On Tanks, Tanks and Tanks


So Christmas has passed. With this being so close to my 21st Birthday, a lot of my presents are counting for both as I asked for some quite expensive stuff. My main present (which I’ll cover in another post) has me really excited for airsoft this year – it should also get me to finally learn how to edit video rather than the flailing around I’ve done so far.

However, most of my holiday break has been dominated by those adorable armoured boxes design to murder other humans, tanks. I’ve been playing as them, watching them and today have started to build and later play with tiny ones.

Playing as tanks – World of Tanks

Up until this holiday, I have had a love – hate relationship with World of Tanks. On the one hand, its a game for people who loves themselves some accurately modelled tanks to a degree I have not seen before. On the other, its a game designed to sap either your money or your time from you which seems down right nasty. As such, I played it on and off, jumping in for a few rounds before stopping for months on end.


However, Wargaming.Net have made a few changes recently with the introduction of the British tanks and a physics system. The first relates to my own knowledge of history – thanks to knowing how British tanks work, I know how to play them better than the experimental US tanks or the early war Russian tanks I have never heard of. I know that a Cruiser Mk IV with go super fast but have no armour while the sturdy Matilda will take rounds from most tanks without breaking a sweat but is slow as a sloth and its gun may as well be a marshmallow shooter.

The physics just make the game more of a game. Now when my Churchill busts through a wall and rams a Stuart right in the flank, it doesn’t just gently nudge it. Instead it flips it over, wreaking everyone’s tracks and knocking the poor little Stuart out of the game. It also lets tank drivers have fun with slopes, letting light tanks jump through the air when they get their speeds up. Games are more exciting with more crazy things happening.


It also looks really good. A favourite map of mine is Dragon Ridge, a map whose sole point seems to be showing just how crap tanks are in the terrain of the Pacific Front. Large hills, perilous drops and some small villages make the map feel like Vietnam and lets tanks fail horribly by either falling (more often pushed) off cliffs or being surprised by a tank barrelling its way through a small town.

I can see myself playing a lot more World of Tanks over the next few months. I want to work all the way through the British tree before starting on the Yanks properly

Watching Tanks – Girls Und Panzer

I hate 90% of the world’s anime. Apart from a few exceptions such as Red Line or Gurran Lagan, anime is medium that I hate with a burning passion. Part of this is due to my dislike of anime tropes – Uppotte an anime all about guns which held promise makes me feel dirty watching thanks to its sexualisation of the female characters which are all school children. I felt wrong.


I’d seen mention of Girls Und Panzer all over the Flames of War forum and the /tg board and so was intrigued by it although not expecting great things from it. Instead, after watching an episode I found a series that avoided the usual Anime tone, instead focusing on well researched tank action combined with some half decent writing. Its still obviously Japan-anime but it doesn’t give me the need to go bleach my eyes after watching

The story is based around Tankery, a sport played between schools by their female students. The sport consists of battles between World War Two tanks from all the nations and it is considered to be a quintessential female skill along such things a flower arranging. There is a main plotline about the main school requiring themselves to win in order to stay open and there are the usual character plot lines but to be honest, this is just side stuff to some cool tank battles and in depth history of tanks. Seriously, they love themselves some tanks. Little touches such as references in the characters show just the level of detail they went to. I do also like the characters – there is some nice variety to them although the best is the STUG crew who all come from the History Club yet are terrible at it.

Overall, its actually one of the few anime I would recommend. Its very watchable with plenty of cool action and genuinely funny scenes.

Playing With Tanks – Flames of War


For quite a while I’ve been wanting to go back to table top wargaming. I’ve wanted to make some more models, enjoying the delight of gluing plastic together and then painting up them to look perfect. I had been looking for a while to pick up some Games Workshop figures (especially a Valkyrie) but was put off by the sheer price of each model.

As mentioned before, I’ve been slowly becoming more and more interested in World War 2 wargaming after a friend showed me Flames of War. After an intro game (Panzer IVs vs Stugs) I was hooked. It plays similarly to Warhammer 40k but at a much faster pace, with none of the focus on the slogging match that close combat becomes. Instead shooting combat is fast paced and deadly, with machine guns pinning troops while Shermans try to outflank the German heavies.


I’d asked for the Open Fire set (the latest Flames of War intro box) for Christmas and thanks to my Sister and her Husband I’ve been given it. Inside is a ton of models, including a  US Airborne platoon (to be painted up as 82nd Airborne) and the core of a British Armoured Squadron including Shermans and Fireflys. The Germans get some Stugs, some Pak 40s and a platoon of German Grenadiers. On top of that, there is some nice rulebooks, a bucket load of tokens and some cardboard scenery to get you started.

As mentioned in my last post, I’ll be swapping the German stuff for more tanks and infantry to bring myself up to almost a 1500 point force, although missing some important stuff. I’m planning to pick up some M10 Achilles tank destroyers to act as a high speed flanking force and a 25pdr gun troop to lay smoke and blat my opponents infantry into the ground.

Pulling out the models I have gave me an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia back to the Airfix kits I used to make. Using the same tools as last time, I’ve been cutting off flash and preparing them for assembly and enjoying the tactile feel of assembling them. I’m actually looking forward to painting them up and trying to improve my skills at it. Its something else to do in the evening apart from programming.

And that is it on tanks and stuff for now. I’ll be putting some photos of my assembled models up online once I’ve made them and I’ll keep you up to date on everything. I’ll also be posting up something in the next few days about my big Christmas present. Keep your eyes peeled!

A Tale of FTL: The Saga of the Marathon

Let me tell you a tale, one which should resonate with any space ship fans and should help to explain why I’m a little bit obsessed with FLT: Faster Than Light, a newly released Indy Roguelike.

