Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2

A (mostly) worthy successor to a great game

I must admit I had some trepidation playing Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2. After discovering its predecessor and enjoying it immensely, I was quite hesitant playing its sequel. Even though I pre-ordered it (Tindalos Interactive did the pre-order bonus right – having it be a 25% discount to owners of the original game), it sat for months in my library, completely ignored.

It can’t be helped considering how modern gaming had worked to ruin the concept of sequels. In the past it meant a better, bigger game with added features and mechanics. Today, most franchises have turned sequels into nothing more than copy-paste jobs, sometimes even removing features from games only to re-introduce them later as paid content or following fan backlash.

In addition, I have to mention that Tindalos Interactive did make some promises regarding the original game that weren’t fulfilled (the addition of Necron and Tyranid factions). Then some time before its launch, the game was delayed several months to January 2019, that only strengthened my unease. Add to it the fate of Dawn of War 3, and you can understand my reluctance to play the game and be disappointed.

Thankfully this is not the case. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 is (mostly) everything I liked about the original and far more. The game lives to the ideal of sequels past – being a bigger, better version of its predecessor while introducing new mechanics and improving on old one.

What Is Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2?

To put it bluntly, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 is a turn based strategy game with tactical combat reminiscent of the age of sail but with spaceships shaped like cathedrals and space monsters that would like to nom on them. It is every bit as glorious as it sounds.

Having played the campaign only (since its the only bit that interests me), the player gets to command its faction’s fleets on a galactic map divided to sectors and star systems. During the grand campaign, they’ll conquer systems, consolidate control of sectors, research and upgrade vessels and build multiple fleets to secure victory via completing story line missions.

Combat itself takes place in space (duh) where the player gets to command a squadron of ships with various abilities and complete objectives to win the battle (often by destroying the opposition). Battles play in real time, with the player controlling ships and ordering them around from a top down perspective. That said the game can be paused to queue orders, slowed down for better reaction or sped up to get to the action.

Setting

In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war. These are the words that open every Warhammer 40,000 novel and game, with Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 being no exception. The game does a good enough job explaining things for newcomers without boring more well informed fans. Suffice to say that the game takes place in the “present” of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Cadia, the fortress world that held the forces of Chaos at bay for near 10,000 years, has finally fallen to the 13th Dark Crusade of Abaddon the Despoiler, warmaster of Chaos Undivided. The Imperium forces are in disarray as Chaos surges forward. At the same time, ancient threats are awakening, wishing to reclaim their lost glory as ravenous extra galactic invaders descend on the galaxy. Add to it the machinations of the Aeldari trying to stave off their extinction and green skins wanting their share in the fun and you get a chaotic galaxy filled with combat and bloodshed. Welcome to the 42nd millennia.

The Story

The story of the game is far more open ended than that of its predecessor, with four campaigns released so far. You can play as the following four factions: The forces of Chaos looking to destroy the Imperium once and for all. A Necron dynasty reawakening only to find primitives infesting its worlds and go on cleansing. The Tyranids trying to digest everyone and the Imperium of Man.

In the Imperium campaign you are thrust into the shoes of lord admiral Spire, the protagonist of the previous game. Having been lost in the warp for 800 years, he manages to escape to real space only to find the Imperium engulfed in turmoil. Adding insult to injury, the target of his pursuit – Abaddon the despoiler, is the one responsible. It is up to Admiral Spire to rally the beleaguered defenders of the Imperium, reclaim the Cadian sector and secure the Imperium from its many enemies, confronting the fleets of Chaos, Tyranids, Necrons and Orks. Not helpful are the machinations of other factions such as the Inquisition, Space Marine chapters and of course, the Aeldari.

The strength of the the original game was its writing, and the sequel builds on it. Missions are well crafted, varied and have great interactions between characters. You’ll be encountering many famous characters from the lore in the game, such as Trazyn the Infinite, Yvraine – Emissary of Ynnead and her boyfriend, Bobby G i.e. Roboute Guilliman.

I want to praise the prologue in particular. Not only are the cutscenes reminiscent of its predecessor, but they work well to inform fans and newcomers of what has transpired prior to the campaign. They also provide a great tutorial for new and veteran players. The presentation is so well done that I actually don’t mind replaying the prologue, which is a huge point in its favor. Not every day you get to command the legendary Phalanx, the mobile fortress monastery of the Imperial Fists.

While the story’s progress is player driven, the game adds a ticking clock mechanic with threat level gauge that increases each turn. Not only will it cause hostile factions to become more aggressive as it increases in levels, but if allowed to complete will signal a game over. This works well to give you enough breathing space to muster your forces but not to tarry too long.

That said, the game’s pacing is not great. Having to compare it again to its predecessor (which is only fair considering the amount of connective tissue storywise), it is far less tight and starts to drag on near the end. Part of it is the amount of combat you have to grind through in order to reach the final mission, and part of it is the fact that the original benefited from being canonical, thus having a tighter story. While Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 starts canonically, it soon veers off into uncharted territory, which is fine by me but it does feel that the lack of material caused the developers to whiffle near the end.

Adeptus Administratum

To secure the Imperium, one must have the ships and captains necessary to fight the enemies of mankind. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 supplies both with its mechanical overhaul. The series now more resembles Total War: Warhammer as its strategic side had been thoroughly developed. The galactic map now has sectors, each made up of various star systems each containing planets. Sectors and systems are connected to each other via warp routes, and have differing resources. Some sectors may have an abundance of mineral rich systems to exploit, while others may house advanced shipyards or forge worlds. This gives certain systems and sectors greater importance in both securing and defending.

Capturing systems and defending them is an important part of the game. Some systems are vital as they contain worlds with certain upgrades, others have worlds that add special abilities or increase combat effectiveness of player fleets. Not to mention that there are only a handful of planets with large shipyards that can produce capital ships. You can fortify systems and station fleets in various sectors, but you soon find yourself overstretched (which is consistent with the setting). This is important since planets can be upgraded. Planets start at rank one and can be upgraded with resources to rank three. These upgrades require them to accumulate evolution points which they naturally generate so long as you control the system. Once they reach a certain threshold, you can spend resources to upgrade them, which in turns unlocks more benefits from said worlds. However losing control of the system will reset their rank, starting from one again.

The game has also reworked the renown system. In the past, renown, earned in battles, was used for pretty much everything. You used it to buy ships, favors, upgrades and special abilities. Now, renown acts as level progression, with each level unlocking new ships, upgrade points, fleets and early on, secondary objectives for battles. Instead, to build ships you need shipyards. Shipyards generate build points and have caps, so you can’t create a fleet from whole cloth (so don’t lose one!) on the go. Also you need a fleet in the system to receive the ship. The bigger the tonnage, the more build points needed. This means that only a select few systems can build the largest of vessels, making them points of great import.

Upgrade points used to be for individual vessels as they ranked up, but now apply to all (or certain) vessels and are earned with each renown level. They are divided into four trees, with the last upgrades requiring control of certain systems to complete. It is possible to complete all upgrade trees in a single playthrough but early on they prove quite valuable and hard to decide where to assign.

Resources are basically credits, and can be earned from planets. They are needed for upgrading worlds and paying upkeep for fleets. Early on they serve as a bottleneck though by late game you’ll be swimming in the damned things. Besides them there are battle plans. Battle plans are used to reduce the threat gauge and unlock special systems and can only be acquired by completing secondary objectives or stolen from enemy flagships via boarding actions.

Into the Fires of Battle

Not only did the strategic side of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 receive an upgrade, but the tactical side as well. In the campaign, the player can bring up to three full fleets into combat, and the Imperium has access to not one, but three different fleet types with the Adeptus Mechanicus, Imperial Navy and Space Marines having various strengths and weaknesses.

As the player’s renown grows, so will the number of fleets they can field and their size as well as the size of battles. This slightly increases the size of battles from the previous game as well as allowing each side to field reinforcements upon incurring losses, and losses will happen. The game is as visceral and brutal as its predecessor. The addition of Tyranid and Necron factions into the mix forcing the player to adapt their tactics or risk being a bioform’s lunch.

While on the whole the combat system itself is relatively similar to the first game, there have been a few welcomed changes. First and foremost, ships don’t gain ranks, only admirals. Instead their crews gain experience from surviving battles, leading to improved performance in combat with up to four ranks of veterancy. This also removes special abilities from ships, with only flagships able to equip them upon their captains gaining ranks. Flagships can equip two active abilities and two passives and a fifth, strategic perk. This removes the problem of ability spam the game would often devolve into in mid to late game. That said, you can still field three flagships in a single battle so you can still do combination plays (my favorite is stasis bomb, disruptor bomb and then copious amounts of plasma bombs and nova cannon barrages).

That said, a major overhaul was made to the boarding mechanic. In the past, boarding actions were similar to fires, they did some damage to the hull of the ship and may incapacitate or destroy sub systems. While not completely useless, it wasn’t really that great. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 changes that. Ships now have crew compliments and crewing levels. Boarding actions now deal damage to the crew. If staffing falls below 0, the ship losses a crewing level and becomes less effective. A ship can lose all of its crew and turn into a derelict, at which point friendly ships may transfer crew to it to bring it back into action or choose scuttle it, turning it into a mine.

Of course, troop strength varies from faction to faction. Some factions have hard hitting boarding actions (such as Tyranids and Necrons) and others may be extremely weak against it (Tau, Mechanicus). That said its a huge boost for the playstyle and gives Space Marine players in particular, a much needed buff considering how lackluster the faction had been before.

Unto the Anvil of War

A huge change was made to the battle objectives themselves. Currently there are only two modes in the campaign, capture in which each side has accumulate command points to win, either by holding certain areas of the map or by destroying opposing ships. The other mode is kill all, where one side must destroy all the ships belonging to the other.

However the other modes are not entirely gone. Instead they have been turned into secondary objectives. This is great for two reasons: First, having to do assassination missions against the Aeldari in slow Imperial Navy ships is the definition of insanity. Secondly, it gives the player choice in battle. Pursuing secondary objectives is useful as they provide various faction and fleet boosts afterwards. That said, they can also be made into useful distractions, such as convoy protection that turns the transport ships into bait to split the attention of the enemy.

Another upgrade to battle is hazardous environments. The game already has various hazards littering the battlefield, such as gas pockets, derelict stations and asteroid fields. The hazardous environments are conditions that can pop up randomly in battles and affect the entire battlefield. They range from space garbage that fills the radar with false signals, making locating the opposition difficult, to solar flares that torch the hull of unshielded ships. There are ion storms that turn gas pockets, often a favorite hiding place, to death traps and radiation waves that blind all sensors. Their inclusion can be quite a game changer and helps make battles less repetitive.

