Four times 4X = ? (X > 3)

Finals are over for me, and with only a few make-up assignments left I’m almost ready to close the book on this semester. In-between study sessions and periods of self-loathing I found that Expansion, Exploitation, Exploration and Extermination were a decent way to relieve stress, allowing me to mess with junk I had laying around in my steam library that I hadn’t really touched. In this case, I’ll talk about a quartet of 4X titles that I sunk around 6-10 hours into each over the past few weeks, all of which have come out in the last 2 years. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the old game playing soon enough (Final Fantasy XII International probably), but for now these games and League of Legends have taken up most of my non-studying time. I also played the Dishonored DLC, and it does a great job of being more Dishonored. If you liked that game then you will like this DLC, straight up.

Also, The Last Express exists and seems crazy. Expect more on that eventually.

Endless Space

The Tech tree in all of its glory.

I mentioned Endless Space a bit in my World of Xeen blog, but after a bit more playtime I can indeed confirm that it’s pretty awesome and probably one of the best Space 4X games since Master of Orion 2, not that that particular sub-sub-genre has had much competition as of late (aside from the excellent, albeit dry Galactic Civilizations II, which came out in like 2005). Endless Space takes most of its cues from the former, though there is a bit of the latter as well. Movement is restricted to star lanes until you research technology that allows your ships to go wherever, wormholes act like chokepoints, and each star system has multiple planets of varying types and qualities (i.e. Terran, Lava, Arctic, Desert, Gas Giant, etc.), stuff you’d all expect from a game with “Space” in the title. Why Endless Space works for me as well as it does comes down to the elegance of its execution, rather than any sort of mind-blowing mechanical innovations. The interface is efficient and minimalistic, giving you most of the information you need in the lower right corner every time you press the “next turn” button, your production is segmented into Food, Industry, Dust (money), and Science and everything tells you exactly what it does in plain terms. The tech tree has 4 branches and is designed in a way that forces you to explore each one instead of min-maxing (which is kind of how I feel GalCiv could be at times, with its ultra-segmented tech tree). Combat is a rock-paper-scissors style affair, where picking tactical cards that counter other tactical cards is the only direct interaction you have, which is fine. The Space Battles certainly look pretty. If there’s one qualm I’ve had from Endless Space thus far, it’s that the AI is a brutal mo-fo. Even on easy, I found myself surrounded and outgunned on one of my (aborted) games. I like to turtle in these kinds of games, so aggressive, expansive AI is basically going to crush me unless I do the same. It’s a learning experience, if nothing else.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane

It bears mention that the DLC for this game is kind of gross because of how piecemeal it all is, but I'm sure it'll all be dirt cheap once a steam sale comes around.

Moving from Space to Fantasy, Warlock: Master of the Arcane takes many of its cues from the other Simtex developed 4X game Master of Magic, but for some reason takes place in the same fantasy world as the Majesty games, the most obvious benefit of which is the Sean Connery soundalike telling you whenever you’ve run out of money or whatnot. Warlock is also probably the lightest of these games. You choose from a wizard of your choice commanding 3 factions (Humans, Monsters and Undead, each with their own quirks but still playing relatively the same). Towns have limited building capacity based upon population, which means everything takes the same amount of time to build regardless. This forces you to more directly focus your towns on specific goals (i.e. making money, research, food) and also very much goes against the concept of turtling. Combat is similar to Civ V (also the hex map is uncannily similar to Civ V) and the way troops work encourages quality (high level) over quantity because every single one of your troops can level up to become insane powerhouses. There’s also an abundance of neutral monsters to facilitate this leveling up, and apparently one of the victory conditions is kill an epic monster… though I feel like if you had the military strength to do so you could probably conquer the rest of the world instead. Diplomacy is also pretty simple and straightforward. You can trade resources, make alliances and declare war. That’s about it. No “Hey buddy, you should declare war on this fellow and also here is some cash”, which I guess is fine, considering Majesty is also very much a combat-oriented 4X game. The real thing that makes it great however, is the plethora of spells available, with one of my favorite ones being the ability to raise land, allowing for travel across places that would otherwise require your troops to embark (also works similarly to Civ V in that they can fight back against proper naval units, but not well). It’s that kind of mechanic in particular that echoes Master of Magic so specifically, and since I liked it in MoM I like it in here. Figures.

