Endless Space

August 7th, 2012 by Potato

After Blueberry was born, I spent a fair number of nights up late with her playing (single-player) turn-based strategy games. The turn-based part was key: I never knew how much attention I’d be able to give the game, when I’d have to walk away, and even when I was playing, I often had a sleeping baby in one arm. So I returned to that old well-loved classic, Master of Orion 2. Indeed, if you have access to the family photo album, you’ll see a MOO2 screen in the background of one of the cute shots of me and her.

A few weeks ago I heard about a new game called Endless Space that promised to capture many of the important elements of MOO2. I bought it through Steam immediately. I’ve now had a chance to play through a few games so I can give a bit of an informed opinion. In short, it’s fun but slow, and not in the “book off a week of time” slow like a huge CivIV map on epic speed is slow, but in the inpatient “ok I clicked the damned end turn button and now I’d like the next turn to begin already” way.

Like MOO2 and many other 4x space games since, ES has a bit of backstory about ancient advanced civilizations, but the game universe is fairly sparse aside from a bit of flavour text here and there. You won’t be travelling to Orion to dig up ancient tech, and Antarans won’t be appearing over your colonies to extract vengeance and then disappear. So as a practical matter, it’s a pretty straight-forward 4X game without any underlying plot or external events to worry about.

The good: Well, I’ve played more than one round, so there’s obviously some good in there. The balance between system/planet level and galaxy level is pretty good: there’s some micromanagerial options to tweak your systems’ output, but you won’t get bogged down in minutiae. It’s not too hard to monitor your empire at a glance — though I wish there was a “take me to this planet” button when you got a notification about building being done so you could see where it was on the map.

The AI seems reasonably clever, and has put up a decent fight in the games I’ve played so far. Otherwise there isn’t a whole lot that really stands out in my mind as being note-worthy: it’s just fairly-well put together and balanced, with a few points that I’ll mention specifically below.

Travel: One item I liked was the method of faster-than-light travel: they have star lanes connecting stars that are close to each other in a cluster, and using those lanes is the starting tech, though you continue to use them later as they’re the fastest way to get around. Wormholes link different clusters, and you have to research the ability to use those. Later, you’ll be able to develop warp drive to fly between any two points without the need of having a wormhole or space lane linking the systems.

A pretty cool way to do it. The Sword of the Stars had really attracted me at first precisely because of the different FTL technologies the races had. However, I never could get into the rest of the SotS gameplay (never got past the demo, even). So I was excited to see this. However, aside from opening up more systems to explore in the galaxy, I don’t think warp drive was implemented very well. One particular feature that I found lacking was the option to force warp travel. The pathing AI automatically uses whatever combination of star lanes, wormholes, and free-flow warp drive will get your ship to its destination the fastest. But there are times when an enemy may have a natural starlane/wormhole chokepoint system, and have that planet heavily defended. If I have warp tech, I could in theory fly directly to a system in their rearguard and wreak havoc. Yet there’s no way for me to force a warp journey: the pathing AI will always try to send me through the starlanes (and thus, the enemy fleet) where possible.

Ship Battles: ES has a very simplified tactical battle system, where ships automatically engage each other while closing distance, which is broken into three phases (far, middle, near). At each phase the player gets to choose one action (termed “playing a card”), such as buffing kinetics damage by 25%, or sabotaging enemy laser accuracy by 15%. Sometimes your action will nullify the enemy’s action, which is kind of like a double bonus for you. Really basic stuff.

So I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s so slow. If you choose to manually control a battle (picking your card(s) yourself), you’re presented with a loading screen, then a pretty 3D-rendered movie of the battle playing out. It looks good, and it can be kind of helpful to see which of the enemy weapon systems is tearing you apart… but you can’t interact with it in any way. You can’t even fast-forward once it’s started. It’s just pointless and slow. Even the automatic battle resolution is slow, with a big timer bar (a “feature” that seems to be there for the benefit of multiplayer). I’m not sure why there isn’t a hybrid option giving you the ability to pick your cards, but not actually watch the action unfold.

