Posts Tagged ‘strategy games’

Nether Earth – the glacial war

2 August, 2009
The player's flying-machine hovers as a robot captures a factory (by parking in the doorway, apparently).

The player's flying-machine hovers as a robot captures a factory (by parking in the doorway, apparently).

Just because something is pioneering in some way that doesn’t necessarily make it any good, some of the earliest television was a nazi version of daytime TV for goodness’ sakes, but anything that helps pioneer a genre is going to be well-remembered, right?

Of course, dear reader, you’re probably more than aware that I’m deploying my sarcasm grenades in the above sentence. It’s long been a problem of ’80s videogaming that much of it gets forgotten, lost under the mountains of other cultural baggage from the period. And European videogames, relatively obscure compared to their Japanese and American cousins, get this more than most.

Why am I telling you this? Well, a couple of years ago a small edit war started on Wikipedia’s page about Real-Time Strategy games. The conventional wisdom is that this genre, which has given up the Command and Conquer and Warcraft series amongst other things, started with a 1992 videogame called Dune 2. Dune 2 is a hugely important game, historically, because it definitely defined the modern RTS game with its player-created bases, factories, resource-gatherers and troop-building but it wasn’t actually the first RTS. This lead to a short rash of fanboys and gaming historians trying to determine what actually was. In the end, no one could really decide and so, as of writing, the entry is a little uncertain on the issue. However, I’ve decided to pick one of these games out from that list, dust it off and hold it, blinking, into the light of 2009 for you all to see. That game is 1987’s Nether Earth.

A towering metal killing machine, not moving at a speed that would dampen Jeremy Clarkson's pants

A towering metal killing machine, not moving at a speed that would dampen Jeremy Clarkson's pants

And it’s an interesting one, seemingly filling an “evolutionary” gap between the earliest stuff like Stonkers and the later Dune 2, chances are this game was never played by Westwood Studios before they started programming their genre-defining title (supposedly, their main inspiration was a Sega Megadrive title called Herzog Zwei). Nether Earth does feature early versions of some things which were found in later titles, though, even if they developed them independently and it’s worth having a look at for this reason.

The game’s plot, something about humans and a rival race called the Insignians battling it out on some planet somewhere, is little-more than a setting for a standard one side versus another face-off. Gameplay itself takes place over a long, thin map with the player base at one with the Insignian bases (of which there are several) deployed further along the map with the player needing to conquer them progressively, one after the other, until the game is won.

And what do both sides use to fight this war? Giant robots, of course, big old robots that, in an excellent bit of thinking, the player designs themselves out of various modules. You can probably guess the sort of building-blocks that are available: various “transportation” modules from legs to hover-thingies which determine how fast the robots move, plus all sorts of different weapons  – standard shooting stuff plus an on-board nuclear bomb (apparently used to demolish enemy bases) – and electronic support modules which make the robots a bit more accurate at shooting.

Each robot, once built, can be manually controlled or given orders. The orders are fairly simple: “advance X number of miles”, “retreat X number of miles”, “search and capture”, “search and destroy” and “stop and defend”. “Search and capture” is used to capture the various factories which are located throughout the game map; these factories specialise in certain modules and capturing them makes more of these modules available to create robots.

So, as you can probably tell, we have some of the basics of the Dune 2 template in Nether Earth albeit in a different form. We have a base, we have units constructed from limited resources and we have factories which can be captured by either side and which play the part of resource-creation. Nether Earth doesn’t really play anything like Dune 2, though, and not in a good way.

This is a melee in "action". I tried to get a still of one of the robots blowing up then remembered that they don't; they just flash and vanish instead.

This is a melee in "action". I tried to get a still of one of the robots blowing up then remembered that they don't; they just flash and vanish instead.

You see, the problem with this game is that it just doesn’t have the sense of immediacy that Westwood’s later title has. The main problem with this is the way the warfare is handled. In Dune 2, we have a map we can click on and visit any part of at any time to see how things are going. In Nether Earth the player controls a flying machine which flies over the (long and thin, remember) battlefield and has to physically visit the front line in order to see what’s happening. Even when the Insignian robots and your robots are duking it out quite near to home base (and this happens worryingly early on into a game) it still takes a while to fly up and find them. Given that the game map is pretty long, flying back and forth (controlled bases are the only place robots can be built) soon becomes very tedious. It also makes it hard to keep track of what’s happening on the frontline beyond the farty-noise sound effects which give some indication of what’s happening (although not much beyond “someone is shooting” and “someone has been blown up”). It’s been argued that this makes Nether Earth realistic because, in real wars, generals aren’t usually at the front line and need to base their strategy on reports. This, however, ignores the fact that, unless you’re a bit mental, real wars aren’t actually any fun.

Oh, and the fact that the robots, even the “fast” one move at the same rate as grandpa on valium doesn’t help.

