Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Witcher

Tech Info:

Publisher: Atari
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Genre: Action Role-Playing
Release Date: Oct 30, 2007

System requirements:

Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2, Vista (Operating System must be up to date with the latest fixes)
Intel Core 2 Duo 2.13 GHz or AMD X2 5600+
NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GTX or ATI Radeon X1950 PRO
8.5 GB available hard drive space
DirectX 9.0c compliant soundcard, plus speakers or headphones

The Witcher has been in development since 2002 (from what I have read) allowing the programming team ample amount of time to hone and polish the game. In The Witcher, you take the role of a witcher (imagine that), who are professional monster hunters for hire. The main character in the game, Geralt of Rivia, an amnesiac Witcher, is the role you will be taking as you hack, slash, and negotiate through the fantasy realm filled with plenty of adult-oriented situations. Everything from sexual situations to racist events prove that this game isn't meant for the kiddies, but it draws a nice parallel with occurrences that happen in our world (minus the dwarves and such).

The Witcher also proves that it is possible to adapt a book to a game successfully without dragging the author's name into the dirt. Just look at the plethora of games ranging from Eragon to The Hobbit that were based on books and turned out to be miserable. One request I do have for the reader, though, is that you find the English translation for the book and get some of the backstory to the game. The Witcher does fill you in on certain aspects throughout the introduction, but it is always nice to have a more fleshed-out understanding about what is occurring in the gameworld.

With nudity (well, not in the US version), violence, and events that are shaped by your choices, The Witcher sounds like a must-have game. If you bought into the hype and let the anticipation kill you while you waited for the game to be released, this review will definitely push you on either side of the fence if you are wondering if you should add The Witcher to your game rack.

Graphics - 92/100

The first feeling on my mind when I gazed upon the screen and took in the graphics of The Witcher was one of utter amazement. It looks as if cdProject took the aging Aurora engine and infused it with fantastic visuals and another chance at life. Geralt himself looks superb as do the rest of the rendered monsters and NPCs. When the spells start flying and swordplay comes into play, the movement of the characters if fluid and it doesn't look like there is a frame missing in the character animations. Once you experience the sunshine filtering through the cracks in the beginning castle, you will start to doubt that is engine was used in Neverwinter Nights.

Only one small niggle that appears throughout the game are some of the artificial borders thrown into the way of the protagonist. A gigantic monster might not be able to stop you, but a fence sure will. I understand that this is a limitation with the engine, and as such, I only want to mention it. From what I understand, some people were turned off to the game for this reason, but you will miss out on a masterpiece if you let such a small issue discourage you.

Sound/Music - 79/100

Compared to many other import games, the voice acting is passable in The Witcher, but it still sometimes destroys the atmosphere of the game. Did the word babe really exist in a medieval fantasy world? According to The Witcher, it does. Some of the dialog seems to be artificially shortened, and ironically, it does turn out to be the fact. I am not sure if they wanted to save some time in translating the game and getting it to the public or space constraints in attempting to keep it on one DVD came into play.

The music is atmospheric, the sound of flesh being cut, and the metal on metal combat will pull you into the game, making you believe you are Geralt, massacring the bad guys (or attempting to negotiate with them). There isn't really any other ground to cover in the sound department, since the biggest issues, in my personal opinion, were the voice overs. Having heard much worse come in from Europe (think Spellforce), these voiceovers are fantastic.

Controls - 88/100

As with most PC games, both the keyboard and the mouse are heavily utilized in The Witcher. Different fighting styles, which will be covered in more detail in the gameplay section, are selected by the push of a button. The inventory, quest log, etc. can also be brought up by the push of a button. When I first saw the interface, I was a tad bit confused, but after looking it over, it slowly clicked on what I had to do to level up my character. For example, alchemy can only be used while camping and the ability to dole out attributes wasn't too clear, but after experimenting with the interface and indulging in the manual, I was able to figure it out.

You can chose between different camera angles, and I would recommend switching between them to find the best for you. I preferred the over-the-shoulder camera in town, but zoomed further out when I was out in the wild fighting to stay alive. No other issues with the controls came up and when I asked my buddies who purchased the game, they came to the same consensus: The controls are adequate for the game.

