Archive for the 'Strategy' Category

Majesty 2: Still Going

And another night passes without defeating the demon and reclaiming the high throne. I’ve made a little progress, though. The level contains sub-quests to build one of each of the six types of temple that I mentioned earlier, or rather, to build two groups of three, as the gods of Ardania split naturally into two trinities. I finally managed to complete one triad, and was told that the demon was greatly weakened, and would remain so as long as the temples stayed up. Then, of course, the elementals managed to knock two of them down. So I’m starting to formulate anti-elemental strategies. It seems like what I really need is to pull a high-level Ranger and a high-level Blademaster out of my Lord pool. Rangers respond eagerly to Explore bounties, which should enable me to find the elemental lairs, and Blademasters respond eagerly to Attack bounties, which should enable me to destroy them once found. (The high levels on both are simply to let them survive their missions.) The one big problem with this plan is that it leaves me with scant funds to build the temples, but we’ll see how it works.

Majesty 2: Short Shrift

Still on the last map. I’ve definitely spent by far the majority of my time on this game toward the end. Fortunately, that isn’t just because there’s an impossible end boss. It’s because the end is where the correct strategy becomes non-obvious, and therefore the game becomes both more difficult and more interesting than in the previous parts. It would probably have been better for the game’s reputation if the developers had front-loaded this more — as it is, I doubt most reviewers played it this far before reviewing it. Which is fair, because most players won’t either. But it does mean that the game as a whole is probably underestimated.

Even my own judgment so far, that the original Majesty was better, is probably at least partly based on overly-sunny memories. The one thing that I can point to as definitely changed is the lack of randomized layouts in Majesty 2, but in a way, the final level brings that back. The whole level is based around a demon who alternately smashes your city and disappears to the far unexplored reaches of the map. It takes a few play-throughs to figure what he’s doing out there, but he’s creating new monster lairs, ones that spawn elementals. If you let him just keep on creating them indefinitely, the elementals become too numerous to fight. So you have to find them by exploring, just like with every single lair in the original Majesty.

Majesty 2: The Level-1 Elite Lord Gambit

The strategy I was starting to formulate at the end of my last post worked like a charm. And the reason it works all comes down to money. There are six specific hero types (Paladin, Blademaster, Beastmaster, some special kind of archer, and two flavors of specialized priestess) that we can think of as “elite” (although the game doesn’t use that term) — they’re more powerful than normal heroes, especially at higher levels, and they cost more to hire. Every elite type costs 1000 moneys at level 1, ten times as much as the cheapest unit (rogues), and a high-level elite-type Lord from a different map costs positively unwieldy amounts to hire: if you can afford them, you’re probably in good enough shape that you don’t need them. But a low-level elite is good enough, because it doesn’t take them long to become high-level elites. Now, you start most maps with 2-4000 in cash, which is enough to hire a fresh elite and still have some left over for buildings, but before you can do that, you need to build the temple that produces that type (cost: 3000), and the prerequisite for that is a level-3 palace (2000 for the first upgrade, 5000 for the second), so that’s 10k before you can get started, and in the meantime you have to build other units just to defend yourself. But with a level-1 elite Lord in the wings, you only have to build a 1k Lord Tower, well within the starting budget, and well worth it.

The tricky part of this approach is getting a level 1 elite Lord in the first place. You pretty much have to hire a new elite type just before winning, not giving the new hire enough time to either level up or engage the boss and get killed. Also, of course, you can only use each such Lord this way once, because once they’ve done a mapworth of foe-slaughtering, they’re not level 1 any more. Still, it worked so well on the level where I was stuck before that I took special care to do another last-minute hire there to use on the next level, where it also worked beautifully. There’s a tremendous moment when you suddenly realize that your peasants’ houses are actually staying up for significant lengths of time — yes, the poor are the primary casualties and all that, and a good buffer zone of peasant housing around the buildings you actually care about is often the simplest way to preserve them — and that you can start thinking about going on the offensive.

