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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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Star Wars: TIE Fighter is on GOG.com

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Released by Lucas Arts and Totally Games in 1994, Star Wars: TIE Fighter is the excellent sequel to Star Wars: X-Wing, and one of the best games ever released in the entire Star Wars franchise. It’s combination of story, gameplay, and production values make it a winner to this day, and you can get it now on GOG.com.

I remember playing X-Wing and it was a dream come true. Long had I desired the chance to experience what it would be like in the cockpit of a starfighter, and that game have me that chance to carrry out daring raids and rescue missions to my heart’s content. Then came along TIE Fighter, and I wasn’t too keen on it. It was about the bad guys…  

I was such a good kid.

Once I delved into TIE Fighter, I was entranced. There was more of everything. More variety in the missions and spacecraft, advanced weapons, tractor beams, better graphics, brand new starfighters to test, there was always something new to experience. And my qualms about flying for the enemy quickly dissolved since I got to fight lawless pirates and Imperial traitors just as often as I got to fly against that Rebel scum.
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Superficially, TIE Fighter is a space combat flight simulator. You spend most of the game in a cockpit tweaking your joystick, shield and weapon settings, and blessing target after target out of the stars. However, there is so much more going on than this. While you may spend time flying around outer space shooting things, there is also a larger story going on around you, and you always seem to be in the epicenter.

The story of TIE Fighter is what really makes it shine, and it’s one of the first Star Wars games to draw extensively to the Expanded Universe while also contributing significantly itself. Grand Admiral Thrawn, Lord Vader, and even the Emperor himself have designs and plans that involve you. By the end of the game, not only are you a hot shot pilot to rival the Skywalker clan, but about half of the Empire owes you a favor due to your fancy flying. Whether you are uncovering conspiracies or protecting the Emperor himself, you’re always uncovering more and more story.
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Missions are presented to you in the form of objectives, and most of the primary objectives you face are relatively straightforward and sometimes challenging. It’s the secondary goals, or even the elusive bonus goals that will keep you on the edge of your seat in order to defy the odds to inspect that one container before it gets torpedoed, or trying to keep your craft together through wave after wave fierce opposition so you can identify that mysterious shuttle at the mission’s end.

These things aren’t necessary, but they add a great value to the gameplay, and since most missions rarely replay exactly the same way, you’re bound to get some replay value. Furthermore, there are always tidbits of story presented to you between missions, or even in f un little FMVs that show informing cutscenes. Their quality is rather dubious nowadays, but they’re still well made and worth a view if you want to keep up with the Byzantine inner workings of Imperial intrigue.
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I have one quibble with the version of the game I got from GOG.com.  First, I must say I’ve been a fan of that site for years and they work diligently to bring us updated versions of classic games that run on our modern rigs, and my complaint in no way regards the folks there.

For the price of one, you get two versions, the original 1994, and an updated 1998 release that features updated textures and orchestral music by John Williams as featured in the next installment in the series, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. At first, these sound like a bonus, and in a way they are.

However, the 1996 CD ROM version of TIE Fighter is the one I grew up with. Though its Gouraud Shading isn’t as accurate as the newer textures when compared to the films, its metallic-ish sheen was sleeker, and in my opinion aged a bit better. Also, the original soundtrack was outstanding as well, and it reacted to events in the game to alter the musical mood accordingly. It’s a shame that the effort invested into those amazing features is overridden by the version we have now, but maybe the Good Old Games team will get that for us sometime down the road.

Overall, it’s been great to revisit one of the best games of my childhood, one of the best games ever. It’s synthesis of features gives one of the most engrossing, satisfying experiences a PC gamer could ever ask to have.  So get out there and clear the galaxy of those filthy pirates, insidious traitors, and that ever irritating Rebel scum.

Steam-y Reflections

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Valve Corporation’s Steam has undoubtedly affected my PC gaming experience much as it has for many other people. It’s been in service for over a decade now, and my first encounter with it several years ago occurred when I purchased Half Life 2, which required Steam in order to play it.

I remember begrudgingly acquiescing to this demand, which at the time seemed rather draconian. In fact, I was unable to play Half Life 2 for a while because for the first couple of years I lived on my own, I didn’t have internet. I was so Spartan.

Nowadays, Steam makes a common appearance on my PC desktop, where I can peruse the latest patch notes and updates, sort through random statistics (I’ve played that game for 200 hours!?), and sometimes I even get roped into buying a new game because of some special sale that happens every time someone breathes or something.