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It is the tale of the Marathon, a Federation Kestral Class vessel recently brought back into service as the war against the Rebels worsened. It small three man crew, made up of the bottom of the barrel – Old men and boys still loyal to the dreams of the Federation – a galaxy united to strive into the future. Pilot Derek, Shield Technician Dave and Gunner Stan all ready to deliver a secret message to high command as they speed away from the oncoming Rebel fleet.

Their tale began peaceable as they fought their way through neutral zones and pirates. Three sectors in they encountered a Rebel stronghold territory and were forced to flee, limping into the Engi (Robotic allies of the Federation) territory with airlock open to help extinguish the flames. Along the way they had stood for the Federation – helping refugee ships, throwing bribes from pirate’s back into their face and using its crew’s expertise to help out many a world thrown off course by the war against the Federation.

In the Engi sectors, they finally met their great ally – Mathieu, an Arachnid who joined the crew as an engine specialist. As well as his technical skill, he also added some punch to the fight especially when a gang of pirates managed to teleport on board on burn down the medi-bay. He truly became part of the crew.

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Further on, the Marathon ran into the Rocks, a race of rock people of great owner. As the crew reached the exit point, they were issued a challenge by Rock vessel. Above a dying sun firing out solar flares, the crew had to fight on three fronts – one against the Rock ship, one against the Rock intruders set on burning their ship and the waves of solar flares opening holes into space. After a tense few moments (Including a point where the engine bay, oxygen production room and weapon systems were all on fire) the Rocks retreated inviting us to join them in the next sector while leaving the Marathon to repair itself before once again limping into the next zone.

Despite fearing the Rock’s challenge was simply a waste of munitions and fuel, they finally found the Rock fleet. Inspired by the Marathon’s ability to survive, The Rocks sent their fleet to assist the Federation and added their special armour to the Marathon to help it on its way.

A sector later, the Marathon came upon a floating ship, covered in ice and floating through space, while they were hunting for scrap to help improve their ship. Upon flying over they discovered a damaged stasis pod, filled with a mysterious crystal. Unfortunately, nothing much could be done with it so it just sat in the edge of the shields bay.

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Finally the Marathon reached the Federation fleet and imparted the message. Its purpose done, Derek, Dave, Stan and Mathieu set off on their final mission to destroy the Rebel flagship. Sadly, this would be the end – The lightly armed Marathon could not cause enough damage before it was destroyed. Derek died while trying to bring the sensor system back online. Dave died at his post when the shields took a hit from a missile system. Stan and Mathieu lasted until the bitter end, dying only when the ship itself fell to pieces.

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This was my fourth playthrough of FTL (first on my main machine) and I love it. For £6 you can’t go far wrong as its blend of storytelling (which is a little bit like Serenity) and addictive combat is perfect. My only annoyance has to be the flipping enemy boarders that are pretty hard to deal with. It’s well worth a buy and is now available on Steam, Good Old Games or via the developers directly.

Thoughts On… Spec Ops: The Line

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

Morality is something games really struggle with at the moment. They seem to really focus down on being binary: good or bad, positive or negative. Jaeger’s Spec Ops: The Line throws this idea out the window as it presents you with choices no man should have to pick from. All this takes place inside of a story that makes me want to put this game up on a pedestal as a truly adult game.

A journey
On first appearance, the story in Spec Ops appears to be heavily formulaic. You play as Captain Walker, the leader of a Delta Squad sent into a sandstorm-locked Dubai to find out what has happened to a US Army unit led by a Colonel Konrad. However, the longer they stay there, the more they realise they have kicked over a hornet’s nest and they must struggle to finish their mission.

If the Colonel’s name has set alarm bells ringing, it’s for good reason. The game owes a lot to Apocalypse Now and the novel The Heart of Darkness in terms of both the plot direction and the game’s tone. There is also a lot of Vietnam references, from some of the characters’ clothes (think lax soldiers wearing non-uniform clothing), up to the music blaring out around the desert thanks to the Radioman.

Your two squad mates are some of the best characters I’ve played with for a while. Like everything else in this game, Lugo and Adams start off being your stereotypical classic “time to bro down” frat boys you would expect from a modern military game. Lugo is the fast-talking joker, while Adams sounds like he is about to say he is getting too old for this stuff. However, as things pile up and deeds are done, they start to change into much more cynical characters.

The writing is fantastic. Everything from the overarching plot beats to the individual squad mates dialog gels together perfectly. In fact, even the loading screen tips are great. One simply asks “How many Americans have you killed today?”. It forms a horrifying picture of what happens when everything just breaks down and man is put to the test.

The writers must have had some serious balls to make some of the decisions they made about what to include. Throughout the game, you will pass areas filled with some terrible images of humanity in action. I went into this game fully knowing that it was going to throw the usual piles of corpses at you, but this game takes it to the point where I actually felt physically ill at what was going on.

Expect to see a lot of scenes like this. This game ain’t for kids

Playing your way into hell

This is compounded by the multiple moral decisions you have to make as you progress through the ruins of Dubai. Unlike other games which boast about their decisions, the decisions in Spec Ops are not black and white. Each of them are gut wrenching to perform; in particular, a late game decision I made purely without thinking and then had to pause the game just to calm down afterwards. They make perfectly clear that no matter what you do in the game, no one is coming out clean; every character in the game is just drifting down the river to oblivion.

Of course, this is a game not a movie and you must play though something. Spec Ops is a standard military third-person shooter. You take cover a lot, as in some sections drifting out from behind a wall will lead to almost instant death. You can carry two guns at a time but luckily all of them feel nice and powerful, with the upper end (such as the AA12 or the static machine guns) literally ripping people to shreds in a spray of pink mist and cries from their companions.

