most top notch dynamic campaign ever to be seen.  I also spent loads of my time reading the wealth of WWI air combat history included in the game manual and game itself.  I was the only 6th grader I’ve ever known who had heard of a “Fokker Eindecker”, or names such as “Manfred von Ricthofen”, “Albert Ball”, “Frank Luke”, and etc.  By the end of that school year I hadn’t actually learned a thing in class, but could give a brief history of how and when wars began to be fought in the skies.

Immortal

This of course led to an obession with historical flight sims, which is what I spent virtually every free moment of my “fat kid” days (roughly from the 6th grade through the 8th) doing. From Red Baron to Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat to even Microsoft Flight Sim 4.0, I played the hell out of them all and would get up the next day just to do the same.  The Yeager game also had a well-written manual with loads of historical info in it, and it wasn’t long until I could tell the differences in performance between a P-51 and Focke-Wulf 190 (the 2 main WWII aircraft featured), and learned about everything from B-17s to Messerschimdt 262s.  Now to fast-forward a few years…

It must have been some time in 1998 or 99 when I first bought a game titled “West Front”.  This was produced by the late, great Talonsoft company, and I really had no idea what I was getting into with it but was on a major WWII kick after seeing Saving Private Ryan.  Conveniently, the back of the game box displayed a full-spread screenshot of a scenario map of Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast, so I bought the game.  I’d played some turn based wargames before, Allied General and similar “lite” stuff, but this one would be my introduction into the realm of “hardcore” PC wargames. 

At first, I couldn’t figure out how to do anything right in the damned game.  I was trying to play it like the less advanced but similar looking games I’d played before, was failing miserably, and had no idea why, until I was finally wised up by an article written by Glenn Saunders (of wargaming fame) on “Reconnaisance in Talonsoft’s West Front”.  I simply hadn’t understood how the whole game system worked, or even realized the complexity of it all, and after this article and the scenario that came along, I was playing the game in a whole new way.  Granted, I still sucked at it, but was at least able to do some damage to the programmed opponent instead of just getting slaughtered without any idea of why.  I wound up playing this game, and further games in the same series, fanatically throughout my high school years, and through them gained at least a basic understanding of the tactical doctrines of various nations during WWII and why they either worked, failed, or worked at one point and failed at another.  I also learned how to identify unit counters marked with NATO symbols thanks to this game, which would really come in handy on some upcoming games I would get into.

No matter how many I bought, I just kept finding more and more, and will probably be nostalgic toward the majority of my wargame collection until the end of my days.  Talonsoft’s Battleground series and The Operational Art of War, Combat Mission 1-3, the HPS Squad Battles series, MadMinute Games’ Take Command series, and even Europa Univeralis II have all been motivators in my desire to learn about the history that the games were based upon.

http://www.slitherine.com/games/gates_of_troy
 
GoT Menuscreen
 
 *a quick note, “Chariots of War” mentioned below is another game by Slitherine released before Gates of Troy- I’ve mentioned it below, expecting to have put my review of it up first, but that review is still a work in progress!*
 
Gates of Troy (GoT) is set roughly between 1500BC-300BC, an incredibly interesting and often neglected (in games) period of history.
GoT is packed with several campaigns, my favorites being the two “monster” campaigns starting at either 1500BC, or 1300BC. The map for these two spans from a Northeastern border in Illyria, South through Greece all the way down to the island of Crete, then across the Aegean into the border of the Persian Empire in modern day Turkey. With a massive selection of 100 factions to choose from- all of whom are competing for territory!
Besides the two grand campaigns, others are featured as well, including the Greek invasion of Troy, the famous battle at Thermopylae, and the Ionian Revolt. Out of these, I’ve only given the Thermopylae battle a run so far, which was a fun time of seeing how long my Greek force could hold against the Persian onslaught, which increases in intensity with every attack.

 -Gameplay- 

It’s likely inevitable that, due to it’s setting and “Strategy” genre, Gates of Troy will be compared to the Total War series. This is truly an “apples and oranges” comparison, as outside of the broad “Strategy Game” generalization the two are very different. The Total War games are primarily tactical battle games, with the strategy portion really only serving the purpose of getting you into your next battle. There is no commodity modeled in any detail in the games except for money, and virtually everything you can build is only to produce more money, or more powerful military units. GoT on the other hand is really a grand strategy game with some quick tactical battles thrown in, and the grand strategy aspect is where it shines. 