And this is the problem with Nether Earth. It’s a strategy wargame, there’s a goal, there’s the means to achieve it and it’s all done in real time (which, back in 1987 was pretty original) but it just isn’t much fun and you spend far too long flying back and forth over the landscape and worrying that those three stubby wee robots you told to advance 100 miles are going to get their tin arses kicked without you even seeing it happen. There might be some people who would find this kind of “hope for the best” long-range strategy interesting in which case good luck to you all, but for me Nether Earth is a game that’s aged badly, something that the march of game development has simply left behind. Maybe it needs more time put in, time to develop a strategy but I simply couldn’t get past the tedium of flying back and forth and the irritation of not being able to tell how well the battle was going much of the time. File under “of historical interest only”.

As usual, I played the Spectrum version and wasn’t terribly keen on taking a look at the versions for other platforms. I doubt they’re all that.

Dark Sceptre – help!

19 April, 2009

Here’s a wee experiment for you all to try. Go to this link here and download Mike Singleton’s much-acclaimed 1987 strategy game for the ZX Spectrum Dark Sceptre; and whilst you’re there download the instructions file.

Umbarg's Reaper attacks the confused n00b for his confused n00bness!

Umbarg's Reaper attacks the confused n00b for his confused n00bness!

Done that? Good. Now, put aside a couple of hours if you can and read the instructions (because, by golly, you’ll need to do that) and then have a shot at the game using your Spectrum emulator of choice. Don’t just dick around for ten minutes, put at least half an hour to an hour aside to play the game and really try and find that goshdarned sceptre.

Done that? Congratulations. Now, were you able to, for want of a better way of putting it, get any sort of feel for the game and what exactly is going on?

I ask because this game really seems to divide people. Take a look at that World of Spectrum entry I linked to earlier again. It’s got a really good user score meaning that lot’s and lot’s of Spec-chums like Dark Sceptre and yet try and I might I, and quite a few other people, find it a bit of a confusing game to play. I know about all the characters I have control of, I know all the things they can do that sound terribly involved and exciting and yet when I play the game all I seem to do is issue a few orders and then my men wander around the game map (which doesn’t seem to have terribly recognisable areas making things even more confusing) either looking for people, killing people or getting themselves killed. There seem to be dozens of items in the game and yet I can never seem to find them and I’m not sure what they do. I keep wanting to go back to it and yet I know I’ll just get confused all over again and sit in front of the monitor with virtual question marks floating above my head.

Seriously, folks, if any of you can find the time to try this game then tell me in the comments and let me know if you got the feel for the game that so many critics at the time seem to have. And, if you can, maybe tell me where I’m going wrong…

Theatre Europe – Go on, blow the whole world up

27 October, 2008
Lets not blow each other up, Mr Reagan! Gee, thats a good idea, Mr Gorbachev!

"Let's not blow each other up, Mr Reagan!" "Gee, that's a good idea, Mr Gorbachev!"

Righty-ho, this is going to be the last of this batch of strategy game lookbacks because, as I might have intimated here before, I find writing strategy titles up an enormous rectal discomfort. This is because so damn few games in this genre are simple and straightforward and the articles always end-up being about the various features and rules of the games rather than what they feel like to play, whether they’ve weathered time well, and any crude jokes I can wrangle out of them. The next batch of games are going to be straightforward action games; oh yes.

Luckily, this last strategy title is a bit simpler than the others. Theatre Europe is not, as the title might suggest to some, about putting on a Continental performance of As You Like It (although I imagine some boring bastard has written just such a game) but about the balloon going up and the military juggernauts of NATO and the Warsaw Pact going at it tooth and claw in the mid 1980s. This jolly, upbeat little game was published in 1985 by PSS (which stands for Personal Software Services which can’t help but remind me of a film called Personal Services which was all about prostitution, but anyway…) for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64. Because of my appalling Spectrum bias so far I’ve decided to play the C64 version for the purposes of this article, although all versions of the game are very similar from what I’ve seen.

This is how things look at the start with the Soviets aiming to be chomping sausages in Bonn within weeks and NATO, erm, hoping to protect their sausages (er...)

This is how things look at the start with the Soviets aiming to be chomping sausages in Bonn within weeks and NATO, erm, hoping to protect their sausages (er...)

The plot is built-on Cold War politics of the mid-80s. A conventional war has started between the superpowers and their allies; essentially the Warsaw Pact is trying to secure control of West Germany and NATO is trying to prevent them from doing the same with the player being able to choose either side (I plumped for NATO). There are also neutral armies which will defend their respective countries from invasion by either side. Both sides have a number of different armies (represented with blue and red blobs on the strategic map) which, over a number of different phases per turn, can be moved, ordered to attack and “rebuilt” (ie resupplied with equipment and air support). After these orders have been given the player is shown a screen detailing Special Missions which mean ordering either a chemical or nuclear strategic attack.

This is the arcade section. Im not sure this was terribly realistic even in 1985.