This works both ways though; the late game appearance of a heavy trooper in a bomb-proof suit carrying an AA12 will often lead to a horrible messy end for Walker. Most weapons also have a secondary function such as a silencer or burst fire, which does make the SCAR-H one of the best weapons due to its grenade launcher.

There is a nice variation in terms of bad guys, primarily down to the weapon choice but also in terms of behaviour, such as with the heavies or the elites. Some of the best scenes take place featuring the close combat specialists. Guys in vests, often with mohawks, come screaming towards you with knife out and if they aren’t taken down quickly it’s an instant death for you.

Luckily, you can go on the mêlée offensive on the other bad guys, including some executions which grab you some precious, precious ammo. These escalate in brutality as the game goes on; another way for the developers to show the situation deteriorating.

The squad command system is a mixed bag. It’s all mapped to a single button (RB for the Xbox 360) and it’s up to the game to determine what happens. At long range, it’s Lugo with a sniper rifle; close quarters, Lugo and Adams pull out grenades and get up close and personal. There are a few other circumstances where pressing attack causes the squad to go silent in order to take out patrolling guards. Using the attack button focuses up your squad but does leave them a little vulnerable to being flanked by the bad guys. I really wish it allowed you to order your squad to an exact location, such as in Rainbow Six Vegas. Nonetheless, it does do the job required.

I do need to mention the AI. Most of the time it works very well, with the baddies using squad tactics and flanking you, while your squad is pretty good at moving effectively despite the crazy stuff you do. However, there are a few occasions where your buddies do get in the way or manage to get themselves both downed at precisely the wrong place.

Finally, the difficulty. I played it through on the hardest difficulty out of the box (a harder one labelled FUBAR is unlocked after completing the campaign), and found it challenging, with there being a nice difficulty spike right in the final few levels. The checkpoint system is a little too far apart for many encounters, often forcing you to re-watch cutscenes over and over again. The achievements are also pretty easy; they are all single-player focused and can be quickly completed. In fact, the entire game is quite short, but the story more than makes up for it.

Ziplines galore in future Dubai

Dubai – jewel of the desert
Unfortunately, the graphics in Spec Ops don’t quite match up to what the rest of the game provides. Texture pop-in is rampant (as it is in most Unreal Engine 3 games), I had a couple of graphics glitches while playing and a lot of the assets such as textures and models seemed unusually low quality. I’m also not a fan of the fact that the game features gibbing. It would be ok if it was realistic, but when it’s just heads disappearing after headshots and bodies turning into red objects when hit by explosives, it seems at odds with the rest of the game’s tone.

However, the game does a great job in its environmental details. Large portions of the game take place on the tops of Dubai’s many skyscrapers, and the views are breath-taking. When the sandstorms come rolling in while fighting on the top of some of the most striking buildings in the world, it looks like hell is descending around you.

I do need to write a warning though. There is a very effective scene later on that relies on the use of strobing (as in blacking out the screen then re-lighting it very fast), to get the full effect. I’m not usually affected by this but even I found it painful after a while.

Charlie still don’t surf
The team at Jaeger have made some pretty good choices when it comes to the audio side of things. Although the voice acting from Nolan North does make Walker sound like Nathan Drake after a really bad day to begin with, he helps to embody the character as the game goes on and is a really good fit.

The other voice actors in the game also help to make the story as good as it is. I don’t think I’d find Konrad nearly as terrifying if it wasn’t Bruce Boxleitner’s voice spouting down the microphone. Your team’s voices are fantastic and their dialog feels like something just out of Generation Kill. Finally for the voice work, the Radio Man is excellent. I won’t say much more, but he’s truly a great character, thanks primarily to his voice.

As I mentioned before, there is a very strong Vietnam vibe and this comes through in the background music. A large number of the classics such as “Hush” by Deep Purple are in the game and all of them are used at key moments to really put an edge on the action. The rest of music is also Vietnam tinged, with a real ‘70’s sound to the electric guitars and basses that make up the most of the incidental. I really hope they release a soundtrack CD, because it’s pretty good.

The game has a message that shouts out loud and clear


The sound effects also do a good job in helping the gameplay. They are not the best I’ve ever heard but they do a pretty good job. Guns sound hefty enough, although much of the ambient sounds are pretty repetitive. I am happy to say there is a good variety in the shouts the enemies use, but you will hear a few lines repeated.

It’s pretty lonely in here…
The multiplayer in Spec Ops sounds tempting but unfortunately it isn’t very good. My main problem with it is that it makes the game look even worse in an attempt to defeat some horrific lag, which doesn’t even work. The few games I go into were almost unplayable.

It’s a shame though; there are a ton more weapons in the multiplayer and a deep levelling system that’s on par with other shooters out now. Customisation is fun, but good luck finding enough people to play this. Luckily for achievement fans, none of the achievements require multiplayer.

Would you cross the line?
Spec Ops: The Line is a truly excellent game. The graphics are patchy, it’s quite short and the multiplayer shouldn’t exist, but the story, music and the general feel makes it a classic-to-be. Games have started to reach a point where the stories they tell don’t have to be focused on glorifying the player and making them a paragon of virtue.

Much like its inspiration Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops is not an experience you take part in to feel happy or relax. You play it to experience a message told in a unique way by making full use of its 18+ age rating, among other things. It begs the question, how far across the line in the sand would you go?

Thoughts On… Men of War: Condemned Heroes

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

To be honest, being condemned to a penal battalion during World War 2 sounds like one of the worst ways to spend the war. Forced onto the enemy guns, armed only with what you can find, it does make for some impressive stories.

Unfortunately playing Men of War: Condemned Heroes, the latest in the real-time tactics series from Best Way, is an experience a little too close to being in a penal battalion: not very much fun at all.