Gameplay - 186/200

As mentioned previously, you take the role of a monster hunter by the name of Geralt. You can cast a small complement of spells and have different fighting styles that can be adjusted depending on the situation. That will be pretty much all of the information I will share with you, as any background information that ties into the story might ruin the game experience for the reader.

Character development is approached through the normal level gain scheme and silver and gold upgrade skill points are given. These can be distributed down different trees for extra or upgraded abilities. New spells are learned from shrines scattered throughout the land. There is even ability that increases your combat effectiveness while drunk. So yes, the alcohol in this game isn't only used for alchemy, but also to help you win battles (as long as you have invested points in that skill). Geralt can increase his knowledge of herbology and monster slaying by paging through tomes and scrolls. This highlights different herbs out in the field and allows Geralt to skin monsters for reagents.

The alchemy system allows the player to concoct potions that would normally kill a man, but thanks to the Witcher's physiology, he is immune to the negative effects of the potions. These perform everything from recovering health to increasing battle strength. Since Geralt is an amnesiac, he will have to relearn all of the recipes again, through either scrolls or books. After learning about a certain plant or animal, Geralt can then harvest said object for ingredients.

The battle system in The Witcher consists of choosing the correct battle style and then left clicking at certain intervals to perform combos. Some players might think that this simplifies combat too much, but I think the balance is just right. You will need to combine spells, melee combat, and alchemy together to finish certain encounters. For example, undead are vulnerable to silver weapons, but if none are available, a certain alchemical potion allows you to harm the undead with regular weapons.

As Geralt progresses throughout the story, certain decisions will have long-reaching effects that will only be experienced later on in the game. This means that even saving profusely won't allow you redeem yourself for past actions 20 hours into the game. As mentioned in the introduction, some of the situations that Geralt finds himself in are very adult-oriented and definitely are present in our contemporary society. As of right now, I am still very absorbed into the game and I do regret some of the choices I made throughout Geralt's journey. Time to spend another 60 hours playing through the game again.

The only issue that dampens the atmosphere are the lengthy load times while zoning in and out. The next patch will address these issues, but until then, sometimes waiting for a minute while loading is the norm. This ruins an otherwise organic transition between scenes.

Value / Replay Value - 94/100

For the price of a PC game, you will receive about 60-80 hours of gameplay depending on how many quests you skip over or attempt to accomplish. Even if you skip quests, the choices that certain quests entail can shape your journey through the game. As it is possible to perceive, you get out of The Witcher what you put into it. You can be the hero, a condescending prick, or anything in between - the choice is yours.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Company of Heroes

Tech Info:

Publisher: THQ
Developer: Relic
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Release Date: Sep 13, 2006

System requirements:

Windows XP or Vista
DirectX 9.0c
3.0 GHz Intel Pentium IV or equivalent
256 MB NVIDIA GeForce(tm) 6800 series or better
6.5 GB of uncompressed free hard drive space (We recommend having 1 gigabyte of free space after installation)

Graphics & Sound:
Company of Heroes for the Windows Company of Heroes is brought to us from Relic, makers of Homeworld and the stellar Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, and industry stalwart THQ. This game has garnered quite a lot of buzz from its showing at E3, and has come through with rave reviews upon its release.

Graphically, COH is stunning. Not only are there all the latest high-tech advances like dynamic lighting, shadows, real-time physics, shading and more, but you also have rag doll physics (Havok Engine) and fully destructible environments. Got a sniper bugging you across the way? Just throw a satchel charge into the nearest window and problem solved. The attention to detail is also just staggering. You can zoom right into the action, seeing the various gear and facial expressions of your men, as well as the battle scars on your vehicles, the craters, burning embers and lovely ricochets in the ensuing mayhem. Imagine Call of Duty realism in a RTS folks - it’s that good. I would literally set-up Skirmish mode (along with a handy cheat) to set-off some gargantuan explosions, ripping enemy soldiers limb from limb, cartwheeling into the air in pieces and landing all over the European countryside. Glorious.