This is the "arcade section". I'm not sure this was terribly realistic even in 1985.

The game has “arcade screens” and the player can opt to have these turned on or off at the options screen before starting a game. These appear when the orders to attack have been given (by either side) with the player choosing an in-combat army to represent at which point the game displays a backdrop of countryside (if fighting outside a city) or a city (if fighting… well… in a city). The player controls a target and must fire missiles at the enemy which is represented by little tank-things rolling from the horizon to the middle of the screen whilst protecting friendly vehicles which roll along from side to side at the bottom of the screen. Additionally enemy aircraft fly overhead. This arcade section is, to be blunt, a bit confusing. According to the instructions I’m supposed to fire my missiles and then keep the target aimed on enemy vehicles in order to destroy them but it doesn’t seem to work like that at all and the best way (as far as I could see) way of blowing up the Soviet army seemed to be to fire a missile and then arrange for it to fly into the side of the approaching T72s (or whatever they’re supposed to be). Aircraft can be destroyed by the player as well according to the instructions but from my experience they simply exploded by themselves every so often (or was that down to my vehicles occasionally throwing into the air what looked like bunches of white dots, I’m not sure). Apparently, how you fare in this one fight will have a knock-on effect on all the battles your troops are involved in that turn so destroying as many enemy as possible is important. This is all reasonably entertaining at first but you’ll soon grow tired or it and turn it off in favour of proper strategy.

The proper strategy, as it happens, is mostly pretty straightforward. You move armies, order them to attack (or leave them to defend) and replenish what you can during the “rebuild” stage. There’s also some stuff about air power which involves prioritising air superiority, counter air (ie attacking airstrips and the like), interdict (trashing the supply lines of the enemy) and reconnaissance. Apparently, these affect the chances of the ground troops you control directly, I’m told it’s an important part of the strategy that can turn the tide of the war if used correctly but I can’t say I noticed it making much difference.

The Special Missions is the most dramatic part of the game. There are three types of attack you can order: chemical weapon attack (the computer chooses the target for you, Moscow in the case of the game I was playing), strategic single nuclear strike (nuke a city in other words) and a full nuclear strike which basically blows the entire world up. In order to use nuclear weapons, the player originally had to call a real-life phone number to obtain the authorisation code (“Midnight Sun” as wikipedia kindly told me). My game ended with a full nuclear strike; what a silly sausage I am. Still, at least I didn’t end-up having to spend my days in a re-education camp carving a marble bust of Marx and composing Das Kapital: The Musical, eh readers?

Strategic Gas Attack is nothing to do with farting. Really. Dammit, this is deadly serious!

"Strategic Gas Attack" is nothing to do with farting. Really. Dammit, this is deadly serious!

It’s clear from the manual that the programmers put a lot of thought and detail into this game with the two power blocs represented roughly accurately and the various war options open to the players roughly what was available to commanders at the time, even the suicidal Mutually Assured Destruction option of a full nuclear strike. The instructions list a bibliography used to inform the game including various books on (then contemporary) NATO/Warsaw Pact capabilities, leaflets from the American and Soviet embassies and documentation from CND. Playing the game itself feels like a simulation of the basics of a European Western/Soviet face-off as well. There’s no exciting dashes for Moscow for NATO troops or marching into Paris if you’re playing as the Soviets, it’s all purely about control of West Germany and much of the strategic map doesn’t even get used.

Oh noes!!

Oh noes!!

So how does it all come together? Is it a magnificent piece of wargaming or a pile of poo? Well, neither to be honest. It’s all well-detailed without being confusing or full of tedious minutae and playing it is certainly fairly interesting but limitations in gameplay really put a dampner on a lot of things. For example, the manual mentions some “assumptions” the game made which effect how the war plays out such as: that the Warsaw Pact won’t start the war with a nuclear bombardment, that NATO will control the Atlantic, that the French will enter the war immediately. It would have been better to either let the player decide or randomise these factors making for a more realistic scenario. The “action” sequences are also very crude, poorly-implemented and don’t seem to add much to the game. I thought having “closeup” representations of the battle was a good idea but it should have been done in a way other than a confusing shooting-gallery. The strategic part of the game isn’t too bad and works quite well but the player only really has control of ground forces and can only really tell them to move and attack; things like air support/warfare and naval engagements are taken care of by the computer offscreen and it’s all a bit vague as to how they effect gameplay. The Special Missions also seem to be a bit limited with any nuclear or chemical strike being immediately responded to in kind and with one option basically ending the game. I suppose there’s a strong real-world point being made here about what happens when one nuclear power attacks another nuclear power but, from the point of just playing a strategic game, it doesn’t really add much.

