Archive for the 'Strategy' Category

Anomaly: Final Thoughts

I said before that I wasn’t sure whether it’s better to say that the player character in Anomaly: Warzone Earth protects the convoy or vice versa. Well, now that I’ve been knocked around a bit more, I can say that it’s definitely the former. The PC doesn’t really need protection; he’s literally tougher than a tank. Most of the enemy turret types can’t even really hurt him by themselves, because he heals so fast. Even when multiple ones acting in concert do manage to knock him down to zero, it only lasts a few seconds. It’s all due to his “battle suit”, apparently, which effectively makes him a superhero.

Still, you need to stick with your convoy most of the time for their sake when you send them into the thick of things. Even tanks protected by force field generators need protection that only a battle-suited superhero can provide. And so the designers quite sensibly come up with ways to force you away from them.

There’s a type of tower that fires missiles that, on hitting their target, create a sort of jamming signal that makes you look like an enemy to your own troops unless you stay outside its range. This is a problem not for the danger it poses you, but because it makes your guys aim at the wrong thing. A tower of this sort can prevent you from lending crucial aid in a pitched battle. I’ve found that the best way to deal with this is by calling in an air strike on the tower before it’s an issue, but it took me a while to realize that this was an option, because getting close enough to the thing to do so usually requires dashing through enemy defenses alone.

Later, there’s another tower type that can’t be approached this way: if you get near it, and within a line of sight, it fires a continuous beam that absorbs energy from your battle suit. It then uses this energy to heal itself and to power up its special ability to re-create towers you’ve destroyed. Letting it use that spell even once can mean defeat, so you don’t want to get near it. The curious thing about both of these area-denial towers is that they’re not capable of damaging your convoy by themselves. They’re purely support units, and they provide support of sorts that I don’t recall seeing used in normal tower defense games — mainly because they both involve warding off a player character.

At the end of each level, the game evaluates the player’s performance on three axes: directness, ruthlessness, and efficiency. Directness has to do with how fast a route you took, ruthlessness is based on how much stuff you killed, and efficiency seems to be all about how many smokescreens and air strikes and so forth you have left at the end. Directness and ruthlessness are almost opposites: if you’re destroying everything on the map, you’re necessarily doubling back on your path a lot. At the game’s beginning, when I was just learning the mechanics and didn’t have force fields yet, I got high directness bonuses, but by the end, I was flat-out ruthless. That’s because ruthlessness is the cautious approach. Caution means minimizing the number of towers you engage at a time, and that means looping around the more sparsely-defended blocks until you can advance to the next block without being hit from behind.

In fact, by the end, my tactics were pretty procedural and by-the-numbers, upset only slightly by an end boss capable of respawning nearby towers endlessly. This is the sort of thing that leaves me wondering if the game has exhausted the potential of its mechanics, if it leaves no room for expansion or imitation. But then, those two special towers I described aren’t exactly elementary types that anyone making a similar game would invent, and that hints at more elaborate possibilities.

Anomaly: International Politics

The whole premise of Anomaly: Warzone Earth is that a couple of alien spaceships, or possibly one spaceship broken into two pieces, have crash-landed in the middle of two major cities. The aliens you fight don’t seem to be the ones that were in charge of those ships, though. They’re attacking the ships, apparently scavenging some kind of energy. I suppose it’s entirely possible that if we just left them alone they’d eventually get what they came for and go away, but the fact that they’re doing it in the middle of populated urban centers kind of makes that not an option.

But we don’t really learn a lot about the aliens. The ones we fight are described as “invaders”, even though, from a more immediate standpoint, the player is the invader, pushing into alien-claimed territory. Well, the whole idea of invasion carries negative connotations, so a game whose very mechanics require the player to be an aggressor against a passive force requires a little narrative trickery, unless the designer is willing to explicitly cast the player as a bad guy. But things get weirder when you consider the two cities that they chose for the crash sites: Baghdad and Tokyo.

