Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Possible Next Step for Total War Games

I am no longer convinced that the chaotic nature of battlefields in Total War games is a deliberate reflection of real battles.

Perhaps I believed back that in 2000 when the original Shogun Total War was released to rapturous praise. One of Creative Assembly's major innovations was the fact that troops no longer followed orders like blind automatons and their effectiveness was strongly affected by morale, by environmental conditions and by the leadership of their general.  When the BBC used the Rome Total War engine for their battle re-enactments in the show "Time Commanders" they emphasised this confusion further by implementing a chain of command with a generals and lieutenants.

But ....

12 years and many incarnations of Total War later I think we have to accept that a major element of the confusion comes from the simplistic artificial intelligence (AI)  of Total War troops.While graphics and presentation have improved immensely over the years this vital aspect of game seems to me not to have improved substantially. Pathfinding remains problematic. I have yet to see a Total war troop able to man a wall  properly (although Shogun 2 seems to have neatly sidestepped this problem by putting the interiors of their castles on raised platforms). Working with groups of units is still a nightmare. Half the time your cavalry will race ahead into certain death while your infantry walk along behind. Half the time your group will try to blindly stick to a rigid formation despite terrain which makes it impossible. A unit of archers who have run out of ammunition will respond to an attack order by running in with their pocket knives!

I have no doubt that AI is a tricky problem to solve with so many different types of unit on the battlefield and so many possible scenarios but I have a thought which might offload the AI problem from Creative Assembly and allow players to make their own contribution:  Introduce officers with programmable AI. Instead of a lone general who provides little other than passive bonuses equip your  army with Captains and Lieutenants to whom you can can give detailed orders in advance. You could assign troops to the officer and set them an objective ("Hold this point" for example or "Capture that building"). To overcome AI shortcomings give players a simple programming interface which allows us to give more detailed instructions such as when to use certain formations and whether to attack head on or try to go around the flanks.

I got this idea after playing Dragon Age II. They have a simple programming interface called "Tactics" which is really a sequence of IF ... THEN.... statements which govern the behaviour of your characters when they are not being directly controlled.  I imagine something similar might be possible to implement in Total War for these "Officers".  It wouldn't be perfect and I have no doubt you could still get better performance micromanaging troops individually but I do think it might be a possible evolutionary step for the franchise.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The curse of the Total War Tutorial Strikes again

There is a broken unit of canon in the Shogun 2 Total War advanced battle tutorial. That doesn't sound like much but they are your only artillery and you are tasked with capturing a rather imposing fortress. There are ways to take a castle without canon by scaling the walls but it is impossible to ignore this artillery detachment that shows up in your list of units. They are positioned directly in front of the gate perfectly positioned to break down the entrance. They are clearly supposed to be important because they are being guarded by some of your other troops. Yet they refuse point blank to fire a shot. In fact they won't accept any orders at all. they just sit there for the whole battle watching complacently as infantrymen are cut down trying to breach the gates those canon should be assaulting.

This is not my imagination. Others have had this problem. Once again Creative Assembly demonstrates their inability to make a functioning tutorial.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Finally Steam has a competitor: Amazon

The growth of Amazon's digital download games department has produced the first serious competitor to Steam. Amazon's retail clout cannot be ignored and they generally offer some great bargains. Amazon's Summer sale for example undercuts Steam on many games.

I love Steam and it is my gaming platform of choice but competition between suppliers can only be good for us customers so lets have more of it. Amazon don't have their own PC client so many of their games even register on Steam - giving the best of both worlds.

I wish they would just hurry up and extend this service to those of us who live outside the US. I know it is possible to fake a US address but it feels a bit dodgy.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dragon Age II Thoughts

Dragon Age II got a fairly luke warm reception from critics so I was content to wait over a year after release before playing it. Now after completing the main campaign I can understand where some of those criticisms come from. The original Dragon Age Origins also had flaws but those flaws could generally be put down to an exuberance of ambition while the flaws in Dragon Age II feel seem to come from a deliberately constrained budget. This is perhaps most obvious in the tiresome re-use of a few limited pieces of scenery over and over again. Despite these misgivings, I still thing Dragon Age II is a very enjoyable game and it kept me enthralled for many hours. I think it would have garnered higher review scores over all if it had not been subject to the inevitable comparisons with its superb predecessor. Anyway here are some random thoughts:

