Review: A Game of Thrones: GenesisBy Kyle Mann | October 1, 2011 | Reviews | No comments | Share
You Win or You Die
Games based on books, shows, or movies are generally not very good as a rule, so it’s a rarity to find a licensed game that invests in depth over accessibility, gameplay over graphics, and fidelity to the source material over pandering to a mainstream audience. But thank the Mother, Cyanide has done it with A Game of Thrones: Genesis, the new real-time strategy based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. That’s not to say it’s a perfect game, but those looking for a unique, deep strategy game will find much to love in Genesis. I’ve already given my hands-on first impressions, but I’m confident enough in my playtime to give a final verdict.
Martin’s books are rooted in historical fiction every bit as much as they find inspiration from fantasy works. Plausible politics, feuding houses, underhanded treachery, and shunned bastards have more prominence in Westeros than the sparse fantastical elements. I’m happy to report all of the above aspects of the stories have made it into the game–yep, even the bastards. Games unfold slowly and methodically as the wheeling and dealings of the region’s noble families push the kingdom steadily towards the brink of war. It’s a testament to the skill of the development team that peacetime in Genesis is every bit as exciting as the battles, and most of the time moreso.
You’ll start off with a Feudal Home, the seat of your House and the headquarters for your operations. Deploying envoys to gain pledges of fealty from neighboring villages and castles will strengthen your region’s commerce and line your pockets. But that loyalty will be tested quickly as enemy envoys and spies slip into your lands and try to talk, bribe, or force their way into the hearts and minds of your subjects. Of course, these dastardly methods are also available to you.
I Told You Not to Trust Me
The sheer depth of the “underhanded” aspect of the game’s strategy is fairly staggering. Spies, rogues, assassins, turncoats, and more can be employed against your enemies. For every asset used against you, there are two or three ways to counter it. For instance, should an enemy deploy an envoy against one of your loyal towns, you can assassinate him with a cloaked henchman, you can bribe him to change sides with a rogue, or you can even capture him and hold him hostage for a nice, tidy sum. Spies act as secret agents, screening towns for any sort of mischief or disloyalty, or else playing the aggressor and reaching secret agreements with neighboring towns right under your enemy’s nose. A favorite tactic of mine is to infiltrate enemy strongholds with a spy, who will convert the next unit produced to your side covertly.
For all the emphasis on stealth and cloak-and-dagger tactics, the full-scale battles are a little underwhelming. It takes quite a while to get a substantial army built up, so by the time you reach that stage of the game someone’s usually near the required 100 prestige points to win the game. Battles are more standard RTS rock-paper-scissors affairs, in stark contrast to the entirely unique gameplay that makes up the rest of the game: units have strengths and weaknesses and tend to die when poorly matched. The battle animations aren’t very good, and battles devolve into swarming muddled messes, making it difficult to select and direct your units.
Vying for Power
There are two modes of singleplayer gameplay, a House vs. House skirmish mode and a story-driven campaign. The skirmishes can be played against up to seven AI-controlled bots on maps ranging from the entirety of Westeros to small bits of the continent, such as the Dornish region in the South or a section of the Neck. Perplexingly, the towns aren’t named after their A Song of Ice and Fire counterparts, but rather have generic names like “Town” or “Feudal Home”. It’s odd that the game has full use of Martin’s license, but doesn’t employ it in some cases. Ah well, we can always use our imagination, right?
The skirmishes are the best part of the game. They feel sandboxy and freeform, leaving you to your exploits to try to win the Iron Throne from your scheming opponents. They are a real blast once you get the hang of the game’s unconventional mechanics; you’ll surely find a few methods of treachery and expansion that will work for you. Really, that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game–trying different avenues of commanding and conquering, experimenting with the dozens of intricate and unique game mechanics Cyanide’s baked into Genesis.
The story-driven campaign isn’t quite as good. I still recommend it be played through, because it acts as a sort of tutorial for the real meat of the game, skirmishes and multiplayer. Following a common RTS trend, missions often focus on one or two different mechanics, locking out the more robust or challenging aspects of the game so you can get a handle on the current level’s pet mechanic. This makes the singleplayer tightly linear; though the game gives you a few choices in how the story progresses, it always seems to wind back to Martin’s storyline. For instance, early on, you can choose to align Nymeria’s people against House Martell, but your chosen ally will inevitably backstab you and send you packing back towards her canon choice in the novels.
Multiplayer has two modes, House vs. House and Ranked team-based matches. The House vs. House multiplayer is every bit as good as its singleplayer counterpart, though headache-inducing lag comes into play when on the bigger maps. That’s a real bummer, because the giant 8-player Westeros map is a real joy when the server’s full. The other downside to the competitive mode is the lack of an ability to pause; though it’s obvious why this couldn’t be implemented, it’s a crutch on which you’ll fall back often when playing alone, so it takes some adjustment to lose that function when playing against others.
In Life, the Monsters Win
I wish I could gush about this game all day, because it’s so compellingly unique in an age when cookie-cutter games–especially licensed games–are the norm. Yet, there are some hangups: graphics are serviceable at best. Animations are sometimes laughably bad, textures and models would have been par for the course five or six years ago, and there’s really nothing outstanding about the presentation at all. It’s dry and bland, and sometimes the generic graphics don’t help the game come across as an A Song of Ice and Fire property at all. Zoomed out, there are castles and mountains and soldiers and horses, and zoomed in the detail’s hardly any better. It just feels like a low budget game, in spite of the fun boardgame-like mechanics. It’s also worth noting that textures at the edge of the screen pop in and out once in a while, and turning settings to low caused me to experience odd flickering shadows. I hope Cyanide provides support for the game post-release to address some of these issues.
My other primary complaint is a function of the game’s laudable complexity: there is a distinct overload of mechanics. Spies and rogues and assassins are great fun to be sure, but one can’t help but wonder whether these could have been consolidated into just one or two units. The sheer volume of stuff to do and ways to kill and win will be simply overwhelming for many. You’ll be diving for the pause button every 30 seconds or so as you try to manage a sizable empire. I’m not dinging the game for its complexity; I love it for that. Yet I can’t help but feel that with more work and balancing, the game could have been streamlined and gained some needed focus.
Worthy of the Iron Throne
Don’t buy Genesis if you don’t like RTSs; don’t buy Genesis if you prefer simple and casual to deep and complex; above all, don’t buy Genesis just because of the A Game of Thrones logo emblazoned on the box–er, download page for the digitally minded. But if you’re in the market for something wildly different from the RTS norm, something unique and faithful to the spirit and backdrop of Martin’s works, A Game of Thrones: Genesis will find a permanent home on your hard drive.
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