G&G Reviews: Virgin Queen

Reviewer: Jacob Toman

Developer: Ed Beach

Published by: GMT Games

Genre: Strategy War Game

 

Virgin Queen is the sequel to the historical war simulation game “Here I Stand” from GMT Games. Game designer Ed Beach (who is also leading up development on Civilization 6 and developed Here I Stand) has outdone himself with another fantastic game that puts players in the midst of the power struggle of 16th century Europe.

My own favorite board games are games that offer difficult decisions for players to choose from. Virgin Queen challenges players in their decision making at every turn. Even the victory conditions add a layer to the challenge of decision making since there are multiple paths to victory.

Win condition 1: Have the most points after 6 turns.

Win condition 2: End a turn with 25 points or more

Win condition 3: Control enough Keys (particular cities)

Each player takes on the role of a major power seeking it’s glory around the globe. The major powers playable are Ottomans, Spanish, English, French, Holy Roman Empire and Protestants.

The game board is divided into one major primary action map, and several smaller action maps. Portions of the map are dedicated to representations of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Conflict has overrun almost every city, port, and religious group. While the conflict is often represented by armies crossing borders and laying siege to cities, there is another persistent conflict throughout the length of the game that exists beyond the board: this is the dynamic conflict of personalities between players gathered at the table.

The art of the game is beautiful and quite well themed!

The art of the game is beautiful and quite well themed!

A typical turn lasts about an hour. Each player has a chance to play a card from their hand either for a special event, or for resources to be spent on various actions. Making a choice between using a card for a special event or resources can mean the difference between winning and losing.

 

There are three major components to gameplay: Diplomacy, Military Strategy, and Balance of Power.

Diplomacy:

The ongoing dynamic of relational diplomacy is the driving force behind the game. As each player makes decisions for their factions, there are rivals, friends, traitors, and informants that emerge. Every strategy game I've played includes dice, armies, and managing resources, but no other strategy war game combines tactical military knowhow with grand political strategy. Virgin Queen rewards those who are masters of deceit, negotiating, and organizing; between turns plays can negotiate for the exchange of lords and ladies in marriage, pursue scientists, renaissance artists, trade cities, troops, fleets, and action cards. Because players have such a wide variety of options for trade, enemies can emerge from negotiations as trusted allies, while trusted allies can leave negotiations as treacherous brutes. It is the human element that makes this game so compelling; no two turns are the same, and no two games repeat history.

The game even has a separate board for keeping track of all the diplomatic nuances!

The game even has a separate board for keeping track of all the diplomatic nuances!

Military Strategy:

Wielding the combined forces of both land and sea, players engage in deciding who to go to war with, when to strike peace, and when to pirate promising rival ports. Each city, fort, and port are connected via paths; this type of movement mechanic is called “point to point”. Some of the particular nuances of point to point based movement systems are found in the choke points created through the limitations of available moves. The choke points along two rivals borders demand the attention of players who hope to achieve victory on the battlefield. While there is a lack of tactical combat in the battle results themselves (battles are resolved with a few simple tosses of dice), the challenge of military strategy in Virgin Queen comes in when and where to strike.

Certain factions have stronger land armies than their opponents or neighbors along a border. Choosing to go to war can be the clinching plot to a player's victory...or it can fail, and create an enemy that has a long memory of betrayal. Knowing when and where to strike with your military’s strength isn’t just a differentiating factor between play styles; it’s the difference between winning and losing in Virgin Queen. A general proverb of wisdom: when there is a war between 3 armies, never be on the side without the ally.

Balance of Power:

In a game of 6 players with rules that allow for anyone and everyone to band together, or fight to the death, much of the game is balanced around each player keeping another opposing player in check. Some factions are uniquely positioned to prevent certain types of victories and goals from being achieved by other rival factions; an example of this would be If player A leading a faction decides to ally with player B when the rest of the players were expecting players A and B to go to war. This unexpected change in political alignment can mean a massive shift in the direction of gameplay for the duration of the alliance. 3 players could try to negotiate an anti-aggression pact against one player in particular. If the other 3 players don’t make an attempt to prevent or disrupt this type of anti-aggression pact, they will soon see themselves out of contention for victory.