Combat: Over all I liked the combat sequences in the game a lot but it took me a while to get the hang of it. Enemies come in greater numbers than I remember from the first game  and the action seems more fast and furious. Crowd control and healing abilities have been nerfed but tanking has been considerably buffed with a lot of new threat control skills so the overall level of tactics required is as high as the first game. I played on hard difficulty setting  (because I read somewhere that hard mode was balanced for those who played the original game) and I had numerous wipes as I worked out strategies for the games challenging battles.The classes feel more balanced than before and mages are no longer far more powerful than other characters. The tactics system which was one of the great innovations of the first game is largely unchanged but at least they got rid of the annoying requirement for skill points to be used to buy tactics slots.

Story: Everything is a lot less epic than Origins. In Origins you had to save the world from armageddon, in DA II you sort out a few of serious but limited incidents over a period of years in one backwater city. Nevertheless the stories themselves are well imagined and thought provoking at the top level. This is let down somewhat in implementation,  particularly when stories which appear to offer thought provoking choices turn out to have the same ending no matter what you choose (another manifestation of a constrained budget perhaps). The story telling is also let down badly by the implementation of dialog choices. The game gives you a simple graphic and one line summary to suggest what each choice means but there is a major disconnect between the "simple" hint and the actual words your character will say.  There is a further disconnect between what the character says and how it impacts the game. It feels as if the person who created the decision tree never actually listened to the dialog nor vice versa and it makes the decision process feel frustratingly random.

Toughest battles in the game for me: Based on number of wipes these were actually the Troll battle at the end of the prologue and the fight with the ancient rock wraith at the end of the Deep Roads expedition. There are tougher fights in the game but theses are the points where the sudden ramp of difficulty forced me to to re-examine my play style. In the prologue fight it was the first time I had to think about combat mechanics while the rock wraith fight marked the transition where I had to start micro managing my characters more closely.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Joy of Jumble Sales

There is something wonderfully unpredictable about second hand stuff. This morning we went to a second hand book sale that is held monthly by a local charity. The sale is well supported by donors and readers so there is always a good selection of books on offer along with a smattering of dvds and even the occasional board game. I came away from this morning's event with a book about the British Empire, a sci fi novel, a PC game (Star Wars, Empire at War) and a box set of a 1970s TV series called Flambards that I loved as a teenager and that my period drama obsessed teenage daughter wants to watch now.

There is no way that a 'real' shop with its utterly predictable range of carefully displayed products could ever offer such a wonderfully serendipitous shopping experience. Online shopping should be better but it is actually worse. Despite the enormous variety of goods both new and used available online the ruthless precision of information technology greatly reduces the likelihood of an unexpected find. The very tools which make it so easy to find precisely what you are looking for make it extremely unlikely that you will find some unexpected treasure that you are not looking for. I bet there are many copies of the Flambards box set for sale on Amazon and Ebay but I would never have thought to look for one.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

An alsmot aswesome moment of game design from Dragon Age II

After many attempts my party finally overcame a tough tough boss in Dragon Age II (the Ancient Rock Wraith). Before I could take a breather and save the game however I was plunged straight into a cut scene. A demon stranding in front of the dead Boss's treasure hoard spoke to me and presented the choice of running away or fighting him for the treasure.

Now lets us be clear here. One of the golden rules of game design is that there must always always be a save point immediately after every boss fight. Having to redo a tricky boss fight because you got killed by a trash mob on the way out of the lair is the suckiest piece of game design ever and any designer who does that should be fired on the spot. However this choice was cleverer than that and made for a tantalising dilemma.  Slink away safely and save my progress or risk being killed and having to replay the boss in the hope of getting the treasure. After some thought I decided to risk it and happily survived the ensuing fight to get the treasure and finally a priceless save opportunity. 

It wasn't an entirely pleasant situation to be put in but I was impressed that the game designers had found a way to make me really care about the impact of a decision. Then I read a wiki about it and realised that the Demon would probably have attacked me anyway. So much for my decision having an impact.