Stronghold Crusader 2 Review

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Developer: Firefly Studios

Publisher: Firefly Studios

Platform Reviewed: PC

Release Date: 22nd September 2014

The goal of Stronghold Crusader 2’s campaign is the simplest you might find this year: Kill the enemy Lord to conquer the map. Do this over and again and you’ll succeed in a campaign that pits you against either King Richard or Saladin’s army. That isn’t to say this is a bad thing though, the simple objective leaves you to achieve your victory any way you see fit and feels refreshing when held against recent Real Time Strategy games, whose sole focus seems to be to add complexity to an already solid groundwork. This doesn’t mean the game simply employs you to create a meat grinder and thrash out a multitude of soldiers to simply suppress the enemy by attrition. You’ll need to be skilled in people management to attract people to your kingdom, rather than that of your enemy and manage a very fragile economical position to ensure your resources are juggled with the population growth and the needs of your military.

system_requirements_announcementThe problem with simplicity comes a lack of need to be very attentive. The best part of any RTS is the need to juggle live action battles whilst still managing your economy and any urgent needs of your kingdom. Whilst you will need to do some of this, the main management is boiled down to a simple panel at the top of your screen, which will manage certain attributes that will give boost and penalties through the game. You may want to lower taxes to entice a higher population, or lower rations consumed on a daily basis as you hadn’t quite predicted the growing food needs of your new people and are struggling to keep up with demand. All of these little situations will determine the happiness of your people and, as the game ensures you know, “The people are fickle, sire” and will certainly turn tail and run at the first sign of trouble within your reign. In some ways this feels like the games way of adding a simulation element to proceedings but doesn’t quite go far enough to truly draw you in and complete the experience.

10I found myself mostly dabbling with Saladin’s forces rather than that of King Richard; this was because Saladin’s army seemed fresh and offered some different units rather than the same old Cavalry, Knights and Archers. With Saladin’s army I could have a group of hot oil pot throwers or a wall climbing Assassin – it added layers of depth to the combat and something unique to the game.

While you may have forgotten about your castle once you’ve marched your army to the enemy encampment, you’ll certainly remember it again once the siege weapons are out and ready to annihilate all that hard work you’ve put in to defending yourself with walls and a defensive arsenal. Siege weapons feel fantastic to lay waste to your enemy castle and it is always satisfying to see the wall come down to allow access for your foot soldiers. Of course, you may simply want to weaken your enemy and hurl a plague-ridden cow over the wall to draw them out, or thin the population or the age old stress bringer of a fire ball blasted into their castle.

You will never confuse Stronghold Crusader 2 as a single player game over its multiplayer, as the two campaigns are simply titled “Learning Campaigns” and are designed to get you up to speed with each army and teach competence at the base management; before you take yourself into the multiplayer skirmishes, yet fails to teach you any actual winning strategy beyond very simplistic building and growth support.  You’ll get the opportunity to face the computer AI in skirmishes that will hit you with wave after wave of enemies in ever increasing combinations and difficulty, this can help you stress-test any strategies you’ve thought of for your army, but other than that the learning is extremely bare.

1Multiplayer offers you the real challenge and is the linchpin of the entire game. If you can find good opponents and enjoy the first few hours of having your army torn to pieces, then you’ll find a lot of fun. The game doesn’t prepare you though – especially for people new to the genre – with what to expect when heading into a multiplayer battle. You’ll fly blind and either feel your way out into the battle or give up because it’s simply too much to take in.

Developer Firefly Studios has grown around this genre and have possibly lost a some of focus on what I thought made previous games great – the castle building mechanic is too shallow to really excite any budding RTS player and the tutorials offer nowhere near enough depth to begin teaching anyone who may have stumbled across the game. The combat can be extremely fun and the siege weapons bring additional depth, this is what matters and yet this isn’t enough to hold long term interest in the game. The generic unit choices often leave you simply replicating and creating multiples of the same unit, time after time, until your enemy has relented and you finally win.

