The Games Of Christmas: December 19th
We all want to rule the world. Occasionally, we get to, assuming we have enough spare time. We celebrate this fact via a precious window of the seasonally festive advent-o-calendar. But of which game do we speak? Follow the a-pointy appointed hand of the one true leader of the Autobots to discover...
Jim: The big strategy franchises all seem to be undergoing difficult changes. Creative Assembly's attempt to bring Total War into a slightly-more-modern era has been one of the most interesting to watch, not least because of the sheer scale of the game. Of all the strictly-PC games out there, the Total War games remain the most impressive in terms of ambition, and in terms of the intensity of feeling that it inspires in its community.
I'm aware that I'm one of the most keen Total War fanboys in the games press. When things come to shouting, such as previous years of the PC Gamer top 100, I've always been keen to argue up the placing of Creative Assembly's efforts, because there's hardly another game that better characterises what the PC can do. The same was true of Empire. At the strategic, campaign-map level Empire was largely what I wanted from the next Total War game. It was magnificently detailed, absolutely enormous, and drew me into trade wars, colonial imperialism, and made my games truly international. Previous Total War games had been both without decent diplomacy, and largely relied - in my hands at least - on complete land war dominance. So it was refreshing to be forced to deal with the high-seas, and to have to think about naval dominance. I was utterly engrossed.
On the tactical battlefield maps things were equally shiny, but perhaps a little less nuanced. I don't think the Total War way of doing things has translated brilliantly into the era of firearms, even though the line infantry were as well handled as I could imagine them being. That said, I ended up playing less of these in single player, and more of them multiplayer, precisely because the AI didn't seem happy with its new role as a rifleman. The naval battles too were unwieldy, and have been patched into something far less interesting than what we had at the outset.
Nevertheless this is clearly one of the most important games of the year. It was a game that I felt both thrilled and disappointed by. Like much of our Christmas list, I feel that it was a flawed classic: a great work of game-design hamstrung by production problems and design failures. The enormity and richness of it made it impossible not to be positive and excited about it, but there were numerous reasons to be unhappy with the state it finally arrived in. It is now, thanks to the most recent patch, close to the condition it probably should have been on launch, and with the co-op campaign turning up, it finally has all the functionality we wanted from it all along. 2009 has been the year of Empire, but only just.
Kieron: I had a lot to say about Total War this year, and never really got around to saying any of it. I was thinking of the idea of tradition of strategy games, and the maxilimalist part of it which Total War belongs. It's not about strategy in the chess way. It's about something else - the illusion and fantasy of command, the filigree of detail in a Total War game more like the city-scape of GTA4 than Civ. Point being: not all strategy games are the same. I suspect I'd have argued its corner far stronger if it hadn't been released in such a buggy state. After all, fighting something's corner only really works when you feel they're fighting for you too.
The buggy thing was an interesting one. I was chatting with an editor around release, and he noted that it was the sort of thing which shows how the reviewing game has changed in the modern world. The reviewers went in and, to a man, didn't notice the fact the AI didn't do any naval invasions. The game's released. And then all it takes is one person to notice it, post about it and then it's out there and the whole world is screaming. And rightly so.
You think you'd have spotted the AI doesn't invade by sea by yourself? I suspect you're fooling yourself, at least in the first thirty-to-forty hours with it. Anyone playing Germany wouldn't. That's that much time without even sight of the sea. But once you've noticed it - or had it pointed out for you - you can never un-notice it. It's there. Total War has always a game which has embraced smoke-and-mirrors - as said earlier, it's a game which likes illusion - but to have such a great gaping hole in its simulation brought it down. It's a game which requires you to take it seriously. After that, you couldn't.
It's in a better state now, of course, but you know that Creative Assembly - more than any major PC Developer this year - has burned the last of their goodwill with Empire. They have everything to prove now.