The best kittens, technology, and video games blog in the world.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Evolution of the Total War series

Greetings from ZooAtlanta! by ucumari from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

Yay, another post about Empire Total War, plus some Rome and Medieval 2! In case you're wondering - I don't intend to even look at Napoleon Total War for let's say another year or two - that's because the first rule of Total War is:
Initial releases of all Total War games are bug-infested piles of shit. Patches fix most of that.
That is, the versions which reviewers fap over so hard are worst.

So you might wonder - why do I even bother playing then? Well, the thing is video game industry like all content producing industries is a oligopoly - there's a really small number of video games made, so the choice is between highly flawed ones and finding another hobby. Like one which might involve going outside more... Let's better not think about it too much. And as I said - patches fix most of the most atrocious problems.

I have no idea what were the main problems of 1.0 ETW. By the time ETW came out I was smart enough to not play it for a year or so; I've only heard all users universally complaining how bad it was. Which is highly believable considering how atrocious M2TW 1.0 was, and about half of these bugs were fixed in vanilla patches (and not even all in mods):
  • cavalry couldn't charge (pathfinding issues?)
  • pikemen preferred their crappy swords to pikes
  • soldiers with two-handed weapons would just stand around confused (attacks in M2TW were based on animation system, and they lacked sufficient animations; RTW just ignored animations so had no such problem)
  • having shields made units much worse at defending than not having shields (animation again?)
  • ballista/cannon towers didn't shoot what they were supposed to
  • during sieges you couldn't move your armies into many large empty places
  • treating civilians well gave you negative reputation
And these are just outright bugs, not minor issues like crappy AI, lack of balance, or far too much micromanagement...


Anyway, let's focus on what was improved from (patched) M2TW to (patched) ETW. Easily the biggest improvement is huge reduction in micromanagement.
  • There are no diplomats/princesses at all. You can talk with anyone you want. RTW diplomats were at least useful for bribery, M2TW made it pretty much impossible.
  • Map is all discovered. Fog of war only affects enemy units.
  • Units move a lot faster. Especially on roads and by ships, difference between road and wilderness speed is much greater than in M2TW.
  • There are decent free garrisons for all cities, so you don't need to keep so many goddamn armies everywhere.
  • There is no agent recruitment, all agents spawn automatically.
  • There are no annoying random rebels spawning 3 units of Peasants somewhere where it wastes you 3 turns to move, win without a single soldier lost, and waste 3 turns to move back.  Rebellions are very rare, based on population happiness, and fairly high profile when they happen.
  • Of the agents left, merchants were replaced by trade ships which move very fast, and provide big money, working in stacks - far less micromanagement again.
  • Priests were replaced by missionaries, who are much fewer in numbers and more effective (at least in Americas).
  • Spies/Assassins were replaced by Rakes, which are of quite dubious use. M2TW spies were overpowered because they could open settlement gates; while assassins were outright useless. Rakes are just plain useless. You lose diplomatic point, and it costs your enemy almost nothing to repair sabotaged buildings or autorespawn assassinated agents. At least they move fast.
  • The last agent type - Gentlemen - is a pretty stupid idea. They mostly sit around in schools, passively adding research points. They can duel - which is completely useless due to autorespawning; and steal research - which I guess is marginally useful, but not sufficiently to warrant another agent type.
  • Per-settlement single tax replaced by per-theatre two tax rates plus per-settlement tax exemptions. Mathematically you have fewer choices now when you have at least 5 settlements per theatre, so it's about even... in practice it seems to be somewhat less work.
As a result you can realistically finish the campaign without having to waste far too much effort on campaign micro, and deciding it would be more fun to start over from zero like you did in RTW and M2TW. Now campaign mode is in no way perfect, but the improvement is so huge... they finally got their act together and fixed one of the biggest problems plaguing the series.

There are other improvements. If you include both faction differences and research level differences, there's pretty decent unit variety.

As bad as ever

Plenty of problems from earlier TW games still affect ETW. Campaign AI is still crap. I'm not sure if it improved at all - it keeps doing ridiculous things like attacking me first with half its units, then again same turn with the second half - because merging before attack is clearly too hard. It has absolutely no idea how to do a naval invasion - which sort of makes is unable to organize any attack larger than pirate raids now that oceans became so important.

Battle AI is even worse. The simplest, dumbest formation you can use is just form a lot of Line Infantry units in a long shallow line, facing enemy. And this seems to be able to enough to destroy almost any AI army twice its size with hardly any loses. Instead of flanking, or at least atacking en masse, AI insists on running to center of my line with 1-2 units at time, and not even spread out, so they get 200 of my guys shooting at their 10. To entirely crush AI I can fold my flanks into a horse-shoe - what wouldn't be possible if AI bothered to attack my flanks instead of storming the center.

A bunch of Line Infantry with one howitzer is enough to take any fort - you need to approach diagonally, as there's a zone where fort cannons cannot fire; and then a bit of howitzer fire is enough to make AI units leave the fort and attack you - and again 1-2 units at a time. Carcass shot is needed if your howitzer is to cause any kills, but vast majority of their soldiers are going to die running into your line infantry alone.

Battle pathfinding is as bad as ever. All places which seem empty and available are now at least empty and available - but it's very common for whole unit of Line Infantry to stand idle and wait for one guy trapped on some obstacle instead of fucking him and firing at the enemy.

Units also seem to ignore orders a lot. Not even complex orders - I've seen artillery keep firing after I explicitly told it to stop more than once. When they decide to fire, they often fire at something else than I ordered, or even right at my units for no obvious reason. Fire-at-will button is basically a license to ignore your targets (the same was true with M2TW).

