Monday, October 10, 2011

A Game of Thrones: Genesis Review

A Game of Thrones: Genesis, developed by Cyanide Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive.
The Good: Multiple victory conditions that rely on prestige, easy access to a number of fighting and peaceful units that allow for strategic variety, competent AI, helpful interface
The Not So Good: Unique mechanics are too numerous and largely confusing with a hectic pace that complicates unit management and town control, uninspired campaign, sub-par generic graphics
What say you? A real-time strategy game where war takes a back seat to covert actions and territory control, if you can manage all the options: 5/8

This review also appears at

Apparently, there is this really popular series of fantasy novels by author George R. R. R. R. R. Martin. I had, of course, never heard of it until it appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly seventy-three times (supplanting the usual cover rotation of Twilight, True Blood, and The Hunger Games), but it is popular enough to spawn an HBO series. Plus, if Sean Bean gets beheaded, it must not be all bad, right? Of course, it was just a matter of time before the series became adapted in computer form, and thus we have A Game of Thrones: Genesis. After a series of vague screenshots and really uninformative trailers, this strategy game hopes to do what strategy games do best: strategize! So come along with me, mount a dragon, and see what A Game of Thrones: Genesis has to offer.

For a game with a well-known license, the graphics of A Game of Thrones: Genesis are bland and unimpressive. A distinctive fantasy setting does not come through, and it feels like A Game of Thrones: Genesis started as a generic fantasy strategy game and then acquired the license far along in development. Nobody walking by the game would say, “oh, that’s Game of Thrones, isn’t it?”. The terrain varies between green and brown, with some nice coastal and mountain features, but all of the towns and castles are identical in appearance. The units are very small and usually can’t be identified based on appearance (I have to rely on the icon flags); the game doesn’t allow you to zoom in very far, and all battles lack a majestic feel because of this. The combat itself is bland anyway, with sporadic animations when units engage each other. While the graphics fall short, the interface is good: all of your units are listed along the left-hand side of the screen, and right-clicking on an object always performs the appropriate action for that unit. The only thing I would add is a subtle indication of idle units, but other than that, it’s easy to find your units. Like the graphics, the sound design lacks the level of quality you’d expect from a licensed game: the voice acting and the music are both generic at best. I would have expected a better atmosphere in A Game of Thrones: Genesis, but the game certainly does not deliver.

A Game of Thrones: Genesis has you controlling one of the houses of…Genesis? an attempt to ascend to the most prestigious family in all the land. The single player campaign consists of twenty missions that serve as glorified skirmish games with the occasional objective (obtaining a specific number of alliances, for example). Usually, though, it’s the same as playing a skirmish game except the sides are unbalanced (usually against your favor) and there is the occasional scripted event. The story is uninteresting and lacks the literary fervor of the source material. In the skirmish mode (house vs. house), the first house to one hundred prestige wins (which will usually happen before you eliminate all of the enemy lords and heirs, unless you take a military-heavy approach). The game supports up to eight players on fifteen maps of varying sizes, and the map layouts are generally the same theme: towns and castles that radiate out from each home base. Multiplayer is also supported using the same features as the skirmish mode, and it’s easy to find and join match lobbies online. Finally, the tutorial teaches the basic use of each unit (the first couple of campaign missions mirror these instructions), although the manual gives more strategic information on how to win the game.

A game of A Game of Thrones: Genesis consists of three phases, like a boiled-down version of a 4X game (there are a lot of similarities). The first is expansion: you don’t build any structures, but send envoys out to towns and castles to align them with your side. This gives you more income so you can afford more units. Each town has a pre-set character that determines their likelihood of forming an alliance with you or other houses that fit certain conditions (like the family that has the lowest income or fewest allies). You’ll also have to send peasants to farms to make food for your troops, but merchants that travel between mines, towns, and your home castle are automated. Having units to these tasks allows you to cut-off enemy supply lines by killing merchants and peasants, which is pretty cool.

