Friday, 22 July 2016

Review: Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence (PS4)

Disclaimer: I don’t play many strategy games. Discounting tactical games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, smaller scale games like Civilisation Revolution and the like, this is the first strategy game I’ve played since Civilisation II, in 1999.

Nobunaga’s Ambition is a strategy game set in the Warring States period of Japanese history (16th and early 17th century). I know a smidgen about this because I played Kessen III (set in precisely the same period) for the PS2 some time ago. Historical knowledge is not necessary as the gist is: there’s a massive war in Japan. Pick a clan and kick the stuffing out of your enemies.

Initially the vast array of menus can seem bewildering, or did to me. However, once you get used to how things work, which doesn’t take long, most commands are obvious and it’s usually not hard to work out the slightly more finickity ones.

It’s a mix of turn-based and real-time strategy which dovetails very nicely. Turns happen each month, and during this phase you set policy for each city (or can delegate it, which, after the initial part of the game, makes sense), negotiate with other clans to try and get them on-side, conduct trade, give gifts to officers, improve roads and bolster defences. In addition, you can plan military attacks, although this can also be done in the real-time phase.

Battles can either just be left for the computer to resolve or you handle them yourself. In addition, there are ordinary battles and mass battles. The latter involve very large numbers of troops and are won or lost when one commanding general’s unit is destroyed (so they can present an opportunity for an inferior force to defeat a larger one), which also eliminates all other units on that side. The battles are fairly simple, with numbers being the single largest determining factor. However, officers do have skills (bolstering defence, increasing speed, etc) which can change things and commanding officers’ stats improve/diminish a unit’s capabilities. It’s pretty basic and quick, but this is a strategic rather than tactical game.

I’ve completed the game on Easy (read a review which recommended starting on that if not au fait with strategy games, but found it a bit, er, easy) and Normal. Normal seems a nice challenge without being too difficult. [As well as the basic Easy/Normal/Hard settings you can customise difficulty to make aspects such as individual resources harder or easier for you or the computer to gather etc]. Your rivals are not passive, and will attack you, sometimes collectively. Early on in my Normal game I’d sent out forces to take out a mountain city (slow roads) and a neighbouring daimyo sent two units to attack my cities (which I’d emptied of troops). I sent reinforcements which managed to see off the units (who were forced into a circuitous mountain detour) and then attacked that daimyo’s cities. Later in the same game, out of nowhere a six daimyo coalition against me was organised. Fortunately, I’d done diplomacy and had a comparable number of allies.

There are three major resources: supplies [which do not spoil over time], money, and troops. Supplies are necessary to feed your soldiers, so if you emphasise troop numbers and don’t improve your agriculture you may have 5,000 soldiers rather than 3,000, but you won’t be able to deploy them. Money, as well as being accrued through each turn’s income, can be increased by selling supplies to the merchant. Sale (and purchase) prices will vary. If there’s a famine in parts of Japan but your land is unaffected, you can benefit from prices being up perhaps 40%. As well as supplies, horses and muskets (for war) can be purchased, as can treasures (to butter up your officers or other daimyos).

The music is fantastic, one of the real highlights of the game. Sound effects are good but limited (as you might expect). Voice-acting is generally quite good but the sheer number (literally hundreds) of officers means you’ll get repetition of voice actors/actresses.

You can also make your own characters (hundreds, I think). More can be made on the PC, where you can also import your own custom headshots (rather than using the in-game ones) but that’s still very flexible. Additional fictional characters are earnt as you progress through the game, and including the extra characters or not is up to the player (you can also turn off or on individual fictional characters, so if you loathe Lady Okatsu, you can keep her out of your game).

The translation is generally very good but there’s one quest early on (not especially important) where you have to capture a castle. Only you don’t, because it’s meant to say ‘capture a province’ [provinces usually had at least 2-3 settlements and often more].

I’ve completed the game twice (held back the review because I wanted to ensure there were multiple ways to do it). The first time I conquered a hefty chunk of Japan, got made Shogun and then was able to impose a War Ban which ended the game. The second time, I conquered the whole country, which took quite a while. I did have to dissolve a couple of marriage alliances to declare war on my erstwhile allies (one of whom had repeatedly failed to honour requests to reinforce me, so that was sweet revenge).

Replayability is significant. Having finished it twice in a row, I am on a short break but have begun a third game. Whilst most will pick the Oda clan, you can choose any you like or even make a new one (though I haven’t tried that yet).

Downsides? Building up a strong position, whether through diplomacy, improving your road network (if you can get troops to defend/attack more quickly than the enemy, that’s a real advantage) or allowing troop numbers to recover between wars all take time. Par for the course with a strategy game, but it’ll take a while to win. Also, when playing various scenarios (starting points) the snippets of history interspersed [not all the time, just every few months or more] may be repeated, which gets slightly tedious. The battles could perhaps be a bit more advanced, but I’m being picky (it is a strategy not a tactical game).

