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About
Favorite Games:

Mega Man series (This includes the Original Sub-Series and the X Sub-Series. I have no interest in any of the EXE/Network games, and I have little experience with Zero and ZX. Zero and ZX seem cool, but I just haven't played them that much yet.)
Zelda series
Final Fantasy series (2j, 8, and 12 are terrible though. No interest in 11 or the Crystal Chronicles Sub-Series)
Starcraft (!) (stay tuned for SC2!)
Warcraft series (Yes I played WoW for a while, but I prefer the RTS's)
Super Mario series (this includes all the Mario side-games like Kart, Tennis, Smash Bros.)
Paradox Grand Strategy Series (Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, Crusader Kings, VICTORIA, etc.)
Civilization series
Galactic Civilizations 2 (and expansions)
Total War series (I'm still divided on the last two though. They seemed so much more.. arcade-y than STW and MTW)
Street Fighter series (especially Street Fighter Alpha 3)
Castlevania series (but not the 3d ones.. they're all terrible)
Ninja Gaiden (The NES ones! The new ones are good too, though!)

Basically, I like strategy games, some fighting games, RPG's, and old school platformers. I like JRPG's less and less though. I play some FPS's, but I wouldn't say any of them are favorites of mine.

Other games I play often:
Devil May Cry series
Guilty Gear series
Time Crisis (I actually own TC 1, 2, 3, and Crisis Zone for the PS/PS2)
Shinobi series
God of War (Only played the first, but I'm guessing the others are sweet too)
Streets of Rage series (Where is a modern beat'em'up when you need one?)
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Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 are commonly agreed to be classics of the action platforming genre and of the NES more generally. They both combined tight controls, solid presentation, good music, fun level design, and high difficulty levels for good times.

However, there is a bit of a tendency for NG2 to be seen as an improvement over its predecessor. The common line is that NG2 added a bit more interesting level design and climbing controls, while also toning down some of the frustrating elements that made NG1 so difficult.

I disagree. While I love NG2 (which was actually my introduction to the series), I think that NG1 had a coherent, tight game design, which encompassed the controls, the level design, the music, and the presentation. NG2 is a fun game, but the added and modified mechanics, IMO, took away from the coherence. It made NG more like other games, rather than focusing on what NG1 did best: make you feel like a God Damn Ninja.

I'll sum this argument up in two parts: 1. Ninja Gaiden's design, 2. Ninja Gaiden 2's changes

Ninja Gaiden 1: What is an action platformer?
I think the big source of confusion for NG1 is the lack of awareness of genre. To put it simply, I don't think NG1 is really a platformer at all. Most of the game is about combat management. How do you approach an enemy? How do you respond? What items do you use?
The environment (including platforms) plays a role, but the game isn't about making hard jumps. It's about dealing with enemies -while- making hard jumps. It's about knowing that God Damn owl is coming and being able to deal with it, while jumping a chasm and latching onto a wall. In general, this isn't a platformer. This is an action game that uses platforming elements to accentuate the action.

Once you realize that the focus in NG1 is on making the player feel like a GD ninja, and that it's actually an action game, everything else makes sense. I'll be discussing particulars in this order: 1. Pop-up enemies, 2. Tunnel levels, 3. Controls, 4. Music/Presentation

1. Pop-up enemies
One of the favorite criticisms of Ninja Gaiden 1 is that the damn enemies pop up out of nowhere. There are lots of points in the game where, if you just stand still, an endless barrage of clones will continue to pop-up and attack you in the exact same way. This, to many, feels cheap and unfair. And, to some extent, they're correct. However, there are two damn good reasons for this mechanic:

a. KEEP RUNNING!
Because of the pop up enemies, there is a strong incentive in NG1 on RUNNING AS FAST AS YOU CAN THROUGH EVERY GOD DAMN AREA. You want to stop and take a break? TOO BAD, THERE IS AN ENDLESS BARRAGE OF NINJA COMING! You need to slow down and get a tactical-YOU'RE DEAD. YOU'RE ALREADY DEAD.

The pop-up enemies -force- the player into a certain kind of playstyle: fast, visceral, responsive rather than generative. In other words, it forces you to play like a GD Ninja.

Sure, there are other ways of forcing this kind of play-style: timer, slowly reducing health, etc. However, I'm not sure that any of these approaches is an appropriate replacement. Not only do they have their own problems, but they don't force the same -kind- of speed onto the player as pop-up enemies. In NG1, your speed isn't forced onto you by an abstract timer. It's forced onto you by ENEMIES POPPING UP EVERY WHICH WAY. Complaining about pop-up enemies in NG1 feels sort of like complaining about "all these damn bullets" in a bullet-hell game. It just shows a lack of awareness of what makes a game a game.

b. Tunnel levels
NG1 doesn't have very interesting level design from a platformer perspective. Almost every level is a one screen tall tunnel, going either left-to-right or right-to-left. However, again, NG1 isn't a platforming game. It's an action game where you're a GD NINJA, and the tunnel levels are perfect -for this game design.-

I think my argument will be more clear once I discuss NG2, but, suffice to say, the meat of each level is RUNNING AS FAST AS YOU CAN through a NEVER ENDING GAUNTLET OF ENEMIES. The level design is there to emphasize this playstyle. There are platforming flourishes, as well as walls to climb and other features here and there. However, the level design here is closer to Ninja Warrior on Spike TV than Super Mario Brothers or Mega Man. Speed and combat. That's the whole game.


