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* 

 

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
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The original Medieval: Total War is one of my favorite games to this day, as I still play with it frequently. I remember buying the game when it came out, playing through the tutorials, starting up a campaign, and for the next several weeks ( I was off of work for the holidays at the time) I left my computer only to lift weights, eat, and sleep. For the next couple of years, MTW did not budge from my hard drive, and I was nearly jumping for joy when I first heard about the upcoming sequel, Rome TW.

The fanfare behind Rome was wild, with screenshots being posted online and in magazines that at the time could cause your jaw to drop to the ground, and endless previews raved on and on about how great the game would be, better in every way than Medieval, and with a gorgeous new 3D strategy map that would revolutionize gameplay. This was during a time when computer games were still something of a seperate beast from console games, and the outright merging of development of the two had yet to occur. In hindsight, the trend to notice above was the fanfare being something like “GRAPHICS GRAPHICS GRAPHICS ai improvements GRAPHICS GRAPHICS GRAPHICS!”. Granted, at the time, I was overall pretty happy with the AI opponent in Medieval which, while not brilliant, was capable of putting up a good challenge, could hold it’s own in the tactical battles, and would jockey for position around the risk-style 2D strategy map just as you the player would, moving its forces to garrison provinces that could be threatened and attacking if it saw a good opportunity to. A big graphical upgrade with the same core gameplay would have suited me just fine, and was just what I expected Rome to be- I couldn’t wait for the game to be released. Soon afterward it was, and I ran out and bought it, installed like a kid getting a new toy at Xmas, oohh’d and ahh’d over the graphics, started up a campaign… and began to become the cynical, bitter prick that I am toward Creative Assembly and the Total War series to this day.

The first thing to see was that the faction selection screen contained a whopping 3 choices. Out of these 3 choices, ALL were different branches of the Rome faction. A quick look at the manual informed me that now, in a “New Streamlined Gameplay!” decision by Creative Assembly, you had to “unlock” other factions by conquering them before you could play as them. At first, I was bewildered as to why this console-inspired crap was ever allowed into a Total War game, but after playing an hour or so with the campaign it became clear- few of the other factions were fleshed out or exciting in the slightest, and the only really “complete” one out of the box was the Roman factions. Now, in Medieval, you had a choice from the start of which faction to play as, there were quite a few, and all managed to have something of a unique “feel” to them beyond their names and starting positions on the map. Not so in RTW. As Rome, you could train a whole horde of units, from historically correctly-named (but horrifically unhistorically portrayed) Roman soldiers, to ridiculous units such as flaming pigs, wardogs, and “Arcani”, cutesy little ninja-like Roman supermen. Dragging these units into war with the Gallic faction to the north showed a stark contrast between attention paid to Rome, and “The Gauls” of western europe as you found your armies faced with endless stacks of “barbarian warbands”, “barbarian archers”, “barbarian swordsmen”, and of course more fantasy crap such as “screaming women”.

The big popular myth is that the “barbarians”, when they weren’t too busy grunting and groveling in the dirt, attacked the Romans in huge mobs with no thought for order or tactics, using primitive weapons and losing. In turn, the super-soldier Romans won by using proper tactics against the poor dumb barbarians who never learned their lesson and didn’t bother fighting with anything but the most rudimentary weapons. This is a Roman whitewashed version of history, is obviously what CA was going for with their portrayal of any “barbarian” faction in the game, and makes for one seriously boring set of enemies to do battle with. By the unit types and stats alone, the player as the Romans simply could not lose if they had the slightest clue as to what they were doing and an army of roughly half the size of the enemy’s or larger. Added to this, it appeared that CA had forgotten to include any sort of battle AI in the game at release. Unlike Medieval, in which the AI would attempt to outmaneuver the player, skirmish with missile troops, and flank with cavalry, the AI in Rome loved to charge its entire army right up the middle, usually with it’s General in the lead, no matter what the battle situation was. The “suicidal general” phenomenon, which was already a problem in Medieval, was made much worse in this case because 9 times out of 10, the AI would have it’s general killed in the first five minutes of fighting, and then no matter how dramatically they outnumbered the player, their army would rout and haul ass off of the map. You could forget about using light cavalry to run them down like in Medieval though, as now in RTW cavalry sent after routing units would just kindly run up beside them and escort them off of the map, occasionally killing one of two of them in the process but mainly just staying peacefully back and running alongside.

