The Things I Do For Love
When you really love a work of literature it is only natural to feel a little conflicted when you hear it is being adapted into a videogame. On the one hand, you know licensed games rarely turn out great, but on the other hand, hope springs eternal. As such, I was both worried and hopeful when Cyanide Studios announced that it had acquired the videogame rights to George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (better known as “Game of Thrones” for the HBO television show, and the name of the first book). Between then and now, info, screenshots and videos of a Cyanide-developed Game of Thrones RTS game leaked out slowly and, frankly, didn’t look great. Still, when the game was finally released on Steam this week, I held out hope and booted it up with an open mind.
What I got, after playing through the entire single player campaign, as well as a few skirmish and multiplayer maps, is a game that, while not great, and perhaps not even good in a certain context, is still very interesting. A Game of Thrones: Genesis is both a unique and a deeply flawed experience that caters to George R.R. Martin fans, while making significant choices that serve to alienate them.
Winter Is Coming
For those of you not in the know, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is a series of low-fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. The first book, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996, and Martin has since written four sequels. The most recent, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011, after a six year hiatus (fans complained bitterly about the delay). Two more books are planned in the series.
The series was remarkable due to Martin’s unique take on a fantasy setting, his emphasis on realistic political intrigue, and his well-written and well developed characters. I called it “low-fantasy” as opposed to high-fantasy because A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t focus on the more common Tolkein’esque fantasy tropes. You won’t see dwarves, goblins, fairies, etc. What fantastical elements there are, for instance dragons and tree-folk (elves, more or less), are ostensibly dead and gone from the world that Martin has created. By and large, the series focuses on people struggling against other people, with the odd snow-zombie thrown in the mix to liven (deaden?) things up.
Popular interest in the series absolutely exploded this year when HBO aired the first season of its fantastic adaptation, named “A Game of Thrones.” The first season mostly covered the events of the first book and quickly became one of the best and most popular shows on television. If you are one of the few people left in the world who has not seen it yet, I highly recommend that you stop wasting your time reading videogame reviews and go watch it now.
So, with all this love surrounding the series, it was only natural to be anxious about the 2009 announcement by Cyanide Studios that it had acquired the videogame rights to the series and was developing a Game of Thrones RTS.
For context, Cyanide Studios is a French developer, primarily based out of Paris, with a small sub-studio based in Montreal. Cyanide is best known for making the Pro Cycling Manager series, as well as the recent Blood Bowl game. In other words, they are an independent European niche developer without any AAA RTS experience under their belts. How on earth were they going to make a game that both does the series justice, while still being playable and fun?
When You Play The Game Of Thrones, You Win Or You Die.
A Game of Thrones: Genesis is not a typical PC RTS. In fact, it’s actually two games. The first of which, which I will refer to as the “core game,” encompasses the multiplayer and skirmish modes, and has some features that carry over into the second game, the single player campaign. In both modes there is no base building, nor is there much resource management.
In many ways, the core game plays and feels like a European board game. Play is divided up between two phases, peace and war, the objective of both being to capture as many structures as they can, muscling out their opposition, albeit through different methods as dictated through the phase. During the initial peace phase, the player starts in a keep, and through diplomatic and underhanded means attempts to gain the allegiance of as many towns, goldmines and lesser castles as possible. The player accomplishes this task by sending envoys, dispatching a noble ladies to create blood alliances, and creating a secret pacts by sending spies. For every town you create an alliance with, a merchant will travel back and forth, earning you gold.
Of course, there is much more to the game than that. You are competing with one or more other players, all of whom are attempting to gain allies, and who will attempt to undermine your own alliances. They can do this by sending their own envoys into your towns to convince them to switch sides, by creating their own secret alliances, by bribing your own units, seducing them to their side, killing them and taking their place via a disguise, or straight up assassinating them. This only touches on the great number of options players have at their disposal, all of which have their weaknesses and strengths, and all of which may be countered by the savvy opponent. Again, this feels very much like a board game, and a good one at that.
The core game can be won by either gaining enough prestige points by satisfying certain goals (such as having the most alliances, getting the church on your side, etc), or by eliminating your opponents in the military phase. You see, if you do not gain enough prestige to win during the peace phase, you will almost certainly end up in the war phase. Once war has been declared, the game changes. All of those diplomatic units are not quite so useful, and towns can only change allegiance if you lay siege to them. As such, you will raise armies, using food as a resource instead of gold, and attempt to wipe out your enemies using more direct means.
