A Game of Thrones: Genesis
Developer: Cyanide Studios
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Price: $29.96 (buy here)
Release Date: September 29 2011
Game of Thrones : Genesis has to contend with two things:
1. The popularity and complexity of the source material
The universe of a Song of Ice and Fire is a long, highly complex fantasy series. Fans of the novels have invested a lot of hours over thousands of pages and bear a great love for the sprawling world that author George R R Martin has created. The fifth book has just been released after a five year gap, and the recent HBO TV show pulled off the impossible by both pleasing fans and attracting newcomers.
2. The quality of its competitors
The PC strategy genre has (amongst others) the juggernauts of Civilisation and Total War to contend with, both of which have earned their status in over a decade of releases. Much like the Game of Thrones universe, these games are complex, packed full of detail and demand a great investment of time.
What was I doing before writing this review? Reading book number five.
The first PC game I ever played? Civilisation.
Maybe that’s three. The same developers also have a Game of Thrones RPG in the works, so fingers crossed that things go well…
Genesis is an unusual RTS in that combat and war are very much on the back burner. Instead the emphasis is on diplomacy and ‘underhand actions’, with spies, assassins, rogues and envoys the main players in the game. Eight houses from the ASOIAF universe feature (Tully, Stark, Targaryen, Tyrell, Lannister, Arryn, Martell and Baratheon) , and gameplay is divided into two modes – Campaign and House vs. House.
The focus is on gaining allies in the form of towns, ruins, septs, and gold mines. Each structure gained will expand your territory and increase the gold you earn – allowing for more units to be built and enemies to be strategically forced out of their lands. More often than not force will not come into play; you may have a few mercenary units and some guardsmen at the gates, but your spies, envoys, assassins and noble ladies will be the units winning the game. It’s a bold change that strays from RTS convention and stays true to the spirit of the books.
Envoys can convince a town to switch allegiances, but the envoy could be a turncoat, or perhaps the town has a secret agreement with an enemy spy. Noble ladies can cement allegiances with blood ties so that spies have no power, but they in turn can be assassinated. But what if the assassin is a turncoat? Then it will appear that she is dead, but the alliance will still stand until you uncover the treachery with your spy.
It sounds complicated, and it is to begin with. It’s also very good at making you utterly paranoid, to the point that I had spies doing a rotating check on every unit and structure that I held just to make sure I wasn’t being duped -very Game of Thrones! I don’t know if the snail like pace of the units was another attempt at echoing the page heavy books, but boy it takes forever for units to move across a map.
Combat is nowhere near as interesting, and runs on a simple rock paper scissors mechanism. Knights will beat archers, archers will beat men at arms, etc. Manoeuvring large forces in some sort of formation is pretty difficult and more often than not I ended up just flinging a heap of units at the enemy, keeping the archers to the rear – job done. There is a little detail to it but combat is definitely of secondary importance – genre fans after an in depth battle system should look elsewhere.
The gameplay ideas are solid, but the way they are utilised in the Campaign and House Vs House modes (multiplayer/skirmish) splits the game in two.
The campaign runs through the history of Westeros, and aims to have players experience events oft mentioned in the books but never fully explored (Nymeria’s landing in Dorne, Aegon Targaryen conquering the Seven Kingdoms etc.). Sadly the Game of Throne’s veneer is pretty thin, reducing characters that are considered legend in the books to irritable instruction givers. To give you an idea of how the campaign will run, here’s a run down of one particular mission…
Aegon Targaryen has just landed in Westeros, charging me with taking over more territory in his name. There is a Tully held castle in his sights but before I can assault it I have to take one of the enemy towns nearby, ensuring that I don’t stretch Targaryen forces too thin – perfectly sensible.
Examining the towns with my spy tells me that both have blood alliances – a noble lady has been married into them, making my envoys and spies completely useless. Time for some assassination! I pick a town and make sure my spy is scoping the place out for enemy units that might see my assassin and arrest him – all clear. I keep the spy dashing back and forth between territories to make sure he remains stealthed, waiting patiently for the assassin who seems to be moving at half his usual pace for no obvious reason. Eventually he makes it into the town with a good twenty seconds left on his stealth meter, he sneaks up to the noble lady…and is promptly arrested by guards who shouldn’t have been able to see him. Instead of being carried off to the enemy castle (from which I could have ransomed his release) he is trapped in the town. Hm.