Unfortunately, the Strategic AI didn’t fare so well either. Remember the gushing previews about the great new 3D map that would revolutionize and improve gameplay? The AI was just too inadequate to use such a map properly, and this became obvious as soon as you went to war with them. Let’s rewind a bit here, and recall the MTW strategic AI: It wasn’t brilliant by any means, and there really wasn’t much to it- diplomacy was nearly nonexistant, allying (by diplomats or by marriages) and declaring war (by invading a faction) being your only options, with allies only being much less inclined to attack you and not good for much else. What it DID do well though, was to move it’s forces into threatend provinces as needed, and attack the player at any weak point it could find. With Rome, the strategic AI went berzerk. No matter what you did, how long you’d been allied, or how much it liked you, if you shared a border, it would attack you relentlessly. The AI had no fear at all when it came to gathering up an “army” of a few skirmishers and spearmen to besiege a fully garrisoned city of your own, and which the player could happily just sally out and destroy. In the case of a scary looking AI army besieging and then assault one of your settlements, any trepidation about the battle would quickly dissolve when you realized that, no matter what, the AI would first park its army at your walls in range of arrow towers and archers, and then happily lead its charge through your gates with its General, suiciding him and routing it’s own army before most of them could even make it into your walls. Garrisons of skirmishers and a spear unit could defeat an entire enemy army in this fashion, ensuring that no challenge whatsoever would come from defending your cities against even the most fearsome enemy armies.

The really awful thing was, after destroying a few enemy armies in the above fashion and then leading one or two of your own into their territory, the player quickly realizes that many times, the AI would rather just stand it’s armies around threatend cities to watch them be sacked than actually try to defend them in any fashion. Not only did the AI not bother to garrison it’s threatened cities any longer, many times it wouldn’t even bother to attack an invading player’s army! Unlike the 2D MTW map which simply used any units stationed in a province to defend it, the new 3D map only allowed armies to fight which came into direct contact with each other, and apparently no one bothered to program the AI to give a damn about it’s own cities. It also had no idea how to use the new special features such as building forts or laying ambushes, and loved to create 3 or 4 “armies” of a handful of units each, and never combine them into any sort of real force. Then, after all of this, if you had backed the AI into its last city, overpowering it completely in troops and money with an inevitable, bloody defeat looming for said AI faction, it would absolutely refuse any sort of ceasefire treaty, many times turning around and demanding tribute or land from the player about to annhiliate it, and follow with an “Accept or we will attack!”. Basically, the 3D map succeeded in taking all of the challenge out of the strategic game.

The most disturbing thing of all, though, was that most people seemed to be too busy orgasming over the graphics to even notice any flaws in the gameplay. Mainstream game magazines and review sites gave RTW near perfect scores, just as high as Medieval’s ratings, with NO mention at all of any of the flaws in the game. Worse still, anyone (and there were quite a few) who dared to criticize any aspect of the game on forums online would usually end up getting their asses flamed off for disagreeing with the idea that RTW was the best, most flawless strategy game to date. I was disappointed, felt ripped off, and figured CA was just following the almighty dollar in doing all they could to make the game prettier and easier for the masses out there.

