Weekend Gaming – The Confusion (not a video game)

A thought keeps recurring. This thought goes something like: Take a break from video games for a little bit. If anything, for as long as it takes to finally – FINALLY – finish reading The Confusion. You’ve only got 150 more pages to go. Neal Stephenson is your literary comfort food. Instead of poking around, aimlessly playing stuff from your steam library, return to Mr. Stephenson’s world and dwell happily therein.

Not a Video Game

Not a Video Game


But then I read about new updates made to Thea: The Awakening which perks my curiosity. Or, I get pulled back into the undertow of the twin-stick madness of Waves, of which I crushed my previous high-score of 93mil with a staggering 1.2bil. And then fellow ButtonMashers put a little bug in my ear about Hex: Shards of Fate, and I tinker with that for a little bit. And then I just randomly booted up the Risk-like domination game Lux Delux. And then I wanted to give Prison Architect another shot. And then I found it Bastion is 5 years old today, so I wanted to revisit that…

And then… And then…
And then…

I normally don’t like just skipping along the surface like this. I like to be able to dig into a game. And while every single one of the game mentioned above are totally legit, I haven’t allowed myself to gain any traction with them. This can lead to underwhelming and unsatisfying gametime.

Maybe it is time to heed this recurring thought. This need to tip the scales in favor of the printed word over video games always seems to happen mid-late summer for me. All things considered, perhaps this is the weekend where I make a clean break from the desktop and burrow into the reading chair to finally finish the last fraction of The Confusion.

Play doubly hard for me this weekend, dear reader. I’m sitting this one out.

Writer of Words, Shaver of Heads - Neal Stephenson

Writer of Words, Shaver of Heads – Neal Stephenson

Thea: The Awakening ‘demo’ now available

It is with utmost pleasure and anticipation that I would like to announce that there is now available a demo for MuHa Games’s Thea: The Awakening.

But, this is not just a demo in the traditional sense. This is not just a glop of the first several hours of gameplay which is then abruptly ended by the game sending you to the Steam store page. In a fantastic gesture of confidence MuHa Games has made the entire game available for a trial run, albeit the Early Access version from last fall. But, even in that, even in its nascent stages, Thea was, and continues to be, something really special.

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It is a hard game to describe without going into details because it does not conform to any archetype. To say it is a 4x would be wildly misleading, for there is no expanding or exploitation. To say it is a grand strategy would be erroneous because in-game events can suddenly bring your campaign to a bloody, and sometimes unfair, ending. And yet, to call it a Roguelike would only hold true in that any progress made in a campaign – any XP – however piddly in amount, is accumulated to help in unlocking and leveling up new overlords to play as in subsequent playthroughs.

To say it is a tactical game can likewise be misleading because all encounters – whichever of the half dozen types one may be – are not handled in a traditional point-and-click hex arena but rather in an innovative and fun table-top card game setting.

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The survival aspect of Thea is my favorite part of the game. The hunting and gathering, the resource management, the personnel management, the crafting – it is an integral part of gameplay and not just utility, another thing you have to handle and worry about. The crafting, especially, is more than just lumber + iron = sword. All the basic resources have several derivatives with values that can have tremendously different effects on the attributes of what is being crafted. These items have very real and functional numbers that can aid in gathering more resources or talking your way out of an encounter or attracting different types of populace to your single village. The choices made in crafting and equipping matter, and…

… And there I’ve done it; I’ve gone into details. #sorrynotsorry

Thea: The Awakening is just one of those games that is best learnt by playing because it is the sum of so many parts. It is a brave endeavor. And the love that MuHa has shown for it – the growth and free DLCs, updates and features – is only making the game that much greater.

Even if the ‘demo’ is the entire game in its Early Access state, it is still but a tantalizing taste to what MuHa has done to it since official release, and, no doubt, what they have in store.

The demo is available on the game’s Steam page.

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Weekend Gaming – Vietnam ’65

Two weeks ago I posted an idea about how to buy games during the Steam summer sale ‘16. Last week I explained how I almost strayed from this idea but mustered the resolve to continue forward and to spend and play wisely during Steam’s bi-annual extravaganza.

I am here now to report that between last week and now my plan has gone completely and utterly fubar. The third portion of my meticulously mapped idea fell apart. None of the games I planned on buying were purchased. And instead of piecemealing my acquisitions, I went ahead and hoarded like a buffoon – the complete opposite of what I had so steely resolved against doing!