3. Overall, the controls in NG1 (as well as NG2) are tight. I mean, like, really tight. Like jump a bit in the air.. but manage to attack twice in the air tight. Tighter than damn near any other NES game tight. This is a game where you're given all the tools to be a total badass. You just need to find a way to use them. Again, this is all meant to emphasize the fast-paced combat mechanics and the run, run, run playstyle.
However, one element of the controls that gets criticized is the wall controls. Rather than simply climb up and down walls, you need to jump up them with some somewhat difficult timing. I'll get back to this when discussing NG2, but there are two things I'd like to say about wall-climbing as its constituted in NG1: a. It was designed consciously to be like this. Remember, there -are- surfaces in NG1 which you can climb NG2-style. They already exist in NG1. They just -chose- consciously to make most walls more difficult to climb. b. The added complexity of the wall jump, in my mind, makes it all the more satisfying to utilize. Really, it's not as hard as some make it out to be, and it's a lot more fun to successfully pull of than simply pushing up and down.

4. Music/presentation
I don't have a lot to say here that hasn't already been said. The presentation is awesome. The music is awesome. Go listen to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZLXcCe7GgA
Doesn't that make you feel like a ninja? Doesn't that make you just want to go out and do epic things with anime-esque abstract movement effects rolling in the background?
Again. This game is all about being a GD ninja. Presentation and music just add to the effect.



WHAT DOES NINJA GAIDEN 2 DO DIFFERENTLY
1. Level design
The tunnels in Ninja Gaiden 1 are perfect for speedy, actiony, intense gameplay. NG2, however, went far more into platforming. Platforms, in general, play a much bigger role in NG2; there are vertical areas rather higher than one screen; levels, in general, have a much more expansive feel to them; and, most importantly, there are the environmental hazards.
In my view, while these are find additions to a platformer, they miss the point of NG1 entirely. Let me give you an example: how do you play the second level? With the wind gusts? Oh, what's that? You just stand there until the wind is right. Hrmm. Okay, how about the level where the lights go out. How does that impact your play style? Oh, you just stand and wait until you can see fine? Hrmm. How about the level with the lava, where the rocks spit out intermittently? How do you deal with the rocks? Oh.. more standing and waiting. Hrmm....
Standing and waiting is NOT what NG is about. It misses the whole point. It's like playing a Sonic game without loop-to-loops. And you do it in NG2. A lot.
The other hazards don't seem to get the point either. The water hazard makes you go more slowly half the time, and the ice level takes away the tight-ass controls that the series is known for. I could forgive the game if there was a strong focus on dealing with enemies while managing the hazard but, truth be told, that's not entirely true. Sure, enemies attack you, but it's nothing like NG1. The platforming elements in NG1 were infamous for piling on the deaths. Half the time in NG2, while you're dealing with a hazard, you're, at most, dealing with one or two slow-or-even-standing-still enemies. It's just not the same at all.
The multi-tiered platforming also misses the point. When you mess up in NG1, you die. When you mess up in NG2, you.. redo all the pain-in-the-ass jumping you just did. It just doesn't feel as visceral or intense. It feels more like Mario shoe-horned into NG1 than like a proper ninja adventure itself.

2. Combat
Let me make this short: nearly everything about NG2's combat changes makes things easier for you. Special powers are less expensive, and you earn more power. You can attack off walls. You can have up to two clones. Etc. etc.
However, the overall impact of these changes is to: 1. Make the game easier, 2. Make combat less precise. In NG1, other than a spattering of shurikens, you had to rely on the tight controls and your own instincts. In NG2, you don't even need to do anything half the time. When clones are combined with plentiful special power, combat almost ceases to be a frightening event at all. It just takes the feeling of being a ninja away. With the fire power you pack in NG2, combat is almost more like Contra with a health bar than NG1. Almost.

3. Wall climbing
Again, there is a loss of ninja badassery and an expansion of accessibility and platforming. Walls are much, much easier to climb, and you can attack off of them now. This leads to some more interesting uses of walls as platforms. Sadly, there's no replacement for successfully jumping off a wall, killing an owl with your sword, and managing to latch back on before another enemies knocks you sideways. The emphasis is just.. different.

CONCLUSION
Let me clarify the above by saying that I still love NG2. It's a great action platformer and is a solid sequel to NG1. It's also not as different as I may indicate above, as I'm focusing on the differences in order to make a point about what NG1 is. For most people, NG2 would almost seem -too- much like its predecessor.

However, I do think there are misconceptions about NG1 and 2, and I wanted to outline my viewpoint here. Personally, once you get good, there really isn't another game like NG1 on the NES. The pacing, the intensity, the skill required, and the payoff (both in terms of presentation, music, and out-and-out gratification).. it's just.. beautiful.

So there. NG1. FANTASTIC GOD DAMN GAME!








Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (with Alien Crossfire expansion) was a bit of a revelation for 4x gamers back in the day. On one hand, this was clearly a Civilization game. Alpha Centauri was the planet space colonizers sought in Civ 2; the mechanics and play style are almost identical; and it has Sid Meier's name plastered all over it, just to prove the game's lineage. Of course, SMAX (Sid Meier's Alien Crossfire, from here on, this is how I'll refer to Alpha Centauri overall just to make life easier) wouldn't exist at all without IP conflict. This is where Civilization: Call to Power emerged from. However, in the grand scheme of things, SMAX is clearly a Civilization game in all but title.

However, despite being a Civ game, SMAX is also something different. It does different things and has a somewhat different base of assumptions than the Civ games. Overall, it's quite amazing how just a few small changes can complete shift the entire experience of a game. There are mechanics and ideas in SMAX that I'd hate to see relegated to the dustbins of history. As a result, I'm writing this comparison point of SMAX and Civ 4. I want to give a sense of what Civ 3 and Civ 4 did right, what SMAX did right, and what SMAX did wrong.


