Monday, 29 September 2014

Warhammer 40,000 - Dawn of War II

In the Emperor's name!
Continuing my reverse retrospective we go from Space Marine to Dawn of War II, the sequel to the pure RTS Dawn of War.

DoWII and its two major add-ons (Chaos Rising and Retribution) tell the story of the Blood Ravens and their homeworlds in sub-sector Aurelia through a squad-level RTS/tactical RPG. Eschewing the traditional base-building elements of an RTS, the game gives you control of one hero and a number of squads. The squads available are each represented by a sergeant and 2-3 marines, and cover each of the Marine specialities: Tactical (Sergeant Tarkus), Devastator (Avitus), Assault (Thaddeus) and Scouts (Cyrus). Later in the game, you also gain access to a Dreadnought, that has and needs no backup.

The action opens on the desert world of Calderis, before opening out to include the jungle planet Typhon and the sprawling hive world of Meridian. This is an elegant aesthetic decision, as it starts the player out in the largely empty landscapes of Calderis, then hits you with the lush greens of Typhon before moving to the intricate cityscapes of the hive world, and finally mixing it all up by dropping Gigeresque Tyranid structures all over the shop. The initial enemies are Orks, then Eldar, and finally the Tyranids, as the ultimate goal becomes the defeat of an incoming Hive Fleet.

The gameplay is very satisfying, and the tactical combat element is especially rewarding of thought. The squads are distinctive, each with their own strengths and weaknesses: Tarkus is the tank, Avitus ranged DPS, Thaddeus melee DPS and Cyrus infiltration and sniping. Thaddeus and the Force Commander also have charge abilities which are critical in the later game for pinning the more numerous enemy and keeping them from overwhelming your troops. The game engine makes cover your best buddy, and the context-sensitive move controls make it easy to exploit it.
Mmm. Flamethrower...

The RPG elements come in the sections between missions, when you get to upgrade and equip your troops. There is also degree of mission selection/. Critical missions have to be done, but there are optional missions which can not always all be completed, forcing you to prioritise depending on your play style and the rewards for each mission.

The game's greatest problem is a slightly shaky integration of some of the late game options. In particular, switching your squads into Terminator armour messes with some of their abilities. Since Terminators (and the Dreadnought) also smash through cover and operate best at close range, bringing them in tends to reduce your strategy to 'close in and punch faces'.

Chaos Rising adds two more locations, the space hulk Judgement of Carrion and the frozen world of Aurelia, and unsurprisingly throws chaos cultists and marines into the mix as adversaries. The Chaos Marines are among the toughest adversaries in the game, having functionally the same strengths and weaknesses as your own Blood Ravens makes them much more challenge to counter tactically. The game also introduces chaos taint, a trait which can provide your squads with cool new abilities at the cost of becoming rampaging demon beasts. In the mid-game, one of your sergeants (or the techmarine, if you keep your sergeants Chaos-free) goes rogue and it turns out that your Chapter Master is a rampaging would-be demon beast, leading to the game's downer ending.
Best hat.

Retribution concludes the story with a battle royale across the sub-sector, climaxing in a smackdown with the Chapter Master-turned-demon prince. It's new planets are the wreck of Typhon after an Exterminatus fleet blows it to bedrock and the equally (but less recently) exterminated planet Cyrene.

Retribution also allows you to play as any one of six factions: Blood Ravens, Imperial Guard, Ork Freebooters, Tyranids, Chaos Marines and Eldar. Each faction has four heroes, who fight without squads, and additionally has units which can be built/summoned from base structures present in the missions. The RPG element is greatly simplified and the RTS played back up again. The heroes are roughly split in each group into melee DPS, ranged DPS, caster/healer and sneak, although the Chaos Marines lack a sneak, the Blood Ravens' replace the healer with a techmarine 'summoner' and the Tyranids just get a Hive Tyrant.

Sadly, the campaign is very linear, with little or no variation in missions between the races, meaning that the tactics employed vary, but not the nature of the threat or objective. It would have been good to see a mixture of the two.

Dawn of War II is an interesting and satisfying game, not least because it actually presents three very different playing experiences built on the same engine (more counting the variant styles of Retribution). It's not perfect, but all in all it's a keeper for me.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Being the first in a kind of reverse-retrospective of Warhammer 40K computer games.
I am an Ultramarine! I laugh in the face of peril, at a Codex-approved pitch and timbre.
The third iteration of the Warhammer 40,000 RPG is Deathwatch, in which you get to play Space Marines, members of the Imperium of Mankind's elite corps of genetically enhanced warrior-monks, which has always struck me as a terrible idea for a roleplaying game. It would make a great skirmish game, however, and it certainly has the makings of a terrific shooter.

Nobility, honour, and bloody great guns.
Enter Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, from Relic Entertainment/THQ.