Ave Mechanicum

I mentioned before the addition of new factions to the game, and I do mean it. Besides two whole new factions: The Necrons who field unshielded ships that can regenerate their hull and have 360 degree firing arcs for their weapons that can damage hulls through shields. They also possess powerful troops, can all use short range teleportation and best yet, their capital ships can use star pulses which destroy all munitions fired at them (i.e. fighters and torpedoes) making them quite powerful foes.

The other faction being the Tyranids. The Tyranids terrify me. Their tactics involve using escort vessels as suicide ships that spread acidic clouds that eat through the hull of vessels and slow them down, allowing the larger ships to catch up to them. Their ships have a cloud of bioforms that will attack the hull of any ship foolish enough to get close and their troops are quite powerful. Engaging Tyranids at close range is suicidal and just from the tone of my words you can guess how much they traumatized me in the campaign.

Besides them, every existing faction received new fleet variations. While I mostly played the Imperium, I did encounter some of the new variations. In particular the Aeldari can now choose between the Corsairs, which were the default fleet in the previous game, and the Craftworld and Drukhari. The Drukhari in particular have a very distinct look, though all three employ the same style of combat. The Imperium gets the Imperial Navy and the Space Marines, but receives a third variation in the form of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Adeptus Mechanicus ships have less crew, better range but weak troops. That said, their strength is in their range, as most upper tier Mechanicus ships carry Nova cannons. They also have an alternate firing mode for the Nova cannon that causes enemy ships to slow down, helping them to keep range control.

Of Sound, Graphics and Miscellaneous Details

The game continues the tradition of having a very powerful soundtrack. I usually don’t notice these things but on this rare occasion I want to note just how good it is. The music is so good that I like to listen to it out of game, often when working on other projects or doing house chores. That is how good it is. Most important of all, it fits the setting to a tee.

Sound design is just as perfect as the first game. The sound of lancer turrets, the heavy thud of macro cannon batteries firing are perfect and help immerse the player. There is nothing more satisfying than hearing the impact of your ship’s ram as it plows into the side of a heretic vessel as engines burn at maximum. Its great.

Another feather in the game’s cap is the voice acting. Just like the previous game, its top notch. Its what you’d expect from a Warhammer 40,000 game. There is plenty of grit, determination and pathos. Trazyn in particular is well cast and now I can’t imagine the character without its mocking tone as it looks down on all these primitives who lack of appreciation to his preservation efforts. Them and their overly attached attitude to members of their species and relics… Truly baffling to a Necron of culture.

Graphically, the game looks great. The ships are so lovingly rendered, each a piece of art you can stare at for hours, with the game giving you the tools to do so in the fleet screen. The battle scenery is also beautiful, so much so that at times I found myself pausing the fight just to have a better look at the background. The game does the Warhammer 40,000 universe proud in the way it brings its models into life.

One miscellaneous detail I decided to sneak into this segment is the lore richness of the game. Anyone who has read Warhammer 40,000 novels and codexes will recognize many of the worlds, systems and sectors portrayed in the main campaign. There is a certain amount of pride to be had in exploring a sector and saying “Hey, I recognize this world”. I know its quite petty which is why I put it here near the end of the review but still, its very fun and shows the developers do care for the universe they are depicting.

In conclusion

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 is a worthy successor to the original, improving on every single aspect of the original while adding much needed depth and variety. It continues the tradition of great visuals, great sound and voice acting to bring the Warhammer 40,000 universe alive. That said, the story does falter a bit near the end, feeling slow and grind-y but still enjoyable overall. I heartily recommend to fans of the original, people who enjoy age of sail combat, and of course anyone who loves Warhammer 40,000.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker – Enhanced Edition (v2.05)

Finally, a worthy successor for Neverwinter Nights 2

I had been putting off reviewing the game for quite some time. Finishing the main story, I felt exhausted, yet satisfied that I couldn’t write a comprehensive review straight away. Afterwards things kept happening, forcing me to push this review further back. Now that things have finally slowed down for the holidays, I can catch up and give my thoughts on the game.

As the sub title reads, Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a spiritual successor to Neverwinter Nights 2 and other asymmetric CRPG (Computer Role Playing Game) of the type. The genre had lost its prominence in the early 2010s, as large studios and publishers pivoted away from what was one of gaming’s staple genres and to first person military shooters (Call of Duty clones), butchering beloved intellectual property (*cough* Bethesda *cough*) or making mediocre third person science fiction shooters (hello BioWare).

By the middle of the decade though, the genre was seeing a revival with Shadowrun Returns unironically leading the charge, followed closely by titles such as Divinity: Original Sin, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Tyranny and The Age of Decadence to name those I managed to play. However none of them managed to capture that feeling of epicness that the Neverwinter Nights series held for me. That is until Pathfinder: Kingmaker.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is set in the world of Golarion, a fantasy world that would be familiar to any fan of Neverwinter Nights though there are many subtle changes and different histories involved. As I wrote before, its an asymmetric CRPG employing modified D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) rule set. I haven’t played either the original or the Pathfinder tabletop versions but from my playthrough the skill system is far more simplified and some changes were made to mechanics such as poison (which I will whinge about later on in the review).

Start

Like any CRPG, the game starts with the player creating their custom character, picking appearance, class and putting points into skills and attributes. Nothing out of the ordinary. There isn’t a huge choice for customization, reminding me of the original Neverwinter Nights but considering the fact the game had been crowdfunded, easy to forgive. The meat of a CRPG, after all, is in the story.

That said, the Pathfinder system seems to have several interesting classes that differ from the D&D third edition, with some enticing multi classing options that would thrill veterans of the genre. I am not ashamed to say that I was tempted at times to deviate from my pure, two handed backstabbing rogue build, though I persevered.

Once done customizing the character, you begin the game in the starting location which serves both as a good tutorial and a hook for the story.

Setting

The player starts in the city of Restov as another adventurer lured by the call of the Spellswords, the rulers of the city, to form an expedition to the Stolen Lands; a region bordering several kingdoms that none had been able to lay, or more importantly maintain, claim to. Now a stronghold of bandits, the Spellswords wish to clear the area and install a friendly regime in place to keep the peace.

Of course, in the company of outcasts, mercenaries and vainglorious adventurers, tension rise from the start only to be further exacerbated by an attack on the mansion by unknown assailants seeking to disrupt the expedition. Indeed, there is something ominous about the Stolen Lands and their reputation, not to mention that the Spellswords seem to have an ulterior motive for sponsoring the expedition.

Under such ill portents the player and a small party of adventurers set out to the Stolen Lands to pacify the region and build a kingdom. Unknown to them, the Stolen Lands are not named so lightly, and many secrets lay buried under their surface.

Story

Reading the setting, its easy to see why I love the game’s story. It hooks you in with intrigue, mystery and of course, a deceptively simple premise. Adventurer called to clear some bandits and set up an outpost in the wilderness is a great framework to hang a story on and the developers took full advantage of it. The story itself grows almost organically from this simple start, each twist and turn not just surprising, but fitting and makes sense when put in context of the greater narrative.

I don’t want to reveal too much since I feel any further detail written may spoil and thus detract from that first, crucial, playthrough. However since story is the life blood of a good CRPG, its important to at least discuss some of it. Pathfinder: Kingmaker has a great story, filled with that epicness I wrote about earlier on. It may start as a simple, almost bog standard quest but it saws seeds of mystery and intrigue from the start that pay off later on. I can’t recall a single plot thread that didn’t end up with some satisfying pay off or led to the grand reveal near the end.

This is no small praise considering just how long the story is. We are talking easily 60-120 hours of gameplay, depending on individual ability, difficulty and whether or not the kingdom feature is enabled and all side quests are pursued. To make a story so grand and interesting that I’d still be invested in it even after a lot of repetitive busywork speaks volumes on the quality of the writing, and it is superb.

Characters in particular are well crafted. Considering the size of the game, you come across a great deal of them and each is written with interesting backstories, side quests and even satisfying resolutions (depending on choice). The companions in particular feel like real people, with differing ideologies, philosophical stances and motivations. They even interact with one another during travel and camping, adding more flavor.

The Companions

A party is only as good as the people comprising it and the game furnishes you with ten characters (11 with DLC) to choose from. Though you have an option of generating generic companions via the Pathfinder Society (in exchange for gold, of course), the base game, I feel, supplies you with good enough characters that I never took that option. The companions are AI controlled but can be given orders by the player, have their own classes and can be either level’ed up by the player for those who know what they are doing, or automatically level’ed up by the computer.

Each of the companions have their own reasons for tagging along for the adventure, their reasoning revealed in their quest chains. These side quests hold revelations about the companions and can influence them. They deal with many themes such as societal rejection, letting go of the past, finding out one’s roots, enacting revenge and suffering its consequences and so forth. Each and every companion story was an emotional roller coaster that felt at times satisfying and horrifying. Some of these companion quests can be quite tragic. Not every story has a happy ending.

The player can have up to five companions with him on an adventure, the rest remaining in the main hub area when traveling. The companions can be customized with gear, their AI tweaked and their inventory filled with whatever necessities (or junk) the player needs. There is also a communal chest to put gear in that is accessible for all the party, requiring less tedious micro-managing and item swapping between inventories. That said, the “size” of the communal trunk depends on the collective strength attribute of the party. Companions can also serve as advisors in the kingdom.

Kingdom Come

One of the main features of the game is the kingdom interface. Once you pacify the Stolen Lands, you become their ruler, awarded with a keep, construction points and the task of ruling the region. The game does well to meld the kingdom management aspect to the overall story. That said players who wish to focus wholly on the adventure aspect can turn off the kingdom management if they wish, a useful feature, especially for replay.

The kingdom can be managed through the kingdom interface tab, but only from the throne room, requiring the player to visit their capital frequently (like a true ruler). Every month there will be problems and opportunities. Problems are negative events that will hurt the kingdom, decreasing stability and affecting various stats such as community, military power, culture, commerce and so forth. If continuously ignored, the kingdom will be destroyed and the game will be over. Opportunities on the other hand can be ignored as they only give bonuses to the kingdom and if skipped, won’t result in any issues.

To resolve problems or pursue opportunities, the player must assign an advisor to deal with them. Companions can be appointed as advisors, as well as certain characters the player encounters throughout the story (some of which even I didn’t know you could recruit!). Once an advisor is chosen and assigned, they will resolve the event within the allotted time. In-game time passes either through the kingdom tab or via traveling in the overmap.

As the game progresses, the kingdom will grow, necessitating more advisors, expanding territories and founding villages which act as rest stops on the map for the party (as well as places to settle vendors). These villages, and the capital, can be upgraded with various buildings that affect the various kingdom stats. Building them is tricky as they require Construction Points (CP for short) generated by the kingdom on a weekly basis (or by converting gold into CP) and have adjacency bonuses if placed near other buildings. Since the building screen is grid based, and changes depending on terrain, it can get messy.