So, the game is generally quite complicated. Unfortunately, the tutorial does not do a great job of explaining all the different systems and how they work. The game really relies on the player to figure things out for themselves, or to read through the ponderous in-game encyclopedia.
As I mentioned before, A Game of Thrones: Genesis is really two games. The second game is the single player campaign, which is similar to the core game but very different in some very significant ways. Rather than tasking the player with winning the Iron Throne via military or diplomatic conquest, the single player campaign puts the player in the shoes of various historical figures in the Westeros universe, and has them play through specifically crafted missions, more similar to other traditional RTS games. Unfortunately, the single player campaign does not utilize major parts of the core game, such as upgrades, prestige points, or the peace/war system. It is very much a dumbed down experience compared to the full core game.
In either case, there are some overarching problems when it comes to the gameplay. First and absolutely foremost, the unit speed is far too slow. I cannot stress this enough.
It. Takes. Forever. For. Units. To. Cross. The. Map.
Second, the interface does not allow for simple management of selected units. All of the units, selected or otherwise, are displayed on the far left hand side, and managing them can become a chore. Third, and this is a strange one, you cannot access the options menu from inside the game. You have to exit out of a level and go back to the main menu to do so. This just reeks of poor design and very little thought to user accessibility.
Finally, the combat itself is incredibly simplistic. Remember RTS gaming in the 1990’s? Remember the rock-paper-scissors gameplay of Age of Empires? That’s what you have here, just nowhere near as deep. Bowmen beat swordmen, horsemen beat bowmen, pikemen beat horsemen, etc. More often than not, however, just having a good collection of different kinds of units and throwing them en-masse at your opposition will result in victory. Micromanagement and good troop positioning is nearly impossible, and frankly not all that helpful. All of the game’s deep strategy really melts away once battle is joined. This is compounded by the fact that the single player campaign’s AI is staggeringly easy, allowing most players to waltz through normal mode in a full straight shot.
As a side note, I have seen some folks on forums comparing this game, somewhat hopefully, to the total war series. Nothing could be further from the truth. A Game of Thrones: Genesis has none of the strategic combat from Total War, nor does it attempt to replicate large battles like the Total War series. Units are small in number, similar, again, to those you would have seen in an Age of Empires game. Combat also all takes place on the same map. Finally, there are no turn based element to Genesis. Everything plays out in real time.
Words Are Wind
So, the core game is deeper, more complex, and much more like a board game than the single player campaign. The core game is also almost entirely devoid of anything that makes A Game of Thrones identifiable or interesting. Sure, you can play as the major houses, and some of the names and places will seem familiar on the core game’s maps, but you are mostly getting a one-shot experience that could just as easily be attached to any other fantasy or medieval fiction. To put it another way, the core game does not really have much to do with A Song of Ice and Fire.
The single player campaign is an entirely different animal. This is where the developers get to present Martin’s story and where they really attempt to tie it in to gameplay.
The campaign, clocking in at around 6-7 hours (generously) is a basic, straightforward retelling of the history of Westeros, the continent on which Martin’s series takes place. If you have read the books, you may be pleased to know that the campaign covers events ranging from the landing of Nymeria and the Rhoynar, to Aegon’s conquest, the Dance of the Dragons, the Conquest of Dorne, the War of the Usurper and finally the War of the Five Kings (which is where the books take place). There is even a bit at the end that takes place at the Wall, but it isn’t nearly as exciting as you would hope.
This all sounds great, but it’s actually quite problematic. You see, if you are not a fan of the books, the game does not do a great job of explaining who all of the characters are, why they are significant, and why you should care about any of them. Context is king, and the king is dead.
If you are a fan, the game does an equally poor job of presenting the good bits of the story. The developers, strangely, chose to have players play relatively minor, or entirely made up battles instead of actually recreating battles discussed in the books. For instance, fans will be disappointed to hear that they will not get to play the Battle of the Trident, nor will they get to see the Battle of the Blackwater. That’s right, no digital Dinklage for you. In the same vein, don’t expect to see iconic locations such as The Twins, Casterly Rock, Kings Landing or the Eyrie in the campaign either. Winterfell does make an appearance, but only for a minute or two.