No real challenge on the strategic map, and pathetically easy to win battles made for one boring game to me, and I quickly went back to Medieval instead, 2D pixel graphics and all. I became hooked on MTW again, and started losing sleep over the game, while it’s ugly bastard little brother Rome sat collecting dust in my CD rack. RTW finally got some attention from me when a new mod called Europa Barbarorum surfaced, far from complete at the time but giving the game an immense historical overhaul and already adding some actual challenge back to it. I became a big fan of EB and looked forward to every update, while still mainly playing MTW as my favorite game of it’s type. Around the time that EB started to really come together and begin to be completed, news of a new TW game, Medieval 2, started hitting the internet and magazines.

The previews, once again, went something like this: “Amazing new graphics!” “Major Graphical Upgrades from Rome!” “Beautiful Units and Buildings”, and etc. This time, however, there were some honest to goodness comments from the developers about major improvements in the game AI, both on the strategic and tactical maps. I actually started to get excited for the game when hearing interviews with the game developers stating that “the strategic AI will now act more like a player would in it’s decisions”, and that the battle AI would be dramatically improved, including a quote saying something about how playing battles on “very hard” against an equal AI force would now be very difficult to win. I really thought they were serious, finally addressing the criticisms of Rome’s AI being tremendously inferior to that of Medieval, and started to really get excited about the new game.

When the Medieval 2 demo was released, made up of a couple of historic battles, I tried it out and actually had some fun with it. The battles were fun to play, the AI actually seemed competent enough to hold it’s own (apparently the historical battle AI was scripted), and the game looked really nice on top of it all. M2 was released, and once again, I went out and bought it.

The first thing I truly disliked was that the “unlockable” faction BS was back. I have no idea why game developers think this is a good decision, but knew beforehand that it was there and that one could easily edit the game’s ini file and allow all factions to be selected from the start. This time at least, the other factions hadn’t been just blatantly ignored and weren’t of the same generic, boring nature that many of Rome’s were. I started up a campaign as England, started building some improvements, ended my turn, recruited some units, ended a few more turns, and started looking around on the screen to figure out what the campaign date was. It was nowhere in sight. The only thing showing was a counter displaying the turn number, doing it’s best to destroy any sense of the passage of time, so I jumped online and figured out that, to switch this over to the game date instead, one again had to edit the ini file. At first, I was thinking CA did this solely to annoy previous TW players, but once I’d enabled the date over turns command, something else strange began to happen. The date after each turn seemed to be glitched, like it would go from 1 year per turn to 2, back to 1, on and on. Another look online showed that game turns now consisted of 1.5 years each, instead of the standard 1 yr/turn of the previous games. No one bothered to correct the character’s age however, so faction leaders, governors and generals now regularly lived to be well over 100 yrs old and still fighting battles.

Annoying as this was, I could put up with it and not notice if the game was good otherwise, so I kept at my campaign. I was impressed to see my rivals, Scotland and France, actually form an alliance together, and a turn or so later, France attacked! This seemed like a big change from the randomly aggressive AI of Rome, and the apparent action of France allying with my neighbor before attacking was neat as well, so I ignored the fact that the French army which led the war declaration was a handful of archers and spearmen attacking one of my heavily garrisoned castles. I gave the game a couple of turns to see if the AI France would then bring in the larger army sitting on my border to combine with it’s pathetic besieging army, but alas, the larger army didn’t seem to care. Distracting me however was the declaration of war against me from Scotland, as a larger Scot army began attacking my settlement of York! I was really getting excited now, thinking that maybe the strategic AI had really been souped up and would provide a challenge yet again. A couple of turns later, the besieging Scots assaulted my city….