Sadly, buildings do not change the look of the villages or the capital, which is a missed opportunity. The system itself isn’t too complicated and can be rather shallow at times. As much as I did enjoy some of the events and stories contained within, I don’t find them as memorable as the main story or the companion quests. I feel like there is something that, in a future iteration, may be expanded upon, but I don’t begrudge anyone turning off the feature.

Stolen Lands

I mentioned the overmap before. The Stolen Lands, where the game takes place, are a region with many points of interests. Each place is a crafted level, with travel facilitated by the overmap. The overmap won’t show every location as it is shrouded at the start and only through travel will the player discover various places that can be visited and revisited throughout the game. Travel as written before, involves time and is done on pathways.

The party will grow weary the longer they travel, thus camping is necessary to rest and replenish. The camping mechanic is well implemented, allowing character interaction and assigning roles such as cooking, guarding, hunting and so forth. Different companions have different skills which may fit specific roles, with some more suited to cooking while others make great guards for example. A well rested party will get positive combat modifiers. Camping, depending on setting, also allows healing and restoring, cancelling modifiers received in combat.

A player may push their party onward but risks incurring worse and worse negative modifiers. Characters will voice their displeasure and beg for rest and you’d feel pretty guilty not granting it. Of course time is important and sometimes you must push your companion forward.

Of course the overmap will only increase in size as new lands are incorporated into the kingdom. This leaves plenty of places to explore and many quests to pick along the way. That said, there isn’t as much map variety as I’d like, and by the middle of the game you become so familiar with certain woodland clearings and mountain passes you just want to scream your frustration. Also encounters on the overmap become tedious by the late game and feel more of a nuisance slowing down progression.

Combat Difficulty

I have tried avoiding talking about combat as long as I could but there is no escaping it. Combat in Pathfinder: Kingmaker is both generic and frustrating in equal parts. I already eluded to it when talking about story but Pathfinder: Kingmaker doesn’t really do much with its combat mechanics, using instead the template that many CRPGs use, that is turn based combat playing out in real time with option to pause and queue actions.

While being generic as it gets, for the first couple of playthroughs I tended to die a lot, almost giving up at points. Now I am not the most elite gamer, putting myself squarely in the average category, but I have experience with CRPGs and I never recalled dying as often in other titles as I did in Pathfinder: Kingmaker. Thankfully the game comes with a robust difficulty setting, allowing you to pretty much tweak everything.

Part of the problem is the way poisons are implemented in the Pathfinder system. It seems poisons not only affect attributes, but can stack. Since every second creature in the game uses poison, you often find yourself quickly losing all your attribute points in say, strength or constitution, leading to your character’s death (or if you decreased difficulty, unconsciousness). This led me to both despise poison and prize any item that gave me protection from venom.

Even after tweaking with the settings and getting better at not dying from poison, the game kept being rather difficult. The difficulty can spike if you ignore certain events, such as a troll invasion early on. I kept thinking that I could concentrate on kingdom building while ignoring it but it soon ballooned, not only threatening my kingdom but infesting every area in the map turning every visit to a level into a glorious last stand against a tide of green and gray, forcing me to restart the game.

Even in my next playthrough, I didn’t really experience a breakthrough until chapter four. I was still struggling with the difficulty, clearing a final dungeon and getting wiped out time after time. After the umpteenth attempt and death, I loaded a save before the start of the dungeon and traveled back to my capital where I bought all the scrolls, potions and weapons I needed. After re-configuring my party I traveled back to the dungeon. I won’t say that I immediately triumphed but I would later clear it with only a couple of attempts (after wiping to the final boss). It was this moment that led to an epiphany of sorts. The game wasn’t difficult on purpose, I was simply playing it wrong.

Its the curse of modern gaming that makes you believe that however you play the game, you could win every engagement with a bit of ingenuity and some luck. The “play it your way” design has atrophied my brain because Pathfinder: Kingmaker isn’t that difficult the moment you prepare properly for the encounter. The game gives you all the tools to defeat its dungeons, but you need to put the effort.

There is a reason why the game gives you four weapon slots, unlike the usual two most games of the type allow. There is a reason why there is a communal trunk, not to mention bags of holding for extra storage. There is a reason why there are different groups of weapons outside of just proficiency, such as cold iron or silver. Once you realize all of that and do your homework in the game, you are more or less set to defeat every challenge the game throws at you, so long as you employ your brain. With this shift in perspective I was able to enjoy the game and die a lot less, which I think is a point in the game’s favor. That said, that point gets sullied by the repetitiveness of combat, which as I pointed before, can get dismal at later levels.

That said, anyone that played the game on unfair difficulty with the Last Azlanti option turned on and actually finished the game is a god among CRPG players. That or an extradimentional being.

Saving Private Scum

Talking about difficulty one must talk about the robust save system Pathfinder: Kingmaker employs. I haven’t seen such a good system in years. The game will auto save before entering a level, keeping up to three concurrent saves at default. This means you never lose too much progression upon wiping out. It also has a similar quick save system. Both can be increased to up to 25 each, giving you plenty of choice if you need to reload or take a different path.

At this point the system is so good that I pretty much going to look down on future CRPGs that lack it. It is indispensable and another point in favor of the game, as well as a mitigating factor with its difficulty (unless you play Last Azlanti at which point you are pretty much a mad person). Its also quite useful for dealing with the consequences of story and side quest decisions that may ripple unfavorably for you later on.

Decisions Decisions

I wrote that the lifeblood of a good CRPG is its story and writing. While this is true, what really separates a good story, from a truly epic one, is not just the scope of writing, but its depth. This involves the situations and choices the game confront the player with. Not just powerful enemies and bad odds, but unavoidable choices and laws of unintended consequences. The game has both in spades, not once forcing me to confront what I deemed moral and good.

This is aided by the alignment system. Alignment is a feature of most D&D games and though I have some issues with the concept, I do understand its necessity. That said in Pathfinder: Kingmaker the alignment system is fluid, rather than strict. Though not a new concept, Pathfinder: Kingmaker implements it quite masterfully with an alignment wheel that allows the player to track the change in their alignment.

Alignment is important in D&D both for magic, deity influence and of course, decisions. Some decisions in the game can only be unlocked through your current alignment, while others will affect your alignment. The game uses this extremely well, in particular with a few companion quests. Since companions have different alignments and viewpoints, its no surprise that their aims and wills will run contrary to the player, their quest lines reflecting this. There are some hard choices to be done. The real mastery is making a hard choice and feel justified with it, but at the same time regretting it. Without spoiling, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has these as well.

On Graphics and Other Things

By this point I pretty much exhausted most of the things I wanted to mention and discuss in reviewing the game. Its no surprise I left graphics to the end because its so miscellaneous in comparison to everything else that I really didn’t see the point in dedicating a section for it. The graphics are what you’d expect from an asymmetric CRPG from the late 2010s – pretty. The graphics are okay. They are passable. They never detracted from the experience but I don’t think they added anything to it. Both them and the art were passable and did their job. There was never a moment I thought “gosh, this is ugly” but I never had a moment where I thought “gosh, this is beautiful”.

The only thing I can mention in regards with graphics is some glitches with cloaks but this is just getting petty.

Other than that there isn’t much else to say. I did play with some DLC (Downloadable Content) and expansions such as Beneath the Stolen Lands which added a dungeon in which you must clear levels and go deeper into the belly of the earth to slay a creature of pure nightmare and madness. It had good writing, good loot, plenty of challenge and many tragic tales as you learn of the fate of previous adventurers that braved the dungeon. The Wildcards adds another character with interesting backstory and its own quest line and resolution within the story. The other expansion, Varnhold’s Lot adds a ~20 hour campaign where you get to play the events leading to chapter four from a different perspective that I didn’t touch because the main game had exhausted me enough and I felt satisfied with the ending I reached.

I mentioned crashes, and the game did crash for me a couple of times but always after extended playthroughs (after more than six hours) which I don’t think many gamers would run the risk of incurring. Thanks to the save game system I didn’t lose much progress.

In Conclusion

Its hard to sum up such an epic game and I feel like my review left a lot to be desired but if I continued to rattle off this post would be as long as a novel. Suffice to say that Pathfinder: Kingmaker is an epic fantasy CRPG with great story, interesting characters and terrific writing. It has bog standard combat system with some difficulty issues but a great save system to compensate. Its not graphically or artistically exceptional but does its job and I have enjoyed it immensely. That said combat can get tiring near the end, and many locations are repeated. Also at launch it seems to have been quite buggy but I played more than a year later during the v2.05 implementation and didn’t encounter any bugs.

I feel safe recommending this to any CRPG fan or gamer who wants to experience an epic story done right, a la Lord of the Rings style. I don’t want to do scores but if you twisted my arm I’d give it a 9 out of 10, deducting a point due to the repetitiveness of combat. Enjoy!

Hearts of Iron IV: Kaiserreich (v0.93)

For the Kaiser!

Deciding to review a mod is quite a bizarre decision. Just trying to write the opening paragraph for this article required a lot of rewrites. How exactly do you start such a review? What are you going to focus on exactly? After all, a mod, by its very name, is but a modification of an existing product. Yet, I wanted to write about Kaiserreich because I’ve been enjoying it immensely.

Let’s start from the beginning. Kaiserreich is a mod for Hearts of Iron IV, a Paradox Interactive grand strategy game. In Hearts of Iron IV the player can choose to play as any country in the world that existed in either 1936 or 1939 (depending on when the player chooses to start the game). Then, the player is thrust into the role of managing that nation, steering its politics, industry and most importantly – army and diplomacy. The main focus of the game is grand battle, with industry serving to produce the equipment needed to arm divisions which the player researches and designs. These armies can then be deployed against rival nations in wars of conquest or submission.

Of course, the mechanics are a bit more complex than that but that is the gist of it. Many nations in the base game have their interesting quirks and focus trees, which allow for a more historical playthrough or “what ifs” scenarios. From deposing Stalin and installing a Russian democracy to uniting China under fascism or even turning Germany or France into communist countries. The tools of Hearts of Iron IV allow players to have a lot of fun during that historical period, and Let’s Plays exist of things such as pacifist Germany or fascist USA.

Per for the course of every Paradox Interactive game, Hearts of Iron IV has its own lively modding scene. From cosmetic enhancements, soundtrack additions to complete revamps. Just to name a couple, Road to 56 lengthens the game time (from 1948 to 1956, duh) and adds more focuses and technological research. Old World Blues completely changes the game, recreating the map of the United States of the Fallout universe, with many of the factions and hallmarks of that world. Kaiserreich is quite similar to the latter, as it presents an alternate world where Germany won the Great War (or Weltkrieg).