JUST TO GET A BASELINE: HOW IS SMAX LIKE CIV 4

Before I begin, if you haven't played SMAX, I want to give some sense for the similarities. SMAX plays pretty much just how you'd expect a Civ game to play. You have workers (called formers); settlers (colony pods); nutrients (food); minerals (production); and energy (gold). You choose research priorities (although, for the most part, you choose general emphasis rather than specific tech); socially engineer your civ (just like Civics in Civ 4); set taxation/science/luxury priorities; interact with other civilizations; etc. etc. In a lot of respects, SMAX is a lot like Civ 4. In fact, it's probably more like Civ 4 than Civ 5 is....



SO WHAT DOES SMAX DO THAT CIV 4 DOESN'T

I want to discuss SMAX's unique aspects in three parts: 1. Look/feel/pacing, 2. Combat mechanics, 3. City mechanics.

1. Look/feel/pacing
SMAX does a lot to set itself apart from the Civ games visually and thematically. To put it lightly, you won't be confusing Alpha Centauri for Earth. The planet -looks- alien, and the fungus mechanics (fungus covers much of the landscape, making development and movement more difficult) add a twist to the standard Civ formula. The interface expands on this basic approach and, again, just emphasizes the alien nature of the game.
There is also quite a bit of story to SMAX. Factions have well detailed histories and proclivities. There is a lot of story introduced early on, and, occasionally, more bits of story will appear here and there. The various technologies are all built on science fiction and the pseudo-history of the setting. Honestly, it all comes together well. SMAX actually might do a better job of building a theme and following through with it than any other game in the series. Honestly.
However, in terms of actual gameplay, the pacing for SMAX is actually quite a bit different than in the Civ series. Unlike in Civ, there isn't the same emphasis placed on "eras." Also, since you start out with a relatively advanced society, the beginning parts of the game tend to feel a bit shorter than in, say, Civ 4. Meanwhile, you can engage in mechanics and strategies halfway through a campaign of SMAX that you wouldn't be able to do until nearly the end of Civ 4. The pacing is just all kinds of different, which has a rippling effect on the rest of the game. Combat feels quicker, larger, and more aggressive, for example. While it's actually pretty comparable to end-game Civ 4 combat, it hits that point much more quickly.
At the end of the day, I'm not sure there is anything about SMAX's look/feel/pacing that could be gainfully employed within a proper Civ game. The only possible exception is the expanded end-game, which I'll discuss more later. However, it's thematically rich and interesting on its own. This just begs for a revival....

2. Combat mechanics
There are several shifts in combat mechanics I want to talk about: a. longer end-game, b. focus on attack, c. creating your own units.

a. As noted above, SMAX certainly has a longer end-game than Civ 4. This directly affects the way combat feels and is employed. For example, you have missiles fairly early in the game. In my most recent game, my AI opponents were absolutely pounding me with missile attacks less than halfway through my campaign. In the Civ games, missiles are end-game only. This should give you some sense of the difference.
Air strikes are also introduced relatively early. Drop pods come a bit later but still earlier in the game than in the Civ series. Overall, the shift in end-game mechanics just brings out a whole different flavor of combat. There aren't 2000 years of mace-men and catapults here.

b. The longer end-game is just one element of SMAX that leads to a stronger focus on aggression in combat. Also notable is the complete lack of attack/defense balance. Basically, more so than in Civ, attack units tend to have more attack power than defense units have defense power. When combined with the narrowed early and mid-game and the longer end-game, you get a -much- more aggressive game. Cities can change hands with some ease, as taking cities is often easier than holding them. You tend to be more careful in your diplomacy and better prepared for things turning awry. There tends to be more combat units -generally speaking- than in the Civ games, as you constantly prepare to turn back an attack or engage in on yourself. As with the pacing and themes of SMAX, this isn't necessarily better than Civ. However, it is an interesting different approach.

c. The biggest difference, however, is that SMAX allows you to create your own units. You actually research different sub-components of units: weapon, armor, reactor, and special abilities. At any point, you can mix and match different sub-components and create new units. This allows you to create end-game units with beginning-game armor, drop pods, and naval attack, just as an example.
On one hand, I think this is a great example of the difference between macro-strategy and micro-tactics (Civ 4 vs. Civ 5), as I discussed in my last blog. This is definitely a mechanic that focuses on macro-mechanics.
However, on the other hand, I'm still not sure what the overall utility of this approach is. As a result of it, units tend to look generic and undifferentiated. Your workshop units are auto-upgraded when you research relevant new technologies, which takes away some of the need away. In the end-game, you have some flexibility in creating your own interesting combinations, but, overall, I wonder if it's really a necessary wrinkle in the Civ fabric. Still, it's an interesting experiment.

3. Development mechanics
This is where the game really sets itself apart: the development mechanics. Perhaps this will be easier to explain with an example than with words: in my most recent game of SMAX, I had a decent little land empire, but I was surrounded on two sides. So, I expanded onto the water. Not ACROSS the water, mind you. Onto it. And those are some of my best cities!
Simply enough, by the 75% stage of a SMAX campaign, you'll pretty much be able to do anything you want in terms of development and cities. You can terraform land up and down. You can expand sea and/or land. You can develop land and sea tiles with different sets of formers (aka workers). The sea is basically its own entirely self-sustaining battlefield in this game, as you can use naval units to seize sea-cities. In general, you just have so many damn options in SMAX. Again, the idea of an extended end-game comes to mind. The things you can do halfway through SMAX seem like things that you should be able to do with future tech in the Civ games. It's sad that these elements are relegated only to SMAX because they are interesting and fun.


WHAT DOES CIV 4 DO THAT SMAX DOESN'T

There are a lot of little differences. Civ 4 has leaders, which are nice but not central, IMO. It has a more advanced city defense system, which I do tend to see as an out-and-out improvement over SMAX. Civ 4 has religion, but, again, I don't think this is a central difference.

