4X style games aren’t the kinds of games you start to kill an hour or two, they’re the ones you start when you want to kill days. I can remember whole LANs that were lost to games like Alpha Centauri, whoever was “dragging the chain” on their turn ridiculed endlessly until they were done. Indeed when I first spun up Stellaris, the latest game from Paradox Interactive, I recieved a message from one of my friends saying I wouldn’t have time to finish it. As the unfolding hours showed he was 100% correct as even 9 hours with this game feel like you’re barely even scratching the surface. Still I can see the appeal but unfortunately Stellaris tends towards repetition very rapidly, making longer sessions more of a chore than anything else.
You’re the leader of a young civilisation that’s just discovered the miracle of space flight. Like all good civilisations your first task is to set about exploring the universe in the hopes of finding other planets and solar systems ripe for exploitation. Along the way you’ll likely encounter other lifeforms (some more or less advanced than you), relics of civilisations of the past and all sorts of celestial phenomena. The tools you’ll have at your disposal will vary widely each time you attempt this and will greatly impact the way in which you expand into the universe. Whether your civilisation thrives or perishes is up to you and the decisions you make in your journey across the great black.
Like most games in the 4X genre Stellaris errs on the side of simple graphics without too much flair. Since you’ll be spending most of your time zoomed all the way out this doesn’t come up too often, although the lack of detail becomes glaringly obvious for things like the ship designer. Of course these low-fi graphics are a deliberate choice as most of your rig’s horsepower will be focused on churning through the simulations required. For the most part this works well however there are some rather glaring issues with the simulation system which can make your experience far more frustrating than it needs to be (more on that later).
The core game of Stellaris is your typical 4X affair, centred around finding new planets, colonising them if you can and repeating that process ad infinitum. Stellaris shakes things up a little bit by taking a different approach to the upgrade/technology tree system, dividing all upgrades into 3 categories. Each of these categories can be researched by a scientist but what they can research is random. This means that you could, potentially, go the entire game without getting the technology required to build colony ships. Armies, rather than being pre-defined types, are all fully customisable. This means that there’s another element of randomness when it comes to combat as you can never be quite sure how well your army composition stacks up against another. Finally since your aim in Stellaris is to be a true galactic empire there’s a system to add planets to “sectors” which are then controlled by an AI for you. There’s still more to Stellaris however even summarising them all would take longer than I have to write and you to read, I’d wager.
Starting off Stellaris is a daunting prospect as there’s just so much thrown at you that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The tutorial system does a pretty good job of walking you through everything however it’ll probably take a couple retries before you get the hang of the basics. Once you get past that point however the early game can be quite interesting as you try to pick out the best upgrades, figure out where to best place your outposts/colonies and how you deal with the hostiles getting in your way. Indeed I think my favourite part of Stellaris is the early to mid game as it feels quite varied, progress is consistent and there are no major issues getting in your way. It’s once the game starts to creep past the 2 to 3 hour mark that things start to turn south, usually for a variety of different reasons.
Typically you’ll spend the first part of your game defining your borders and trying to cordon off sectors that you can exploit later. Past a certain point though all your territory will be exploited and your borders brushing up against numerous potential foes. It’s at this point you have a tough decision to make: either start preparing for total war with someone (although you should probably do that anyway as it’ll likely come for your eventually) or start attempting diplomatic relations. The latter is, honestly, a total crap shoot as it seems most alien races aren’t willing to do anything unless you lavish them with resources. The former is the option you will be forced into at one point or another as there’s simply no way to expand your territory otherwise. Worse still if you do want to play pacifist there’s every chance that another race will simply not take a liking to you and completely decimate you, something that happened to me on several occasions.
The sector system, whilst a good idea, does little to reduce the burden of ensuring that your system is running as well as it can be. Sure you can set goals and whatnot but issues like a mixed species population, developing factions, etc. will all keep drawing your attention. As your empire grows these problems become more and more frequent making it incredibly draining to run an empire that spans more than a few sectors. Indeed I abandoned a couple games simply because they became too tiresome to continue with, instead wanting to try my hand at starting again to see if there was a better way to set myself up. In the end I didn’t find anything which is probably why I didn’t play as much as your average Paradox Interactive fan does (around 30+ hours, according to the data I have available).
There are also some niggling issues which need to be addressed. The fact that achievements can only be acquired in Ironman Mode is something the game doesn’t make obvious to you and is honestly a pain to get working. It took me more than 5 hours of game play to realise I hadn’t gotten a signle achievement and then another 30 minutes of getting the cloud save feature working so I could actually start a game with achievements on. Worse still the Ironman Mode saves every month, something that freezes your game session every minute or so if you’re playing on fastest. Honestly it’s more frustrating than its worth which is why I think most simply don’t bother. This isn’t to mention some quality of life improvements that are required, like being able to filter planets you’ve scanned by say habitable status, or your colonies by the type of shipyard you have and so on. Essentially a lot of it relies on your memory or simple brute forcing, something which takes much of the joy out of the experience. Indeed I’m not alone in thinking this either as many of the threads I read whilst trying to find these things led me to other players looking for the same features.
The emergent stories of Stellaris can be quite engaging though, both from the perspective of how you grew your empire to the various little pre-generated story titbits that are strewn throughout the universe. One of my empires tried, with varying levels of success, to infiltrate a less developed race to prep them for our arrival. Another alien race found out about this though and accused me of enslaving them. Whilst that was partially the point on my end (it was a strategic planet) the fact that they reacted in such a way was a surprise to me. This did mean the end of my civilisation however as the other alien race was far better equipped for war than I was.
Stellaris is an adequately competent 4X game with a bevy of unique features that keep the experience fresh and interesting, at least in the early to mid game. The random technology trees, procedurally generated galaxies and random alien races means every play through will be unique. However the game rapidly becomes a burden the longer you play it, even with the AI systems that are designed to make your life a little easier. The niggling issues that are still present even a month after release only exacerbate this problem, especially if you’re someone who wants to hunt down all the achievements. Overall I think Stellaris is worth the price of admission, especially for fans of Paradox or the 4X genre, but falls short of my “must play” list.