Speaking of the terrain, the various locales your brave troops face off in are modeled on the real historical places your grandparents fought in. The impressive city environments offer a bevy of church towers, quaint cottages and industrial works. Some maps are wider open, such as the bucolic farmlands, dotted with barns and windmills, or the quagmire of hedgerows, making every advance a slow and treacherous endeavor.

In the sound department, this game has some very impressive features. The various weapon and explosive effects are 100% spot on. The 50.caliber machine gun has that famous staccato “thump-thump-thump”, while the deadly MG42 has the steady “brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrpppp” effect because of the much higher rate of fire. The same can be said for the explosive rockets, small-arms fire and more. You even get a wide range of “colorful” (in the adult sense) responses from both sides, as they scream for help, or harangue your orders. Just another touch to bring this battlefield to new heights of vibrancy. Lastly, the orchestral war-themed tunes are matched well with missions and conditions, and hold up well amongst the other visual and auditory treats.

Company of Heroes for the Windows In Company of Heroes, most people will dive into the Campaign mode and be busy for a few days grinding through the 15 splendid and varied missions. Unlike most RTS's, you don’t have to send out gatherers (like wood cutters, etc.). You have a few men at the start, and maybe a pre-made base, but the manpower, fuel and ammo points come after capturing various strategic points, not unlike in Dawn of War. This constant tug-of-war between the important resource nodes provides a rather dynamic battlefield, as opposed to the classic “zerg” attack used by amassing a ton of troops at your base, and then finally launching out in a huge wave of destruction. In COH, you have to constantly micro-manage the building of defensive structures, forward bases, armor and more to keep the attack going. Some missions will take you from the infamous meat grinder of Omaha beach, to the port city of Cherbourg, and even an enemy V-2 rocket installation, where you must overtake it with only limited airborne troops. Before each level, you are treated to beautiful CG intro, as well as in-game graphics that link together the story of your brave men on the advance. In the middle of most missions, you will also be given tactical map instructions, complete with a host of arrows, markers and oral objectives to complete - really slick stuff! The missions scale up from very minute in scope, so that you get a handle on all aspects of gameplay, from basic troop management, to the complexities of resource control and utilizing one of three core strategies. The latter really offer an interesting wrinkle to the gameplay.

Each strategy employs a different arm of the military; the Airborne strategy uses airdropped infantry, guns, supplies and air power (recon, strafing and bombing runs from P-40 Thunderbolts). The Army or infantry doctrine is all about artillery, expert Rangers and so forth. Lastly, the Armor strategy focuses on the “kings of the battlefield” (aka tanks) and allows for a rocket tank, as well as the mighty Pershing to be called into the fray. Each of these actions costs valuable points, so knowing when to play these special cards is critical.

Units are pretty expansive and range from your typical infantry squads, to the impressive 105mm howitzers that can move whole mountainsides with destructive fury. Most units can receive upgrades such as anti-tank capabilities, flamethrowers, armor skirts, bigger guns and so on. Once again, these don’t come free; so keep on eye on those resources. The way units behave and react is also pretty amazing. The A.I. in this game is really remarkable. Soldiers under mortar fire will huddle into bomb craters or behind sandbags. Armor crews will cry out when they see indestructible German Tiger tanks prowling the field, and must work to the rear for any chance of survival. A single sniper can demoralize a whole unit, as it picks off soldiers one by one, while slipping back into the shadows. Not since Close Combat have I seen A.I. modeled so well.

There is also Skirmish mode versus both human and A.I. opponents. You can choose from a large amount of maps, for up to 2-8 players, and provide for an unlimited amount of replay value. Especially against another person, the tactics can vary wildly from defensive-minded opponents who will set up a bevy of bunkers, barb wire and static field guns, versus the assault-minded foes, who will crash fully laden half-tracks into your positions, filled to the brim with gun-toting grunts. You can play in Annihilation mode (all bases/enemies dead), or go for the faster Objective based, where you have to secure various victory points in order to win.