Trade is modelled, along with multiple resources that must be balanced in order to keep your cities running efficiently, prevent your armies from starving, and also producing higher quality, more advanced units. In the beginning, one can raise armies of militias and consricpted skirmishers costing only the food to feed them, and wood for the skirmisher’s javelins- later on however, you’ll need horses for cavalry, metals (bronze and iron) for advanced infantry units (from hoplites to swordsmen), combinations of metals and wood and/or horses for heavy cavalry and mounted archers, marble for city building, and etc. All of this is surprisingly easy to grasp and doesn’t become overly complex or convoluted, and smart resource management can raise you to become a power to be feared.

 -AI Competence and Diplomacy-

The AI in Gates of Troy actually puts up a respectable challenge, which should help set the game apart from the inevitable comparisons to Rome: Total War (which has an AI opponent out of the box that would make a mentally retarded monkey look like Alexander the Great). When playing the 1500BC “Greek Colonialism” campaign, each faction begins with only 1-2 territories of its own, and must begin by capturing independent settlements around them to begin building an empire. The AI opponent starts a little slowly, as the player has to as well due to lack of resources for expansion, but will quickly start gaining territory, building up its settlements, and sending large, somewhat balanced armies after enemies. Going to war in GoT with an equal or more powerful faction means you’ll be facing waves of armies, some of which will split off and move deeper into your territory to attack less-guarded settlements, and will fight tooth and nail to recapture its own lost settlements as well. This is a breath of fresh air when compared to the AI in Rome: TW (and Medieval II out of the box as well), which seems content to send one huge army after a single city, besiege it, and remain completely oblivious to your own armies rampaging through the rest of their lands!

Diplomacy plays a much larger part here than it did in Chariots of War, with diplomats now able to influence the faction they’re staying with, either to win their favor or make them angry, and can function as espionage agents as well. The AI can be relentless if they’re stronger than you are and dislike you (boiling their diplomats alive is a good way to create discord), however AI factions also have sense enough not to attack you if they’re much weaker and can’t possibly win. Once again comparing the game to the last two of the Total War series, this is a fresh breath of air for anyone used to the homicidally aggressive against its own interests AI of both Rome and Medieval II.

 

 

-Battles and Graphics-

GoT allows you to fight out battles in either 2D or 3D, however both have their benefits and also flaws. The 3D mode, in all honesty, is pretty ugly looking. The map is just a utilitarian 3D terrain map, with the units being sprites at a quality just under that of the original Medieval: Total War. Trading off to 2D, the graphics look much better- I’ll take “Pretty looking 2D” over utilitarian or ugly 3D any day. The problem, however, is that the battle screen can’t be zoomed out at all in 2-D, and the camera makes you feel like your face is about to be in the dirt- it’s just too damn close due to the lower resolution of the 2D mode. 3D wins out for me simply because it allows me to see the whole battle unfold, instead of only 1/4 of the battle screen at a time as in 2D. I’m not kicking the game too hard here as this really doesn’t affect the gameplay at all, and tactical battles aren’t the main point of the game by any means.

 

 

  Going on with battles, another feature guaranteed to shock newcomers is the total lack of control over your army once a battle begins. You set up your units before hand, give them initial orders on what to do (advance, charge, short hold then advance, fire missiles, etc), and then just unleash them and watch the chaos ensue. I have mixed feelings on this as well- on the one hand, I DO like it better than the radio communication-like instantly followed orders of the Total War games. On the other, not being able to have ANY battlefield control at all, especially over reserves, isn’t realistic either. Ancient battlefields certainly didn’t have modern radio communications, but they could give orders by other means, whether messenger, drums/trumpets, smoke signals, and etc. Again though, I can’t fault the game here as it isn’t trying to pass itself off as an ancient battle “Wargame”, and the battles aren’t large, set piece affairs anyway- maybe 500 men per side for a huge one. With the small scale of battles, the lack of control isn’t so bad, and gives the AI more of a chance to win- No Total War-style slaughtering of forces twice the size of your own due simply to AI stupidity!

 

 

 -Overall-

Overall, I highly recommend Gates of Troy to anyone looking for a challenging game that is more focused on grand strategy than the rather lackluster tactical battles. Of all the games I could compare these to (both the Total War games and Civilization come to mind), I’d actually put them closer to the old Koei games that I played on my Super Nintendo as a kid (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Nobunaga’s Ambition, etc) than any recent PC games that I can think of. At $29.99 most grand-strategy fans should find great value, and in my opinion GoT should supply an engaging and highly replayable game experience.

 

Positive:

– Great 4X Strategy Gameplay
– Competent AI Opponents
– Well Balanced Economy
 
Negative:
– Lack of any real control over reinforcements in battle
– 2D view is locked in a fully “zoomed in” state