gameplay

From Out of Nowhere: Seven Kingdoms 2 HD

sk2hd I had just mentioned in a previous post how every game from the last twenty years was getting a remake of some kind. I just happened upon this one when I noticed that GOG.com was giving me a free update to a game. Little did I know that one of my favorite strategy games of all time was getting an HD remake with some new features, new support (a new patch has just been released), and the music finally works (the previous version offered by GOG.com had some problems there).

But what is this Seven Kingdoms 2, and why are their more than seven kingdoms you can play?

The first Seven Kingdoms was released in 1997, when RTS games were entering their heyday. Command & Conquer, Warcraft, Starcraft, and Age of Empires ruled the scene and featured fast-paced base building, direct control over villager/peon/constructor units to gather multiple resources, and, aside from a smattering of diplomacy and “trade” in some cases, you sent your assortment of units into the fray and hoped they came out of battle victoriously.

Seven Kingdoms was one of the first RTS games to feature elements more common to turn-based strategy games, like a more robust diplomacy system, enhanced and functional trade for resources, and even espionage. Combat was straight forward with just a few types of units and you made critical decisions in real time.

Seven Kingdoms 2: The Fryhtan Wars is the sequel and features a 3D terrain engine, several more human cultures, and the ability to play the evil Fryhtans, which appeared in the first game as monsters who hoarded treasure. In the sequel, they boast one of the most notable new features. The Fryhtan cultures each have their own distinct feel and abilities, but otherwise they are more combat oriented, so they provide a nice change of pace from the more involved gameplay of the human cultures.

Human gameplay revolves around trade, combat, research, and espionage, most which have received upgrades from the previous game. Trade for resources is essentially the same. Build a mine to gather raw materials. Build a factory to make refined products. Sell them at a market to your own people or to other kingdoms via trade caravans. This trade opens up more diplomacy where you can make friends, allies, or enemies, and even make some money selling excess food, or pay tribute to keep an aggressive neighbor at bay. sk2gameplay Combat has been revamped significantly. You train soldiers at forts, which also can serve as defenses with their missile towers, and as you keep soldiers in forts they gain more skill in combat to become better fighters, or even in leadership to become good generals or even kings if your current one dies. Each kingdom also has a unique unit that represents its cultural heritage such as Egyptian chariots or Celtic druids, and a unique deity to summon occasionally whose temple also provides a unique bonus. Combat is relatively simple, with no rock-paper-scissor mechanics worry about. However, a mix of ranged attacks and melee allows for some tactical variations and other machines of war like catapults, cannons, and more can be researched and built to augment your forces. Hero units and carry-able artifact that provide bonuses and abilities also provide a unique way to specialize your units.

Research also leads to other things besides new war machines, unlike its predecessor, like improved unit tactics and better espionage skills. Espionage is one of this series’ most notable features, and few other games, if any, have developed anything similar that can even compare. In this game you train spies that can infiltrate other kingdoms and towns where they can create unrest, steal technology, sabotage buildings, or even become soldiers and generals. From there they can bribe other units into your web of spies, or attempt to assassinate enemy generals or even kings. The most prestigious achievement in this game’s espionage is to have your spy become promoted to an enemy general. With that general/spy or any other you can assassinate the enemy king, and have your own spy become the new king. With that you can turn over control of an entire kingdom to your own, all without having to fight a single battle.

There are a couple of drawbacks. First of all, there are no oceans and seas like in the previous game which means no new continents to discover full of untapped resources or undiscovered kingdoms to befriend or fight. I will say that once you get fully involved in the gameplay, you won’t even notice a lack of water since things keep moving pretty briskly. New towns emerge, as well as new kingdoms, and you’ll be zig zagging across the map in pursuit of new acquisitions and resources. There are also impassible mountain ranges that can alter the composition of the random maps, but there is still nothing like sending a fleet of ships across an ocean to engage in battle or carry villagers to new lands.