And while units usually behave reasonably well on an open field, once they get into a fort fight they get so unresponsive than anything more complicated than a bayonet charge is probably not going to work. Fortunately AI is usually kind enough to loss 80% of its units while charging at my infantry line before I even get to the fort, so bayonet charge might as well finish the job.


Unfortunately there are some ways ETW is significantly worse than RTW/M2TW. Naval battles for one. They were just a huge mistake, they're not fun, they don't add anything to game, fortunately you can still do the RTW/M2TW thing and click autoresolve.

Another problem is tile-less campaign map. Figuring out if unit can reach some place, or merging units gets a lot more finicky. Every time I want to do any non-trivial campaign maneuvering, I save the game - the chance is good something really stupid will happen. This is the only part of campaign mode which I would really rather see reversed.

Empire crashes to desktop a lot more often than RTW/M2TW. Even the patched version. I just had a campaign as United Provinces which ended with me having 39 regions, and the game reliably crashing every time I click end of turn, just after last enemy faction moves.  I loaded the savegame and bought the final province from Ottomans for an easy victory, but that really shouldn't be happening.

Another big problem is total lack of documentation. There's no in-game documentation, no paper (ha, Steam) or PDF tutorial, just absolutely nothing for plenty of game functionality. Do you know what are pros and cons of various government types? I've seen many mutually conflicting answers to that online.

And the worst problem of all - moddability really suffered. RTW kept everything in plain text files, so modding was quite easy even if they never really gave it much thought. M2TW moved files to packs, ETW makes it even harder... And unfortunately it's not just their laziness - they figured out that if they make modding harder, they can sell DLCs with extra units / campaigns etc. - things modders would release in buckets, much more fun and much higher quality - if only they had access to proper modding tools. And they still sort of can, but with more and more effort with each game, and I'm afraid Creative Assembly will eventually kill the modding community.

There are fewer battle maps now for some reason - it doesn't strike me as terribly much effort to make them, so why wouldn't they? Custom battles seem more limited - you cannot select technology levels etc. for different sides... in previous games you could have pretty much any battle in custom mode that was possible in campaign mode.

There's one more thing about campaign mode which is really puzzling, by which I mean retarded. When you get required number of provinces, let's say 40, by 1730 - you still have to wait until 1799 to officially "win" the campaign. So 2/3 of the game time spent doing absolutely nothing at all? I don't see how anybody could think it could be a good idea.

And as I said in previous post, user interface for battles got significantly less readable for some mysterious reason.

What next?

Now tasks for my readers: have any of my complaints been addressed by either Napoleon Total War or mods? Some seem fundamental, but others seem fairly trivial so they might have been fixed already, right?


Quickshot said...

I kind of liked naval battles though.

taw said...

Quickshot: You seem to be the only person ever to like them ;-)

Quickshot said...

Well I'm a patient fellow and all that I suppose. :)

David said...

I totally agree with 99 percent of what u said about the series. As with so many aspects of life the required responcse to bring people like CA to heel is for people not to buy their shitty products. The trend of modding vs DLC disgusts me and tbh I didnt even think about it till u said it but its glaringly obvious. And back to my suggested required response, which definately wont happen because people are too selfish/greedy/lazy.

Napoleon still has the ridiculous campaign map pathing. unload some troops, attempt to load up more, your ship and the new troops to be loaded will auto pick another location far from the disembarktion point. Ridiculous! I have said the same to myself, saving before loading/unloading is the necesary way forward because CA/whoever arent interested in making a decent product.

Moddability seems to be the same as im sure you can imagine.

The game crashing, which I personally attribute to bloatyness and a failure to move to proper 64 bit code/memory addressing is a lot better in Napoleon, that is it doesnt happen as often, in fact i havent seen it crash once so far. However there is 1 theatre, europe and that theatre is smaller than the ETW europe. So it seems that to acheive stability (whilst increasing the bloatyness with each game) the game has been deliberately made smaller to avoid crashing. So go fuck yourselves CA.

I just won my first campain as the british which was very easy to do, and as soon as I had fulfilled the victory objectives the game offered me the option of ending having won, so you dont have to wait around. What I have heard people complaining about is the victory objectives. As britain i needed brittany, spain, the balaeric isles, denmark and Hanover. I might have forgotten 1 or 2. At the end of my game i had all but Hanover which the prussians had. the only way I could find of getting hanover off the prussains was to go to war with them, which is annoying/stupid. I havent checked yet but I suspect that maybe hanover is in the prussains victory objectives too. I know the prussains arent allies to start the game like austria and russia, but prussia seems highly likely to offer the british an alliance (they repeatedly tried to get me into one during the game I played) and they seem able to expand unlike austria who seem to be fodder for the french. I probably wont be playing multiple games of napoleon unlike pretty much all the other total war games.

taw said...

David: You can trade regions. In M2TW Jerusalem was a victory condition of almost everyone, but it was PITA to get, so I always exchanged it for 1-2 other regions plus maybe some cash. It probably still works in Napoleon. And doesn't it have world domination mode like ETW which isn't affected by this issue?

I wrote a mini-mod for ETW (haven't gotten to publishing it yet) - and it's really far worse than I imagined. Something that would be 1 minute search&replace in RTW/M2TW (removing all walls and making them impossible to build - because sieges are buggy to the point of not being fun) required many hours or so of manually searching something that looked Windows registry, and it still doesn't work correctly. It's really really bad.

David said...

yeah I know you can trade regions. Although ive had different experiences doing so. I remember doing it lots but recently I cant seem to get it to happen at all (medieval 2) and I tried swapping multiple regions in napoleon for hanover plus cash and it wasnt happening.

David said...

Ive Just checked, prussia need hanover for victory as well which im thinking is why they wont trade it with me evern for big gains.

David said...

O and yes it does have world domination which wouldnt affect this.