Stellaris is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total game time was approximately 9 hours with 26% of the achievements unlocked.
In RTS circles the Total Annihilation series holds a special place in many player’s hearts. Whilst many games in the genre focused on tactical play Total Annihilation was a far more strategic affair, pitting giant armies of units against each other. However the series has fallen flat in recent times, the most recent instalments in the form of Supreme Commander 2 and Planetary Annihilation failing to evoke that same kind of response that its predecessors did. Few have tried to enter this niche genre and Ashes of the Singularity is the first title I’ve even bothered to give a look in. There’s nothing I’d love more than to say that the torch has been passed to a new generation however Ashes of the Singularity makes the same mistakes as its predecessor does whilst adding in a few more of its own.
Like most RTS games the story is a little thin on the ground but enough to keep you somewhat engaged in what’s going on. Humanity has entered the post-physical stage of its development, with humans transcending their bodies and converting entire planets into computing power to support their now expanded minds. However some minds have started going rogue, disconnecting from the overmind and waging war against it. Even with their vast computing resources at their disposal humanity cannot quite figure out what is causing this and so it’s up to you, neophyte, to find out the cause and stop it.
Ashes is one of the few games that can make use of DirectX 12 however there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of point in doing so. In my, admittedly very subjective, testing I couldn’t really see much difference between the two when running at the same settings. Worse still both the Steam overlay and FRAPS refused to work with it making screen capturing a rather tedious process. Ashes does look quite good however and does surprisingly well even when the unit count starts tickling the hundreds. The UI is pretty rudimentary however and wouldn’t have been out of place in one of its older predecessors. Still for games like this it’s all about the quantity and it’s admirable that Stardock has made a RTS that can withstand the torment of a stupidly high unit count.
For strategic RTS players the game play is pretty familiar. You’ll start of with your main building, the Nexus, from which you can create engineers to start building out your base further. There are two main resource types, metal and radioactives, with a secondary resource called quanta that’s used for upgrades and using special abilities. There’s 4 categories of units: 3 land (frigates, cruisers and dreadnoughts) and 1 air. For the most part you’ll do the usual build up a massive army, smash it against the enemy’s and hope that you have a higher unit count than they do. There are ways you can sway the battle in your favour, like using orbital abilities that can bolster your army or devastate theirs, but most of the time it comes down to making sure you’re ahead in army and resource count. They have to be used wisely however as they continually increase in cost as you use them. Overall the game play will feel largely familiar with a few little twists to keep it interesting.
Ashes does a decent job of introducing its mechanics to you through the campaign missions although some of the nuances are left to one side. For instance I can’t for the life of me recall when it introduced the upgrade mechanic as I only stumbled upon it in the last mission. Similarly some of the more nuanced game mechanics aren’t spelled out for you, like the increasing quanta cost for using orbital abilities. This was a touch frustrating when I was coming up against the tougher enemies that were obviously making use of all the mechanics so I do feel a few improvements to the way mechanics are introduced are in order. That being said since Ashes is a little more constrained in terms of the units available to you it doesn’t take as long to pick up on what you should be doing.
As I’ve alluded to Ashes is a strategic RTS, wanting you to focus more on the macro elements of waging war than the tactical aspects of smaller battles. This means resource management, unit pipelines and distance are for the most part more important than the units themselves. Indeed my unit composition barely changed over the course of the campaign. The strategies I used to get up and running however changed a lot depending on the map and the resources available to me. Indeed if there’s one feature of Ashes that stands out for me is just how much of a difference a map can make to the overall experience. No longer can you simply have one giant megabase sprawling the entire map, no you’ll need tightly guarded outposts clustered around resources that are churning out unit after unit. In that way I feel like Ashes does a better job of being strategic than its spiritual predecessors did which could be easily cheesed by nuclear reactors and metal generators.
However Ashes also suffers from the same issue that Planetary Annihilation did before it in that there’s not a huge variety of units available, especially in the campaign. There’s a grand total of 2 factions and each of them have roughly similar crafts apart from the dreadnoughts. Experimenting with different strategies never seemed to work out too well for me once I hit on my preferred build and then it was only a matter of time to build up the requisite army. I understand that the more units you have the harder it is to balance things (a large consideration for Ashes since it appears to be attempting to foster an online competitive community) but that was one of the reasons I enjoyed the original Total Annihilation so much. Perhaps this will change in future DLC instalments.
Ashes comes with a few irritating bugs which I got tripped up on far too often. Right-clicking is something of a gamble as sometimes it’ll just simply refuse to issue a command. In order to get it to work again I’d have to left click then right click again, signalling it thought I was trying to do some other action for which right-click was not an option. This only gets more frustrating as the unit selection and grouping feels hit and miss too, making moving large armies a real chore. To top it all off the AI has a propensity to cheat in a very obvious fashion, something which is down right infuriating when you’re on the cusp of victory. The screenshot previous shows me completely dominating the AI until it used two nukes in a row to decimate my army completely, something it simply couldn’t have done with the resources it had at the time.
The story is serviceable however I felt like it could have been vastly improved if it was fully voice acted. The text exchanges just felt flat by comparison and the fact that they also took you out of the action whilst they were playing just made it all the more jarring. Had it taken a cue from nearly every other modern RTS and used voice actors playing in the background I’d likely be far more engaged with it than I was. It also felt a bit weird that this super-intelligences, ones that have several planets dedicated to powering their ever expanding minds, were so flummoxed by nearly everything they encountered. Honestly, whilst having a little irreverence can be refreshing at times, it just felt amateur in Ashes.
Ashes of the Singularity is a solid attempt at the strategic RTS genre however it, like the most recent entrants in this space, falls a little flat in its execution. Technically it’s a triumph being able to run on both DirectX 11 and 12 and handling more units on screen than most RTS’ can manage. The game itself however suffers from from a few glaring faults that keep it from being the title that will revive this genre. The story also lacks a few elements that could have improved it significantly which would have tied the whole experience together a little better. Overall, whilst I don’t recommend against playing Ashes, it’s really only aimed at fans of the genre and I don’t believe its appeal extends much further beyond that.
Ashes of the Singularity is available on PC right now for $49.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with a total of 54% of the achievements unlocked.
