Forging At Life

Out of the blue came GeneForge 4, another excellent independent gaming product of Spiderweb Software, which kept me up late Saturday and ate up much of my Sunday. Here’s a gem worth talking about.

Spiderweb Software’s RPGs have a few things in common.

  1. They’re tile-based, played from a top-down or isometric perspective.
  2. They feature turn-based combat on a good old school RPG mechanic.
  3. They’re open-ended, allowing players to explore a large world.
  4. They’ve also an interesting story. Exile (and I believe Avernum) take place in an underground world where prisoners (including yourself) are exiled. Geneforge involves a world where the very stuff of life is magically tinkered with to create biological tools and beings. In either series, you’re a rebel who can decide who to side with over the course of the game, resulting in multiple endings.
  5. There’s both PC and Macintosh versions available (I suspect they’re developed on Macs).
  6. Finally, they’re all shareware games that let you play a good part of the beginning of the game and then register to unlock the rest.

Through an interesting story and unique RPG strategy elements, Geneforge 4 emerges as a “a role-playing game“, as opposed to “a grind that emulates a game”. The registered version has 80 zones, each telling a story that makes up a part of the big story. It’s not linear, and traveling back to old zones is the only way to overcome certain challenges.

Overall, the gaming world is a better place through the existence of Spiderweb Software. I heartily recommend downloading a trial version of one of their games.

A Broken Obsession (Space Empires V)

I’ve still been wasting far too much time playing the demo of Space Empires V, a sorely broken game with what feels like great potential. My latest bout has me hacking the demo files to implement some of Captain Kwok’s fixes. The developers astutely prevented me from doing most of this, but not the AI files. I noticed improvement in terms of diplomatic interactions and AI ship designs, but the good Captain has much to do before SEV’s AI would be what I’d call remotely challenging.

While Space Empire V has its issues, the robust combat engine is capable of supporting hundreds of custom-designed units, leading to a truly satisfying strategy game experience.

To be fair, Space Empire’s AI is being put under a severe test. First, I’m no stranger to space empire games. For example, I know that the initial land grab is vital, and so if the AI lets up even a little here I’ll end up ruling it for the rest of the game. Second, I’m playing with a somewhat hosed balance. Foremost of them being perhaps in the space fighter units, whose maintenance and production costs are tiny but their capacity to harm without being harmed in return tremendous.

There may be better space empire games to play, but it’s the mixture of tactics and ship design which keeps me coming back to Space Empires V long after I should have fled screaming. I have been putting some consideration into developing a module with a much more functional and interesting balance. However, I’ll not be able to develop a mod in the demo version of Space Empires V, and I don’t think I’ll be buying it in the face of major problems like a lackluster AI.

A Story of Strategy

My ancient race of lazy energy beings, the Procrastini, were interrupted from their colonization program by their first encounter with alien life: the Amon’krie. No sooner than our communication channels were established did these slimy lizards begin to initiate intelligence attacks against my empire. Against this onslaught of espionage we were largely defenseless thanks to our previous complete focus towards rapid colonization.

Insulted and infused with an irrational desire to vengeance, I struggled to maintain a cool head in dealing with these villains. Arrogantly, the Amon’krie beasts ignored my repeated diplomatic treaties and other demands to cease their spying. I grew tired of these insults, and gave my diplomats instructions that set in motion the transformation of the cold war into a hot one. Procrastini factories ceased producing peaceful colony ships are started producing deadly fighters and carriers. I would confront these beasts and force them to yield!

As the war begun, I noticed something amiss: The Amon’krie ships I encountered were grotesquely mishapped things, imbued with strong armor but armed with weak magnetic rail cannons whose aim was directed by ancient computers. I discovered that merely a dozen of my state-of-the-art fighters could render their entire “fleet” to ash. The mighty Amon’krie empire was a lamb in wolf’s clothing, still unsteady on its feet from inexperience. The Amon’krie retained their diplomatic arrogance even as their homeworld fell under my control, but to me their words were now a feeble bleating at the pack of wolves surrounding them. I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of guilt at how easy it had been to break the back of this fledging space empire.

If this story had a moral, it was this: Space Empires V has a sucky AI. I stayed up 2am to face what appeared to be a shrewd computer opponent, only to discover a defenseless moron. Where I was once excited, I now regretted not having gone to bed on time. What a tease that was! Space Empires V is so damn close to strategy gaming ecstasy, and yet, so very far thanks to problems like this.

Malfador Mechanations has been introducing a patch about once every month, but it will be awhile until they get around to generating a challenging AI, if ever. Space Empires V does feature excellent mod support – just modify some text files and you’re good to go. To these ends, Captain Kwok has created a balance mod. Unfortunately, I can’t try out the mods with the demo version.

Ah well, at least there was the Supreme Commander demo, which can put up a pretty decent fight on “Hard” mode… Time and space ruptured briefly as my battle hardened giant cyborg of a Commander unit appeared on the surface of the hostile enemy planet…