Company of Heroes for the Windows On the default mode, the A.I. is rather tough. Couple this with the micro-management and aggressive gameplay and many new to the RTS may be overwhelmed. Luckily, you have a couple easier difficulty options (as well as some suicidal ones for veterans) and with a really well thought out tutorial, I don’t see much of an issue here. If Relic could have offered more autonomous options for some units, it would cut down on the micro-management aspect, because often times, you may be on one side of the map trying to construct elaborate defense, with machine-gun bunkers, tank traps and mines, while on another front you are getting railed, because you didn’t set-up your anti-tank gun in exactly the right position. This became especially evident in the “defend the hill mission”, where you have to withstand some serious enemy armor and infantry advances.

Game Mechanics:
Company of Heroes for the Windows The camera system is smooth and can fully zoom into the thick of any action. At times though, if you swing up to view the skyline and oncoming enemy forces, there is quite a bit of slowdown with all the action taking place. Other than that, the controls are pretty basic from the heavy mouse click and hot key system of your typical RTS game, and Relic improves upon the formula nicely.

Company of Heroes is an amazing title, with jaw-dropping graphics, physics and sound, with intense gameplay and deep, never-ending multiplayer action. This might be in my top 10 PC games of all time list; it most definitely climbed to the top of my strategy list. If you are any kind of fan of war games, strategy or just have a pulse and a PC, you would be moronic not to get this title.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rome: Total War

Tech Info:

Publisher: Activision
Developer: Creative Assembly
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy - Real time battle
Release Date: Sep 22, 2004
ESRB Descriptors: Violence

System requirements:

English version of Microsoft® Windows® 98SE/ME/2000/XP
DirectX® 9.0b (included)
Processor: 2GHz Pentium IV or equivalent
RAM: 512MB
Video Memory: 128MB
Hard Drive Space: 3.4GB

The year is 270 B.C. The republic of Rome has reached a critical stage in its development as a new political and military power in the Mediterranean. To the north the Gauls and Germans assemble their barbaric warriors to prey on the republic's provinces, to the south west the wealthy Carthage is readying its war machine to expand even further, and to the south east the Greek states try to recover from their fall and achieve their former greatness. The Senate relies on the three great roman families, the Julii, the Brutii and the Scipii to protect the roman lands and bring law and order to the uncivilized world. The Roman law and order.

How difficult can it be to build an empire? How do you divide your army between conquering, defending and occupying a territory? Your coffers are limited and professional troops are expensive. How do you maintain alliances and trade rights when your purpose of expanding is all too clear? You certainly can't fight the whole world at once. How do you prevent unrest in newly conquered lands while imposing your culture and taxation to the people inhabiting them? How do you answer to the Senate's call for duty when your armies are divided on countless fronts and your supply lines are stretched to the breaking point? The Senate loves competent leaders, but the Senate's greatest fear is a too competent leader.

And how do you develop a computer game that can offer an insight in all that but also keep it simple and intuitive enough to make it fun, instead of frustrating? Well, it seems that Creative Assembly found a way to do just that. Of course, this is not their first try and the experience from the two previous Total War games obviously played an important role in achieving this goal. Rome: Total War turned out to be an almost perfect combination of historically correct turn based strategy with spectacular real time, epic scale tactical battles and role playing elements.

Like it's predecessors, Rome: Total War has two different types of gameplay. The first one is the turn based strategy which takes place on the world map, where you manage your cities, move your armies, establish diplomatic relationships, spy or assassinate your opponents, while the second one is represented by the real time tactical battles where the outcome often depends more on the decisions of the player than on the size of his army.

The single player campaign starts with a prologue that also serves as a tutorial, in which a computer advisor will familiarize you with the interface, the basics of army maneuvers, combat and empire management. The advisor is content sensitive, and can be summoned at any time to explain a certain screen or function of the game menus. Even if you haven't played Shogun or Medieval: Total War, the tutorial will get you up the learning curve in a very short period of time, considering the number and complexity of the actions that can be performed in the game.