To complement that simple enagement, ES also has a simple 3-weapon-type combat system, with 3 corresponding types of shielding. It’s not quite a rock-paper-scissors type of arrangement: though each offers benefits, lasers don’t lose to missiles but beat kinetics. Supposedly each type is good at a different engagement range: missiles for distance, lasers for medium range, and kinetics to tear shit up in close. However, lasers have the barest of range penalties for distance, so I’ve found in practice (my whole 3 games played) that kinetics get ditched in favour of the other two technologies. Indeed, all engagements after the first few technology steps end in the first round (distance), which exacerbates the annoyance of a manual battle: all that loading just to play one card.

I wish there were more tactical options beyond just picking which buff or debuff card I wanted to play that time. For example, what if I built a ship that was faster than my opponent’s? Shouldn’t I be able to choose to close the distance faster, passing through the effective range of missiles and lasers to open up with my kinetics? Or if I had missiles myself, to kite the opponent and extend the duration of the long-distance phase of combat? Plus many of the other neat tactical options that MOO2 had that are missing, like boarding enemy ships or racing past a fleet to bomb a planet.

Indeed, that’s another missing element from the combat system: the option to bomb the enemy into submission. If they built a wretched colony on a gas giant, and the people are starving and rioting and just generally detracting from the empire rather than adding to it — or even if it’s just in your way and not something you can afford to defend — there’s no option to just glass the planet from orbit and move on. Your only option is to invade and take it over, though I have to admit that I do like the mechanism for that: you spend a certain amount of time with your fleets in orbit on an invade mission, and the ownership bar moves steadily towards your side. When it’s full you have the planet, but just barely: the people are angry and upset, and it will take very little time for the enemy to take it back — when their fleets take back the skies, they’ll find the takeover progress bar already nearly filled. No marines and transports to micromanage.

Events: There are random events, but so far they seem very dry. Except for one (you magically get a colony ship), they’ve all consisted of buffs/debuffs adding percentages to some trait, sometimes permanently, but more often for a set number of turns. There are no space monsters, hyperspace fluxes, or archaeological digs uncovering the ancient secrets of mass driver technology. Even the boring percentage effects seem to magnify their dullness by almost always affecting all players at once.

I think the space monsters are one of things I miss most from MOO2. To make up for it, ES has pirates that rampage across the skies, seeming to originate from neutral systems. Thing is, in one game the pirates were pretty much non-existent: there were so many players crammed onto that map that very quickly there ceased to be any neutral systems (at least, none outside the scanning range of the other colonies, which seems to be another pirate prerequisite). In another game, the pirates had this little arm of a spiral galaxy to themselves until after wormhole travel was discovered. By that point, the pirates had more fleet strength than all the other players combined, which was kind of nuts — and that was on “normal”. There’s another level of amped-up pirate activity available in the game options that I’m frankly afraid to experiment with for fear they will come through the screen to overtake the earth itself in our reality.

Speed: My biggest problem with ES is the speed. I don’t know if the game is just inefficiently coded, or if the delay is a carry-over from multiplayer that screws up single-player… but it is slow. You click the end turn button and a progress bar worms its way around. Even at the very beginning with nothing to resolve it takes at least 3-5 seconds per turn to complete. So even if I have all my build orders queued and am just trying to burn through turns until I discover a technology (or whatever it is I’m waiting on), it can still be a slow game to play. The slow loading and playout for combat (when all I want to do is pick my buffs) really adds to that — and even automatic combat has a timer to wait through. Indeed, the slow speed of the game is ultimately what will relegate it to the dustpile for me.

Bugs and Miscellany: There’s the option to blockade your systems with fleets so enemies can’t just sail through to the next system: they have to park it or fight. Yet even though I never seem to be able to run a blockade, the enemy never seems to be slowed by mine. In one game there was a player I just couldn’t kill because my ships simply refused to accept their system as a valid destination.

