A rather rapid dash home to Canada for the holidays and poor access to the internet (not that I would have had time) meant that I didn’t get a lot of December blogging done. But there’s always time for the annual look back at the year in strategy gaming.
I Wish I Had Played This When It Came Out and Had More Time: Men of War: Men of War is a very good Russian RTS with some cool stuff going on, but I missed it in the spring and never had time to really dig into it this fall. So though I could probably see this making a strong run for best strategy game of the year, I don’t feel I know it well enough to make that call.
Best Trend: Simplicity: The move to smart phones and consoles and social gaming sites has pushed developers to take a look at basic strategy mechanics in interesting ways. Yes, one result is an explosion of crappy tower defense games. But another result is greater exposure to strategic thinking and advance planning in games.
Worst Trend: Simplicity: The same trend also means that the genre itself is going though an identity crisis. Two of the year’s best strategy games – Dawn of War II and Demigod – were almost more like gladiatorial combat than strategy games, emphasizing small steps that had dramatic consequences. And games that pushed the sprawl and complexity that many old time strategy gamers enjoy – like Empire: Total War and Hearts of Iron 3 – stumbled a bit, though I am fond of the former and very fond of the latter. I just hope that the success of one does not drive out the other.
Worst Media Coverage of Strategy Games: What Media Coverage?: As the gaming media gets smaller, its coverage has become more centered on “event” games. So the strategy coverage you find on a general gaming site has diminished. Though IGN and Gamespot still review almost everything, previews are few and far between and analysis of the genre is mostly left to blogs, specialist sites and the like. Part of this is the console centered industry in America. But when G4 doesn’t have a best strategy game category at the end of the year, you get the sense that the genre is heading down the flight sim slope.
But as readers of this blog and listeners to TMA know, that’s not the case. The genre may be a smaller pond than it once was, but it is still full of exciting developments and thought provoking implications for what it means to game. If we gamers are heading to a pastime dominated by Michael Bay-like games, then I think a very important part of the industry now – as well as its past – will be lost or marginalized. And the gaming media, I think, has a responsibility to find some space for stuff like Dawn of Discovery, Solium Infernum, King Arthur and Field of Glory.
After all, we’re still big in Europe.
Most Disappointing Game: World War II: General Commander: I almost thought I really liked this game for a couple of days. Once I understood what I was doing, this wargame about the 1944 struggle for the Rhine was a real letdown. And it was all about two things – the AI was too predictable, marching its troops in a straight line into a Thermopylae of anti-tank guns, and the graphics were often confusing, making it impossible to really feel comfortable. On the plus side, I think that the developer has a style and an engine that could go a long way to making me interested in World War II again.
Worst Strategy Game: History: Great Battles Medieval: Slitherine used to have a very interesting real time wargame engine, even if it was yoked to uncreative strategy modes. Great Battles Medieval doesn’t even have that. You go mindlessly from battle to battle in the Hundred Years War, interrupted by clips from the History Channel and upgrade your troops. Like their Roman game (Legion Arena/Great Battles Rome), each battle is more a matter of learning the trick than it is a matter of knowing your military tactics or history. Even when I didn’t like a Slitherine game in the past, at least they made a product I could find something to admire. I didn’t even finish a single campaign in GBM.
Biggest Surprise: Anno 1404 – Dawn of Discovery: A series I’ve historically hated turned in one of the most enduring pleasures of 2009. It’s a great city builder, a decent trading game, and I’ve come to appreciate its slow pace a little more than I did for my review. It still has that European fiddliness that grates me, but I will now have to re-examine the rest of the series and see if I was just wrong.
Can I Have A Do-Over?: Empire: Total War: I still think this is a good game, but my review could have used another week of testing. It’s not an A- game (the score I gave for 1up), but still a B for me. Worse, though, has been the poor post release support. AI issues not fixed, petulant developers complaining that no one likes them and the much ballyhooed multiplayer campaign mode is still in beta almost a year after release. And we have a stand alone expansion already on the way.
Best Independent Game: Solium Infernum: And it’s been a great year for indie strategy games. AI War, apparently Gratuitous Space Battles (which I haven’t played), and even the old school pleasures of WW2 Time of Wrath. Solium Infernum, though, is an original triumph from one of the most original minds working in the strategy arena today. Vic Davis still has a lot to learn about the “boring stuff” – documentation, tutorials, interface – but I have spent more time dissecting his world and throwing emailed turns around the world than I have with almost any other game its size this year. Read my review. I stand by every word.
Best Wargame: Field of Glory: It’s not especially original, but it’s an addictive pleasure that works great in multiplayer. And they’ve just added a new battle! Hopefully they can keep up the stream of content, because that would be a big thing for me. But even as it stands, Field of Glory is an accessible and entertaining translation of the miniature rules to the PC. Slitherine deserves a lot of credit for making this work so well. Part of the secret is the simplicity of the rules themselves. The math isn’t terribly difficult, but you can do well by just thinking historically and finding a way to get a run of successful attacks, disrupting and fragmenting your opponent. Let’s get that larger army list soon, though. And maybe a random battle generator.
Strategy Game of the Year: Dawn of War II: This was not an easy pick. Demigod‘s new demigods brought me back to that game and I remembered why I liked it and how unfair we were to it in our podcast about it. Solium Infernum is genius. Sims 3 is going back to a well I love and have fallen down many times. And, in many ways, Dawn of War II represents the downsizing of the RTS in a manner I don’t necessarily appreciate.
Though it’s not as good as Company of Heroes, Dawn of War II is, I think, the archetypal Relic RTS. It is streamlined and focused without sacrificing complexity. Even the campaign set piece encounters have a tightness that is unmatched in 2009 strategy gaming. DoW2 is the product of a company that actually has a design ethos in place that is more than just licenses and explosions. The basest beggar in his meanest thing may be superfluous, but Relic would still find a way to cut it if it distracted from the entire point of the game was.
I am looking forward to the DoW2 expansion more than I am Starcraft II. More than I am Victoria 2. More than I am SupCom 2. More than I am Civ 5, and that’s not even real.
So those are 2009’s Flashies.
Nope. Still sounds stupid.