That leaves the final map, which I haven’t yet won. It shakes things up by giving you a ton of cash at the very outset — not an endless supply, but enough to open up options that I hadn’t had to consider before. Hiring a high-level elite lord (or an even higher-level non-elite lord) at the outset is suddenly possible, but so is upgrading the castle and making an elite factory or two. What you can’t do is pursue both of these routes at once. I’ve got some experimenting to do.

Majesty 2: Lords

Three levels from the end, the difficulty spikes. I have now spent long hours on a single map. Forget what I said last time about making steady progress once you’ve survived the initial onslaught. At this point, it seems like the initial onslaught never ends.

The premise of the level is that you’re caught between two rival clans, one of elves and rogues, one of priests and paladins — which is to say, a subset of the hero types available to the player. They’re quite willing to fight each other if they meet, but since your palace is in the way, they both gang up on you instead. Even if you could manage to get them fighting each other, it’s not clear that it would be a good idea: hero types tend to flee battles before they die, and that which does not kill them gives them experience points. Yes, even for non-lethal encounters. Maybe they’re not so much enemies as sparring partners. Regardless, the last thing you want is for them to level up faster than you.

Paladins in particular are very hard to kill, and overpowered for their nominal level. Creating some paladins of my own would be a fine thing, but just getting to the point where you’re allowed to create the building that produces them takes more time and money than I seem to ever have. The only way I’ve managed to last any length of time is by bringing in Lords. Lords are a device peculiar to this game: basically, when you finish a map, you get to choose one of your heroes to become a Lord that you can call up in other maps, for a fee that fee depends on the Lord’s class and level. (Any experience gained after becoming a Lord persists, too, so if you use the same Lord a lot, it becomes more and more expensive.) It’s an interesting touch that gives a little bit of overarching strategy in a game where levels are otherwise self-contained.

Generally speaking, I’ve been promoting my most powerful warriors to lordhood. On the level where I’m stuck, I can basically afford one of my weakest Lords at the very beginning, and perhaps one more later on if I’m willing to ruin my kingdom saving up for it. I’m starting to think that I’ve taken the wrong approach here — that what I really should do is go back and replay a couple of earlier maps and lordify some level 1 paladins, ones that will be cheap to re-hire and then level up in the map where I need them. At any rate, it’s an experiment that wouldn’t take nearly as long as I’ve already spent replaying the level I’m on.

Majesty 2: Time Limits and Wandering Monsters

Majesty 2‘s campaign mode has 16 maps, each of which is a satisfying length for a single play session, provided you’re not determined to play the whole thing through in a burst like me. And on most maps, one session is all you need: if you do it wrong, if your heroes die and your city crumbles, that’s just a setback. You haven’t lost, you just need to regroup and try again. Time makes you stronger — partly because your heroes are constantly fighting monsters and leveling up (even if you’ve destroyed all the monster lairs, your own city’s sewers and graveyard keep emitting low-level crawlies), partly because more time means more income, which means more upgrades for your surviving heroes. In theory, you can lose if your palace is destroyed, but generally speaking, if you can survive the very beginning, when you don’t have guard towers or powerful heroes yet, you can survive until the designer decides you’ve had enough time and ends it.

Most maps don’t seem to have time limits. In fact, I’ve seen only one that has an explicit time limit, a novelty level where your goal is to accumulate a certain amount of cash on a deadline (while spending enough to stay alive, of course). This, for me, has been the hardest map in the game so far, because of the self-restraint it requires. If I have a failing in strategy games, its my urge to upgrade everything to max, rather than take a considered look at costs and benefits. Really, though, any time-limited level makes you prioritize what you want to do with your money. It’s just that, on most, the worst thing you can do with your money is hoard it.

