A Game Of Thrones – Genesis
This may be the best approximation of multi-faction politics and intrigue in video games to date. What this loosely Game of Thrones-branded real-time strategy title lacks, however, is the interface and presentation to match its shockingly deep design. Mastering this title requires both dedication and skill – but even more than that, you'll need unearthly perseverance to put up with the downright crappy UI and technical execution along the way.
RTS games are almost by definition more complex than anything else out there, and Genesis makes StarCraft look like checkers. The realm begins nominally at peace, but the competition is no less fierce for the lack of armies on the march. There are nine distinct types of non-combat units (plus house-specific units), each with their own vital role. The web of intrigue spins endless intricacies from the moment you load the game.
To start with, envoys will create alliances between neutral towns and structures and your great house. Those alliances can be broken by an enemy envoy, but not if you've married a lady to a town or castle or if you have guardsmen embedded in the structure. Spies can create secret agreements, which give you the gold output of a town but make it look to your opponent like he's still in control. Envoys, if bribed (by a rogue) or seduced (by a lady) into being double agents, make fake alliances that look normal but give you no actual income. Spies in turn can discover fake alliances, traitors, and secret agreements at the cost of time spent investigating. Assassins will kill anyone you point them at, but if they're traitors they'll report fake kills while your enemies roam free.
This basic level of gameplay is just the beginning. Armies and mercenaries can attack enemy agents if they're visible, either by remaining in your territory too long or by being discovered by your spies. Your great lord must marry quickly or risk creating bastards who trash your all-important prestige rank if discovered by an enemy. Spies can infiltrate the very seat of your power, causing the next agent you hire to spawn as a traitor. Guardsmen can arrest enemy agents, sending them back to your castle to be held for ransom. And it's all happening in real time, on a map anywhere from a two-player map of just Dorne to an eight-player slugfest across all of Westeros.
The interface begins to rear its ugly head about a minute into any match. The lack of feedback for units completing actions or waiting for orders means you must possess an unrivaled internal clock and the multitasking ability of a StarCraft champion in order to keep your domain running at anywhere close to full speed. If you're engaged on multiple frontiers as you're almost guaranteed to be on more than a two-player map, you can lose huge swathes of territory in the blink of an eye by neglecting one border. I understand that Genesis is intended to be complex, and you're not supposed to be able to be 100 percent on top of everything at all times, but a match can become overwhelming at the drop of a hat – and I haven't even begun to explain how Genesis handles the outbreak of war.
A match begins with the peace-o-meter at full blue, indicating what passes for full-on peace in Westeros. Hostile actions like killing (not arresting) enemy agents or inciting revolts in their town will move the meter toward war, and laying siege to an enemy town or castle will immediately trigger open conflict. Once you're in war mode, things will never return to peace – but the rules get simpler. Any secret agreements end, flipping control to the duplicitous house. Envoys' role is over; they can no longer initiate diplomacy with enemy strongholds. Now you have to hope that your production outstrips your foes', because you won't be winning any battles through tactical outmaneuvering.
For all that Genesis does to challenge our assumptions of what an RTS is on the diplomatic front, its combat falls shy of mediocre. You'll almost never be able to change the outcome of a battle by micromanaging your units; bizarre collision rules and extremely floaty combat interactions make giving everyone an "attack the bad guys" order just about your only move. There's still some room for strategic shenanigans like baiting an enemy's armies in one direction or splitting them up to wreak havoc on his production lines, but nobody will confuse a battle in Genesis for anything resembling a tactical affair.
In single-player, either skirmish or campaign, the ability to pause and issue orders is awesome. Unfortunately, single-player is lame. The campaign is one of the worst I've ever seen. A few lore touchstones like Aegon the Conqueror's burning of Harrenhal and Nymeria's landing in Dorne are not at all interesting even to the Game of Thrones fan in me, and the terrible scenario scripting neatly neuters absolutely everything interesting about the design. The skirmish AI seems reasonably competent, but playing a diplomatic game against AI opponents is never ideal – especially in a game like this, where the player's attention is the most important resource of all.
Multiplayer is the way to play Genesis, but a total lack of backend support makes finding decent matches a nightmare. The game is skill-driven to a huge degree, which is great, but it makes playing an unevenly matched opponent boring. If you can find a good match this is an experience like none other, but good luck in your search – I had marginal luck at best.
A Game of Thrones – Genesis has a wonderfully creative design at its core. If this were a board game, I'd play the hell out of it. I love seeing innovation like this, especially in a genre that can be as immobile as RTS, but between the severely lacking technical implementation, bad presentation, and unforgivable UI, it's like Cyanide was trying to make its game as impenetrable as possible. I'd give this one a pass unless you have a couple buddies you can count on for some quality multiplayer time or just dig unusual designs.