Something involving Russians doing… bad things?
As you might be able to guess from the brief introduction above, Condemned Heroes is all about you taking on the role of various member of a penal battalion. You proceed to fight through a series of missions set during World War 2, fighting the Germans tooth and nail and scavenging equipment you need to use. However, there is next to no character development. It’s hard to even remember the lead’s name and I really didn’t care what happened to the units under your command. For a much smaller scale game than the rest of the Men of War series, I expect to have a little more interest in keeping my squad alive.

See all of those guys? Expect to control three of them


Not one step back!
This is a hard thing to do thanks to the game’s brutal difficulty. I had real trouble even passing the first mission, thanks to the game not actually telling me which of the swarm of units on the field I actually controlled. Not to mention my team’s AI being unable to fight any more effectively than the rest of the woodland around them. In fact, I’m pretty sure a tree I hit with a grenade caused more damage than the rest of the Russian army.

The fundamentals of the gameplay such as the scavenging for ammo, the realistic damage model for the vehicles and the sheer amount of military kit to play with are still great. However, this is because they are exactly the same as in all the other World War 2 Men of War games. You still have to micromanage your forces in the same way, choosing the correct tool at a time and every so often stopping to repair a damaged tank after you thought it was really cool to drive through a wall.

Vistas of the Volga
The Men of War engine isn’t getting any younger and it is really starting to show. Animations are stilted, infantry models seem very low resolution and the game has problems running even on a high-end machine. As long as you don’t look too closely, it does look acceptable, but the effect is ruined as soon as you notice something.

The interface design, especially the main menus, is exactly the same as the original game with a new skin over it. This gives the feel of just being a re-skinned version of the main game with fewer features.

World War 2 sounds like the ‘80’s, apparently
For a very long time, the sound effects and voice acting of Men of War was a little joke between myself and a couple of friends who also played the game. It was really low quality, like from a B-Movie starring actors with terrible accents. Unfortunately, this hasn’t improved for the latest game and this time it isn’t funny. It’s just annoying.

There also appears to be only two background music tracks. These are really grating, especially when you realise each mission is going to take you around an hour to complete with the music looping again and again. You are not going to be playing this game for the sound.

Set in Russia = must include snow


No friends in the Penal Legions
There may be an option for multiplayer on the game’s main menu but it might as well not be there. Co-op would make the game easier but there is basically no one playing the game, and when I did find a match, it failed to connect after multiple goes. The system is broken and due to the lack of interest I can’t see it being fixed any time soon.

A true death sentence
Overall, I really didn’t like Condemned Heroes. In fact, I came very close to hating every single minute of it. It fails to improve the series in any way at all, only providing players with a few more missions that really lack the spark the main game provided.

There also isn’t very much to do. For the same price as this, you can go and grab the far better Men of War: Assault Squad that will keep bringing you back thanks to an excellent set of missions, co-operative and competitive multiplayer that actually work, and access to all the different armies Best Way have created. I can’t even recommend this to veterans of the Men of War series. In fact, even the Vietnam game (lacking multiplayer and being hard as nails) is more enjoyable than this rubbish. Just don’t.

Thoughts On… Risen 2: Dark Waters

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

Pirates of the Caribbean has a lot to answer for. As soon as you mention anything about pirates dealing with the supernatural, it’s swiftly drowned out by people moaning about the second, third and fourth films. Piranha Bytes, makers of the Gothic games and Risen, have jumped into this area with a sequel to Risen. As it turns out, it’s actually a pretty good take on the whole ’supernatural pirates’ theme.

Supernatural monsters? Check. Buckles to be swashed? Check.
In Risen 2: Dark Waters, you play as The Nameless Hero who is trying to recover after the events of the first game by drowning himself in bottle after bottle of rum. However, the reappearance of a friend from the first game sends you off on a quest to go hunt down the big supernatural baddy Mara, who is raising the titans of the earth to bring about the end days. It begins with you being kicked out of the Inquisition so you can go undercover. The plot later on becomes less focused, allowing you to attack multiple objectives at once, which gives you a nice choice of what to tackle.

I actually really enjoyed the plot (something vital for a singleplayer RPG) and was caught up in it, laughing at some of the lines and loving some of the set pieces. However, it isn’t top of the range; some of the writing can be a little off, especially with some of the very English swearing patterns.

The game writing is good for another reason: it feels like a game about pirates rather than just a fantasy RPG with some parrots stuck on top. You’ll spend your time taking part in drinking contests, digging for treasure, robbing tombs and fighting swashbuckling sword fights in every situation possible.

I also enjoyed many of the characters. When you start to build up a crew, the character interaction is very Mass Effect-esque, with each one having their own take on the current events and locations as well as giving you pointers if you need them. These are told rather well, as opposed to them simply telling you your quest objectives.

Venturo - Inquistor, Marksman, Bro
Venturo – Inquistor, Marksman, Bro

Now, what this strange motion you make with your foot? A kick you say?
The meat of the game is focused on you adventuring around several expansive areas completing quests in order to advance the game. It actually feels very much like a singleplayer MMO in terms of its controls scheme. As said before, Risen 2 has shed the fantasy of the original, and so the areas you’ll be traipsing around range from colonial style forts and towns to pirate hideaways and ancient native temples.

You don’t choose a class when you start; instead you earn Glory that can be spent to upgrade individual stats such as Cunning or skill with blades. This leads to a rather free form approach to upgrading, and allows you to upgrade exactly how you want. Personally, I have no truck with voodoo so I didn’t put a single point into it. Luckily I didn’t feel like I needed it at any point during the game. In contrast though, skills such as Cunning seemed to me to always provide the easiest way to any objective.

