Thoughts On… Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X.

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Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Year of Release: 2009
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Tom Clancy is the man for near future military action. Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon are all landmarks in their various genres. H.A.W.X. was an attempt to bring that calibre to the arcade air combat games which had previously been ruled by Ace Combat.

As I mentioned before, H.A.W.X. is a arcade style flight combat game from Ubisoft Romania, those fine fellows who brought us Blazing Angels. This shows as the game handles very similarly. The A button is fire missiles, B is cannon, right trigger is accelerate and left trigger brakes. Oh and entering the Konami code allows you to fire kittens rather than missiles. (just joking. But wouldn’t that be awesome?) However, instead of flying around in old propeller driven monoplanes or biplanes, you instead take to the skies in the latest in military hardware and carrying enough ordinance to turn Leeds city centre into rolling plains. And to fit the near future Tom Clancy thing, these planes appear to have computers that are able to work out the opposing pilots every action and line you up a course on it mean you can fill it with hot rocket powered lead. Similarly, these planes are designed for idiots and so have safety locks on them. By double tapping the triggers and switching to OFF, you can toggle these which allows your jet to do drifts and other such tricks to glide around the sky. These two modes help to spice up the combat and both also look pretty cool.

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The story is the usual Tom Clancy military thriller. Guy fighting for USAF is fired (bizarrely mid mission while still carrying a load of bombs) and joins a PMC. Years later, said PMC become involved in battle alongside the US in South America. Deciding that the US are nicking all their money, the PMC (in a twist a blind person could see miles away) invades the States. The player, being the type of person who probably sleeps in the Star Spangled Banner, rejoins the US and beats up every PMC jet who attempts to attack him. Its an alright story (although the obsession with PMCs in all the Clancy games is kind of worrying) and does a good job setting up the missions, but lets say it won’t win any awards. The mission on the other hand are all superb. From bombing African rebel camps, to protecting Air Force One, the varied missions make flying great fun. However, there are one too many escort missions which may drive people insane as they are nowhere near the same level as fun. Similarly, the game can get really annoying when the designers thought it would be funny to jam your plane, limiting your ability to use missiles. Although good fun, when they do it four time, it looses its novelty and instead becomes a pain in the ass. Additionally, the game also bridges the gap between GRAW 2 and Endwar showing some of the political changes that occurred to pit the world power against each other and the rise of Captain Mitchell up to a position of power he held in Endwar.

The other point about H.A.W.X. is the COD4-esque XP system. By levelling up, you unlock more aircraft and weapons packs. This system does add a lot of replayability to the game, as many of the best weapon sets require you to reach level 40ish. Multiplayer is a good way of getting points and is also great fun, although hampered buy a lack of modes. The addition of an attack/defend mode (so beloved in the singleplayer) would provide some much needed variety. A really good point in H.A.W.X.’s favour is the sheer number of aircraft. There are around 50 aircraft ranging from the venerable MIG-21 up to the F22 and beyond including the SR-71 Blackbird. The vast majority of these aircraft have unique cockpits and models, although the variants are often just reskins of the outside with some different weapon choices. The number of aircraft will drive completionists to madness unlocking all of them and their weapon loadouts and skins. Graphics-wise the game is really impressive. The aircraft models have good look to them, with a shine off the cockpits and the wings as its reflects the sunlight. The world also looks good, until you reach less than 100m above the ground where the satellite imagery based textures start to show their limitations. However, most the time you are that low level, the scenery is not really what your concentrating on. The sound is also pretty good with the jets having different sounds for their roaring engines leading to air battles sounding spectacular with the explosions added. It is however let down by the appalling voice acting from your briefing officers, which was almost as bad as the ones from Men of War. The score is also the usual stirring orchestral track which as become a staple of both the Ghost Recon and the Rainbow Six series.

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H.A.W.X is an absolute blast to play, but has a serious length issue. I finished the story in around 5 hours on normal. Admittedly, I only got to level 20 and had tons of aircraft left to unlock but for many people that would be enough. Therefore, if your only interested in the story, this game is more of a rent. For everyone else, the game is worth of a purchase but only if its around going for cheap. It isn’t really worth the RRP, even at launch but pick it up for a bargain and I guarantee you a fun few hours blowing 4 million pound jets out of the sky.