Most single player games are played either for relaxation, escapism or a combination of both. However there are some that feel more like running a marathon, igniting your mental faculties in such a way as to leave you exhausted by the end of it. StarCraft and other RTS are like this, requiring concentration far beyond that of any other genre I’ve played. Anno 2205 requires a similar level of concentration however, instead of RAW APM and macro, it instead requires you to constantly recalculate the finite balance of the numerous resources you have to manage. One wrong move can send you on a downward spiral that can be hard to pull out of, or send you on your trajectory to corporate supremacy.
Anno 2205 predictably takes place in the future, some 135 years after the previous instalment in the series. In this future the Earth has become starved for energy and other precious resources and thus has turned towards the Moon in order to save it. You are the head of a fledgling new corporation who has been accepted into the Lunar Licensing program which aims to free Earth from its current energy bonds. Your goal is to establish a fusion reactor on the moon and transmit that energy back to Earth, no small goal for a company that just established its first warehouse. Along the way you’ll have to establish global trade routes, fight off those who would thwart you and ensure that your company remains financially viable so you can continue expanding your empire.
The graphics of Anno 2205 are a marked step up from its predecessor with a whole new engine powering a complete overhaul of the graphics and UI. Gone is the semi-dreamlike aesthetic which has been replaced by a crisp, detailed world. The typical Anno stylings are still present however so if you’ve played any of the preceding titles it will still feel familiar. These upgraded visuals do come at a cost however as even my machine would start to sputter and spurt whenever I hovered over a particularly dense part of the world. Still it rarely became unplayable but for those who might be on lower end hardware long games are certainly going to be a struggle.
Anno 2205 retains the same RTS/city building hybrid game play that its predecessors had however many changes have been made in the name of streamlining the experience. Instead of managing trade routes within a single map everything is shared instantly. You still have trade routes to manage however they’re at a more macro level between areas. Anno 2205 also guides you through the various trials and tribulations that it will throw at you, telling you what critical shortages are impacting you and when you should investigate something. There’s also some new mechanics included to make sure that you don’t find yourself in an unrecoverable situation, however it’s still up to you to get yourself out of it. The combat has also been relegated to its own separate encounter, meaning you don’t have to manage your military and trade all in the one spot. Other than that however Anno 2205 plays out much like its predecessors did, requiring you to make sure you have enough of everything so your employees stay happy so you can remain profitable.
Like most similar games Anno 2205 feels extremely overwhelming on first play as there is just so much you need to learn and understand. Thankfully though the tutorial is great at stepping you through the various goals you need to meet in order to reach the next objective. You are, of course, free to ignore that completely and pursue your own objectives independently however Anno’s rather linear progression means that you’d be wise to follow its instruction. After a while you start to get a feel for the impact that your actions have on your world and that allows you to start building out a plan of attack for progression towards the next goal.
For instance your advanced resource colonies (Arctic and Lunar) are almost always going to be loss-leaders. I tried extremely hard to make them profitable however they just never seemed to get into positive territory. The main tropical ones however can have you rolling in cash in no short order, meaning you should focus on building them out as much as you can whilst only building the minimal components in the others in order to support them. Then, once your cash reserves are high enough, you can look towards building them out a bit more in order to support the next goal or tech tier which will then allow your main colony to thrive further. Attempting anything else seemed to lead to me running into negative cashflow territory quickly, something which torpedoes any kind of growth you were experiencing.
Thankfully when that happens the game, at least on its default settings, is generous with the bailouts it gives and the conditions that are imposed on you when they’re given. This means that, should you find yourself in a dire situation, you’ll get lump sumps of cash from the Lunar Licensing program in order to continue your work. Gone are the days when a downward spiral in Anno meant you’d be restarting your game, something I was thankful for given I flirted with bankruptcy more than once. Past a certain point though credits no longer matter and it all comes down to the resources you can generate.
In the beginning this all comes from simply building as many things as you can, however that will quickly have you running out of credits and space. After that point you’ll need to engage in combat missions in order to get upgrade materials to make your resource generation more efficient. These missions are essentially micro exercises, pitting your combat fleet against a torrent of enemies and objectives. They’re not especially difficult although they do have a gear check requirement for the higher levels which can’t really be overcome with skill alone. Still whenever I found myself wanting for resources it didn’t take long to get them, something I was thankful for given the rather huge time sink requirement games like Anno have. Removing this aspect from the core game is a welcome change too as it always felt far too fiddly having to manage all those aspects together all in the same map in previous instalments.
Indeed whilst many Anno purists where crying foul over the streamlining I feel like it was the best thing about 2205. 2070 always had far too much going on with so many variables to track in order to make sure that everything was working as intended. 2205 by contrast keeps you informed of what’s going on without being too heavy on the information side and shows you exactly where the deficiencies are coming from so you can address them directly. Sure it might be a simpler game, one that’s not so mechanically complex, but there is such a thing as too much complexity and that’s definitely how I felt with 2070.
Anno 2205 is a great evolution of the series, bringing with it streamlined gameplay and updated visuals that really ramps up the Anno experience. The core game remains largely the same, with the resource balancing act still being the key to everything, however it’s a lot less mentally exhausting. The various other aspects have been carved up into their own little sections, further reducing the mental burden. You’ll still be saddling up for quite some time however as reaching the ultimate goal took even this seasoned gamer numerous hours to complete. For fans of the series or just this type of game in general Anno 2205 is a great title, one that’s sure to provide countless hours of addiction…I mean entertainment.
Anno 2205 is available on PC right now for $59.99. Total play time was approximately 9 hours.
As a long time Protoss player I can’t tell you the disappointment I initially felt when I heard that they’d be the last race in the StarCraft II trilogy. After the amazing experience I had with Wings of Liberty (and subsequently Heart of the Swarm) however I was far happier; knowing that having the Protoss bring about the ultimate conclusion of this near 2 decade long franchise. Whilst I may have snoozed on the actual release date, meaning my collector’s edition trilogy will have to be completed with a trip to eBay, I’ve since spent a good chunk of time with Legacy of the Void and I’m glad to say many of my expectations have been met.