My plan was disrupted by the discovery of a curated list over at wargamer.com. Here, Alex Connelly posted a game recommendation once a day for nine days – And I tell you what, they are fantastic recommendations! Each post gave a succinct run-down of what the game is, what makes it unique, why it succeeds, and how much its Steam discount is. As someone who is just now dabbling in the war game subgenre, I found this intel very useful and exciting, and I acted on it…

This weekend I shall be diving deeper into the intricacies of Connelly’s day #2 recommendation, Vietnam ‘65. It is a wonderfully designed game that places you in a very narrow time and place during a specific and rather unpopular war. vietname65 Because the view is so focused the game only gives you a handful of units to be familiar with. But these sparse number of units each have tremendous utility in trying to
pacify charlie along the Ho Chi Minh trail, all the while trying to garner political support for the war back home – Very cool ideas in this game. This is also my first exposure to a counterinsurgency game, and I am loving it, though it is easy to fumble around with the UI sometimes, enacting very costly, disastrous misclicks.

You’ve done your job, Connelly! By intention or not, you’ve captured the interest of a fellow gamer. Wargames are a subgenre that I plan on reading about, if not trepidatiously. Wargamers, at least from what I have seen thus far, are very particular about certain aspect of war games – sometimes trumping even the game itself. This is a broad generalization, I know, but still, this is a whole gaming ecosystem that has a history and audience that demands attention. Am I smart enough, is my attention strong enough, to make headway? We’ll have to see.

What are you paying this weekend?

Weekend Gaming – Renowned Explorers: International Society

Last week I posted the idea of a more moderate and thoughtful approach to the Steam summer sale. Instead of scooping up mounds of discounted games I proposed that you piecemeal your purchases based on the type of game it is rather than the discounted price. Doing so would thus encourage wise spending and keep Steam backlogs from bloating even more.

And then, in that same post, after breaking down the idea, I outlined three games that I would personally buy while adhering to this idea: Nuclear Throne, Renowned Explorers: International Society, Offworld Trading Company.

REIS

Well, as it turns out, things have not gone exactly as planned. I haven’t totally flown off the rails, but I have had to make a couple course corrections. It all went awry from the very beginning because Nuclear Throne is not on sale. The game is still a mere $10 but to buy it without an accompanying green discount tag sort of defeats the purpose of participating in the Steam sale at all. So, right at the onset, we had a wrinkle. This unforeseen detail threatened to derail my entire plan as I then aimlessly continued to browse the storefront and be seduced by all those pretty discounts.

NAY! I declared. Begone, ye vile temptress! Stick to the plan!

With great resolve (I’m so brave) I skipped over Nuclear Throne and went straight to Renowned Explorers, having already anticipated that the bulk of the sale would be spent playing this. And I have, and will continue to do so into this holiday weekend. It is a great game with a light-hearted style and a surprisingly deep strategic layer. It takes a little bit of playing to develop your sea-legs but once you get the feel for the game, once you can sort out all the fiddly bits, it is full steam ahead!

Admittedly, there have been several brief occasions during the last two or three hours of gametime that I thought I’d had enough, that I didn’t want to explore the same places albeit with a different crew. But then I spun a lucky roll on the game’s ‘adventure wheel’ or had a close call in an encounter or recognized a small detail in character animation, and the game dispels any whiff of gamer’s fatigue.

The attention to detail in Renowned Explorers is a joy – From character animations to the soundtrack, right down to the soundbites of tokens being collected. It is all so satisfying. The tactical encounters truly are a unique kind of dance with the enemy, with actions whose effects can ripple into subsequent turns. Characters are not merely separate entities with their own specific stats; they have their own tendencies and narrative that can thread itself throughout the campaign, sometimes, for example, relating to a specific location of an expedition, boons of which benefit the entire team.

Yes. The components of Renowned Explorers web themselves together, and it has snagged me. The game is equal parts exploration, risk-taking, greed, tactical slow-dance. And I am in it to win it.

What are you playing this weekend?

Steam Summer Sale 2016: A New Approach to Buying

It can neither be confirmed or denied – but we are all as sure as shineola – that the Steam summer sale will begin on Thursday of this week.

Steam has altered the way it handles these sales over the past two years, opting for a more straight-forward approach to providing discounts without all those ‘micro deals’ ala, daily deals, bundle deals, flash deals; the discount that is assigned to a game on the first day is the discount that shall remain for the duration of the sale.

This approach is definitely not as dynamic or, perhaps, as exciting as the hustle-and-bustle sales, and this trend seems to show that discounts aren’t generally as steep, either. I pooh-pooh’d this at first having found favor in the excitement of waking in the morning and checking what flash deal popped up while I fitfully slept and dreamed dreams of backstroking in all pool filled with all those green discount tags. Likewise, I relished in the opportunity to snatch up the deep, deep discounts, regardless of whether or not I really, truly wanted the game. And let us not forget the ‘encore’ sale when it was that last day scramble to scoop up everything on your wishlist now that the possibility for flash deals and daily deals are gone. Indeed. Steam sales were a time of a weird kind of methodological indulgence.