Again, I’m not a strategy connoisseur, but I did enjoy this and will be returning to it. If I were to slap a score on, it’d probably be about 8.5/10.


Friday, 15 July 2016

Manuel Comnenus – the man who lost Byzantium?

The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, is something that doesn’t exactly loom large in the consciousness of the British public (unlike the Western Empire), but it did play a huge role in history and lasted over a thousand years.

But how did an Empire that once stretched from the Balkans deep into the Middle East, with enclaves in Italy and North Africa, fall?

There are several reasons. The rise of Islam is an obvious one (Islam swiftly rolled up the exhausted Persian Empire and the Ottoman Turks were the ones who finally conquered Byzantium [aka Constantinople]). Another is the Fourth Crusade, arguably the most stupid piece of foreign policy in the history of Western civilisation. The split between Catholic [ironically a term coined by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius, if memory serves] and Orthodox Christianity, which played a substantial role in the Fourth Crusade, is one more.

But perhaps the biggest reason wasn’t the military defeat at Manzikert, or religious bickering but a decision made by an emperor who was, in many ways, a very capable man with a golden opportunity to make huge headway that he missed.

After a run of mostly dreadful emperors, Alexius Comnenus put the Empire on a stable footing and played a logistical and diplomatic master stroke by enabling the First Crusade to be fed and watered without huge grievance (although there was some bitterness, especially later, as the Crusader states and Eastern Empire became less co-operative). His son, John Comnenus, was a great leader who helped reconquer territory from Turks who were, at this stage of history, on the back foot.

Manuel was the son of John, and faced a decision: East or West? It wasn’t wholly binary (the Empire couldn’t pretend either didn’t exist) but it was a question of focus.

Manual did campaign in the East, to good effect, but he also sent huge quantities of men and money west. After his rival, Roger, King of Sicily, died and his successor faced rebellion, Manuel sensed opportunity. With hindsight, it was, perhaps, a mistake.

Initial military triumph in Italy due to the disarray and rebellion there was coupled with diplomatic success with the papacy (the church having suffered a schism some time before this point). With reconquered territory in Italy (until the 8th century the Eastern Empire had ruled an exarchate in Italy) and alliance with the Pope, Manuel’s decision appeared vindicated.

But things went awry. One of his generals alienated the locals by his approach and was recalled. When, immediately prior to battle, mercenaries demanded a vast increase in pay and were refused, they defected. Defeat was suffered, and all the time, money and manpower spent yielded only a small presence in Italy.

The ultimate threat to the Eastern Empire was not Italy, nor the Pope. It was not even Venice and Genoa, though those cities would pick over the dying body of Constantinople as a proxy for their trade war. It was the Turks. Manuel could have and, in retrospect, probably should have focused his attentions strictly on the East. It was from here that his manpower was drawn, particularly Anatolia (modern day Turkey).

It may seem harsh to pick out Manuel. He was a good, competent man, personally brave and well-liked. But it is in the summer of prosperity that the seeds of ruin are sown. It was luxury that enervated the Western Empire, as Gibbon wrote. A wretch cannot hope to achieve success except by extraordinary luck, but a talented man has the potential to achieve a lot with wise decisions, and failure to do so can lead to future penalties that are not immediately obvious (Marcus Aurelius permitting his ‘son’ to become emperor being a prime example).

Manuel’s son (a child at accession) was overthrown, and his overthrower in turn deposed. This led to the end of the Comneni dynasty which had furnished three great and long-reigning emperors and ushered in the disastrous Angeli dynasty under whom the Fourth Crusade occurred, a blow from which the Empire never recovered. That was just over 20 years after Manuel’s death.


Friday, 8 July 2016

Review: Alfred the Great, by Justin Pollard

Excepting the Unofficial Manual (Viking edition) I think this is my first history of the Anglo-Saxon period (9th century, specifically). I’ve read a few books of later centuries and some of the Roman period, but it was unfamiliar territory for me.

Despite that, I didn’t feel lost. The world is unfamiliar, but Pollard’s tendency to explain aspects of Anglo-Saxon life that are not well-known provides helpful context (for example, the near total lack of urban living).

The start of the book has an introduction explaining the limited sources, and how some were consumed by fire. I felt this could perhaps have been a shade briefer (it didn’t go on for ages, it must be said).

Alfred is one of those kings most people can name, without knowing much about him. His biography proper begins with his grandfather, and paints a concise picture of the political situation in Britain. This not only informs the reader of the world Alfred was born into, but also made plain the scale of the subsequent upheaval that was caused by Viking raids, and then invasions.