Legacy of the Void takes place some time after the events of Heart of the Swarm with Zeratul following the trail of the Xel’Naga prophecy. His quest has led him to the home world of the Tal’Darim, a brutal race of Protoss loyal to the dark lord Amon. Upon destroying the void catalyst, a crystal which allowed the Tal’Darim to commune with their dark lord, he is shown a vision of Tassadar who instructs him to retrieve the Xel’Naga keystone. With this information he returns to Artanis who is beginning the raid to retake his home world of Aiur. Zeratul warns him against this however the young Executor proceeds anyway, playing right into Amon’s hands.
It might just be the fact that I’ve upgraded my PC significantly since I last played a game of StarCraft but Legacy of the Void is an absolutely stellar looking game. For the most part the in-game graphics appear to be largely the same, possibly a little more textured, but the graphics outside that are just stunning. Blizzard’s trademark lower poly, highly stylized aesthetic is in strong force here, done so well that their in-game engine cutscenes feel on par for many pre-rendered scenes in other games. This does come at a cost however and even my relatively beastly machine started to struggle when I hit 200/200 supply and started moving my deathball across the map. The game ready drivers from Nvidia did improve this noticeably however, something I had been neglecting to update for far too long.
Once again the core game of Legacy of the Void is the trademark RTS game play, putting you in control of vast armies which you’ll be using to slay countless hordes of enemies. You’ve got your regular build your base and throw your army at the enemy style maps whilst others are focused on small teams or more strategic ones that focus on hero units. The unit upgrade system makes a return, allowing you to choose from 3 different factions which imbue a unit with additional powers and abilities or grant you an entirely new unit to build. The real difference in Legacy of the Void however comes in the form of the Spear of Adun, your arkship which can be upgraded with all sorts of abilities that will aid you in combat. Overall it’s the kind of game we’ve come to expect from Blizzard, exactly what all of us fans were wanting from them.
I’ll have to admit I struggled at the start to get engaged with Legacy of the Void as the missions (and the story, more on that later) just simply failed to grab me like the last 2 instalments did. I think this is partly because at the beginning there’s not a whole lot going on and you spend a decent amount of time building up your cast of characters that will join you along the way. Past a certain point though it’s easy to lose long periods of time, the missions flowing into each other seamlessly and the desire to get more solarite (to upgrade the Spear of Adun) forcing you to try and retry missions to get it right. Towards the end though things start to drag a bit and I think this is probably Legacy of the Void’s biggest flaw for me.
Unlike the previous 2 instalments (and this may just be me looking back on them with rose coloured glasses) Legacy of the Void doesn’t provide the same kind of rewarding challenge at higher difficulties. Indeed there are many missions where higher difficulties (and I did test this) just means more enemies, like any one of the “protect your ally’s base” missions. In those particular missions it doesn’t feel like you’re being challenged so much as worn down by near insurmountable odds, forcing you to cheese encounters or, if you’re just done with a particular encounter, cheat. Since I’ve always played on hard and found the challenge rewarding it was odd to feel this way with Legacy of the Void but it was definitely one of those things which soured my experience towards the end.
The Spear of Adun upgrade system is great, allowing you to select a variety of abilities and passive bonuses that you can use during the missions. For the economy focused missions things like the chrono warp (1000% faster building/upgrading) are amazing whilst others, like the warp in reinforcements ability, make resource constrained maps a breeze. It’s definitely not a one size fits all kind of upgrade system as you’ll be trading off between other potentially valuable upgrades. The encounters are built around you actively using the abilities however so whilst the benefits are awesome it does add another layer of complexity onto this already intense game.
You’ll be making similar trade offs for your unit choices as, whilst some of them are noticeably more effective than others, sometimes the situation will call for a switch. The Zealots, for example, are typically best placed to be upgraded with the stun however there are numerous AOE situations where the others are better suited. The one unit which I don’t think has an equal among the other choices was the Havoc as extended range and +30% damage is just impossible to beat. Other than that though I found myself often switching between different combinations for whatever the mission called for. This is most certainly a departure from the previous 2 instalments which had a very clear “best” option for pretty much everything. It shows that Blizzard has put a lot of effort into making all the choices viable which makes for a far more interesting single player experience.
As I mentioned before the story takes some time to get on its feet, mostly because it’s introducing a lot more plot elements which aren’t exactly interesting when you’re first playing through. However they start to rapidly build on each other as the game progresses and there are some really enthralling moments both in and out of the missions. Whilst they kind of reveal the ending early on in the campaign it’s still interesting to follow it along to its ultimate conclusion. Indeed it’s something I still feel like I’m processing as this is the conclusion of a story that’s been running for almost 20 years. Thankfully though it finishes well, not leaving any loose ends that scream sequel. I’m sure we’ll see more in the StarCraft universe as time goes on though.
StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void is a brilliant conclusion to the story of Blizzard’s flagship RTS, bringing with it the kind of polished experience that they’re famous for. The game play is exactly how you’d expect it to be with the RTS experience just oozing polish at every corner. The upgrade system, along with the Spear of Adun, are great additions to the game, adding another layer of variety and choice that allows you to play out each mission in incredibly unique ways. The story may take its time finding its feet but once it does it ramps up quickly to an ultimate conclusion that’s predictable but enjoyable all the same. It’s always bittersweet seeing a long story arc like this come to its final conclusion but I can say wholeheartedly that I enjoyed the journey that brought me here.
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total play time was approximately 15 hours with 46% of the achievements unlocked.
Total Annihilation was probably one of my favourite games when it was first released 17 years ago. It wasn’t the massive swarms of units, or the epic scale of the battles, no I loved building up the superpower units that could decimate an entire army in one fell swoop. I’d spend hours crafting the perfect base, one that no one could break through so I could sit there crafting my doomsday weapon. I even downloaded TAUIP to give me even more units and a better AI, sending me further down the TA rabbit hole. It’s spiritual successor, Supreme Commander, was also one of my favourites, even if the sequel fell short. You can then imagine my excitement when I saw the Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter which I couldn’t back fast enough. Here we are, 2 years later, and Planetary Annihilation has finally launched and I’ve spent the last week playing through it.