SteamNO

I have since reversed my opinion of this new, more temperate Steam sale setup because it coincides so nicely with a personal decision I’ve made concerning acquiring new games. The rule I’ve made for myself is thus: I shall buy a game when, and only when, I am prepared to immediately devote the time and attention to striving to complete it or have my ‘fill’ of it.

It is a simple rule and one that I hope will be effective in preventing me from making impulsive, money-dumping, backlog-bloating purchases. And now that Steam sales are more streamlined, I can adopt a different kind of methodology when it comes to buying, one where the games are in charge, not the discount tags.

Steam sales, however the setup, are traditionally about two weeks long. Two weeks is quite the chunk of time, especially when it comes to playing video games – there is the potential of significant turn-around. I foresee my gametime during the two weeks of this summer sale to be akin to a sort of 3-part stage production, and the players – the dramatis personae, if you will – are a select few items from my Steam wishlist whose purchase will be methodically timed based on what type of game it is. This way I can still take advantage of the succulent discounted prices but still hold true to the golden rule that I have set for myself.

ACT I – Nuclear Throne

Day one of the sale will begin with a BANG as Nuclear Throne blasts its way into my Steam library. I am in need of a new game with some gritty crunch. For a while there I was embittered in the Nuclear Throne vs. Enter the Gungeon debate. The former is more appealing because it places precedence in firepower over exploration, which the latter handles inversely. Nuclear Throne sounds like equal parts fun and enraging, but a game where player skill waxes strong with every failed run – signs of a true roguelike. And, like a roguelike, there is the possibility that the game will consume me, or the very real possibility that I will throw my hands up in exasperation, never to return. What better way to kick off the Steam summer sale by playing a wild card?

ACT II – Renowned Explorers

Whatever modicum of exploration sidestepped by choosing Nuclear Throne in the first act will be more than made up for with Renowned Explorers. This looks like one charming little exploration game, one whose obstacles are fun to overcome. I find much appeal in how many variables there are in just about every aspect of the game – from party composition to enemy encounters. Decisions need to be made on the fly. The historical setting is also a personal plus. The whole game looks upbeat and colorful. It might be one that I play with my 8-year old son. Depending on how well I recieve Nuclear Throne, Renowned Explorers may likely take up the bulk time of the Steam sale.

ACT III – Offworld Trading Company

Offworld Trading Company sounds fascinating. Certain games in the grand strategy or 4x genre may have various victory conditions, ways to win other than painting the map your color. But, let’s be honest: These other ways aren’t nearly as much fun. OTC grabs hold of these ‘other’ ways and runs with it, making non-military your only way of winning. Indeed. Victory comes by buying and selling, sabotaging and dominating the central goods market. And from the sound of it, matches have the potential of being fierce, intense and brief. I like this idea. The game sounds like it requires practice and intuition, especially in multiplayer. This is the perfect type of the game to carry me onwards after the summer Steam sale has ended.

There is also the very real possibility that I will pick up a handful of DLCs during this sale. This is an exception to the golden rule stated above since I have already put the time into the base games required for the DLCs. Most notably I will pick up a few for Dishonored and the “Shifters” expansion for Endless Legend. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll catch up on some Crusader Kings 2 expansions, but I’m honestly just a little burnt out from Paradox games – we’ll see… Steam sales do strange things to otherwise lucid and logical people.

Weekend Gaming – Grim Fandango

I need a break of Paradox games. It feels like these past three months have been exclusive to either Victoria 2 or Hearts of Iron IV. I am a weary of clicking through menus and moving sprites around from province to province.

… and don’t even get me started on diplomacy. I have always bristled at diplomacy in strategy games, just in a general sort of way. Sometimes this bristling is more severe than others. In my most recent HoI4 campaign as Germany, I became full-on aggro porcupine.

In what I called the West vs. East campaign, I had the idea of starting as fascist Germany then going democratic, joining the allies and facing off against the Soviet bear. I needed some diplomatic savvy to accomplish this, and Germany, out of any other country on the map, has the political power to do so. But, instead of diplomacy being another avenue of strategy, In HoI4 it often feels like hurdles, obstacles that we need to work around. My plan to reform Germany and join the good guys was stopped cold by every ally nation having an unpurgeable ‘Base Reluctance’ towards me, healthy positive opinion towards me be damned – do you not see that I have dethroned Hitler and given power to the people, UK? Do you not see my firm stance against the wall of communism just east of my borders, USA? Do you not hear me barking these rhetorical questions at you, game? C’maaaawnnn!