This sort of negotiation is common in games of Virgin Queen. In this example, by a small power group of players narrowing down the contending parties for victory from 6 to 3, they have increased their own chances of winning, while also removing potential threats. It’s for this reason that maintaining the balance of power, and everyone at the table communicating clear expectations to both enemies and friends, is so important. I’ve more than once seen two allies disappointed with each other as they each thought the other was responsible to prevent another player from accomplishing a goal. It’s a bit like in baseball if you’ve ever seen two outfielders run into each other trying to catch a ball. To play good defence in baseball, there has to be clear communication. The same is true to maintain the balance of power in Virgin Queen.

Faction descriptions:

While Virgin Queen is incredibly fun, it isn’t strategy alone that makes it great. The game’s excellence comes from the blending of a fascinating historical theme with compelling interactive mechanics. Each faction offer unique historical leaders, events, and paths to victory.

Ottomans: Suileman I

The Ottoman’s are a powerful force militarily at the start of the campaign. The Ottomans will be your favorite faction if you like bold aggression and the versatility to engage in war over land or sea.

Spanish: Philip II

The Spanish during this period of history are known for the construction of the great invasion fleet of England, the dreaded Armada. Players will enjoy leading the Spanish if they enjoy the multifaceted challenge of Juggling the many wars, alliances, and new world colonies.

English: Elizabeth I

Players take on the role of the Virgin Queen herself as they seek to expand the influence of the English empire across religious, political, and militaristic horizons. The English are for the sneaks, knaves, and rogues of gameplay.

French: Charles IX

The French player begins the campaign on the verge of victory. Centrally located between 4 other players, (Spanish, English, Protestant, and Holy Roman Empire) the French are in a tight spot diplomatically. France is best enjoyed by players who want to push themselves and their negotiations skills to the limits.

Holy Roman Empire: Maximilian II

Standing in the great gap between the ever expanding Ottoman horde and the west of Europe is the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire will be enjoyed by players that like to gauge their foes and wait for a decisive moment before making their game deciding play.

Protestants: Coligny, Henry Navarre, William of Orange, and Maurice of Nassau.

The Protestants are unique in Virgin Queen in that their lands are not their own at the outset of the game, nor are their lands united. Players who will enjoy playing as the Protestants thrive playing the role of spoiling upstart.

 

As a missionary that is pursuing relationships and seeking opportunities to listen to gamers and share Christ, this game provides a great platform for relationships that have already begun. I wouldn’t want to sit down and agree to a game of six, or eight, or twelve hours long with strangers or with people who didn’t want to share a daylong game. This game is analytical, strategic, and coercive, and that takes a special type of group to get together and play with.

I’m thankful that the Lord has allowed me to build relationships with many gamers in St. Louis to play Virgin Queen face-to-face with and around the world to play by email. At the end of one session of Virgin Queen, I had 2 friends who were atheists stay into the long dark hours of the morning talking about God. I strongly believe that conversation would never have happened had we not bonded and shared a day of gaming over Virgin Queen. You may never play a game of Virgin Queen, but would you be willing to pray for Gospel & Gaming as we play? Pray that the games we review, play, and share with others would be opportunities for God to be glorified!

Virgin Queen is not for the light hearted gamer. It’s long, and can at times be intense, but it’s near the top of my strategy games list right next to it’s predecessor Here I Stand. I’m hoping to play several more games of Virgin Queen this year by email, and maybe a few face-to-face. There aren’t many more ways I’d rather spend my board gaming time than with a masterpiece of historical theme, strategy, and diplomacy.

 

OVERALL SCORE: A-

 

 

G&G Reviews: Mirror's Edge Catalyst

Reviewer: Michael Mendis

Developer: DICE

Publisher: Electronic Arts

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC

 

When the original Mirror’s Edge was released back in 2008, it merged two popular game genres in a way that had never been done before.  Developer DICE (best known for creating the Battlefield first-person shooter games) created a first-person platformer: a game that took place entirely in first-person and focused not on combat (as pretty much every other game that played from the first-person perspective had), but on parkour-style climbing and jumping.  It was a unique experience that quickly gained a cult following of players who spent hours not only completing the game’s main story missions, but replaying the game’s obstacle courses to get the best times possible.  Fast-forward to 2016, and DICE has just wrapped up development on Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, a reboot that takes the mechanics of the original game and places it into a big open world.