Thoughts On… Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent – Episode 1

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Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Year of Release: 2010 (Wii, iPhone and iPad versions not currently released as of 09/07/10)
Platforms: PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Wii 

When you look at developers claiming to be doing episodic gaming, only one has really got the idea properly – Telltale. From the great Sam and Max games to the recent Tales of Monkey Island, they know how to make good games in a series every month which will keep you holding on to your mouse until the very end of the series through a series of very clever yet not impossible puzzles and witty dialogue. Now they are trying to bring more of the TV terminology over to gaming through their Pilot system – trying out some new series by releasing the first episode and gauging the result. The first up is Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent.

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Entitled the “Mystery of Scoggins” it takes Nelson Tethers, the only member of the FBI Puzzle Research Division, to the town of Scoggins in Minnesota to investigate an incident involving the eraser factory that makes those used by President. Once there however it turns out that everything is not how it seems, especially with the appearance of some creepy little red gnomes. The plotline is a little bit formulaic and in the vein of things like Twin Peaks or Alan Wake but on a slightly less sinister note though still remaining occasionally scary. I quite liked the plot but it is very obvious a pilot with quite a few questions left unanswered at the end. Though it is a bit weird how everyone in town always gives you puzzles.

Puzzle Agent plays a lot like the Professor Layton – to advance the plot, you need to complete several puzzles. There are several different types, from riddles to jigsaw and they all are both challenging and fun. Some of them are repeated a few time but at varying levels of complexity such as the one based around reflecting something’s path via a selection of logs or such like.. To help you out there is a hint system which you can use a maximum of three times per puzzle in order to provide steadily more useful hints. However, the use of this (along with submitting incorrect answers) brings down your final score. This has no real effect but it does make you want to go back to improve your score and so keep playing.

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The main draw for me in this game though is the rather striking art done by Graham Annable. For anyone unfamiliar with him, he is a traditional animator/artist who actually helped to form Telltale in the first place. He has a very distinctive art style and humour which can be seen in his video on his youtube page. As you can see its all about being creepy or surreal. The game’s 3D artists took his line drawings and added a 3D effect on most of the scenes to make them look even better. I agree with the reviews that say this feels like an animated short. I also think its one of Telltale’s best looking games so far. Similarly, the sound design is also pretty good. The music is perfect for the game’s tone and the voice work, while slightly amateurish, perfectly suits the slightly mad inhabitants of this backwater.

When I came away from Puzzle Agent, it was with one feeling – I want more of this. Puzzle Agent really grabbed me with a mixture of the art style and the cunning puzzles. I hope that this becomes Telltale’s next series. But in regards to this episode, don’t play through the game first time with a guide as it it much more satisfying than just skipping over them all. Take your time and enjoy it properly. Oh and you’ll never look at flashes of red in the forest the same way ever again. Or sleep.

Thoughts On… Flotilla

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Publisher: Blendo Games
Developer: Blendo Games
Year of Release: 2010
Platforms: PC, XBLIG (Xbox Live Indie Games)

My fleet has been travelling through space for two months now when we stumbled on a ship full of Rastafarians fleeing the police. I had a choice – do I help them to flee or hand them in? I obviously chose to help them. Why?

Because these weren’t any Rastafarians fleeing the police. This was a ship of Rastafarian cats, complete with fancy multi-coloured hats.

ss_d5fd712f86f9a42a3537eb74f8c873dd6d016f28.1920x1080The setup of Flotilla is very simple – your space captain has been given seven months to live. He goes out on one final journey aiming to travel as far as possible before his time is up.

Each planet has something special about it. It can effectively be one of two things. The first is like the Rastafarian cats. It is a simple choose-your-own-adventure style thing where your decisions lead to a story. You might become karaoke champion of the universe , invent your own cocktail, trade your eye for a fancy bit of space gear or simply stare into the abyss. There are loads of different events like this and they are all really funny or just bizarre as they quite often satire the most common trope of science fiction.

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The other type is when someone else is simply a dick and decides to attack you. This then switches over to a turn based combat mode.  The first thing to note is that because your in space there is no ground – the map is entirely in 3D with the player controlling both the planar and vertical motion along with facing as well. This mean you have to concentrate on finding the best way to get into your enemies weak spot by using the advantage of height and flanking. Most of the enemy ships reflect damage at the front and on top, so your ships must frantically get underneath or behind an opponent in order to blow it to pieces and send those Space Deer into the cold vacuum. However, some ship weapons (mainly the close quarter beam weapons) can get through all the armour at certain ranges.