This very specific and contextual situation was enough to prompt me to take a gigantic step back and, seeing how much Paradox-ing I’ve been doing, realize that I need to shift my focus to something entirely different… and praise be to an industry with the options and flavor and history to accommodate such a decision!

The last time I played Grim Fandango I had to put the compact disc into a plastic casing and then insert that into the CD-ROM. So, that was, what, a million years ago?

GF
So much time has passed since then that I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly what makes Double Fine’s remaster a remaster – certainly not the cut scenes! Despite this, the game has aged well due mostly to its unique (mesoamerican meets film-noir) setting and the strong story and voice acting. Grim Fandango has a singular charm that makes it both fun and engaging. The key to this game, from what I can remember, is to talk to everyone about everything, to parse those dialog branches down to their very barebones – to get to the point where initiating a conversation with another character immediately and automatically leads to leave-taking.

Luckily, like I said, the story is fantastic and the voice acting is superb. So the process of developing a conception of its afterlife world is never dull and is critical to cluing you in to what exactly you’re supposed to do with all those items your skeletal protagonist has stashed in his suit jacket. Grim Fandango is one of the very, very rare games where I kind of, sort of, care about the story and setting in equal parts to mechanics and gameplay. And I kind of have a thing for art deco. Neato.

What are you playing this weekend, Menso?

Weekend Gaming – Hearts of Iron IV

Hearts of Iron IV is the first Paradox game that I plan on following from the get-go. Historically, with most other PDX releases, I show up late to the party and then decide which group to mingle with. I delay my arrival just enough so that the party can establish itself, reach a sort of self-sufficiency, and attract other interesting elements. That way, when I get there, the awkward part has long since faded, the munchies are out and the beverages are frosty.

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In other words, I waited to buy, for example, Crusader Kings 2 until 1) It was on sale, and 2) there were a few expansions and patches to smooth things out and add variety. I’ve done the same thing for EU4, Victoria 2, and EU3.

… but not with Hearts of Iron IV. Something about this game pricks me more than any other PDX game – and I am pretty smitten with Vicky2. It is the only matter in recent memory that I allowed myself to get hyped about (My cynicism can become rather crippling sometimes). Months before release I made the conscious decision to be apart of this game, to go along for the ride, and so far the price of admission has been well worth it. Following the message boards has been an absolute ride. I anticipate fantastic improvements and additions, aka, a little more depth in certain areas of the game, aka, stronger and more real numbers. Plus, any reason to not immediately rush fascism would be pretty not stupid as well.

For this weekend I plan on building my East Vs. West campaign, to see how many nations I can get away with annexing as fascist Germany before turning coat, going democratic, joining the allies and bulldozing the Soviets and Chinese into the Pacific. At this point I’m unsure about what to do with Italy. If they remain Axis, perhaps just let the UK sink the entire peninsula. We could turn them into Allies as well but I don’t think we would have the timeframe for that. Or maybe we’d just let them be an additional front that the commies would have to deal with. Decisions. Decisions.

What are you plaything this weekend? Decisions. Decisions.

Hearts of Iron IV, review of.

Hearts of Iron IV is like a phoenix rising into a new era. As cliche and perhaps cringe-worthy as the analogy can be bear with me as I declare that it is an appropriate and evocative representation of what the game is and where it is coming from. It is a whole new entity, billowing fresh ideas and approaches into a strategy game setting that so desperately needs it. It is rising from the ashes of its predecessors who are obtuse, demand hard numbers and are sticklers for historical accuracy… and they still seem to have an influence, which in and of itself is not a bad thing.

The game provides the opportunity to be an active participant in the largest war known to man. And, dadgum, is it exciting to be apart of. Despite running its course during the relatively small time frame of 1936-1948, it is likewise surprising just how involved preparing for war can be.

Built from the ground up, Hearts of Iron IV implements some interesting design elements using mechanics that are already familiar in war strategy games. Some work elegantly to give the player some elbow room to work. Others are a little harder to conceptualize or even seem to work against the player. This type of conflict in the mechanics, this uneven approach to numbers, seems to thread itself throughout all of the game as it tries to define itself, trying to decide whether it is a WW2 simulation like its forebearers or a sandbox grand strategy based in the WW2 era.

The research trees provide advancement in highly effective military doctrine, upgrades to units, and increased industrial efficiency. The time needed to complete research varies and can be shortened in many ways. Conversely, penalties to completion time are applied whenever you strive to research beyond the yearly timeframe. All of this is nothing new to strategy games.

Hearts of Iron 4 provides an additional research-like function that aims to orient the grand designs for your nation: National Focus. Constructed similarly to the research trees, though far more elegant and involved, National Focus is a central step-by-step plan to easing your nation’s progress to color history.

