Friday, 27 January 2012

This is Jimmy...

Starcraft: it's great. That'll probably do, but I'll try and write a bit more. I should have known it would be good - after all, something like half the population of Korea play it (possibly slight exaggeration) and it's one of the biggest names in professional gaming. What makes it good? The balance is beautiful. Each of the three races is different enough that they each have an individual feel, and have different play strategies, but similar enough that a solid balance is maintained between them. The gameplay is one thing, but the other thing that links it together is the story - it's no great work of fiction, but it is strong enough to hook you in and keep you playing and there are some nice twists and turns. The conceit of the campaign mode is great - you play 10 missions of one race, then switch sides and play 10 of the other, then switch again and play 10 of the final side, but the whole thing is one continuous narrative. It bundles along at quite a pace, and the constant side switching means you never stick with one race long enough to get bored and bogged down - you just master one aspect, then they introduce something new. They also mix it up a bit, some levels you won't do any base building, you'll just lead a squad through an enemy base, other levels you'll start with a few buildings, others you'll have to rescue your buildings from the enemy first. It all adds up to keeping things fresh, and keeping things moving. I've finished the main campaign, and I'm now a couple of missions into the add-on pack, Brood War. I don't know how long the add-on campaign is, but they continue the same structure as the main game with the main narrative being split into three racial mini campaigns, so I'm guessing there are maybe 15-20 missions to go. I'm thoroughly enjoying it, though, and looking forward to making my way through the rest of the game.

Settlers is not the same story. I got to the stage with Settlers 2 where I literally had a game running on my old computer for a whole day and I'd occasionally pop back to it to see how it was going and to make sure things were ticking over, and I still didn't finish the mission. I know some people love that kind of depth and pacing, and maybe I would if I was in the right mood and had a tonne more spare time to play, but that's just not the case so I gave up on Settlers 2 and moved on to Settlers 3. I picked it up in a charity shop years ago, and the great thing about it is that it still contains loads of scribbles and notes in the box from the previous owner. I love that kind of thing. That's the good part...the bad part is what else was in the box...the game itself. I'd read that even though we're now at Settlers 7, fans consider Settlers 2 to be the pinnacle of the series - in fact, the publishers actually acknowledged that and released a 10-year anniversary edition of Settlers 2 with spruced up graphics but the same core game because they knew they'd still be able to sell a load of copies to the hardcore fans. And I can see why they think so highly of 2. It's slow, sure, but it's deep and there's a classic design structure behind it. Let's look at one of the main differences: roads. In Settlers 2 (and 1) you have to build roads to connect each of your structures, and your little settlers travel along these roads - each one posted at a flag that he returns to once he delivers the goods he was carrying. Your unused settlers are all stored back at your main base, and they return there once their jobs - e.g. building, levelling, scouting - are complete. This gives a nice, ordered structure to your settlement. Sure, it enforces limits on your building, but they're designed limits that work with the game. In Settlers 3, they removed the roads. I can only imagine they thought that by doing this they'd remove all limitations and allow people to construct settlements however they want - more like an RTS, but in practice it's horrible. Instead of instantly being able to see the paths your settlers would take and plan around congestion and choke points to ensure smooth product transport, your settlers now just stand around on the map when they have nothing to do, and they just wander wherever they please when delivering goods. Builders and levellers also no longer return to your base when they're done, they just stand around next to the completed building adding to the screen congestion and confusion. It turned something that was elegant into a complete dog's dinner. They also hadn't done much to pick up the pace of the game, so needless to say, I didn't stick with it for long. To quickly compare the campaigns of Starcraft and Settlers - every mission is essentially the same in the Settlers. You start with nothing and have to build the same settlement from scratch every time; you're just doing the same actions over and over again. There might be a slightly different focus - some levels are more combat oriented, others are focused more on resource management, but they're basically the same. If they'd jumbled things around a bit and given you different start points and objectives on each level, I might have stuck at it for longer. As it is...meh. So, it's back to the Bard's Tale for me, and I have a feeling I might not stick with that for too much longer...

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