If there is one thing that really sets Civ 4 apart from SMAX.. it's culture. It's amazing how much you can miss a mechanic when it's gone, and culture is rather sorely missed in SMAX. Culture just makes sense, and it leads to sensical decisions in terms of expansion, foreign relations, etc.

Here, let me give you an example of why SMAX really misses culture: in all of my recent games, I've had friendly civs come up.. and build cities right next to my capital. Now keep in mind, I don't mean 7 or so tiles away. I mean they're close enough that they're seizing core tiles from my damn capital. And there's nothing I can do about it short of declaring war. Le sigh. I wasn't even given a warning or an indication that it was happening!

This may not seem so terribly bad.. until you realize that you can build sea cities. Guess what, pretty much all cities are vulnerable to having tiles stolen when sea cities are possible. As far as I can tell, the only real defense is to just continually expand in all directions. In fact, when combined with the combat mechanics and a few other design elements*, this seems like a central way to play SMAX, depending on your Civ.
While I understand why that could be a fun way to play, the lack of culture makes it almost a necessary way to play. You can't just concentrate on a small set of core-yet-gigantic cities while making friendly with neighbors because, well, they'll steal your GD land.
Oh culture.. I miss you so much/

*I won't get into the particulars here, but a lot of wonders/Civ abilities/etc. tend to encourage endless expansion as well. That seems to be a big strategy being pushed here.



ANY OTHER CRITICISMS FOR SMAX
There are a few other problems I have with SMAX: the game encourages micro-management, which makes the end-game unwieldy. You know how, towards the end of Civ 1/2/3/4, you have a million cities and a million things to do every turn? Remember, SMAX basically has an expanded end-game. You hit that point sooner, and it can become sort of brutal. The sea cities; the lack of culture; the ecological and alien mechanics; the aggressive, large-scale combat mechanics; and the openness of tile development all just exacerbate this sense. Overall, the end-game can take a -long- bloody time to play through.


SO WHAT SHOULD I TAKE AWAY
Here are a few take-away points from the above:
1. Culture mechanics are great. It's hard to remember what 4x life was before culture.
2. SMAX is paced differently than Civ 4, which leads to a different playstyle.
3. SMAX lets you build sea cities and change the terrain how ever you want. It feels sort of like an expanded Civ 4 end-game.
4. SMAX, despite very much being a Civ game, also feels like its own entity, thanks to the theme, the art style, the pseudo-history, and the shift in pacing. It's amazing how much it creates a "Civ for future colonists."
5. However, Civ 4 is probably the better game overall, if only because of culture mechanics and somewhat less micromanagement in the late game.

There you go.








I've read the RPS and Joystiq reviews, as well as some of the other chatter happening around the tubes, and I've come to the conclusion that there are a lot of misnomers out there about Civ 5's mechanics and its impact on the franchise. Without further ado..

1. One-unit-per-tile is not necessarily "better" than unit stacks

There seems to be this prevailing wisdom that OUPT has been outed as some sort of glorious revelation. In the dark days before, we walked up hill both ways in three feet of snow in order to play a 4x game with stacking. Nowadays, however, we've advanced beyond such -dated- and -ridiculous- combat mechanics as stacking.

The truth is, it's all bollocks. There is nothing inherently -better- about either approach. Here are two reasons why:

a. Strategy vs. Tactics
My first issue with this argument is that it refuses to see the distinct impact these combat mechanics have on the game more generally. OUPT combat encourages tactical thinking, with positioning, range, land type, and other "local" features dominating the process and outcomes of warfare. Stacking, however, tends to result in combat being more macro-based. You win wars by making the best use of your resources and being prepared, diplomatically or otherwise, for any situation. Of course, neither Civ 4 nor Civ 5 are completely tactical or grand strategy. But the distinct combat mechanics do tend to result in different emphases on each game.

In Civ 5, you'll need to spend more of your time on positioning, approach, formation, etc. In Civ 4, you'll spend more time on your cities, advancements, micro-mechanics, etc.


b. Stacking isn't necessarily mindless
Another issue I have with the party line is that stacking is some sort of mindless activity. You simply dump all of your units in a stack and, hey, go destroy. The truth is that Civ 4, especially in its best moments, accomplished quite a bit more with stacks than that. Also, even beyond Civ 4, there is a lot of room for making better use of the stacking approach.

For example, during the end-game, war became actually pretty multifaceted. You need to have your reinforcement lines upkept to keep your troops in decent quantities. You need to have bombers and fighters in decent locations in order to support combined arms invasions of highly fortified cities. Prime points for bomber strikes or reinforcements became natural targets, which would be defended with harsh resistance. In order to take a city, you'd often have to bomb its fortifications to submission, weaken defending troops with suicide strikes and artillery bombardments, then try to establish a final breakthrough with your armors. Depending on your reinforcement route, you could either leave infantry behind to quell resistance and defend the city itself, or fly in paratroopers to help with the task. Combined arms utilization and road mobility were central elements to the combat in the game. It wasn't all "stacks of doom." Even in the early game, stack composition mattered greatly, and it shifted depending on what kinds of resistance you were facing. Overall strategy was still central to conflict in Civ 4, but tactical elements were involved, especially in ways that were highly entangled in the greater strategic environment.

Even where Civ 4's combat had issues, there are solutions other than the OUPT approach. Supply rules. Less stringent restriction on unit spacing. OUPT isn't the one-and-only answer.



2. Simplicity isn't necessarily better
Another argument often made about Civ 5 is that it dropped all the "bloat" of its predecessor. From this perspective, while Civ 4 was fun, it was overly complicated and confusing for its own good. Civ 5 did away with the confusion and, in the process, made a game that was cleaner, clearer, and more fun.

