By Adam Smith on October 6th, 2011 at 10:16 am.
There has been interest in Genesis, this game of A Game of Thrones, mostly because people like the source material, whether in book or telemotion format, but after a few hours of play I can confidently say that this is not the experience to do the license justice. An initially refreshing sense that I might be playing something boardgamey and diplomatically enthralling was soon replaced with a sense of almost complete apathy. And I tried, I really did.
Genesis is built on a foundation that, if better implemented, could have been its saving grace. It eschews grand battles to focus instead on subterfuge and tricksy diplomacy, differentiating itself from other fantasy RTS games and recognising what really makes the Game of Thrones tick. However, the struggle for power should be conducted on a knife’s edge – but Genesis never convinces that the stakes are high. The visuals, the flow and the world feel anything but epic and because the consequences of actions are often unclear, those consequences often feel like they may as well not exist at all.
There are three ways to play on one’s lonesome and the skirmish option also has a multiplayer variant. I’m including the tutorial as a way to play, if only to throw it into contrast with the campaign, which far from being a satisfying history of the world up to the point when the books begin, feels like a longer and more tedious tutorial. Concepts are introduced slowly and then sometimes they seem to be reintroduced, but there’s no real variety in how a particular unit or ability can be used.
The skirmish mode, House vs House, is slightly more satisfying because there are no constraints to play through at the beginning of each map. You pick your House and map and dive right into the action, most of which involves watching old men hobbling across dirt and farmland, carrying sheets of paper, or perhaps gifts. They are envoys and their mission is to convert neutral towns and castles, convincing them to donate their wealth to their House. It’s sad that in most cases I couldn’t even tell you which House I’m playing; all the character of the diverse cast of oddities, maniacs and gruff warlords is distilled into a unique unit for each, none of which I’ve found particularly engaging or useful.
Essentially, the flow of each scenario comes down to sending envoys to ‘capture’ towns and castles, which are effectively barely populated nodes on the map, and using other units to counter envoys. Once again, I feel I could be describing a turn-based game and Genesis isn’t so much real-time as treacle-time, giving plenty of time to think because everything happens so slowly, but also constantly moving, which makes it feel slightly out of control. A car skidding on dry ice at 4 miles per hour. Everyone’s fine, no real adrenalin rush even, but it’s going to take marginally longer to get where you’re going.
Envoys are the base unit, along with peasants who harvest food for armies, so unsurprisingly their role is simple. While peasants gather food, envoys are collecting gold to build new units, by forming trade routes with friendly locations, and earning prestige, which is necessary to win the game. On the whole, this is not a game about fighting, it’s a game about victory points. It’s possible, and probable, that a scenario will be completed with minimal bloodshed. It’s an interesting route for an RTS to take, but it highlights the fact that none of this is very interesting. I’m going to describe some of the unit types, how they work and how they combine, and it’s going to be exhausting. For me and probably for you. Bear with me.
The only unit type an envoy can counter is another envoy; if he is present in a location when an enemy envoy arrives, he’ll send his opponent back home, wasting valuable time as the dismissed unit traipses back to his headquarters at his usual agonisingly slow pace. However, if an envoy visits a settlement that already has an agreement with one house but doesn’t actually have a unit present to protect it, the new envoy will make the bar representing the relationship with the first house slowly shrink and then the bar representing the relationship with his house will slowly grow. Control has been wrested. Bars have changed colour.
Now, that’s fine. I enjoy lots of games that are about bars changing colour but I have to care about what those colours and the bars that they so readily fill represent. Here, I’m trying to earn resources from generic towns so that I can build units to gain more resources from generic towns, so that when I have enough resources I will have won the game. And then I can start all over again, doing the same things in the same order and with the same result.
The next step up from an envoy is a spy, a stealth unit that moves around the map invisibly (also very slowly) and can form secret agreements with settlements. He’s like an envoy but neither he nor his actions are seen by other houses, so they won’t see their bars shrinking and growing. While the spy seizes control of resources, the previous owner thinks nothing is amiss unless he has a unit in the vicinity that can uncover the spy, or notices that his resources aren’t growing quite as fast as they should be.
What it actually means is that not only is this a game mostly about slowly gathering resources, it’s also a game in which the player is actively punished for not keeping an eye on how fast their resources growing. The idea, which is a good one, is that nothing can be taken for granted. You may look across the map and see the vast majority of towns waving your banner high, but inside, the merchants could be laughing behind your back and shipping half of YOUR precious resources back to your enemies.
The problem is, once you grow suspicious that this is the case, and you should, all you can really do is deploy spies of your own. So spies become a patrol unit, sweeping around the map, checking in with allies and then doing it all again. Plot a route for them and they can wander the land forever, every now and then alerting you to the fact that something has gone wrong. If it’s a bigger map, build more spies.
Then there are noble ladies, who can form a blood bond that cannot be disputed by an envoy and requires more lethal methods. An assassin! That’ll be exciting. He’ll walk slowly across the map, reach his target, apologise sarcastically and then the lady will be gone, the bond will be broken and I’ll be able to send another bloody envoy to create a trade route to gain the prestige that will let me win the scenario.
Do you see? Units counter other units. Locations on a map must be controlled. Resources must be gathered. The only difference is, the factions have names familiar from fiction and the game hides lots of information from the player. Yes yes yes, I understand it’s because of subterfuge and deception, which are fun things, but it just means I need to have a network of spies limping around the map at a snail’s pace, uncovering a secondary layer of war-fog that means I have to explore the blandness of it all repeatedly when once would be more than enough.
Wars. They exist too. Although they feel more like skirmishes, involving six or seven men standing toe to toe and hitting one another. War only breaks out in extreme situations, with the houses keen to maintain a veneer of calm. Send a few knuckleheads to stab peasants in fields and a blind eye will be turned for a while, but once the war gauge fills, the scenario moves to a final act. All settlements declare their allegiance, secret agreements trumping open ones, and a fight to the finish begins. In the short Game of Cudgels, units counter other units, just as in the long Game of Diplomatic Reassurances. The most merciful thing about wars is that they end quickly.
There are good ideas in the game, brilliant even, but all the good ideas in the world don’t mean anything when the actual routine of playing is such a drag. I suspect I would prefer the game if the concepts were rejigged a little and I could play it in a turn-based mode. Take it back to that boardgame feeling of the initial moments. I enjoyed Cyanide’s Blood Bowl but that’s because I enjoy Blood Bowl. The execution wasn’t perfect but the rules underlying that execution are brilliant. In Genesis, the execution is severely lacking but so are the rules themselves. Instead of trickery and mindgames, everything devolves into tedium and maintenance.
Give me more interaction with the holdings I have, so that I might have hints as to which ones are likely to turn on me. Give me a reason to care when they do turn, other than the trickling accumulation of numbers. Give me character. That’s the problem at the heart of it all. The interactive elements feel like an unrewarding chore because there’s no sense of a world becoming more expansive or a narrative worth telling. A map relinquishes its resources and then another strikingly similar map awaits.
It’s a licensed title that has tried to translate its source material into game concepts rather than visual cues, which is certainly admirable, but it’s been left completely lacking in character. Not just Game of Thrones character, but any real character at all. If it wasn’t branded it would, for a long time, seem like a historical strategy game based on an extremely uneventful conflict between several minute and long-forgotten baronies. Not really what fans want from Westeros, I suspect.