Theatre Europe isn’t a bad piece of software at all, it’s certainly interesting for a couple of games, but it all looks a bit primitive and limited to modern eyes. A shame, since it’s the only game I can think of off-hand that’s a strategic simulation of a cold war superpower confrontation on this sort of scale. When thinking of other cold war videogames I can only really think of Steel Panthers which simulates things at the individual battle scale rather than an overall war and the realist FPS Operation Flashpoint which again takes place at a small scale and is also somewhat hampered by a very silly plot and (sigh) being set for no good reason in a made-up country. The Red Alert games, I think we can safely say, don’t really count. Theatre Europe is an interesting title in an under-represented sub-genre and it’s worth a look but it really hasn’t aged that well.

Ascendancy – conquer space, again

24 October, 2008
Come to space! Fight lizard-things!

Come to space! Fight lizard-things!

Okay, so I’ve taken a look at the 1994 Amiga “conquer the galaxy” indie game Colonial Conquest 2 and I rather liked it. So, given that I decided to take a look at a game I rescued from my local Oxfam Music a couple of months ago, the 1995 “conquer the galaxy” commercial PC title Ascendancy and see how the two compare.

Both games basically have exactly the same mission – settle and conquer planets and beat piss out of your enemies whilst doing so. In fact, when starting out the two games have some striking similarities. As with CC2, Ascendancy splits each planet up into a series of squares on which facilities can be built to create food or industrial output. Whereas in CC2 “idle” workers produced science, here science is produced in facilities. Each facility, whether food, industry or knowledge “occupies” one free colonist and free colonists must be available in order to keep building (since the building process itself occupies a colonists time); this means that in order to keep building the player might have to wait until a new colonist is produced (which is dependant on food output). In addition to these, various other facilities can be built on planets with which it can attack nearby spaceships and defend itself from invasion as well as sundry other abilities. As I said, when it all boils down to it the way planets are developed in CC2 and Ascendancy is actually quite simliar and demonstrates just how much of an influence Sid Meier’s Civilization was on turn-based strategy gaming.

Where Ascendancy becomes a quite different game is in how it handles everything else. Let’s start with the planets themselves. CC2 gave us an extremely simple “galaxy” of several dozen planets scattered around space in the Anacreon mould. Ascendancy completely does away with this sort of thing and goes for a much more realistic galaxy model. Instead of a scattering of planets we have a scattering of stars and each of these stars has a number of planets orbiting them which can be colonised (meaning that you and an opponent can both have colonies in the same star system – more on that later). Not only that but these stars have fixed “star lanes” between them by which spaceships must travel meaning that the galaxy isn’t quite “open” from the start; the player must wrest control of nearby systems to secure the path to further away ones. The game displays this galaxy (the complexity of which is decided by the player – you can play in a galaxy of a dozen stars or absolutely loads) in a 3D wireframe model which the player can spin and rotate; it’s all rather nice.

Two rival powers face-off in an uncontrolled system. Thatll be my ship on the left. After naming all my warships Space Bastard I settled on the more conservative Killer

Two rival powers face-off in an uncontrolled system. That'll be my ship on the left. After naming all my warships "Space Bastard" I settled on the more conservative "Killer"

Another big difference is the combat and the fleets. Ascendancy is designed to keep ship numbers down and it does this via a rule meaning any empire can only control a certain number of ships: two for the home system and one for each additional system controlled. Note that this is systems controlled, not colonies; you can have five colonies all producing merrily away in one system but it only gets you one additional ship. Also if you have a colony in the same system as an opponent then tough – that makes it an uncontrolled system for both of you. If you think this sounds f*cking stupid then you’re right. It annoyed me that I could have around nine planets in my empire and yet only produce five sodding spaceships. Even China’s probably got five sodding spaceships by now and this is nine planets!

The reason for this is probably the way the space battles occur. In CC2, the player builds massive fleets, sends them into battle and the computer works out who comes out of it alive and who ends up as little bits of metal giving any nearby planets a nice shiny new ring-system. In Ascendancy, the battles are strategic affairs fought between these big hulking-great ships. You can’t just send them into battle, you have to tell them where to maneuver, which weapons to fire, when to put their shields on etc etc. This is all quite good fun, especially when more advanced weapons are developed meaning more thought has to go into the fight than “move, shoot, shoot, dieyoutwat!” and to be honest it would be pretty dull with loads and loads of spaceships. Still, nine planets, five ships… tsk.

A nearly-developed planet. The different planets type and size determines how much you can build and what facilities perform best.

A nearly-developed planet. The different planet's type and size determines how much you can build and what facilities perform best.

The way technology works in this game is also different. CC2 had a very simplistic technology system whereby scientific progress was linear and each new level brought the same advances each game. Ascendancy, however, uses a technology “tree” similar to that used in Civilization. This means that the player gets to choose which tech to pursue each time and depending on what is chosen new technologies may be open. This non-linear scientific progression has a greater sense of discovery in early games and prevents later games from feeling too “samey”.