Thus, the world of Kaiserreich is very different than the one we are used to in a regular game of Hearts of Iron IV. Germany is an authoritarian democracy with a large colonial empire in Africa, East Asia and parts of China as well as puppets in Eastern Europe. Russia is a democracy teetering on the brink of revolution, with many of its western and southern domains lost. Japan is also an authoritarian democracy with an uncertain future. The United Kingdom and France were taken over by communist regimes with their old governments having fled to the colonies (Canada and North Africa respectively). The Austrian empire still exists and Italy remains fragmented. The United States is facing a second civil war while the Qing empire is licking its wounds and planning its reunification of China as a reformed Mongolia under the leadership of a madman dreams of rebuilding the Khanate. Oh, and the Ottoman empire somehow still carries on, though some of its vassals have dangerous ideas of their own…

Truly, the world of Kaiserreich is far more fragmented and politically diverse than the base game, which is one of the great strengths of the mod. Nations in the mod are less predictable and many a great power could fall into internal strife and civil war, removing major nations from the world stage and allowing smaller ones to take their place. The second American civil war often rages for years with three, sometimes four(!), sides participating. In fact, smaller conflicts flare often in Kaiserreich with major nations unable or unwilling to do more than lend small volunteer forces.

The second strength of the mod are its focus trees. Focus trees were introduced to the base game to allow players (and the AI) to more efficiently steer their nations. They require time and political power (one of the resources in the game) to complete and can give bonuses, decisions or lead to future events. Focus trees can help beef up a faltering economy, lead to a fascist takeover of the nation or grant war goals which allow players to declare war on rival or neighboring nations without being constraint by diplomacy. In short, Focuses are the main (though not only) tool by which nations can be transformed in the course of the game.

The Kaiserreich focuses are quite detailed and balanced for the major nations. The Russian focus tree for example kicks into gear a year into the game and allows the player to transform Russia from a failing state to the powerhouse it once was, reclaiming its territory and prestige through either war, diplomacy or a bit of both. Likewise, Japan can take advantage of the fragmentation to build its empire and expel German and Western influence from the far east (sounds familiar…). The Ottoman empire can attempt to regain is former splendor while battling internal enemies. Communist France may try to retake the Alsace and Lorraine regions which Germany had occupied after winning the Great War and so forth.

Added to this are a slew of world events, some caused by focuses, others hard coded into the world. Economic crises, worker strikes and colonial implosions will all serve to cripple economies and make the early game a nightmare to navigate through, as many a major nation will see itself crippled by the events. Indeed, half the fun of the mod is simply surviving to the war.

Alternate history or not, Kaiserreich inadvertently leads to the second Weltkrieg. It seems no matter who wins the Great War, the second round is inescapable (though oftentimes prompted by Communist France which wants to retrieve its territory). After all, Hearts of Iron IV is all about war and Kaiserreich sure delivers on it. I have to admit, Kaiserreich has been much more fun in that aspect than the base game as the war is far more dynamic since there are a lot more power blocs around. Playing as Russia for example, you may once again commit to Communism and join the Third International with France and the United Kingdom to present a two front war for Germany. Germany might get Austro-Hungarian aid, or perhaps Austro-Hungary falls apart due to infighting, leaving southern Europe exposed. Perhaps Russia would re-join the Entente and fight a separate war with France and the United Kingdom to restore French Republicanism and British Parliamentary rule. Or perhaps it would be too busy defending from a Japanese invasion as Japan pushes its advantage in the east exploiting the disarray of the Russian army to conquer Siberia…

Indeed, these scenarios can and have happened to me on multiple playthroughs. Sometimes to my delight, sometimes to my dismay (goddamn Japanese >_< ). In fact, playing the mod with friends on multiplayer has led to some hilarious scenarios. From dividing Europe between the Triple alliance, the restoration of Russia while defending the status quo and defeating Communism to painting the world red with a Communist France, United Kingdom, Soviet Russia and the Combined Syndicates of America…

Besides that, the mod doesn’t change anything regarding geography, resources and technology. In fact, all the core mechanics of Hearts of Iron IV remain unchanged. That said, I do have a few criticisms of the mod.

Of course, criticizing a mod is quite problematic, especially one that is still considered in its alpha stage. This is why I put the version number in the title, and would write an update should these concerns/issues be resolved. Regardless, I think its important to point out the flaws and not just sing the praises of a work.

First and foremost, China had received a major nerf. Outside the Legation Cities (basically port cities in China that are few in number), most of the Chinese factions had their focuses stripped down to the very basics. The only addition is a small bare bones focus tree to allow Chinese unification but otherwise there is little to nothing there which is a shame as after the Soviet Union/Russia, China is my favorite nation to play in the base game (I like massive infantry armies, okay!?). In fact most of the far east has been neutered to some extent, with only Japan, its Chinese puppet and Mongolia given robust focus trees. It seems like the number of interesting nations in the whole game had somewhat declined.

Another issue is the faction system. In the base game, though players can change the rules, countries could influence each other’s political systems, pushing towards democracy/fascism/communism. Push long and hard enough and faction leaders of certain ideologies could invite said countries to factions. Better yet, faction leadership could be usurped by nations who managed to outpace the leaders in industry and army size. This allowed for a more dynamic game in the long run, as well as creating surprises to enemy factions. In contrast, Kaiserreich’s faction system is rigid and constrained. Faction leadership is locked in, and joining a faction requires an event or a focus. Ideologies can’t be changed either through political power, only through events and focuses again. This sacrifices some of the freedom of the base game for what I believe is narrative, which I ended up disliking.

The last major issue I have with the game is its lack of decisions. In the base game there is a mechanic of decisions which requires only political power to activate (and certain prerequisites depending). Though Kaiserreich has a few of them for each nation, there are far fewer than the base game. For example, in the base game, European nations had a decision available for them that if they managed to conquer France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg they can form the European Union, something which Kaiserreich lacks.

Outside of these issues the rest are nitpicks, mostly the lack of variety in advisors and the fact that unlike the base game, developing infrastructure does not increase resource gain, which I assume would be fixed in the future (and unofficial mods patching this already exist). Putting these aside, the mod is quite stable, with only a couple of hard crashes in the hundred hours (or more) I’ve played it both single and multiplayer. Both times I believe the crashes were due to other mods rather than Kaiserreich itself. Regardless, I can say that it has proven to be quite stable and runs without technical issues.

In summation, Kaiserreich is a fun mod, giving a different, alternate history start to the game with more wars, more power blocs and far more surprises than the base game. There is more action, more challenge even when playing major powers and interesting paths for nations to take. That said, the faction/ideology system is rigid, certain nations have lost their uniqueness and there is a lack of decisions that allow for more/different goals for major nations.

I’d recommend this for Hearts of Iron IV players who are looking for a new challenge or more flavor for the game, especially for multiplayer games. Considering this is a mod, thus free of charge and accessible (as well as updated) on Steam, what are you waiting for!?

Pathologic 2

Elevating a classic

I had tried several times in the past to play Pathologic. The game intrigued me ever since I saw a live stream of it being played by one of the YouTube personalities I follow. Finding a digital copy for the bargain price of 5$, I dove right in… Then ran straight out.

I really tried! Not once or twice but several times! I went so far as to resort to cheating and yet the game was so obtuse and clunky that I was forced to give up. After playing Pathologic 2 though, I can finally appreciate the story and ideas that the original attempted to convey.

Lets not mince words. Pathologic 2 is a remake of Pathologic. While the graphics had been greatly improved, the mechanics polished and the dialogues actually translated into English instead of being fed to a woodchipper this time around, it still follows the original game’s story.

Pathologic 2 doesn’t try to hide it either. The game revels in it! The game starts in a theater where you meet with the director who tells you just how much of a disaster the first show was. Yet against common sense he decides the play should have a second run in the hope things would go better this time. This is how the game drops you into the heart of things.

So what is Pathologic 2? On the surface its a survival horror game in which the player is thrust into the shoes of the Haruspex, a man looking to find his father’s killer. However, things quickly go awry when a mysterious and deadly disease grips the town, complicating his quest for revenge. Are the plague and his father’s death connected? What is the plague itself; just a terrible malady, the work of an ancient steppe deity or perhaps a being in its own right?

Well none of this matters because the entire game is a play, or perhaps it is real? Is the player character merely an actor fulfilling a role or a real person going through this hell? The game doesn’t give simple answers, instead constantly blurring the lines between the real and the surreal, and I love it all the more for that.

By now you, the reader, are utterly confused so let me set a few things straight. First and foremost, the game is a first person survival horror game as stated before. The player character is a local man sent to the capital city to study surgery before returning home on behest of his father only to find him murdered. The era and location are nebulous but seems to be turn of the 20th century Russian steppe.

Secondly, the game is truly horrifying in a good sense. The horror itself comes not from jump scares or hideous monsters but from the excellent atmosphere and the human condition. From the start the town feels wrong on several levels and as the plague ravages it, it only distorts further. Seeing cold streets turn moldy red and strewn with corpses where bandaged figures roam around begging for mercy amid clouds of disease carrying flies is enough to cause the bravest of persons to leg it.

The horror only deepens as the death toll rises and all modern medicine seem ineffective in the face of it all. It is this existential horror which the game conveys so well, the powerlessness when confronted by something so monstrous yet so mundane as a simple disease. Worst yet, seeing the town itself descend into bloodshed and chaos as services break down and the desperate survivors fight for what few crumbs of food can be found. Truly chilling.

Of course, the disease itself might not be so straightforward as a germ, but possibly has a mind, not to mention a voice, of its own! As the player tries to unravel the mystery of the plague while pursuing revenge, they may unravel the reality surrounding this strange town as well. I was drawn into the strangeness that is the world of Pathologic 2 in a way that very few horror games managed before (Dead Space and Silent Hill are the only comparisons that come to mind).

The second part of survival horror is well, survival. The player has certain stats they must maintain which affect various aspects of their character. Thirst, fatigue, stamina, hunger, health and immunity/infection. Most of this is pretty straightforward. You need to eat in intervals, sleep when too tired and drink to replenish thirst. Health is a given, if you are too sick or in combat you may lose health and need medical supplies and sleep to regain it. Stamina can be depleted in combat or by running and if your thirst is too high you will have less of it. Of course there are plenty of items that can affect one or several stats both positively and negatively so experimenting is always nice.

