Another year, another set of worlds to destroy. It wasn’t a great year, in spite of a couple of high profile releases. Only a couple of games were good enough to distract me from me Civilization IV or Age of Empires III: Asian Dynasties for very long. And, of the relatively few wargames I played for more than a week, none really stood out as a revelation. (Well, maybe one. But we’ll get to that in a bit.)
Games I Missed But Shouldn’t Have: King’s Bounty and End War
Best Trend: User Created Content: Though this trend is epitomized by Spore, Sins of a Solar Empire is also very mod friendly. The difference between the two is mostly that user creation is the entire point of Spore. The Civ IV Fall from Heaven II has finally been completed and it can proudly stand right beside Firaxis’s own Colonization expansion as a unique and professional product – only made by consumers. There is always a risk that moddability will be used so that gamers can patch things that should not be broken – Paradox Studios often comes close to this philosophy. But I think that giving good builders good tools can only lead to good things.
Worst Trend: PC RTSes ported to Consoles: Last year’s best trend was console strategy gaming, and I still think that’s a good thing. But the painful Xbox conversions of Supreme Commander and Command & Conquer 3 did the genre more harm than good. Red Alert 3 was designed for both console and PC and it was a little better, but there are, as yet, no good reasons to move a traditional lasso-the-troops model to the 360. To do this right, you need to get out of the RTS mindset that has ruled the genre because of its native platform. It looks like we may be getting there now, with End War, Halo Wars and Storm Rise all breaking the mold. But I doubt we’ve seen the last of this very bad idea.
Worst Media Coverage of Strategy Games: Spore: Time will tell whether Spore is Will Wright’s Black & White. I still think the game has a lot to recommend it provided you walk in with the right mindset and realistic expectations. And that was the problem. Expectations for Spore were built up far beyond what any developer could meet. It was profiled on television news programs, it got reviews in mainstream print media, and was generally adored because you could make adorable things. It isn’t about evolution, either; if Wright says he has Darwin in there then he must have been reading the book upside down. The media was happy to play along with this delusion.
And then, as inevitably happens to all games – revolutionary or not – the bloom was off the rose and the internet exploded about how shallow it seemed and no one seemed to notice that Spore was selling by the bucket load. While the gaming media jumped to dub Spore their disappointment of the year, Maxis could only be happy that they reached the Sims demographic that they were targeting.
Most Disappointing Game: Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3: A colleague compared it to a Euro RTS, which he meant as an insult. It’s not that terrible. But it does bring out the worst parts of the C&C model. Too many similar units with too many special powers or alternate modes moving too quickly for too little purpose against a too stupid AI. Where Tiberium Wars was retro and fun, Red Alert 3 is fussy and thinks it’s being funny. The former is the Serious Sam of modern RTSes. The latter is Daikatana. It has great production values, corny acting aside, but no real surprises or “wow” moments. Red Alert 3 needed the Scrin, not some Voltron Japanese future.
Worst Strategy Game: Supreme Commander 360: This isn’t an easy choice, but I don’t want to just pick Great War Nations: Sparta and call it a day. That would be kicking the little guy. Same with the puzzlingly inept Geopolitical Simulator, a game that lets you offer champagne to your Minister of Defence but doesn’t bother to get multiparty politics right. But SupCom 360 is Schrodinger’s Lion – a majestic beast trapped in a box. The PC side of you knows that the powerful game is alive, but all you see on screen is a dead animal, lumbering through hour long scenarios with NATO symbols too small to make out from ten feet away. It was a bad idea from a bunch of talented people who probably knew that this wasn’t working out but had to do it anyway. I still look forward to Demigod in 2009.
Biggest Surprise: Civilization Revolution: Who knew? Yeah, the AI cheats and the game is very simple, but it works. It’s not some great breakthrough for educational gaming on a console, but it is a colorful adaptation of Civilization. It is completely separate from what is going on over in grown-up Civ IV land, but is actually reasonably faithful to an early nineties vision of the game. It’s not something I play a lot, but it’s much better than I expected it would be.