It is what makes your nation, and every other nation on the map, one massive variable to the writ of history. While there is a ‘generic’ National Focus tree for most of the nations, which is admittedly quite underwhelming, the eight major powers have their own specific trees, particular to their place and status in 1936. The possibilities here can be quite compelling:

Germany sets out to reclaim what of theirs was lost… and then some. The Soviet Union is playing catchup, exactly how this is accomplished and who this exploits is a giant question mark. Italy is striving to extend beyond the center of the earth, which direction they go is uncertain. France is the wild card possessing the weight needed to sway global ideology. USA is isolated and recovering from an economic depression and must decided which cause to put its abundance of resources. The UK has much to consider with its global empire, which, if not handled properly, may very well be the nation’s downfall. Finally, Japan may turn its focus inward to find a spiritual center and decide which military aspect to preemptively thrust forth.

Example of the Italy national focus tree.

Example of the Italy national focus tree.

Progressing through the National Focus tree is not required. But each focus is a tremendous asset to your campaign; omitting them from your strategy will only do you harm.

At this point I would be remiss if I do not declare the following: The National Focus trees do not railroad your campaign. They are constructed in a way that is flexible but still involve careful consideration and outlook. Becoming familiar with the layout of these trees, especially for the major nations, is critical in your approach to each and every history-smearing campaign you play.

Hearts of Iron 4 certainly provides the outlook and opportunity with the national foci. The real work comes with logistically making these crazy plans a reality. Sure, you have armed forces to do the talking for you. But getting boots onto the field and planes into the sky is half the challenge. In part because of some of the game’s rather particular and, if anything, shaky design choices when it comes to infrastructure.

You have no national treasury, there are no tax sliders to futz with. Your currency does not come in yen, pounds or dollars. Your nation’s war machine is funded by natural resources, supplies made from these resources, military experience, and political power used to boost your own infrastructure through very effective advisors or to exert your influence on other nations.

Concerning industry and production, there a few conceptual hurdles that a new player will have to overcome – Strange blips of logic that, in a sim-like game, either overlook hard, real numbers or deprive you of strategic opportunities.

The first example is how the game handles trading. Chances are well enough that your nation will not have sufficient of the game’s six natural resources in order for your production lines to run optimally. To overcome this shortage you can set up a trade with a nation that produces the desired resource. For the cost of one factory/8 units of a resource, you can then acquire what you need. This ratio cannot be adjusted.

The problem comes from the fact that the quantity of these resources are not logically assigned. In a game where divisions of troops are numbered in the tens-of-thousands, naval units have a water displacement rating, and defensive bunkers take two weeks and three days to build, it is curious that, for example, Denmark has ten aluminum. Ten… tons? Ten… extraction points? Ten… of what exactly? What is the quantifier here? Ten, let’s just stick with ‘units’, I suppose. This is a figure that is just kind of assigned to your nation…

And this is not some asinine, nitpicky observation. Because these numbers are so finite, they are that much more precious. But short of a ‘closed economy’ trade law, which no nation I have played begins with, there is nothing stopping any other nation from brokering a trade deal with you. Making matters worse, you have zero say in how much of what goes to whom. To say this is a setback would be an understatement.

Currently, the trading system is a type of automation that, playing as a major nation or not, simply doesn’t fly with me. A nation’s factories are critical and should not be flung around all willy-nilly like. Likewise, trade deals could be much more engaging if diplomacy were more directly involved. And if the quantities of resources were more ‘real’ you could broker bulk deals or trade resources for equipment and armaments.

The design for production lines is logical and rather elegant. Each production line uses the natural resources on hand to manufacture its assigned product. The longer one line produces, say, tactical bombers the more efficient that that line becomes at producing them. When you complete the research for an upgrade to that particular tactical bomber you can assign it to that production line at a fraction of an efficiency stab. If you begin that upgraded model in a new line or swap it out with another production line the efficiency stab will be far greater when compared to the aforementioned production line. The process is streamlined and intuitive. This is another successful design example that Paradox uses to encourage thoughtful, deliberate planning – planning which can include creating variants of gear that has already been researched! Waste not. Want not.

Example of starting USA production lines

Example of starting USA production lines

On the other hand, there is a massive design oversight concerning what happens with the products after they roll off the production lines: Your national storage.

Firstly, let it be known that you do not stockpile natural resources. Any excess resource not plugged into your production lines are essentially wasted.

Stockpiling occurs when products, such as infantry equipment, roll off of your production lines. If your fielded troops are already armed, the infantry equipment are then stashed into your national stockpile. Unlike natural resources, the stockpile deals in much bigger and more realistic numbers. Stockpiles can be in the green by so much as tens-of-thousands in supplies, planes, tanks, et al.