However in truth Pathologic 2 is not just a survival horror game, but a survival barter horror game. Yes, the major mechanic in the game is trade with non player characters. In fact, trading items is a whole complex economy of its own with various characters having unique items found on them. Each character will require different items in return and values differ between them. The entire system hinges on reputation and “favor” which is the “worth” of items being traded between a player and a non player character. A street urchin may have an egg that will cost you four favors but will only assign value to needles or beetles. While money does exist in the Pathologic 2 universe and there are official shops, not all items can be easily bought and cash is hard to come by. As the plague spreads through the town, shortages also occur, not to mention price increases. Thus bartering is the heart and soul of Pathologic 2 and you’ll be doing an awful lot of it in order to survive.

Reputation is important in Pathologic 2. There are plenty of ways to earn and lose it. The importance of reputation is for the barter system and ease of movement. Trade things more favorably with characters, heal or at least treat the sick and fix water pumps will all gain you reputation which means people will trade with you more readily. Kill the sick, commit burglary or go too far in combat and you lose reputation which will cause people to flee from you or attack you outright. Reputation is often localized and you can see how good (or bad) it is on the map. Its quite easy to believe you’d play a benevolent role until plague infected victims rush you or you are out of food and money and that house down the road probably has both…

There is combat in Pathologic 2, which is not surprising considering it was a feature in its predecessor. This time though, it feels a lot better and less frustrating than in the original. Its still a basic system of click to punch, hold for stronger punch/guard break, right click to guard yourself and regenerate stamina which is needed for attacks. Hit detection is far better than the original and I can say that its functional and easy to master. Of course you may be tempted to just sod it and use firearms. That said, guns require aiming, are slow to reload and may jam as their condition deteriorates with usage. Switching from guns to melee isn’t the smoothest either and most enemies in the game are melee focused.

The real enemy in the game though, is time. The player has only 12 in-game days, 11 considering the last day serves as an epilogue. Many events are specific to certain dates and hours and if missed will affect the overall story. Worse yet, as the game progresses, time seems to speed up, meaning you have even less of it than before to complete certain tasks. This makes managing your time an important factor of gameplay. In fact you’d often be presented with a choice since you can’t be at all places at once and navigating the town takes more time. What do you prioritizeL Finding your father’s killer? Devoting time to the hospital? Working on the cure? Each choice carries its own rewards and pitfalls, yet all further the story along.

Speaking of the story, the player will be locked in a struggle with the plague in order to complete it. Major characters can contract the plague and die of it, meaning you can fail the game if the disease kills important characters. That said if you save enough characters, or certain characters, the story can proceed. As before, time management and choice are everything in Pathologic 2, including who to save.

I want to talk more about the setting. As stated before, the game takes place in what looks like turn of the 20th century Russian town in the steppe. The town itself is a mix of modernity and tradition. The major export of the town is meat, in particular beef which also plays a part in the beliefs and traditions of the locals. The town itself is divided between the more modern, forward looking city folk and the steppe people who favor tradition. All of this has significant meaning in the game.

The game doesn’t just copy pastes buildings for no reason. While there are a few landmarks with unique appearances, much of the town looks the same. In most games its just to give a sense of scale for the player. Pathologic 2 actually gives an in-universe reason for it. This is a game of meta narratives, and the town’s size and shape is another part in the puzzle. After all, the town and its inhabitants are intrinsically (a word I always wanted to use) connected.

Without trying to sound pretentious, a major theme of the game is a clash between ideas. Between the modern town folk and the traditional steppe people. Between superstition and reason, belief and logic and so forth. The player character exemplifies this as well by being a person of two cultures. Born in the town but educated in the ways of the steppe people. Sent to the capital city to study surgery but still learned in the ways of herbal medicine and steppe faith.

This is of course, a huge lie. You are not the Haruspex, you are an actor and you are playing a part in a play. Because the second, and I’d say major, theme of the game is agency and choice. Is the Haruspex really choosing or are you the one making the choices? Is the Haruspex a master of his own fate or just a puppet, a mask worn by a performer and the entire game a play put for the benefit of an audience of one?

This is hardly a spoiler since as written before, the game boldfacedly tells you at the start that this is a theatrical production… Or perhaps not? What is true, what is false, who can say!? Indeed Pathologic 2 constantly makes you question the reality it presents to you, again in a good way. In fact, the theatrical motifs are present throughout the game. The theater lies at the center of town and every in-game night performs a piece that foreshadows future events or presents current ones in a different light. Mask wearing individuals can be seen and interacted with throughout the town, and all major characters seem to have one or more representing their inner selfs. Once the plague hits, the theater becomes a hospital and a morgue, the player encouraged to spend time there to earn rewards. The less said about the scary beak masked orderlies, the better…

Indeed, I could talk for days about the merits of Pathologic 2 and I wouldn’t get bored of it. That said, am certain the reader would by now so all you need to know is that Pathologic 2 is really really good and I recommend it even to people who are not that into horror.

The only complaint I heard and thought was somewhat justified was the fact this is basically just one of the three original stories from the previous game. That said it was long enough (took me nearly 40 hours to finish, though a more competent player would probably be done in around 20 hours) and the developers did state they will bring the other two stories perhaps in the form of downloadable content.

For players of the original, a few minor things worth mentioning. A fast travel system has been added, but it does cost time and items. The Haruspex can upgrade his wardrobe with items to increase carrying capacity, not to mention the ability to fix weapons and instruments by yourself. A whole system of diagnosing and treating the sick had been added. Sound design has been improved but still retains much of the original. As for the soundtrack, it is different but similar enough to the first game that it took me a while to realize the change. It is still pretty good.

Regardless, I came into the game with high expectations and was not disappointed. My game of the year. Its done, can’t be topped. 10/10.

Apex Legends

So I’ve decided to make a first impression rather than a full review of Apex Legends for several reasons which are: 1) The game only came out recently so I’d need a few weeks/months to play it before I could reach what I’d call a thorough conclusion. 2) I’ve been unable to write anything else. 3) I’ve been playing Apex Legends non stop since its release which might’ve been a contributing factor for second reason :thinking:.

In all honesty, I wasn’t going to play Apex Legends, let alone give my impressions of it, but after seeing a couple of reviewers giving it positive scores I thought I might as well try myself. God knows that I have been looking for a good shooter ever since Battlefield V decided it wanted to appeal to… I have no idea what crowd to be honest, and I’ve never been a huge fan of Call of Duty series. As for Playerunknown Battlegrounds, I have uninstalled it a year ago and have been quite happy with that decision.

Thus I did one of the most horrible things I could do to my computer and installed Origin… Eew. After downloading the game I booted it up and was hooked in from the start. For those still in the unclear, Apex Legends is a first person squad based battle royale game, courtesy of Respawn Entertainment, the studio behind the Titanfall series and luminaries of Infinity Ward, the developers of Call of Duty. Already there is quite a pedigree behind the title, ruined slightly by being published by Electronic Arts, the most evil major game publisher, except for all the rest.

Okay, another battle royale game, its not like we have a shortage of them these days, so what differentiate Apex Legends from the rest? Quite a lot to be frank. It feels to me like Respawn Entertainment played several battle royale games and went item by item on what frustrates players or slows down the gameplay and simply fixed them.

The first thing that defines Apex Legends is mobility. The game is built for free running, shoot on the move action. There is no fall damage, almost every surface can be climbed, there are zip lines strewn all over and certain characters can even make their own, you can even slide across the battlefield shooting from the hip before face planting into a boulder. Movement is key which makes gunfights all about maneuvering rather than sitting still behind cover, popping over to shoot a few rounds before ducking back in.

The second change are the heroes. The game currently has a roster of eight heroes, six unlocked from the start, which have unique abilities. Each hero has three abilities which I’ll demonstrate with my favorite one, the Wraith. You have a passive skill, which in the Wraith’s case allows her to know when she is being targeted by hostile players. There is the active ability, which allows her to become ethereal for a few seconds (basically a free get out of jail card) and an ultimate which creates a dimensional void that connects two points on the battlefield and is usable by her squad (or anyone who stumbles upon it to be frank).

This in effect means that every squad will synergize differently depending on the type of heroes chosen. To make sure there are no fights on who will be x character, the game makes a squad choose its heroes in a randomized order before each match, meaning no one can hog the same character if someone else wants to have a try.

Okay, so its Playerunknown Overwatch or Overwatch Battlegrounds? Yes and no. The heroes are just one part of the puzzle, you still have the loot. Looting itself is quite fast and convenient. You get fixed spots that can be increased via backpacks, you have your guns, your armor and your utility items. So far so good. That said, the game automates a lot, meaning you don’t have to spend time managing your inventory or dragging attachments to rifles. You want to change rifles but you have attachments? Simply swap the guns and the mods will be automatically transferred to your new weapon (if its possible, if not it just goes back to your inventory).

You have the usual range of weapons such as handguns, sub-machine guns, shotguns, assault rifles, snipers and so forth. All come in various shapes and sizes all slightly futuristic in one way or another. Thankfully ammo is color coded and the game will tell you if the ammo you pick is the right one.

Of course, what is loot without tiers? Here too, Apex Legends conforms to the mold while surpassing it. You have white, blue, purple and yellow loot. White is most common with basic stats, while yellow is legendary and is hard to find. But what happens if your nice purple body armor gets damaged in a fight? In other games, you’d need to replace it with another, in Apex Legends you simply use energy cells to repair it. This is a huge change in my view because it removes the problem of needing to loot new body armor after a firefight and being at a disadvantage compared to other squads.

Talking about squads, the game is set at three people per squad and 20 squads per match, meaning the servers cap at 60 players. You start the match on a dropship and each squad launches when it wants to. The major difference is that each squad gets a randomly assigned jumpmaster that decides when to launch and navigates the squad in the air. This means squads can’t disperse, that is unless players decide to willingly disengage and fly their own merry way, before landing near a full squad and getting butchered. Of course the role of jumpmaster can be relinquished and passed along like a hot potato in the squad.

The emphasis is on squad work. A lone player will rarely be able to fight off a full squad considering just how mobile it is. Firefights are not static in the least and players can find themselves easily flanked. To facilitate squad work, the developers created a wonderful ping system that helps player communicate even without talking. Spotted an enemy? Use the middle mouse button to report him. Found a good piece of body armor but already got one yourself? Use the middle mouse button to report and mark it for your squad. The game really helps people like me that are shy in online matches to still communicate efficiently without using the push to talk function. Oh I forgot, the game’s default is push to talk and has a dedicated key. Bethesda, take note!

Of course another innovation the game brings is respawning. I swear Respawn Entertainment just played a match of Playerunknown Battlegrounds and got frustrated when half its team got wiped out and had to sit out the rest of the match. Respawning goes like this, after a player is downed, if they bleed out or are killed, they leave a banner in their container. If a teammate picks it up within 90 seconds, they can then bring it to one of the respawn beacons strewn across the map. After a few seconds of inputting it in, a shuttle will come around and return the deceased player to the battlefield. A squad can respawn up to two members at the same time (I mean if all three died that is a wipeout). The only catch is that freshly spawned players have no equipment on them, which makes sense. There is no limit to the amount of times one can be respawn yet each respawn beacon is only usable once. This solves the problem of players dying then forced to sit out most of a match. It also gives them an incentive to remain at their desk and wait for a respawn.