Relic and THQ were already known in the 40K community for the Dawn of War series. The original Dawn of War was a real-time strategy game in the mould of Command and Conquer, while Dawn of War II combined a small-unit RTS with elements of tactical roleplaying. Both games were well-received and expectations for Space Marine, a third-person shoot-and-slash, were high.

The previous games had come to focus strongly on the Blood Ravens, a Marine Chapter created specifically for the games. The Blood Ravens are marked by a strong sense of individuality mingled with a reverence of tradition and discipline, which makes them uniquely suited to be the leads in a game with a single character focus. However, for whatever reason - possibly the tangling of canon created by the multiple possible endings of the last expansion for DoWII - the Blood Ravens feature only in a small cameo in Space Marine, and instead the lead is Captain Titus of the Ultramarines.

The Ultramarines are the Marines' Marines, religiously devoted to the doctrinal guidelines laid down by their founder in the Codex Astartes. They are... not fun. This makes them an odd choice of lead, but then it turns out that Captain Titus is, basically, the worst Ultramarine ever. He improvises, deviates from Codex doctrine, switches between assault, tactical and heavy-weapon loadouts on a whim, and actively encourages his newly-minted Marine sidekick to regard the sacred Codex as 'guidelines'. It makes him a more interesting character, but it does beg the question why make him an Ultramarine in the first place.
Turn, duck, EVISCERATE!

But anyway, enough of the fluff; let's talk about the meat.

The basic gristle of the game is pretty slickly done. You can walk, run or combat roll; you can aim (slowing movement), or shoot from the hip, or use the right mouse button to attack with your melee weapon. Your health meter is surrounded by a shining border representing your armour, which apparently regenerates. Once that runs out, your actual health drops off alarmingly fast. You can use a stun and execute option to regain health (which is a bit odd and more suited to the vampiric Blood Angels). Meanwhile a Fury metre builds to provide a burst of super-powered melee or slow-time sniping once you've killed enough enemies.

The combat rocks... the first few times. Eventually though a sort of fatigue sets in, and you come to treasure the mini-boss enemies just because they break the monotony. Aside from a few opportunities for sniper fire, each fight tends to begin with grenades and sweeping automatic fire at neck height, then progress rapidly to close up work. There are a few manoeuvre variations in close combat, but you really have to look them up; the game doesn't do much to help with combos, so for the most part it's all the basic set and repeat as needed.

If the game had more variety elsewhere, this would be fine, but it's actually incredibly linear. Titus' inability to climb or jump limits him to a single path through the world, and forces a specific approach to every problem. Feel like flanking the Ork horde and laying down a withering fire from cover? Yeah, only if it's one of those levels; otherwise you're pretty much standing behind a projecting piece of wall and trying to whittle them down before you go to melee. Conversely, if you'd rather melee the heavily-armed Chaos Marines and the map is a long, long hall, don't think you might find your way around.

The game also lacks a context-sensitive environment; you can bump into scenery, but you can't stick to it, lean around or over it, climb on it or vault it. In a world where sandbox games are the norm and even linear shooters are represented by the likes of Gears of War (aka 'Fun with Cover: the Computer Game'), this feels like a huge absence. Maybe standing there and taking your hits is more Ultramarine, but as a result the game has little to no variation, which severely limits the possibilities for repeat play.

Space Marine represents the ultimate evolution of Relic/THQ's 40K games, bizarrely from greater variety to less. It has fun moments, but ultimately you lack agency, making a only few limited weapon choices (you can only carry up to four ranged weapons at a time) in the game. It's a shame, as it is nearly a very good game.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

I'm a privileged middle class white European male; ask me how

Both of these men are too damned pretty to be cast as the
'everyman', but that's not why one of them would be
overlooked by a Hollywood producer.
So, I was reading an article by a successful author, as I sometimes do, and also as I sometimes do, I recognised a close analogue to something in my own experience; something that suddenly felt worth talking about.

This is the article, by Kameron Hurley: It's called Why I Stopped Writing About White People; which is an attention getter if nothing else. I won't summarise it, because it's short enough that I should just let you read it yourself.

Okay? I'll try not to just repeat what she said.

If I had any serious money, I would belong to the single most privileged chunk of modern, global society. I'm middle class (I shop in Waitrose and buy their Essential range parmesan cheese), white (well, somewhere between a quarter and an eighth Indian, but barely enough to get stopped at airports), European (English, God help me) straight male (not very macho, but definitely Y-carrying, hetero/cis and happy that way). Okay, I'm a polyamorous gamer, but that's small potatoes.

I say this not as an excuse, but as background for the fact that as a matter of habit, I used to, as Hurley describes, write about white people all the time. It was the natural thing for me to do; I was surrounded by white people. It might have been different if I'd lived in London, but I didn't want to live or go to university in London; I don't like cities. Instead I went to Cambridge (I know, I know; hateful aren't I), which is not exactly a hotbed of racial integration (less from deliberate racism than from the inherent racism which derives from the continuing entanglement of race with the British class system.)