I took great care in positioning my defenders, with archers on the walls, spearmen guarding the gate, and a “bodyguard” of spearmen mercs in the castle center with my general. Watching the AI move up, I was hoping for a real bloodbath, as they outnumbered me by a large margin and any halfway competent player would be able to win by numbers alone. The AI moved it’s ram to my gate… then proceeded, RTW-style, to go ahead and park it’s ENTIRE ARMY, general and all, right behind the ram just in front of my wall defenses. The men manning my wall towers and archers I’d positioned along the battlement must have felt like they were witnessing a miracle as they proceeded to loose arrows and mow down half of the Scot army before my gate even fell. I’m already becoming angry at this blatant act of AI stupidity as they smash down my gate, and then- well you guessed it, in charges the suicide general, right into a wall of spears, killing himself and causing the whole army to rout a few minutes later. In all, I lost a handful of spearmen and archers, while the Scot army, both larger than mine and with better troops, suffered horrible casualites, mainly from deciding to stand within point-blank range of my archers and towers for the majority of the battle. I quit the campaign and, trying to maintain hope, launched a custom battle instead, England vs France, with the exact same army composition of general, cavalry, spearmen, archers, and a foot knight unit for each side…

The first battle saw the AI only standing there. They just never bothered to move, even when I sent my archers up to pepper them with arrows, with the enemy archers responding only if my own walked into their range. My two archer units effectively thinned out the enemy ranks in the first five minutes without any of them moving a muscle. Of course, this turned out to be an easy victory. Custom battle number 2, same factions and unit setups, saw the AI actually fight similarly to MTW. I started to cheer up as it moved up in formation, began firing arrows while moving it’s cavalry around on my flanks. I won, but this one required me to actually TRY to win, and I was becoming happy. Custom battle 3, again with the exact same setup, resulted in the AI using the Rome: Total War “EVERYONE CHARGE!!!!!!” tactic, sending even its archers in an unintentionally funny berzerk rush to my center, and of course leading the charge with it’s general, straight into a spear wall resulting in said general’s suicidal death, and the AI army routed as I flanked them. This, and the stoicisim maneuever listed above, would end up being the primary tactics for the AI in campaign field battles. Occasionally, the schizophrenic AI would launch into MTW mode and actually provide a challenge in a battle here and there, and then go right back to it’s usual spearwall charging with kamikaze general way.

The strategic AI went nuts as well. Apparently, some genius at CA decided that on the harder campaign difficulty settings, the player should just become more and more hated by the AI with each turn. I guess this was to keep the graphics and action crowd, who must have really boosted their RTW and M2TW sales, from having to do something boring like thinking and planning, and ensures that after a set amount of turns, even your happiest allies will hate and backstab you when they get the chance. The AI, now even more homicidal than that of Rome, would happily attack the player even when it stood no chance at all, even with wimpy “rebel” settlements still around it to be captured, and once again would staunchly refuse ceasefire offers no matter how badly it was losing. In a really amusing twist, I had an idea to gain favor with the pope by ceding some land to him in France. The pope took it, boosting my relations with the Papal states to “Perfect”… then proceeded to attack me a few turns later. Not only this, but the papal states went completely berzerk in Rome as well, and started attacking other Catholic factions that it had been in good favor with a turn before like a rabid animal on PCP. Needless to say, the strategic AI wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and still hadn’t learned to use the 3D map, which makes graphics-whoring the only explainable reason as to why such as map was even developed.

To add insult to injury, the game at released had many major bugs, two of which were especially galling.

#1- Shield armor values were bugged and actually counted AGAINST a unit’s armor rating, as in a shiled rating of 6 actually detracted 6 points from the unit’s armor rating instead of adding them as it should.

And #2- the animation for many two-handed weapons was bugged, making them next to useless in battle, and ensuring that billmen could not kill even the lightest cavalry at all after their initial charge.

Animation bugs… once again, someone had the genius idea that this time around, instead of units on the battle map appearing to hit each other while all of the killing going on was actually numbers being crunched in the background, in M2 the actual battlefield animations of attacking and defending should determine who lives or dies. This could be wonderfully exciting if done correctly- however, it wasn’t. Battlefield animations look neat at first, but honestly aren’t much more exciting than RTW’s hacking and slashing, and units certainly don’t fight with anything close to the ferocity and technique that real swordsmen or axmen would have. The “Battlefield Animations!” gimmick only provided more advertising fodder, and also ensured that peasants and militia archers armed with knives and pitchforks would have the fastest animated attacks, and therefore be able to hold their own against armored foot knights due to the knights not being able to get in as many attacks of their own thanks to slower animation speeds. Note my accusation of “Graphics Whoring” above if there’s any confusion to how I feel about this sort of thing.