Talking about core mechanics, gunplay is important in any first person shooter. Sadly, I am no expert in first person shooters so I can’t tell you objectively how good or bad it really is. What I can tell you is that I had fun with it. It feels closer in my opinion to Call of Duty’s style, with some recoil, bullet drop and satisfying sound.

The game does a good job of creating conflict zones. While all battle royale games rely on the shrinking map to force players into conflict, Apex Legends is a bit more active about it. The start of a match there is a random “Hot Zone” where you can find better quality loot but everyone will be gunning for it. The loot crates are replaced with supply ships which will drop randomly within a circle. They offer a lot of weapons, ammunition and some rarer items but can only be accessed via zip lines and are basically floating structures so firefights within them can be hectic and fun. Each match by the way starts with one of them already present and a few squads will always try to land on top of them.

Graphically the game looks good, it looks Titanfall and it feels in certain ways like Titanfall (though sadly no wall running or double jumping). There is currently only one map out but it has varied biomes, different structures and many barriers creating effectively “rooms” that are interconnected with many paths. There is never a feeling of being bottlenecked but at the same time there is a certain feeling of safety from your “neighbors”, at least if you landed far enough. Verticality also plays a part, with plenty of valleys and cliffs. Rivers are also present and wading through them is a great way to advertise your presence.

So it looks good, has solid mechanics and interesting innovations, but how does it hold up on the technical side? Very good. It is a horrible indictment of the current state of gaming when I remark to a friend how stable and polished the launch feels. I didn’t experience any lag or rubberbanding throughout my countless hours of gameplay and the few stuttering I did get were sadly client side rather than server side due to my internet provider being an utter s#*t. There were no hard crashes, no missing textures or animation fails. It was polished to a frightening degree. This launch was basically the opposite of Fallout 76’s.

We get it, its great, but does it have flaws? Sadly yes. I mean, for starters its published by Electronic Arts and is on Origin, so that is a gigantic flaw right there. Secondly, the game has loot boxes. True, they are for cosmetics only but still, its loot boxes and I hate them for what they represent. Thirdly there is quite a bit of grind needed to unlock the two remaining heroes, but you can chuck it up as giving players goals for game progression.

Summing up, Apex Legends is a first person shooter battle royale with locked three person squads, an emphasis on mobility, hero characters and a few other innovations that make it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Oh and its free but has loot boxes and forces you to install Origin.

If you like the battle royale genre, you’d like this game. However if you were never a fan in the first place this game isn’t going to convert you. Suffice to say I’d save my recommendation for battle royale fans only. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to play more Apex Legends.

Stellaris: MegaCorp (Le Guin Patch)

It took me more time than I figured write a review for Stellaris’ new update/expansion Le Guin/MegaCorp. Part of the reason was that like any other Paradox Interactive game, it takes hundreds of hours of play time just get a feel of it. Another part is the fact that like any major overhaul, I had to basically re-learn how to play the game from scratch.

This is the main problem with reviewing any of the Paradox Interactive grand strategy games. They are constantly morphing. What is true today may be completely different by the end of the year as more and more expansions, downloadable content and free updates are implemented into them. This means that on the one hand players can rely on years of new content and game support. On the other hand, they’ll need to open their wallet frequently and be certain that coming back to any game after a long absence means going back to square one.

If you are interested only in my thoughts on the changes themselves, you can skip to the end of the article where I give them in bullet points. If you want a full review of all the major changes, you’ll have to wade through all the following paragraphs. You, the reader, have been warned!

So Stellaris Is…

For those still unaware, Stellaris is a 4x (eXplore, eXpend, eXploit and eXterminate) game set in the distant future of 2,200 AD. In the game the player can build a stellar empire from scratch, explore a vast galaxy filled with various mysteries, settle planets, confront marauders and fallen empires and in the end try to survive against a galaxy threatening crisis. So far, so good, so what does Le Guin add to the mix?

Le Guin is basically a complete economical overhaul. Pretty much everything had been changed to make the economy a more robust and complex system. I can write countless pages comparing this new system to the old one but that would be both boring and very technical in nature. Instead I’ll write this review as a first time player learning to play the game (though I may still bring up the past here and there).

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Playing Stellaris well requires mastering the economy. The economy consists of five resources; food, energy, minerals, alloys and consumer goods.
Food is obvious. To grow a population, you need a surplus of food. Food requires farmers and agriculture districts or hydroponic farms.

Energy operates as currency and is needed by pretty much everything in the game. From trade to the upkeep of structures and fleets. Only technicians can create energy in generator districts.

Minerals are basically raw materials which are used in their base form to build structures, districts and mining stations. They can be harvested in mining districts by miners.

Alloys and consumer goods are both created from minerals using specialized buildings and workers. Alloys are required to build ships and star bases while consumer goods are, well, consumed by the population. Consumer goods can also be used by other specialists for various jobs.

Phew, let me catch my breath. This is the basic economy, without getting into other stuff like unity output, influence and strategic resources. So let’s get into them! Unity is basically a pseudo resource that can be created by various specialists. Unity itself is used to unlock traditions which give various benefits and abilities to the empire (just an example, the prosperity tradition lowers upkeep and increases specialist output among other things). Once a tradition tree is completed, a perk point is unlocked which gives the empire a special, distinct ability (from building galactic wonders to advance genetic tailoring and so forth). In the late game, unity can be spent to purchase special edicts.

Influence is a more static resource. Each empire has a fixed increase of influence based on its civics and government type. Though some technologies and traditions do give flat increases, it is still a very slow replenishing resource. Factions can also contribute to the overall influence gain, but most empires will fluctuate between a 3 – 6 monthly gain. This is because influence dictates expansion as claiming systems requires the use of influence. This also applies for conquest claims for wars. Last but not least, diplomatic agreements also require influence to maintain. Thus influence can be seen as a check against unlimited growth.

Strategic resources can be found all over the galaxy, some are more common than others. They have many applications in ship construction and in the creation and maintenance of advanced buildings. Suffice to say that securing an adequate amount of them is important for any empire. Besides being used for those things, strategic resources can be stockpiled just like any other resources and used in special edicts that give temporary bonuses to an empire such as faster terraforming speeds or stronger ship shields for example.

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The Invisible Hand of the Free Market

Say a player is lacking alloys for a construction project or requires certain strategic resources they have no access to, what would they do? In the past the answer was either to wait for production to catch up or fight to gain access to the resources. With Le Guin, the answer can be much simpler, and less bloody; the galactic market. The galactic market is accessible to players from the start and has pretty much every resource imaginable. A player can purchase stacks of material from the market or put in place monthly orders. The market only accepts energy credits as payment and if a player is short on cash, they can always sell other resources to make up the difference. Truly capitalism at its best.

That said the market collects a fee and commodity prices aren’t set in stone. If a player buys a lot of alloys, the price per unit will spike depending on volume. Prices may subside as time goes by, but with other empires also purchasing or dumping resources into the market, players should expect some wild swings.

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 Adam Smith’s vision on a galactic scale

Trade Makes the Galaxy Go Round

One of the newest additions to the game is the trade mechanic. Trade routes are established between colonies and the capital along hyperlane and gateway connections. For trade to be collected in a system, it needs to either have an upgraded star base in it or be in range of a trade hub, which is a star base module. The trade value itself is fixed on asteroid and other celestial bodies but on colonized worlds differ according to many factors. The more populous and developed a world is, the greater its trade value is. That said, there are ways to directly increase trade value like certain buildings and jobs. Once trade is collected it generates energy credits and can, through policies, be partially converted into consumer goods or unity points.

Where there is trade, there is piracy. Pirates are attracted to trade lanes. In fact their new spawning mechanics sees them grow in overstretched and poorly protected trade lanes. The more they are allowed to operate uncontested, the more they grow, eating into the profits and finally spawning an actual pirate fleet. Should the fleet overwhelm the local star base, a pirate base will spawn. Thankfully, the player can assign fleets to patrol trade routes and keep the pirate presence at bay.

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District 9, 10, 11…

The word district had been mentioned before and now I want to expand on it. In the previous iteration planet size dictated the number of tiles it had which would have exploitable resources on them. With Le Guin, this has been radically changed. Planet size now refers to the amount of districts a world can build. There are four major types of districts: Agriculture, Mining, Generator and City. Each type provides housing and jobs. While city districts are only limited in number to the planet’s overall size, the other three are determined by the planet’s properties. These planetary features can be viewed, showing how each contributes to the number of available districts. If a planet has a lot of ore-veined cliffs for example, these will increase the available mining districts while if a planet had an abundance of bountiful plains, that means it will have a large number of agriculture districts available for construction.

So far, so simple. Besides districts, each planet has 20 building tiles. These are unlocked by population size, with each five members unlocking a new slot. Building slots are universal, with most buildings available across the empire. That said some planetary features may grant special buildings such as crystalline caverns which allow the construction of special mines to extract the strategic resource. Most buildings though require population to work at, so balancing districts, housing and population is important in colonial development.

Last but not least is the aspect of specialization. As written above, planetary features dictate the amount and type of districts available for construction. This means some worlds will have an overwhelmingly large amount of mining districts available while others may have an evenly spread number of districts. If a world has a large number of districts or buildings of one type built, it will gain a specialization. A simple explanation would be a world where only mining districts are built, making it a mining world that has an inherent bonus to mining output. On the same weight, a world where most building slots are used by forges will become a forge world that will gain a bonus for alloy production. Specialization is important in the grand scheme of things as it is more efficient.

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Work, Work and More Work!

Districts provides housing and jobs, and so do buildings, but what does it all mean? Simply put, housing is the number of population a world can accommodate without negative penalties. Jobs, on the other hand, are basically everything needed to produce and manufacture everything. Temples have priest jobs, civilian industries have artisan jobs and mining districts give miner jobs. These jobs need to be filled by citizens, slaves or machines. That said there is a job hierarchy. Administrators need to be part of the ruling class, specialists need to be rights holding species and workers are pretty much the riffraff.

Jobs basically create everything. Miners work in mining districts and produce minerals which are used by specialists in the civilian industries to create consumer goods which are then converted by the priests in the temple into unity and social research. This is the essence of Le Guin, the creation and operation of production chains. Of course this machinery needs workers at every stop. If districts and buildings lack workers, they won’t operate, or will do so in reduced capacity. This means players need to keep an eye on staffing levels and make sure population grows to the desired levels.

