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.
Unfortunately, Genesis fails at delivering satisfying battles, an inexcusable offense for a real-time strategy game. The tooltips tell you that one military unit is better against another – possibly hoping to achieve a complexity in war similar to the intrigue – but the battles just blur into a sludgy mess of swords and horses. For some reason, you can hire several different kinds of armies using food supplied by peasants but I found it rare for crossbowmen to be any more effective than bowmen, for example. The campaign makes a point of instructing you to hide units in brush to set up ambushes, but doing so didn’t seem to make much of a difference. In addition, armies can only forcibly conquer territory after war is declared – I’ll get to that in a moment – so having a strong military is only really important in the last stage of the game.
When all of these options are available to the player, Genesis is very effective at delivering the sense of being the head of House Lannister or Stark. The problem is that the campaign too often restricts what you can do so you never feel like you are playing the game to its full potential when retelling famous events. Are you trying to subdue Dorne for Daemon Targaryen? All you can do is hire merchants, guardsmen and more merchants. Forget that assassin over there. He’s just a drunk wearing black.
The real game shines in House vs. House mode. A selection of maps allow you to take the role of a specific house – the Neck, for example, pits Stark against Tully while the Westeros map has eight Houses available – and your goal is to earn the most prestige points. All you start with is your unnamed feudal home and your great lord (I really wish these were properly labeled) but you have every unit and tactic in the game at your disposal. The designers tried to make the Houses distinct with special units like the Stark’s direwolf, and a bonus to certain units, like Lannister merchants earning 15 percent more gold. Such differences are welcome, but they don’t impact the game as much as they should.
The compelling part of this mode is the threat of war as Houses vie for prestige points. You can certainly win by using only diplomacy and intrigue but with every assassination or mercenary killed, the chance for all out conflict increases. Once the meter at the top of the screen turns red, war is declared across the map, all diplomacy is impossible and the player who can muster the most armies will generally succeed. Therefore, it’s important to stay at peace if you are concentrating on the non-combat game, and I liked that sending envoys with peace accords and releasing prisoners gives you the power to ride the perfect balance of keeping the Realm on the brink of war without actually engaging in battle.
It’s a shame that no one seems to be playing the game. Searches for multiplayer matches come up empty and there’s only so much joy to be had playing against the AI. After several matches, I was only seriously challenged in the 8-player map with the opposing House’s AI turned up to Hard.
Game of Thrones: Genesis is a functional game with fun boardgame-like mechanics that ultimately would be better received if it wasn’t tied to such a beloved license. As it stands now, the promise of living out dramatic events in the history of Westeros is not executed well, even if the non-combat mechanics of spies, assassins and bastards are fun in the House vs. House mode. Weaving a web of informants and diplomats is the one bright spot in an otherwise weak strategy game.
Bottom Line: Genesis is only successful at translating the intrigue of underhanded diplomacy that characterizes Martin’s books, but the poor mission design and interface balances out to a firmly mediocre game.
Recommendation: Grognards completely bored with standard strategy mechanics may find it worthwhile picking up Genesis to play with the unique non-combat units. Even fans of Game of Thrones will find the rest of the game disappointing.[rating=2.5]
This review is based on the PC version of the game.