Archive for the 'RTS' Category

Red Alert: Storytelling

As I plow my way through the 1990s, I seem to be avoiding the whole “Full Motion Video” phenomenon. This ends now. I wouldn’t call Red Alert primarily a FMV game — the actual gameplay is firmly within the world of 2D sprite graphics — but it was released at a time when the marriage of Silicon Valley to Hollywood still seemed like the way of the future — if not to gamers, then at least to the people who controlled game development budgets. And so it shipped with two CD-ROMs full of low-quality video.

The video content is at least a bit more ambitious than a lot of the era’s shoehorned FMV. Where the original Command & Conquer basically just had talking heads that gave you over-emoted mission briefings, Red Alert actually has a few FMV action scenes — ones that even show signs of editing. It’s still strictly B-movie material, though, with thick accents substituting for characterization. And whenever the video ventures outdoors — usually to show military vehicles either being deployed or finishing their mission objectives — we’re suddenly in Unconvincing CGI Land. When you think about it, that’s a strange complaint. After all, the vehicle sprites during gameplay look even less real. Even putting aside the low pixel count, they basically look like toys — probably due to the flatness of the focus. But at least they’re consistent with the level of stylization throughout that part of the game. My problem with the CGI in the video sequences isn’t so much that it doesn’t look real as that it looks substantially less real than the live actors immediately preceding it in the same video clip.

Also, in a way, I find the in-game sprite stuff to simply be more effective storytelling than the FMV sequences. They keep including little set-pieces told with sprites and more or less without explicit narration. For example, one mission starts you out with just a single Spy unit and instructions to infiltrate a certain building. Spies are hard to detect, but not impossible: guard dogs, with their keen noses, are this game’s low-tech equivalent of anti-cloaking technology, and the player has to devote some effort to avoiding canine patrols. One you enter the building, a truck parked in front drives off, illuminating new areas of the map as it goes: clearly the spy has secreted himself inside. After it gets through a number of security checkpoints, the spy leaps out, leaving it to crash as you proceed to the next phase of the mission. That’s a little story right there, told with toy trucks and toy soldiers. It’s not in any way more sophisticated than the stories told through the video sequences, but it works better just because it’s told in a way that engages the player. Partly because it’s interactive, but also partly because it leaves so much more to the imagination.

Mind you, nearly every mission in Red Alert eventually degenerates into “kill everything”. It would be kind of cool to see a game with RTS-like rules and presentation that stays at a more narrative and less game-like level.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert

The original Command & Conquer, one of the foundations of the realtime strategy genre, made the unusual choice of near-future sci-fi for its setting. Wargame settings tend to be either strongly historical (as in the Total War series) or completely separate from reality (as in the original Warcraft), but C&C forged a path through the middle, giving us a world recognizable as our own, but greatly changed. Fictitious global alliances fought for control of real nations; mundane technology like tanks and airplanes mixed with fanciful stuff like death rays and automatic mining/harvesting machines. The player was effectively left with a choice of whether to regard it as a military story with sci-fi elements or a sci-fi story with military elements.

And then, intriguingly enough, they aimed for the same effect in the sequel, which is set in the near past.

How? Alternate history. Red Alert very explicitly sets this up in the opening FMV cutscene, in which a time traveler assassinates Hitler as a youth. As in countless Nazi apologists’ fantasies, the might of the Third Reich turns out to have been the only effective check on Soviet expansion — at least, until you come along. Thus, in a sense, the player is taking on Hitler’s role. But not in any strong sense: the anti-Soviet alliance shown in the cutscenes includes a strongly-accented German representative independent of the player. In fact, the entire alliance seems to consist of Germany, Greece, and whatever nation the player represents — presumably America, although I haven’t seen this stated explicitly. Perhaps there will be more details when I play the Soviet side. (Which I’ll definitely have to do before I can consider the game finished: in C&C, the two sides played noticeably differently, and I have every reason to believe that the same is true here.)

