A Game of Thrones: Genesis

bastun_ie provides the following review of the Game of Thrones RTS game from Cyanide Studios.

After playing through the full single-player campaign of A Game of Thrones: Genesis, followed by five victories in 8-”player” House-vs-House games, and even managing one 2-player game, I think I know the game well enough now to write an in-depth review.

For those not familiar with it (more on that particular bugbear later!), AGOT:Genesis is a Real Times Strategy (RTS) single- and multiplayer game, from Cyanide Studios, based on George RR Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series of bestselling fantasy novels.

Disclaimers: 1) I’m a huge GRRM fan. 2) I’m not a RTS fan, having only played two of them before.

So, what does AGOT:Genesis offer? On the face of it, the chance to play as one of the Great Houses of Westeros, in a recreation of the ‘current’ events of the ASOIAF series, and also in some notable events of the fantasy series’ history.

Unfortunately, it’s a flawed implementation. Most of the problems can be laid at the door of Cyanide, while some, it must be said, are down to GRRM himself.

The basics of every RTS are there - gather resources in order to build units, which you use to control nodes. Holding nodes will eventually bring you victory as you accumulate Prestige. Other players (or the AI) are trying to do the same and eventually you will come into conflict. So far, so familiar.

Prestige can be earned by being the player with the most alliances, by having the highest income, by causing the most victims or underhand actions, and by controlling a sept (church). Bonus prestige can be earned by completing a challenge - some of these are easy, some impossible. And prestige can be lost by one of your alliances being revealed as having being betrayed by a spy, and, in theory, by having one of your Great Lord’s bastards revealed.

An interesting twist is that the (full) game is divided into two segments - peacetime, and war. During peacetime, the emphasis is on diplomatic and underhand actions. Your Great Lord (and possibly his heir) can offer pacts to other Great Houses. You use your Envoy units to make alliances with Towns, Castles, Ruins and Septs, all of which increase your resources (gold), and possibly Prestige. Your Spy units can also make secret agreements with towns and castles. Your Noble Ladies can, by marriage, turn an ordinary alliance into a stronger Blood Alliance.

A wrinkle here is that your units can be brought over to work for the enemy (and you can do the same to them) - so your Spy also doubles as an investigator, making sure your units and alliances are genuine. Even though it’s “peacetime”, units can still be attacked by mercenaries or assassins.

When enough violence has occurred, or when someone openly lays siege to a Town or Castle, war is declared. Secret alliances become revealed, envoys can no longer make further alliances, and, well, hopefully by now you’ve got armies recruited in addition to your mercenaries! If so, then you can now lay siege to opposing castles and towns, winning them to your side.

That all sounds fun - so where are the problems? Let’s look at the single-player Campaign Game first.

This starts off as an extended tutorial, bringing you through several scenarios per chapter, introducing different units and tactics, and with different victory conditions. Each chapter is from a different time period in the history of Westeros. The problem here is that the campaign game was very obviously rushed. The opening two chapters (which cover Nymeria’s arrival and the later Targaryen invasion) each merit five scenarios. And it is quite satisfying to fry an army or, indeed, Harrenhall, with the dragon unit! However, later chapters, potentially more interesting and certainly more familiar, get only one or two scenarios each. And the choices of what to cover in some of these are, frankly, astonishing.

For example, the chapter covering Robert Baratheon’s rebellion gives us only two short scenarios. Worse, the period actually covered in most detail in the books, the War of Five Kings, also only merits two scenarios - neither of which involve battles between the Great Houses. In one, you get to be Beric Dondarrion, leading some units in preventing Lannister caravans from reaching a castle. In the second, you get to be Thoros of Myr (in the VO, pronounced “Mire”), who most now lead units to free the captured Dondarrion... (the Lannisters have kindly left their captive sitting on a horse outside their castle, but he still won’t move when you reach him - instead, you have to hunt down one of the Lannister units you’ve inevitably missed on the poorly designed map). In the final chapter, The Wall, you don’t get a battle at the Fist of Men, instead leading some Night’s Watch units to find a missing patrol in one scenario, and in the second leading Stannis Baratheon’s army to crush the Wildlings, who although possessing Giant and Mammoth units, are no match for massed ranks of bowmen.