Humanity has long since left this universe. You are a relic of a war that has long since past, a machine built with a single purpose in mind: to annihilate everything that stands in your path. You will travel to the far reaches of space, seeking out new technology that you’ll incorporate into your unrelenting war. However your foes have the same goal and they will stop at nothing to ensure that you are wiped off the face of this universe permanently. Do you have the strength and skills to beat them before they get the better of you? Or will you fall to the same unrelenting fervour that you are a slave to?
Visually Planetary Annihilation is definitely a step up from its predecessor (for the sake of argument I’m going to say that’s Supreme Commander 2) although the art direction now tends towards the stylized/cartoony. Considering the purpose of Planetary Annihilation this isn’t much of a surprise as one of the long running problems with any of the Annihilation series was that performance often suffered the longer the game went on. Suffice to say that even with the slight improvements it still manages to remain quite smooth over the course of longer games. The interface is also much more streamlined, making it far easier to get acquainted with everything than it was in previous titles.
Like previous installations in the Annihilation series Planetary Annihilation puts you in charge of a single unit, the Commander, to start off with and then lets you loose upon a world to build an army to destroy your foes. However you’re now no longer constrained to just a single planet, escalating the potential warfare to planetary levels. This introduces a whole host of new mechanics like orbital units, teleporters and whole planets which can be used as weapons. Notably absent from the game however is the inclusion of a single player story campaign which has been replaced by a procedurally generated series of AI skirmishes called Galactic War. Finally there’s multiplayer to be had which is likely where most people will be spending their time, although it’s done in the older style of “find a lobby to join” rather than the newer style matchmaking.
Long time fans of the Annihilation series will be instantly familiar with the core gameplay of Planetary Annihilation as all the units are essentially the same with your standard air/vehicle/bot/naval choices immediately available from your commander. The tech trees have been reduced from 3 tiers to 2 which significantly reduces the number of units you’ll have at your disposal. However this is made up for by the inclusion of the new types of units and was probably done because you’ll likely be splitting your concentration across multiple planets with multiple warfronts. The same mechanics are at play, you’ll need metal and energy in order to be able build things, however they have also been streamlined with only 2 types of energy generators and metal extractors. So overall the gameplay is largely similar but streamlined with a few mechanics thrown in to elevate the combat to a planetary scale.
However unlike previous Annihilation titles there’s no factions to speak of so all the units are exactly the same for every player. For me this was one of the defining features of the Annihilation series as it meant that each race had it’s own strengths and weaknesses and different strategies were needed to cope with each different race. In Planetary Annihilation that’s not the case however and all you really need to do is figure out what kind of units your opponent is building and make the counter to them. This, especially when competing against the AI, means that the game favours those who rush their opponents with swarms of a certain mix of units early, even more so when you’re on the same planet. Indeed there are very few opportunities to craft super units that can devastate armies, a trademark of the Annihilation series, thus eliminating much of the strategy that I came to love about these games.
In fact I think this is reflected in one key metric: the length of each game. Games in Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander could easily go on for hours as everyone tried various tactics against each other, all the while hoping to build that one unit or structure that would give them the upper hand. In Planetary Annihilation most games will go for 20 to 30 minutes before it’s obvious who’s going to win. Again this was something that I loved about the Annihilation series as it always felt more strategic rather than tactical and was the primary reason many disliked Supreme Commander 2. The planetary scope had a lot of potential to recapture that feeling that so many previous Annihilation titles had but it unfortunately fell way short of the mark.
This is only exacerbated by the incredibly lackluster single player campaign. Whilst the idea behind Galactic War sounded good on paper in practice it’s not much more than one AI skirmish after another, ones that are either easily won within the first 10 minutes or others which are an uphill battle due to the fact that the AI is given a head start over you. It’s made worse by the fact that you can get shoehorned by the technology that you collect during the various missions, sometimes putting you in a spot that’s nigh on impossible to bypass. Like, for instance, if you’ve got all naval and air tech but the enemy starts on another planet you’re likely sweet out of luck as you won’t be able to use the teleporter to get them across. Instead you’ll have to rely on shooting nukes over there and hope that they haven’t got more anti-nuke facilities than you have missiles.
There’s also some niggling issues around the game itself. If you start an AI skirmish or Galactic War there’s no way to restart a battle if it isn’t going your way so you’ll have to quit and restart Planetary Annihilation in order to start over again. I can somewhat understand that not being in the Galactic War (if it’s meant to be a Roguelike experience, although I have no idea if that’s the case) but for AI skirmishes it seems like a really glaring omission. Things like that are supposed to be about testing builds or trying out units that you haven’t seen before and so restarting the battle quickly and easily is key to that. Having to boot the game over every time you want to do that is a right pain in the ass and not something I expected from veteran developers like Uber Entertainment.
Planetary Annihilation feels like a game that’s still in beta mode, lacking the polish of it’s spiritual predecessors and ultimately failing to deliver on the tried and true Annihilation franchise experience. The core aspects of the series are there, the massive units, larger than life scale, etc. but the game itself just doesn’t play like the titles of yore. This isn’t a case of the game not living up to the hype, after backing the game I ignored pretty much everything to do with it until I heard of the official release, more that too many things of what made the previous Annihilation titles good have been left out and what remains just isn’t enough. I really wanted to love Planetary Annihilation but it just feels like the official launch came way before it was ready for primetime with a lot more work to be done before I can say that it’s up to the calibre of its predecessors.
Planetary Annihilation is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 6 hours. The writer backed this game on Kickstarter at the $250 pledge level.
Long time readers will know that Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty has long held the crown for the highest rated game here on The Refined Geek. It’s not an undeserved title either as they managed to capture in my attention in a way few games have been able to and indeed only one (DOTA 2) has been able to do so since. From the start I knew it was set to be a trilogy carving the game up into 3 separate installments each of which would focus on a single race. Heart of the Swarm, the second game in the Starcraft II trilogy, continues the story started in Wings of Liberty and as the name implies focuses primarily on the Zerg race.
