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A Game of Thrones: Genesis Review

Greg Tito | 14 Oct 2011 21:00
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Queen Nymeria landing on the sandy coasts of Dorne with her Rhoynish army; Aegon Targaryen riding his dragon Balerion in battle against the armies of Westeros; the usurper Robert Baratheon crushing Prince Rhaegar Targaryen in the waters of the Trident. These are the events that shaped Westeros before the story of George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire even began.

You might imagine it would be automatically fun and exciting to play out these events in a videogame, but A Game of Thrones: Genesis from Focus Home Interactive does a poor job of dramatizing them. Although shoddy mission design ruins the campaign, Genesis does have a few great design ideas that almost makes up for the poor quality of the rest of the game. The sultry intrigue, and vicious backstabbing that characterizes the plot of Game of Thrones is actually translated well in this RTS - not an easy feat - but I found myself longing for more climactic moments in the short single-player campaign.

Oftentimes, the single player campaign in a real-time strategy game is really just one long tutorial for the multiplayer or skirmish modes, slowly introducing new units or strategies so the player feels prepared when he starts duking it out online. Genesis takes that idea to its extreme by never challenging the player with the full breadth of the game. Even in the final chapters, I felt like I was still being taught how to use this or that unit instead of reveling in the conflict. And some missions are tuned so mind-numbingly easy on normal difficulty that they're just not engaging at all. Playing as a certain southern King coming to save the Night's Watch north of the Wall should offer more drama and chance of failure than just moving hordes of knights at a few poorly armed wildlings.

It's easy to point all of Genesis' failing. The game has an awful interface that fails the basic demands of an RTS with extremely unresponsive mouseclicks and terrible camera control. The icons for units should have a more distinct design so they were not so easily confused - it's very hard to tell one mercenary unit from another. The landscape is attractive, with swaying trees and walled cities that match generally Martin's description, but my main complaint is one of scale. The Wall doesn't feel imposing at all and the Red Keep dominates the city of King's Landing more than it should - you don't see the city at all. The static portraits of characters like Thoros of Myr do little to bring the story to life, and the representation of these single units on the map are so small that details are hard to distinguish - although it's hard to miss the flaming sword. The writing is stiff and too obviously gamey. It just feels off for flamboyant characters like Rhaenyra Blackfyre to explain game mechanics to the player as she fights her rebellion.

Using the non-combat units as if you were a spymaster of a Great House is easily the best part of Genesis. The relationships between the units are satisfyingly complex, with spies rooting out assassins and noble ladies seducing them to your cause. When Nymeria lands in Dorne, her first task for you is to send envoys to make alliances with the neighboring towns. These slow moving units can sway neutral towns to your side by filling up a status bar beneath the town. Once an alliance is formed, a merchant spawns and heads back to your feudal home, bringing you the wealth you need to hire more units. Your opponent can also send envoys to towns, but you can send his packing if you have your own unit there first. Or you could always just send an assassin to kill envoys as they approach. If you're nasty.

The interesting part is that your units are not always trustworthy, creating a real sense of deception beyond just fog of war. Rogues can buy off envoys, for example, and every alliance that envoy makes will be false. Spies can head into towns to create false alliances, making it look like the settlement is producing wealth for you when it is actually earning money for your enemy. The deception can be sniffed out, but the tensions of never quite knowing the political landscape works well. Just like in Martin's books, it's all about choosing who to trust as the realm marches towards war.

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