In addition to your stats you also need to gain talents. They are bought from skill trainers and range from things such as learning how to kick (a skill most master in early childhood but not for our hero), to more complex feats such as improving your voodoo or mastering critical strikes and the like. Each skill is vital for some purpose and it makes sense to buy them all as fast as possible; sword damage doesn’t matter if you can’t power attack with it. Early in the game, you really struggle to find enough cash to pay for many of these talents.

In fact, the early game is ridiculously hard. It was in fact a little off-putting and almost turned me the entire game. Part of this comes from a terrible combat system. It feels incredibly floaty when you’re fighting, yet also punishes you horribly if even for a moment you lose concentration. In addition, all the basic sword fighting tricks such as parrying or power attacking are locked, meaning your first sword fight is going to be a pain in the backside.

There is some nice variety among the weapons, especially once you’ve unlocked the musket which handily bridges the gap between melee and ranged. It also kinda breaks the game though; once levelled up the musket becomes a deathstick, easily capable of downing everyone and everything. There are also one or two boss battles, but these are rather easy to play through. In fact, I downed the first boss when he was 10 feet away from me and before he landed a single blow.

I actually really like the pace the game doles out new ideas and equipment. At no point did it feel like I’d had a whole bunch of new stuff just piled onto me. You also have plenty of time to explore each area and it makes it very obvious when you’re about to leave, so you don’t go boating off to another island until you know you’ve finished off. There is also plenty of gear and weapons to go out and buy; although, you soon realise each island has a best item in each category and the rest are cheaper alternatives.

Just like being in the Caribbean
The graphics of Risen 2 are a little bit hit and miss. Outdoor scenes look really good, with the sunlight streaming through leaves in the jungle scene or reflecting off the cobbles in the various towns. In fact, I do like the designs for the areas and there are some very pretty views that are now sitting in my screenshot folder. Unfortunately, character animations are exceptionally wooden which can be a little off putting; especially when your character does the exact same hand gesture after almost every line in every conversation. It’s just a little thing but it’s really obvious after you play through the entire game. The game also crashed a few times during play, so save often.

Which brings me onto another point. Unlike other games which clean up any autosaves and quicksaves, Risen 2 creates a new file EVERY time. This can lead to some quite impressively-sized save game folders which is a massive pain.

“And we can put the beach bar..there”

Worth singing a sea shanty about
Sound is actually one of Risen’s glories. It has an excellent score that ties into the gameplay perfectly. It reaches a fever pitch during the plot points, but the incidental music while wandering around the town is still pretty good. As mentioned before, the voice acting is great and really fitting for the settings, apart from one or two actors who use the same voice for everyone.

The treasure under the ‘X’
Overall, I really enjoyed Risen 2. It was a game I really got into, wrapping myself in its story and world while avoiding the little niggles the technology brought up. Overall I think the game is great way to spend your time. However, at the moment it costs about £40 off the UK Steam store, which is a little unreasonable in my opinion.

Thoughts On… Naval War: Arctic Circle

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

In the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle, a flight of JSF’s fly over the icy wastes. They are heading towards a target sitting just off the coast of Norway. Getting in range, they deploy their air-to-surface weapons before heading for home. The missiles arc, hitting the target and sending it sky-high.

The report box on your screen reads: ‘fishing trawler destroyed’.

Welcome to Naval War: Artic Circle; a game about intelligence, simulation and blowing up innocent fishermen.

In the dark future, there is only resource war
Naval War is set in the near future, at a time when resources are running low and the situation is heating up. Russian and Scandinavian ships come to blows over fishing rights and demands for fuel, whilst diplomats sit round the table arguing over tolls and tariffs. Into this situation, NATO starts a naval exercise in the North Sea, a threat Russia doesn’t take lightly. As you expect, it soon turns into an all-out naval war with each country bringing its full might.

It’s an exceedingly plausible setting and none of the mission’s individual stories are far-fetched; it doesn’t quite reach Tom Clancy scale madness. In between the missions, there are some rather nicely drawn conversations, with each speaker’s portrait popping up. They have a sense of humour to them, quoting Bad Boys 2 among other things, something I really wasn’t expecting when I started playing.

Get used to this view; it is all you’ll be using

There are two single-player campaigns (one from each of the sides) which play through the same events but from the two viewpoints. These missions nicely ramp up, starting with a small selection of units in a small area and ending up with full scale, combined arms warfare across the entire North Sea area. There are also several symmetrical single missions designed for multiplayer play, but that can be played through by a single player. It would be nice if the game included a mission editor but by the sound of it, the developers are already making an editor they plan to release which may tie into the Steam Workshop.

Welcome to the Danger Zone
If you hadn’t realised by the publisher Paradox Interactive, Naval War is a realistic simulation. In this case, it’s of combined air/surface warfare, granting you access to units ranging from motor torpedo boats up to aircraft carriers, and from tiny UAVs up to huge four-engine bombers. From these various realistic weapons of war you need to deploy them at the right time, balancing fuel and ammo concerns and choosing just when to deploy all the sensors at your disposal. It sounds terrifying, but it’s actually really slick and intuitive to get into.

In all the missions, you are granted a selection of units. You don’t have to bother with the production or resources gathering, so it’s only down to you to direct your units to where they need to go. Time is soon a resource you need to deal with, especially as switching loadouts on airborne units can take up to an hour in the game (although you can speed up gameplay to get past long waits). You can also adjust nearly everything about how a unit behaves, from how it deals with spotted enemies to how fast and at what altitude it flies.

I mentioned in the introduction about bombing fishing boats, and it illustrates that your greatest weapon in Naval War is information. When you find units via radar or sonar, they appear as unidentified contacts until you get closer or eyes onto it. Most missions include objectives to not shoot down civilian targets, and so it is vital to properly identify before launching your defences. It’s especially tense when you know that somewhere out there is a submarine and your legion of sonar buoys just aren’t doing the job.

