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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (416)

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I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5
Victor Vran 3/5
Front Mission Evolved 2/5
Greedfall 4.5/5
The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5

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A Total War Saga: Troy   PC (Steam) 

Homeric Ho-Hum    3/5 stars

There are many genres and subgenres of game that I simply don’t bother with. Some of these, like the eminently-detestable Roguelike, assaulted and offended my sensibilities through direct experience. Others, like the beloved-on-PC Real-Time Strategy (RTS) and 4X genres never even piqued my interest in the first place. But sometimes things I don’t care about overlap with things I really like. And while I would never stoop to playing the latest hot, new Roguelike in spite of its crossover with classical mythology (*coughHadescough*), for genres I don’t outright loathe, the possibility of getting me to bite does, indeed, exist.

When Sega’s Creative Assembly dev studio announced a new game in the long-running ‘Total War’ series that would be based on Homer’s Iliad, it got my attention. I had never played a ‘Total War’ game and didn’t really know anything about the series, other than that it had crossed-over with the ‘Warhammer’ IP on several occasions. But the prospect of re-enacting the greatest war epic in the canon of Western literature got me interested enough to wishlist the game, even if I may never actually buy it.

Ultimately, Creative Assembly, Sega, and Epic Games made the decision for me, when they gave away free copies of the base game on the Epic Store for 24 hours after the game’s August 2020 launch. I snagged my free copy and, in the mood to play something completely different, went ahead and made “A Total War Saga: Troy” (“TWT”) my last game of 2020. It delivered less than I expected, and did little to increase my enthusiasm for its genres.

“TWT” is built in the 3.0 version of Creative Assembly’s proprietary Total War Engine. The game’s massive world map transitions seamlessly between a detailed, fully polygonal overworld and a simple, abstract drawing at varying zoom levels. Likewise, the game’s massive-scale battles can be viewed up-close and personal – wherein they feature detailed and realistic 3D character models for every soldier and hero – or zoomed out and detached – wherein the individual soldiers look like single pixels and the only way to differentiate troops is via their unit icons. Unfortunately, the fact that the game continues to render the detailed scale when the player isn’t using it causes performance hits, which is particularly inscrutable in the map view.

Audiowise, “TWT” is pretty decent, but ultimately falls short. There are occasional moments of excellent, thematically-appropriate music, but they are rare, with the vast majority of the game being either silent or barely accompanied by some rhythm beats. “TWT” is also partially voiced, with full voiceover during the introductory cutscene… and almost nothing else. Throughout the bulk of gameplay, hero characters will shout one of a handful of catch phrases when selected on the map, and each enemy/ally leader has a handful of things they’ll say during diplomacy segments, but, ultimately, there really isn’t much in the game that would benefit from extra voiceover work.

Technically, “TWT” is a fairly average game that managed to meet my low expectations for the Strategy genre. First, and most gratingly, in spite of being published by Sega – a company whose history is intimately tied to consoles and console-style gaming – it doesn’t support any controllers out of the box. I planned to play “TWT” with my Steam controller when this deficiency became apparent, but discovered that the version of the game sold (and given away) on the Epic Store has some sort of phone-home DRM embedded that makes it impossible to launch the game through Steam as a non-Steam game, thus also making Steam controller mapping impossible. So I resorted to using Controller Companion and an XBONE controller, which worked fairly well, since the game doesn’t really have all that complex of inputs. As a non-controller PC game, the user interface is, as expected, cumbersome, unintuitive, and overwrought, though not nearly as bad as most games of the sort. The upshot is that, in spite of overtaxing my old i7 2600K and GTX970 and causing the fans in my system to go nuts with its unoptimized performance (and the known issue of the Epic Store causing such problems even when not running a game through it), “TWT” is stable and glitch-free.

I went into “TWT” expecting at least a somewhat-narrative-driven experience based on the Iliad, which was the first piece of classical epic poetry/historiography/mythology I ever read, and which quickly saw me fascinated with the ancient history of Western Civilization. Unfortunately, “TWT” is NOT that. Instead of following the story beats of the Trojan War, as detailed by the bard Homer, the game plops the player into the role of one of the major Greek heroes of the story – either Agamemnon, Achilles, Menelaus, or Odysseus, or one of the villains – and tasks them with, first, uniting the various tribes of Greeks under a single banner, second, sailing across the Aegean Sea, third, conquering all of the lands and tribes of Western Persia, then, finally, laying siege to Troy.

Throughout the game, a disembodied head of Homer, the Blind Bard himself, will appear in the upper right corner of the screen to lay down some knowledge. Unfortunately, rather than talking about in-game story events, he mostly serves as an annoying tutorial gadfly who gives a brief overview of each new gameplay mechanic the player encounters, then buggers-off and tells the player to read the more verbose in-game manual if they’re still confused.