One staple of the genre is cloaked ships, which don’t seem to exist here, though one technology’s description (of spotting all ships orbiting the system) suggests that at one point in the development cycle there were. There’s also no spying or technology stealing, though there are faction traits that give you research points and/or money when you blow up enemy ships.

It’s tough to think of hidden terrain existing in a space 4X game: surely your astronomers can at least tell you where the stars are, even if you have to send ships to survey the planets. Yet in ES you’ll find that even knowing how many systems lay beyond the wormhole you just found (and thus how big your opponent’s empire might be) is left as a mystery.

Each race has a good/evil/neutral alignment, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is they do [a search result suggested that it indicates how the AI will play the race — so no effect on the player].

Conclusion: To sum up, Endless Space is a fun 4X game that mostly gets the strategic formula right. Though I may miss the GNN robot, the dry atmosphere is perfectly fine for multiplayer, and I think the slowness in the single-player stems from that. The tactical game leaves a fair bit to be desired, but that’s ok — except for the odd important fight auto-resolution is the way to go with these games anyway. If you’ve been looking for a 4X game that’s like MOO2 but not just another game of MOO2 (and important to some, with more modern graphics) then it’s worth a shot. Though they don’t quite get the formula right, it comes closer to the mark than many other 4X attempts out there.

Vacation Random Thought Round-up

June 21st, 2011 by Potato

I didn’t think I’d have any internet access out here: my new computer doesn’t even have a dial-up modem, and this part of PEI has traditionally been a black hole for cell phone service (when we could pick up a signal, it was often from a New Brunswick tower across the water on a clear day). They seem to have put in a new tower because I’m getting pretty decent access via my blackberry, at least right now tonight. I tried checking this afternoon and it would work in fits and starts and many addresses wouldn’t resolve (but that may have been an unrelated problem as there was a service notice on my mail provider’s page).

The weather is still unseasonably cold, but at least it was somewhat sunny today. I finally put the bike back together and went for a little ride down the highway. I only did 10 km round-trip, but I was pretty tired at the end. Not only am I out of shape after the last few weeks of being chained to my desk, but PEI is much hillier than London, and the wind was just killer. The headwind on my way back was severe enough that I couldn’t hear cars coming up from behind at all, and at one point going uphill I swear a gust stopped me dead in my tracks for a moment despite heavy pedalling.

The colours seem impossibly vivid today. I don’t know if it’s just the late spring, or the contrast from the first sunny day after over a week of grey skies, but the soil is really red, the fields are popping green, and the sky was bright blue. Wayfare remarked that she thought it might be an anneurism, but we both thought it looked like that today. As a testament to the accumulated stretch of wet weather, when I rode my bike across the lawn to get to the laneway the ground went “splurt sploosh” underneath me, and the trench my tires pressed into the ground could still be seen at the end of the day — I think it may be permanent.

I’ve been trying to relax, play some games, enjoy the outdoors, read some books, and sleep in… but I can’t help but check my email before going to bed. It never seems to have good news these days. On the markets, I saw tonight that my Capital Power is going to be acquired at a non-existent premium ($19.40 when it was $21 just a few months ago), which I guess isn’t terrible news since I was looking for something to sell anyway (still no jobs lined up), though I really thought it was worth more than that. Also, I just got the news that Paulson has sold all his Sino-Forest, which, rightly or wrongly, is probably going to close the book on that story. Though I’ve taken my all-too-painful lumps on that one, I know at least one person took a small speculative position after the MW story broke, in part on my “analysis” of the situation.

On the science side, I just got an email that my paper was rejected. Again. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong with this paper. Well, I do know: I have a whole list of things from the reviewers. But I don’t know why they’re flat-out rejecting it based on that list, when all kinds of other crap gets published. Nothing there seemed like it couldn’t be fixed in revisions. Ugh.

Still no date set for my exam, either.