Baghdad is the site of the first six levels. I’m guessing it was chosen mainly because it’s our touchstone these days for images of troops advancing through city streets, but it also probably helps with the aggression factor, since so many people are emotionally invested in seeing a similar operation in Baghdad as justified. I remember an online argument back in 2003 in which a supporter of the war in Iraq strongly objected to the use of the word “invasion” by its opponents, until it was pointed out that no one has a problem with “the invasion of Normandy”. Have connotations changed that much since WWII? Perhaps. The sci-fi movies of the 1950s taught a generation that the word “invasion” is usually preceded by “alien”.

Which brings us to Tokyo, whose use here is influenced less by the news and more by anime. “Tokyo is destroyed and rebuilt with monotonous regularity“, declares the tvtropes page on the phenomenon of the “The Tokyo Fireball”. The destruction in this game is slower than a Tokyo fireball, but the Anomaly of the title does share some of its characteristics as mysterious spherical dome of energy. Although you’re supposed to be controlling the same company of soldiers in this section as in the previous one, brought in for your hastily-learned expertise in alien-fighting, the Japanese military lends material assistance. A Japanese general joins the cast of characters who communicate plot and mission details via radio over the course of the missions (both before and during), and this addition suddenly makes it conspicuous how absent the government and military of Iraq was from the previous chapter.

And what of the soldiers braving the Anomaly to fight the alien menace? Somewhat surprisingly, they’re British. And not just a little British; they’re not soldiers who just happen to have a nationality which just happens to be British. They’re gratuitously British. Their dialogue is peppered with blatant mentions of things like the Prime Minister and Big Ben just to keep reminding us of it, kind of like how Shylock in A Merchant of Venice keeps on bringing up Old Testament prophets apropos of nothing. The game’s developers are Polish; perhaps British soldiers seem exotic enough to them to warrant such treatment? They’re a little exotic even to me, giving it a vibe somewhere between a WWII movie and U.N.I.T. from Doctor Who. The more typical American soldiers (or, more extremely, marines) certainly wouldn’t have the same kind of mystique; being the forces of a superpower, they’d make it into more of a dominance struggle between tough guys than the asymmetric scrappy-underdogs-overcoming-incredible-odds story we’ve got.

But also, there is of course Baghdad again. Even though the UK devoted troops to the Gulf War alongside the US, it’s still thought of primarily as America’s war. So keeping the whole thing from being too on-the-nose might require repeated reassurances that the soldiers fighting the alien menace are not in fact American.

Anomaly: Warzone Earth

Yeah, Steam is having another one of its scavenger-hunt-like achievement-based promotions, and, as usual, it’s making me want to play the games that they tell me to play. Not enough to make me buy any new games, of course, but one of the achievements is in Anomaly, a game I already own but haven’t played yet. So I might as well accept the cue to give it a try.

Anomaly managed to creep onto the Stack as part of a bundle earlier this year, despite my not knowing anything about it. Despite? No, because! The unknown stuff is half the point of bundles. I probably wouldn’t have bought it by itself, because the title doesn’t exactly stand out, but I’m already glad I did, because it turns out to be a fairly interesting work, gameplay-wise.

It’s not quite in any familiar genre, being, in a sense, composed entirely of escort missions. The whole idea is that you’re shepherding a sort of convoy through hostile alien-infested territory. Or perhaps the convoy is shepherding you: your vehicles are all weapon systems, capable of exploding enemy gun turrets and other defenses that would simply kill you if you tried to hoof it alone. But the vehicles defending you can only do so if you, in turn, defend them. So you keep them in good repair, and erect smokescreens and decoys and the like to help preserve them from harm.

The entire thing is presented from a top-down view. You control your avatar’s movement by clicking on where you want to go. The convoy, you don’t control directly. Instead, you set up a route through a network of streets, telling it which turnings to make. You can alter this route at will, responding to changes in the road ahead. Generally speaking, you want to follow the convoy, but it’s sometimes useful to dash away briefly to collect air-dropped supplies.