The next logical line of inquiry can be as such: Where is the stockpile? What physical location on the map houses all this precious surplus gear? Where are my enemy’s stockpiles? The answer: It doesn’t exist.

Any surplus gear is magically stored in the aether, it only exists as a number – much in the same as the natural resources. A surplus in stockpile will materialize only when upgrades are needed in the production lines or reinforcements are called upon. This almost seems like an exploit, a gross oversight. In a game where you can assign planes to bomb factories and dockyards – hampering your enemy’s war machine – what logic is there in not being able to scout out your enemy’s cache and target it?

This strange intermingling of elegance in design with plodding automation and gratuitous oversights seems to be the result of Paradox continuing in the effort to ease micromanagement involved in a grand campaign. It is a work in progress.

Luckily, once we move past the infrastructure and begin composing and commanding martial forces, we see what makes Hearts of Iron 4 really shine.

In order to realise any of the plans you make, any radical, world-inverting idea you may have, your nation needs a military. Comprised of Air, Naval and Land units your military is the muscle of your nation. Each branch has its own distinct units with their own uses as well as an experience counter whose function we’ll get to in a moment. Paradox is not looking to reinvent the wheel with these units: Infantry is your meat shield; Engineers entrench; Tanks blow up tanks; Bombers drop bombs on stuff… except national armament caches.

Unlike training and deploying individual land units in other strategy games, HoI4 provides you with its Division Designer. The idea here is to eliminate another element of micromanagement that so often plagues strategy games. Indeed. Instead of training a single battalion and having them appear on the map, you instead spend accrued army experience and assign them into a division template along with other battalions. The compositions created in the Division Designer are saved and are then ready for training and supplying whenever you deem necessary. You can have any number of Division templates saved.

DevDes

The Division Designer is a pretty great idea, and one that is implemented very well. The game does a great job of breaking down the makeup and equipment cost of each division, making it easier to spot deficiencies, which is a boon because there are a lot of stats associated with a even a single division. From here you can also manage which divisions have dibs on upgraded gear. The grid also helps in visualizing the composition of each division – admittedly making it easier overstuff the divisions and therefore overtaxing the supplies needed to equip them. Due to its connectivity with your production lines, the division designer is an effective central location to manage the deployment of your land forces.

Once on the map, you can select any number of divisions and assign them as an army. You then give these respective armies a leader who possesses attributes that, ideally, complement the divisions’ composition. It is possible to manually control each division within an army, to place them at the front line or advance them into enemy territory. Or, you can use Hearts of Iron 4’s built-in Battleplan system.

Another mechanic built from the ground up, The Battleplan is a plan of engagement (or tactical retreat!) that you literally draw onto the map. Each army comes equipped with a toolbox for drawing such plans. As a simple example, let’s say that as Germany you plan on storming into Poland in six months and are waiting for supplies to reach your troops.

Now would be a good time to draw up your battleplan. With an army selected you create a front line, most commonly on national borders. Looking deep into enemy territory you draw an offensive line that the divisions will push their way to. Automatically, the divisions will toe the line and await your signal to advance. The longer a battleplan is in place before initiation, the greater the attack bonus the army receives. And when you make the call the AI will then make the best effort in slogging its way to the offensive line.

Your battleplan toolbox

Your battleplan toolbox


… And it works. The AI actually does an admirable job of handling your divisions on the fly. Even in a nation with varied terrain, it will for example, keep your infantry out of the mountains and your mountaineers out of the plains. During heavily-contested advances the AI will keep divisions behind in claimed territory to act as a temporary garrison, since the game has no ‘besieging phase’. Divisions will retreat automatically. They will rejoin the fray when rested and resupplied.

Sometimes you need to make manual tweaks to division positioning, especially because drawing a battleplan in tight spaces can get a little cumbersome and, frankly, kind of messy. My battleplan into Greece when playing as Bulgaria looked like a jumbled mish mash. However, in a grand campaign as a major power, with multiple fronts to handle, multiple swaths of territory to manage, the Battleplan system is a wonderful easement to your command, especially during the peak of the War, which is truly a sight to behold and thrill to be apart of.

Overall, before your severe knee-jerk reaction to AI-handled military shatters your incisors, know that the success of an offensive battleplan is largely dependant on the makeup of the participating divisions. The AI has no part in your Division Designer. Sending an army of ill-equipped puissants into your battleplan will certainly turn them into gore soup. Plan ahead. Plan accordingly.

BattlePlanAction

As it stands currently, land forces have an elegant and involved method of creation and management. Navy and Air forces conversely, have a kind of set-it-and-forget it feel.