And talking of Civilization, the way that game dealt with opposition powers has obviously also had a big impact on Ascendancy. As with Civ, there are a number of different factions to choose from (various alien races rather than nationalities and none of them human – we can assume that this is a galaxy far, far away) and, unlike the Mechs in CC2, hostility is not inevitable. The game features a fairly advanced form of diplomacy (more advanced than the original Civ) which allows for peace treaties, war, alliance and exchanging of information about star routes discovered. So, this game isn’t total war – expansion and dominance is about hedging your bets and making alliances as well as trashing those you’ve made an enemy of.

So, despite some basic similarities these two space-conquest games are actually pretty different. Which one is better depends on what sort of game you’re looking for – if you just want to fight battles and build things and don’t want too much complexity then go for CC2; if you like to micromanage a bit more, take control in battles and prefer diplomacy to endless slaughter then Ascendancy is more likely to tickle your fancy (I’m not sure how appropriate that phrase is for a wargame, but anyway…). Oh, and I know this sort of thing isn’t supposed to make too much of a difference but Ascendancy really does look and sound really nice even if you can’t seem to turn the music off.

I picked-up Ascendancy for £2 from my local Oxfam Music; as far as I know it’s not been released as freeware so all I can suggest is that you go looking for it. If you want to make it work on a modern PC then DOSBox (which I used) is your best bet.

Colonial Conquest 2 – fight robots… in space!

20 October, 2008
It is the 90s, and there is time for rendered title screens.

It is the '90s, and there is time for rendered title screens.

Okay, with this game I’m going to try and run over the basics and then skip to the “what the hell do I think of it” part of the article because these damn strategy games and their fiddly interfaces and miriad of features are starting to piss me off. I’m trying to give a good impression here of what these games are like and it becomes frustrating when they incorporate so much micromanagement; you don’t get that in the likes of R-Type. Anyway…

Colonial Conquest 2 is a “giftware” (ie it’s freeware but if you like it you’re encouraged to send a gift to the author) indie title released for the Amiga in 1994. Essentially, this game is an amalgamation of features from two popular, older games: namely Sid Meier’s world-conquering (both in-game and literally) Civilization and the much older build-up-fleets-and-conquer-the-galaxy game Anacreon.

The plot is some guff about colonists fleeing a repressive interplanetary regime called, imaginatively, The Empire. The colonists arrive in an unexplored sector of space and settle on a planet before getting back in touch with the Empire (eh?) in order to beg for assistance (ah) which they don’t get. Well, not for free anway.

This is a human-occupied planet. Any similarity to Civilisation probably not co-incidental

This is a human-occupied planet. Any similarity to "Civilisation" probably not co-incidental

In CC2, the player starts on a single planet and the aim of the game is to develop that planet, develop a fleet and expand out to the other planets until you’ve gained control of the 26 different worlds that make up the in-game map. There is a two-player mode but given that I imagine a hot-seat version of this game would be utterly horrible to play most people will only be interested in the one-player version. In this version the player controls human colonists and the enemy is an alien race called “mechs” who are basically machines. The mechs have different units and capabilities than the humans and their way of playing is slightly different. More on that later.

Each planet’s surface is displayed as a small area of land split up into sea, plains, mountains etc. Colonists can initially either be “scientists” or be used to work the land for food or resources. Food goes towards feeding the colony and resources go towards building. Improvements like mining robots and greenhouses can be added to squares to increase the food or resource yield. In addition to this, powerstations supplying energy and various improvements like barracks (which allows colonists to become troops), hospitals and research centres can be built. Any scientists you have don’t just dick around, they contribute science (natch) which allows your tech level to increase allowing for more and better improvements. So far, so Civilization.

Once you build a spaceport you can start building ships. Many of these ships are combat craft (ranging from the crapping little fighters to the massive battlestars) but a few have specific purposes such as transporters which can carry resources or food, colony ships to transport colonists and colonise worlds, troop carriers which do what they say on the tin, spy satellites to scan enemy worlds and exploration ships which explore planets (and look rather like the USS Enterprise, in a nice little nod to that ship’s official mission in Star Trek).

This is the galactic map display. The planets all have really dull names and you cant edit them; its one of the few boooos for this game.

This is the galactic map display. The planets all have really dull names and you can't edit them; it's one of the few "boooos" for this game.

Oh, exploring planets. Here’s a thing (and the only purpose the Empire seem to have in the game). If you explore a new planet (either with an exploration ship or by founding a colony on it) you might find a new lifeform. If you do this then the Empire will reward you with warships or resources – the type/amount depending on the creature’s IQ for some unfathomable reason. This is a small part of the game but its a nice touch, hence its having a paragraph all to itself. Now, where was I…

Ah, yes, ships. Now, the main purpose of fleets is to attack and defend planets. And this is where I talk more about the mechs. As I said, the mechs are a machine race and they too are looking to conquer this sector. The way they go about taking planets is different, though. Rather than found a colony they instead have their mothership (a huge scary f*cker with the power of ten battlestars) come along and install an Alien Central Unit (a big industrial thing which seems to act as some sort of mech control centre) on the planet. On an uninhabited world it just churns out resources, improvements and ships (apart from the mothership the mech ships are the same as yours, except presumably piloted by machines) for the purposes of conquest. However, and this is a nasty little feature, if the mechs capture one of your colonies they turn the colonists into slaves and essentially work them to death building for them, keeping them alive only for as long as they are needed (sentient machines, just say “no” kids!). Losing a world and then sending a spy satellite there to find all your colonists being worked to death by the machines creates a real desire to recapture the world before they all die and smash those evile mechs to little pieces.