So, we have slow progress of attackers along an assigned route, opposed by stationary gun emplacements. This makes it feel a lot like a tower defense game, but one played from the opposite side. But in other ways, it feels a bit like League of Legends — and presumably other DOTA-like or “MOBA” games as well; I’ve only recently started to sample that genre, and LoL is the only one I’ve become familiar with. The point of similarity here is that you have one character you control amidst a bunch of minions that choose how and what to attack autonomously, and you have to support them while they support you. It’s like someone decided to combine features of these two genres. Interestingly, tower defense and MOBA are both genres that originated as RTS mods, so there’s a sort of diamond-shaped inheritance hierarchy going on here. Which isn’t unusual in games — every RPG/strategy hybrid does essentially the same thing, the root in that case being miniatures wargames.

Orcs Must Die!: Story and Character

Just as the UI in Orcs Must Die! manages to get along without a lot of explanation, so too does the story. You start off in the middle of an emergency that doesn’t require world-building to be intelligible, and most of what you learn about your situation later on comes from offhand comments rather than cutscenes and similar infodumps. The story’s major turn, the revelation that the orcs are being organized by some external force, is foreshadowed by some of the orcs’ random shouts: in addition to expected cries of “Kill the humans!” and such, they occasionally say things like “Yes, mistress!” and “Get out of my head!”. Just as well — when the game does finally does start to provide exposition in the form of psychic dialogue between the PC and the sorceress who’s driving the horde, it’s often drowned out by the background music and the clamor of battle.

Now, the game’s formal properties impose certain things on the story. You’re playing a character who physically exists in the gameworld, who has a location and and has to run around tending to emergencies wherever they crop up. At the same time, you’re basically acting alone. There are guardians and weavers, sure, but you’re the only war mage, and that means you have to both set up and execute the defense of every route to the rift in each and every fortress, even the ones that are clearly set up to be optimally guarded by teams of two or four people. Why it is like this? Because, we learn, all the other war mages who would normally be helping out are already dead at the hands of the orcs. There are a few different ways you could take this story. The creators of this game decided to make it a comedy.

The main way it does this is by making the PC into the war mage least suited for this challenge: young, brash, wisecracking, disrespectful about his recently-dead mentor, and above all, conceited. The sort of person who says “Booyah!” after a kill. It’s the sort of character Nolan North is known for, with a little more fratboy mixed in. In short, he’s a jerk, and the story is the story of a jerk justifying his jerkitude by triumphing where no one else expected he could. Given this, I suppose it’s fitting that the true antagonist is a controlling, manipulative woman. It’s all part of the PC’s world view. We never encounter the sorceress directly — in the end, you defeat her simply by closing the rifts and trapping her in the orcs’ homeworld — but we see her in cutscenes, and she’s exactly the sort of hooker-booted hottie that the PC would go for were she not so haughty and domineering. The orcs who do her bidding are of course exclusively male, the mind control magic being a metaphor for feminine wiles. The PC is of course immune to this magic, being too full of himself to let anyone else in. No woman can tame him. He isn’t just the jerk triumphant, he’s triumphant because he’s a jerk.

I feel like this is a sort of hero that’s been becoming more popular in games lately, which makes me a little worried about the zeitgeist. Games are really good at provoking identification with the protagonist. Is this really the sort of person we want to identify with?

Orcs Must Die

The first round of holiday sales is underway, leaving me scrambling to finish up some games to make room on the Stack for new stuff. Orcs Must Die is in fact among my new acquisitions, but looked like it would probably be quick to finish, due to its structural resemblance to Plants vs Zombies: not only is it essentially a tower defense game, it pulls the same trick of introducing one new game element per level, which means the game ends once it’s reached maximal complexity. And indeed, in a single day of obsessive play, I’m managed to complete every level but the last. So expect a second and final post tomorrow.