Fallen Enchantress

I should take screenshots for this game, as the wiki only has concept art. It's butt ugly, and the world needs to know.

I find it more than a little hilarious that this game doesn’t have the words “Elemental: War of Magic” anywhere on it, despite basically being a direct sequel/version of the game that isn’t a complete mess. As you may remember, the original Elemental was apparently a complete trainwreck of half-finished brokenness, and anyone who bought it got a copy of this game for free. As it stands by itself, Fallen Enchantress is a pretty neat game. Anyone who played Gal Civ 2 will notice an abundance of similarities, from the way that diplomatic negotiations are handled to the powerful unit creation tools to the way the AI is really stupid on lower difficulties. However, while Gal Civ had cool spaceships and junk, Fallen Enchantress has a bunch of really ugly looking humans/monsters. For a game that came out in 2012, it looks more at home among 2002’s top releases. Ok, that’s a bit reductive, but my point is that it isn’t a looker. Gameplay wise it fares much better, once again encouraging aggressive expansion and military prowess (though you can still beat the game without declaring war on anyone, as I did at one point). The tech tree is pretty simple, and I found myself at the end of it playing on a small map. The spells aren’t quite as crazy as those of Warlock (or even something like Age of Wonders), but rest assured that you can make a single broken unit with like 50 buffs on at once. The combat is a tactical affair, aping Heroes of Might and Magic, though I wouldn’t call that a bad thing. That being said, it isn’t as tactical as something like heroes would be, but at least it’s better than Disciples III, not that there aren’t many strategy games worse than Disciples III. If you’ve been on the fence for a while, I’d say it’s worth a look if you like the way Stardock makes these kinds of games, though it bears mention that Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is coming out next month and is a standalone expansion that is probably worth buying instead of the vanilla game.

Civilization V: Gods and Kings

The Celts get more faith in the early-game... which is about the second least useful ability in this expansion, behind the Dutch.

Civ V is still pretty great, but I think I’ve fallen upon what about that game annoys me so, besides the oft unpredictable and flighty AI: The endgame drags. The last two hours of a Civ game if you aren’t going for raw military conquest fall into the pattern of “press the end turn button to make the numbers go up”. This is obviously something that Firaxis has noticed, since that appears to be the focus of their next expansion, but I’ll have to wait and see. Also, like Civ IV, religion seems so ancillary and separate from every other mechanic that focusing on it, even in the early-goings, seems especially useful. Regardless, I think Civ V is still awesome and for this blog title to make sense I had to throw in a 4th game, because if @mento knows anything, it’s that clever wordplay for the title should determine what said blog should contain.

Bonus game: Syndicate (the 2012 commercial failure, not the Bullfrog classic)

There's no reason why this game had to be called what it is. Also, it deserved more success.

Since I bought and finished it today, I figure I might as well throw some Syndicate in for good measure. As far as First Person Shooters that I bought for $5 are concerned, it pulls its weight incredibly well. That’s not to say that the 5 hour campaign doesn’t have a sort of dumb story (One of the things that appeals to me so much about the original game is the complete amoral nature of what you’re doing. There’s no bright light, you’re just murdering hordes of civilians with your drugged up cyber-agents because corporations, something that this new game plays with before making your character moral). On its own merits, it’s a very well made game with nice feeling weapons and a pretty awesome hacking mechanic that allows the game to justify the hordes of enemies it throws at you. I haven’t tried the co-op because I’m sure no one is online (a pity, since Jeff considered it the high point of the entire experience), but I found Syndicate an enjoyable experience that didn’t overstay its welcome. Also, the way your dude holds the pistol when running is absurdly cool