Score: 7/10

Clockwork Empires – Early Access Preview

ce_text_banBack in March I became incredibly excited about Gaslamp Games’ Clockwork Empires after reading a preview piece; it promised a core system that had been developed for two years prior to moving onto actually building a game around the infrastructure they had created. Oh yeah, and Fishmen fighting redcoats because, well, why not? Perhaps, by nature of being early access, we are seeing something extremely early in its life and a little unfair to judge and perhaps it’s just too early to be available to the public. As of right now all you’ll get when you head into Clockwork Empires is a rather generic city builder set in a Victorian setting with the aforementioned Fishmen sporadically dropping in to make sure you are kept on your toes, rather than something fresh and new with a hint of Lovecraft to spice up your life.

You can see some of the in-depth personality AI has started to appear, but this is currently in small pieces of dialogue on character descriptions or icons that appear through the game. You’ll see your villagers deciding names for their own part of town – like their kitchen or the barn. You can see these quaint little touches happening and adds some fun to the constant slog to ensure your people don’t starve or are kept warm during long, torturous winters.

ce_mining_accidentClockwork Empires promises something akin to free will. Villagers will voice their displeasure at a monarch, or decide they are better served by going into the woods and joining a cult. In the most up to date build the majority of this is something you’ll have to dig to find and understand, the minutiae held in the depths of menus. Right now maybe that’s a good thing, as the few buildings you can erect won’t take you long and you’ll spend far too long micro-managing every little aspect, rather than setting the stage and letting your village grow with only the most minimal of interactions from you. This is where I’m hoping the game improves with updates, to allow you to sit back and enjoy what is actually being offered; rather than having you zoomed in all the time trying to manage the individual needs – something that, at the minute, is more of necessity than anything else – rather than spend time enjoying the world they are setting up.

The closest comparison I could come up with while playing was that of Peter Molyneux’s fictional land of Albion; I often found myself thinking of Fable landscape, as my villagers ploughed a field while watching the Fishmen climbing from the local lake to attack, as Red coats run to the rescue. It was these moments I probably enjoyed most. The actual atmosphere the game tries to create makes a nice change from most of the boilerplate world builders you run across. Clockwork Empires sets a tone and sticks to that and is all the better for it.

chaos_in_fishtownClockwork Empires is still very much in its infancy, but has laid some impressive groundwork and built up a lot of promise in a very short amount of time. While I’ve probably spent a lot of time in Clockwork Empires being frustrated by silly little bugs or quirks in the gameplay, I still found enjoyment in what they are trying to do – the soul of the game, the atmosphere and the beginnings of the character AI looks like it has the potential to completely change the face of simulation games going forward. While it’s hard to recommend you pick this up immediately due to the lack of polish and actual content (The Gaslamp Games site estimates they are only 25% through development) I’d say this is definitely something you should keep your eyes on for what comes in the future. If you’re looking for something similar you’d be better served in the short term picking up Banished rather than frustrating yourself with Clockwork Empires, but would recommend that everyone check out this game on full release to see what has come of the promises they made.

Battle Academy 2: Eastern Front Review

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Battle Academy 2 does what it says on the tin. It delivers a turn based strategy set in WWII on the Eastern Front, which is renowned for some of the most brutal battles of the war time. This game offers control of both the German and Russian forces of WWII. I understand in its predecessor you had the opportunity to command British, Canadian, US Polish and Italian troops. I suppose as both games have the same time setting it would just be repetitive if anything to include these factions.

Whilst Battle Academy is not the most aesthetically pleasing TBS game out there, it does play remarkably well.  In the beginning, you are given a handful of soldiers and tanks to learn the basics of gameplay. This works well in teaching you how to manage your militia, however by the end you are controlling a full army and moving everything each turn makes for some long winded turns; ultimately resulting in long campaign chapters.

The campaign takes place in a variety of landscapes, from large cities, to open fields, forests etc. Where your mastery of tactical warfare will be challenged most is in the desolate urban cities. For example, enemy militia hide in buildings dotted around the city. Your vehicular forces can’t see in buildings, so leading with them down a street, you are bound to lose a few to enemy forces camped up in the buildings. The trick (that I learnt the hard way) is to lead with your ground forces which can identify hidden enemies, but cover less ground per turn. This, coupled with the sheer volume of your forces later in game becomes a tiresome task. When you enter the barren Russian countryside your tanks really get to shine.

