The science-fiction author John Scalzi is currently highly regarded and popular within the science-fiction community, and, from reading his novel The Last Colony I can see why. I did not particularly rate The Last Colony myself, for reasons I will try to set out in this review, but at the same time it is by no means a bad book and as a piece of science-fiction I would not hesitate to recommend it to a fan of the genre. Scalzi is a science-fiction writer for science-fiction fans, if this novel is anything to go by; literate within the genre, aware of the pitfalls of writing science-fiction and generally able to avoid them, he writes with an enthusiastic and quite readable prose style that feels like a modern equivalent to the brisk, at times methodical prose of science-fiction greats. The Last Colony is, perhaps, as a result the epitome of the science-fiction novel – and yet as a result hard to recommend to anyone other than diehard fans looking for more solid, unremarkable science-fiction.
The first part of this review of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar explained in some detail the game’s setup, army composition and terrain rules; this second article will explain the full turn sequence (accounting for two of the four pages of game rules). As a system it aims to be simple, efficient and quick to play; it achieves all of these aims inconsistently, although there are a number of good ideas to be found within it. Conceptually the shift in focus from ranked troops and formation movement to a freer, less regimented system is not unreasonable; a number of good alternative rule sets for blocks of troops in this fashion exist, considered to be of a generally higher quality than Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle eighth edition. However, even when considered as its own thing, not as a follow-up to a previous system it does not aim to emulate, I am unconvinced that Age of Sigmar is a particularly good streamlined fantasy game.
Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is effectively the ninth edition of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles ruleset by Games Workshop, one of their two flagship products (the other being Warhammer 40,000, released in its seventh edition in 2014. Released in July 2015, it marks a significant change in focus both for the game compared to other editions (dispensing with the hallmark emphasis on ranked formation and unit maneuver in favour of an open formation, skirmish-like system more comparable to GW’s previous Lord of the Rings miniatures game, or Privateer Press’ Warmachine system) and Games Workshop as a company; rather than releasing a premium-priced hardback rulebook and supplementary premium-priced army lists, Age of Sigmar offers a free online rulebook, a full ruleset printed in the weekly White Dwarf magazine and full online army lists for all factions at no cost. The entire focus of army lists has changed from these books to unit cards with vital statistics and special rules listed – a design used to great effect in Warmachine, Malifaux and numerous other games.
The idea of making a “family-friendly” arena shooting game in the mold of Unreal Tournament or Quake 3 seems counterintuitive; the draw of such games is fast-paced, “elite” gaming experiences, over-the-top explosive gore and a very macho, tournament-minded attitude. The genre itself embodies the popular perception of e-sports – spectacle, competition and a self-conscious striving for “maturity”, a world of announcers shouting “HEAD SHOT” and “KILLING SPREE” and lightning-reactions to score sniper kills while flying across the map jumping constantly. That, anyway, is the perception of the competitive arena shooter, and a perception that really clouds the wider genre. Nintendo’s Splatoon is, nevertheless, an arena shooter, which has a thriving ranked playlist, and is resolutely family-friendly and positive in its entire presentation. It is, in itself, an excellent game; on a technical level its basic shooting mechanics and movement gimmicks are superbly executed, it has a continually-updated armoury and map list (which is provided via free patches, rather than paid DLC – ensuring no fragmentation of the player base) and a solidly-made single-player campaign.
While the Mega Man franchise has seen little development since the retro-inspired Mega Man 9 and 10 released some time ago, a number of imitators and homages – including the similarly-staffed Kickstarter success Mighty No. 9 – have taken up the mantle. Azure Striker Gunvolt, finally released in Europe after a period of overseas availability, is one such successor to Mega Man. Gunvolt is quite distinct from any of the Mega Man games by virtue of its core gameplay gimmick, the “Flashfield” weapon, yet the same techniques and mechanics that have contributed to the originals’ success – intuitive level design, well-designed boss fights based on pattern recognition and situational upgrades – are all in evidence. Technically it is a largely well-executed game, but as a whole product it falls down slightly owing to a number of both fundamental and very specific flaws.
Photos and terrain courtesy of Adam Isherwood at Iron Forest Games, models my own.
The much-delayed Kickstarter-funded wargame Robotech RPG Tactics has finally begun to be delivered within Europe, and as my copy has arrived I have had the opportunity to play two limited-scale games of it. These are sufficient to form general opinions about the rules design – although more detailed examination of unit selection and faction play-style is currently impossible as many of the more interesting and different units are not currently available. Overall, as a wargame attempting to recreate the combat style of Robotech/SDF Macross – a translation of theme into mechanics – it works well. Using a system of named pilots adding thematic abilities to stock units like X-Wing forces can be given more flavour, while the weapon system rules emphasising mass missile attacks and divided, inaccurate fire versus enemies concentrating to bring one hero down creates a strong aesthetic element to mechanical design.
Kickbeat is marketed as an “innovative rhythm game with a Kung Fu theme,” but its level of innovation, when games like Final Fantasy Theatrhythm have explored adding combat and RPG elements to rhythm games in well-developed ways that closely tie licensed music to game theming, seems quite limited. Kickbeat is a straightforward rhythm game dressed up in theming that impedes play to an extent, and with a selection of music that is small compared to most competitors (Theatrhythm Curtain Call, which came out on handhelds around the same time, has a significantly larger and more varied song library – and even free-to-play rhythm games on mobile like Cytus and Love Live School Idol Festival have comparably sized or larger track lists.)
Kapsula is a puzzle game combining the reflex-testing of an endless runner with the block-matching of a game like Columns; the end result is something a little like Audiosurf but without the soundtrack element. It is well-suited to mobile formats, requiring only minimal inputs and – with a simple failure state and an interface designed to make repeat play as efficient as possible – being built from the ground up for intermittent play sessions. The mobile puzzle and skill game market is gaining a well-established set of ground-rules for designing a good mobile game – it should be as minimalist in terms of getting to play the game as possible, and as easy as possible to try again after a session, since mobile games are often played for short periods of time to fill a break. In this respect, Kapsula works well.
Strider, the 2014 update of the established series of the same name, is a largely unremarkable and unpolished exploration platformer in the vein of Super Metroid. It has several strong features, but at the same time they feel underdeveloped and are rarely used in ways which innovate the genre. Its short length in terms of initial exploration means that the open-world exploration comes surprisingly quickly, but by the same token it comes before the player has really had much opportunity to use or master any of their newly-acquired abilities. This is in part due to the reliance on long chases and linear level design; the progression of the story drives the player through numerous areas without much opportunity to explore. Rather than acquiring an item and then returning through the area to use it, often the game will throw the player into a new area they may only visit a small part of with their current suite of upgrades immediately after making a first trip through one.
Transistor, Supergiant Games’ follow-up to the hugely acclaimed Bastion, can be seen as a refinement of its predecessor; it is a similar isometric action-RPG, with similar mechanics, challenge rooms, modular upgrades and difficulty mods. It even has a similar aesthetic/narrative design, with an omnipresent narrator making up for a mute protagonist. Yet calling it a simple science-fiction themed refinement of Bastion’s theme is underselling it significantly; it is a more ambitious, more tactical and much more challenging title.