Of course, districts and specializations are not set in stone. With stellar expansion, the needs of an empire may change, not to mention the increase in size. Le Guin’s current expansion driver is mineral wealth which is needed for alloys and consumer goods. This means worlds may change designation as population growth unlocks more building tiles. Agriculture worlds may turn into industrial worlds filled with civilian industries and generator worlds may turn into refineries, synthesizing the strategic resources needed by the empire and so forth. This change in designation happens automatically but may pose a problem due to stratification.

According to empire civics, traditions and species rights, the population is sorted into jobs. If districts and buildings are replaced/demolished, these jobs disappear. The population that worked there is left unemployed which may pose a problem. Unemployment may cause unrest and is a drag on local resources. Worse yet, depending on various factors, new jobs may not be staffed by existing population as social mobility is now a thing in Stellaris. Thus planning is very important in colonizing worlds, not to mention the importance of knowing the benefits and drawbacks of the civilization the player chooses and their forms of government.

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Workers of the galaxy unite, you only have your magnetic restraints to lose!

Blackjack and Hookers

I’ve already mentioned housing and jobs, now its time for the other important factor governing population: Happiness. Happy population increases the world’s stability which is translates into higher resource output and trade value. The more unhappy a population is, the less stable the world which will lead to unrest, nasty negative modifiers and even open revolt. Happiness itself is a complex thing (ain’t that the truth) that takes into account species rights, traditions, civics and amenities.

Like everything else in Le Guin, amenities are created by jobs, with certain buildings offering better amenities production. These are important as a lack of amenities will lead to unhappiness. That said, the happiness approval rating is wholly dependent on what type of a civilization a player plays. For a feudal society, so long as the ruler class gets its amenities, the rest of the population will have little to no influence on the approval rating.

Crime and Punishment

I may have already discussed piracy, but crime can occur everywhere, especially on the planets below. Crime can be the result of civics and species rights, government type and even external factors like criminal syndicates branching into a player’s world. When crime does rise, it will start effecting a planet’s stability (not good) and a population’s happiness (doubly bad).

There are ways to combat crime, such as buildings providing enforcer jobs which suppress it, declaration of martial law, crackdown campaigns and other measures. That said, if a player doesn’t get a handle on the rise of crime early on, it may lead to a chain of events which will worsen the situation considerably. Players have to make sure that there are no criminal syndicate empires around them, because those like to spread crime like the plague and also make sure their own worlds are adequately policed.

Speak Softly and Carry a Large Stick

Besides the economy, the second major overhaul the game has seen was the removal of hard caps. An empire can hire as many leaders as it sees fit, the only barrier being their cost and upkeep. For colonization, the same applies but with a caveat. In the past, colonizing beyond the empire’s capacity would often result in huge penalties, necessitating the creation of sectors and transferring planets to them. In Le Guin, the hard cap has been replaced by administrative capacity and empire sprawl.

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To put it simply, empire sprawl is the size of the empire as derived from the total number of built districts, claimed systems and colonized planets. The administrative capacity is the ability of the empire to handle this sprawl. That capacity can be increased with technology, perks, certain civics and starting ethics. However any expanding empire would soon outpace its capacity, resulting in negative modifiers.

In the past, these modifiers would wreak havoc on the economy and stability of the empire. With Le Guin, they become more of a nuisance than an actual disaster. Going over capacity results in increased technology, tradition adoption, campaign (edicts costing energy credits), leader recruitment and upkeep costs. These can go quite high but by medium to late game are manageable even at very high multipliers thanks to total empire earnings. That means that leaders may cost a bundle to hire and maintain, but all fleets will have admirals at their head, and the same goes to governors, scientists and generals.

Empires that keep to their administrative cap are basically more efficient, as they don’t incur penalties to research and upkeep. This means that while expansionist empires may manage, more isolationist empires can remain competitive with faster research and more traditions and perks adopted.

Sectors themselves have become automatic. They cover a radius of two hyperlane jumps from planet of origin, with each world settled in their sphere becoming part of that particular sector. They cannot be created by the player and instead spring automatically once a colony world is too far from either the home world or another established sector. There is no way to edit existing sectors either.

A Whole New World!

Talking before on planetary features and exploitation, colonization itself had somewhat changed. In the past, it was always beneficial to terraform a planet before colonizing it since most species have a preferred climate type. Colonizing a planet with low habitability score would result in unhappiness which would make for quite a rebellious populace.

In Le Guin, that changed. Happiness is no longer dictated (for the most part) by planet type. Whatsmore, with certain planetary features being unique to one planet type or another, terraforming becomes less desirable since districts can be lost in the process. Instead, habitability score penalizes the upkeep rate of population as well as its amenities consumption. The worse the climate, the more food, consumer goods and entertainment a population needs.

This saves the hassle of needing to terraform worlds to exploit them and helps, in my opinion, keep a far more diverse empire.

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Future planet Norway, just as hospitable as the real thing on Earth

The Silk Road

The last addition, which I myself view as mostly miscellaneous, are the caravaneers. These are small fleets which roam the galaxy in search of trade. They are quite strong early on, but are quickly outpaced by the player by the mid-game. They travel through an empire’s borders triggering diplomatic events in which they offer to sell products or exchange goods for a price. They may also trigger other events like energy theft (the thieving bastards!).

The Caravaneers are mostly harmless, giving a tad of flavor and life to the galaxy but not much else. Their home system is generated randomly and offers the player a chance to buy reliquaries which contain random stuff for CaravanCoinz. Some can have extra resources in them while others are just filled with junk. So yes, loot boxes have made it into Stellaris, even as a joke (my god).

Retro

That said, not all civilizations are as effected by the recent changes. Hivemind and machine consciousness empires remain the exception. Both empires cannot generate trade value, are unable to trade or create trade lanes and have no need for consumer goods. This means that for players still getting to grips with the changes, these empires still offer a more vanilla experience and are somewhat easier to play.

MegaCorporations

The expansion which launched alongside Le Guin, MegaCorp is basically the addition of vulture capitalists as playable empire type and a few interesting add ons. If a player ever wanted to role-play as Weyland-Yutani, they now have a chance.

Civilization wise, Mega corporations are basically trade oriented empires with special civics of their own and a special, exclusive mechanic. They can be made to be pure inter-stellar traders, televangelists working to convert the entire galaxy (and make a lot of money in the process of course) or criminal syndicates like Star Wars’ Hutt Cartel which spread crime and corruption for monetary gain.

Game-wise, they handle pretty much similarly to other empires with one crucial exception; they can open branch offices. Branch offices cost energy credits to establish and can be opened in other empires regardless of permission. Of course distance plays part in their cost but once established, they will generate half the trade value of the world they are located on as income. This makes them pretty lucrative.

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Branch offices can be even further expanded upon as the world they are located on grows in population size, unlocking unique building slots available only for the owning mega corporation. These can be used to increase branch office value, build temples to sway local populace into a more spiritual path or underground labs that generate research points with less than ethical methods. The upgrades of course depend on the type of mega corporation in charge.

The branch offices and the host empire can have either a symbiotic or parasitic relationship. Criminal syndicates for example, are complete parasites. The mere existence of a branch office of theirs will generate crime, with each subsequent corporate building only adding to the anarchy. Empires that are forced to host such branch offices will often need to invest a lot in crime prevention. On the other hand, a trade league will establish beneficial buildings that can supply amenities and more trade value to the host civilization, thus ensuring both sides benefit from the presence of its outposts. In both cases though, these buildings provide jobs for the local population and require it to staff them.

Should a mega corporation overplay its hand, especially criminal syndicates, empires do have a remedy. There is a special casus belli (expropriation) added to the game for opening branch offices in a civilization. Winning it will basically shut down all existing branch offices in the empire (though be certain other mega corporations are always ready to jump in). Funnily enough, two mega corporations may also fight each other over branch offices in a hostile takeover. Begun, the franchise wars have!

In a way, branch offices feel more like the beginning of an interesting mechanic rather than a finished product. I suspect they may be fleshed out more in future updates. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Paradox Interactive testing fledgling covert ops mechanics for future iterations since the current system does have a slight feel of it (such as the devastating impact of criminal syndicates). That said, not a huge fan myself.

Age of (Galactic) Wonders

Alongside mega corporations, MegaCorp also added four new galactic wonders into the game, two of which quickly became my favorites; Matter decompressor, strategic coordination center, mega art installation and interstellar assembly.

Matter decompressor – used on black holes, this baby somehow excavates the black hole, creating minerals. With the industrial needs of a growing empire, these matter decompressors become a HUGE boon.

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Strategic coordination center – adds naval, star base and defense platform capacity as well as a permanent sub light speed bonus for all empire ships. Quite useful when building up fleet power later on, not to mention the increase in defensive capabilities with more bastions and defensive platforms.

Mega art installation – adds unity and amenities to the empire. Never felt the need to build one.

Interstellar Assembly – increases other empires opinion of the host empire as well as generates immigration pull. The only structure to need consumer goods rather than energy credits to operate. Again, felt no need constructing it.

Besides these, all galactic structures require alloys to construct rather than minerals, meaning that any attempt to rush them early game will be met by the alloy production bottleneck, which is quite fine by me. Each mega structure is a huge investment of alloys (a full mega structure will require as many alloys as two 200 sized fleets which include titans). Another change is ring worlds having only three district types (city, agriculture and generator) but having an upward limit of 50(!) per segment, making them huge energy/food producers.

Perks of the Job

MegaCorp also saw the introduction of three new perks, one being the arcology project, the other being the xeno compatibility trait and last but (not) least being universal transactions.

The arcology project can only be unlocked as a third perk and for a good reason – it is immensely powerful. Once a planet had converted all of its districts to city districts and built them to capacity, it can be transformed for the poultry sum of 20,000 minerals and ten years of hard labour into an Ecumenopolis – a world spanning city. Ecumenopolis replaces all of its districts for four new ones; residential, which offers twice the housing a city district has, foundry which produces alloys (one foundry district is better than a fully upgraded forge plant), industrial which creates consumer goods and finally leisure district which supplies amenities. All told an ecumenopolis can house hundreds of people and generate an absurd amount of alloys and consumer goods.

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Xeno compatibility allows different species in an empire to mate with one another (eww) and create half breeds which inherit the traits of both parent species and have an extra trait point and trait limit. This allows quite a remarkable ability of min/maxing breeding to create a truly amazing species with ludicrous traits. That said, while the perk has no tier lock, it does have several perquisites including xenophile ethics, a resident alien species and a specific technology to be unlocked. Also sex with aliens is gross and against Imperial Creed and anyone practicing it should be reported immediately to nearest Inquisition office.

Universal transactions gets to be the runt of the litter. It basically gives a permanent 15% discount on the creation of new branch offices as well as remove the influence maintenance cost from commercial pacts. Not a huge fan of it.