Between battles you can also upgrade your ships with extra parts in order to gain an edge. However this cargo can occasionally be stolen off you by various events or you can trade it for better options. Additionally, some other events can grant you other ships than your standard missile armed destroyer – these range from the close quarter beam gunships up to the dreadnaughts which laugh in the face of adversity. However due to the time limit, it is very rare you will end up being overwhelmed by controlling a massive fleet which is a little bit of a shame

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The main campaign is designed to be played over and over again. It numbers each of your adventures and also assigns a score at the end based on your actions and your remaining ships so it turns into a constant score improving adventure. To make it even better you can also play the campaign in splitscreen co-op by using an Xbox 360 controller, with each player controlling one half of  the fleet. It makes it fun just to suddenly decide the choices in campaign mode before switching to fancy tactics and manoeuvres in the battle mode. It makes the game even better as the simple but deep gameplay make it easy to pick up – I’ve had a few games with my Dad which he picked up almost instantly and had a great time.

There is also a two player skirmish mode, allowing you to either go up against the AI or a splitscreen partner with a variety of different ships, from the dreadnaught down to the mini car shaped fighter plane. It is a quite fun mode but it does lack the humour of the campaign.

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The graphics for Flotilla are nice and simplistic –  the ships are simply shapes hanging in space in a single colour. Space itself is a pleasing orange colour, dotted with simplistic ship wreckage and asteroids. Even the main menu is simplistic. In the campaign, the drawings of the various is very stylistic with some really funny ones of some of the better events. However the best part of the presentation is the music. In battle, your actions are accompanied to Chopin’s piano music making each one haunting to play through. There are also some really funny sound effects as well from the karaoke soundtrack of that event to the joyful celebration after you down a ship. It is such good fun that you can’t help but feel happy when you play it.

Flotilla is a very simple, very fun game from a studio of indie devs who make really stylistically fun games. It is cheap but offers endless replayability and a constant impulsive desire to play one more quick adventure. It is also great to play over a lunchbreak as each adventure takes a maximum of 20 minutes. For its price, pick it up.

Thoughts On… Napoleon: Total War

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Publisher: Sega
Developer: Creative Assembly
Year of Release: 2010
Platforms: PC

The Total War games don’t appeal to everyone. I understand why – there are so many factors in the games that it can be a bit worrying to play one for the first time. However, if you feel like that then Napoloen Total War is in fact the perfect introduction to the series, with smaller campaigns and a simpler selection of units to choose from. However, it also presents a whole new set of challenges for the Total War veterans and it has an improved engine.

As you can tell by the name, Napoleon Total War is set during the Napoleonic War where the man from Corsica decided to get imperial ambitions and try to take over Europe. As part of this, you play through four of his campaigns from the early years in France, through Italy and the Middle East before finishing in Europe. The campaigns are all really short apart the European one, so it takes up a less time than any other campaigns in the other Total War games. This mainly due to the victory conditions which require the capture of a certain region in a certain number of turns. It is kind of against the usual method of taking your time to carefully advance – instead you have to charge straight through the lines of the enemy and get to the target as soon as possible.  The European Campaign is probably the closest to the the Grand Campaigns of the other games. This time round it is over a shorter time period but each turn is two weeks as opposed to six months in Empire. This does also mean that most units will take around six turns to make as opposed to one or two you get used to if you conquered Europe in the last game. It does slightly require you to think more turns ahead then usual.

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On the campaign map there a few changes. The first is the removal of the priest agent which makes sense as there is no real need to convert the population. There has also been some changes to the town system. There are now different types of towns that can only be home to a certain type of building, which can be switched between via a button press and some time as opposed to the lengthy procedure of deleting one tree before going up the other. Also, there are no longer the other theatres of war that were introduced in Empire but there are trade areas to represent theses money caches. Another addition is attrition. If units spend time in mountainous areas or in the snows of winter, they will start to bleed off troops unless they are in range of . This stops big stacks of units charging into Russia without a care in the world while also representing the main factor in Napoleon’s defeat. Overall the campaign has fewer annoyances than the Empire due in part to the smaller size and it feels a lot faster to play.

The battle system is now a lot faster as well. Firefights between units seem to last for less time as units don’t fire by rank but in a single mass leading to each battle being more devastating. Apart from this, the units and tactics remain the same – line infantry is the main part of your force while skirmishers and cannon cause most of the damage and your cavalry finish them off. Many of the tactics remain the same. One key difference is in your generals. Now you can see a general’s command radius which is the area where his rally ability affect as opposed to over the entire map. To make up for this, the general can now Inspire one unit at a time which grants them an increase in their strength so its perfect for when you are about to send a unit into the breach of a fort. As well as the land battles, the naval side returns with some new units such as the huge ironclad steam ships that blow smaller vessels to pieces.