A mech-controlled world. Cold, sterile and inhuman. Brrr. Still, my fleet controls the skies above it, ha!

A mech-controlled world. Cold, sterile and inhuman. Brrr. Still, my fleet controls the skies above it, ha!

And recapturing (or capturing) a world needs troops and this is where the troop carriers come in. You need to win the fleet battle over a planet, have troop carriers with troops orbiting and then land them at which point a ground battle takes place. But the mechs don’t use soldiers, of course, they use mechanical tripods which are much stronger than soldiers so you need to outnumber the tripods to be sure of victory. Of course, sometimes one of your worlds is threatened by mech invasion and in that scenario you should make sure you have a large number of troops stationed on the planet to fight off the tripods otherwise your people will become slaves to the machines.

And that, basically, is the game – build, fight, defend, conquer, try not to lose too many citizens to mech enslavement and get scared when the mothership shows up. There is much, much more to the game – improvements like energy cannons to blast enemy planets for example – but I’ll leave them for you to discover because, despite being written in AMOS(an Amiga basic language synonymous with amateurish and largely crap games) and despite the average graphics (and no sound other than an annoying and very dated in-game tune) this is a deep, involving strategy game which can and I hope will enthrall anyone who plays it. Just be aware, though, it’s very very hard and the war with the mechs, although it takes a while to warm-up, can be an absolute slog. Still, don’t be daunted, get a copy (it’s free, you’ve no excuse), blast off and destroy the evil Mech Empire. Yes.

Oh, and if you were wondering, yes there was a Colonial Conquest 1 but it’s apparently not as good as this and I’ve never played it. So there.

Election – get yer oversized rosette on

18 October, 2008
Mmmm, bold primary colours; very 80s

Mmmm, bold primary colours; very '80s

“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, out, out!”, “The lady’s not for turning”. Ah, British politics in the 1980s; thank f*ck those days are behind us. Anyway, I’m not just bursting out a couple of quotes for no good reason, today’s game is all about British politics in the ’80s. It’s Mastertronic’s 1984 release Election in which the player must contest a parliamentary seat in a general election and run a campaign to win that seat. This game was published on the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC from what I can gather but it’s the Speccy version I’ll be playing for this review.

First, the player chooses their political party from between Conservative, Labour and the Alliance (now known as the Liberal Democrats) and from there chooses a number of manifesto commitments to focus on; the opposition candidates then do the same. Choosing the manifesto commitments is quite interesting as regards how things have changed since 1984 with Labour wanting to leave the EEC and unilateral disarmament whilst the Conservatives focus on encouraging private healthcare and controlling the trade unions with ne’er a word about recycling. The Liberals, bless them, hardly seem to have changed at all.

Fight the power!

Fight the power!

Anyway, you chooses your party and your manifesto commitments and then we get a graphical display representing streets in the constituency (called Pendel) and their voting intentions which, surprise surprise, are fairly evenly-split between the three parties. Essentially, your campaign focuses on canvassing voters on a street-by-street basis.

Starting with campaign funds of £4000, the player decides how the money must be spent over the course of ten days after which the election will take place. Each day is split into several sections. First, the player will be offered the opportunity to rent billboard space on a street (they have no choice which one, it’s announced by the computer) and must place a higher bid than the other candidates; this is done “blind” meaning the player has no idea what the other candidates are bidding, the winner gets the billboard and presumably more votes.

Next comes the opportunity to buy a newspaper advert. This time it’s all about how much you spend on the advert and this affects the candidates general popularity in the constituency.

After this comes the chance to speak at a meeting in a street. Residents will bring up issues and the player has 25 “points” to distribute in their replies and can allocate as many as they like to a single issue. The number of issues brought up is random and so allocating points can be a gamble. Manifesto commitments also affect how replies go down – if it concerns an issue on your manifesto you score extra, if it concerns an issue on an opponent’s manifesto you lose points. If your points are in the positive after the meeting then you gain votes on that street; presumably based on how many points you have.

This represents streets in the constituency; in my first game I managed to turn Tory Way into a red stronghold. Ha!

This represents streets in the constituency; in my first game I managed to turn Tory Way into a red stronghold. Ha!

Following this comes the main part of the campaign – the player is shown the streets in Pendel again and asked to choose how many and which streets to canvas. Once the streets have been chosen the player is then asked to decide how much they want to spend on canvassing and this will affect their number of votes in that street.

