The worst of Total War: Rome II’s many problems is its failure to explain its mechanics clearly and especially how those mechanics interact. The internal politics of Rome – something critical to why the Rome: Total War was good – are a particularly badly represented mess: a variety of bars and numbers move around the politics screen without explaining themselves or what they mean in relation to the rest of the game. The food system, newly introduced in this iteration of Total War, is not necessarily the worst offender but it is the one I’ve had the best luck untangling and so it provides a good case study for why Rome II’s obscure, badly implemented mechanics utterly rob the campaign of its basic joy.
I have been aiming to write a review of the recent documentary series Napoleon on this blog for some time. It doesn’t fit with the otherwise videogame themed content but it’s a compelling documentary. I’m not terribly interested by its content (which is mostly military and political history), but it has an impressive ability to clearly argue a particular viewpoint about Napoleon and his empire. This is surprisingly rare among history documentaries, most of which stick as closely as possible to ‘the facts’ and are usually either boring or misleading as a result. They’re boring because they devolve into a string of dates without the focus an argument provides and often misleading because they bolster the misconception that historians are primarily concerned with ordering events rather than arguing about them, their consequences, their causes, their significance. The advantage of an argument, then, especially if it’s a controversial one is that it forces you as a writer to state a case, which is always more lively than reciting a list. Arguments are stimulating to write or to read (or in this case to watch) so it’s refreshing that Andrew Roberts, historian and presenter of Napoleon, clearly has such strong, positive opinions about the titular character.
This is all to say that I haven’t written that review, but I have come across a related and exceptionally good piece of writing which ties the paragraph above to videogames. The essay “How Thinking Like A Historian Can Help You Understand Games, From The Witcher 3 To Assassin’s Creed” by Robert Whittaker has just appeared on Rock, Paper, Shotgun and it’s a wonderful read. Whittaker beautifully illustrates how our interpretation of the past is in flux, how it change over time and most of all how the absolutes we read about so often when history is brought up in the context of videogames are utterly useless. Judging from the comments, people haven’t bothered to read the article and are instead arguing in the exact way the article warns against, which is a shame. Still, it’s an excellent piece that’s worth a read for anyone interested in history and videogames.
I’ve written already about how playing as Austria in Europa Universalis IV successfully addresses the recurring problem of the late game in strategy and grand strategy games. That is specifically the phase of the game where you have won and yet it goes on. In Civilization V, you might reach the year 1800, find you’re vastly ahead of the AI opponents and simultaneously realise it’ll take 100 more turns to finally finish that Conquest or Science victory. In Europa Universalis IV, you might beat France in a major war and realise that all it takes to gobble up the whole continent is a series of tedious, easy conflicts. In Total War games, where the objective is to conquer a quota of provinces, usually being merely half-way to this quota is enough to be larger and stronger than all your rivals. Rome: Total War is interested in solving this problem and while it’s not wholly successful, it does mitigate the tedium which suffuses so much of the late game in strategy and grand strategy. By dividing the game into two phases, one in which you expand for the glory of the Roman Republic and another which sets you against other Roman factions and the Senate itself in your quest to become emperor, Rome: Total War makes victory difficult. It forces you to recontextualise your conquests and think again about what territory is ‘safe.’ It forces you to zoom out from small-scale, distant wars to focus on a larger conflict. Rome: Total War’s late game challenges you, a phrase we can rarely use honestly about this phase in these games.
At its worst, Europa Universalis IV is a game of unchecked conquest. It shares a common problem with many grand strategy games, namely the fun struggle to survive and grow as a state is gradually replaced with a lengthy period of easy conquest and ‘cleaning up.’ EUIV’s timeline spans 400 years (1444-1821), but it’s rare for me and most players to ever get beyond 1650. By then you are the strongest: alliances can be broken with impunity, neighbours devoured and coalitions smashed. Without the challenge of the early and mid game, EUIV and other titles like it devolve into rote warring to expand your territories. Interesting decisions evaporate, and as long as you’re clever enough not to let a massive coalition form, you will be unchallenged. Playing as Austria is the antidote to those problems. It provides a unique, long-lasting challenge which is different from the experiences of other, more conventional states.
Browsing the internet hours after I finished Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I could’ve sworn I heard a pig snuffle in my room. Sure, it was a blind scraping against a wall that sounded eerily like the game’s effect, but it was enough to set me on edge and convince me that A Machine for Pigs is a great horror game.
Dishonored’s DLC ‘The Knife of Dunwall’ has three missions. The story concludes in the third mission, but by the end of the second the action has reached its climax. The infiltration of the Timsh Estate, which closes out that mission, should rightly be celebrated among the great stealth sections of all time and it is the greatest single section in Dishonored. Your objectives are simple enough: break into the estate, steal Arnold Timsh’s will and kill or otherwise incapacitate him. In a mission with otherwise merely serviceable level design, however, the Timsh Estate is an intricate, confined environment which is a delight to explore and sneak through. It is easily the highlight of the whole DLC and from a mechanical perspective it’s a better conclusion that the poor third mission (entitled ‘The Surge’). It tests the player’s knowledge of the mechanics introduced thus far and, especially at higher difficulties where simply cutting enemies to ribbons isn’t an option, succeeds at something Dishonored rarely even attempts: making the player feel vulnerable. Someone seeing Dishonored for the first time in ‘The Surge’ or missions like ‘High Overseer Campbell’ in the main game could be forgiven for thinking Dishonored was an adaption of Batman. The Timsh Estate, though, forbids player from lurking in rafters or easily picking off its guards and to its credit it makes for a more thoughtful, tense experience.
There are spoilers here for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood faction here.
The first half of the Dark Brotherhood questline in TESIV, up to an including ‘The Purification’, and the player’s arc through that organisation is Oblivion’s strongest content. While most of its appeal is certainly down to its quest design (which is, simply, better and far more imaginative than the rote collection or killing quests seen elsewhere), it also distinguishes itself from the rest of the game by thoughtfully constructing a community within the Dark Brotherhood. In a game also featuring a Mages, Fighters and Thieves Guild – not to mention a lengthy Arena career – the Dark Brotherhood, alone, manages to make the player feel a member of an organisation rather than its sole saviour. Other guilds are acceptable vendors of quests, but the Dark Brotherhood exceeds them in one important respect: only there does the player become attached to the group’s NPC members, seek them out for advice and relish interactions in the Sanctuary, the Brotherhood’s headquarters. This is all the more impressive since the Brotherhood stands for the values most alien to most players, worship of an ancient, evil deity and taking pleasure and pride in murder. There is, of course, a dramatic shift in the quest line halfway through, after which it becomes much more of Oblivion’s standard fare, but is first half stands so far above the rest of the game’s content it’s worth examining why, and particularly how the player comes to feel they have joined, in a real sense, a ‘brotherhood.’