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Apart from the French campaigns there are also a series of historical battles. These focus on the bigger ones such as Austerlitz, Ulm and Waterloo. Each battle sets you up in the historical position and gives you an objective to complete. There are one or two which are not so good but the rest are the perfect challenge for anyone who reckons that they are a Total War king. They can be replayed at different difficulty levels. But of course the French can’t have all the fun so there is the Campaign of the Coalitions. This allows you to play as the British, the Spanish, the Austrians or the Russians during the time period of the French European Campaign and attempt to throw a spanner in the works for Napoleon. These campaigns are slightly more about juggling the diplomatic side, especially as the British who have to carefully manage the formation of the coalition while trying to defend against the Spanish at Gibraltar.

Multiplayer for Napoleon is still as fun as it was in Empire even though it does have a slightly smaller unit selection in all the battle modes. It also seems to be slightly more stable than it was in Empire with less lag. Additionally all of the campaigns are playable in two player online co-op as any of the sides so if you want to fight the French in Italy or Egypt you can only do it via this mode.

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Napoleon is a huge technical improvement over Empire. At the same point after release, Napoleon is much more stable that Empire ever was and still runs better. It also looks much nicer as well from the fog covered battles up to the explosions as the artillery goes off leaving shell craters. The level of randomisation in the characters has improved even more through subtle details above and beyond the usual different faces trick. Again the sound is phenomenal with loads of care taken of the sounds of battle. The only fly in the ointment is the voice actor for Napoleon whose French accent is rather annoying. As with the first game, it is approximately 15GB in disk space and requires the use of Steam.

The game so far has had three pieces of DLC, unfortunately not including all the pre-order bonuses. The first was a free piece which added some more units to the French Imperial Guard but more importantly also added in the Battle of Waterloo from the British side. The second pack added the Battle of Friedland as well as some more units to the Coalition from some heavy cavalry to the Coldstream Guard. The latest and largest pack is a new campaign focusing on the events in Iberia with you aiming to keep hold on Spain as the French or trying to push them out as Spain or Britain. This adds some newer units including the guerrillas. Theses are Spanish units of skirmishers or light cavalry who can deploy almost anywhere on the field, providing a huge tactical advantage. You also gain agents designed to swing the local politics towards you faction while also slowing your opponents. It is an excellant addition which plays the same but differently.

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Napoleon is the slickest Total War yet with several campaigns and battles which provide hours of gameplay. It is also the best looking so far and is well worth a play if you are a fan of the series. If your not a fan, then Napoleon is the best to get introduced to due to the campaign feeling as through their are designed as extended tutorials. The only real issues is that it is slightly too close to Empire so the differences can be obvious and jarring. However, what other game allows you to jump into Napoleon’s boots and still look this good.

Thoughts On… Battlefield Heroes

(This review was my first for geeks.co.uk and was published exactly one year ago today. This is the original with some additional new comments below the line on what has changed since release)

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Publisher: EA
Developer: DICE
Year of Release: 2009
Platforms: PC

Everyone likes free stuff. More people like free stuff that’s useful, and even more people than that like getting stuff that you should be paying for, for free. Koreans especially.

In Korea, most games are not sold in stores, but are downloaded for free and then kept alive by microtransactions, often for items that can be done without. This system hasn’t work particularly well in the west,  probably because we are all a bunch of traditionalists but also because we expect a lot more from our games.

This situation, however, is going to change and EA must be able to smell the money making opportunity. They plan to release a Need for Speed game next year using this payment model, but in June they released a game that has been a long time coming: Battlefield Heroes.

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Battlefield Heroes is a cartoon style shooter using the battlefield system from other games in the series (such as Battlefield 2 or Bad Company). Compared to the other games though, it feels a lot simpler. There are only 3 classes on each side and most maps are small scale with no more than 4 flags. It feels more casual and silly. The art style is similar to TF2 and the camera is in the third person, but more important is the change to the class system.

As said before there are three classes on each side. However, unlike previous games where classes and sides would change from battle to battle, you choose your side and class when you create your hero. This is a persistent character, whose abilities and appearance are carried over between games. Each class (Commando, Soldier and Gunner) can use certain unique abilities. Many of these are skits on annoyances in other games (such as the soldiers’ grenade spam). This carries on the sense of humour running through the game. Various clothing options add to the comedy.  For Battlefunds, paid for with real hard cash, you can upgrade your character with either proper military attire, as a participant in the eternal “Pirate vs Ninja” war or in other humorous clothing like an “I’m with stupid shirt”.

