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The Flare Path: Operation Barbarouser

First impressions of Fantasy General 2

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Stukas in ill-fitting Roc costumes, Sturmtigers with “I am a Stone Giant” painted on their sides, Wirbelwinds in long blonde wigs, talking pidgin Elvish… there was a slight danger Fantasy General II was going to end up inheriting more DNA from its publisher’s back catalogue than the 1996 classic I eulogised in May. Having roamed Aer aggressively and quizzically for the past two days, I’m relieved to report that FG2 definitely isn’t Panzer Corps in drag. All evidence points to it being a likeable sequel – a likeable sequel that combines reverence for its predecessor with a welcome willingness to add extra RPG trappings where extra RPG trappings are needed. 

While I’m not entirely happy with the new 3D aesthetic (more on my graphics reservations in a moment) and will aer air a few minor mechanical criticisms today, I’ve nothing but admiration for the way German devs Owned by Gravity have added interesting decisions to an inherited template already teeming with the things.

Every turn is a ramble through a decision-space crowded with colourful and consequential choices. Familiar “Where should I move this unit?” and “What should I attack next?” brow-corrugators jostle with absorbing ancillary questions related to spell use, artefact assignment, unit recruitment and upgrades, story shaping, and hero development. More malleable protagonists and a more flexible narrative together with livelier maps, give FG2 inviting RPG depths its predecessor never possessed. Compared to much of the historical hexiana in the Slitherine stable, FG2 is delightfully polytonal.

Your Pictishish avatar is the son of a barbarian chief who’s confronted at regular intervals by multiple choice dilemmas that sculpt his character and his combat experiences. Whether you’re discussing Falirson’s hopes and dreams with an itinerant mystic, deciding which side (if any) to assist in a skirmish you’ve stumbled upon, or wondering whether to sack a neutral settlement in order to gain a quick gold boost, the results of particular decisions are unlikely to be spelled out in bald stats. Consequences tend to come in shades of ash and charcoal rather than in stark black and white. A delayed attack might exasperate a belligerent hero in your army but buy you the time necessary to bolster your ranks. A show of arrogance could earn you a potentially useful character trait yet burn a bridge between yourself and a potential ally.

Sensibly, the devs have retained FG’s distinctive bifurcated damage system (‘wounds’ can be quickly healed through resting, ‘losses’ are more serious and require a trip to a settlement). The original game’s approach to morale also survives sequelisation largely intact. Judging when to withdraw a battered unit so that it can rest/recuperate safe from harm, remains a key skill. Leave a core unit in the line too long and you may find yourself deprived of it and its invaluable experience in future engagements.

During a major clash there’s a good chance the enemy will freshen its frontline as energetically and intelligently as you do. I like what I’ve seen of the AI so far. It rests sagely, gangs up on the enfeebled mercilessly, and screens and uses missile troops with eyewatering efficiency. Yesterday I spent ages unsuccessfully trying to fragment the formidable clot of foes pictured above (my withered rabble had no chance of besting this large army in open battle). Although restless and responsive, the mass refused to venture into the mountain passes and forests where my ambushers waited. And when I did attempt to bushwhack the odd careless straggler, the bushwhackee’s mates were quick to come to its aid.

An essentially linear mission sequence combined with tough scenarios and a core force mechanic, means campaign restarts are probably going to be part of the FG2 experience for most players*. As FG campaigns regularly ended prematurely – the quitter reluctantly acknowledging the true cost of early mistakes and losses by throwing in the towel – this obstructiveness isn’t inappropriate. To their credit Owned by Gravity do alleviate some potential frustration by avoiding time limits (tardy players earn little or no gold from their victories). They’ve also mission crafted with replay in mind. With the wealth of unit and hero upgrade options, and maps littered with enticing exploration destinations and unpredictable wildlife there’s very little danger you’ll experience boredom the second or third time you attempt a mission.

*I’ve yet to experiment with the “easy” difficulty setting.