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The thing I liked most about this game is that it has consequences for actions. For instance, if you choose to move quickly, your accuracy will be cut as a consequence. On top of this dynamic, if your forces remain unseen, they get a huge bonus on their attack turn. In this respect, the line of sight system works wonderfully (just as long as you utilise your foot soldiers first). How you manoeuvre the map, is completely up to you. But it doesn’t come without consequences, as you traverse the landscape it becomes more about which troops are expendable to you, as you swim through shark infested waters.

This game is a no risk no reward type, and as such, taking risks in this game you never are sure what the complete outcome will be. The AI is competent in being prepared for the dice roll though, and while this never feels unfair, the game does get predictable in the sense you can figure out where the tanks will be sat waiting for you.

Hats off to Battle Academy for not boring us with cut scenes of the WWII story we have heard in about 10,000 variations though. Instead of all that we are graced with a quaint little comic book style opening/loading screen. I commend Battle Academy for this, at this point the WWII story has been used so many times it’s become a drowning whale in the gaming universe for me personally. So in this case it’s a “Thank you for not sharing” situation.

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Now with all the above being said and done, this game shines bright in one aspect above all – its skirmish mode. Once I had finished ploughing through the pre-made maps/campaign segments. You can spread your wings and take flight into your own generated worlds. How they are generated is your choice with a number of variables to choose from, most notable being map size and cover sparsity/density over the area. This mode to me is what truly makes this game in all honesty. I felt more than happy to play this over the out of the box campaign, because you can make a map that suits your tactical style or something completely different which makes you move outside your comfort zone.

I can see this games appeal to people who often play TBS games and war fanatics alike. It’s very two tier in the sense that you can play casually, or you can go to the very bones and learn the game inside out. It offers enough flesh for casual players like me to bounce on and bounce off. This back with a really strong skirmish mode makes for a lot of re-playability as you decide what does, and doesn’t work for you. This game truly is strategy down to its core.

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DEVELOPER: SLITHERINE

Available Now on Steam HERE

Frugal Gaming Review – GoD Factory: Wingmen

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In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

It’s a bit of a good job if you ask me, this game made me want to do it rather too often.  GoD Factory: Wingman is basically a space ship PVP action combat game, with a unique art style and an array of customisation via in game shipbuilding.  It sounds great and I was so up for playing this game after watching the trailer, getting hands on however, it hasn’t achieved all that it sets out to accomplish.

You’ll find no campaign here and no story either.  It’s rather a shame as the developers; Nine Dots Studios have already gone to the trouble of creating four compelling races whose ships you can pilot.  All of them are very unique and fleshing out the universe with back stories to these races would have added so much more depth to the universe they inhabit. Games without any real story seem all the rage at the minute, and whilst some of those allow you to forge your own narrative, the scope in GoD is far too small to allow that.  Even a short campaign to compliment the main focus of PVP would have worked wonders, for me at least.

So gameplay wise, GoD is a straight up 4v4 battle to take on your dogfighting opponents and also take down their carrier.  It’s got some good ideas, but it’s alarmingly void of game modes and options.  You have to select two of your ships before the fight begins, this gives you two different loadouts if you want to change your tactics and also a spare ship, in case you get a proton torpedo down your thermal exhaust port.  Apart from changing your ship, flying through the launch bay of your carrier replenishes your shields too.  Enemy carriers are taken down by the good old fashioned way of chipping away at certain hard-points. Lose a ship you can jump into the spare one or take a drone, a very basic ship.

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You Have To Believe It To See It

What GoD gets right, it gets very right.  The visual design is awesome! I hate that word, but it sums it up to a tee.  Ships are unique, looking beautiful yet deadly.  It took me straight back to childhood Saturday mornings, spent watching Star Fleet X- Bomber and the forces of the evil Commander Makara.  It’s clear that Japanese culture has had a big influence on the visuals of both the ships and the environment but here and there you’ll see glimpses of other cultural pointers right the way back to mythological Greece.