I say it’s essentially a tower defense, but it’s really a hybrid of tower defense and shooter. The whole idea is that in each level you’re trying to prevent hordes of orcs and related monsters (kobolds as swarmers, ogres as bosses) from reaching a dimensional rift, which is in the middle of a fortress presumably built around it for the specific purpose of keeping the orcs away. This is a fully 3D structure, and you have an avatar inside it. You can place various sorts of traps on the walls, floors, and ceiling, as well as summon “guardians” who fight with sword or bow, but you can also fight the orcs directly, with a repeating crossbow, bladestaff, and various spells that you acquire over the course of the game. And in fact you pretty much have to do both, picking off orcs manually when they survive the traps. Starting at level 11, you can buy enhancements of various sorts from “weavers”, but you have to choose between “steel weavers”, who enhance your traps and guardians (for example, making the traps reset faster or giving the archers flaming arrows), or “elemental weavers”, who enhance your personal combat abilities (increasing your health, making spells do more damage). I personally want to play this more as a tower defense game than as a shooter, so I’ve pretty much always taken the steel weaver — at least, until the knowledge weavers became available at level 19, with their tempting treats like making the rift itself produce lightning bolts, or occasionally reanimating dead orcs to fight on your side.

But even treating the game as a tower defense, it’s a peculiar tower defense, due to the fact that you’re seeing the whole thing from inside. (Shades of Intelligent Qube!) The game helps minimize this limitation by granting you a great deal of mobility: your traps don’t affect you at all, you can jump off balconies and over any barricades you’ve placed, and there are often teleport gates joining distant parts of the stronghold. (It took me a while to realize that the orcs couldn’t go through the gates. I wasted some cash in the early levels barricading them.) But it offsets this by making you vulnerable. There are types of occasional enemy that ignore the rift, choosing instead to attack you and any guardians you’ve summoned — and for that reason alone, it’s important to have a few guardians around as distractions. For that matter, ordinary orcs will sometimes decide to chase you if you’re close enough, which means that by your presence you can distract them from the rift.

In short, for all its focus on a single sort of dungeon encounter, this is a pretty rich game. The thing that really impresses me, though, is the UI design. Placing objects in three dimensions is a nontrivial task, and there’s basically no explanation, documentation, or tutorial here, other than a few on-screen prompts, such as “Press R to rotate”. And yet it all just works. You choose a trap to place in the same way as you choose a weapon, and you also aim it like a weapon at the surfaces that can support it. When you’re aiming at a valid spot, the trap appears as a transparent model, with, if relevant, another transparency indicating its area of effect, so you know if that arrow trap reaches all the way across the hallway or not. Outside of trap placement, there are a number of little touches like the targeting reticule for the crossbow that widens if you fire rapidly, clearly indicating without words that your aim is becoming less accurate. Perhaps this is stuff that you need to already be familiar with games to understand, but it works for me.

Defense Grid: Final Ramblilngs

Well, I’ve managed to squeeze my way through the last level of Defense Grid‘s campaign mode. The game content never acknowledges my speculations from the previous post, treating victory as simply victory and the salvation of the planet. But I suppose that if every game had a subversive twist, it would stop being subversive. Something has to play it straight, and Defense Grid is a straighter game than most I play.

So let’s just comment on a few more points of mechanical interest. In fact, let’s start with interest itself, one of the game’s major experiments that I neglected to describe in my previous post. Any money you keep in reserve compounds interest at a rate determined by the number of power cores at your base. Obviously this provides an extra motivation to protect the cores, but it also gives you a reason to spend as little as you can get away with in the early part of the level, and these motivations are in tension. The net effect is a desire for maximal efficiency in situations where other tower defense games would have you just trying to overpower stuff by building as fast as possible.

My own experience is that the need to build stuff generally wins out. This is especially true in the final few levels, which are large enough that the space always seems underutilized. The temptation to build everywhere is strong, but should be resisted, if my narrowly-successful strategies are at all indicative of the correct approach. Building level-1 towers everywhere just takes away money you could be spending on upgrading existing towers, which seems to usually be the more efficient approach; that is, in most cases, upgrading a tower increases its damage potential more than an equal cost of additional towers would, especially if it’s wisely placed. Note that there’s still often good reason to refrain from upgrading, because upgrading isn’t instant. In fact, it’s agonizingly slow, and while it’s in progress, the tower undergoing the upgrade is inactive. So you always need enough active towers to pick up the slack when you get the cash to upgrade something, and this guarantees that you won’t be able to get the cash to upgrade it as soon as you want to.