So Medieval 2 went back to the CD rack while Europa Barbarorum for Rome, finally making Rome into a game worth playing, took up my Total War game time. Some fun mods for M2 came out after the patch that took nearly 6 months to be released to get the game fully playable, and mods such as “The Long Road”, “Deus lo Vult”, and “Stainless Steel” actually made the game fun again to a point, although I only stuck with Deus lo Vult since it adds in a “Garrison script”, as CA didn’t bother to get the AI up to par on garrisoning it’s cities. The nice thing is that M2’s AI is much more “moddable” than Rome, and some very impressive work has been done on it, with the strategic AI finally being turned into a sane opponent, and battle AI being improved as well, though still unable to match that of the original Medieval. The saddest part is that now, it’s the excellent modding community that makes these games worth playing 6 months or so after their release, both by drastically improving the gameplay and challenge, and also fixing many bugs that the developers either didn’t bother to get right in the first place, or took their sweet time patching- many Medieval 2 bugs were fixed by modders well, and by well I mean MONTHS, before the first official patch was out addressing any of them.

Also, the trend of flaming anyone who criticizes the game series on forums still continues. Flaming, personal attacks, and accusations of “trolling” have been thrown my way for criticizing the same aspects as above in the hopes that, if enough people complain, just maybe CA will make the next game on par with the original Medieval. I don’t see saying “I like the game series, but think they have major problems and want to see them made better” to be on par with trolling such as saying “Haha these games suck and everyone who plays them iz stupid! LOLZ!”, but I guess you might as well just get ready to hear something like “Just shut up you whiny hater, the games are fun and the graphics rock!” if you aren’t willing to jump in line, ogle the graphics, and ignore the otherwise downgraded quality of the game series. The “fanboyism” surrounding these games is depressing, and valid criticisms being met with personal attacks and cries of “shut up!” IMO doesn’t bode well for the series’ future.

With the recent previews of Empire TW, it’s been the same old thing: “GRAPHICS GRAPHICS GRAPHICS some ai improvements GRAPHICS GRAPHICS GRAPHICS” with an added emphasis on Naval battles. I see no point in naval battles if they play out the same as land battles currently do: “massive enemy navy attacks, enemy flagship sails out ahead and directly into player’s guns, enemy flagship sunk, outnumbered player watches entire enemy navy rout”. I hope they fix the AI and make the game challenging, I really do, because I really want this one to be good! I cannot stress that enough, the reason I am so hard on these games is because the original was great, and the developers could make the newer ones at the same level of greatness if they just damn well tried, and put some actual effort into fixing the AI and complaints, such as suicidal generals, that have been problems since the original MTW that still haven’t ever been addressed. I just don’t care about prettier graphics at the expense of challenge, and can’t find a game with an AI opponent that exists only to be stomped all over (and without multiplayer support for campaigns) to be any fun at all. Anticlimatic does not equal a good time to me. Hearing the developers mention AI improvements should be exciting, but they’ve claimed “AI Improvements” in Medieval 2 interviews as well and didn’t actually bother to implement much of them, so I’m not getting my hopes up now.

Here’s to hoping that CA finally does address such flaws and make ETW a classic on the level of Medieval 1 (and Shogun, which I haven’t forgotten but never really played). I’m not counting on it though, and have learned my $100 lesson with the past two TW releases. If ETW is anything like Rome or M2 out of the box, I won’t be buying it until it’s been patched a couple of times, and the modders have fixed everything that CA won’t bother to with it. Thank goodness for the excellent modding community out there.