So much for the single-player campaign. The other option is single- or multi-player House vs. House games, which instead of having victory conditions particular to the campaign scenarios, use the full Prestige victory conditions outlined above. Earning 100 prestige brings victory (meaning quite often a House can win without war having being declared). Cyanide are responding to complaints about this with a patch that will allow the required prestige for victory to be chosen by the players, greatly increasing the chance of war and making for a longer game.

It’s in the House vs House game that the real problems emerge. They are, in no particular order:

1. The Houses available are Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Tully, Targaryen, Martell, Arryn, and Tyrell. Yup, no House Greyjoy, despite being responsible for a rebellion and having Balon taking part in the War of Five Kings. Yes, they’d start on islands, but as units can board ships to travel between Dorne and near Storm’s End, it’s not a programming problem. House Frey is also omitted, despite also being a major player in the War of Five Kings.

2. The map you choose to play on decides what Houses will take part. So if you really want to play as the Starks, you’re limited to three maps. As there is only one 8-House map (all of Westeros from Dorne to south of the Wall), the Targaryens will always be participants - so you can’t play on the full map to play out the War of Five Kings.

3. The map lacks names. Sure, most of the Houses’ feudal homes are in the right places or thereabouts, and are recognisable, but all of the other towns, castles, ruins and septs are nameless. This really takes away from the flavour of the game. A patch will apparently add some placenames onto some of the maps. But it’d be really nice to able to fight to liberate Maidenpool or Harrenhall, for example, rather than “that place half way over from the coast”.

4. The graphics. They’re under-par for 2011, which isn’t a major problem for this type of game - the exception being it can often be difficult to tell units apart from the banners they carry.

5. Talking of flavour - no individual units are named. The Great Lord of House Stark is - “Great Lord”. As is the head of the Lannisters. And every other house. And bar the colour of their clothes, they’re identical. (Many individual units in the campaign game do get named). Similarly the voiceovers are also identical for each House. This one is, apparently, GRRM’s fault; fanfic-hating George didn’t want players to be able to “kill” named characters. The unfortunate consequence of this is that noone is named, and a large amount of flavour is lost. On the forums, players have suggested random or “House-traditional” names or at least the ability to manually edit names, but no positive response from Cyanide.

6. The feudal homes of the Great Houses are totally immune to attack. While you can infiltrate a spy into one (replacing the next envoy, commander or assasin created there with one of your own), that’s it. You can use your armies to destroy a House’s units and take control of every single town, castle and sept it controls, but you can’t lay siege to the feudal home; its Great Lord can just sit inside, safe.

7. Some of the mechanics sound interesting, but were never thought through, and will therefore never see the light of day in the game. For example, bastards. If your Great Lord doesn’t marry soon enough, then a “Bastard” unit will appear. (Marriage didn’t seem to stop Robert Baratheon from a long and successful career of fathering bastards, but that’s beside the point). The Bastard unit can be “legitimised” by spending gold, but if you don’t legitimise it and it’s discovered in the meantime by another house, then you will lose 10 prestige. But a legitimised bastard becomes a potential heir, acting as insurance in case your Great Lord is killed. (A dead and heirless Great Lord is an automatic loss). As I said, possibly an interesting mechanic.

The problem is there is no reason whatsoever not to have your Great Lord marry within the first 2 minutes of the game. The benefits are that that early, moving the lord to a town or castle is safe, as there won’t be any enemy combat units. By marrying, your first Noble Lady is created, and you gain access to that type of unit. Noble Ladies can marry in towns and castles to create blood alliances (stronger than normal ones, therefore decaying more slowly, and also preventing the town or castle from being undermined by a spy’s secret alliance). Noble ladies can also seduce enemy units over to your side. Your first noble lady, created when the Great Lord marries, immediately gets pregnant and produces an Heir. An heir, like a Great Lord, can a) propose Non-aggression or Mutual-benefit pacts to other great houses, and b) if in a town or castle, can serve as a ‘build point’ for your new units.