Mind you, if you’re frequently spending all your money, and therefore not earning interest on it, you don’t really need the power cores to be at your base all the time. And, in fact, having them scattered along the path can at times be a boon in disguise. You see, there are occasional enemies that fly. They don’t follow the same path as the ground units, but follow their own swooping flight plan, unobstructed by your towers. If they manage to fly their entire path without getting shot down, they’ll grab a power core from your base and immediately take off into the heavens, without giving you a chance to get it back. But if all your power cores are elsewhere at that point, they just leave. There were points when I was sure I was doomed, because I had only one or two power cores left and couldn’t get my missile bases operational fast enough to wipe out oncoming fliers, only to be saved when a ground unit grabbed the power cores first.

Incedentally, there are only three levels of tower — that is, you can only upgrade towers twice. It turns out this is enough to be satisfying. There are really only three conceptual slots for an upgrade system anyway: you’ve got things that you haven’t upgraded at all, things you’ve upgraded some but can still upgrade further, and things that are at max level and can’t be upgraded further. Furthermore, three is few enough that the game can assign a vividly distinct color to each upgrade level — specifically, green, yellow, and red — thereby making the level of everything on the screen immediately apparent. Aliens use the same color scheme, and therefore presumably also come in only three strengths per type. I just wish that the types of tower had something like the same level of clarity! Most of them just look like towers in slightly different shapes. I sometimes lose track of which tower is which type and wind up hurriedly upgrading the wrong things.

Defense Grid: Dead World

The environments in Defense Grid: The Awakening are all brown and barren, rocky deserts with old and crumbling structures on them. There isn’t a lot of in-game information about the world and its history, but you know that the “aliens” have attacked in the past — long enough ago for the defense grid to need awakening. The sole speaking role belongs to an AI, the uploaded mind of a human who was involved in the defense the last time. He talks like a stereotypical British colonial officer and enthuses about how beautiful things used to be. At times he gets confused and addresses you by the name of his dead son, who he failed to protect during the first invasion. In other words, there’s every sign that the human presence is long wiped out, and this is a dead planet, with nothing worth defending.

This would be a familiar twist from a certain other tower defense game, but I don’t think that’s the only reason I think of it. I can believe I’m unduly influenced by the degree to which this game feels like a RTS game, though. All tower defense games are of course descendants of the RTS, but I’m talking here mostly about superficial matters like the mere presence of voice acting and the measured pace at which it introduces new elements. (For a while, it felt like the entire game, like the single-player campaign in many a RTS, was an extended tutorial.) In a typical Warcraft/Command & Conquer-influenced RTS, your base is a hive of activity, with autonomous worker units harvesting resources and repairing buildings, but here, it’s just a repository for power cores. So even the things you’re defending aren’t alive (even if they are the only things on your side capable of moving under their own power).

It all makes me speculate that this scenario is the most natural fit for a tower defense, this defense of the dead from the living (which would make Plants vs Zombies a clever inversion). It’s part of the genre’s definition that the enemy is active and your tools are passive, waiting for something to kill. Perhaps you could make a satisfying tower defense set in an Egyptian tomb, placing curses to foil looters and acheologists.

But then, I seem to be a bit obsessed with finding themes relating to death and mortality in games recently, so take it as you will.

Defense Grid: The Awakening

So, I bought a couple new Steam indie bundles recently. (They’re calling them “bundles” now. They used to call them “packs”. I’m guessing there’s a perfectly humble reason for this change in terminology.) And one of them contained Defense Grid, another of Steam’s perennial discount items that I’ve somehow managed to avoid purchasing until now. I’d been curious about it, however, because it seemed to be the first tower defense game with A-list production values — by which, admittedly, I mainly just mean 3D models and voice acting. But that’s a somewhat less rare combination today than three years ago when it was released. Having played it most of the way through now, I have to say that it’s pretty by-the-book, its basic gameplay not much different from Desktop Tower Defense and its myriad online imitators. Things come along a path, you place towers to kill them, and in the process you earn money that you use to build more towers or upgrade existing ones. But it does do a few interesting things that I think are worth pointing out.