Anyway, I installed Portal 2 on my laptop a fair while back, and hadn’t had a chance to play it at all. Finally on vacation, I burned through it over the last two days. Good fun: the writers for that one are top-notch. There were one or two points in the gameplay where I started to get really frustrated by how particular the portal gun was about which surfaces were suitable for creating portals — and one or two where the lack of portal-able surfaces made a puzzle perhaps easier than it should have been (“well, I guess I have to put a portal there since it’s the only damned spot on that whole side of the room that’ll take a portal”).

I also brought Assassin’s Creed and Fable 2 with me, but I think the next few days will be spent with books since we brought about two dozen of those with us, and because Wayfare wants silence, and unlike my laptop, the TV doesn’t have a headphone jack. Speaking of headphones, I borrowed Wayfare’s Sony earbud ones and was really impressed with how ergonomic they were. The little straight bit sticking out of the buds for the wires is asymmetric and fits perfectly into the little gap between that little bit to the front of the ear (I keep trying to call it the preauricular point, but that’s at the base of that little projection) and the rest of the outer ear. I don’t wear headphones that often: I have the earbuds that came with my blackberry just in case I do want them at some point, but none of the 3 sizes of earbud insert stays in my ear very well, and then I also have a large set of noise-cancelling headphones that I remember to pack for plane trips, but not road trips. I may have to invest in a good set of earbuds.

And remember: while I’m gone comments are disabled. Feel free to email me though!

Civilization 5

January 3rd, 2011 by Potato

Someone made the grievous error of giving me Civ5 for Potatomas before my thesis is finished. Civilization games take hours to play through, even on the fairly fast settings, which is valuable time I should be spending thesising. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but play a game or two over the holidays here, and I have to say I was fairly disappointed in this entry to the long-running series.

For those unfamiliar with the games, Civilization takes you through the development of a civilization from the stone age (arbitrarily set at 4000 BC) to the modern day (the game ends when game time hits 2050 AD). You explore the planet, found cities, build armies, negotiate with other civilizations, ward off barbarians, and develop the land to become more productive. All along you research new technologies and advance your civilization, so that at the beginning you may send out archers and axe-wielding warriors, and by the end you’re commanding aircraft carriers and tanks (or new to Civ 5, Giant Death Robots). Your diplomatic options also evolve: you can’t share maps before you learn how to draw one, and resource-sharing treaties have to wait until your civilization develops writing abilities.

Anyhow, that’s the gist of it, and each entry in the Civ lineup has tweaked the formula in some way. There are a lot of changes to the formula in Civ 5:

The good: I particularly like the switch to a hex-grid. Sadly, that’s about all I can say was definitely an improvement to Civ 5.

The mixed bag: The game has reformulated the way armies and units work, so that units no longer stack: that is, you can’t have more than one unit on a single game space. This means that armies are generally a lot smaller than the massive forces that were sometimes built up in previous iterations, which saves a bit on the micro-management during war. Adding to the unit count reduction is the fact that cities can quite effectively defend themselves. The game now models a defensive force/militia/garrison of some sort so you don’t need to manually build units to defend your cities. Cities are tough, too: you can’t take one over with a single group of rampaging horsemen. Unfortunately, cities don’t build up that toughness over time very much (there is a bit of improved defense as a city grows), so if an enemy player sneaks in a settler to build a city where you wanted to build one, it’s immediately very tough to get rid of, and you’ll have to summon the whole army up instead of just picking it off with a spare unit or two.

The resource system has changed so that instead of just needing to find a source of a particular strategic resource, those resources are rationed: some iron mines only contain enough ore to outfit two legions of swordsmen, some have enough for eight, but just getting an iron mine is not enough to build strategic units willy-nilly. This isn’t too much of a restriction since I’ve found there are fewer units in play anyway, but one weird twist is that you also require continued access to that resource to keep your units working (if you lose your iron mine, your swordsmen fight at reduced strength).

