Personal difficulties have been resolved, and so I’m catching up on writing about some of the vast backlog of games I’ve accrued over the past few months. I’ll never have time to write full reviews of all of these, so I’ll instead settle for a few paragraphs about each one.
An interesting one. Tacoma is the next game from Gone Home developers Fullbright, and while I liked Gone Home very much I didn’t get on with Tacoma quite so well despite the setting being very much My Jam: instead of wandering around a spooky abandoned house trying to piece together what happened prior to your arrival, you’re instead wandering around an abandoned space station trying to piece together what happened prior to your arrival, with some AI stuff thrown into the mix. It’s a more sedate game than Gone Home was because at no point does Tacoma really try and trick you or really throw you any curveballs; the focus is instead purely on unravelling the station’s immediate past, with very few twists concealed within that past. It’s also more overtly linear than Gone Home was; Gone Home’s mansion allowed it a little more artifice in how it camouflaged its plot rails, while Tacoma doesn’t even try to hide it — there are four areas of the station, you tackle them one after another, and you cannot move on to the next one until you’ve finished all the plot in the current one.
Still, Tacoma’s writing is nevertheless top-notch, and it gets a surprisingly long way on its AR conceit; this is essentially an upgrade of the standard audio logs concept where you also get to watch coloured 3D mannequins act out the scene in front of you, except that you can fast-forward/rewind to any point in the recording and also track the actors as they move throughout the various rooms and corridors inside the station. Most scenes are based around a big group conversation involving all six of the station staff, but after the main event the group splits up into smaller vignettes that take place in multiple locations simultaneously — to get the full picture of what’s going on you have to scrub forwards and backwards through the scene several times, following the actors around as they do a walk n’ talk, or have a private conversation in a service corridor. As it’s rather more interactive than audio logs this AR replay mechanic is effective at getting the player engaged with the story — enough so that Tacoma successfully papers over the yawning cracks in its structure. It’s not as touching or intimate as Gone Home, but it’s still very real and human, and that’s a surprisingly rare quality in games these days.
After an abortive and not particularly well-received fling with retro-RTS Act of Aggression, Wargame developers Eugen have returned to the wargame-lite genre they’ve pioneered so effectively over the last five years. Steel Division moves Wargame’s real-time macro strategy gameplay to 1944 Normandy and takes advantage of the shift in era and technology level to make a number of very important refinements. The list is very long, so I’ll just mention the two most important ones. First on the list is the headline territory control feature, which is sort of like the standard point-control game mode — where there’s a number of control points on the map and whoever has possession of a majority of them scores points over time — except there are no points to control in Steel Division. The game instead dynamically calculates the percentage of the entire map that your units control and awards points based on that. This drastically changes the feel of a typical match as every single square foot of ground that your side controls counts towards victory, and instead of conflict being concentrated around arbitrary control points a threatening attack can develop at any point along the always-visible front line. It also lets Eugen do more things with their morale system, as units that are suppressed by artillery or machine gun fire don’t project map control and are vulnerable to being cut off and captured by advancing enemy forces if they get caught behind a front-line that’s rapidly receding backwards.
Steel Division’s second improvement is more subtle, but almost as important: the bloated unit lists from Wargame have been cut down dramatically. Instead of picking your army list from an entire nation’s roster, you instead select a single division’s worth of men and machines. The units available to one division are necessarily more restricted and there’ll usually be at most 3 types of infantry and 4-5 different tank types to choose from, with nuances within unit categories mostly being provided by the number of tanks you get from a given unit card and their associated veterancy. That’s not to say Steel Division is any less grognard-y, as under the hood there’s still a very detailed statistics system that you could squeeze a little extra performance out of if you took the time to understand it, but it’s definitely less immediately overwhelming and doesn’t require an intimate understanding of the difference between a BMP-1 and a BMP-1P1.
In practice, though, I feel that Steel Division doesn’t quite live up to its potential. The mechanics and overall structure are very well thought out, and there’s a bunch of big quality-of-life improvements such as the absolutely essential line-of-sight tool. It’s let down by its maps, however; these are based off of actual aerial reconaissance photos of the Normandy terrain prior to the invasion, and while Eugen’s dedication to historical verisimilitude is admirable it’s also had the unfortunate consequence of every single map being bocage hell. The dense woodland and hedgerows of the bocage famously made progress against the German defenders difficult, and the same is true of Steel Division’s maps; it feels like the advantage is definitely with the defender as a single dug-in AT gun in a clump of bushes with good sightlines will make surrounding ground impassable for armoured forces. There are solutions, sure – artillery or airstrikes will at least suppress the AT gun while you rush tanks forward — but your supply of these solutions will always be outnumbered by the array of potential problems presented by the bocage. Making headway through the terrain is murderous, and while it’s not a game-killing issue it does suck to always be having to pry an opponent’s grip from a natural strongpoint one finger at a time; all the matches I’ve played have ended up feeling more or less the same, while Wargame at least went to some lengths to provide contrast with its mix of hills, mountains, towns and woodland.
This is nothing an expansion or a sequel can’t fix, though; I’m a little surprised Eugen went for Normandy when the Eastern Front covered something like 10x the land area and would have provided so much more variety for the player. They’ve shown enormous willingness to adapt and refine with Wargame so I’m sure that Steel Division 2, if it comes, will rectify the comparative blandness of Normandy’s map selection. In the meantime Steel Division is at least a very promising evolution of the Wargame formula, and hopefully a more accessible and sustainable one too.
Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2
Oh dear. I was rather looking forward to CSD 2, as the original devoured a couple of dozen hours of my life back in 2012 with its compelling Diner Dash-style setup of having to prepare several meals simultaneously by entering complex combinations of key presses, all while the customer impatiently waits at the counter for their order to be ready. The sequel is ostensibly more of the same — in the most literal sense of the word, as there are 180 dishes to prepare (compared with 30 in the original game) and they’re all drawn to look as succulently tasty as possible. The problem is that while visually they’re all very different, in terms of cooking preparation they’re all basically the same. This might sound weird when the “cooking” in this game consists of pushing B, Up and R very quickly, but CSD 1 had some dishes/activities that matched button presses to the actual meal activity quite nicely, like dicing vegetables by pushing up exactly 10 times or washing dishes by alternately hitting left and right to mimic wiping them with a cloth. These have all but vanished from the sequel, so once you have the ingredient letters memorised it’s basically just one step removed from a weird touch-typing game.
The thing is, that would actually be fine. I like touch-typing games – I loved Typing of the Dead, for example, and I wouldn’t particularly hold it against Cook, Serve, Delicious! if it replaced shooting zombies with sushi preparation. CSD 2’s problem is that it’s now got so many dishes it can’t keep up consistent letter assignment for its ingredients, however; a simple piece of chicken can be Chicken, cHicken or even chicKen depending on what you’re preparing, and so instead of memorising a common language that can be applied to all dishes you essentially have to memorise all 180 individually. And that’s a big ask. Couple that with the fact that the persistent restaurant management has been jettisoned and the “campaign” has been reduced to a series of preset challenge levels, and Cook, Serve, Delicious! has rather unfortunately lost a lot of its charm. It’s still compelling enough to begin with and will sustain you for a few hours, but eventually the number of dishes to learn becomes too overwhelming for that anemic structure to support. I’d actually recommend the original over it.
- The 1P has an ATGM welded to the turret which actually makes it somewhat threatening to armour. ↩