Monday, February 27, 2017

Total Warhammered

Thanks to Humble Monthly I am playing Total War Warhammer. Now a few days in I am once again reminded of why I absolutely love Total War games and also why I absolutely hate Total War games.

I love them because of the ridiculous ambition. Every total war game allows you to play grand strategy with empires and kingdoms and then zoom in to fight individual battles with thousands of soldiers on each side. 

I love them because of the incredible scene setting and ambience. Every single total War game really knocks it out of the park in terms of sound, music and graphics when it comes to portraying their chosen world. 

I hate them because of the many things that just don't work as well as they should. I am not even talking about many bugs that each new iteration of the game launches with because I always wait a couple of months until they are patched out. I am talking about the basic structural flaws that never get patched out. The AI which struggles with pathfinding in battle mode and struggles with just about everything in campaign mode. Confusing tutorials that are never quite clear on when they start and end. An in game manual without a search function (really?). 

Most of all though I hate Total War because when it boils down to it the single player campaigns can be very boring. Once you get over the initial heady rush of commanding real armies on the battlefield it doesn't take too much longer to figure out how to overcome your neighbours, hampered as they are by the games lacklustre AI. Then starts the long slow grind as you tackle army after army and capture province after province on your way to dominance. I have done this too many times in too many Total War games and I find it very tedious. Creative Assembly themselves are obviously aware of this because almost every long campaign has a special "Triggered Event" in mid to late game which usually results in you losing about half of what you have accumulated to date and all your erstwhile friends becoming enemies. Does this suddenly make the grind more exciting? No it does not. It simply sets you back about fifty moves and forces you to recapture all those territories all over again. Read the final part of my blog series on a full campaign of Rome Total war if you want to know exactly what it feels like to complete a Total War Campaign: http://mindbendingpuzzles.blogspot.ie/2010/06/rome-scipii-campaign-update-bitter.html

So what do I think of Warhammer so far? I am playing the default Empire campaign and still in the very early stages but so far I am impressed. The interface remains familiar but streamlined and the new features of magic and heroes seems to be handled well. One unusual change for a Total War game is that you can no longer conquer all the territory. Playing as a human I can destroy an Orc faction and I can raze all their towns but I cannot occupy their settlements and I believe the opposite is also true. I have yet to see what impact this has on overall game strategy because there are still plenty of human territories for me to conquer / annex.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was seeing how well the Total War formula translates  to a fantasy setting. I have always loved Creative Assembly's dedication to capturing the ambience of whatever historical setting they choose and I am happy to report  that Warhammer does not disappoint in this respect. The game drips with lore and ambience and even though I am far from expert on Warhammer the devs seem to have done their usual meticulous homework on this one. Of particular note is the map. I don't know if there were any existing Warhammer maps before this but freed from the constrains of real world geography CA have gone to town with the map and produced a wonderful playground of fields, forests, treacherous mountain passes and deadly marshes.

"What about the AI?" you ask.   I haven't experienced any disasters on the battle map yet but a couple of experiences on the campaign map have convinced me that normal Total War standards apply:

First off is sieges. In previous Total War games I have used the tactic of laying siege to a superior army that is garrisoned in a city because I know that eventually they will be forced to leave the city to try and dislodge me. This robs them of fortification advantages and allows me to  fight from a position of defensive strength. In previous games the defenders would wait till they were nearly out of time and then sortie to try and dislodge me. I tried this twice in Warhammer and both times the defenders never sortied. Despite having superior numbers the defenders waited behind their walls until starvation had devastated their numbers (a new mechanic I think) allowing me to walk into the city and mop up their miserable remnants. This is surely broken because it makes sieges an "I win" button.

A second observation relates to diplomacy (always a sore point for Total War AI). In the relatively short time I have been playing I found myself becoming friendly with a dwarven faction. Initially this arose from a shared mutual enemy as we worked together to annihilate a goblin faction and from this we established a non aggression pact and a mutually profitable trading relationship. Green smiley face and a positive friendly attitude all round. Unfortunately these particular dwarves were also at war with the powerful Wood Elves. This required some deft diplomatic manoeuvring from me because the Wood Elves were the strongest faction on the map and maintaining my trading relationship with the dwarves while not attracting the ire of the Elves was  stressful. I thought I was managing it until suddenly the dwarves declared war on me out of the blue marching on one of my towns. What? So much for friendly relations.  I marched my own army down and sent them packing. For good measure I followed them back and looted their capital city. Now they want to be friends again declaring peace and offering new treaties! The only good thing about this idiocy is that it has improved my standing with the Wood Elves quite a bit. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Too much stuff. How can we choose what to watch / play / read in an era of over abundance.

This morning  I signed up for Amazon's Kindle first service. It is a kind of book club where you pay a monthly sub and get to pick one of six pre release books on Kindle every month. At only £0.99 per month it is a very low risk commitment and it can be cancelled any time. My reason for joining has nothing to do with hoping to read the next blockbuster at a bargain price before it goes on general release. It is simply my latest attempt to solve the ever growing problem of what piece of media (book, film, game) to consume next. There are too many new books out there just as there are too many news game, too many new TV series and too many new movies. I am willing to give Amazon's editorial staff a go at suggesting what I should read next.

 There is simply too much stuff out there. How on earth does one choose which stuff to spend the time and effort consuming? Mega corporations like Netflix, Google and Amazon have spent millions trying to answer this question with algorithms that analyse your profile and your past behaviour to predict what you would like to read, watch, play or buy next. Facebook and its ilk try to leverage the power of social connection to answer this question on the premise that if your friends like something then maybe you will like it too. None of these services answer the question to my satisfaction however. Their recommendations are wrong as often as they are right and the very mechanical nature of their algorithms puts me off.

Trusted reviewers are another obvious approach but in today's world of instant access to everyone's opinion that is simply swapping one problem of overabundance for another. On YouTube for example there are thousands of video game reviewers and the more popular ones often have widely differing opinions. Which reviewers should I follow? Can someone start reviewing the reviewers please? Aggregate review sites can sometimes be useful for highlighting the all time classics that everyone really should sample but the mechanical nature of their algorithms obscures as much as it reveals. A quick look at the top rated video games on the last 90 days on Metacritic will quickly convince you that that approach is fraught with hazard. While there are likely to be some gems on the list I defy anyone to play and enjoy all of the eclectic assortment of titles that pop up.

Over the last year I have had great success with Humble Monthly's curated bundle of video games. Of the six or seven games in each month's bundle I have always found one or two that have held my attention long enough to more than justify the bundle price. More often than not it is one of the lesser known indie titles that grabs me rather than the headline game. Last month I spend a lot of time playing Neon Chrome. I am currently enjoying Steamworld Heist from the February bundle although I do intend to sample XCOM 2 later. Teh key word for me here is "curated". I really do get the impression that each of these games are chosen by someone for a reason. Some of the choice are more "experimental" that others but with very rare exceptions I don't think any of the games are just thrown in to meet a price target.