Heart of the Swarm picks up not too long after the final events that take place in Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan has been locked away in a test facility run by prince Valerian who is eager to see how much control she retains over the Zerg. Shortly after the final test is complete (which had resulted in Kerrigan using the Zerg to destroy much of the test facility) Dominion forces attack, forcing them to evacuate. However in the confusion Raynor is unfortunately left behind and Kerrigan refuses to leave without him. After waiting for him to contact her she reads a news report that he was captured and summarily executed, causing Kerrigan to swear brutal vengeance against Mengsk yet again.
As always Blizzard has delivered an incredibly beautiful game, one that will run well on nearly any system built within the past 4 years. Whilst the in-game graphics haven’t changed significantly, apart from higher-resolution textures and better lighting (which you could say is significant, I guess), the whole game feels a heck of a lot more polished. The in-between mission cut scenes, dialog sequences and cinematics have all seen improvements which are very obvious when comparing them side by side.
From a core game perspective Heart of the Swarm doesn’t change much with the standard real time strategy mechanics applying throughout the game. However like Wings of Liberty not every mission is simply a build army, send at enemy, rise and repeat deal with most of the missions being rather unique in their implementation. Of course there are your standard base/army building type missions however most of them have an unique twist to them which can make them more complicated or provide opportunities to make them far easier, should you be willing to take the risk.
Whilst this might not be too different from Wings of Liberty (although individually the missions are all very different) the levels do seem to be better designed as I can remember struggling to get into the campaign in the original whilst it didn’t take me long to get hooked on Heart of the Swarm. Indeed since all the missions are so varied and unique I rarely found myself becoming bored with them. This ended up with me engaging in a rather ravenous binge on missions which only stopped when I realised I was playing on into the early hours of the morning. That hasn’t happened to me in a while and is a real testament to the quality of each mission in Heart of the Swarm.
Outside of the core missions you’ll be given the opportunity to upgrade your units, giving them unique abilities that will make them far more effective in game. There’s 2 types of upgrades that will be available for all of your units, the first being a choice of 3 different types of specializations which you can change at any time. The second is a permanent change to the unit itself giving it either additional abilities (like the Raptor Zergling pictured about which can now leap at targets and jump up cliffs) or giving it an evolutionary path (like the Hydralisk being able to evolve into a lurker). Thankfully you’re not making this decision blind as all of the permanent evolutions come alongside a mission that gives you a feel for how the new unit will behave and where it will be effective.
For long time Starcraft players the upgrade paths have a pretty obvious “best” path as certain combinations become almost completely unstoppable. Sure each of them is viable in their own sense and some choices are better than others in some situations however my initial combination of frenzied hydras with roaches that slowed was enough to melt most armies without too much hassle. Once I got respawning ultralisks it was pretty much game over for any large army as they couldn’t kill them quick enough and all their precious siege defences just melted away, leaving the rest of their army vulnerable.
Wings of Liberty included some hero units but apart from the basic in game upgrades (which were only available during base building missions) there wasn’t much you could do to customize them. Heart of the Swarm often gives you direct control over Kerrigan and her list of abilities is quite impressive. The good thing about this is you can craft her to fit your playstyle effectively as you can play her as a big spell nuker, tanky siege destoryer or 1 woman army that can take out bases without the assistance of any other units. On the flip side however this can make it feel like your army is just like an accessory for Kerrigan, something that’s nice but not necessarily required.
For me I went with a tanky building that favoured direct attacks over spells. Her attacks would chain and she would attack faster with each subsequent attack which would allow her to melt armies in no short order. Couple that with a spammable healing ability and she was for the most part invincible and should she get into trouble I could simply walk her out of there whilst healing her every 8 seconds. It did seem somewhat unfair at times as since the heal was AOE I could keep my army going far longer than it should have been able to normally which usually meant once I hit 200/200 I rarely found myself building any further units. I get that she’s supposed to be an immensely powerful being but she does take some of the challenge out of it. Maybe it’s different on brutal (I played on hard, for what its worth).
Although there were no bugs to report, even with the streaming which I thought would cause all manner of strife, there were a couple issues that marred my experience in Heaert of the Swarm. Whilst the out of mission upgrades were good they were often choices between upgrades that were available in multiplayer games. As someone who played Zerg back in Wings of Liberty (well, I randomed for a long time so I played all races) I often found myself missing some upgrades that overcome the inherit weaknesses of particular units. The removal of larva injects also didn’t sit particularly well for me as that was an in-grained habit and its removal relegated the queens to creep tumour/heal bots which, after a certain point in the game, relegated them to units I’d only build when I was running low on larva. These aren’t systemic issues with the game per se, but they definitely detracted from my experience.
Warning: plot spoilers below.
I also can’t praise the story as highly as I did back with Wings of Liberty as Kerrigan starts off strong but quickly degenerates into a character with confused emotions who makes decisions that don’t make a whole bunch of sense. This might be because the over-arching plot is somewhat predictable (the twist about Raynor for instance) and when her motivations don’t line up with the direction you think they’d be going in it just feels…weird. I did like the nods to previous unresolved plot threads from the original Starcraft series (if you can’t figure out who Narud is then your head is on backwards, hint hint) as Wings of Liberty only half alluded to them. The foreshadowing for the final instalment has got me excited for what’s to come however, even if the story might end up being not much more than your generic sci-fi action movie.
Plot spoilers over.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a solid follow up to Wings of Liberty providing a highly polished game experience that is par for the course for Blizzard games. All of the missions feel unique, banishing the usual RTS campaign drudgery and creating an experience that is both challenging and satisfying. Unfortunately I can’t rate it as highly as its predecessor as my many hours in multiplayer set up expectations which would probably never be met and the strange treatment of Kerrigan as a central character marred an otherwise great experience. Still these are comparatively minor nit picks in a game that drew me in and trapped me for hours and I would do it again willingly.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is available on PC right now for $48. Game was played on hard with around 12 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve never been much of a fan of city building and strategy games. I mean sure I grew up playing games like Sim City and Age of Empires much like the rest of my generation and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy them, but as time as went on I found myself playing less and less of them, instead favouring other genres. I think this is due to the somewhat slower game play style, one that favours a decisive methodical approach that’s usually at odds with my “just entertain me” thought pattern. Still Anno 2070 managed to catch my eye with its curious blend of city building and real time strategy, something I hadn’t really come across before.
