Review – Stellaris Utopia and Banks

Turning my citizens into robots was a long-term project. Just to enhance my population with cybernetics, I had to acquire mountains of Stellaris’ new resource, unity, to invest it in traditions, plus I needed to research advanced robotics technology. Then, to put the cybernetics into effect I had to research a special engineering project so gargantuan it consumed half the lifespan of one scientist. It took decades after that to acquire the necessary technologies, traditions and finally to manufacture robot bodies for every cyborg before I could go digital and upload most of my empire to their new, immortal, perfect bodies. Paradox have come up with a brilliant answer to Stellaris’ flawed mid and late game: take the best thing about the game, namely the way in which you create a species and define it through play, and spread the process out across the whole game. Stellaris’ new free update, Banks, and the accompanying paid expansion Utopia do a superb job of catapulting Stellaris into the top tier of space strategy games.

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Why I Love: Rome II’s Imperator Augustus

Imperator Augustus is a free additional campaign for Rome II which moves the timeline forward about 200 years. In 272 BC, when the grand campaign begins, Rome is a small city-state. In 42 BC, when Imperator Augustus begins, Rome has just been divided between the triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus. Its constituent parts are still the largest states in the Mediterranean. The change in setting solves some of the issues with Rome II I’ve already complained about and bolsters its strengths. It’s a fantastic campaign which I enthusiastically recommend over the standard grand campaign. Where the grand campaign is directionless even as Rome, Imperator Augustus offers you clearer structure, a more interesting and recognizable cast, and, critically, villains you can immediately identify. As well as improving Rome II’s strategic layer, Imperator Augustus makes battles better. Armies are larger and battles are more climactic. Rome II has always had the capacity to simulate vast battles, but Imperator Augustus takes full advantage of this fact from the start. Imperator Augustus is a clear improvement over the grand campaign of Rome II, and an excellent scenario worthy of your time and attention.

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Why I Love: Achievements in Europa Universalis IV

At the time of writing, I’ve just conquered Kent, the last English province on the British Isles. It took 298 years (between the game’s opening in 1444 and the final peace in 1744) but at last Ireland controls the whole of both islands. When I’ve finished integrating the land into my empire I get the message I’ve been waiting for: I’ve earned the ‘Luck of the Irish’ achievement. To get the achievement, you’ve got to be playing the game as an Irish state in ironman mode and you need to own and have cores on every province in the British Isles. It’s tough, partially since Ireland doesn’t exist in 1444. Instead, you choose one of the many independent kingdoms on the island (Kildare for me) and by making a few judicious alliances you conquer your equally small neighbours. Playing as an Irish state means constantly dodging annihilation. If you stab your friends in the back and eat your neighbours too quickly, they’re likely to band together, beat you, and divide you up. If you don’t, though, you’ll be unprepared for the moment England or Scotland decide Ireland looks like a nice place to expand.

Trying to get Luck of the Irish made for a great campaign and it speaks to what makes achievements in Europa Universalis IV so good. They ask you to succeed with states you wouldn’t normally play, or to pursue specific, unusual goals with the major players. Without achievements, EUIV’s immense sandbox is often overwhelming. In the beginning, it’s difficult to find an interesting state to play since the game’s options are so vast. In the late game, it’s hard to stay interested in a campaign without a goal. Achievements solve both of these problems: they allow Paradox, the developer, to highlight cool scenarios and they help players stay interested in their campaigns by setting clear goals.

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Gwent Impressions

One of the markers of a great game is that I think about it when I’m not playing it. The games I really love aren’t just enjoyable while I’m playing, they’re compelling. If I’m reading a history book, I sometimes find myself wondering how Europa Universalis IV implements the country or idea I’m learning about. When I’m doing something routine like ironing I’ll sometimes think about what I’ll do differently the next time I play Hitman. Gwent is a really great game. Since I got into the beta about a week ago, I’ve been thinking about how I could change my deck and what cards I’d need to build another, even when I’m not playing the game. I’ve enjoyed drawing up a list of cards for a necromancy deck based around returning units from the graveyard, and it’s been fun to improvise with the cards I already have.

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Review – Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a first-person infiltration game. In most missions, and certainly in the game’s best missions, you’re given a target such as a file or a person and told to make your way into a secure area to get at it. It’s not a stealth game in a strict sense, since the remarkable thing about it is the amount of freedom you have to approach problems. Most people will likely avoid detection and silently eliminate guards, thugs and other enemies as necessary, but it’s equally viable to go loud and wipe out the whole security staff. Much like its predecessor, Human Revolution, you decide your playstyle by choosing which augmentations to invest in as you progress through the game. Stealthy players might want to run silently or visualise enemies’ fields of view, and more action-y players might want to turn their skin into armour or stabilise their weapons. Whatever combination of the twenty or so augmentations you invest in and upgrade, you’ll have to use them inventively to infiltrate facilities from huge corporate banks to small-time criminal warehouses. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a great game and a great sequel. It rectifies many of the problems with Human Revolution, which was already among my favourite games, and builds on its considerable strengths.

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Stellaris’ Victory Conditions on RPS

An article I wrote appeared on the website Rock, Paper, Shotgun about Stellaris. It discusses the very bad victory conditions in the game, and you should read it here. I’m proud of it, and it’s been considerably improved in the editing. I have a few more thoughts about what might replace victory conditions as they exist, which I left out of the article since it detracted from the central point. Over the next little while, I’ll likely edit them into a more complete post and add them here, so look forward to that.

Review – You Died

I’ve written about Dark Souls here before, but I’ve never adequately expressed how much I adore the game. Dark Souls isn’t my favourite game, but it’s one of the few I find endlessly fascinating. I watch a few of the community’s personalities dissect the lore, I read wikis, the subreddit and follow the parts of the game which are still being uncovered and still being reported despite the game’s approaching fifth (!) birthday. This is all to say that reading You Died: The Dark Souls Companion by Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth has been a delight for me. The book ably combines personal stories of the authors’ experience with Dark Souls, interviews with community members prominent and unknown and serious discussion with people involved in the game’s development, such as its English translator. Given the range of material You Died covers, it’s an astonishingly successful book, among the finest tributes to one of the greatest games ever made.

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Celebrating Stellaris’ Spiral Galaxy

When I started playing Galactic Civilizations II, I was given good advice to turn the frequency of habitable planets from the standard ‘occasional’ to ‘uncommon.’ Without that change in the galaxy setup the first hundred turns are tedious, as you compete with AI (or slower still, human) opponents to build and micromanage your colony ships to take as many planets as possible as quickly as possible. The uncommon setting makes Gal Civ II speedier, and critically makes finding a habitable world exciting rather than routine. Stellaris’ galaxy settings aren’t as complex as what Gal Civ II provides but it also has an option which improves the game’s pacing. That option is the spiral galaxy type, which makes for a better early and mid-game as you advance from fighting or befriending empires on your star belt to encountering aliens across spiral arms. The trouble you’re bound to have with moving between arms also opens up a range of problems for players which simply aren’t present on elliptical or ring galaxies.

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