On most maps, the mission objective is to destroy something, either a building or a boss monster of some sort. And if I read things right, these boss monsters are how the game imposes time limits without making them explicit. For example, I just finished (on my second try) a map involving an undead king, who either wanders the map or periodically appears and vanishes, I’m not sure which. (There were still substantial sections of the map unexplored when I won.) What’s certain is that he eventually shows up at your base and starts demolishing it. There’s no point in trying to rebuild when this happens. All you can do is set a hefty bounty on his head and hope that your forces are strong enough to whittle him down before he runs out of buildings to smash. The resulting donnybrook feels a lot like the “Armageddon” spell in Populous, the finishing move that makes everyone in the world rush to the center and fight until only one side is left, except that you can still meaningfully participate by, for example, resurrecting heroes that die in the dogpile. Now, both of the times that I played this map, the skeleton king found me on day 86 or so. 1There’s a little inconsistency about how time works. The UI reports a number of days elapsed, but the graphics display some maps as taking place in daylight and some at night. Perpetual daylight is something we accept as an artifact of the way time is represented in RTS games, but throw in nighttime and it starts to seem a little weird. Also, there’s one level where you’re told in the beginning that it’s an opportune time to attack because it’s raining, and the rain then continues for however many months you need to finish. This could be coincidence, but it seems more like a time limit. A soft time limit, sure, because it doesn’t end things immediately, but if you haven’t built up your forces enough to win the battle by that moment, you never will.

The problem is that it doesn’t read like a time limit. The first time around, it seemed like I simply had a stroke of bad luck and the boss just wandered into my camp before I was ready. If it’s a time limit, it’s a surprise time limit. And while I can see the need for time limits to create challenge in a game like this, I don’t see any need to be coy about them.

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1. There’s a little inconsistency about how time works. The UI reports a number of days elapsed, but the graphics display some maps as taking place in daylight and some at night. Perpetual daylight is something we accept as an artifact of the way time is represented in RTS games, but throw in nighttime and it starts to seem a little weird. Also, there’s one level where you’re told in the beginning that it’s an opportune time to attack because it’s raining, and the rain then continues for however many months you need to finish.

Majesty 2: Monetary Policy

I first became aware of Majesty 2 through a series of posts on Looking back at them again, one particular passage drew my attention:

The great irony/joy of [setting bounties] is that the only things heroes have to spend their money on is stuff you’ve got up for sale. Build a marketplace to flog potions, a blacksmith to sell armour and weapon upgrades and an inn to booze the night away in. Dimwits – all that gold they’ve earned, given straight back to its source. So, you eventually get a decent portion of your spending back…

…To then in turn spend on new heroes, buildings and upgrades. Nobody gets rich here – the money just cycles around and around. I’ll guess this tongue-in-cheek futility is deliberate…

Fools? Futility? Hardly! Money is not the same as wealth, as anyone in Zimbabwe can tell you. A man trapped on a desert island with a million dollars in a suitcase isn’t “rich” in any meaningful sense, because the lack of things to buy makes it worthless. 1The presence of a half-dozen additional castaways who still believe that the money has value may change this, of course. Likewise, a Hero who’s decked out in the best weapons and armor, with a backpack full of healing potions and charms, is better off than he was before he spent the time accumulating the cash that he spent on it — and the kingdom is better off for having him.

And ultimately, you’re controlling a kingdom here, not an individual. Individuals may value money as an end in itself, but from a national perspective, the whole purpose of money is to keep it running through the engines of commerce like water through a mill-race, generating useful work through its movement. If you can do this without increasing the money supply, that isn’t futility. That’s more like a miracle.

I don’t want to overstate the case here. It’s not like the game has inflation or a business cycle or anything. In sophistication of economic modeling, we’re somewhere above most RTS games, but below the likes of Sim City. The strangest part, when you stop to think about it, is that the peasants in your domain seem to just generate tax revenue out of thin air. These are people who spend most of their time toiling away at new buildings for you, but you never actually pay them. They pay you. It works as gameplay, though, because it gives you an incentive to protect them.

Come to think of it, there’s an interesting contrast there between Majesty and its evil twin, Dungeon Keeper. In DK, your minions are gold-sinks. You have to keep paying them periodically to keep them from leaving, and gold paid in wages just disappears, as if eaten. If I were a more suspicious man, I’d think that they were somehow sneaking it to the peasants in Majesty 2, explaining two mysteries at once. But no, I think it’s just illustrating the nature of good and evil. Good produces; evil consumes. This means that evil’s preferred strategy is the quick strike, achieving victory before the money runs out and then, presumably, leaving things behind in an unsustainable state. Good, on the other hand, wins by enduring. You’ll be unstoppable if you can last long enough. It’s almost as if they really are two different sides of the same game.