The book is not an object of hero worship. Whilst Alfred achieved great things, the author is unafraid to point out where he screwed things up (usually by complacency rather than active ineptitude). There’s also an interesting take on when Alfred was reduced to (effectively) internal exile, with precious few followers, suggesting that it wasn’t a surprise attack by Vikings, but collusion of his own nobles with the Viking leader Guthrum that saw him deposed.

As is usual with this sort of book, there are a few pages given over to photographs relevant to the subject (although they’re on plain paper rather than the glossy stuff often used).

I liked that the book didn’t stop dead with Alfred’s demise, but had a brief outline of events that happened immediately after his death. There’s a (short) explanation of what happened to the king’s remains, which seems like a tragic allegory for our sometime collective failure to respect history.

Downsides? The chapter about gathering learned men to propagate knowledge felt a little long to me. It’s hard to know whether a little more of Edward the Elder would’ve been possible (naturally, sources are limited for that period, so it may not have been an option), but if so, that would’ve been welcome.

Overall, I liked the book a lot. It portrays Alfred’s undoubted virtues and his vices, which, whilst small, very nearly lost not only he his kingdom, but Anglo-Saxon England altogether. The writing style’s easy to read and the little explanations of the 9th century world are almost pitch perfect, enlightening the reader without drifting too far from the central narrative.


Friday, 1 July 2016

E3 Ramble

This year’s E3 has been and gone and I thought I’d ramble about it. So I am.

Skyrim’s being remastered for the PS4 and Xbox One. Huzzah! It’s free for PC users who have the game+DLC on Steam already. Huzzah! It’s full-price for console users.


The Last of Us Remastered, Tomb Raider, Valkyria Chronicles: Europa Edition were all £20, not the £50 Bethesda want for Skyrim. Hell, XCOM 2 is being released on consoles for £40.

Now, I really like Skyrim. I’ve put hundreds of hours into it, and I’ll probably get the new edition [after waiting for a price drop]. But I’ve bought it twice (original and Legendary Edition for the DLC on PS3). Asking £50 more is taking the piss, especially contrasted against the price tag of £0 for PC users. I can appreciate that a free giveaway for PC users will help ensure mods (which are to be available for console players) get developed for the new edition, but that does not justify the full-price tag.

XCOM 2 is something I’ve wanted to play for ages but, being a mere console peasant, haven’t been able to. I do have some concerns about potential bugs so I’m not sure I’ll get it right away, but I’m glad to see it migrate to consoles. Already planning some squad members (Benjamin Disraeli, nickname: Dizzy Rascal).

Those saddened by the cancellation of bowel-emptying nerve-shredder PT may be gladdened to know that Kojima’s making a new game. It also features Norman Reedus, who had been set for a role in PT, but nobody has any idea what Death Stranding is about.

God of War returns. Kratos has a beard and a child. If he ends up killing his son, I may contemplate purchasing it. I’ve got the three main entries in the series, but have no especial interest in seeing the world’s angriest man murder everyone, again. [Unless he does it to his offspring. Again]. This time he’s battling the Norse gods, presumably because he killed all the Greek ones last time. Anubis, you’re next.

There’s a new Spiderman game, cunningly called Spider-Man. I had Spiderman 2, I think it was called, for the PS2 and that was hugely enjoyable. The physics worked so well it was great fun just slinging webs and swinging around the city or swan-diving from buildings. If the new game lives up to that, it’ll sell by the bucketload.

Mass Effect Andromeda reminded everyone it still exists. Should be out in the first half of next year. Not sure I’ll get it. I really like the first three games (Femshep may be the best acted videogame character I’ve ever encountered), but I’m increasingly not a fan of Bioware/EA’s approach to DLC, within both the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series. Money and time are tight, patience is thin and DLC that should be in the main bloody game does not amuse.

Speaking of DLC, I may actually get it (not on-disc) for the first time with The Witcher 3’s two expansions. Undecided, as yet. They do look very good, though, and I like the way CD Projekt Red has been doing things. [On a related, nostalgic, note there’s a Lone Wolf game for downloading, currently discounted to under £8].

Another promising game for the future is Kingdom Come: Deliverance. It’s a first person RPG set in 15th century Bohemia (central Europe), largely based on historical events. I think it’s out for PC next year, with planned PS4 and Xbox One releases after that.

Last but not least, Dishonored 2 is out late this year. I played the first game and enjoyed it a lot (I felt the world was very interesting and could’ve been developed a bit more). However, it was something I only played through a couple of times, and I prefer to sink in many, many hours. May give it a look once the price drops.