However, again, there simply isn't anything -necessarily- better about a simplified approach. Here are two reasons why:

a. Clarification without simplicity
If there is one thing I honestly like about Civ 5, it's the interface. It's smooth. It's milky. It's polished. It makes sense. I was asked recently what I like most about modern games. I said the interface. With exceptions (*cough*Skyrim*cough*), modern interfaces are just far better than in the olden days, and Civ 5 is no exception to this rule. It's interface is head-and-shoulders above its predecessors.

However, I think there is a conflation, on the part of many gamers, of the interface's simple quality, and the overall simplicity of the game. In other words, I think people took the excellent interface as a sign that -complexity- itself is undoubtedly a bad thing. And that's incorrect. Superior interfaces improve all experiences, including both games with simple concepts -and- games with more complicated mechanics. If anything, I think UI improvements are -more- important in complicated games than in simple ones. Sometimes, a good UI can save hours of instruction book, patch notes, and forum reading.

So, simply enough, I want to call on people to carefully differentiate Civ 5's excellent UI and its mechanical simplicity.


b. On depth in the Civ series
Although I still enjoy Civ 5, and I understand why people like it, I can't help but feel that Civ 5 isn't a sequel to Civ 4 at all. It's actually a sequel to Civilization Revolution, which started as an attempt to bring Civ to consoles and which also lead to an iOS release. I haven't played the original console version, but I have played the iOS release extensively. It's very fun. It's Civilization, only with a speed, simplicity, and sense that makes sense in a mobile environment.

However, after I played a few games, I came to realize.. most of these games ended up being rather similar. My choices were often restricted. Whole pathways of the game that I was used to were gone. Little features, like in-depth statistics, a true ending, the palace, city details, advisors, the top 10 lists, etc. etc., were all missing. At some point, I just felt empty playing the game. It felt sort of generic and heartless.

After playing a few games of Civ 5, I quickly caught on to the similarities. The solid interface. The simplified mechanics. The lack of mechanical depth or flavor stats/lists/city details/etc. The lack of options. Civ 5 is a game that is easy to start playing, but, IMO, easy to stop playing. It simply doesn't root itself into as deeply as its predecessor.

Recently, I've been playing some Alpha Centauri. It's really amazing to match SMAC/SMAX and Civ 5 up back-to-back. It gives you a sense for, despite some common genes, how different these games have really become. They basically represent different feature sets, different challenges, and different experiences. I mean, in SMAC/SMAX, you design your own unit types. Consider how that stacks onto the strategy vs. tactics argument discussed above.

For some people, Civ 5 is more than enough. It's easy to learn. It's fun. And it's highly polished. The OUPT approach is perfect for this group, as the strategic elements are self-evident. It has a euro-board game style of abstraction that matches well onto short, fun gameplay sessions.

There are also a few other games released recently with similar strengths. Warlock: Master of the Arcane is also good for a few short campaigns. Endless Space, thus far, hits on a lot of the same tendencies.

However, for my taste, I want a game meant to be dug into. I want a game that will tell me my whole story with statistics, advisors, excellent narration, temple improvements, and tons of options. I want the interlocking mechanics to balance each other out, so there isn't just one focus or one approach. I used to be sure that the Civilization series would provide that level of depth, but I understand that it can't now. I hope the rest of you enjoy it. Just remember that it's not a clear-cut, black-and-white improvement. It's its own thing, with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. If Civ 4 is 4x, Civ 5 is 4x-lite.. and that's not necessarily a bad -or- a good thing.








So, as I mentioned might happen in my post about Warlock, I broke down and bought Endless Space.

For the unaware, Endless Space is the first game from Amplitude. Amplitude is a new, independent PC game developer focused on increasing customer-developer relationships through the GAMES2GETHER initiative. Endless Space is, itself, a 4x strategy game that generally models itself on the Master of Orion family of 4x games. If you know your space 4x, then Endless Space plays most like Galactic Civilizations II, from Stardock. Endless Space also has multiplayer support (yay!), but I'll get back to that....

For those less familiar with the sub-genre, basically, you develop your first planet or solar system. Colonize new planets/solar systems. Research new technologies. Raise and spend taxes. Engage in diplomacy with other powers. Fight those powers militarily. And, hopefully, you conquer them all and win the game.

To tell the truth, Endless Space doesn't do a lot to revolutionize this formula. Almost every major mechanic of the game has been in the other mainstays of the genre. In terms of combat and war, Endless Space plays a lot like GalCiv 2, in particular. You design your ships through a similar process. You research three different kinds of weapons and three, parallel, kinds of armors, and you use these weapons as necessary, depending on the threats you face. Also like GalCiv 2, combat is more or less automatic. You watch it unfold through a short quasi-cinematic cutscene, with the results depending on the decisions you made prior to combat.
However, unlike GalCiv 2, you can have -some- impact on the outcome. Each battle is split into three "phases." During each phase, one of the three weapon types is uniquely effective. Additionally, once per phase, you are given the choice of using a "card." Cards basically represent strategic plays you can make. For example, you can play cards that will, for the length of a phase, increase your accuracy, decrease your opponents shields, increase repairs, etc. etc., while your opponent receives the same opportunity. Also, each card has a type, with certain types being capable of blocking other types. It basically adds a layer of rock, paper, scissors dynamic on top of the card system. Although cards are not enough to change lopsided battles, they can spell life or death for more balance battles.

Outside of combat, the major contribution Endless Space makes to the genre is its interface. That may seem absurd.. but only until you play Endless Space. Seriously, -everything- feels right. Smooth. Comfortable. Intuitive. Like Butter. Even little things demonstrate the investment put into this. I'd find it hard to go back to older space 4x games after this. Also, if you're not sure what some sort of number or statistic refers to.. hover over it. Almost everything has a concise, helpful hint. If you're still confused, the tutorials do a great job of covering all the necessary concepts with minimal discomfort. You can basically master the interface and the basic mechanics in 5 minutes. It's very impressive.