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1. The presence of a half-dozen additional castaways who still believe that the money has value may change this, of course.

Majesty 2

There aren’t many game sequels recently that I’d say I’ve anticipated eagerly. Since my backlog numbers in the hundreds, new releases really have to stand out in some way to capture my attention, and anything with a number after its name starts out with a handicap in that regard. But when the original delivers a unique experience, one that the industry doesn’t imitate, sequels offer the only hope of recapturing it afresh. This was my experience with DROD, with Katamari Damacy, and now, although it’s not as in-your-face weird as those titles, with Majesty.

The original Majesty was released during the height of the RTS craze, and it’s one of the few games to take the basic idea of the genre and completely change how it’s played. It’s essentially a fantasy RTS from an alternate universe where Dune II was never made and the primary model for the genre was instead Populous. You build bases, research tech, and hire heroes, but the heroes are self-willed, not under your control. This is the game’s first major subversion. You can try to influence their behavior by setting bounties on particular foes (or even just offer rewards for visiting locations on the map), but this comes out of the same budget that you use for building and hiring, and it takes a hefty bribe to make the heroes move.

What I’ve seen so far of Majesty 2 is basically similar to the original Majesty, but with prettier graphics. There are a couple of disappointments, though. First of all, it fails to even acknowledge the original’s second major subversion: its use of terrain. It basically didn’t have any. Aside from some purely cosmetic shading, the maps in Majesty were completely flat and open, with monster lairs and other significant features strewn about at random (subject to level-specific constraints). In effect, though, the flow of monster movement became a kind of terrain variation in itself. It was quite a revelation for me to realize that in fact this is enough to constrain your actions — that you don’t need impassible mountains or rivers to force the player to confine and consolidate their forces. This hasn’t been commented on nearly as much as the game’s first major subversion, but it seems just as significant to me.

Secondly, it seems to me that the heroes in Majesty 2 aren’t nearly as varied in their behavior as they were in the original. Behavior there was largely a matter of character class, and the smart player chose which character types to hire, not just on the basis of how their abilities fit the current map, but also on how they would behave. Rangers like to explore unseen territory, which can be an asset or a liability, depending on what there is out there to find. Rogues are usually the first to try to claim a bounty, even when it’s really too difficult for them. Paladins, in contrast, are unmoved by money, and instead seek out monsters to destroy, which is a good thing on levels with lots of small monsters that they can level up on, but a bad thing when they’ll just wind up charging at a boss and getting killed. That’s what it’s like in Majesty; in Majesty 2, everyone seems to behave more or less the same way, hanging out near the town until you post a bounty, then rushing after it if it’s big enough.

But then, I’m only a few maps into the game at the moment, so perhaps my judgment is premature. I’ll recite one more complaint, one that comes from other reviews I’ve seen of the game: that it’s too repetitive, that every single level is basically spent turtling until you’ve built up enough power to rush the boss. And, well, I can see why that would bother the more sophisticated RTS fan, but honestly, I find it a little reassuring to think that the tactics I’ve already discovered might last me the rest of the game.

New Failures

Games on Steam that I’ve tried and failed to play in the last 24 hours:

Majesty 2: Sequel to a game that I quite liked. Steam had it on sale for $10, so I picked it up. Before I was done with the tutorial, it triggered the spontaneous-shut-off problem that I first observed in Team Fortress 2. This has happened in a few other graphically-intensive games lately.

Audiosurf: Included in that Steam indie sale pack that I’ve played most of by now. (Mr. Robot was in the same pack.) Launching it with Steam already running brings up a featureless white window that either goes away after a fraction of a second or freezes up and has to be killed through the task manager. Launching it without Steam already running somehow lets it get far enough to put a bunch of text in that window, then crash with the error “Questviewer.exe has encountered an error and must close”.

Gish: Part of the same sale package as Audiosurf, although I already had a registered copy from pre-Steam days. After twice temporarily feezing up with a dusting of random pixels and then coming back with a video driver error saying that the hardware had to be reset, it finally turned off the machine like Majesty 2. This from a 2D game.