After aircraft roll off the production line, you assign them to pre-set air zones. Within the air zone you assign certain missions based on the planes’ capabilities, i.e. Fight other planes, bomb boats, provide ground support. After that, they just kind of hang out in the air base or naval carrier until war begins when they can fulfill these missions. The player has zero (0) control over the planes other than stationing them, though you can automate at which period during the game’s day/night cycle that the missions should be carried out. I’d like to see more opportunities to use aircraft outside of war. Recon, primarily would be pretty awesome.

Naval forces are likewise just a list of ships broken down into player-assigned fleets that sit in port or naval zones until war breaks out. Fleets are given orders the same way air wings do: Select a mission such as trade disruption, convoy escort, search and destroy. Then pick a naval zone. Then wait… I guess. Unlike air wings, you can directly control fleets and engage them in naval battles. Oftentimes Naval and Air units will clash on the high seas, which is an awesome spectacle to consider and visualize in your mind’s eye.

I had higher expectations for the naval game. Similar to aircraft, I’d like to see more from my naval units outside of war. They especially can be a way of accomplishing aggressive, opportunistic goals while subverting the world tension mechanic.

Yes. Let us speak of World Tension.

Closely tied to the game’s factions and their ideologies, world tension is the barometer of war. I like this idea and believe that it can be utilized and exploited to a greater degree. At 0% world tension, the world is pretty quiet, ideologies pricking at the hearts of nations. At 100% world tension, factions have been created, sides have been picked, stakes have been pulled – the world is on fire. How the world gets from 0% to 100%, and how quickly, depends primarily on the interactions between nations.

A breakdown of the jerks responsible for Armageddon.

A breakdown of the jerks responsible for Armageddon.

Costing accrued political power, certain diplomatic actions bump up the tension in varying degrees. Rushing to become fascist will eke it up by a fraction of a percent. Declaring war on a minor nation will have a greater effect; Joining the Axis faction even more so. Declaring war on a major nation as the Axis coalition causes a spike in tension and will freak out the Allies which in turn will trigger a retaliation which kicks up the tension even further and onto the point of no return.

… And this is just one international scenario out of countless others. This is an effort that Paradox seems to be taking in making Hearts of Iron 4 less of a WW2 sim and more of a sandbox based on the WW2 era.

The game provides opportunities for all nations, even the majors, to shift out of their historical ideologies. USA can go communist. France can go fascist. At this point, though, being in the allies doesn’t seem nearly as fun – something that I hope will be addressed in later DLC, perhaps? Picking a faction is just as important as designing the correct type of division. It largely determines your involvement in the war.

Nations do not ally nations; Factions ally factions. I do not bemoan this. Ideology is a legitimate determiner of world war in either initiating it or striving to prevent or end it. Ideology is what hardens a people, unifying them, making them more difficult to defeat – one of the reasons atomic weapons are available for research!

This is where I think a little more effort could have gone into deepening the diplomacy game. Because my mind keeps going to the small nations. The ones with the generic focus tree. The ones who begin the 1936 campaign most likely unaffiliated in ideology and, therefore, faction. The ones with only two or three templates in the division designer. The ones with a completely inadequate navy. If the diplomacy game were stronger, if the game were more willing to go off the beaten path, these nations too would have a fighting chance in coloring history.

The blue piece of the ideological pie means that a democratic Germany is all too possible!

The blue piece of the ideological pie means that a democratic Germany is all too possible!

HoI4 does in fact give you the opportunity to create your own faction. This is made available even to the non-major nations. But this course of action does very little in the grand-scheme of things. Sure, you created the legionaries fascists of Guatemala. Unless you’ve managed to seed this ideology anywhere else in the world or even just in your region, by 1939 nobody will want to join and your nation will be just a pimple on the geopolitical map.

Indeed. You may fly off the rails of history but chances are the AI won’t, which then severely inhibits your own national exploits all the more. Not without more diplomatic, or even duplicitous, options for the player, or an earlier start date – even if it is just a single year – will we see anything resembling the sandbox Hearts of Iron 4 feels like it wants to be.

At the foundation, the game seems to be conflicted with itself as if in a state of flux. And that confusion translates into how it works for the player.

There are two starting dates available: 1936 and 1939. Choosing 1939 places you closer to the throes of war. Choosing 1936 gives you more time to make your preparations, to contemplate your grand history-smearing designs. The problem with the earlier start date is that there seems to be quite a bit of faffing about, when there really shouldn’t be – as I hope I’ve been able to express thus far in this review. There really only seems to be two modes in Hearts of Iron 4: Wait for war; Fight the war.

Despite some of the underdeveloped and confusing aspects of preparing your nation for war, the thrill of thrusting your nation into the international fray is still worthy of critical praise.