Notice I mentioned environment without an s on the end? It wasn’t a mistake, whilst the rocks and asteroids might be in slightly different positions you will essentially be fighting over and over again in the same patch of space.  I’m not a graphic artist, nor a game developer, but would it really have been that hard to add some different backgrounds? A looming gas giant or maybe a swirling nebula light years away?  Imagine playing Call of Duty, actually scrap that, no one should have to imagine playing Call of Duty.  Imagine playing Battlefield over and over on the same map, racing around the same track time after time in Mario Kart.  It would get really old rather fast as is the case with GoD.

On a brighter note, ship customisation is another quiver in GoD’s bow.  From fuselages, cockpits, wings, thrusters and much more, all can be changed around to make the ship of your dreams. The individual species vessels all look very different and varied.  From the utilitarian, yet sleek Human ships, to the more intricately Gothic almost organic stylings of the Guantri. It’s a great feature even though it’s somewhat held back by an over complicated unlocking system that finds you having to grind.  Nonetheless it’s a great inclusion that I’d love to see in some of the other space combat games heading to my PC in the near future.

Everything in GoD is so bleeding complicated.  I found this game as I’d been on the lookout for more titles to make my investment in a flight stick and throttle a little more frugal, and by God have they made a bit of a pigs ear of implementing controls.  It starts out fine, a basic tutorial led me through all the general stuff. It’s no Kobayashi Maru, but it does the job well enough. The problems started when advance manoeuvres were touched upon. Basically a sharp 90 degree turn in either direction, a 180 degree swoop to get you facing the other way and, for want of a better description- back-step thrust.  I’ll put aside the fact that I find these moves unneeded, but the way they are implemented is awful.  A keyboard has lots of keys, likewise a modern joypad has lots of buttons, my flight stick has buttons on its buttons.  To pull off any of these manoeuvres you have to press two buttons at the same time, it’s unwieldy and just plain bad.

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May the Farce Be With You

GoD Factory: Wingmen has ultimately left me feeling extremely disappointed.  I’ve played a lot of early access games that feel more feature complete than this.  GoD however is a full retail release on Steam and I’m reviewing it as such.  In its current state I find it very very hard to recommend, the foundation for a great game is there but it really is just that; a foundation and nothing more.  In the week or so since release there have been a couple of updates but nothing that changes the fundamentals of the game. If the developers continue to push out updates, then why it wasn’t released as an early access title is beyond me, I’d have much preferred to be writing a more constructive preview rather than this critique.  Games can and sometimes do change drastically after release, I hope this is the case with GoD. I’ll be keeping my eye on it and dipping my toe in now and again to see if it has improved. Who knows six months down the line I might be blown away, and if so I’ll be sure to update this review.

As it stands some great visuals and customisations do not make up for the lack of actual content in this game.  Retailing at the same price, Strike Suit Zero offers a great campaign and there are a host of F2P games out there that could give you a better PVP kick.  It’s easy to write about poor games when you don’t like or care for the genre, but I’m a complete space and Sci-Fi nerd. I will end this review with one word.  It’s how I’ve felt whilst playing GoD and it’s how I’ve felt writing this.

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GoD Factory: Wingman was developed by Nine Dots Studios, published by Bandai Namco and can be found on Steam HERE

 

Tropico 5 Review

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Tropico 5

PC

Kalypso Media

Out Now

Hola amigos! It’s time we bring this pathetic charade called democracy to an end and welcome in the age of your new glorious leader, namely me, Karlos Morale. Under the new regime, you’ll find that there are plenty of opportunities to work for the furtherment of the empire and – if you work hard and don’t question authority – you might be rewarded with a shiny new review to keep as your very own.

Praise be to my eternal majesty!

This review comes from the standpoint of someone who has had very limited engagement with the Tropico series up to this point – so if anyone has thoughts on the differences between iterations, feel free to comment at the end of the review.

Tropico5_Screens_April_2nd_2014_04Tropico 5 places you in the role of the leader of a banana republic somewhere hot, sweaty and probably ‘insect-y’. Your job is to secure growth for your island nation and – perhaps more importantly – assure your continued legacy on the island and beyond, by growing your family and stashing money in Swiss bank accounts. You are assisted in your endeavours by Penultimo, your right hand man and a host of other advisors from both home and abroad. You listen to their suggestions, weigh up options and ultimately decide whether their recommendations will ensure the continued prosperity of your island.

