Best. Games. Ever. – #3: Galactic Civilizations II

November 26, 2008

In an age where heavily marketed, graphics-intensive games have pressed their way to the forefront, Brad Wardell – president of Stardock – has adopted a dramatic, but effective, counter-strategy.

Rather than spending millions of dollars on the next big shooter, Stardock focuses on making solid strategy games that will run on just about any system that was created during the last 4-5 years. As a bonus, by eschewing the cash-poor demographic of teenage males and instead focusing on a more mature, sophisticated fan base, Stardock also manages to minimize problems with piracy of its games. In fact, Stardock is so confident in its strategy that Stardock games come with no copy protection!

Stardock’s grand achievement – without doubt – is the 2006 release of Galactic Civilizations II, a “spacesploitation” game in the grand tradition of Master of Orion. In this genre, players start out as fledgling planetary civilizations in a huge galaxy. Those who can then successfully implement the four x’s (x-plore the galaxy, x-pand to new planets, x-ploit the resources they encounter, and x-terminate their enemies) will win.

The genius of GCII is that, while it leaves open the possibility of winning through the fourth “x,” it also allows for a number of other paths to victory. My favorite is the path of cultural domination. Rather than going through war after messy war, this path allows me to simply win over the populations on enemy planets by impressing them with my superior culture.

Other paths to victory include economic and diplomatic strategies (Yes! You can actually win this game by making friends with other cultures, rather than eradicating them.)

Two more to go.


Best. Games. Ever. – #4: X-Com

November 24, 2008

…and speaking of games that successfully layer engaging strategic play with another genre, there is no title that has ever executed this formula better than X-Com.

Released in 1993 by Microprose, X-Com follows the plight of a special operations unit that is dedicated to stopping a gradual alien invasion of the Earth.

On a tactical level, X-Com is all about hunting down and capturing or killing various types of Aliens. After shooting down their craft, you are taken into a tactical simulation where you must carefully (and I do emphasize CAREFULLY here) search the area until you spot and take down anything that doesn’t look human.

This is not twitchy first person shooting or rapid-fire point and click real time strategy. X-Com rewards the patient use of squad tactics – and it is much more about catching the enemy by surprise than it is about deploying superior firepower.

I can’t tell you how many times I actually caught myself tensing up over little more than opening door that I had carefully and systematically “covered” with units over the course of the last 2-3 turns.

But the thing that makes X-Com shine over other turn based tactical simulations is its larger strategy arc. The WAY you complete your missions is critical. You need to capture aliens, acquire technology, and keep your units healthy, so that your support staff can research and engineer better technology for you and your aircraft. Successful play doesn’t just involve killing everything in sight. It involves a flexible, thoughtful plan that is designed to keep your units and their technology intact – and occasionally, even capture a living alien for further study.

Every few years, a developer will try to duplicate the experience of X-Com, but – in my book – no one has yet succeed.

Best. Games. Ever. – #5: Rocket Ranger

November 23, 2008

In 1988, I was making weekly calls to some of my favorite Amiga software vendors asking a single question: “Is Rocket Ranger out yet?”

RR was, at the time, the next anticipated release in a series of fantastic games from Cinemaware.

Cinemaware games were based on an innovative concept that – curiously enough – has never been successfully duplicated in the two decades that have followed: by using a larger “strategic” game to connect a series of smaller, arcade games (today, gamers would call them “mini games”), and by throwing in some creative visuals, writing, and music, the developers could replicate the feel and pace of a classic Hollywood film.

Defender of the Crown, the first Cinemaware game, is often revered as its hallmark release. But, in my mind, no game ever managed to implement the Cinemaware formula better than the Amiga version of RR.

I can’t fully explain the appeal. It may have been the cheesy retro sci-fi concept involving the use of secret rocket technology to defeat the evil Nazi plans for world domination. It may have been the surprisingly rich strategic game, which required balancing multiple resources while keeping the spread of Hitler’s menace under control.

Whatever it was, I spent many bleary-eyed nights trying to work my way through the game (which had no “save” feature) just so I could have ONE MORE shot at the impossibly difficult endgame arcade sequence. To this day, I don’t think I ever succeeded – which may explain why RR holds a mystique that other Cinemaware titles never quite managed.