For starters, there’s the control scheme. You have a cursor in the center of the screen. Move your mouse and the cursor stays put while the rest of the world moves. This is, of course, basically how first-person shooters work, but you’re not rotating in place here, you’re moving in a plane just like the cursor would if it were moving. And anyway, the fact that this game is so mechanically similar to so many Flash-based games on the web, which generally don’t lock the cursor in place (because that would be really annoying on a web page), means that I’m aware, as I play, of the inversion from how these things usually work. That’s why I describe the mark in the center as a “cursor” rather than as a “reticle”. And the fact that you click on things to open up sub-menus (generally either “choose a type of tower to build here” or “upgrade/sell”) makes it seem even more cursor-like.

The 3D modeling isn’t just window dressing. The curving paths that the invading aliens come in on can cross over and under themselves, like in Zuma, with the result that you’re not just concerned with level geometry, but level topology as well. 2D games are relatively easy to think about, because we’re good at associating information with locations, thinking “This area is secure” or “If the enemy reaches that point it’s time to take desperate measures”. Paths that go underneath the main playfield confound this sort of thinking. Sometimes the paths form a confusing tangle that you need to simplify by blocking most of the pathways off. And that becomes an optimization puzzle: 1And probably an NP-complete one at that. which pathways do you block off to give the advancing enemies the longest route to your base, the most exposure to your guns?

Probably the most interesting thing is the matter of what happens when an alien survives the gauntlet you’ve set up and reaches your base. The normal thing for a tower defense is to do is for the monster to knock off a fixed number of hit points or civilians (sometimes a higher number for tougher monsters), and then either be absorbed (as in Immortal Defense) or teleport back to the entrance for another run-through (as in Gemcraft). In Defense Grid, your hit points manifest as “power cores” that the aliens are trying to steal. This means that the aliens aren’t just trying to reach your base. They have to actually carry the things offscreen. Sometimes the exit is in the same place as the entrance, so that they have to pass by all the same towers twice. Sometimes it’s at the end of a completely different path. Sometimes the level topology is mutable enough that you get to decide how much they have to backtrack. From the way I’ve just described it, you might think that making them double back most of the way is optimal, but that’s not the case. When you kill an alien before it makes it out, any cores it carried drop on the ground and start inching their way back to the base. While they’re on the way home, any other alien with carrying capacity to spare can pick them up. So a core dropped on the path in is just going to shorten some alien’s path. Furthermore, this means that the genre-typical swarms of individually weak creatures are among the game’s most fearsome adversaries toward the end of a level, because they make the panicked last-ditch attempt to rescue your last core futile. As long as even just one member of the swarm survives, it can pick up the core from where it falls and keep carrying it away.

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1. And probably an NP-complete one at that.

Heores Chronicles: Power to Max

Having learned my lesson about difficulty settings back in Conquest of the Underworld, I’m keeping things set to the default for the moment. Progress is nonetheless slow, owing to my insistence on getting every last crumb of permanent upgrade on the map before continuing. There are obelisks that grant experience, enchanted trees that instantly raise any visiting hero’s experience level (subject to the maximum imposed by the map), towers where you can improve defense strength and shrines where you can raise your maximum spell points, and so forth, all usable once by each hero. Furthermore, the tooltip for such things helpfully tells you whether the currently-selected hero has visited them or not, making perfectionism all the more tempting.

I’ll probably stop being so obsessive about it at some point as the maps grow larger, at least with my lesser heroes. At the point I’m at, I can take three in addition to Tarnum from one map to the next, but this might not last for the whole episode: I recall reaching a point in Conquest of the Underworld where suddenly everyone but Tarnum was taken away, and I think this may have happened in Warlords of the Wasteland as well (at the point when Tarnum had everyone who he felt was a threat to his power killed). So this may be one of the series’ repeated plot points/gameplay mechanics, and if it is, there will come a point when buffing anyone but Tarnum isn’t worth it.