The broken: Unfortunately, a lot is broken in this instalment of Civ, and it’s now uninstalled (also good for thesis willpower). If I ever get the hankering to play again, I’ll probably go back to Civ IV. Continuing with the changes to the formula first:

The empire happiness scoring has been changed: no longer is it on a city-by-city basis, but you must keep your empire as a whole happy, or the whole thing collapses into unproductive rioting. The collective scoring part isn’t so bad: it actually relieves some of the city micromanagement required to keep cities happy. However, the system is terribly, horribly broken when it comes to conquering cities: a conquered city provides a relatively huge amount of unhappiness to your empire (vs the old way of just the conquered city being unhappy and unproductive). If your empire racks up too many unhappy points, you slip into riots, rebellions, and civil war. The only way I’ve managed to do this so far has been by winning wars. Oddly enough, your citizens seem to be happier when you lose wars, or at least win slowly enough to integrate the new cities one-by-one. One time I was dominating another (AI) civ in battle: he had no army left. He offered peace, surrendering all but one of his cities in the process. Even though the cities were handed over as part of a peace talk process, there was just as much unhappiness as if my tanks had rolled in as conquerors. The collective hit from all those cities at once sent my empire into a civil war — this, the result of winning the war the other player started? So yeah, the happiness system is totally broken as of right now.

The purchase/hurry system from previous Civs is gone. It used to be that you could build stuff in your cities (military units, city improvements, etc) either turn-by-turn based on the productive output of the city, or you could spend gold from your empire’s treasury to have the project finished immediately. If you started building it normally, but wanted it done sooner, you could just pay a small bit of gold to hurry up the completion, depending on how much work had already been completed. No more: now, even if you’re 99% done, it still costs the same amount of gold to hurry production as if you had started from scratch. And, it doesn’t appear as though you get to carry-over production to the next item in your build queue if you do hurry (or cancel) the current project.

Rule changes aside, the game is broken in a number of other ways. For starters, it’s just plain buggy: though I’ve only had two all-out crashes, I’ve had a number of minor game bugs, most notably in the graphics department (ghost images being torn across the screen, etc.), but also a few game bugs (like harbours being blockaded by ghost ships). The game is inexcusably slow too. I have, IMHO, a reasonably bitching quad-core desktop gaming rig. Nonetheless, it takes forever to process a turn. I have all the graphics settings on low, and still sometimes when I scroll the map too fast, I get blank spots that then slowly paint in. That’s just ridiculous, especially since the graphics don’t look any better than they did in Civ IV. The AI has been screwy too: a few times now other civilizations I’ve been nothing but nice to, who are vastly weaker and less advanced than I am, will just up and declare war on me for no reason at all, and then I go out and trounce them. One time, a civ came to me and offered a diplomatic deal. I hit “accept”, without modifying the deal at all, and the AI refused, saying it couldn’t accept “my” terms. Huh?

In the end, I can’t recommend Civ 5 even to Civ fanatics who will probably play it anyway. The game came out a few months ago, and there have been a few patches to fix some of the previous issues… but the game still needs a lot of work before it’s ready.

Xmas Shopping Round-up: EB Games & TTT

December 30th, 2010 by Potato

Not too much to report from this year’s round of holiday shopping. I managed to do about half of my shopping online, which was fantastic given the amount of snow we had in London, and how sick I was for a week there, both leading to a state of not wanting to leave the house.

A quick hiss at Toys Toys Toys in Fairview Mall (Toronto): they wouldn’t accept a manufacturer’s coupon for a boardgame, and they have a no returns policy. I may be a spoiled, decadent consumer for feeling entitled to a decent return policy, but right before xmas at a toy store? Toys may not be as hard to buy for someone as clothes, but it’s so easy to get the wrong thing for kids (or for a kid to end up with two of something), and have to take it back that a no-returns policy is just mean. On top of that, there was no warning from the cashier, just a sign posted at the check-out. (And to top it off, we do indeed find ourselves with a surplus Scrabble set – anyone know of any toy drives still accepting donations?)

A much longer fuck you goes out to EB games. Wayfare bought me a copy of Fallout New Vegas for the Xbox, which, unbeknownst to her, I played months ago on the PC. So back it goes. While they do have a return policy, the reality was that it failed. We got quite the run-around, which I’ll try to detail below, but the end result is that a full refund was not provided — Wayfare lost $5.50 just for the privilege of shopping at EB Games, and they were skeevy to boot. Fuck ’em.