Anno 2070 puts you far into the future where the polar ice caps have melted, flooding the entire world. Because of this the world has united under one singular government with three distinct factions. The first is the Tycoons, a capitalistic consortium that look to rebuild the world as fast as possible regardless of the consequences. The second is the Ecos, an environmental movement who share the same goal as the Tycoons but favour sustainable approaches over expansion at any cost. Finally there’s the Techs, in essence a group of scientists who develop much of the technologies that power both the Tycoon’s and Eco’s economies. You are put in charge of an Ark, an advanced submersible craft that’s capable of restarting civilization on the uninhabited islands of the world. Anno 2070 follows your adventures as you rebuild civilization and do battle with the various problems that cross your path.
The graphics of Anno 2070 are visually pleasing to say the least, providing a level of eye candy that I haven’t seen in this genre before. Much of this owes to the soft glow that seems to surround everything, giving a soft blur that makes the graphics appear much better than they actually are. The camera work done for the cut scenes in Anno 2070 is also quite good with many scenes having a distinct movie feel to them. As an added bonus all this doesn’t seem to put too much strain on my gaming rig as even when I had hundreds of buildings on screen the game was still buttery smooth, something that the developers behind Anno 2070 get a lot of brownie points for.
However Anno 2070 falls into the lazy trap of nothing bothering to do any kind of lip syncing at all, not even for the voice acted parts. This really irks me as it’s not exactly a hard thing to do and Anno 2070 just doesn’t even bother, the characters just randomly flap their mouths while the sound bite plays. You may think this is being overly harsh but I watched my friends almost a decade ago accomplish near perfect lip syncing when they were doing a 3D animation course. When a game doesn’t bother to do this I can’t help but feel they had lazy animators, especially when there’s not that much more animation in the rest of the game. The voice acting, whilst passable, doesn’t really help matters here either.
As I alluded to earlier Anno 2070 is a curious blend of Sim City/Civilization city building style mechanics coupled with elements of real time strategy. The campaign missions serve as a good introduction to these mechanics, introducing each of them slowly so you can get a feel for them, and after the first couple missions I had a pretty good grasp on what I needed to do. The two different genres are heavily intertwined, as I’ll explain below.
The first part is the city building. You start off by dropping a warehouse on an island which gives you an area to construct non-residential buildings in. After that you can then drop a community centre which allows you to build homes for people to live in. These people have needs which take the form of food, drink, community and so on. Should you satisfy all their needs the buildings will then upgrade to the next level of citizen, one that has more nuanced needs but also generates more income for you. There are 4 distinct levels for each race and each level brings with it new buildings that are bigger and better than their previous ones.
However you’ll never be able to find everything you need to get to the highest levels by using just one island. All of the islands have natural resources on them that can be exploited but its guaranteed that one island won’t have everything you need. That’s when ships and trading routes come in, you can use them to ferry resources between islands. At the same time you’ll probably want to expand your population there, because otherwise you won’t be able to pay the upkeep on the ships. Of course those people have needs to, which the island probably doesn’t have, so you’ll have to use those same ships to start ferrying resources to them as well.
It’s really quite incredible how much effort you have to put in to make sure everything stays balanced so that you don’t run out of money or that you residents leave you. In the one multiplayer game I had with a mate of mine it was an intense 4 hour session of bouncing between islands ensuring that all the needs were met, ultimately unraveling before me as I underestimated just how costly satisfying the highest level resident’s desires would be. We didn’t even get to the other part of the game, the real time strategy component.
Whilst the main focus of Anno 2070 is the city building the RTS side of it is just as important if you’re looking to win. Whilst its not as complex or nuanced as say StarCraft II it can’t be ignored either as one combat ship can make you life rather painful if left unchecked. The final missions of the campaign focus heavily on this and whilst you won’t be spending all your time focusing on the combat it’s still enough to break up the monotony of constantly balancing the needs of your populace with the costs of doing so.
On top of all of this is the ancillary activities which can change the way you play your game. There’s regular votes for the world council with the outcome granting certain bonuses. A World Event is always happening that will reward players who complete it based on the number of people who participated in it and there are Current Events that can be completed for rewards from certain factions. For someone who’s a fan of the Anno series or just this instalment this kind of thing would be a veritable gold mine of additional content, further extending the replay value of Anno 2070.
Anno 2070 represents an interesting fusion of genres that you don’t usually see coming together and manages to pull it off surprisingly well. With the pleasing graphics, intricate game play and wealth of content Anno 2070 is definitely one of those games that won’t disappoint traditional PC gamers. The experience isn’t perfect however, what with the terrible lip syncing and ridiculously long play times for multiplayer games. Still for the price I paid I’d consider it a winner and I can see it being busted out at LANs for those looking for a Civ style fix without the minimum 8 hour time commitment.
Anno 2070 is available right now on PC for $20.99 (or $90 on Steam). Game was played entirely on the PC with around 16 hours of single player and 4 hours of multiplayer.
What can I say about Starcraft that hasn’t already been said? The game was released over a decade ago and is still the definitive standard for what a real time strategy game should be. I can remember my times with it fondly, playing through the campaign as it was laid out before me, savouring every mission and becoming wholly engrossed in the story. Years later I would return to the game to play it online with a friend of mine, my first taste of real competitive online gaming. I became hooked on custom maps, playing everything from RPGs to the first versions of tower defense. As the years went on Starcraft remained on my hard drive and nearly every LAN I would attend saw it copied around and played for at least a couple games. Truly Starcraft was the game that just would not die and it’s sequel has been the talk of my friends for the past couple weeks. Its legacy is undeniable and a lesser game development company would struggle to keep to meet such expectations. Blizzard however is not one to disappoint.
Starcraft 2 takes place 4 years after the events of Starcraft: Broodwar. You play as Jim Raynor, former Vulture pilot turned revolutionary after his former leader Arcturus Mengsk wiped out an entire planet using the Zerg. The plot initially focuses around Raynor’s desire to overthrow Mengsk, who he now believes to be worse than the confederate leaders that came before him. This sets the scene for the initial set of missions as you set about building your army by gathering resources, completing missions for credits and finding new units with which to proceed forward. Each mission is given to you by one of your crew mates and they serve to build the characters as the story progresses.