6 Comments
6 Comments
Edited by Tennmuerti

I delved into Endless Space during my 4x space binge around Christmas time. And it deceptively impressed at first but the more I played the more it lost it's charm. It was kind of shocking how closely it sticks to the Civ in space formula, the resources, build ques, research almost directly mapping to Civ equivalents. Problem with that is that because of the more restrictive nature of the "map" compared to civ games, it instinctively became a more limited game. The research trees are imo boring, they seem cool at first but are in actuality just gibberish jargon thrown together, the military tree especially is a snooze fest of going through lasers +1, lasers +2 equivalents. The only novelty Endless Space offered were imo the space battles, but like the rest of the game they only seem cool at first. The three stages and rock paper scissors abilities only really matter when you have forces that are close together in power. As soon as you get any significant disparity in forces it all goes out the window and at that point you are just steamrolling everything on autopilot. Same goes if the AI greatly outguns you, those card plays will only barely matter. And like a Civ game, once you figure out how to get an economic and expansionist juggernaut rolling you're then just playing mop up and going through the motions for 2/3rds of the game. It's just because Endless Space has less bells and whistles and it's mechanics are more in your face that I felt you notice this trend sooner. In the end I just got bored by about my 4th game (even with ramping up the difficulty a notch each try). The space battles do look cool however, making your customized fleet of badass spaceships and watching them demolish the enemy into dust with their rockets, lasers and kinetic cannons is pretty.

It's funny but the exact same thing can be said for Warlock MotA, I got bored by 3rd or 4th map. At least the factions were more diverse. The hyper expansionist attitude serves here just as well as in Civ games. The magic is a fun additional layer of tactics. But it felt like a much more limited Civ game in almost every other way, with no tech/research advancement, very limited building options, no MP (unless they finally added that), simpler resource management. It has some faults with it's innovations too, like the planes, the amount of army/resources/time it takes to go in there, conquer and make use of them, you could have already used all that to simply steamroll the AI with that firepower. They could be cool in deadlocked MP games, but against the AIs it's just a waste of time and a way of postponing a games end. It's also much more blatant about it's AI cheating, making early game fighting against enemy factions kind of a joke, when you siege their only remaining capitol and the enemy is popping out 2-3 units every turn. Making it a no brainier to just forgo that, expand and crush everything later. I did enjoy leveling up and pimping out unstoppable armies of top tier units, having a bunch of super regenerating, flying, vampiric, werewolves was hilarious. As well as making a beast town that produces a stupid amount of food via cheese and pumpkins and calling it Om-nom-nom.

I may sound like a downer, but I have the exact same problem with Civ games. Once you figure out the nuts and bolts these games just become the exercise of going through the motions when playing vs. the AI. Because they lack any significant SP campaigns. Just playing on slightly varied maps gets old fast. Only MP becomes a refuge for extended gameplay. The Civ games themselves are just do a much better job of masking that with by sheer number of different shit for you to do.

And for the price that Warlock and Endless Space are, I still got more then my moneys worth of hours of fun until they got old.

PS: (hmm, I guess it's also why i like games like the new X-com and FTL more, because at least when you dissect the mechanics and mastered them, they still allow for interesting times by making you work against the significant random factors)

Edited by believer258

I need to play a Civ game at some point.

Syndicate, meanwhile, sounds like a really good deal for $5. I remember having a lot of fun with it.

Final Fantasy XII, in the meantime, is a game I've whittled away at here and there for a while now, getting to the point where the game stops fucking around. And I finally have. Now I just have to wait for finals to end so I can play it. And FFX. And Strange Journey. And Etrian Odyssey. And wrap up Persona 3 FES and Nocturne. And hopefully I'll have all that done before SMTIV. And then I''ll need to play something decidedly Western - like finish Red Dead.

Posted by Slag

You've got a point about Civ's endgame. I haven' played one yet that felt anything other than a slow slog at the end.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

@tennmuerti: Believe me, the way I can play 4X games is in (relatively) short bursts and I rarely play enough games in a row for those kinds of things to annoy me. I do know what you mean though. Sorry, don't really have a multi-paragraph rebuttal ready.

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Edited by Ubersmake

Reading this reminded me that Age of Wonders 3 is going to be a thing, and that I sank a lot of my high school time into Age of Wonders 2 and Disciples 2. How bad was Disciples 3?

Edited by Tennmuerti

@arbitrarywater:

Heh, it's cool, i'm mostly just looking for a place to share my own thoughts on these games without having to make my own blog :P Actually started playing the new Erador game today, which is quite new to me mechanically. Seems like an interesting mix of Civ and HoMM with a lot of it's own stuff.

@ubersmake: It's meh. Disciples 2 is pretty much a better game in every way. Yes even graphically, the Disciples 2 artwork and unit designs are a joy to see, while Disciples 3 units are drab and uninspiring in comparison. I didn't make it to the end of the campaign, maybe only halfway through, as every scenario was just doing the same thing with a slightly different map, and units/heroes were not significantly enough varied compared to the predecessor.