As for Tarnum himself, there’s already some indication that we’re heading for him becoming an invincible superhero again by the time we’re through. This being the episode that focuses on wizards, this means improving his spellcasting. There’s a set of four artifacts, elemental orbs, found on different maps: as with the Angelic Alliance, they remain with you from level to level. Now, the whole spell system in this game is linked to the four elements: every spell has an associated element, and each element has a “mastery” skill (Air Mastery, Water Mastery, etc.) that improves the effects of spells in that element and makes them cheaper to cast. I’m being careful to make sure Tarnum keeps enough open skill slots for all the masteries as they become available, because eventually he’s going to have all the spells. Every single one, including all of the rarest and most powerful ones. That’s what the orbs do: each gives its bearer access to all the spells in its associated element. Knowing how this game works, there may even be some additional synergy effect for holding them all.

The orbs are significant to the story as well: they’re the heroes’ only way home. I’ll go into more detail about this later, when I’ve seen more plot.

Heroes Chronicles: Masters of the Elements

So, on into Tarnum’s third adventure. The story so far: In Warlords of the Wasteland, Tarnum was a Barbarian in a land conquered and enslaved by evil wizards. He led a successful rebellion, then became a conquerer and enslaver himself, slaughtering his own people when he considered them counterrevolutionary, murdering his advisers when they told him he was going too far. Episode 1 ended with his star still in the ascendant, but when you’re the best gunslinger in town, everyone starts gunning for you, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them gets lucky. And so somewhere between episodes 1 and 2, Tarnum went and got himself killed.

But instead of just going to Hell like you’d expect, he somehow wound up staying in the mortal world as a servant of the “Ancestors”, apparently working off his bad karma. At least, until Episode 2, Conquest of the Underworld, which had him actually invading Hell, but not to take up permanent residence. He was there on a mission to rescue the abducted soul of one Rion Gryphonheart, the former king of the Knights who took over after Tarnum’s Barbarian empire fell — and the person who killed Tarnum in battle. Tarnum didn’t much like the idea of helping his mortal enemies, and considered the possibility that it was all some kind of immense joke at his expense on the part of the Ancestors, but it turned out that they chose him for the task to teach him a lesson, that the Knights and the Barbarians aren’t so different, that in fact he should be calling them family.

Masters of the Elements takes this a step further. One of the defining properties of the Heroes Chronicles series is that each episode focuses on a different subset of the various playable sides from Heroes of Might and Magic, giving Tarnum himself a different character class from episode to episode. This time around, he’s a Wizard. The one thing he despises the most. The thing he led a continent-spanning crusade to wipe out during his mortal life. I’m only a little way into the story, but he’s already made plenty of disparaging comments (via triggered text pop-ups) about the people he’s forced to work with here. I think he’s already gradually coming to appreciate their point of view, though. The entire mission here would be impossible without magic.

The essential idea is that a ten-thousand-year truce between the Ancestors and the Elemental Lords is ending, and rather than wait for them to attack the prime material plane, Tarnum is heading to their home turf to forcibly convince them that renewing the truce is in their best interests. The whole idea of visiting the Elemental Planes, similar to the Underworld back in episode 2, is essentially just a coat of paint on standard HOMM3-engine dungeons, but those dungeons are themselves essentially just a texture swap on the above-ground bits, so I suppose it all evens out.

The differences between Barbarian, Knight, and Wizard, on the other hand, have distinct gameplay effects. It’s been a while since I played any of the other classes, but nonetheless, I’m getting a very strong sense that using spells in combat is a more viable and indeed essential option than previously. Also, playing with the types of creatures generated by wizard towers gives you access to some very powerful ranged attacks. Every type of town has some kind of low-level unit, like gobins or imps or skeletons, that can be produced very cheaply or picked up for free from outbuildings, and that you can wind up with hundreds of in a stack. The low-level unit for Towers is the gremlin, which can be upgraded (still pretty cheaply) into the master gremlin, which is, I think, unique among the cheapo creatures for having a ranged attack. They die by the dozens if the enemy can close with them, but the ranged attacks are pretty good at preventing this from happening. It’s the “glass cannon” approach, traditional role of wizard-types since D&D.

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