Puzzle of the Year: Civilization IV: Colonization: After months of just barely missing it, I finally won my independence in Civilization IV: Colonization. I was so happy. This is a very hard game with some minor design flaws that make it much harder than it should be, especially with the bad advice the game gives you. So why hasn’t it been patched? It’s a good game, I assume it sold fairly well. But no update or revision or anything. That’s unheard of in a game with zero core design problems.
Can I Have A Do-Over?: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII: I’d still only give it a “Try” recommendation, but once I understood everything a little better and got my hands on the proper documentation (reviewers don’t always get that, surprisingly), I liked it more than I originally wrote. It still needs an interface and graphic overhaul, especially regarding movement on the map. But it’s a deep game that serious strategy gamers need to play if only to see the alternatives coming from the other side of the world.
Expansion of the Year: Europa Universalis III In Nomine: After the unambitious Napoleon’s Ambition, In Nomine was a dramatic move forward in design, integrating both the alternate history model that Paradox has embraced and the “You Are There” moments of historical decision. Colonization and conversion were simplified, the economic model was better, decisions and missions gave energy and direction to expansion, patrols kept you from retaking all your sea zones and, most importantly, multinational and multifaith empires proved harder to keep together, appropriate for the centuries where nationalism made itself heard and religious wars dragged on.
I opened the year with some anxiety about the direction Paradox was going. And, if you bought Rome on day one, you would have been as concerned as I was. (Seriously, why did people give that game such high scores?) In Nomine showed that, given enough time, Paradox can still impress you with elegance and clarity.
Best Independent Game: Hinterland: Honestly, this is more for a lack of really outstanding candidates than anything else. Still, once it was patched up, Hinterland became one of my favorite little distractions – something to play when I only have a little bit of time and don’t want to get too involved. It’s a simple game that walks a fine line between RPG and strategy game, with a little more of the former than the latter. Titled Mill worked out some of the interface issues, and I’d like to see them push this model a little bit further.
It’s sort of sad that there haven’t been any really great independent strategy games this year, though, at least outside of the wargame world (which has its own category). If I missed one, let me know. Please.
Best Wargame: TIE Gary Grigsby’s War Between the States and War Plan Pacific: I couldn’t choose. Both are very different and appeal to different sides of my personality. War Between the States is a deep, elaborate, full scale model of the American Civil War that fits nicely between the simpler AgeOD American Civil War and more complex Western Civ Forge of Freedom. It is appealing to look at, not too hard to figure out once you understand how mobility works and large enough to almost qualify as a full fledged strategy game. In fact, it might be a strategy game and not a wargame. But for now, I’m sticking it here. It’s better than Hinterland, though, so if you want to mentally move it up a category, do it.
War Plan Pacific is new. Inspired by Avalon Hill’s Victory in the Pacific, WPP is much simpler. The Pacific Ocean is interpreted as nodes that must be controlled by the Japanese or the Allies. There are multiple victory conditions and some neat rules about reinforcement and building up bases. But it’s very simplicity means that you will be able to pick it up in an evening and still find new ways of doing things. It may not quite live up to my early bullish thoughts, but my review (when it goes up) will be very positive. If you buy one Pacific Theater game that you still need to get in box because some people still won’t do digital delivery, this is the one.
Strategy Game of the Year: Sins of a Solar Empire: It is a thing of beauty. Too much was made of it being a 4X RTS; it’s really a quite conventional RTS design just on a much larger playing field. It looked great, had the wonderful pirate bounty system, and probably makes better use of terrain than any recent earthbound strategy title; seizing choke points, building fortresses, grabbing profitable planets or asteroids far from the fray, rushing for techs that emphasized mobility to other systems, etc. The factions were all subtly different, and there may be some backstory reason for why one race has to wait longer to upgrade its crystal mines or something. But there was no campaign to teach you this. The Exploration phase had as much to do with learning the distinctions between unique ships and tech paths has it did with exploring space.
Next year we get Starcraft II (maybe), Empire: Total War, Solium Infernum (maybe) and Sims 3. So come back in a year and see which (if any) of these titles makes an appearance. By next year I hope to coin a nifty little one word award name to make myself more marketable. The Flashies?