The main problem with the clothing options is the fact they cost money.  Worse, the payed stuff has a limited life on it and the free original options are rubbish. This was a problem I also had in the beta version, which annoyed me enough to make me blog about it. Thankfully, EA has managed to fix it slightly. Some clothing options can be bought with Valor Points which are earned ingame and can now be bought permanently for a premium.  It does make the game look a lot better; the craziness of the clothing just adds to the overall bedlam.

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And bedlam it is. In the last game, I saw a man in a sombrero knock a jeep into the air by clapping his hands, before waving to the jeep he’d just crashed. I saw a spitfire with a sniper and a gunner riding on the wings with all three doing chicken noises. The game is just fun to play, in a way COD or even BF2 just can’t be. The feel from it is just one of happy mayhem.

Still, there are some problems. There are only four maps at the moment, which is typical for a free game. Also there is a slight imbalance between the two sides. It seems to be much easier to join a game as a National (fake German look-alike) than as a Royal (fake British trooper…with Kilt!). Not much of an issue as there are still plenty of players now, but after people lose interest it might be much harder to find games at your level. Finally, the number of items in the store is somewhat lacking. At the moment there are too few items for some sections and many of them are not actually very useful.

But, this is a free game, and it seems to be something that EA is more than happy to put money into so we can expect development to last for a long time with the promise of new items and maps down the line. At the moment the game is still great. It’s a free version of Battlefield which is fun to play and can be quite addictive due to its persistent character system. And it’s free. Did I mention that?

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So what is it like today? Well there have been a few major changes. The store has been filled up with items of varying prices from new costume parts to weapons to funny emotes to the new widgets such as rocket fuel or footballs. There have been several themed set, from ninjas to knights to characters from Battlefield Bad Company 2. In December of 2009, they changed the price system by devaluing Valour Points and limiting to buy time limited item while the Battle Funds had their worth increased by dropping the price in the real money and making them permanent. This was slightly controversial as many players saw it forcing players to spend real money on their game by cutting the usefulness of the free currency

In the actual game, there has also been a change. The number of National players compared to Royals has now flipped and there are a lot more of the fake Germans running around the maps. The number of maps has been increased up to seven and a new game mode, which is a king of the hill variant, has been added so the battles are now slightly more mixed up with a greater variety of both settings and tactics.

There are over 3 million players who have signed up for the game so it is still doing well. And why shouldn’t it be? Its the battlefield formula but for free. Even better most people are willing to pay for parts of it to keep it in constant development – by a month after release it had made $30 million dollars with each player spending on average $20. I think it has been a success both finically and as a game.

Thoughts On… Empire: Total War and DLC

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Publisher: Sega
Developer: Creative Assembly
Year of Release: 2009
Platforms: PC

Truth be told, I am a little bit on the slow side as a gamer. I like FPS games and racing, but sit me down with a long term RTS or a good old game of Civ and I will be happy and content until the cows come home or the map is painted my colouring depending on which comes first. Creative Assembly’s Total War series holds a pretty special place in my heart, not just for the exquisite blend of real time tactics and turn based strategy but for the great stories it tell as you paint the map your colour.

Empire is split into two parts. The first is the high level strategy map, not unlike a crazy game of risk. This time, your battlefield is three theatres of war – Europe, India and North America. You have to create your armies and navies and lead them to conquer the various territories while also masterminding the economic, technological and political side of everything aiming to achieve your objectives. In the Grand Campaign this can vary between capturing a certain number of  states or simply holding onto specific ones – for example the British have to hold on to Gibraltar as well as tramping through the Indian Subcontinent. These objectives help to mould the action and make it a little easier for the newer players to jump in and know what to do as opposed to more open games which can be quite hard for newbies to jump into. As well as this, there are also smaller missions that confer benefits – going back to the Brits, if they capture several territories such as Georgia and parts of Canada then the Thirteen Colonies will join the empire, boosting your number of territories and inching you closer to victory. These territories hold both cities and the smaller towns which all specialise in certain building trees such as factories or colleges.