Judging by the expansive campaign map, the 30 or so missions in FG2 will be followed by a fair few expansion packs. Hopefully, the designers of the DLC scenarios will be the same people who fashioned the challenges I’ve been enjoying this week. Despite utilizing a relatively (compared with FG) small cast of units, and a fairly limited terrain set (basically forest, river, road, and ‘open’ hexes)  every mission has its own personality and shows signs of careful balancing. Sometimes you’re forced to split your strength. Sometimes a choice of roads radically impacts the flavour of your travails. Wildlife often adds a welcome dash of unpredictability. Once roused, creatures like bears, wolves, and bats are as likely to turn on enemy units as your own.

My tolerance of dodgy writing is low, but I’ve few complaints about the wordsmithery that propels FG2’s intriguing if genre-bound story. The descriptions of characters, places, and events lack originality and poetry, but the English is sound and succinct which is something. I want to know why the Defilers are defiling, and whether my willingness to raid settlements will turn Falirson into a reviled monster by the campaign’s end.

I’m less enamoured by FG2’s predilection for polygons. Tangled skirmishes that could be analysed in seconds in sprite-reliant FG, take significantly longer to decipher in the 3D sequel thanks to insufficiently distinct unit models and the unhelpful complications of perspective and terrain. The reduction in clarity would matter less if the chunky units were beautifully sculpted or blessed with great animations. Unfortunately, there are few visual incentives to lower the camera.

Reduced unit variety may be another undesirable consequence of the shift to 3D. In the 1996 original, generals got their hands on pleasing exotica relatively early in proceedings. In FG2 barbarian variants dominate armies in the opening phases – beyond the odd troll, there’s almost nothing bizarre or behemothic to spend your gold on. I wonder how long it will be before I’m granted my first dragon.

Two small things I hope to see patched into FG2 soon after the September 5th launch are an undo capability and a “combat randomness” tickbox. Lead Developer Jan Wagner tells me they left out the former because various FoW, ambush and spell situations would have made it “impossible to use 70% of the time”. As other wargame devs get round the problem of potential undo abuse by deactivating the function after certain actions, I’m not sure why Owned by Gravity couldn’t have come up with some form of misclick remedy.

A “Combat Randomness” tickbox? One of the few non-aesthetic FG2 changes I’m not wholly convinced by is the removal of almost all uncertainty from the martial maths. When two units clash in the sequel, the only unknown is what form (wounds or kills) damage will take. Davids never floor Goliaths with jammy shots the way they occasionally did in the original, and I miss that.

As usual my habit of clustering complaints at the end of an FP, risks leaving you dwelling on a game’s failings rather than its accomplishments. Owned by Gravity took on a tricky task when they joined forces with Slitherine to revive Panzer General’s swordy sibling. Going by the eight or so missions I’ve completed thus far, all of which have been thoroughly absorbing and pleasingly resilient, they’ve not disgraced themselves or the proud name of Fantasy General.

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Train Sim World’s periodic name changes and default route bundle reconfigurations seem to generate more hostility and confusion than excitement. If I was DTG I’d forego the ritual for a year or three, and let the publicity department make hay with the free update that always accompanies a relaunch. Include a free loco or route extension with that update, and suddenly you’re Father Christmas rather than pre-ghosts Scrooge.

But what do I know? The present business model allows TSW development to continue (albeit rather slowly – we’re still waiting for steam locos, multiplayer, and decent suite of tools) and lets me exercise my inner Michael Portillo now and again, so it can’t be all bad.

Anyone not currently TSW equipped can remedy the situation with the help of the following competition. I’ve a spare Steam activation code for the £25 Train Sim World 2020 gathering dust on my Clayton Tunnel-inspired mantelpiece and on Sunday circa 1300hrs GMT will send that code to a randomly selected correct answerer of this question:

Name the three buildings pictured here (All are close to routes included in TSW 2020):

Send your answers to me (timfstone at gmail dot com) in the next 48 hours to be eligible for Sunday’s draw. Heard nothing by Monday? Hard luck old bean – better luck next time.

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This way to the foxer

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