After this, the whole process starts again with a new billboard opportunity for the next day. In addition to this there are random events which can affect your popularity or campaign funds. After day ten the election takes place and the votes are counted on a street by street basis until they are all in and the winner is declared.

So, how does all this play? Well, not too badly. The game is in basic so it runs a bit slow but thinking about which streets to canvas and how to allocate meeting points is quite good fun and the election at the end is genuinely quite gripping as the votes pour in and (occasionally) predictions are turned on their heads.

However, I had some issues with this game. The main ones are about realism. The voters in Pendel don’t seem to be terribly ideological and can be won over far too easily. For example, I concentrated on canvassing the true-blue Tory Way in my first game and managed to turn it into a Labour stronghold. The thing is, Tory Way was clearly a well-off area full of blue rinsers and in the real 1984 some Labour candidate could spend £10,000 canvassing such an area and be lucky to pick-up a handful of votes. The way the random events affect gameplay is also clumsy. If bakers lose jobs then your candidate loses popularity but there’s no indication that you are the incumbent so… erm… why do I get all the shit for it? On an even more absurd note I once lost popularity for something the population were blaming on the government despite being a Labour candidate; say what now? The “meetings” system is similarly flawed; you gain extra points for answering a question that links to your manifesto in some way but again there’s no ideological basis for how this works. For example, if I am the Labour candidate and I have a manifesto including a commitment to control the police and I’m holding a meeting in a Conservative street and someone brings up a question regarding the police then I score well for banging on about my manifesto point despite the fact that it simply would not go down well in such an area, indeed quite the opposite. Again, this whole aspect of the game feels unrealistic. It’s also pretty easy; I played this game twice to write this article and won both times despite not having a very carefully-planned (indeed some might say utterly bloody slapdash) campaign strategy and despite having a general popularity in the negative figures.

So, overall this might be worth a game or two just out of interest but it is repetitive, easy and you shouldn’t expect anything remotely like a real mid-’80s general election campaign. Now, where’s my donkey jacket?

Celtic Legends – Nothing to do with Football

16 October, 2008
Lovely title graphics, actually

Lovely title graphics, actually

So here we have our first strategy title (and I’m only going to do a few strategy games before moving onto a different genre/subject here: they’re complicated and writing the articles on them is a pain in the arse) – Celtic Legends. Despite the name this has nothing to do with Scottish football, nor does it have anything to do with the actual Celtic legends. In fact, this game is set in the completely mythical world of Celtika and, apart from the sounds of some bagpipes in the opening sequence (yes, yes, I know they’re not properly Celtic but they have associations), that’s all it really has to do with the peoples of ancient Britain. So, the name is a bit misleading but don’t let that put you off because what we have here is an interesting and somewhat neglected strategy title for the Amiga from the misty days of yore (1991).

Needless to say the actual plot isn’t all that interesting being some sub-Tolkien stuff about a mystical realm and ye powers of good and evil having a jolly good rukus; evil being lead by a wizard called Sogrom and good being lead by another wiz calling himself Eskell. The actual landscape the game takes place over is more worthy of note. The action all takes place over a number of islands in something called the Rochebrum archipelago. These islands are dotted with Cromlechs, a natural source of magical energy which look uncannily like stone circles only with a big magic star in the

he was probably dozing in a cave somewhere seconds before

My newly-summoned cyclops: he was probably dozing in a cave somewhere seconds before

middle. Thing is, these Cromlechs are places of worship for savages who regard them as sacred and the wizard-generals leading each side as profane and so will fight against either side to protect them. If either side controls a Cromlech it gets a boost to its magical powers (the savages don’t use magic, they think doing so is dirty) so they’re important tactical objectives in each battle. Oh, and the savages use the Cromlechs as “gateways” to the islands (which they presumably don’t regard as using magic – maybe they don’t realise it is magic and think all doors work like that, the stupid numpties) meaning if neither wizard’s troops control them then more of the scruffy buggers appear so that’s another incentive to capture them quickly.

So, that’s the background but the thing we’re most interested here is how it plays. Well, there are two different stages to gameplay: the big tactical map and the little tactical battles. Let’s have a look at these.

The big tactical map shows a mini-map of the current island; a bigger, scrolling map of the same; the armies of Sogrom, Eskell and the savages (incidentally, the savages can be switched off in the main menu making it a straight two-way fight but I think this damages the atmosphere of the game) and information about the armies and the magical power possessed by the two main sides. This phase of gameplay is essentially about moving armies around the map and occupying strategic areas. It also allows the player to split or join these armies, build new castles (more on these later) and zoom in to see any army at the smaller tactical level. Whilst the graphics used for the big tactical map phase aren’t brilliant they’re well-suited to function although I do think that the way the smaller map is laid out makes it seem much bigger than it appears in the scrolling map which has lead to a couple of occasions when I’ve misjudged the distance of an enemy army, but this is something you can get used to pretty quickly.