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As well as your armies and navies, you also have agents to help out with your cunning plans. First up is the gentleman who represent all the men of learning. Their primary role is advancing your research by sitting in your colleges and drinking tea but alternatively you can kit them out and focus them on calling your enemy characters curs before engaging them in a duel. So if you want to have Isaac Newton become Europe’s greatest dualist, you can! In a similar killing role, assassin’s return as the Rake. He can sneak behind enemy lines, killing agents and generals, sabotaging buildings or can protect your own characters from attack. The final agent is the priest who can spy on opponents while converting the local population to your religion. These men of the cloth are very useful in the New World, where the locals aren’t too happy about being ruled. These three groups are vital to success as they help to soften the enemy up before your armies rush in. They are not created like other units but instead are generated from certain buildings. This system adds some tension to using them as well as making them a valuable commodity.

Of course at any point your opposition may simply declare war and then your generals come into play. Generals gain traits and experience from battle to battle based entirely on their actions – a general who fights using primarily infantry will gain traits that make their line infantry much more effective. Obviously, this can make you wonder about risking your higher level generals in dangerous battles as if you loose one who has a high command rating it can be a major blow for any campaign. Luckily you don’t have to have units attached to a general at all times like in previous Total War games (in Medieval units under a captain could change sides very easily). Its also easier to muster an army under a new general as they can recruit from the field rather than having to go back to a city to pick up new troops. Overall, it is a lot easier and much smoother experience to wage war.

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The second part is the real time tactics battles which have had a massive change due to the introduction of massed firearms. Rather than being based around charging in and flanking, you now end up lining up against each other and battling with volleys of gunfire. There is also a greater reliance on cannon fire to break large units – with the right technology and canister shot, three field guns can force back a much larger infantry force. Although the big blocks of infantry are the focus, there are also small skirmish units to pick off enemies at longer range and cavalry units. The cavalry are brought down from their position of dominance in previous Total War games to a supporting role of committing flank attacks on weaker units or running down routing. This considerable change means players used to Roman or Medieval warfare need to go through the battle tutorial to wean them off the old style. The battle engine is good but the AI can occasionally have some major issues with generals running off into the firing line or units forming squares while under attack from cannon fire.

A new game style introduced in Empire is playable naval battles. This feature makes a lot of sense for the time period due to its important but unfortunately it does dissolve slightly when it is actually played. It can just turn into ships just going round and round in circles. It feels nowhere near as polished as the main land battles but it can throw up some of the most dramatic moments such as when a ship gets hit by enough rounds that it explodes, throwing sails and planks of wood all around.

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The two battle modes can be played up to 4 on 4 in multiplayer mode with a good selection of maps ranging from totally flat tournament mode to the historical battles also playable in single player. The multiplayer works well and also has an automatch mode using steamworks which includes a ranking system and achievements. Post release, Creative Assembly also added in a co op campaign mode, allowing two players to take part in the Grand Campaign which will take double the amount of time a normal singleplayer campaign will take. As mentioned before, the game includes some historical battles which includes an American campaign from the start of the colonies to the American War of Independence. It actually as a good introduction for newer players although it has no where near the same level of freedom as the normal grand campaign.

Empire looks rather good, with the smoke of battle hanging over the field and being able to render a huge number of enemy troops. There is a little variety between different soldiers in a unit so it doesn’t just look like an attack of an army of clones but most of the time you won’t notice it. I actually quite like the campaign map – rather than the static maps of the previous game the game map is literally alive with trees swaying in the breeze. It really helps you to get lost in ye olde world. The sound is also really good, from the period music of the campaign to the crack of battle as artillery whizzes past. Obviously someone spent a lot of time with swords and such like. However, there are some major performance problems on some PC’s mainly to do with the load times and some in battle hiccups. At release it also had several major bugs but most of these are fixed. It is also important to point out that the game also takes up approximately 15GB and requires Steam.

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Empire received 5 DLC packs after release. One of these was a very good idea which was all of the pre-order DLC in one pack which gets rid of my personal bug bears with the current trend publishers are fixating on. The other DLC packs add an additional 41 units, with some to various side which are mainly named regiments with their improved stats. These add an edge in multiplayer but also help to improve the story that singleplayer tells – its more exciting to say how the 33rd Foot re-enacted their American campaign than to just say your line infantry defended New York. The most substantial pack is the Warpath Campaign, which puts you in charge of an Native American tribe as the Europeans encroach. It does feel as professional as the main game, as there is a lack of voice acting for the new sides, along with a much smaller tech tree and reduced unit count when compared to the British or French. It does however pose more of a challenge as you can’t rely on overseas trade to support yourself so it all comes down to just holding out as long as you can against the Europeans while taking as much land for yourself. The DLC for Empire I think is really only for the main fans of the series or this game in particular.