After you have finished the tutorial you can start the main campaign as one of the roman factions. The Julii, Brutii and Scipii have the same technology tree (being all roman factions), and even though the units and buildings are the same, the gameplay styles are very different. The Julii must achieve land superiority over the barbarians in the north, relying on superior units and tactics rather than numbers, as their trading is weak and the fronts will be wide and very numerous. The Scipii must develop naval trade between Europe and Africa as Carthage is very wealthy and military advanced and has access to the most feared unit in the game: elephants. Probably the easiest task falls to the Brutii who must deal with the Greek Cities and the weak nations in the east. And while the Greeks are technological advanced and have a rather large fleet, their weakness lies in the fractioned territory and poor choice of cavalry and ranged units.

The fourth roman faction, the Roman Senate, or S.P.Q.R, is unplayable, and holds only one province: Latium, with its city, Rome, and while holding virtually no military or economic power, it is without a doubt the most powerful political faction on the world map. Basically the Senate will order around the three roman families, deciding which nation is a fried of foe of the roman people and further more which town or port must be conquered, respectively blockaded. If you carry out the Senate's missions with success, besides the material reward, your family members have and a higher chance to be elected for certain senate posts which in turn offer influence. You can choose not to engage in these missions, but if you fail to obey the Senate's orders too often they will offer threats instead of rewards to motivate you.

Family members are very important in Rome: Total War, as they, and only they, serve as generals and governors. A certain family member is practically described by four attributes: command, management, influence and age. Command is very important for a general, raising the morale of the troops he leads in combat and if you ever choose to resolve a battle automatically the outcome will largely depend on his command rating. Management is, obviously, the main attribute of a city governor, influencing the growth rate of the populace, as well as the city's income from trading, farming, resources, and taxation. Influence is the trade of the politician, having an impact on diplomatic relationships and city order, and the most influential family member is generally the faction leader. Age is always a concern, and while youth offers strength and quick advancement in skills, as your characters get old this will have a negative impact on their attributes, not to mention the fact that they will eventually die.

The character's attributes are influenced by traits, which can be good or bad, and which are given from birth and through life experiences. For example a general who runs away in battle will have a coward trait, and men fighting under his command will have a morale penalty. Opposed to this, a general who has won some battles against the odds will gain the trait of legendary commander. There are numerous traits, ranging from the passion for alcohol to bloodiness in combat or fear of city walls. Besides traits, family members have retinues composed of advisors, bodyguards, geographers, mathematicians, hunting pets and more. These retinues always have a benefic effect in certain situations, providing better military command, lessen the chance of an assassin to eliminate the character, enlarging the viewing range on the world map, giving bonuses to the taxation and so on. Unlike traits, you can exchange retinues between family members, so that when an older character dies, he won’t take everything he has accumulated in his life to the grave with him.

Making a long story short, you will always be short of good generals and governors and while you can still manually command your troops in combat without the presence of a general, the lack of morale bonus and the ability to rally routing units can be decisive in tight situations. You can't fully control your cities without a governor, as you can only change the policy of the automanager to military, population growth, cultural development, etc. Also, in the late game, when you must hold a lot of newly conquered provinces far from your capital, it will be almost impossible to stop them from rebelling without a good governor. If you want to skip all the micromanagement you can turn automanage on all provinces, but this will only be ok on the easy difficulty.

You only get new family members through birth, marriage and adoption. A male character will have more descendents if he takes a lot of trips on the world map, so a general will have more successors than a governor. This is very important as birth is the only way you can get 16 year old new family members, which will inherit some of his father's abilities. Unlike family members, you can recruit as many diplomats, spies and assassins you can afford. These types of units play a very important role in building your empire, depending on the path you choose to achieve your goals. Diplomats are a must for any style of gameplay, and you depend on their influence rating to forge alliances, trade rights, ask for regular tribute, etc. Spies and assassins depend on their subterfuge rating to carry out their missions, and if they should fail they get captured and killed. Spies in particularly are very useful for seeing exactly what units and how many there are in a certain army or enemy town, if they can infiltrate that city they will open the gates for you from the inside if you choose to attack, and they act as a secret militia in your own towns, maintaining the public order far better than a large garrison. But just like family members, diplomats, spies, and assassins grow old, losing their abilities and eventually dieing, so they're not a “place and forget” type of unit.