I’m really going to have to get a new video card. I’m willing to put it off for a while, though. There are still plenty of games that don’t need it.

Plants vs Zombies

I’m almost a week late with this post: I purchased Plants vs Zombies, Pop Cap’s foray into the Tower Defense genre, on Monday, and played all the way through Adventure Mode that day. (I’ve noted before now that recent Pop Cap games tend to treat the “adventure mode” or “story mode” as a kind of brief prelude to all the special challenges and minigames that occupy the bulk of the player’s time. Nonetheless, I regard adventure mode as enough to get it off the Stack.)

Tower Defense is one of the few genres born on the web, and still doesn’t have a great deal of representation outside of ad-supported Flash game sites. Perhaps this is why there’s still so much experimentation going on within the genre: there hasn’t been a major best-seller that everyone strives to imitate. PvZ‘s biggest experiment is splitting the playfield into several lanes that are mostly isolated from each other. (There are some effects that affect the lanes adjacent to where they’re used, but they tend to be expensive.) I didn’t care for this mechanic at first — it seemed like it just invited symmetric action, placing the same defenses along all lanes, which seemed like mere busywork. But it becomes more interesting when you’re short on resources, and still have to defend all the lanes separately and simultaneously. If you can’t afford what you need to destroy the zombies on all of them, you might switch to delaying tactics on some of them.

The title may sound like James-Ernest-style random wackiness, but when you think about it, it’s based on the attributes required for the tower defense genre to work: the attackers have to be slow and stupid (or at least undeterred by certain death), and the defenders have to be stationary. Which is not to deny that the particular choice of plants and zombies for these roles was made for their wacky value. The whole game is full of Pop Cap’s signature deadpan goofiness, and sometimes even surprises the player with humorous enemy behavior, just like I Was In the War. Pop Cap’s sense of humor is such an integral part of their more recent releases that I think it’s worth remembering that they didn’t always have one. Their first major success, Bejewelled, was about as funny as Tetris. I was reading an article recently about how Valve’s Orange Box shifted the gaming zeitgeist back towards humor, and it’s definitely had an influence on PvZ: after you win Adventure Mode, there’s a musical number that’s a clear attempt at being this year’s Still Alive. But Pop Cap’s sense of humor was developing well before the Orange Box: Insaniquarium (2004), like PvZ, used jokey character descriptions of the various entities in the game.

In fact, PvZ has quite a lot in common with Insaniquarium (which makes sense, because it was written by the same people). One of PvZ’s unlockable minigames, “Zombiquarium”, references it quite directly, and there’s a Tamagotchi-like “Zen Garden” mode that’s basically a plant-based version of Insaniquarium‘s “Virtual Tank” mode. Both games have an overall mechanic wherein the reward for completing a level is usually a new helper species with its own unique abilities. But most of all, they involve similar activity. Insaniquarium is all about caring for fish that secrete coins, which you click on to pick up before they disappear, then use to buy fish food, additional fish, and upgrades of various kinds, including weapons to ward off piscivorous aliens. (They could have called it Fish vs Aliens.) Similarly, in PvZ, the “sunlight” that you use to plant more plants is mainly emitted in coin-like chunks by things you’ve already planted (usually Sunflowers).

Now, most tower defense games have some mechanic whereby money — or mana, or whatever it is you use to buy more defenders — builds up over time, allowing you to keep adding more defenders as the battle rages on. Perhaps the most common thing is for every attacker you defeat to yield some cash; this is the approach taken by, for example, Desktop Tower Defense and Gemcraft. But PvZ is the only tower defense game I’ve played that expects you to click on the money to pick it up, rather than just deposit it in your bank automatically. It definitely changes the tenor of the gameplay, making it much more active. In a typical tower defense, you spend a lot of time just watching and waiting and planning your plans. Here, you’re constantly scanning for things to click on.