Now the slow pace of the game does bring a slight problem. Missions can last several hours and a mistake at any point can ruin your game. Another problem is a few bugs, such as only being able to launch Tomahawk missiles in one great go rather than individual, and the game’s design causing your firewall to block communication between the menu and the actual game.

Best stay in the War Room..
If you’re coming to this game for an amazing visual experience, you’ll find it lacking. Most of the game is played in a 2D outline view, a bit like Defcon with coloured outlines floating across the map. You can toggle up a 3d camera that primarily tracks the selected unit but it doesn’t look fantastic. The unit models are great, with a lot of work having gone into the texturing, but the world is plain with no 3D graphics for towns or forests. It can make it difficult simply working out where you are in 3D mode, making it more of a vanity feature.

However, I found the UI to be really nice and clear, making it exceptionally easy to use. I actually found it really intuitive, able to orchestrate operations within a few minutes of starting to play.

Off hunting for fishing boats again…

No shouting, explosions or loud music
Naval War is a little quiet though. It’s all about muted warfare, with a little ambient background music and the occasional sound effect. They do the job of making you feel like you’re in a war room, moving pieces around a map. I recommend you put your own music on while playing.

The Naval Captains went in two by two…
Naval War supports multiplayer and it has the potential to be great fun. However, there are two problems. The first is that the community is very quiet; there are the occasional games but most of them are private or only show up once filled. The other thing is just the sheer length of the missions, which make them a little awkward to play with another person. Another thing is that the missions are all one on one; one player plays NATO, and the other the Russians.

Objective achieved: review written
Overall, Naval War Arctic Circle is a great simulation game. It will appeal to people with memories of the early ‘90’s game Harpoon, as well as anyone who’s looking for a game they can sit and play while catching up with a TV series in the background. Its well worth the price, so pick it up and fight over some fish.

Thoughts On… Wargame: European Escalation

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

Gamers nowadays don’t like being punished for their stupidity. We have become used to having our hands held with frequent checkpoints and autosaves aplenty. We can stand up to a few games wanting to tear us apart, such as Dark Souls, but we are a little bit too quick to say “this game’s too hard”, and call for a toning down. Wargame: European Escalation, the latest from Eugen who made 2010’s RUSE, is such a terrifying game. It’s happy to dish out the punishment when you fail to control your forces perfectly, and gives you little opportunity to put right mistakes; and you know what? I really enjoy it.

Looks like this Cold War… just went hot
Wargame is set in the most dangerous days of the Cold War, the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, when the briefest confrontation within Europe may have led to all-out war between the two superpowers and their allies. It looks at four different hotspots, ranging from a Polish rebellion in the ‘70’s causing a collapse that NATO takes advantage of; to an example during the 1980’s, when the USSR runs through the Fulda Gap in order to direct attention away from the economic trouble they are in.

Another beautiful town, another warzone.


Each scenario plays out in a separate operation, which progresses through about five missions each. These mission have a great deal of variety and as they play out, news tickers and mission briefings constantly tell you what is going on elsewhere in the campaign. The story feels well-written, as if it was a good piece of alternative history. It doesn’t get anywhere near the heights of World in Conflict’s bonkers storyline, but acts as a good backdrop to all your wargaming.

Wargaming has never been so fun!
The meat of Wargame is all based around the battlefields of northern Europe. These huge expanses of terrain are filled with villages, woods and small hills, providing plenty of opportunities for cover, chokepoints and deathtraps.

The key thing to remember is that Wargame is a realistic game. No matter what units you buy, you have to make sure that you keep them supplied and repaired via FOBs or supply vehicles. You should also be gathering plenty of intel on your opponents. Line of sight plays an important role; especially when enemy units dig into the woods and towns.

As you play you earn command stars, either via levelling up in multiplayer or by achieving objectives during the campaign. These command stars are used to unlock more units for both modes. I personally really like this; it makes you seriously think which units you want while also giving you the choice, rather than just unlocking units that are pointless while saving the best to last. The star values are also very well thought out. The Apache gunship and the Challenger 1 main battle tank (both arriving towards the end of the time period) are around 6 to 8 stars each, which is more than what most levels give you as a reward. These massive point sinks cost tons of points and command stars, but are well worth it if used effectively.

Helicopters are king… apart from AA.

Once you’ve unlocked a unit, you must then add it to a deck. You can choose units from any of the four nations associated with the two sides, so NATO commanders can call upon West German AA units, British tanks, French infantry and American helicopters all in the same force. This allows you to patch over the holes in a nation’s forces, such as weak tanks or a lack of mobile AA, giving you the chance to prevent a much more balanced force.In fact, that is really the moral of the game in general. Units are designed for a specific role, so can’t be used via an attack move to roam around the map killing everything with ease. The Apache can wreck any ground unit, but without recon support, long-range SAM systems will down it before they are even spotted. Infantry can hold out for a very long time if dug into the woods, able to take out main battle tanks as long as they stay hidden.

I have some issues with the game, though. The single-player does rely a little too much on spawning units behind you in order to keep you on your toes, which can be complete rubbish when you’ve managed to clear out the entire map and suddenly a tank force pops out of nowhere. The single-player operations also keep unit counts between missions, which is a pretty cool feature unless you mess up horribly in the first mission of a set. This factors into a huge difficulty spike at the end of the Russian operation, which severely limits you in your unit choices, before throwing you into a mission filled with the most enemy units you’ve seen. In addition,  some tactics make certain units next to pointless.