The single player campaign will get the player through all the stages of the Roman republic, from its struggle to survive to its undisputed supremacy and finally the transition to an empire. Unlike any other game, Rome: Total War will keep you in constant difficulty, even when you control more than half of the world map. The struggle to keep a huge empire from collapsing is even harder than surviving your larger neighbors in the early game. And if at the start of the game the other roman factions will be your best friends, the Senate will eventually start to fear your expansion policy and military power. When your public support will be high enough to take on Rome and become imperator, the Senate will declare you an enemy of the true roman ways, and the other two families will turn on you. This is the hardest part of the campaign, as you will no longer face technology challenged enemies, and you will get a taste of your own medicine in the form of disciplined roman troops and extremely wealthy opponents. After you complete the Roman campaign, you can start a new game with any of the playable factions, which include Britannia, Carthage, the Gauls, the Greeks, Egypt and so on.

A nice change from the previous Total War games is that the world map is now 3D, easier to read and more fun to watch. Trade is depicted by caravans who travel along roads between the cities and ships on the naval trade routes. For example, it’s now easy to notice that in the case of a siege or port blockade, the city's land respectively naval trade will cease, making it an effective tactic to weaken your opponents' financial power before you engage in combat, because war is more about money than anything else. The terrain features on the world map are not only decorative, since they serve precise strategy roles. For example, you can hide your armies in forests to ambush nearby passing troops, build forts at natural choke points such as bridges and mountain passes, etc. It is also important to attack an enemy position from a certain direction, as it is preferred to hold the upper ground, or to approach an army with a lot of ranged units from a forest. Also, if you are largely outnumbered you should consider a bridge or any other map that contains a choke point as your best aid in obtaining victory. Guerilla tactics are unfortunately not an option, since the battles are limited in time, and if the attacking faction doesn't destroy all the defenders in that period of time the outcome is considered defeat, and this will have a negative effect on your general's stats.

Units gain experience from battles and the bonuses are well worth the effort of trying not to send them to be butchered. You can retrain your troops in cities, and you can also refit them with new armor and weapons if you have built an upgrade to the armory. Be aware though, if too many unit members have fallen in combat and you replace them with new recruits this can have a negative effect on the unit’s experience level. The thing is that soldiers never age or die, so you can preserve the same conquering force through almost the whole length of the campaign, making it easy to prey on the enemy city garrisons who are mostly composed of "green" troops.

Now on to the other gameplay style: the new 3D real time battles. Here the transition from 2D sprites from the previous two Total War games to fully 3D units and map make the battles nothing short of spectacular. Thousands of units can battle it out on life and death, and while the engine can render you a birds eye view on the general situation, you can get close enough to see which way the balance will incline in a certain regions, and further more, see each individual unit hacking, slashing or thrusting its weapon at its enemies. The variety of animations is truly impressive if we consider the epic scale of the battles. It is pure visual treat to watch your cavalry charge the enemy lines, lifting clouds of dust into the air, knocking down the infantry, or falling from their saddle when they encounter compact Greek phalanx or roman testudo formations. The horse man will try to jump over the units that happen to be in their way to get to their targets. An onager projectile will smash several units, and throw them meters away from the point of impact. The archer's volley is impressive not only in looks, but also in terms of sound, as you can hear the bows' cords being released, the arrows in mid flight, and the sound of the impact on different materials. Also, the volleys of flaming arrows will sound differently from regular ones, but the effect of units dying engulfed in flames is somehow simple and unrealistic.

The sounds are very good and veridical and you can differentiate between weapons that are being used, the sound of cavalry or infantry marching and so on. The general will also hold a speech before combat, depending on his reputation, the balance of numbers, the standing of the nation you are attacking, etc, even making jokes about the barbarian's excessive hairiness, and the troops always respond after the speech with war cries and by clashing their weapons. The music both on the world map and in combat is very good and complements the visuals, making the game more immersive. Without a doubt the care for details is impressive, and the whole experience is no less than mind blowing. It is easy to understand why Rome's engine was chosen by the History Channel to depict some historical battles on their "Decisive Battles" program.

