This past week I didn't get in much more Dragon Quest IX, but a bit. I've been playing Alpha Centauri, Spec Ops: The Line, and Dark Crusade. I'll hold off on DQ9 to give a full review when I beat it, but I have a few thoughts on the other three games.
Alpha Centauri is a game in the civilization genre that came out in the 90's. It was released shortly after Civilization 2 as a matter of fact. It's really a classic game, similar to how Blade Runner is a classic film; it's worth playing because A) it's great, B) it has influenced games that came after it, and C) it has a lot of high-brow influences in it. It follows the standard Civilization formula: you build cities, develop and expand them, discover technology, and you can conquer other civilizations. Except it's in space - the premise is that a colony ship departed Earth to land on Alpha Centauri, and the ships occupants Balkanised into several factions with opposing ideologies. You have your religious fanatics, militarists, economists, scientists, communists and environmentalists. Oh, and a faction built off UN principles, for which there is no effective one-word "ism".
The game isn't perfectly balanced; certain "wonder" improvements (buildings that can be built once, by one faction, and provide a permanent or long-term bonus to your whole civ) provide truly incredible benefits. But that issue aside, the game really is a lot of fun. It has solid gameplay mechanics, with the option to fully customize your units; you can take unit improvements and mix and match them how you please. It has excellent voice work and excellent writing. Every technology has a little quotation or soliloquy related to it, and they're either quotations from famous philosophical works or intellectuals, or they're well-written in-character speech/book-excerpts. I have a background in philosophy and this is the only game that has freely quoted Immanual Kant, as well as demonstrating an understanding of what the quote actually means. Far Cry 2 had Nietzsche references but they really just made it seem stilted.
If you like civ games you owe it to yourself to go to GOG.com and buy this.
Spec Ops: The Line apparently caused a buzz by having a relatively sophisticated and critical look at US military involvement in the middle east. I haven't got far enough in the plot yet to really know for sure where it's going, but the theme of horror resulting from military presence is firmly established early on, and is effectively continued. The most striking moment for me was when me and my two man squad had the drop on two guards. The guards were having a conversation about how they are fighting for peace, and despite being bombed and burnt out, Dubai was still a really beautiful place. One guard said he would go to sit alone and listen to the wind, and enjoy how it reminded him of the forests from his hometown. And then I shot them both to death, because, well, I had to, and they would have shot me. This sort of scene is basically a cliche. An indictment of violence and militarism. But it's well-done, which is quite rare. You aren't drowned in sentiment, and how much of it you take in is essentially up to you, which makes it much more effective; a cut-scene that you are forced to watch, with closeups of crying children et cetera is too much. But a pair of guards, 30 feet away, whose faces you can barely see and whose dialogue you don't have to listen to is effective because it's real and your engagement with it, as voluntary, is more meaningful to the player. When I feel like a game is telling me to feel this or that way, I'm very resistant to the feeling. But when I'm confronted with a situation and invited to feel however I want to, or even ignore the situation and gun them down immediately, it feels real.
The gameplay isn't much to write home about however. It reminds me of Gears of War, which I found clunky and not fun. Spec Ops is also a third person over-the-shoulder shooter. Making it mandatory, basically, to press a button to go into "behind cover mode" is a mechanic a whole lot of games have used for years, and I've never liked it. I can use it; but I don't like it. You also have to swap out guns from dead enemies, because you will run out of ammo for your own guns. I kind of like that; I always like using a variety of guns in any shooter. I'll get back to you about where the story goes on this game when I finish it. I'm not sure if I can recommend it yet.
Finally, Dark Crusade. Last week I mentioned that even discussing the game made me want to play it again, and here I am. It's one of the last iterations of the Dawn of War series. I say that because I don't consider that Dawn of War 2 is really a part of the series; they changed the core gameplay so much that they alienated the fans of the series while failing to draw in a new crowd. But Dark Crusade is great. It's set in the Warhammer 40k universe, and you can play as the Eldar, Space Marines, Imperial Guard, Necrons, Orks, Tau or Chaos. It's a little absurd that the Necrons and Tau are included but the Tyranid are not. It's also disappointing. They were brought into the next game in the series but they really missed the mark there, so never mind.
I like to play the Eldar. The webway building lets you teleport 10 squads around the map to any other webway gate in about 5 seconds, and that just does it for me. The game is fast-paced and fun. It has a gameplay mechanic that takes all of 15 minutes to figure out, but it has enough depth that you can have many hours of fun with it, even if you only play one faction. Central to the gameplay is claiming "strategic points" on the RTS scenario. There are two resources; requisition and energy. Energy is acquired from power plants you construct, and requisition comes from strategic points. Once you've planted your flag in one (takes maybe 20-30 seconds) you gain a bit more requisition per second, and you can build "listening posts" on them to increase that. The resources are used to build squads and replenish the units in those squads if they die. On the strategy map, you conquer a territory and this confers some advantage to your faction; I think there are about 24 territories, including the home territory of each faction.
The writing and voice-acting is melodramatic and silly, which fairly suits the setting. So many different alien races duking it out on some wartorn planet: what do you expect? That said it's all pretty fun, and the flavour dialogue is appropriate, if silly. I really recommend the game if you like RTS. It's not deep in the way Supreme Commander or Starcraft 2 are, but I like it for that. I never had the discipline for those games. This one is just fun.
I saw my views spiked today, so I really thought I should update; if people are reading enough to expect an update on Saturday I ought to provide one.