But while the overall structure of the events leading up to and encompassing the Iliad is correct, all of the memorable story beats are either glossed over or ignored completely. I played as Agamemnon because he’s supposed to be the easiest character to use, and as a very green player to the genre, I wanted a learning curve instead of a cliff. And, yes, the game addresses Agamemnon’s conflict with Aegisthos, the necessity of sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to placate Poseidon, and his wife’s planned revenge, but it plays out this whole series of events before the war effort really even gets rolling, and give the player the option to circumvent the tragic outcome of the real mythology. The ‘Wrath of Achilles’ that plays such a prominent part in the Iliad doesn’t actually have to manifest in-game, so long as Agamemnon uses diplomacy to keep Achilles (and all the other heroes and leaders of minor factions) happy.

It seems, then, that my expectations for what “TWT” would offer didn’t line-up with what it actually is. I was expecting an RTS campaign where I would be tasked with clearing hand-crafted scenarios that hit the major story beats of the Trojan War myth. What I got was a big 4X sandbox where emergent scenarios divorced of any narrative qualities are the primary vector for engagement. This reliance on emergent storytelling also lead to some comically a-historic happenings, such as Paris and Hector – the two sons of King Priam of Troy – mustering armies, hopping in ships, and sailing over to sack Boeotia and Thebes while Agamemnon and the Greeks were busy trying to get their doodoo together.

All in all, “TWT” is a VERY long game for what little narrative it offers. My play time (using Easy Agamemnon) clocked in at 60 hours. And while it did take me a good long time to start to feel invested in the game, I think it would have been better off as a 20-30 hour experience instead. It is truly mindboggling that Creative Assembly advertises these ‘Total War Saga’ titles as ‘smaller-scale and more focused’ than full-blown ‘Total War’ titles.

“TWT” is – unbeknownst to me before firing it up for the first time – a 4X (a.k.a., ‘Grand Strategy’) game with semi-optional RTS-style battles. For those not in the know, 4X is a Strategy subgenre in which the player’s goal is to – through military conquest or diplomacy – conquer the entire world map via eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation, and eXtermination. The 4X genre is, typically, a turn-based affair, where the player gets unlimited time to do the best they can with what they have, before handing it over to the opponent AIs to see what they will do. In “TWT,” the map encompasses all of Greece, the Aegean islands, and the Wester coast of what is modern-day Turkey. The player begins at their chosen hero’s home city and is simply tasked with 4X-ing their faction’s influence and military might to such an extent that they can cross the sea and conquer the city of Troy. Cities of various sizes dot the map, with larger cities serving as provincial capitals and smaller cities serving as resource points. Accumulating the game’s resources – food, wood, stone, bronze, and gold – by holding resource-generating cities or bartering with friendly factions provides fuel and funding for both city upgrades (which replace the typical Tech Tree common to the 4X genre) and military units.

Each ‘army’ in “TWT” is led by a hero. Some of these heroes are ‘Homeric’ characters who can never be killed permanently, while others are expendable (and thus a waste of resources to recruit). Heroes – like the units that follow them – can level-up by winning battles (or by idling in a province with a bonus experience-per-turn building), but, unlike the rank-and-file, gain access to a large suite of perk options to make themselves and the armies they lead more capable. Furthermore, each hero’s army can consist of up to 20 units of various and sundry types, ranging from fairly basic and expendable melee and ranged units to shielded and armored variants of the basic units, to speedy chariot units, to euhemeristically-rationalized ‘mythological’ units like all-female javelineers called ‘harpies,’ horseback raiders called ‘centaurs,’ and burly dudes wearing bull and elephant skulls as helmets called ‘minotaurs’ and ‘cyclopes.’ Personally, I love euhemerism, and adding these advanced units to a game typically grounded in the bleak reality of the Bronze Age was a nice way to acknowledge the fact that history and myth were still one-and-the-same in the time Homer was composing the Iliad.

Recruiting armies is not only an up-front expense of food (and maybe bronze) for the men, but an ongoing expense requiring upkeep. Each hero and unit has a basic recruitment cost, which is only paid once, but an ongoing upkeep cost that must be paid every turn, with significant cost increases for trying to field too many armies at once and for positioning armies too far away from player-controlled territory. Early in the game, it can be difficult to field even two full armies without risking an economic collapse, but by the end game, fielding a number of armies with resource surpluses in every category seems to be the norm.