The rocket’s red glare
Graphically, Wargame doesn’t quite blow the boat out of the water on first impression. It looks rather tame and overly clean, not at all suiting the realistic war theme. However, Eugen are using an improved version of the IrisZoom engine (last used in RUSE) which does some quite incredible stuff. The maps are huge; several kilometres square and packed full of trees, hedges, buildings and other scene setters. In addition to this, the game also renders hundreds of tanks, helicopters and infantry in a single mission, providing some truly huge battles. The units also look great up close when you zoom all the way in. Overall, the battles look fantastic.

The mission briefings and menus are also pretty good. There is a nice combination of stock footage from the period and maps covered in arrows. The UI is a little blocky, and I’d have much preferred it if you could minimise the UI to watch the mayhem going on in front of you. Nonetheless, the game looks better than most overall.

The very distant rumble of artillery
Wargame is very muted in terms of sound. Nothing really stands out, which kind of suits the game’s perspective; you’re viewing from a command point on high and so everything should be a little muted. The music is pretty forgettable and just serves to sit in the background; it doesn’t react very much to what is going on in the game.

Effects are pretty good, with some punchy explosions helping to set the mood. I do quite like some of the voice acting, as troops speak their national language which gives a nice touch of authenticity. The British and American dialog is okay to listen to, but the SAS units in particular have some classic lines as they run around the map hiding in cover.

Run around with your very own NATO
It is very obvious that from the start that Wargame is primarily a multiplayer game. This is especially apparent when you look at the command stars, as the vast majority are unlocked via multiplayer online. There is a well-rounded feature set for the online mode, with up to 4v4 players and two different styles of gameplay; most points after a certain time or first team to a certain point score.

Server hosts have a huge number of controls over the various settings for a match, and there is a nifty feature allowing uneven team games to still be competitive by splitting the overall team deployment points among everyone. On the whole, most games were lag-free and fun to play. It is lacking AI for multi-player games, but the developers have said it should be available soon.

You’ll soon learn to love rocket artillery.

Are you ready to escalate?There are some issues, though. The ranked multiplayer scene is pretty quiet so it can be next to impossible to find an automatch opponent; you can pretty much ignore that button. The greater issue is one of learning, as there is no multiplayer tutorial and the game isn’t very forthcoming with hints and tips about picking units during deployment, or other aspects of gameplay. This was a problem in the beta as well, and led to much of the first week’s games being filled with player wondering what to do. This inexperience also allows players to use spamming style tactics to great effect. The biggest problem with Wargame’s multiplayer is that people are idiots.

Overall, Wargame: European Escalation is a great game packed with depth. If you are willing to put your time into it and be patient with learning your way around its various oddities, it is a great little RTS. The unit unlocking will take a long to do and the developers are very hands-on with post release support. I label this a must buy for any PC gamer wanting to venture back to the Cold War, and who isn’t above learning a few good tactics.

Thoughts On… Total War: Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

Total War: Shogun 2 was a huge game. I’ve played through it and thoroughly enjoyed it, fighting my way across Japan to vie for position of the Shogun.

Now, Fall of the Samurai is taking us all back to Japan, only this time, guns and cannon are the name of the game. It is also perhaps the most exciting of Creative Assembly’s games, blending together both medieval-style units and firearms in a way that is almost perfect.

The Last Samurai… minus Tom Cruise
Fall of the Samurai is set in 1860′s and 1870’s Japan. The gates have opened and now trade with the west is ongoing, constantly introducing new ideas and new technology in terms of both industry and the military. However, civil war is on the horizon as the forces loyal to the Emperor square off against those supporting the Shoganate, to determine the future of Japan. Will the Shogun remain in control, or will the Emperor regain the overall political power?

The game does a great job of introducing you to the time period and telling you all the changes since you finished your Shogun 2 campaign. Most of these are done via the historical battles which are steadily unlocked, presenting the actual events in order and providing a series of challenging battles.

Something old, something new, something borrowed….

Unleash the Total War!
In terms of gameplay, Fall of the Samurai is an upgrade to Shogun 2. In the broadest sense it plays almost the same, with a campaign as well as naval and land battles that take place when the armies meet. However, the shift into the modern world (the original game being set in the 17th century) makes the gameplay a lot more like Empire and Napoleon, with lines of gun-equipped infantry ripping enemies to pieces.

First up, the campaign. 19th century Japan is a lot more detailed than its previous version. It is also a little larger, with a northern island being added because of the important role they play in this time period. Due to each turn being reduced to two weeks it feels massive, with the concept of a summer campaigning season and winter manoeuvring being much more upfront than in the previous game. This is compounded by the effects each season have, with winter decreasing an army’s movement and providing attrition to any army sat in hostile terrain, while spring gives you extra happiness as everyone celebrates the end of the snow.

Each of the six playable clans is part of a faction either pro-emperor or pro-shogun. This acts much like religion in the previous game, and ties all the various factions into two separate sides. These sides aren’t made of concrete, so you will at various points be fighting your own faction in your aim to unite Japan. All of the win conditions allow for faction victory so you don’t have to go on a mad invasion spree. You can also choose to make a Republic near the end of the game, which grants you some benefits but unites all the other clans against you. It’s a risk, but at least by that point in the game you do own most of the country anyway.

A key concept this expansion adds is modernisation. As you tech up, it adds to your clan development meter, which allows you to unlock more buildings, units and tech that brings you closer to becoming a nation on par with your British, French and American arms dealers/cash cows. This is a great thing if you wish to bring in the money or be able to stomp all over any opposing clan. Unfortunately, modernisation also brings in extra unhappiness as you stamp the traditions of your ancestors under foot while buying in rifles by the ton. This extra unhappiness can be countered in various ways, but when playing though the campaign I seemed to constantly be dealing with an angry population.

I like trains!