So - with all of the benefits deriving from marriage, there is no logical reason for a bastard ever to appear in the game. And in 5 8-House games, I’ve not seen one.

8. Great Lords and Heirs are pretty much invulnerable. They can’t be attacked within the Feudal Home, and are completely immune to attack when travelling to or from another house’s feudal home with an offer of an alliance. Theoretically, you might catch a Great Lord sitting outside his home if he arrives back from making such an offer and his player forgets to move him inside; or at the start of the game, you could forget about creating envoys (and therefore alliances) and instead make an assassin as soon as possible, then hope to guess the correct town or castle where an enemy great lord is heading to for a wedding. The chances of pulling it off are slim, though. The whole ‘succession’ mechanic is therefore unused. Again, in 5 8-House games, I’ve not seen one.

9. Many (most?) successful RTS games allow customisation, through map and full game editors. Players can create skins and mods, which add huge variety and longevity to games. AGOT:Genesis would hugely benefit from this, as players really want to play the War of Five Kings. An editor could possibly allow the addition of Houses Greyjoy and Frey and subtraction of Targaryen and Arryn, and enable a true-to-the-books war - but Cyanide have ruled this out.

10. You can’t save the game. Understandable in multiplayer. Less so in multiplayer games reserved for friends (which the online game lobby allows for). Not understandable at all in single-player. Yes, you can pause in single-player, which is something, but that’s it.

11. I mentioned the lack of publicity before. I first heard of the game when its development was announced on George’s Not-a-blog. Despite being a gamer, with lots of gamer friends who are also into ASOIAF, the next time I heard of the game was again on Not-a-blog, with George announcing the imminent release. No public beta. No demo version available. No time-limited Steam trial available. No publicity. Instead, Cyanide/Focus Home Interactive marketing departments just seemed to believe that because of the success of the books and the HBO Game of Thrones TV series, people would buy the game in their millions. Didn’t happen.

12. Multiplayer - problem the first. See #10. Far too few players. The multiplayer game is accessed via Steam. Usually, when I’ve been online at peak times, with apparently over 2.6 million players logged on to Steam, the AGOT:Genesis multiplayer lobbies have been empty. Not one other person looking for a game. Possibly this is because people are still playing through the single-player campaign - but I doubt it. I’ve managed to get an entire two two-player games going. And one of those crashed. On a few other occasions, I’ve found people waiting for a game, only to... well, see #12.

13. Multiplayer - problem the second. Google “Port 16962 error”. The top results all relate to Cyanide’s other well known game, Bloodbowl Online, and its infamous multiplayer connection problems. So Cyanide decided to use exactly the same protocol for AGOT:Genesis. Grr. Cyanide insist it’s not a bug or problem, all that you need to do is forward your ports. Which doesn’t explain how many, many people get the error having done just that. (In my case, my “fix” for when I get the error in Bloodbowl is to reboot PC and router, which will allow me to connect - no port forwarding involved).

So - would I recommend the game?

In short - no, not at its present price. You’re getting a rushed, flawed implementation of an RTS game, which, while it has some interesting game mechanics ideas, lacks any real flavour of Westeros. Worth a punt if you like RTS games, when it drops to budget price sooner rather than later.

However, if Cyanide actually listen to the players on their forums, persuade George to let them name (or let us edit or name) the lords and heirs, add promised placenames, allow for capture of or surrender from feudal homes, and most importantly, release map and game editors - then yes, it’d be worth buying.

When GRRM announced that Cyanide were developing the RTS, he also mentioned that they working on an RPG. Again, there’s been no news or publicity since, with one exception - an announcement that Cyanide had acquired the IP rights from HBO, so we’ll get characters who look (and hopefully sound) like their HBO counterparts. With a bit of luck, the CRPG will be better implemented and have good plot and characterisation. I’ve been playing Bioware CRPGs recently, though, so Cyanide really have a lot to live up to...

Posted by Drew Shiel at November 25, 2011 1:40 PM

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