Thursday, April 10, 2008

Computer Games I've Been Playing

After a recent video card upgrade, I've been spending most of my recent gaming time on the computer, so I thought I'd go over the games that I've been playing.

First up is the most recent game I've been playing, Sins of a Solar Empire. This game is a combination 4X game and RTS (real-time strategy) game. In it you build an empire and fleets of spaceships to defend and expand that empire. It's a long game, but so far it has held my attention well. The game doesn't require as much micro-management as some other RTS games do, and when micro-management can help, it can be done in such a way that super-fast reflexes are not necessary. In fact, battles themselves often take quite some time to resolve, letting you focus on other things mid-battle without fear of your force suddenly being wiped out in a few moments because you weren't paying complete attention.

There's also a very basic diplomatic mechanism that allows you to forge treaties with some of your AI opponents. While the mechanism is very basic, it is also more logical than those found in many other 4X games, where the AI will make and break treaties for no apparent reason except to frustrate you. In Sins of a Solar Empire, it's made very clear what you need to do to maintain relations with your allies (usually giving them resources or attacking their enemies), and if they do cancel a full alliance, there's still a period of time that must pass before they can actually attack you.

I have run into a few minor frustrations, but I have a feeling that some of them at least are due to failures in my strategy rather than failures in the game. They mainly take the form of having problems crop up in my rear while I'm focusing my main attention elsewhere, especially when I'm forced by stellar geography to fight a two front campaign, but only have the military resources to focus on one front at a time. The resulting campaign can become a bit tedious as I'm forced to shift forces from one front to shore up the other repeatedly until I eventually build up strong enough forces to deal with both simultaneously. As I said, more likely a problem with my strategy than with the actual game design.

Before I upgraded my video card to play Sins of a Solar Empire, I was playing a game of Europa Universalis III. This is another combination 4X/RTS type game, although the RTS element is less of the traditional Warcraft style and more like a turn based game where the computer automatically starts a new turn every couple of seconds (it was originally developed as the computer version of a board game). For years now I've been fascinated with this game, its predecessors, and its sister series set in WWII called Hearts of Iron. Despite this fascination, I don't think I've ever completed a game from beginning to end before. There's always something that I do spectacularly wrong that puts me so far behind that it simply isn't worth continuing. In particular with EU3, I've had great difficulty in mastering the trade and technology systems.

I always found the trade system incredibly tedious, and so generally ignored it. Unfortunately, it's a necessary component in most good strategies. Fortunately, at some point they both simplified the trade system slightly, and added an automation tool. The combination makes it far easier to use effectively in the game.

As for technology, it turns out that the cost to raise your nation's technology is directly proportional to the number of provinces that you control. This was exactly opposite to the way I thought it worked, so I always found myself in control of huge nations that were rapidly falling behind in technology. Once I understood that you needed to expand intelligently, focusing on rich provinces, then the correct strategy fell into place and I was able to play an enjoyable game taking Portugal from the mid-15th century all the way through to 1820. They didn't end the game as the #1 ranked nation, but they were in the top 10 and I had an empire that spanned the globe, with provinces on every continent and in every ocean.

I should mention that the original EU3 only goes to around 1790, but one of the reasons that I came back to the game was that I discovered there was an expansion for it, called Napoleon's Ambition, that takes it through the period of the Napoleonic Wars and ends in 1820. It's only available as a download, but I recommend it to anyone who has EU3 not just for the expanded time period, but also for the improved game interface that it comes with. This download only expansion method seems to be a new pattern with games by Paradox Interactive (the makers of EUIII and Hearts of Iron). They have another expansion for EUIII planned for June called In Nomine that pushed back the start date of the game 50 years to cover the latter half of the Hundred Years War, and adding in several new systems. They also have an expansion out for Hearts of Iron II called Armageddon which I plan on getting when I decide to give that game another play.

If you want a fairly deep strategy game with a basis in history, this would be a pretty good one to give a try. My full game as Portugal was one of the more rewarding gaming experiences I've had on the computer in a while.

Finally, one other game I've been playing lately has been SimCity Societies. This game has been given pretty poor reviews, but I've been enjoying playing around with it for the past few days whenever I've felt like taking a break from the other two more involved computer games that I discussed above. Before I upgraded my video card I couldn't play it for more than twenty minutes without it crashing, despite exceeding the minimum specs. Now that I've upgraded it still crashes, but not until after at least an hour of play (gotta love that EA quality!).

Unlike the other two games I mentioned, this one is pretty much just a sandbox game, lacking any real strategy. I just build my city however I want to and try to either improve the lives of my sim citizens, or torment them depending on my mood. Now that it's working better I plan on spending more time messing around with it, and maybe see if the scenarios that they patched in actually add an element of strategy to it beyond just the sandbox fun it currently has.

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