For better or worse, Steam has wedged itself into my PC habits. iTunes did the same years ago, but with streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, I rarely open that mess of mp3s anymore. Maybe something will come along in a few more years to replace it, but until then Steam looks to be a constant companion.

Having said all that, there are some things regarding my gaming habits that gave changed with my adoption of Steam and others (gog.com is another of my favorites). Here’s a rose tinted look at some aspects of PC gaming that have changed for me.

1. Shopping!

Well, I still shop for games. In fact, nowadays I can peruse more games than ever with my mouse.  I can view gameplay videos, cinematic trailers, and screenshots. I can read customer reviews. But there was something about walking into the store and looking at all the boxes lined up for you to feel and weigh and otherwise drool over. You could feel the discs and manual sliding around inside (Oh, that one feels heavy). Which leads to…

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2. Boxes.

PC games still come in boxes, but they’re usually the flimsy, cheap, DVD case kind. Before that they came in smallish boxes that where about the same size as DVD cases except thicker. And before that PC game boxes whee big and sometimes different shapes (I fondly remember Tomb Raider’s trapezoidal box). Sometimes cover flaps would open exposing more screenshots and features. Then there were the special edition boxes that were usually huge and contained all kind of collectible things. Long story short, PC game boxes used to set themselves apart, whereas now they attempt to blend in.

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3. Instruction Manuals.

I considered it a badge of pride when game companies would include decent manuals with their products. More than just installation instructions, good manuals included backstory for characters and setting, detailed explanations for in game features, and all that jazz. Great manuals were fun to read like magazines or something, and they always gave you a bit more to experience even when you weren’t playing the game.

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Nowadays, the digital days, these things are a rarity. Sure you can still go to the store and pick up a hard copy of a game, but it’s easier to get the same thing at home, and often for less money if there’s a sale.

Boxes are a thing of the past, even for consoles which are also providing non-physical options for purchase. Plus, they tend to take up space. When I moved last year, it was a pain to lug around boxes of old CDs and games and boxes. Boxes of boxes. Such a first world problem. You may not be able to make me get rid of my big box for Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but there’s a certain kind of relief in knowing that I don’t have to make room for boxes as I impulsively purchase games.

As far as manuals are concerned, I do miss them, but plenty more games are better about offering tutorials in lieu of physical instructions. When a game came with a great manual, I would skip any tutorial that was also available, but it’s nice to know I that they are more common now, and the internet is such a good place to get useless info anyway.

Times have changed for PC gaming, but I’ve changed as well. Perhaps I have rationalized my acceptance in order to better cope with the changes. I’m less interested in having physical things in favor of experiencing things instead, so holding onto discs and CDs and boxes and books and all that stuff is more of a hassle for me now. It is sad that young gamers don’t get to experience what I did years ago, but that makes those memories more special to me.

Besides, isn’t purchasing a game at home from your PC and then playing it just a few minutes later the future that we all dreamed when we were kids?

Civilization: Beyond Earth, Alpha Centauri’s Successor?

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Released just last week, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is the newest addition to the Civilization game series. For over two decades the series has brought us world domination realness in the form of turn-based gameplay that has evolved as much as we have throughout history. Now Beyond Earth (BE) presents us a vision of the future, like we’ve never seen it before. Kind of.

BE takes place in our future after an ominous tragedy, The Great Mistake, of ambiguous nature. Regardless of its causes or circumstances, the result is that humanity is reaching out through interstellar space to colonize a new home for humanity, and you get to choose your faction, your roots, your hopes, your plans for humanity’s future, and your ultimate method of victory.

The options are numerous upon start up, with each faction based on a different backstory and culture/nation/region/philosophy. You get to customize your game bonuses to suit your style, or in true pioneering fashion randomize the bonuses and deal with the randomness like a pro. From there, you choose your technologic research from a web which gives you flexibility in your path. Focus one direction and reap the benefits of advanced tech, but miss out on other benefits if you research more broadly. Research too broadly and you may miss out on technological wonders that provide bonuses to your factions.
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Engage in trade and espionage to reap more income and production bonuses for your colony, or steal research, techonology, or even sabotage with your spies. These additions were added via expansion to Civ 5, and I’m glad that they were added to the base game instead of being withheld.

As you play random events occur that are actually quests which give you choices that will affect you for the rest of the game. I really enjoyed this feature. Random events always provide a nice meta-challege to strategy games, and the choices you’re given really give you a chance to roleplay your faction or tweak your stats.