This really leads to a bigger problem with the single player campaign: the game tells its story in a dull and lifeless fashion. It almost feels like reading a textbook on the history of Westeros. The writing exhibits none of the joy, humor or subtlety that Martin is famous for. Likewise, the characters are generic and broadly painted. A fan of Martin’s work may be excited, for instance, to play as Nymeria, but they will be disappointed to see just how dully she is presented.
The game also glosses over huge portions of the story in order to move the players along to the next era. This makes sense, to a degree. After all, we are talking about over 700 years of fake history, and the game can only be so long, but the way in which this is accomplished eliminates the entire context that could make this kind of prequel retelling great. Instead, what you end up with is a story with familiar proper nouns, but which is otherwise terribly generic.
So again, you may get to play as Aegon the Conqueror, you may get to conquer Dorne, and you may get to commit banditry against Lannister troops as the Lightning Lord, but you will almost certainly not care, and that’s a shame. The single player campaign’s story is really just a shell, surrounding a dumbed down version of the actual core game.
Is There Any Creature On Earth As Unfortunate As An Ugly Game?
Unfortunately, much like the storytelling, the graphics are serviceable but dull. Even on the highest settings, the game looks entirely unremarkable and even, at times, ugly. Environments are dull and washed out, towns and castles all seem generic, and units look so similar as to be indistinguishable at times.
The game’s camera does not do it any favors. It is unable to zoom in close enough to units to actually see them in any good detail, and zooming out makes everything so obscure that it becomes extra-difficult to manage units.
The voiceovers are generally serviceable, but can border on the painful. One or two, in particular, are downright terrible. I am looking at you, Thoros of Myr. Amusingly, some of the generic voices sound very much like Richard Ayoade’s D&D voice from The I.T. Crowd’s “Jen the Fredo” episode. The music, while not stunning, is inoffensive.
Finally, as a broader point, the world that Martin created was so colorful and varied. Locations described in the book are grand and distinct. Cyanide’s game makes all of these (at least the ones they decided to put in at all) fairly generic and drab. It’s pretty clear they were outclassed, and took on more than they could deliver.
There Will Be Pain
Unfortunately, in addition to poor storytelling and ugly graphics, the game is buggy as well. At least in the 1.1 build currently on Steam, I experienced several significant bugs, including huge graphical glitches causing flashing on my map, invisible units (that weren’t supposed to be invisible), as well as mission glitches forcing me to reload, and even replay entire missions multiple times. On one memorable occasion, I actually beat a mission, complete with a victory dialogue box, and then was put right back into the same mission upon hitting “continue.”
Other players have complained about their maps turning entirely black, or the game crashing. I didn’t experience either of these bugs, but I imagine that they must be fairly common, as I have heard about them in multiple places. All of this, hopefully, will be addressed in future patches, but for now, buyers should beware that the game has some issues.
Ultimately, despite the replays, I was able to get through the entire campaign.
So what does all of this come down to? I realize this review is pretty negative, but what I really want to communicate here is that the game does succeed as a unique take on the RTS genre, but it fails as a single player Song of Ice and Fire experience. Cyanide has made a very interesting RTS game here, full of good and new ideas. The problem that I have with this, and the problem that I expect many Martin fans will have, is that the game is a much better generic RTS than it is a Game of Thrones game. In a lot of ways, it almost feels like the core mechanics were retrofitted onto the Game of Thrones world and characters after the fact. The gameplay, while interesting and deep, does not do the world or the characters justice, particularly in the lackluster single player campaign. Moreover, the storytelling, perhaps the most important part of a game based on this kind of property, is dull and boring.
Ultimately, the real audience for the game will be those who want to experience its unique take on the RTS mechanics, and frankly that part of the game is interesting enough, and fun enough, that it should be experienced. Fans of German board games may find a lot to love with A Game of Thrones: Genesis’ skirmish and multiplayer modes.
For those of you looking for a good Game of Thrones experience, however, look elsewhere.
Cyanide’s A Game of Thrones: Genesis, is not a bad game, it just isn’t the game that Martin’s fans want or deserve. Maybe it will take a bigger, better funded, and more experienced studio to give us that game (Bethesda was interested once upon a time), or maybe that game is never meant to be, but this certainly isn’t it. As a curiosity, it may be worth your time, especially as Genesis goes down in price.