I ditch the subtlety and take over a different town by setting my big ass dragon on it. One quick spray of purple flame and I have myself ‘Town’. Yay! I’ve got it! Now I get to smash the castle with the army that I’ve been buil- wait, no, the AI does it. WHAT?
The campaign is essentially a lengthy, slow tutorial. On the odd occasion it enjoys making no sense and has a habit of taking the best battles out of your hands. It does open up a little towards the end, but in all honesty I was struggling to make myself play it. And guess what – YOU CAN’T SAVE IN LEVEL. That’s right, in the Game of Thrones you win, or you lose all level progress.
Thankfully there is House vs House mode, and it saves Genesis from being a complete failure. Players can pick from a handful of scenarios set in various different locations, with anything from two to eight AI or player controlled houses competing. I would say that they compete for the Iron Throne, but in reality winning the game just gets you a ridiculous victory screen made up of a sepia fat bloke with a sword. Considering what a visual icon the throne is for the series I was a bit confused by the complete lack of it in game.
Victory is instead gained by amassing 100 Prestige Points, which can be won and lost in a multitude of ways. My favourite way to lose points? Leave your Great Lord unmarried and he’ll start having bastards – pale and frightened looking little boys that if discovered subtract 10 Prestige Points from your total.
Unlike in the campaign players can gain access to every unit from the word go, and half the fun is in figuring out what you can do with all the units on offer. A bar at the top of the screen keeps track of the peace level, and when this runs out it’s time to put the envoy’s away and get ready for war. Scoring the game and splitting it in two do wonders for the gameplay, which is freed from boring missions and puts all of the game’s features in the players hands. The peace time diplomacy and espionage are still far more interesting than the combat though, and once again: you can’t save your game.
Audio & Visual:
This is where GOTG falls flat on it’s face. Graphically it looks about five years old, with rough textures, blocky environments and drab colours. Load times are ridiculously long and lag is a problem. However it’s the bugginess and lack of detail that really hammer that last nail into the presentation coffin.
Units can’t move through obvious gaps in forest, yet can occasionally be found walking through mountains. Wiping out a unit can confusingly leave half of them still on the field, and completing missions in the campaign mode doesn’t actually guarantee that you complete the mission – I had to replay a few levels because the game didn’t register that I had won. Enemy units can get stuck outside their town if you take it over whilst they’re approaching, and checkpoints sometimes decide to be just for show. SOMEONE PLEASE PATCH THIS GAME.
Oh, and occasionally, this happens…
In the course of your adventure you can conquer such well known places as ‘Town’, ‘Ruin’, ‘Town’, and ‘Town’. Unless you’re playing the campaign then the Great Lord from every house looks and sounds exactly the same – a disgruntled, bearded old man. Despite the fact that every house has its own visually unique seat (one plus point at least), no one could be bothered to name them.
Winterfell is ‘Feudal Home’, along with the Eyrie, Casterly Rock, and all the rest. What is so hard about naming these structures? There are even campaign missions where the mission brief tells you to capture Harrenhal, but it’s still called Feudal Home! Some of the tutorial and mission text evidently still needs to be proofread, with archers ‘loosing’ their advantage in close combat and the minimap ‘on the right’- that would be the left, dear developers.
The voice acting is at least passable and has the usual fantasy obsession with UK accents. It’s quite funny to note the units from Great Lord to Peasant working their way down the class ladder in an English to Scottish/Irish fashion.
I don’t know what it was that ran out on Genesis – time, money, interest – but the Game of Thrones universe, and indeed any RTS game worth it’s salt, needs to be more polished than this. Low end graphics are forgivable, the rest is not.
A muddled mish mash of good ideas and poor execution, Game of Thrones Genesis will be disappointing to fans of the series and of little consequence to fans of the genre. The diplomacy and espionage gameplay and House vs House mode redeem it somewhat, but ultimately the game in its current state is too buggy and too expensive. There’s no nice way of putting this – the Game of Thrones world is just too big for a small developer best known for Pro Cycling Manager.
If you must play it, wait for a patch and a price drop.