The longer version starts at purchase: the clerk offered Wayfare some variety of store membership card, which she declined. The clerk said it wouldn’t cost her anything, and she still declined, but the clerk put it on anyway. Then we go to return the game, and the new clerk mumbles and fumbles for a bit about having to manually alter the price — we assume because it’s now boxing week and the current price is lower than the price she paid before. But no, as he processes the credit card for the return, we see that it’s not for the full amount, and not for the new sale price, either. He starts to explain how the card was non-refundable, and we’re confused — what card? He explains the card, and how it was rung up originally so that the end price for buying the game was the same if we kept it, but for the return the game came out cheaper with an added charge for the membership, which is non-refundable. Wayfare explains how she said she didn’t want it, that she never goes for memberships you have to pay for, so there must be a mistake and why can’t we return that too? He’s adamant that there’s nothing he can do about returning the membership, and that we’re out $5.50.

He says one reason why it’s not refundable is that we could have bought it, then run out to another EB games and used it to save 10% on used games, then tried to return it… I’m like wait, the membership gives you 10% off used games? Yes, just used games. So why, I ask, was the discount applied to this purchase, of a new game? “Oh,” he says, “that was a used copy of Fallout New Vegas.”

This is where it goes from being a rip-off story to a major skeeve-out. He’s already put the returned game away behind the counter so we can’t double-check, but no, Wayfare is sure she bought a new game. I swear there was nothing on the packaging to indicate it was used when I opened it — it was even shrink-wrapped (usually the used games have open cases with just a sticker to seal them). Two sets of eyes saw this game and believed it to be new, and EB is saying that it was actually a used game they sold her. Plus, it was at the same price all the other stores were selling the new copy for.

To sum up: rip-off return policy with a bizarre mandatory membership fee, and passing off used merchandise as new. Avoid EB Games.

C&C 4: Tiberium Something-or-Other

December 13th, 2010 by Potato

I’m sick. Siiiiiiiiick. And it’s snowy here, so very snowy. I don’t feel like doing much of anything, but I can’t sleep anymore since I just got up from 14 hours of nyquil coma. I call up Wayfare to express my dilemma, and she suggests that I play a video game, which as it turns out is an excellent suggestion.

Now I haven’t played StarCraft2 for well over a month now, since I’ve been so busy not writing my thesis. And a real-time strategy game sounds like it would hit the spot… except I don’t want to play SC2 itself right now. I’ve already finished the single-player part of the game, and I’m too dopey and ill-tempered to keep up/put up with the “people” on battle.net. So I start searching for alternatives, and discover that they’ve come out with a 4th installment to the Command & Conquer franchise. Some single-player play with that sounds like it would hit the spot, so I go ahead and download it.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the RTS concept, it is generally composed of three pillars of gameplay: resource collection & management, base building, and unit control/tactics. In the C&C tradition, you send out your harvesters to collect “tiberium” which magically gets transmuted into tanks, which are built at the factories of your base, which you defend with more base structures like walls and turrets, then you venture forth across the map to complete objectives, using strategy of some sort.

For C&C4, they decided to throw all that out the window: there are no resources to collect or manage. Just a simple unit cap, which is absurdly low (~6-7 tanks maxes it out), which of course limits the strategic options, taking out the 3rd pillar. As soon as a unit is killed, you can build another to replace it — no resources to manage, so it’s “free”. With such a small force, there’s really no way to split it up and try for different objectives, especially since the computer has you outnumbered all the time. Plus, there’s essentially no base-building either: gone are the factories, barracks, airports, and defense towers. Now everything comes out of one building that you get at the beginning. So the game is basically a dull grind of build your pitiful 6-tank force, go smash it against the first objective, lose 5 tanks in the fighting, replace them, then on to the second objective.

The game was so horribly pointless and dull that after the 3rd level I decided I’d rather go work on my thesis.