My Year In Strategy Gaming 201728 Dec 2017 0
2017 is coming to an end, and this means it's time to take stock of the year. The best thing that happened, obviously, was Strategy Gamer accepting and publishing the stuff that I write. Other than that, several video games were released -- were they good, or were they strategic blunders of “invading Russia” proportions?
Eugen Systems first burst into the scene with RUSE and became a fixture with Wargame series, very much notable for covering Cold-War-Gone-Hot scenarios and the variety of both factions and units in the game. Steel Division: Normandy 44 is a very restrained game in comparison, focusing on forces involved in the invasion of Normandy in World War II. The game is very much based on Wargame – but so much better.
Despite this game being about WWII, the mass conflict of our history, the game features much smaller armies than those in Wargame. In the Cold War game, the only units limited to less than 10 were super modern tanks. In SD44, every tank and infantry squad is precious. Even more precious are command units, which now have an actual command role: they increase efficiency of the units they command and keep them from being overrun once cut-off and encircled.
The factions – divisions – are wonderfully different and characterful, reflecting on the variety of equipment and organizations present in WWII. The frontline mechanic is fun, especially when combined to with the phase mechanic that prevents early game rushes and adds a layer of hard choices to your army building. If the next Wargame title is "Steel Division But With Early Cold War Units", and I'd be happy as a groggy clam.
It was up to the indies to provide most of the other pleasant surprises of the year. For example, Warbands: Bushido was the best game that billed itself as miniature game simulator. And it did that pretty well. A very small skirmish game with easy-to-understand dice mechanics, with each soldier type having distinct skills, strengths and weaknesses. Even with the relatively limited army sizes, the combinations are almost endless, and you even have some customization by coloring certain clothing items. The developers have also made great choices with art direction and allocating the technical budget. For example, the miniatures don't have animations, only ilde, attack and got-hit poses. That's a great understanding of what a game needs.
However, it's Illwinter Game Design that are truly dedicated to building game world and slaving the technical side to it. Dominions 5 is still a game in which ‘90s vintage sprites run around in 3D battlefields that, while improved for this title, could almost pass for something made in the early 2000s. It doesn't matter, though, because Dominions ensnares you with the depth of gameplay and the in-game world. The shenanigans a player can get up to with all the units, spells and magic items in the game are nearly endless. The game has about 60 factions – separated into three sets according to the age your campaign will be set in – and all of them are unique in some way. All of those things are very well tied together with solid writing that shows Glorantha (King of Dragon Pass for the PC game players) levels of love for the subject.
A somewhat less ambitious project that displayed similar similar passion to gameplay that matches the game world was Battle Brothers. Sadly not a game about Space Marines, it set you up as a leader of a mercenary band in a low-fantasy setting. You hire soldiers in cities ruled by grumpy lords, taking your pick from whatever farmhands and miscreants want a change of profession. You arm them with whatever your budget allows and take them out to escort caravans, clear out bandit ruins and hunt down wolves. You try – and fail – to keep your men alive in grueling turn based battles. It's a really touching game and all of the loses are deeply felt. Well, except for when you hire a cultist and he starts doing strange things. That guy can go jump on some goblin's blade.
Moving on to the grimdark elephant in the room, I had the chance to try out Dawn of War 3, and as a Warhammer 40K fan, I wish I hadn't. It’s a betrayal of all things that made the first Dawn of War great, from gameplay, to story, to campaign. The cover system, which evolved from DoW1 craters-provide-cover and watery-ditches-make-you-easier-to-hit to DoW2's Company of Heroes-inspired organic cover, has been reduced to gamey shield generator locations, which can either be destroyed or assaulted by specific units. Morale system was removed entirely; it's unnecessary in a game where the units don't survive enough to break.
Now, I can’t blame StarCraft 2 for not changing the gameplay along the revolutionary lines set out by DoW1/CoH1: people are in love with the basic formula of the game (and the craft put into the single player campaign of the God Of All Esports game is nothing short of astounding). Dawn of War 2 has already demonstrated that the developers are willing to do whatever they wish with the formula by turning an RTS game into something akin to a mass RPG.
The list of transgressions stemming from DoW3’s new direction goes on and on: from the game's campaign being a glorified tutorial – the decision to make mission 10 or so into an extended “Eldar buildings can teleport” tutorial is nothing short of baffling - to pennypacketed unit-type meta upgrades (reminiscent of the ones introduced in Company of Heroes 2), through horrible faction design that interpreted Eldar's hit-and-run nature as Protoss shields, to the general slaving of gameplay choices to making a faux-MOBA game, every new thing is a disappointment.
The MOBA angle is most obvious when the customizable part of an army are three heroes that only regenerate health near the main base building, and the only skirmish mode that the game shipped was about destroying poweful turrets before eventually blowing up a power core. Dawn of War 3 is a disappointment as a strategy game, as a Dawn of War game and as a Warhammer 40K game -- the only thing tying it to previous titles being some of the named characters and the Blood Angels Chapter.
The other big Warhammer game of the year was Total War: Warhammer II. It's main selling point was that the game would now have an actual campaign. The issues of Warhammer I remained; the units are fragile, which means that you never have the time to take in the battle, moving the game close to the malaise of actions-per-second infecting RTS market; units regain morale way too fast, making old-style army-wide routs almost impossible; ranged units reign supreme, whittling down all but the hardest units, and so on. However, the campaigns have its own set of problems.
They're all the same. I tried the different faction campaigns in a rapid succession. They all feature identical sets of tasks, only differing in descriptions that play lip service to the setting, the name of McGuffins you collect and the scenario battles. All the writing is clumsily made to fit the campaign mechanics of McGuffin gathering, and the McGuffins themselves are not interesting by any stretch, their function identical across the races. Nothing was done to make the whole collection and ritual thing feel in any way magical. In fact, it just emphasises how little effort was put into it.
Looking forward, one can only hope that Battletech will be as good as Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun games, if a little less text heavy. One other ray of light comes courtesy of Ancestors Legacy, a viking RTS that impressed me to no end and which seems to be only game that learned the right lessons from Dawn of War 1 and Company of Heroes 1. Hopefully this article will be much merrier next year!