The new 3D engine also plays an important role in the gameplay style. You must place your archers with care, not to fire at your own troops, approximate the trajectory of missiles to get them over city walls and certain map features. Also, it's easy to recognize that charging downhill is more effective than ordering your troops to run up a steep slope. The compact wall of spears of the Greek phalanx will make you think twice before attacking it from the front, and the roman testudo will almost completely ignore missiles, while it will tire you infantry who have to hold up a heavy shield.

The sieges tend to be more fun and challenging that the open land battles where cavalry is mostly the only thing you’ll need. But in the case of a siege, the game turns becomes almost chess like, as the attacker searches for vulnerabilities in the city defenses. At the beggining range units fight for supremacy over the city walls, and if the attacker manages to create a breach, infantry will get through it much faster than cavalry, which is obviously not comfortable on narrow city streets, not to mention it can't get up on the walls or siege towers. However cavalry does have its role in city sieges, mainly using its superior speed to cut the retreat of the defeated to maximize its loses or getting fast around the city walls to get behind the attacker while he is trapped in the narrow entry points. It would be impossible for me to write here about all the different tactics and military maneuvers available to a skilled general on the battlefield, but most of them are very intuitive and the military advisor will brief you on the details if you choose that in the options menu of the game.

Rome: Total War is the most advanced, complete and realistic strategy game out there. No matter if you are looking for a great single player campaign which can fill weeks or even months with continuous challenges and new experiences, or you just want realistic cinematic multiplayer skirmishes of epic scale, this game delivers true value for money which isn't something too common these days.

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Crusader Kings

Tech Info:

Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Release Date: Sep 28, 2004
ESRB Descriptors: Violence

System requirements:

• Windows 98SE / 2000 / XP
• Pentium III 450 MHz 128 Mb RAM
• 600 MB Free Hard Drive Space
• 4 Mb Video Card DirectX Compatible
• DirectX compatible Sound Card
• DirectX 9.0 or higher

Tired of Europa Universalis? Paradox Entertainment hopes that you're not, because the Swedish developer has just issued its seventh variation on the critically acclaimed real-time game of grand strategy. Crusader Kings may turn the clock back to the early medieval era, but the design focus is still solidly on historical accuracy. While casual gamers will feel like they've been plunged into a maelstrom of names and dates, anyone with a love of history will appreciate the rigorous attention to detail and epic scope.

Those who enjoy historical biographies are also in for a treat. Befitting its name, Crusader Kings places a great deal of emphasis on historical personages. So while you still play through three campaigns--the turbulent aftermath of William the Conqueror's victory in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Third Crusade of 1187, and the onset of the Hundred Years' War in 1337--filled with the usual economics, diplomatic machinations, and military campaigning, you do so as an individual.

So if you want to try your hand at keeping the Muslims out of Jerusalem in 1187, you might step into the stirrups of England's King Richard I, or don the robes of France's King Philippe II Capet, or take over the beleaguered court of Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem itself. There are thousands of authentic characters and virtually no limit on which king you can portray, as long as he is in feudal Christendom--Muslim states, the papacy, and Christian orders like the Knights Hospitallers are included, but they aren't playable.

Every person in the game features characteristics that wouldn't be out of place in an RPG. In addition to the four basic attributes of martial, diplomacy, intrigue, and stewardship, there are 26 character traits, plus another two-dozen education and special traits and over a dozen diseases.