There's also a "hero" system. Basically, your heroes function a lot like heroes in Distant Worlds Legends and the newer Total War games. You put them in charge of fleets or solar systems (depending on their capabilities), and they yield a number of bonuses for the object of their command. Military heroes buff your fleets' offensive and defensive power and open up new cards to employ during battle. Administrative heroes buff output of the four major resources (dust, which is basically gold, science, food, and labor), reduce unrest, and can increase the defensive capabilities of your solar systems. These heroes come equipped with different starting statistics and abilities, and they gain experience and levels as they are used, which allows you to add new abilities as necessary. Overall, it's adds a little spice and variety to events, but the hero system doesn't play a -huge- role in the game.

The game, other than the systems outlined above, is pretty much standard space 4x fare. The main unit of your empire is the "solar system," although planets have -some- micromanagement within solar systems. However, your solar system has a single production queue, through which even planet-specific advancements are built, a single labor value, a single food value, etc. etc. Planets are more akin to the resource tiles of Civilization than to cities themselves.
Different planets have different basic capabilities, based on your techs, advancements built, bonuses and maluses, the presence of special resources (or the lack thereof), planet type, planet size, etc. etc. There are a number of different planet types, although many require more advanced technologies to settle. Towards the late game, you'll also be capable of terraforming planets into different planet types. Eventually, you'll also be able to survey any moons as well, which may contain bonus features or allow for new kinds of exploitation.

Solar systems are connected to each other through space lanes, sort of like Sins of a Solar Empire. You cannot fly outside of these lanes until you research later techs. Even then, you travel much more slowly outside of the lanes. As a result, despite taking place in "Endless Space," spatial tactics tend to involve the seizure and protection of central solar systems. It definitely adds a neat tactical flourish although, as noted, this is hardly unique for the genre.

So, now that I've talked about it for a while, what do I think? Endless Space is good. Really good. And it has the room to grow into greatness.
I do have my complaints. As noted above, it feels a little generic at times. It doesn't do a lot to set itself apart. Also, the ending is pretty underwhelming. Every 4x developer (including Firaxis!) should play Civ 4 and see how a 4x game -should- end. There should be stats galore, a chronological, animated map of history, charts, etc. etc. Make it memorable. Endless Space, sadly, gives a very short (mostly unexplained) summary of your "points" and gives you an option to go back to the main menu.
On top of these, the rock, papers, scissors element of the card system seems a little unnecessary. I'm not sure why the strategy of the cards isn't enough. Also, since the computer seems to pick cards at random, it renders the card system.. rather random overall. I've taken to just quickly clicking a base selection of cards and hoping for the best. The card system could be more than this.
Also, the game just feels.. sort of empty at times. There's little character. The diplomacy, which isn't entirely implemented as of yet, feels too mathematical. None of it feels like characters are interactive.
Probably most damning, however, is that it's sort of a shallow game. None of the mechanics are incredibly deep or unique. None of it has been simplified or dumbed down, per se, but, still, the game just feels light at times. This could likely change during the months ahead, but it's something to consider for those interested.

However, for all of the negatives, it's very fun and dangerously addictive in its current -beta- state. The UI is fantastic, the graphics are good, and the game feels rather coherent and feature complete. Overall, it's quite impressive, even if it was being sold as a full release. It's a little simplistic and generic, sure, but it's also well-polished, addictive, and fun.

This is all ignoring the multiplayer components, which I have yet to sample. In any case, the fact that this game has multiplayer support is.. well.. very impressive. The game's UI, the simple mechanics, and the whole structure all feel well designed for multiplayer. I have no doubt that Endless Space's multiplayer could become very popular.

So, yeah. If you LOVE 4x games (especially ones set in space), consider trying the beta as it is. Even now, it's in a better state than Sword of the Stars 2 or Elemental. If you enjoy strategy more generally, maybe wait and see how it develops as it gets closer to full release. Amplitude is doing a great job of updating and supporting ES thus far, and I have a feeling this game is just going to get better and better. However, if you've played too many space 4x games in your life or if you just don't like the genre, skip this. It doesn't do anything revolutionary, and I doubt it will change any minds.








Maybe there are rules against this. Maybe it's been done before, or there are threads like this on the forums. Maybe you've already heard of all of these. If so, I apologize, but, if I help anyone discover some great retrogaming blogs, it's cool with me.

First off, I want to talk about Chrontendo. Holy shit. Chrontendo: http://chrontendo.blogspot.com/
If you consider yourself a big fan of the famicom/NES, stop what you're doing. Go watch a bunch of Chrontendo.
For the uninitiated, Chrontendo is a "chronogaming" blog (perhaps the most successful), which aims to play through every famicom/NES game ever made. Every. Single. One.
Every single Japanese pachinko game. Every platformer. Every Dragon Quest-clone. Every shitty mish-mash of 2d platforming and RPG mechanics. And it's wonderful.
The blog itself is really just an addendum to what really counts: the video series. He has already made 43 ~hour long videos discussing every single famicom/NES release from 1983 through March of 1989. Of course, he still has a long ways to go, but, already, it's a stunning achievement. Not only is it an incredibly informative series, but it's entertaining. Dr. Sparkle (as he calls himself) is funny without being distracting, and manages to combine dry humor, documentary-style narration, and obscure pop culture references in a way that just -works-. Every game gets at least a few minutes of coverage (with the exception of some of the aforementioned pachinko games and a few other meaningless releases), but big releases tend to get quite a bit more attention. In fact, his coverage of major releases tends to be comparable to what you'd find from most decent articles that just focus on these games. The fact that they're couched in the greater series and contextualized really just adds heaps of interesting information on top of everything else.
In addition, there's quite a lot of "bonus content." He includes large, in-depth specials on the history of adventure games, arcade games, PC games, and more. He also has chronogaming projects going for the Turbografx 16/PC Engine (Chronturbo) and the Sega Master System (Chronsega). It's thought that he'll add the Genesis to the list in the near future, although that has not been confirmed. In any case, if you enjoy any of these systems or retrogaming in general, check this website out. Crème de la crème.