Outside of those three, the rest of the perks had received a nice re-balancing thanks to the patch’s many changes, meaning players have more freedom to choose various new builds rather than stick to the same old, rigid molds. I found myself trying different things and actually creating several new perk suites, each tailored to fit a certain race/playstyle rather than using the same old tired approach I had before.

Corporate Slaves

The galactic market may be a useful tool to get resources, but it has its own seedy underbelly. MegaCorp introduces a dark aspect to the galactic market, namely the slave market. Players are able to buy and sell slaves, which is great for despotic empires to quickly fill workers’ jobs. A player has an excess of slaves? Sell them on the market for some quick energy credits. The same can be done to robots, which is fitting. This also makes the nihilistic acquisition perk extra poignant as a player can raid an enemy planet, enslave its population and then sell it on the market… Talk about unchecked capitalism!

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My Personal Thoughts

For experienced Stellaris players that skipped the wall of text to go straight into my personal thoughts/views of the changes I’ll give them in bullet point form:

– The economic overhaul makes Stellaris more hard but at the same time more fun as there is a lot more to manage/do even so far as the mid game.

– The soft cap is a better way to penalize expansion while giving the expansionists a fighting chance rather than previous mechanics. Also there never should have been a leadership cap to begin with but that is my personal opinion.

– The automated sectors are terrible and need fixing. I am okay with a sector size limit and reach, but it needs to be more flexible than what we currently got.

– New perk balancing is a godsend.

– Habitats have kind of become rather useless in the grand scheme of things, being too limited by their district availability and cap.

– Tall game is more viable than before.

– The introduction of amenities and the change to colonization penalty makes early colonization easier and helps in crappy starts.

– New mega structures are a mixed bag, with matter decompressor becoming as important as a Dyson sphere and the strategic coordination center proving very useful for increased fleet power.

– Black holes are the new black gold (pun very much intended). Every empire needs to secure one!

– The arcology project is an amazing perk considering the advantage an Ecumenopolis offers in the raw production of alloys and consumer goods.

– Mega corporations are just not my cup of tea but I understand anyone who does want to play them. That said, there is no better way to grief players early on than with a crime syndicate. Really, that build is just powerful and annoying and can ruin friendships when played cooperatively.

– Not allowing machine mega corporations is a grave miscarriage of justice that should be amended!

– Xeno compatibility is for heretics and anyone using it should be burned at the stake.

Summary

To summarize, Le Guin is a gigantic overhaul that pretty much touches on every aspect of the game through the lens of economy. It made planet management more complex and interesting, population growth and housing important, not to mention governing ethics and government form more pronounced overall. It brought a much needed complexity to the game without making it too obtuse or confusing. It removed artificial barriers that felt more constrictive than actually beneficial and re-balanced a lot of different perks and traditions.

MegaCorp itself added a new government form with its own civics and unique mechanics, a few more perks and several new galactic wonders one of which has become pretty much indispensable. Though I admit the mega corporation stuff itself is not my cup of tea, I do like the rest of the expansion and can understand players who do prefer this new form of government with its peculiar mechanics.

That said, the question comes down to, would I recommend it? Its at this point that I feel a tad hesitant. On the whole, I love pretty much everything introduced except the sector mechanics which, to be fair, is a petty gripe. Much of this is things I always wanted to be in Stellaris and getting them feels like a great birthday present.

However, I can’t ignore the voice in my head telling me that this is a patch and an expansion aimed strictly at Stellaris players. If you own Stellaris, then you already get the Le Guin overhaul for free. Chances are you’ve already purchased the MegaCorp expansion as well. If you are not already a fan, this is not going to win you over. So my recommendation will be for the people who pretty much already have it… What a strange thing to do.

-End-

Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock

Right off the bat I have a confession to make. I don’t like the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. I saw the pilot, saw that ending and thought “Yep, not for me”. I am writing this as a disclaimer so you know I am not a fan of the series. Yet I really enjoyed Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock (though with some reservations).

If I don’t like Battlestar Galactica, why did I pick the game? Well it was for sale with a couple of good pieces of DLC for a cheap bargain on Steam and it reminded me of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, one of my favorite games of all time, so I took the risk. I don’t regret it.

So what is Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock? In simple terms its a turn based tactical combat game with some strategy elements. No, I am not confusing the order of things and the review will make this quite clear. The player builds and controls colonial fleets as they engage the Cylons (frakking toasters!) both in skirmishes, side and mainline stories.

The strategic elements boil down to fleet composition, build queues, fleet positioning, research, officer recruitment and mission choices. The map itself is quite small so there is not a lot of space that needs covering. Not a lot of meat for a true strategy enthusiast. That said this level of shallowness makes sense when you realize the main meat of the game is the tactical combat.

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Battles start with a deployment phase where the player positions their ships in an initial formation before their turn starts. From then on, the player has to decide on their ships’ actions in a planning phase before ending their turn to see it play out in real time for roughly 10 seconds intervals. Once the enactment ends their turns begins again. As combat systems go its not the worst and I found myself quite immersed in it.

Combat in the game is quite deep thanks to the range of ships and munitions available, not to mention the physics behind them. Ships differ from each other in mass and thrust, meaning nimble frigates can turn on a dime compared to ponderous battlestars that require several turns to execute a similar 180 degrees maneuver. Whats more, the battlefield is three dimensional, adding verticality. Guns are locked into arcs and angles of fire, meaning turrets on the top of a battlestar wouldn’t be able to hit enemies below it and so forth. This makes positioning very important.

Another factor in positioning is ships’ armor. Ships have hull and armor hit points. Armor is distributed across a ship in sections, with its thickness differing according to the ship’s design. One example is the Jupiter class battlestars, which boasts thick frontal and side armor but is very thin in the back. Once the armor of a section is destroyed, the ship’s hull takes damage. Worse yet, depending on the section the ship’s sub systems could also receive damage.

The sub systems basically govern all of the ship’s functions. Navigation, to give one example, is located at the aft section of a ship and is responsible for speed, i.e. distance the ship can traverse in a turn. Should it take damage, the ship’s ability to cover distance will diminish. Sub systems have fixed hit point but thankfully can be repaired during combat, unlike armor. Officers can also buff the hit points of specific sub systems.

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All of this leads to a complicated dance as the player tries to position their ships so the thickest part of the armor will absorb hits while at the same time trying to get the maximum number of weapons to bear on hostile ships. To aid in this the game introduces a posture slider. Defensive posture minimizes weapon range but helps in repelling boarding action as well as better damage absorption while aggressive posture increases the range and effectiveness of the ship’s guns. Both decrease the ship’s maneuverability.

Besides guns various ships have secondary and tertiary munitions. Most ships will have missile tubes that can be armed with guided missiles, torpedoes, mines and chaff (you can also unlock nukes latter on in the story). Certain ships like the battlestars are equipped with hangars that can house fighters. Vipers can shoot down missiles, raiders and attack capital ships. Raptors are able to board hostile ships or boost the firewalls of friendly capital ships. Each ship can be tweaked to further suit the player’s or mission’s needs.

For these reasons the game locks fleets to seven capital ships maximum with a further point cap (which can be increased via officers). That said considering how hectic, especially in the latter game, battles can be I don’t see this as an issue. During the game I had fun experimenting with various builds, tweaking them as I went along. The constant escalation of force was interesting and quite thematic.

That said the Cylons themselves outside the main missions are not really that difficult and even there were mostly a threat due to overwhelming numbers. That said they still managed to pull a surprise or two on me by introducing hard counters to certain tactics I was employing up until that point. Add to that certain ships’ annoying ability to hack sub systems directly and thus damage them without firing a shot and underestimating them completely will prove fatal.

I found the story itself quite satisfying. The game itself is set approximately 50 years before the show and that is evident in some of the Cylon ships’ designs (not yet the sleek basestars shown in the series but getting there). The player assumes the role of second in command of the colonial fleet after the admiral alongside the battlestar Galactica went missing and the main shipyards were destroyed by a Cylon attack.

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Starting from such a low point, the story mostly revolves around beating back the Cylons and securing the loyalty of the 12 colonies, not all of which are on board the initiative. I also had the Broken Alliances DLC installed which adds a few more missions further fleshing these divides within the Quorum of Twelve (the colonies’ ruling body). The story itself is presented in mission briefings, cutscenes and voice overs during the actual missions. The voice acting itself is quite good.

Added to it is good sound design coupled with a great soundtrack which is evocative of the TV series itself. The fact I can recall most pieces and can say with certainty “Thats from Deadlock!” is a point in the soundtrack’s favor.

Another great feature is the replay camera, which is able to transform hectic battles into cinematic masterpieces. I really am in awe of the technical accomplishment alone. That said I didn’t really use it too much but I thought I should recognize the feature.

All told it took me some 40 hours on the easiest difficulty story to finish the story including the DLC content and as I said in the opening paragraph I found it wholly satisfying. However I also wrote that I had some reservations and I am going to lay them bare.

I am not going to criticize the shallow strategy part because as I said before, the game revolves around the tactical combat. The problem is there is too much combat. Outside the main missions most secondary missions and skirmishes quickly devolve into senseless repetition, not helped by the AI as I noted above. It feels like too much filler and it nearly caused me to step away from the game. In fact had I not wanted to write on the game, I would have quit by the end of the second act rather than have powered through all of it and had missed a lot of content (and possibly gave it a much lower score).

The second problem is that of progression. While officers gain experience through battle and can be also promoted via requisition points, ships remain static. Sure you can tweak ships later on using researched items but there is no real progression for the ship itself. A veteran ship and a newly built one don’t differ in any way besides the armor scaring (which is a small detail I really liked). It makes ships disposable.

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This leads me to the third issue, and that is the lack of a scuttling option. As the game progresses the player unlocks and builds better ships and with the fleet cap, will often discard earlier designs but its impossible to scuttle these ships. I myself ended with dozens of unwanted ships I used to either fortify planets or force fed the Cylons with. Quite going against the theme.

Last but not least is the UI. The UI in this game is clunky. It is uncomfortable and with just a few tweaks could have been much better. As it is, it just gets in the way at times and frustrates, which damages my overall enjoyment of the game. I know it sounds like a petty niggle but considering the playtime it really adds up to a major annoyance.

This leads me to the summary. I have a sneak suspicion that had I been a fan of the show and hadn’t played Battlefleet Gothic: Armada which came out a whole year before it, I’d have rated the game much higher. That said, considering everything I wrote above, I feel content giving it a 7 out of 10. 7 is quite a good score, putting it above average but just not as good as it could have been thanks to the issues I raised in the review. Still I’d recommend it for its combat and story but with a warning regarding UI and repetition.