Each of these quirks has positive and negative effects. King Malcolm III Dunkeld of Scotland, for instance, is vengeful and suspicious--nasty tendencies that make him appreciate naïve rivals who are forgiving and trusting. He was educated as a martial cleric, which means that he's skilled when it comes to diplomacy, intrigue, and the military. William I of Normandy is on the other side of the fence, with a laundry list of positive attributes that make him energetic, wise, merciful, and valorous. Of course, such features make him the natural enemy of those who are lazy, reckless, and cruel cowards. He's also a bastard, though, so other nobles naturally dislike him and his prestige takes a hit. And then there's Constantine X Ducas of Byzantium, an indulgent but knowledgeable ruler who is unfortunately afflicted with a clubfoot that reduces his chances of marriage.

All of these factors come into play in every aspect of the game. If your vassals are at the other end of the personality spectrum, betrayal and revolt in your provinces is a constant threat. Conflicts are also accentuated when rival kings have different interests. Don't expect to be arranging too many marriages, or successfully suing for peace during times of war, if this is the case.

Traits aren't set in stone, however. As in previous games based on the Europa Universalis engine, you are regularly confronted with situations that require you to make some choices. Many of these incidents personally involve your character, and you are asked to react to events such as a pretty wench catching your eye or your son riding horses hard through the woods. No matter what you do in these situations, you win and lose. Give in to your passion with the wench and you wind up with a bastard and the lustful trait. Hold back and you might never father an heir at all. Encourage your son's physical activity and his health and fertility scores go up, but so do his chances of illness and developing the reckless personality trait. There are so many events and potential choices to make that you really get the sense of molding a character, much like in a role-playing game.

Each individual's place in history is further cemented with a massive web of familial relationships. In addition to its role as a strategy game, Crusader Kings also functions as a de facto encyclopedia of European feudal dynasties in the Middle Ages. You can open up your king's main screen and then explore all of his formal connections by clicking on icons representing his parents, wife, sons and daughters, vassals, potential successors, and even court hangers-on. These relationships are so broad that you often begin clicking at one end of Europe and soon end up at the other.

Start clicking and it's hard to stop, too, since you are creating your own dynasty as you go. It is absolutely captivating to follow the progress of bastards born from lustful assignations that you permitted as well as the careers of heirs once they assume the throne, and the success of arranged marriages, and so forth. There is more of an earthy tone here than in any of the preceding Europa Universalis-styled games, and as a result gameplay is much more grounded. It reduces the overly formal epic sweep of those earlier titles to a more manageable center that adds a needed touch of soap opera humanity to some of the most momentous events in history.

Still, some problems have been held over. Although this style of epic strategic gaming has never been more approachable, Paradox repeats many old mistakes. A tutorial has once again been ignored and the manual is woefully inadequate at helping newbies get into their first campaign. There are no solo campaign objectives aside from simply surviving long enough to build prestige and a strong family dynasty. Unlike Europa Universalis II, there are no immediate, stated goals on which you can focus while getting comfortable with the immense depth of play, the number of historical personages with which to deal, the daunting main map screen with over a thousand provinces, and so on. It's nice that Paradox encourages an open-ended, almost sandbox style of play, but this philosophy is too extreme, leaving newcomers adrift in an intimidating sea of kings, counts, and courtiers.

Also, multiplayer still isn't what it should be, largely because of the subpar Valkyrienet matching system. Considering the significant number of people out there playing these games against the computer, Paradox should be doing more to develop an online community to play them with other human beings.

The Europa Universalis engine is also starting to look and feel old. Backward compatibility is nice--especially here, since you can port saved games into Europa Universalis II for a full 800 years of historical gaming goodness--but we've been looking at essentially the same map since the start of 2001. And while it is a clean and attractive map, it would be nice to see the engine finally move into 3D territory. Sound quality remains impressive. The musical score is overly bombastic and somewhat out of place for this era, although at least these martial tunes sound great. Atmospheric audio effects are better than ever. Open up the character screen to get information on the king and his vassals and you're greeted by the sounds of hushed whispers as the courtiers gossip. Have trouble with the plague or malaria and voices calling "Bring out your dead!" swell up ominously.

Nevertheless, Crusader Kings is an impressive addition to the Europa Universalis family. The addition of playable characters adds a welcome human touch that both broadens the historical scope of the game and makes it friendlier to newcomers to the series who want to attach faces and personalities to the names and numbers.

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