Second, Hardcore Gaming 101: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/
Unlike Chrontendo (and a few other sites I'll talk about), this is not a chronogaming blog. Basically, it's a retrogaming website that contains in-depth articles on lots of retro games and series. And.. when I say lots.. I mean it: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/alpha.htm
Don't care for my (relatively inept and shallow) summary of Langrisser? Here's four pages of in-depth information (probably the most in a competently arranged, accessible format in English on the entire internet): http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/langrisser/langrisser.htm
Always wondered what was up with the Ghosts'n'Goblins series? Here is 6 pages of in-depth discussion: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/gng/gng.htm
Ever curious what fighting games were like before Street Fighter II? http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/fighters/fighters.htm - Enjoy. By the by, there are 31 (!!) games covered here.
I mean, sure, Wikipedia is great, but, for the games covered, this is goes much, much deeper than Wikipedia.

Third, CRPG Addict: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/
Do you like computer/western* RPGs? You should definitely check CRPG Addict out. Like Chrontendo, this is a chronogaming project, but genre specific (RPG) and for the PC rather than the famicom/NES. Also unlike Chrontendo, the CRPG Addict attempts to play each and every covered game through to fruition. He also avoids reading FAQs or walkthroughs and tries to figure them out the way a young'un in the 80's would've had to. He also follows pretty strict rules (especially regarding saving and system abuse), and he writes several in-depth blog posts detailing his progress and thoughts. In the end, he reviews the game and places it in CRPG history. Cool stuff.
Already, he has (pretty much) fought his way up to 1989, which is damned impressive. True, despite his intentions, he hasn't beaten quite -every- game, but he really puts up a herculean effort even when he fails. In any case, it's an incredibly impressive project, but, beyond that, you can learn more about CRPG history through his blog than through just about any other source. Highly highly recommended.

The CRPG Addict has been so successful that he has spawned a number of followers. Probably the best of these is the Adventure Gamer's blog: http://advgamer.blogspot.com/. He follows pretty much the same rules and standards that the CRPG Addict follows, although with PC adventure games rather than RPGs. Despite starting far later, he has already made it to 1988, although a lot of the difference is due to the relative ease of games in the two genres. Absolutely nothing faced by the Adventure Gamer compares with, say, Rogue. Still, he's quite active, and his posts are entertaining. If you like adventure games, check it out. There are other good CRPG Addict followers as well. However, the Adventure Gamer is probably the closest in terms of quality and quantity.

There are also a number of sites that follow the AVGN in terms of approach, but do so with a different set of games. Of particular note are the Clan of the Gray Wolf (http://www.clanofthegraywolf.com/), which focuses on 16-bit games, especially RPG's; Pat the NES Punk (http://thepunkeffect.com/), which is perhaps the closest to the AVGN in terms of style and approach; and Turboviews (http://buccisarcade.com/turboviews/), which tends to have a bit more documentary-style narration. Spoony of the Spoony Experiment also does some absolutely great game reviews, although I'm guessing most of you have heard of him.


Another interesting blog is Brad Hates Games: http://bradhatesgames.wordpress.com/. Brad Hates Games sort of merges the tendencies of the AVGN-style sites (which tend to focus more on humor) and chronogaming sites (which tend to be encyclopedic in their approach and coverage) without really being of either type. The main "series" running at Brad Hates Games is entitled "Revoking the Seal of Quality." Basically, the writers decided that most games on the Genesis did not actually deserve the "Seal of Quality," and they make light-hearted, humorous posts where they "revoke" the seal from various games. Not all games have their seal revoked, however. 50 Genesis games were allowed to keep their seal, and the site had a long March Madness-style tournament revealing the top 50 games on the system. Following this, they wrote longer, in-depth entries on each of these 50 games, in order. Considering this has been going on for about four years, there's actually quite a lot of content to take in here. They've also recently expanded the revocations to the SNES and the Dreamcast. In the last couple weeks, they've also started a similar countdown for Mega Man robot masters. They also have some random posts with a bit of meatier content. For example, they interviewed one of the creators of 'Rings of Power,' while doing their top 50 review. Overall, it's a site that has a lot of content, is genuinely funny, and also gives a lot of information to those who love retro games.

I'll stop there. Hopefully, some of you will enjoy these sites.


*I prefer the terms "western" or WRPGs and "Japanese" or JRPGs, but that's a whole debate onto itself.








I know there aren't many PC gamers on Dtoid, but I figured I'd add my thoughts on this game anyway. Let's see how it goes.

If you aren't aware, Warlock: Master of the Arcane (simply Warlock from here on) is a 4x game that borrows heavily from Civilization 5. The 4x genre (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) is basically how people refer to Civ-clones. Arguably, all four of the x's would also fit into an RTS game, and, indeed, the Sins of a Solar Empire series -does- combine RTS and 4x. In any case, Warlock is a game like Civilization and Master of Magic, where you start with one city and try to expand your control using technology (magic, in this case), military power, and economic growth. Also, like those games, this is Turn-Based Strategy. Go elsewhere, if that's a turn-off.