Empire Total War is the largest Total War to date and although it almost buckles under the strain, it is still the best of the series. I do think Napoleon Total War is slightly better for newer players but it does miss out the larger scale. Most of the bugs have been ironed out so I think Empire is worth playing to see the Creative Assembly team at their finest.

Thoughts On… The Company of Heroes Series

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Publisher: THQ
Developer: Relic
Year of Release: 2006, 2007, 2009
Platforms: PC

I’m not that good at games. Seriously I’m not. Despite spending ~70% of my life taking part in virtual conflicts, I’m very rarely at the top (or above the middle) of the leaderboards in anything. This is one exception to this which is the Strategy genre and though I try to say this is due purely to my own skill and hours spent poring over military history books, it could be more that I played a lot of strategy games over the years. And the king of RTS for me is the World War 2 game from Relic (aka the King of RTS), Company of Heroes.

Company of Heroes is the World War 2 we know from history, film and nearly every other game ever made – that is to say, Allies invade Normandy (cue much running up beaches), Germans are quite good but lacking in numbers, Germans retreat back to their homeland, Allies win. All three of the games feature a small amount of story but its nothing more in depth than than some of the side stories in Band of Brothers to add a bit of reason behind your war. However these sequences are in a combination of ingame engine and some beautiful hand drawn painted scenes which are rather striking. The missions in the campaign are all pretty good, but I have a slight issue with them. The better missions are the earlier ones that feature no base building and are all about micromanaging the units under your control. It feels more like the war films its trying to emulate rather than just another RTS.

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Of course, you aren’t buying CoH for the story or even the singleplayer, you’re buying it for the multiplayer (or skirmish) explosions and things. The basic concepts are simple -  you build a base, tech up to buy better units before crushing your opponents. However, there are subtle differences to other, earlier RTS games. Instead of mining ore or cutting down trees, you instead capture various manpower, munitions and fuel points to gain the associated resources rate. This can be increased by securing them which also makes it a pain for the enemy to capture. The way of doing this depends on the army (see below) and this variation leads varying tactics depending on your opponent. This capture points also play a part in one of the modes know as Victory Points, which plays a bit like Battlefield with the two sides fighting over the flags as the side with the most points in their control starting to erode the opponent’s points count. It leads to excellent moments as you frantically hold of the enemy for the last few seconds as the points enter single figures. As well as the resources to buy units and buildings, you also gain experience to unlock various abilities. These vary depending on army and chosen command tree but include such things as calling in Tiger tanks, dropping bombing runs on your opponent or even just making your artillery guns fire a tiny bit further. As you’d expect, the more powerful ones appear later in the tree so don’t expect the big guns at the start of the game. Similarly the call ins and powers cost a load in all the resources leading to players bankrupting themselves by calling in a literal army of Paratroopers (annoying but stick in a load of machine guns and bye bye Captain Winters)

The armies that came with the original game (USA and Wehrmacht) are almost mirror images of each other. They share a similar model for building (apart from one or two differing requirements), unit production and resource securing making them good for a game focused more on skill than using the army differences. That said though the differences are apparent. The US Army looks like its on the move with all the buildings looking like they are put up in a hurry and based around tents mainly as opposed to the concrete armoured structure of the Wehrmacht. Every infantry unit has more members than their Germany counterparts but are also cheaper – however each trooper is slightly less effective. German tanks are also more expensive but better out the gate. Each side also gets its experience and improves slightly differently – The Americans gain experience through combat with each level improving them little by little while the Germans research it to represent Eastern Front veterans being moved  to counter the Allied assault just like in real history. Overall this balancing act of keeping the two sides equal has done well, leading to games requiring skill rather than just spamming one unit.

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However, in Opposing Fronts, Relic added 2 sides that slightly pushed the balance out of alignment by adding two asymmetrical sides. The British have only three base buildings, but they are all moveable trucks. These are the only buildings that can secure resource points so they are constantly moving to find the high value points in order to get the most resources. This is both a blessing and a curse to the player as you troops are produced closer to the fight but leaves you more vulnerable should the Germans break through. The Brits also rely on their officers. For infantry, these is felt in two ways; without an officer they can’t move at full speed and fight less effectively when attacking. Officers correct both these problems and grant bonus to offensive (if its lieutenant) or defensive (if its a captain). The British guys can also build trenches which help your defence but can be a right pain to shift guys out if your plucky Tommies get overrun by the Hun.