Secondly, the included campaign mode is mostly just random maps with some occasional objectives and the story it follows is not memorable. Still, it offers something like Rise of Nation’s world domination campaign, so it’s worth one or two play throughs.

Overall, this game is a jack of all trades and truly a master of none (except espionage, where it excels!!!). It is, though, a master of being a jack of all trades. Very few games have succeeded in providing this much gameplay. Rise of Nations and Sins of a Solar Empire come to mind as the only other games that have had success with this type of gameplay. Still, Seven Kingdoms 2 carves out its own niche that neither one of those games can claim. It’s great to see one of my favorite strategy games from the past get a glorious HD makeover (well… makeover is a little strong, but it still looks good). Maybe there is more in store for the future of this series, but even if not, there is a lot here that I have been missing. You can find this gem either at GOG.com, or on Steam. sk2title

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Video Game Ranting: Total War: Rome 2 Review

I’ve been trying to sort out my puzzled feelings about Total War: Rome 2.  I had waited for it for so long, like many others, and bid my time as best I could playing previous installments of Creative Assembly games, games like Medieval 2: Total War and Rome: Total War.  It’s easy to get hopeful when playing an older game, imagining optimistically what that experience will be like with newer and better things.

Even when Rome 2 was finally (and some say prematurely) released, I didn’t get to play it. At least not fully. It was poorly optimized and had several critical bugs that made it literally unplayable. I hadn’t had so much trouble with a game crashing to desktop or freezing since the days of Windows 95.
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After the first hurdle was successfully jumped after a few patches (and more than a few weeks) I finally got to play the game without worrying that it would crash any time a screen loaded (it took me quite some time to not feel on edge about that). I was finally free to dig into the game, take my time to explore my options, peel back the layers of depth, and get into the nitty gritty of the gameplay that had taken me months or years to discover in previous Total War games.

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What I found is that this game went about as deep as a puddle on the street, at least compared to its predecessors. Despite the improved graphics and a handful of new features like province management, naval battles, and a host of new factions that really make the world feel alive,  all the immersive qualities I came to expect from a game in this franchise were gone.

Most bothersome, the political system changed greatly:

No more family trees. No more intra-faction politics among competing generals (at least as you are used to it). No more princesses to marry unrelated generals or princes of other factions. No more brothers vying for leadership, and no more watching your generals descend into madness or alcoholism or even experimenting with other men or women.

Instead you get randomized generals that belong, arbitrarily, to your faction. Said faction is one of at least two that compete within your kingdom for percentage points of favor, and eventually for obvious reasons and yet mysteriously random circumstances you engage in a civil war against those other factions.

Why does this matter?

If you are looking for ancient world combat and strategy, then you won’t care. If you are looking for the same immersive experience provided in all the previous titles, then it does matter.  Sure there are other games you can play if you want to simulate dynasties and things like that, but I guess I’m used to not settling for less with a Total War game. I enjoy strategy games, the conquests against odds, the cooperation with allies, the lucky chances that provide narrow escape from disaster.

But the randomly named and irrelevant generals provide no sense of progression. A son will never take up arms against the Gauls that slew his father, for instance. Instead  Quintus Maximus is replaced by Marcus Brutius unceremoniously and all of the previous general’s accolades are swiftly erased by his likely early death (which comes sooner since now all turns are 1 year instead of 6 months, a minor quibble, but still…)

So what does this mean for me?

It means I am caught in a holding pattern. A game for which I paid lies before me, tempting me with adventures that I can’t have because it isn’t as well equipped as older games. At the same time, playing older games is a sure bet to provide me with the things that are familiar even if they aren’t new, but those older games are a bitter reminder that a newer incarnation exists, and so the cycle repeats.

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Creative Assembly developers have promised many things and delivered a few, including many patches to improve technical gameplay as well as operation of some of the features, and a mini-expansion of sorts that centers around the campaigns of Julius Caesar in ancient Gaul. However, they have been silent on matters pertaining to complaints that many of their customers have, and we are left hanging without any hope.

At least modding tools are being released soon, and we can make for ourselves what we deserved to get in the first place.