[If you are curious about the look and feel of classic Cinemaware games, you can play Defender of the Crown here.]

Best. Games. Ever. – #6: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

November 18, 2008

Sharing the pinnacle of the adventure game experience with Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Co-written by Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, this 1984 release from Infocom is the oldest game in this list.

Hitchhiker’s Guide has no graphics. It includes no music. It is nothing more than text that scrolls across your computer screen, inviting you to occasionally offer keyboard input into what Arthur Dent, your character, might be doing in rather bizarre universe that he inhabits.

And it is hilarious. Meretzky, already a seasoned veteran of text adventures, collaborated with the comedic genius of the (now) late Douglas Adams to create an experience that made me laugh out loud almost every time I booted it up. I don’t think I’ve ever played a computer game as genuinely funny as this one.

Want to give this game a spin? You still can play it, in its entirety, here.

Best. Games. Ever. – #7: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

November 14, 2008

During the 80s and early 90s, the big names in adventure games were Sierra, Infocom, and Lucasarts. At the pinnacle of the adventure game experience, for me, lies Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.  Fate is another game released, interestingly enough, during 1992.

Fate represented everything that was great about the Lucasarts SCUMM adventure engine (point and click actions and dialog and easy inventory management), and combined it with the classic Indy franchise into an amazing game.

Every screen was a work of beauty (particularly Atlantis itself). Every note – adapted from John Williams’ famous score – was perfectly suited for its scene. Every line was filled with the style of wit and humor that made Hal Barwood games a delight to play. The voice acting in the 1993 re-release was spot-on.

To this day, I love to load this one up from time to time just for the quick trip down memory lane.

Adventure games are making a bit of a comeback these days. I’ve had a lot of fun playing the Sam and Max series on Gametap. But, in my mind, no game has yet to exceed the sheer artistic beauty of Fate.

Runner up in the adventure game category – Gabriel Knight II: The Beast Within. Its been over ten years since that game was made, and I have yet to find a game that utilizes live action video as well as this one.

Best. Games. Ever. – #8: Rise of Nations

November 13, 2008

Rise of Nations may have the most tragic history of any of the games in my list. Released in 2003 to critical acclaim, RoN had everything I had ever wanted in a real time strategy game: a deep economic model, a large tech tree, and a sense that you were making your own world history over the course of an hour or so.

Unfortunately, RoN never seemed to catch on quite enough to transform it into a perennial franchise on the level of games like Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, or Warcraft. And Big Huges Games, maker of RoN, has now been bought out and transformed into a developer for computer role playing games.

I will miss the chance to play RoN II, but – if the RPG that is in the works at BHG is as innovative as RoN – it will be well worth playing.

My preferred tactic in real-time strategy games is economic guerilla warfare. I like to strike at my opponent early in the game, not at the heart of their civilization, but on the fringes where – normally – vital resource gathering is taking place. Once the opposing economy is slowed, it becomes much easier to boom your own economy and then strike with overwhelmingly superior force.

I had more fun doing that in RoN than in any other game. And – for you Blizzard fans out there – yes, that includes Starcraft.

Best. Games. Ever. – #9: Heroes of Might and Magic Series

November 11, 2008

In the mid-nineties, I bought Heroes of Might and Magic II on a whim. I had heard a lot of good things about the original, and I thought I’d give it a try.

At the time, Levi – who was a very clean-cut six year-old boy – had an underpowered PC in his bedroom that was crudely networked to my own through a hole in the wall between our rooms.

We started playing.

I always went for the good guy fantasy faction. I would amass forces comprised of knights and archers and pikemen and the like. Levi chose – for some reason – the horror faction. His armies would be composed of cartoonish zombies, vampires, ghouls, etc. I never really put much thought into why he made this choice, or even what he was choosing, from an aesthetic standpoint.

I have a very distinct memory of one night – while I was still trying to build up my economy and army – seeing Levi’s own forces moving in to attack before I was ready. At once I thought: “Oh, no! Here comes Levi and his army of the undead!”

I instantly died laughing at the irony of this tiny little boy commanding a virtual army of evil!

Various incarnations of this series have continued to keep me busy for over a decade, now. HOMM is the perfect quick fix when I’m looking for a turn-based strategy experience, but I don’t want to invest hours upon hours’ of play time to finish a game.