In addition, the advent of modern naval guns means fleets play a much more important role on the campaign maps. In the previous games, fleets simply blockaded ports, transported armies or fought each other. Fall of the Samurai now allows them to be a bit more direct in their help; they can shell armies on the campaign map to harass them. This can be quite useful, especially when you’re trying to capture islands far away from the rest of your territory.Modernisation does bring some benefits; the primary one being the railway system. You can now move your armies at high-speed between certain provinces as long as everyone along the line has built a railway system. This is great but does have limited effect, especially in the early game when none of the A.I. have built their stations. It also shapes your early expansion, as holding the stations means you can take your troops from one tip of the main island to the other; especially useful in the late stages of the game. I really like this inclusion, especially in co-op campaigns where human players realise the use of railways straight away and it turns into a game of railway robbery and sabotage.

Even better; they can also use their artillery during the real-time battle scenes. The number and type of ships in fleet can affect the number of shells available, ranging from the tiny number a corvette can provide, up to several hundred per volley that most battleships churn out. If anything this is a little over-powered in terms of gameplay, but makes sense in terms of historical accuracy.

Land battles have also seen a huge change to the greater inclusion of line infantry and artillery, which harks back to Empire: Total War’s unit choice. This combination of old and new together gives the game a very unusual feeling; units are hugely more powerful, especially line infantry, and clashes are over much more quickly with battles being more decisive. I ran through the campaign primarily using blocks of line infantry and skirmishers with artillery, with tactics closer to Napoleon than the Samurai.

Sea battles have also been tweaked due to the shift to steam power as the primary mode of transport, removing the need to focus on mastering the wind or controlling oars. The change in ship technology also affects what the ships are made out of. Explosive rounds allow you to set any wooden-hulled ships you face on fire very quickly, but are useless against the later, iron-hulled craft for which you need armoured piercing. The coastal maps mean combat is pretty close quarters, but there is a lot more tactics and careful positioning, especially with the torpedo boats. Sea battles are actually rather fun.

Both the land battles and sea battles include a new direct control mode where you can aim both the ships’ weapons and artillery via the mouse. To be honest, this is a just a cool thing to mess around with; I don’t think I’d ever want to use it during the actual gameplay.

Fall of the Samurai’s gameplay is detailed and great fun to play no matter which mode you’re engaged in.

Smoke on the water

Beauty in battle
Total War has never slouched when it comes to the graphics and there is no change here. Shogun 2 already looked beautiful with the massed battles taking place over the hills, valleys and picturesque towns of Japan.  Fall of the Samurai maintains this, except this time it has added explosions.

The campaign map is once again a joy to behold, with the background map shifted from a traditional Japanese style to a 19th century style, which is filled in inch-by-inch as it’s explored. When left idle, trains happily puff along the tracks, clouds drift across your view and your giant counters representing your agents and armies pose like Godzilla on a comeback tour. It shifts in front of your eyes while you sit there, the graphics tempting you in to carry on taking over.

In battle, the graphics are also up to task. At sea, waves rock your boats while burning ships start to collapse as the fire spreads. On land, firing lines are wreathed in gun smoke, and bullets are rendered as they whizz past charging enemy troops, making the effect of battles much more visceral. Close-quarters combat is well rendered, with soldiers squaring off against each other and actually fighting, parrying and thrusting before delivering the final blow. Unfortunately, Fall of the Samurai includes the blood mod that was available for Shogun 2, which I think is a little over the top. It’s bright red and, if the camera is close enough, will splat all over the screen; a little incongruent with the realistic warfare depicted elsewhere.

The only issue I have with the graphics is the system requirements. The game can be a hog at much higher detail levels, but looks perfectly fine when played on medium. It also crashed a couple of times while playing through it, mainly during the campaign. Luckily, it does have a pretty good autosave system, which has saved me from losing hours of progress.

I think I’m turning Japanese
Fall of the Samurai use many of the sound effects that Shogun 2 used in terms of unit sounds, especially for the traditional units. However, the more modern units sound awesome, from massed rifle fire to the chattering of the gatling gun. I also much prefer the new battle narrator who sounds more like an American advisor rather than the horror that was in Shogun 2.

Is that Tom Cruise over there?

The music is also great, with the victory tune quickly lodging itself in your head. It’s a nice blend of old and new with marching tunes matching up with the traditional Japanese melodies. The game is great to listen to and really sets the theme.

War with friends
Multiplayer has for a long time been a cornerstone of the Total War experience. Fall of the Samurai extends the features of Shogun 2, refining the new avatar system and updating it to the 19th century. The biggest change is the fact you can now have two separate avatars, so you can play the online while backing the two separate sides. There are also more costume parts and retainers to match up with the new setting. The battles are pretty balanced, although like the main game, line infantry is still the way to go.

However, my favourite segment of the multiplayer is the co-op campaign. It is still limited to only two players but when you start playing you soon learn why; it can take a very long time for one player to do his whole turn and a full game will take you about a week to play. It is exceptionally good fun but I can only recommend playing it with friends or people you want to spend a long time with.

Fall of the Samurai is an expansion to the base game but doesn’t actually require Shogun 2 in order to work. It shows up in the main game as an additional campaign alongside the main one. In fact, if you own all the DLC, the game presents you with a full picture of Japanese history from the start of the Samurai until its decline.

The rise or fall is up to you!
I much preferred the Empire generation of games with their focus on newer tactics. Fall of the Samurai has brought that love to a much more detailed game, with the smaller time scale bringing a higher level of interaction in the world than before. However, the game also contains plenty of units for a more traditional player, granting more variety than I think we have ever seen in a Total War game.

Fall of the Samurai is well worth a play if you enjoy the Total War style of gameplay, while the history that the game is bursting with makes it a great teaching tool. It’s also going to last you a very long time. Worth every penny.