There is an undeniable sense of anticipation and/or anxiety as the world tension cranks upwards, often snowballing to 100% – Even more satisfying if you are the one causing it to spike, catching your enemies totally unprepared for world war. There is a rush of excitement when you witness the realization of your battle plans as the AI-run armies push your meticulously designed divisions forward to their objectives on their respective fronts; and just as horrifying when you witness them fallback and get chewed to bits after a successful counter-attack. The relief you feel when friendly faction reinforcements arrive… the trail of icons denoting victorious naval battles… notifications of destroyed ports… the roar of airwings battling for superiority punctuated by the rata-tat-tat of automatic fire… It is all happening right there on the map. The battle plans, the animations, the sounds – for the first time a Paradox map truly feels alive! And I’m glad to be apart of it.

Weekend Gaming – Duskers

Duskers and I continue to have a hot and cold relationship. I followed the game’s development for a while and made the purchase on its release day this past week.

In Duskers you remotely control a team of drones who explore derelict spaceships, space colonies, space stations. You’re looking for scrap and salvage and other drones to bring back to your ship in order to further the investigation into why the universe is seemingly devoid of humans. But each location is also occupied by various baddies, or ‘infestations’, that will, without hesitation, immobilize or outright destroy your deployed drones. Progress is deliberate, positioning is important and decisions must be thought out. And of this is accomplished by a command line. /line

Duskers

It’s an interesting concept for a game, one that is fairly well presented. I love how it intentionally has zero (0) music files in order to maintain the dark and dangerous setting – Especially so since the drones’ video feed is unreliable; one must place equal emphasis on listening. I love that. I get that. Upon noticing there is no music in the background, the thought of loading up my own iTunes library never even came to mind. The setting is very real and very present.

Generally, my main issue is the command line. I appreciate that Duskers is going for a neo-retro feel, and a command line interface not only compliments this but it necessary to maintaining that feel. But too often I think, ‘what I am doing now – these commands that I am giving – can still be accomplished by using a mouse.’ The basic commands of opening a door, moving a drone, rerouting power, – basically, a majority of what you do in Duskers – by command line becomes rather arduous to me overtime. This feeling is only amplified when the takeaway loot from a particular ship is piddly.

I want this game to be more tactical. I want to set up a command sequence (not just order, lets get some booleans up in here!), press enter, and watch my plans unfold from room to room. Sure, you can go a little deeper with the capabilities of the command line, but I still want to be able to do more with them and, perhaps even more so, with the loot that I find.

Despite my grumbles, I am sensing that Duskers is a slow burn, revealing itself overtime. This is why I haven’t walked away from it already. My approach to it has been in bursts. Much the same as it is whenever I play Invisible, Inc (which shares many attributes with Duskers): When I’m not into it, I’m not into it; When I am into it, I am very, very much quite into it. We’ll see how our relationship fares over this weekend.

D-28: Or, Looking Forward to Hearts of Iron IV

With absolutely nothing else of interest going on at Paradox Development Studio today, we can calculate that at this very moment here on 9 May 2016, Hearts of Iron IV will be upon us in exactly 27.84 days. Paradox took a week-long hiatus from their “World War Wednesday” Twitch streams last week in order to, I can only assume, convene into the company’s war room to develop last minute designs for the game and to advance, with what will certainly be, a bombastic marketing campaign that will rely on the primacy of the game’s setting and not, say, cheap and flimsy SWAG.

We, the ranks of HoI4 recruits – We, too, have much to prepare. While other Paradox players on this day are otherwise occupied by lesser things, we must steel ourselves, sharpen our focus. We must unroll our terrain maps, the corners weighed down by our miniature Panzer models and artillery shells. We must crack open the tomes of military operations. We must study this original history. And as intelligence is added upon we can therefore ask ourselves, ‘what if…’ Thereby, the spirit of HoI4 can be made manifest.

Yes!

This is more than just expansion and extermination of the enemy. This is not some half-assed broadstroke over a massive interstellar expanse. This is about digging deep, of taking the initiative to color history, to become a sort of reflective historian. To this end, German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel explains: “Here the main thing is the elaboration of the historical material, which the historian approaches with his spirit… Especially important are the principles the author sets up for himself, based in part on the content and goals of the actions and events [of history], and in part on the way he constructs history.”

What a marvelous opportunity HoI4 will give us: To give us this orb of history, of this specific conflict and allow us to interact with it on so many different fronts. The game’s setting is recent enough that we can impart our own principles, as Hegel states, in how we go about playing. How big are the ripples we can create. How altered our modern world can become. How twisted or righteous will the geopolitical landscape turn out to be? How engaging can we make our end game screenshots!

… We have but 28 days to find out.

HoiSoon