There was a UFO church guy - I forget his name just at the moment; 1960s or 70s era, big hair and porn 'stache - who claimed to have been taken on a spaceship where the aliens created beautiful women of all types for him to make love to. Now, that's creepy as fuck, but also inherently racist, because the types he described were blonde, red-head, brunette, black and Asian; because black and Asian have no subdivisions. Now, I reckon that guy was always going to be a creepy bastard, but it's a fact that you define and discriminate the world based on experience. If there's only one black kid in the class, then that's a defining physical characteristic.

Greater integration at the school stage would not only lead to greater understanding between different cultures and races, it would also do wonders for our creative writing skills, because when your inner and proximal friendship groups include a spectrum of humanity, the rather lazy descriptor 'black' ceases to be of use. For me, that level of awareness only really came when I was teaching in a school which had pupils from Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Mongolia, to name but a few, as well as a housed Romany family whose daughter was the palest thing I had ever seen.

This is probably why it was during my teaching career that I looked back over one of my old science fiction projects - an epic bit of world-building that I have yet to set a satisfactory story in - and realised that almost all of the historical figures I'd written up were white. I was kind of horrified by what I written. There was a multinational Mars mission with two non-Europeans, and one of them was a white American.

So, I changed it, and at first it felt pretty token, and I was more or less sure I'd be discarding the project in shame in the very near future. But then I started thinking about the wider effect. Without planning it, I'd changed one of the pivotal families in the setting to half-black, half-white, made French the dominant language of the Martian working class and begun to derive entirely new categories of class and race based on origin rather than ethnicity. I even took a good long look at the aliens and started to move them away from planets of hats towards more rounded and fully-realised cultures. I'm a trained archaeologist, for fuck's sake; I have no excuse for sloppy culture-building.

At about the same time, I started revising some other stuff, addressing the sexism inherent in just about any mythic base (there are precious few major queens in myth and legend, and most of them don't end well). It was a time of much reflection and consideration.

These days, I'm a lot more careful. I confess, I get jittery about writing other cultures if I don't have the time to research them thoroughly, but I'm also aware that playing it safe (by sticking to 'what I know') is both creatively limiting and intrinsically racist.

Besides, if I wanted to 'write what I know', I wouldn't write fantasy and science fiction in the first place.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Goblin Quest

So, I don't back a lot of Kickstarters, on the grounds of being a modestly penurious father, but this one I didn't hesitate.

Goblin Quest: A tabletop game of fatal ineptitude is the work of columnist and designer of quick and quirky tabletop games (and easy-to-run, high-concept LARP) Grant Howitt. I'm quite a fan of his work in general, there's a heck of a line up of guest artists and writers, and the original short rules I recall being pleasantly anarchic, but specifically what's motivated me to urge you all to back this little beauty is the £15,000 stretch goal: Sean Bean Quest.

"Will Sean Bean ever survive all the way to the end of a film? Find out as you take on the role of five Sean Beans (in sequence, not in parallel) and attempt to endure the slings and arrows of the script. Gruff northern accents are a requirement."
Now, I don't know about you, but I'm dying to know how that could even work. How can you play characters consecutively as a workable game? And what is the trademark status of the name 'Sean Bean'?

So come on, throw a little money Grant's way and let's make Sean Bean Quest a reality/legal nightmare for our age.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Secret Santicore

Because I fervently believe that I work well under pressure, I am doing this thing:

It's a game-based version of Secret Santa, in which you request a roleplaying resource and undertake to deliver one in return, requests being distributed by the organisers.

Click the pic to join in.

Monday, 1 September 2014

#RPGaDAY - Well, what was the point of all that then?

So, RPGaDAY has been and gone, and what have we learned?

Well, we've learned, I think, that we love games, and that sometimes we forget why and how much this is the case.

This month has happened to be a month in which I played precisely no games. I had intended to go to the Norwich, Hatfield and Cambridge IoD games, maybe even the National, and play at least one session each of two separate Skype/TT campaigns. In the end, my Dad got ill, the Norwich games were moved, my daughter came back from Scotland early, my girlfriend had a coffee afternoon in Norwich, if I hadn't been too broke for the National I'd have ended up out of pocket as manflu kept me from attending, and neither Skype game could be scheduled (although both have reasonably firm dates in September). I went to one game, and that was the one that I run, and am getting burned out on.

As tends to happen, this has dampened my enthusiasm for the games involved as I feel out of touch, but thanks to RPGaDAY I am still pumped at the idea of being involved in games. I want to play stuff, I want to run stuff, and that comes from talking all month about exactly what sort of things I want to be doing as I go forward.

I also hope that it will give me some momentum to keep writing blog posts. If nothing else, I owe MattMatt a post on what puts the super in superhero.

Props to David Chapman for the concept, and to all those who've been writing this month.