Heroes Chronicles: Underworld Conquered

And now, a little break from Final Fantasy. With my Windows machine no longer acting as emergency backup server, I decided to finally finish up the last three maps in Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld. And, having made that decision, Windows XP gave me a deadline. First, it declared that the hardware had changed enough that I needed to re-activate Windows within three days. Then, when I tried to do this, it refused, telling me that my registration key had been used too many times. I haven’t yet decided what to do about this. Get Vista? Buy another XP license? Dig my windows 98 CD out of the closet and install that? That last possibility has some appeal; a ten-year-old OS could possibly help me play games of the same vintage, provided it can make sense of my futuristic hardware. At any rate, I had three days to either do something about it, or to finish Conquest of the Underworld and consider my options at my leisure. I chose the latter route.

Fortunately, the last two maps are relatively short. I spent the majority of this session finishing up map 6. That map was a bit of an enigma: enemy heroes kept appearing even after I had taken possession of all the castles I could find. It turned out that their home was on the other side of a one-way portal, making them absolutely impossible to eradicate completely. Generally speaking, the way I’ve been playing this game is that I first eliminate all opposition, then I spend some time sending my main heroes around to places with permanent stat increasers that I didn’t get to during phase one. This time, during that final phase, I had to keep popping back to the vicinity of that portal via the Town Portal spell to slay those pesky heroes.

Map 7 was small, and I managed to wipe out the sole free-roaming enemy with my supercharged Tarnum before he could mount anything resembling a threat. There was just one catch: when I finished the mission objectives, I still hadn’t found the sixth and last piece of the Angelic Alliance. Turning to a walkthrough online, I learned that it was sitting more or less right next to Tarnum at the start of the level. I had given it to one of the other heroes; it hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be important. Fortunately, I had saved just before finishing the level, so I could go back and have the hero who had it deliver it to Tarnum. I suppose the level would have been easier if I had the Alliance from the beginning, but it’s not like Tarnum was ever in serious danger of losing a fight.

Map 7 is also significant in that it’s the first time that Queen Allison shows up as a hero, rather than as an unseen presence who’s mentioned in the plot text. This is important to the conclusion of the plot in map 8, where she’s taken captive by the demonic troops lent to her by a traitorous demon lord, who claims to be an enemy of the guys who abducted Rion Gryphonheart, but is in fact in league with them. This gives an excuse for Tarnum to enter the final chapter alone.

Amusingly, level 8, the depths of the abyss, is the only place in the entire episode where you can recruit halflings. Heroes of Might and Magic 3 has eight different city types, each with its own roster of creatures, but only four have shown up until this point: the castles of the knights staging the invasion, and the cities of the native demons, undead, and dungeon-dwelling creatures (troglodytes and beholders and so forth). The designers felt a need to provide an in-plot justification for the halflings’ sudden presence, but when you come right down to it, there’s a lot of non-underworldy stuff in the game that the player has by this point learned to ignore. Every time you pick up an artifact, for example, you get a randomly-selected piece of canned text describing how you found it. These text snippets aren’t at all customized for the environment, and sometimes mention things, such as orcs, that just plain don’t exist in the Underworld we’re shown. Then there’s the way that some levels have both “above-ground” and “underground” areas. You see this sort of thing all the time in fan-made levels and mods: someone wants to use a game engine to tell a story that it isn’t ideally suited for, so they do their best to map things in the game to elements in their story and just kind of ignore the ways that they don’t mesh. Arguably, this happens in commercially-published games as well, what with powerups and health-packs that aren’t plausibly part of the game setting — heck, I’ve commented before about gameplay elements that contradict the fiction in Final Fantasy. I think the difference that makes the ill-fitting elements seem more amateurish here is that they seem so avoidable. The scenario designers here could have easily written new artifact text to suit the Underworld environment, if they had that kind of control over the engine.

Anyway, Rion’s soul is free, as is his daughter. Hundreds of people gave their lives to make this happen, but apparently that’s okay, because they’re just troops and don’t count the way that characters with names do. Tarnum’s internal monologue is full of comments to the effect that he’s different from Tarnum the Tyrant because he’s learned his lesson about not callously disregarding the sanctity of human life, but I dunno.

There are two more episodes of Heroes Chronicles still on the stack. The next one, Masters of the Elements, has Tarnum as a wizard traversing the elemental planes. That should be fun; four-elements stuff is always appealing somehow. But that’s for another time.

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