Diplomacy is a huge part of A Game of Thrones: Genesis, and the gist of it is to guard your towns and castles from the enemy while taking over theirs, earning prestige along the way. The first house to one hundred prestige wins the game, so you can win without actually declaring total war on anyone. You can earn through four methods: forming the most town and castle alliances, killing the most enemy units, earning the most income (which usually results from having the most alliances), and controlling the most religious buildings. You can also earn small amounts of prestige by completing small, randomized missions the game throws at you. You can also lose prestige by having bastard sons discovered, attacking while at peace, or breaking alliances. To do these actions, A Game of Thrones: Genesis gives you a lot of non-military units to do your dastardly deeds. The first is the envoy, whose sole purpose is to bring neutral towns and castles under your alliance. If there is an enemy envoy already stationed there, your envoy automatically retreats all the way back to your castle, so scouting beforehand is important. If you would rather not have enemy envoys stealing your towns, you can send a noble lady or your great lord to get married in the village and form a blood alliance, which cannot be broken using envoys. However, spies can be spent to towns to form a secret alliance, which will send the income to your castle instead; you can only discover secret alliances by sending a spy to inspect a village. Spies can also be disguised as enemy units by sending them to a castle; then, the spy will act as an envoy or assassin, but then pretend they did they action the enemy ordered them to do. Rogues can be sent to towns to incite a revolt, which will eliminate the town’s income, or bribe enemy units to join your side. Assassins can eliminate a single unit, useful for taking out pesky spies or nobles. Finally, a litany of military units are found: men-at-arms, bowmen, horsemen, pikemen, and knights follow traditional rock-paper-scissors countering methods to determine a victor in battle. While more powerful (and more expensive) army units are only available during times of war, mercenaries can be recruited at any time.

A Game of Thrones: Genesis somewhat reminds me of Galactic Civilizations, where there are multiple paths towards victory, not just military might. You can choose to focus on spies, or assassins, or military units, or rogues. However, it can be difficult to keep a handle on which strategy to use: there is a counter to every strategy, but there are almost too many options at your disposal. It’s like the developers didn’t know when to stop adding new features. And since you must unlock each new unit before actually purchasing it, you cannot afford all the options, so victory may be determined by whoever got “lucky” and picked the right units to use. There were many times that I had a hard time keeping track of what was going on, which may be part of the point: you cannot keep tabs on everything, so an overwhelmed feeling is quite common. In order to keep up, you’ll need every unit to be doing something all of the time, a tall task for novice players. The spies make things so terribly confusing: you don't know which units and towns are actually yours until you use a spy to inspect them all manually one by one, and then you have to inspect them again and again just in case the enemy entered any secret alliances in the past couple of minutes. That's tedium defined. The AI is quite good, as they can manage all of the different aspects of the game in an efficient manner. I was routinely bested by the computer simply because they executed some strategy (using assassins to take out envoys, for example) that I did not notice and did not have time to counter. At least one of us can keep track of the game.

I’m glad that the developer took a renowned license resisted the urge to produce a cookie-cutter real-time strategy game, instead producing something that has a more 4X approach with multiple avenues towards victory and unique units to control. That said, the exotic nature of the game’s strategy makes for a steep learning curve that definitely takes some work to overcome. The balance of capturing towns with envoys, killing units with assassins, and secretly capturing towns and units with spies could be really interesting, if the fast pace of the game actually let you keep up with all of the units and places you have to micromanage. Keeping control of your towns by marrying off your women, using spies to uncover enemy secret alliances and go undercover as enemy units, and raising mercenaries to kill merchants and peasants would work well in a turn-based game, but in real time it’s too much to handle. You don’t have to fight the best to win (although war is usually inevitable), as there are several ways of gaining prestige in the game: controlling the most towns, and subsequently earning the most income, will also lead to victory. The AI is very good at the game, able to handle the many options and providing a great challenge to newcomers. The graphics are disappointing for a game with a distinguished theme, though the interface makes it easy to keep track of all your units. The campaign is uninspired, though skirmish matches and online multiplayer offer some longevity. The unique aspects of A Game of Thrones: Genesis are appreciated in a sea of same-old RTS games, but the unusual nature of the game, replete with too many choices, works to its strategic detriment.