The milieu, then, is WWII-era warfare with modifications. The first Allied mission’s goal is to rescue Albert Einstein, who’s been kidnapped by the Soviets. (I predict that the first Soviet mission’s goal will be to kidnap him.) While in captivity, he was presumably forced to contribute to their secret weapon projects. You get a taste of those secret weapons from the very beginning: devastating defense towers based on the works of Tesla. And I’ve gotten just far enough into the game for the Allies to become alarmed by a newer development, code-named “iron curtain”: a device for making units completely impervious to harm, which should have interesting effects on gameplay. But most of the buildings and units are ordinary things like tanks and jeeps, factories and airstrips — even when they’re exactly equivalent to something science-fictional in the original C&C. That harvesting machine I mentioned, for example, is replaced by a guy in a truck. The stuff it’s harvesting, in the previous game a mysterious crystalline substance called “Tiberium” that was a vital ingredient in all your advanced technology, is now reduced to mere “ore”, which you sell for the cash you need to supply your army. It all makes it quite clear how skin-deep the themeing was in the first place.

Majesty 2: Demon Down

I think my mistake in previous attempts at the final level was underestimating the efficacy of grouping your heroes into parties. Oh, I had tinkered with parties before, but the rules don’t let you do so until you’ve upgraded your palace to level 2. I suppose this should have been a signal to me that the designers considered it to be too powerful a technique for the early stages of a scenario, but in practice, it just meant that I seldom tried it until my heroes were pretty well advanced individually. At any rate, hiring a couple of cheap elite Lords and tethering them to healers seems to be a winning strategy. As in previous levels, there came that turning point when I realized that I had managed to clear most of the map of monster lairs, and that my base was therefore no longer under serious attack. Even then, my trepidation about actually sending my heroes into the final assault against the final enemy caused me to delay more than was really necessary, building up cash for on-the-fly resurrections and spellcasting, creating more parties, etc. But the deed is done, and the Barlog is dead.

That’s not a typo. As in Ultima (Balrons) and D&D (Balors), what we have here is a game that isn’t under license to the Tolkien estate and therefore has to make do with a Brand-X Balrog knock-off. Unlike the others, though, they make a joke of it: “Barlog”, we’re told, is short for “Baron of Logic”, Hell’s embodiment of merciless rationality, who taunts you with the logical inevitability of his ultimate victory. I suppose this means that the means of defeating him — building Temples to enlist the aid of the Gods — is a matter of superstition triumphing over reason. It doesn’t really feel that way, though, because the Barlog’s real weakness is that he’s easily distracted: on this level only, you can periodically summon a colossal “Spirit of Kings”, causing the Barlog to drop whatever he’s doing and rush off to fight it, even if it’s in the far corner of the map. It’s hardly rational behavior, so in addition to being a demon from the pit, he’s also a hypocrite.

This entire business is jokey in a way that, to me, doesn’t fit entirely comfortably with the game. It’s strange that this is so, because there are bits of humor throughout the game — the royal advisor’s introduction to each map typically includes comical digressions, and a lot of the things the heroes say during gameplay are hammed up enormously. (I particularly like the elves, who look post-Tolkien but talk like excessively enthusiastic children.) But the advisor typically only says anything at the beginning and end of the scenario (and, due to a bug, sometimes the end speech doesn’t play), and the hero quips, which fundamentally serve to signal status changes like “I just gained a level” or “I’ve decided to flee this encounter”, are repeated often enough that after a while you basically stop noticing the words and just process their relevant content. Fundamentally, the player’s attention is going to be on the gameplay most of the time, and the gameplay itself isn’t funny. So when the Barlog talks, interrupting me in the middle of gameplay mode, my reaction is “Huh? What? Oh, right. Comedy.”

Still, for all my complaints, I think overall I’m glad I got this game, especially given the pittance I paid for it. In addition to the campaign mode, there are several standalone missions. I’ve already dipped a toe into them, and will probably wind up playing through them all eventually.

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.

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