The mission delivery format is completely different from the usual affair you might be familiar with in the RTS genre. Whilst most would simply limit you to certain units until after a number of missions were complete Starcraft 2 instead gives you the opportunity to choose which units you receive next as well as the upgrades that they receive. This can be both a blessing and a curse as some missions are trivialized by certain units whilst others require a certain unit to be able to complete some objectives. Additionally the game includes a Zerg and Protoss research tree which you can unlock by finding items or killing a particular unit during a mission. The upgrades unlocked from this tree are game altering and depending on your choices can make the difference between a mission being a breeze and it being nigh on impossible.
The upgrade and non-linear missions ensures that everyone’s play through of Starcraft 2 will be quite different, ensuring that even if you only play the campaign you’ll have a good few replays before the game is done. Whilst there’s always a strategy that trivilizes a mission the infinite amount of possibilities for completing an objective had lead to quite a few entertaining stories with my Starcraft playing friends. I think most of my missions past a certain point can be summed up by the quote: “Siege tanks are like violence, if they don’t solve the problem use more”.
Starcraft 2’s non-combat experience really draws the game together. Whilst you only have 4 places to visit most of the time the interactions between they never seem to get stale as their landscape changes as you progress through the campaign. The interactions with various members of your crew between missions helps to flesh out the characters and their motivations and nearly all of the decision moments in the game were influenced by these short bits of dialogue with my crew members. There’s nothing to lose by not interacting with them but if you’re a lore sponge like myself you’ll be clicking on every crew member after every mission, eagerly awaiting what they have to hear.
All of this would be for naught if the game play itself was nothing special. In the beginning the differences between Starcraft 2 and its predecessor are almost all graphical which is no small feat in itself. Each and every map is deliciously detailed in true Blizzard fashion, using every polygon to create a stylized but highly engrossing world. All the controls you’re familiar with from Starcraft work as expected in the sequel with many augmentations to make handling large groups of units far easier. All the units and buildings will be instantly recognizable as well with the new units and augmentations giving you enough variety to feel like you’re playing Starcraft but not one that’s just a revamp of its predecessor.
What really seals the deal for the single player campaign of Starcraft 2 is the absolute uniqueness of every mission. Throughout the 26 missions that you’ll play through each of them has something different that will force you to rethink the usual “build big army, attack move to enemy” strategy that got you through other RTSs. From avoiding a rising lava tide to robbing a train to preventing (or not) Terran colonies from being purged by the Protoss you’ll always be trying to figure out the optimal strategy for taking out your opponent. Taking the last mission as a great example of this the list of strategies I have for finishing it are probably the most varied of any game I’ve seen before. It really is a testament to Blizzard’s ability to build a complex and intriguing game.
I initially lamented the idea of including achievements in the game as I viewed them as just something that “has to be done” these days, rather than something that enhanced game play. For most games this still rings true with many achievements being quite pointless and merely serve to try and increase the replayability of the title. Whilst achievements weren’t my foucs whilst playing through the missions initially I’ve found myself going back to get the achievements simply because they make you a better player for doing them. Many of them require careful force management or using carefully planned out strategies to accomplish the goal. I’m still under half of the achievements done but I can see myself coming back to finish them off for a long time to come as a single mission can be done inside 30 mins.
If there’s one thing we can attribute the original Starcraft’s longevitiy to it’s the multiplayer. Blizzard spent years tweaking and refining the multiplayer and it shows as it was one of the few games that anyone could call truly balanced. Starcraft 2 is no exception as whilst I’ve only just dipped my toes into the revamped Battle.net I quickly lost 4 hours on a saturday night playing 10 matches with one of my long timefriends. The party system and new socially focused interface made connecting with fellow Starcraft players extremely easy. Whilst I lament that they’ve removed LAN play I can see the reasoning behind it since the interface is so heavily integrated with Battle.net. Still they’ve thought of nearly everything from keeping the last 10 replays (since you never always remember to save the ones you need to) to make getting into a match no harder than a couple clicks and waiting for the match to begin.
What really binds this entire game together though is the story that Blizzard has masterfully crafted into an epic tale of redemption, love and loss. Each and every character is exteremely believable, all having their own motivations for being involved with Raynor’s quest. The interactions between the characters are real and there’s distinct growth for all of the major players as the story unfolds. I can’t really talk about it much more without spoiling any points that I feel you must experience on your own but rest assured Blizzards reputation of telling great stories with amazing games is not let down by the first installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.
I must also commend Blizzard for their 3D artists and animators. I’m a stickler for motion capture as the technology is at a point where it shouldn’t be hard to get it right. Starcraft 2 stanmds out as an example of not only getting it right but doing it so well that I didn’t even notice how well it was done until I took a step back to analyze it critically. The movements of the characters and units are fluid and most importantly they get the lip syncing spot on with the dialogue. After the disaster that was Alan Wake’suse of motion capture I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Blizzard’s work. Additionally the full cinematic sequences are tear inducingly good with the attention to detail surpassing that of what I’ve come to expect even from 3D film production houses. I don’t think I’d be able to contain myself should Blizzard ever state they were going to make a full length movie of any of their franchises.
Starcraft 2 is one of those shining examples of a game where everything about it stands out as an example of how things ought to be done. The story and gameplay make for an extremely enjoyable single player experience that will provide you many hours of enjoyment even after you’ve completed it once. The multiplayer just plain works and once you’ve had your first taste of victory you’ll never be able to look at the shortcut on your desktop again without thinking about diving in for “one quick match”. Overall I can’t recommend the game enough for those who enjoyed the first Starcraft and wholeheartedly recommend anyone who considers themselves a gamer to play the game through at least once. 12 years is a long time to go between releasing a game but Blizzard has managed to make something that justifies the long wait and I can’t wait to see the next installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.
Starcraft 2 is available right now exclusively on PC for $79. Game was played on the Hard difficulty for all missions with approximately 30% of the achievements acquired in the first playthrough and around 18 hours of play time.