In Mirror’s Edge Catalyst you play as Faith Connors, a young woman who lives on the rooftops of the city of Glass, hiding from the authorities as she and her fellow “runners” earn money by secretly and quickly delivering packages for various customers.  As mentioned above, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a reboot of the original; some elements of the game’s story and lore remain the same (Glass is still a near-futuristic city run by a big brother-esque totalitarian group of corporations), while others have been altered (Faith’s sister isn’t a cop like she is in the first game).  Altogether, the story premise is quite strong, and combined with the game’s absolutely stunning art style (which has some of the best use of color that I have ever seen in gaming), this makes Catalyst one of the most intriguing and unique AAA games on the market today.

Unfortunately, the game’s actual story fails to live up to its potential.  The plot is completely forgettable, and the story’s twists are way too predictable, robbing key moments of their dramatic weight.  The characters themselves aren’t much better; most of them (including Faith) are either just as forgettable as the overall story, or else are memorable only for how annoying they are. 

If the game’s story is disappointing, the high quality of the game’s traversal mechanics helps make up for it.  Running around the city of Glass is an absolute treat; the parkour mechanics from the first game could be a bit clunky at times, but in Catalyst they have been refined and are now as silky smooth as they always should have been.  The controls take a little time to get used to, but once you have mastered the basic flow of chaining together Faith’s jumps, slides, and wall runs, you’ll quickly find yourself sailing through the city, seamlessly leaping from rooftop to rooftop and scaling tall structures.  Nailing a smooth run is incredibly satisfying, providing an experience that you just can’t find in many other games.

While traversal has seen a clear improvement from the original game, the combat mechanics unfortunately have not.  Fighting is still rather clunky and repetitive; most enemies can be defeated with a few basic attacks, and while there are several different enemy types (multiple melee classes and a ranged class), they don’t pose much of a threat once you learn their attack patterns.  Faith can perform a few fancy combat moves when attacking from high above or when jumping off of a wall, but these flashier moves aren’t essential and are only likely to make you vulnerable in the process.  On a rare occasion you’ll get to see Faith perform a cool takedown in third-person when finishing off a group of enemies, which is a nice touch, but is, as I said, quite rare; I wish I could have seen it more often in the game.

Perhaps the biggest change from the original game to Catalyst is the open world structure.  While the first game was entirely linear and mission-based, the new game sets you loose to explore Glass.  In addition to the main missions (which contain a mix of traversal and combat), there are side missions and time trials scattered throughout the city, many of which are quite challenging; while a lot of these missions simply ask you to get from point A to point B in a set amount of time, some have special modifiers (such as avoiding being spotted by guards or security cameras) to keep the player on their toes.  The basic races (time trials with no modifiers) also have leaderboards, encouraging players to really master the game’s parkour skills and learn the best routes.  On top of that, all of the story missions can be replayed to your heart’s content, giving speedrunners yet another reason to come back again and again.

Alongside the open world structure is an upgrade system; as you complete missions and challenges, Faith gains experience that allows the player to upgrade her combat skills, traversal moves, and gear.  In a way, it feels like a rather pointless mechanic; most of the important skills you need can be unlocked within the first few hours of gameplay, and aside from an unlockable tool that stuns opponents, none of the other upgrades are all that memorable.  The new grappling hook, heavily advertised in the game’s marketing, can only be used at specific spots in the environment, and its presence acts more as a way to gate players (some parts of the city can only be accessed with the hook, which you only get part way through the game) than as an addition to gameplay.  You can also unlock runner tags: customizable symbols that will appear when you hack certain billboards (and will show up in your friends’ games as well).  For some bizarre reason, though, you cannot change your tag from within the game; you have to log on to a separate website in order to do this.  Why the developers failed to implement this into the main game, saving players extra hassle, is beyond me.