The actual battles in “TWT” are, for the most part, optional affairs that rely on some incredibly mediocre RTS-style micromanagement. When I say the battles are ‘optional,’ what I mean is that the ‘Total War’ system includes an ‘auto-resolve’ button that will skip any battle and award victory to the side the system expects to win based on number of units and unit strength, likewise deducting an estimated amount of casualties from each side of the conflict. Auto-resolve quickly became my favorite feature of the game.

Should a player actually endeavor to fight a battle manually, which I personally only bothered with when the system predicted I would have a ‘close’ or ‘valiant’ defeat and I figured I could micro-manage my way to a ‘Cadmean’ victory, they will have the opportunity to deploy their army units on their side of the battlefield and guess how the opponent will deploy. Both sides can receive reinforcements if an allied army or city is within a short range of the conflict. Personally, I found the best strategy was to always have two armies (or more) marching side-by-side, and simply overwhelming lone armies or cities with overwhelming force. However, siege battles against walled cities are particularly terrible due to the fact that city walls and gates provide nearly untouchable offensive and defensive capabilities for the defender. And, since the final battle in the game involves taking the legendarily-walled city of Troy – which is significantly more difficult to penetrate than even the best-maintained standard walled cities – and since auto-resolution is disabled for the climax, waiting out the long, boring 16-turns of passive siege is the only practical way to claim ultimate victory.

In battle, each unit has the standard health value one would expect. But they also have other fiddly stats like ‘morale’ and ‘fatigue.’ Morale is represented by a meter under each unit’s health, and being flanked, attacked from the rear (whoo!), or facing a more powerful enemy unit will whittle away morale until the unit breaks and starts to flee. Fleeing units can’t be commanded, and will simply run around uselessly until their moral is completely crushed or they rally and can, once again, be commanded. Annoyingly, though, everything in the RTS battle in “TWT” moves ridiculously slowly. Fortunately, there are ‘fastforward’ and ‘superfastforward’ buttons in the UI that allow the player to increase the battle speed to something that looks comical up-close, but is actually reasonable for how boring the battles actually are. Micro-management of units in combat has always been my least favorite aspect of the RTS genre, and “TWT” lowers this burden somewhat by making it annoyingly difficult to get units to disengage and move elsewhere. Thus nearly every battle turns into a large cluster of melee units beating on each other, while ranged units are free to micro around the periphery, providing support, flanking, and all that other good stuff, plus dealing with opposing ranged units.

When not mustering armies and attacking enemy settlements, the vast majority of the gameplay in “TWT” revolves around the diplomacy menu. It is here that players will see a list of all the other (known) factions in the game world, their relationship to their own faction (on a scale from ‘Hostile’ to ‘Trusted Friend’), and any ongoing agreements between factions. Diplomacy involves the in-game economy of resources, with immediate bartering, long-term barter agreements that last 5+ turns, and the ability to trade occupied cities between factions. Giving a faction a resource it is lacking in exchange for a resource they have in spades is a good way to start building up the relationship, ultimately moving through non-aggression pacts, military access (which simply means a faction will no longer get bend out of shape when your army marches through their provinces on the way to somewhere else), defensive alliances, military alliances, and confederation (which just means that the confederated faction becomes part of the player’s faction). Agamemnon further has the special ability to vassalize friendly factions, allowing them to remain independent, but subjecting them more strongly to the player’s designs and forcing them to pay tribute in the form of taxes every turn.

Ultimately, the diplomacy system is easy to understand and works fairly well. However, it does have a few quirks. AI controlled factions don’t seem to rely on any ‘real’ resource generation and can do what they want, even if they control no resource-generating cities and have no barter/gift agreements with other factions. Moreover, every faction has a small indicator of their current mood, represented by up to two red down arrows, no icon at all, or up to two green up arrows. Mindbogglingly, even when an allied faction or vassal is a ‘Trusted Friend,’ they can randomly decide to secede from the great Greek union if they aren’t kept happy enough to have one green up arrow at the end of the player’s turn. Of course, the best way to improve allies’ moods is to give them gifts. But giving a large gift rarely improves their mood as much as giving a whole bunch of trivial token gifts of ONE unit of any resource, which is incredibly silly, and incredibly tedious to click through each turn, once the player has acquired 10 or 20 vassal states.

Anyone expecting a rollicking modern re-telling of the Homeric epic, the Iliad, will likely be disappointed in “A Total War Saga: Troy,” as the game is very light on the actual ‘saga’ part. For those looking for a 4X ‘Grand Strategy’ title that successfully captures the essence Bronze Age Greece, “A Total War Saga: Troy” is reasonably competent. Yet for those seeking a Real-Time Strategy title with excellent gameplay, “A Total War Saga: Troy” disappoints, once again. While I quickly became annoyed with the game both for what it was and what it wasn’t, by the end of it, my initial dislike for it tempered into an unenthusiastic tolerance.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 2/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5



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