There are numerous paths to victory, some of them based on your “affinities” which are essentially philosophical paths you determine as you play. You don’t have to choose one, but you won’t get the best bonuses if you diversify too much (like with the tech web), and reaching a certain level with them opens up more victory conditions.

The game’s factions are pretty interesting as well, though many of their bonuses are left to the player upon startup. I enjoyed the international diversity they presented, but it wasn’t until late game that any motivations game to the forefront as each colony ventures farther into their affinities which can upset other faction leaders. For instance, in my game some were horrified at my attempt at harmony with the planet, and despite my eventual victory via transcendence, I can imagine watching my people evolve into some alien-human hybrid species was disturbing.

Lastly, the game’s environment was sufficiently alien and while I eventually “decoded” the tiles to see forests and deserts and plains, it retained its foreign-ness. On the other hand, the color palette was a bit too terrestrial and “pretty”.

Overall, there are so many options and configurations that replay value is tremendous, perhaps one of the best in the series.

Having said all that, it is time to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is one of my favorite games. Ever.

In fact, every Civilization game since has let me down in some way, with Civ 4 and Civ 5 each getting close to the mark in different ways. Beyond Earth gets the closest, but there is something about SMAC that just hasn’t yet been reiterated in a superior way.

Here are some notes:

  • The factions are richer, more detailed, more motivated. It was easier to love and/or hate them.
  • Wonder movies! The FMVs that played upon completion of the secret projects were almost more rewarding than the gameplay bonuses provided. They were well produced and featured in game lore that really fleshed out the experience by exploring the philosophical depths that the factions were faced with while colonizing a new world and dictating our future.
  • Immersion, immersion, immersion. From the numerous data windows, graphs, faction leader profiles that always scrolled throughout the interfaces, to the interludes that narrated developments in the game world, SMAC really drew you in. Beyond Earth came close with its voiceovers and quests, but SMAC still takes the cake on this one.
  • Unit designer! I’m sure the Civ 5 engine Beyond Earth isn’t suited for this kind of thing, and upgrades are implemented cleanly if a bit too simply, but the ability to design almost every component of a unit from armor and chassis, to weapon and special ability was amazing. Customizing your troop to engage against alien lifeform units or breaking international law by equipping nerve gas pods hasn’t been matched in the Civ series by a long shot.
  • Planetary Council! While I appreciate the developers for integrating so many features into the base game, you know that an expansion is inevitable, and I can just see that being voted Supreme Leader of the council will be added in a future pack. The planetary council was an amazing asset to SMAC that has actually been added in other (inferior) ways in the Civ games. What was great about SMAC’s version wasn’t just the diplomacy, it was also being able to vote on world policy such as banning or allowing atrocities, or even melting polar ice caps! Such a dastardly thing to do if you manage to protect your bases with domes that repel the rising seas while everyone else in the world drowns. I hope this makes a triumphant return to Beyond Earth.
  • Numerous gameplay options such as Blind Research (don’t choose specific techs, just broad categories and deal with the future tech realness!), though the randomizing of Beyond Earth’s options does shake up things quite well.

Beyond Earth does feature virtues, similar to Civ 5’s trees of culture-based bonuses. These fleshed out the values of your culture and gave you bonuses, but nothing has ever come close to the give-and-take that was involved in SMAC’s social engineering. While you could customize your society to be a Cybernetic Democracy with Green economics, there were drawbacks with each option.

Playing with different combinations to get the right balance of bonuses and penalties was much more fun that choosing from straight up bonuses. While helpful to gameplay, the trees reminded me too much of an MMORPG, and just reinforced the depth present in SMAC that developers seem to have been shying away from for the past decade.

Overall, SMAC was a deeply engrossing experience with so much packed into it that it took me years to peel away the layers of complexity. An expansion was also released for that game which added a few new improvements and new factions, but overall SMAC stood on its own without the X Pac, but that was a time when expansions, though common, were never a promise. Now it is all but a given, with only the most terrible of games missing that opportunity. How times change.
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While SMAC remains a treasure in my heart that will likely never be replaced, Beyond Earth is one of the most promising efforts to live up to such a magnificent legacy. In these days of neverending expansion packs, I look forward to my adventures beyond earth to be enriched with more sci-fi strategy goodness, but until then I have one hell of a base game to play, and that is more that can be said for many top tier titles nowadays.

By the way, get Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri at Gog.com.