Similar to other city building games, you need to develop areas of agriculture and industry. Then you must ensure they are well staffed by your Tropicans, who of course need housing, education and – should you choose – religion in order to thrive. They’ll also need shops to buy produce, hospitals if they get sick and media to enjoy. Finally you must develop the infrastructure of your island, with roads to get about, power to keep your industry going and any other amenities or beautifications the Tropicans require.

Naturally, being a fledgling nation, your island has to suffer quite a lot of political upheaval before it can truly prosper. Initially, you’ll find that you control the island on a mandate from the British, but as time goes on for you and your dynasty you’ll need to politically manoeuvre between the axis and the alliance during the war era, navigate the cold war and then experience the future age. You’re also introduced to the shadowy secret society known as ‘The Order’ who like to have a finger in each pie of world politics. As time passes, the world without and the world within your Tropican home will change and mature which is reflected in the developing needs of your nation and how that nation appears from your God’s eye-view.

Tropico5_Pre_GDC_Screens_(1)Although by no-means a beautiful game, graphically Tropico 5 is certainly pleasant on the eye. It’s lush foliage, rolling ocean waves and ramshackle buildings contrive to convince the player that they are taking the reins of a society in its’ infancy – still close to nature. Later in the game, your island becomes more cluttered and most of its pleasant areas are swallowed up by the necessary march of industrial progress. In the end game, you can make a strong effort to clear-up your island and make it once more the island paradise it can be.

Although not immediately apparent in your early days of growing plantations, exploring the island and building decent houses to free your island from the menace of shacks, trading is a vital component to the successful Tropican nation. Careful cultivation of trade routes – some legitimate, others using the black market – has the triple benefit of obtaining resources that are otherwise scarce on your island (mine was almost completely bereft of coal, so reliable trade routes were vital, lest my power stations grind to a halt early/mid game), appealing to or deliberately annoying foreign powers, and of course making money.

Tropico 5 does a very good job of introducing newcomers to the series, although there are many claims for other writers that this comes at the expense of some depth. I have to say that once you’re involved in trying to mollify the competing interests of factions on your island – and discovering what will make those hijos de puta happy for more than 5 minutes at a time can be difficult work – develop your island and organise trade, I feel like it’s hitting a comfortable balance. It’s a strategy title with a low barrier of entry that makes you feel good about playing and doesn’t want to bog you down with endless minutiae. Yet at the same time it offers enough depth to keep you interested in playing and give you a sense of really having control over the island and the people who – in your graciousness – you allow to live there.

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Tropico 5 is, without doubt, a high quality game; only a couple of issues prevent me from giving this an unqualified recommendation to you. Firstly, developers Kalypso earned themselves something of a poor reputation for the endless DLC that came following the release of Tropico 4. It’s possible to find 12 pieces of additional content for that game on Steam, including the relatively infamous ‘Quick-dry cement DLC’, which gave you a cement factory, a hat, a mission type and a couple of other things of little value. Bought today, the DLC adds up to over £60 (probably double the cost of the game at release), although you can spend half that if you buy the full package. The aforementioned reduction of the number of features in the latest edition of Tropico might hint at some extensive DLC for this title to come.

Secondly, I found in my playthrough number of situations where my island suffered problems for which no solution was apparent.  For example, despite having plenty of basic and educated workers on the island, many Tropicans seemed to remain steadfastly unemployed whilst my factories cried out for employees. A road system was in place and the houses not prohibitively distant from the work, the populace generally happy. Turns out that some of the people who wouldn’t work were too young to work and I had to engage in a little child labour to get things up to speed. This half-solved the issue but not completely. Tropico 5 is not a game mired in complexity, however I feel that it’s ease of play could lead to mid-game frustrations for players who can do ‘well enough’ without understanding all the game’s systems and then hit a progress barrier they were not prepared for.

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To end on a more positive note, Tropico 5 has a fantastic soundtrack and voice acting, which although in both cases are certainly stereotypical and cheesy, both do a great job of lending extra flavour to the world and are effective in drawing the player in to leadership of their own personal island hideaway.

 

Karlos Morale

Tropico 5 is out now on PC

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