The Panzer Elite are all about speed and capturing points quickly. They have little variety in the infantry department, so much of what you are building is simply tons of vehicles. Most of them hit like a ton of bricks but are actually quite weak, mainly because most are halftracks with various guns on them. This makes the PE the side than need the most micromanagement. They also have a difference in the way experience is gained, as at each level you choose whether to focus on attack of defence. The panzer elite also get some pretty cool call in units like the German paratroopers who carry machine guns, can camouflage and can appear from any building on the map.

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Company of Heroes feels at its most pure in multiplayer. Rather than extra rules, the game either focuses on simple annihilation or the more popular Victory Point modes which require a bit more planning. The ebb and flow of a Victory Point game leads to sudden crescendos of action as you suddenly have to shift from defending one point to trying to break through a sudden frontline. The back end server stuff (called Relic Online) seems to work rather well with the full set of ranking features. However, the automatch is full of people using some of the cheapest tricks available so it is best to just play with friends or take a look through the game list. Also many players unfortunately pump the detail up, which can lead to some performance related lag.

Company of Heroes is still a very good looking game four years after release. The level of detail present of the characters is astonishing for a game of it scale, with each tank having most of the rivets on display. It also was one of the first games to take full advantage of DX10, with its soft explosions and dynamic lighting making it look even better. Some of the best parts comes from the environmental effects such as the raging storm used on some maps with its crashes of thunder outlining your troops as they move around. I should point out the game isn’t above using gore with certain weapons (such as the Mine Flail) ripping bodies apart, sending arms, legs and torsos flying. The game does have a remarkably filled out physics engine for a strategy game, with ragdolls for the troops and obstacles scattering as tanks drive through piles of rubble. It really adds to the immersion when a Tiger tank comes round a corner and proceeds to barrel through a wall, a fountain and then a small wooden house. Add to this a stellar soundtrack and a set of really good sound effects and this is one of the best overall World War 2 experiences available to those not interested in the gameplay of a first person shooter.

As well as adding two armies, Opposing Fronts also added in two short campaigns. These are half the length of the original game’s 12 mission single player but make up for in in their mission design. The British one takes place around Caen and requires you to do a range of tasks with a selection of skills, from infiltrating a German Airbase to defending a foothold in Caen itself from wave after wave of Germans. The German tale is slightly more emotional, focusing on two brothers during Operation Market Garden. I don’t think they are quite as enjoyable as the original game, but act as a good introduction to the new sides for online players.

Tales of Valour didn’t add any new sides but it did add 3 mini-campaigns, several new game modes and some optional units for multiplayer. These new units replace existing units and give them slightly different abilities but for a similar role. For example, the M17 is a faster and more heavily armoured version of the M10 but it mounts a less powerful gun. Each side gets two and get mix up multiplayer, adding an element of surprise to see what the enemy wheels out, especially with the British armoured transports as they completely change the British style of play. The new campaigns are all based on hero play with only one or two units under your control at a time. The Tiger Ace is the best, with the slow increase of your tanks power by levelling up each crewman until you have a truly elite crew capable of crashing through buildings and firing 88mm rounds at super speed. Causeway has two teams of Airborne and is pretty fun too. The final campaign set in the Falaise Pocket is my least favourite as it just seems rather boring. The new multiplayer modes are also a great introduction – Assault is a Defence of The Ancients (or DOTA) style game mode where each player controls a single hero character and fight their way through hordes of enemy troops and bunkers to destroy the enemy base. Panzerkrieg has each player control a single tank before dropping them into the map to battle it out with the help of direct control. The final mode is Stonewall, an idea that players were wanting since release. A team of four have to defend a town from steadily increasing numbers of enemies by holding different buildings for different benefits. It is really hard, requires a good team and is I think the best addition of this expansion.

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I think Company of Heroes is a landmark RTS. It is without doubt the best mainstream RTS even today, providing ideas for countless other games. It has a compelling singleplayer, enjoyable competitive multiplayer and an excellent co-operative mode. If you have never played an RTS before, I recommend you to try it. Actually if you have never played it before it is very, very cheap from most shops now. So buy it. Now.

Or you could wait for the release of Company of Heroes Online later this year. It is going to be a free to play version of the multiplayer featuring some of the hero units from Tales of Valour. Most of your army units carry over from game to game alongside the “Company Commander” abilities meaning there is a bit more persistence than in the normal game. The way it makes money is through buying extra powerful hero units which add some benefits to your force. I’m looking forward to the sudden influx of new players which will be pretty good.