You uncouth villain! Allow me to teach you some manners!

"You uncouth villain! Allow me to teach you some manners!"

The smaller tactical level can be seen at any time but is usually used for when two armies meet. When this happens, the opposing forces go to battle using a turn-based system similar to that used by games like the Heroes of Might and Magic series. As well as hand-to-hand combat, magic-users can also cast spells to help, hinder or injure units on the battlefield. It’s worth mentioning the graphics on the small tactical maps – they’re rather chunky and cartoonish but full of character with the units gesticulating by waving their weapons around (with the exception of Sogrom’s sorcerers who don’t have any weapons and so wave their hands in the air, presumably like they just don’t care). Castles and Cromlech’s are of particular note since holding them provides bonuses. Both have magic stars allowing for the summoning of troops (and a handy escape-route for the wizard if he stands on the star itself and does his incantation) and holding a Cromlech gives 150 points of magic per turn whilst castles supply an extra 50 points of magic to their owner per turn and give the defender an advantage in battle since the attacker can’t use magic and the defender can summon extra troops whilst in battle. However, building castles uses up 2000 magic and they can only be built on plains. Oh, and the wee gargoyle above the entrance sticks his tongue out when someone passes below him which is a nice touch. The battlefields also have different designs based on the geographical terrain (eg swamps, mountains, plains) with some even having specific hazards such as the lightning in the mountains that can strike units dead mid-battle, and yes that is pretty f*cked-up but it does make the mountain-based battles quite tense. In addition, nearby terrain, castles of Cromlechs can be seen in the background of the battle screens. The presentation in these is really excellent, shows a lot of thought has gone into the game and provides plenty of atmosphere.

The big strategy screen. This is about as exciting as it gets here, really.

The big strategy screen. This is about as exciting as it gets here, really.

Now, Sogrom and Eskell have arrived on the islands without much muscle and they’re going to need more to both fight off each other and the savages. This is where summoning comes into play. Essentially, this is the same as troop-building in a modern Real Time Strategy title: as I mentioned earlier each side has a magic level which determines how many spells their wizards can cast in any one turn and summoning uses up magic so essentially magic takes the place of the resources in an RTS. The wizard-generals can summon creatures at any time provided the wizard’s army is somewhere where there’s a magic star (ie a Cromlech or a castle). Next the player zooms in on the army, then all the wizard has to do is move next to the star and cast the “incantation” spell and then choose which troop type to summon. There can only be eight troops in an army but the “split army” function on the big tactical map can be used to summoned troops to any army in a neighbouring square. This means that with a lot of magic, large armies can be summoned and deployed pretty quickly.

Whilst I’m on the subject of troops, both sides have their own specific forces. Eskell’s armies are made up of soldiers (lowly footsoldier types), lords (bigger blokes with more strength), magicians (like mini-Eskells), cyclopses (guess), angels, hydras and archangels. Up against this lot Sogrom has goblins, orques (who presumably can’t spell), trolls, skeletons (excellently, the manual says these are all of Eskell’s old apprentices he sent on suicide missions – what an exquisitely evile c*nt), sorcerers, dragons and demons. Oh, yes, and the savages have kobolds (who used to be human but went all wonky because of too much exposure to magic – just say no kids), wolfen (basically wolves on hind legs and a bit brighter), snakes and minos (ie minotaurs). I probably don’t need to tell you that the stronger creatures like Demons and Archangels take the most magic to summon whilst the weaker ones take less.

If you see this screen it is because you have f*cked up and the terrorists have won.

The terrorists have won. Happy now?!

So, essentially each island-based campaign becomes a contest to secure castle and cromlechs (and also build in the case of castles), summon creatures and overwhelm the enemy. Once an island is completed the player moves to the next island and has to do it all again. Weirdly, Sogrom himself always commands the opposing army and the stage ends with his defeat and yet he’s back in the next level with a whole host of new ‘orribles to defeat. Must be a resilient lad but then the bad guys very often are: look at a lot of ’80s horror films.

So is it any good? Well, yes, it’s pretty good actually (we’ve finally got to the important bit). It all looks and sounds quite nice and the battles themselves are pretty good even if the large strategic map is a bit boring (this would be a pretty dull game if it were possible to turn the battles off). I think my only real complaint is that there’s a large random element to the troops attacking each other meaning that a very weak troop can land a very damaging blow on a stronger troop and that stronger troop can respond with a very weak blow. Whilst a small element of this is good in strategy games it feels a bit overdone here and can undermine the strategic aspects a bit. The combat can also be a bit slow but it’s possible to use a “speeded-up” mode so that’s not really a big problem here. I also found the AI to be a bit stupid at times (it seemed rather fond of throwing a single orc orque into battle against me for some reason) but then this was published in 1991 after all. This game is no Laser Squad but it’s definitely worth a shot if turn-based strategy is your thing.