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Brilliance Encumbered

October 5th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · RTS

Game of Thrones: Genesis from Cyanide sort of landed with a feather fall this week, which is weird considering how huge the HBO series was. Cyanide was lucky to pick up the game license for a song before anyone realized just how good and profitable the show would be, but still you would think this is great marketing synergy wasted somehow. At E3, they had a trailer running, but no demos – and this was only four months from release. If there was ever a stealth launch that shouldn’t have been, this is it.

Early shots and reports of the game made it seem like just another standard RTS – old fashioned medieval stuff in a nerd-famous setting and the appropriate colour. When my good friend Bill Abner IMed me to tell me that it was, in fact, a game full of treachery, alliances, double dealing and lies, I was shocked. If you’re familiar with the books, you’ll know that noble houses and mercenary companies flipping sides is integral to the larger war story that they tell (though the books aren’t really about that in a larger sense.) Bill has been blogging some of his impressions over at NHS, and so far they are in line with what I am seeing.

GoT has a brilliant little idea – what if your units can lie to you? We have come to rely on line of sight and unit actions being performed – if not perfectly, at least honestly. For example, you can send an envoy to a neighboring town or keep in order to persuade it to join your cause. If this envoy is bribed before he gets there, then he will only pretend to do his job. It will appear at first glance that it all turned out fine, and you have a new ally. In fact, the town is still neutral or joined to an enemy and you can’t tell unless you have a spy around to make sure everything is on the up and up. There are also assassins for murder, rogues for rabble rousing and ladies for marriage; all of these non-combat units can betray you in a variety of ways or be used to encourage betrayal or uncover it in your own realm.

And then you have the army stuff, though mercenaries and captains that are disloyal may leave you or not fight as well. In short, all the uncertainty that is part and parcel of a medieval civil war with no legitimate ruler is embodied in a bunch of unsoldierly mechanics that really do have you questioning everything you see.

There are a few problems that are immediately obvious even at this early stage, though. These are problems that take what is, in fact, a brilliant little design idea and hobble it just before it can astonish you with its cleverness.

First, the interface is truly terrible. Units are so small that selecting them from the main screen is a time wasting activity and the left hand unit list isn’t much help insofar as letting you know where your different units are. Considering how slowly units move, finding them shouldn’t take a long walk either.

Second, unlike Romance of the Three Kingdoms, another great game with treason and deception, there is no connection to any of your units or any of the towns. Your captains are largely anonymous cretins, the noble ladies you marry off are generated from a farm somewhere, and an envoy that betrays you is a nuisance to be eradicated. No matter how long they have served you or what things they have done, their conversion hurts only a little bit more than when that idiot priest in Age of Empires converted your super catapult and started killing your dudes. Hero units are always loyal, which is how it should be for gameplay reasons. But there should be a greater opportunity for the treason to sting, and not just have nameless faceless towns annoy you. If this is a marriage that cements our bond, I want to know who I am marrying.

Third, and most importantly, Game of Thrones: Genesis has too much going on for you to track even half of it easily. Yes, your attention is the most important resourse in any RTS, but with five or six different types of units that can be for your or against you, and also weaken your armies PLUS the military side of the game which you need to win, it can be a lot of juggling. If I were generous, I could say the chaos is an intentional comment on the tumult of war, but it clearly isn’t that. It’s a mechanic that was introduced, and rightfully enjoyed and embraced but not entirely thought through or followed up on etiher in play testing or focus groups. As battles and maps get larger, it becomes almost impossible to both track every unit you have and the probable counter you will need to undo any nefarious damage.

And that is when the game becomes just another RTS. You pump out enough soldiers and assassins to just destroy anything in your path. The deft hand of the diplomat/spy becomes the mailed fist of the knight and guardsman not because it makes the game better, but because it makes the game faster and more comprehensible.

More on the game as I play it. I look forward to trying it in multiplayer soon, because that’s where the hatred will burn.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • James Allen

    Pretty much. I also found it pretty easy to lose track of exactly what was going on. The AI, though, is able to, making the game that much more difficult.

  • Arnar Leví

    I encountered the same problems with keeping track of everything, however as I play more of it I’m using the active pause more mercilessly. I wonder if the interesting mechanics wouldn’t have served better if they had made the game turn-based.

    In some of the more hectic battles I’m using the active pause so much that I feel like I’m trying to make it a turn-based game.

  • zipdrive

    The RPS articles made it out to be an exercise in annoyance as every action the player takes must be verified/checked/re-done because of the lack of information and the ease of switching sides.
    Looks to be a slow, repetitive, meandering game with not much in the story/campaign department.
    Does that match your experience?

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