More specifically, as noted above, Warlock takes a lot of inspiration from Civilization 5. Like Civ 5, it uses a hexagonal map. Also like Civ 5, it uses the "one-unit-per-tile" approach to combat. A lot of the interface and controls are ripped straight from Civ 5. It also feels like a Civ 5 mod at times, as the inspiration is really quite obvious.

However, this being based on fantasy rather than history, Warlock also takes quite a bit of inspiration from Master of Magic. For those who are unaware, Master of Magic is a fantasy TBS 4x game from 1994 made by the same people that made Master of Orion. While, on the surface, Master of Magic looked like a Civilization ripoff, it actually did quite a bit to change up the emerging 4x genre: 1. It replaced science with magic, 2. It added significant role-playing elements, including heroes with equipment, levels, and skills, 3. It added portals that go to a second world, 4. New (typical fantasy) races were introduced into the game, with different units, strengths, and weaknesses, 5. It added an tactical mode, where you actually fought the battles initiated on the strategic map. Master of Magic was a huge game for the genre, and it had a rather large impact on the fantasy 4x sub-genre. Most of these additional features (portals, tactical combat, spells instead of science, RPG elements, more races) would be seen in its various followers: Heroes of Might and Magic, Disciples, Age of Wonders, and Elemental.

Warlock steps into this timeline by marrying the two divergent trends in 4x gaming. From Civ 5, it takes the interface, the combat system, and the general flow and look of the game. From Master of Magic, it takes additional races (undead and monsters are added to humans), portals to other worlds, RPG elements, and the general fantasy setting. However, despite the prevalence of borrowing, Warlock ends up feeling rather singular. The game comes across as far more about combat and exploration than, say, Civ 5, and less about RPG elements and tactical combat than Master of Magic and its ilk.

This all boils down to an interesting truth about Warlock: it's basically a 4x-lite game. For all the borrowed elements from deep, long, ambitious games, Warlock just isn't meant to be played with that sort of scale or attitude. This is a game where you'll spend far more time fighting than developing or exploring. In fact, I'd argue that Warlock -almost- feels like a blown up 4x version of a game like Master of Monsters or Dark Wizard or even Advance Wars at times. The focus on combat is really this strong. From the first turn until the last, you'll be controlling a significant (and growing) military, and all the incentives are placed on continual warfare. There are non-military ways to win the game, but even this depend on a robust military presence. Good luck getting the resources necessary to defeat a God or take all the Holy Lands without having the strongest military in the game.

So, basically, don't go wondering into Warlock hoping you'll be able to win with one well-managed supercity. This is a war game with a fantasy 4x engine. However, this isn't a -bad- thing. It actually works fairly well. I never felt bored. I never felt like I was cycling through turns. Try the demo and see if the pace is worth it for you.

In any case, there's a lot more to say here. The upgrade options for each unit are quite robust. Basically, there are four types of upgrades: equipment-based, experience-based, type-based, and magic based. You get access to new equipment by building equipment buildings, like smithies, iron forges, silver forges, gem shops, potion shops, and more. Once you have access to equipment, you can buy specific pieces for each unit. For example, you know your warrior is about to go toe-to-toe with an elemental? Buy some amulets and some decent armor, and you'll be able to withstand a lot more elemental damage. Experience based upgrades come, not surprisingly, from experience in fighting and living (each turn autogenerates some experience). These are very similar to upgrades from Civ 5: increased attack, increased defense, increased defense in rough enviroments, increased abilities to move over rough terrain, etc. etc. Magic based upgrades include enhancements and curses placed on your units either through your own means or by your enemies. These include resistances, weapon enchantments, and lots of movement enchantments. Finally, type-based upgrades involve the ability to "upgrade" your unit to a more advanced type once the prerequisites have been built. Equipment, magic, and experience based upgrades follow your unit as it is promoted. All in all, it's a rather deep and interesting system. By the end, you're main fighting forces should be nigh-unstoppable by all but the most fierce-some opponents.

As noted above, there are portals to other worlds. These other worlds include incredible resources that you can tap for more mana/money/food, more equipment, or new unit types. There are also lots of holy lands on the other side of portals. Holy lands allow you to build temples to the various "gods" that exist in this universe. These temples give you increased relations with the god they're dedicated to, as well as access to special, powerful (and expensive!) units. Currying favor with Gods also grants you access to spells and abilities not available otherwise. All in all, there is a lot going on in this game, even if the scale and the pace of the game put the focus entirely on warfare.

There are downsides to the game, unfortunately. Some of the mechanics aren't entirely clear. The AI cheats in order to be competitive. Multiplayer isn't included yet, although it is supposed to be coming as a patch. Despite the 4x genre, there aren't any fun statistics or charts available, either in-game or during the end-game. One of the victory conditions, the ultimate spell 'Unity,' is currently not enabled in the game. Additionally, you cannot select available victory conditions, and there is no information in-game on how either you or your opponents are doing when it comes to victory conditions. Diplomacy is shallow. Not only are advanced options not available (like preventing other players from entering your domain), but the AI seems somewhat easy to game through diplomacy. For example, I once declared war, took a city, then bought peace (for a cheap price) to prevent a counterattack.

However, seeing the release as just the beginning, there is a lot of potential with this game. If they fix up some of the confusion about mechanics; add in multiplayer; better balance the AI; add some better diplomatic options; add in some Civ 4-and-before style charts and statistics to, at least, the end-game; and give some more robust non-military options, I think we would have a classic here. As is, we still have a fun, if unambitious, title that will suck up hours of time.. if you let it.

Overall, I think Warlock is definitely a good game with the potential to become a great game. If you enjoy 4x at all, I'd at least give the demo a shot. If you like fantasy 4x games and you enjoyed Civ 5, you may just want to buy it right now. Luckily for us, the game's launch price is a paltry 20 dollars. This is certainly worth that much money even in its current state.