Altogether, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.  It’s not that the game doesn’t have anything good going for it; the clear improvements to the traversal mechanics and the myriad replayable missions and time trials offer plenty of fun moments.  But Catalyst’s missteps, namely the bland writing and poor combat mechanics, bring the whole game down.  And that’s a real shame considering the how unique this game is in a lot of ways, especially among big budget, AAA titles.

 

OVERALL SCORE: C-

 

 

G&G Reviews: Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

Reviewer: Michael Mendis

Developer: Naughty Dog

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Platform: PlayStation 4

 

The critically acclaimed Uncharted series has been one of Sony’s key franchises for almost a decade, and developer Naughty Dog has established themselves as one of the top-tier studios in the game industry.  Naughty Dog’s newest title, Uncharted 4, is not only their first game built from the ground up for PlayStation 4; it’s also the final game in the series, bringing protagonist Nathan Drake’s story to a close.  So does it live up to the weighty expectations that the franchise has built up for itself?

The story picks up with Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher now married and living a “normal life”; Nate is employed in a diving company searching for sunken wreckage, and Elena is back to professional writing.  They’ve left behind the life of adventure and danger that had defined them for years.  Nate can’t help but pine for the old days, though, and he’s thrown a curveball when he discovers that his brother Sam, who he thought had died many years before, is actually alive and well.  But Sam has gotten involved with some dangerous people who now expect him to find the lost treasure of pirate captain Henry Avery, and just like that Nate is swept up in another crazy adventure...but without telling Elena.

The Uncharted series is known for stellar writing, storytelling, and character development, and Uncharted 4 is no slouch compared to its predecessors.  Nate is still his lovable roguish self, bantering with the the other characters and injecting clever bits of humor into even the most perilous situations; the other characters also play off each other well, including the new faces like Sam.  Much of the overall plot should be familiar to anyone who has played (or is otherwise familiar with) the previous Uncharted games -- search ancient ruins, find clue that brings you one step closer to the treasure, repeat -- but a few narrative twists combined with the series’ hallmark dialogue and voice acting keep things interesting from beginning to end.  And while I won’t spoil any major plot points here, suffice it to say that the game’s ending does an excellent job tying up loose ends and wrapping up Nathan Drake’s story.

For those concerned about potentially objectionable content, Uncharted 4 certainly earns its Mature rating, as you spend the game killing scores of enemy soldiers throughout the game, and there is some strong language and a bit of blood present as well (though nothing in the way of gore).  It should also be noted, though, that there are some positive moral messages conveyed in the game as well; for example, this is one of the few games I can think of off the top of my head that portray marriage in both a realistic and positive light.

Like the other games in the series, Uncharted 4’s gameplay is predominantly a combination of platforming and third-person shooting.  The shooting mechanics are rock solid, allowing you to easily pop in and out of cover, grab weapons off the battlefield on the fly, and scamper about to find better vantage points.  Many combat encounters encourage you to take a stealthy approach; enemies can be marked on your HUD so that you can track their movements even when they move out of your line of sight, and if you get behind them without being seen you can take them down quietly.  In some cases you can avoid a firefight altogether by sneaking past the opposition and proceeding to the next part of the level.  All that being said, some encounters start with guns blazing, and it wouldn’t be an Uncharted game without a healthy dose of dramatic set piece moments, from fast-paced chase scenes to collapsing buildings.  The only small complaints I have are that on normal difficulty the enemy AI seems a bit too oblivious during stealth sections and generally a bit too easy to defeat in combat.  There are also a couple of one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat sequences in the game that aren’t explained well to the player, but thankfully they are short and infrequent events.

When you aren’t trading gunshots with a private army, you’ll be clambering up cliffsides and old ruins in search of Avery’s treasure.  These moments serve as a good break in the action and give the writers more opportunity to advance character development between Nate and whoever else may be with him at the moment.  Aside from a somewhat repetitive crate puzzle (find crate, push it to a spot that will let you climb up a high wall), the platforming sections are enjoyable, especially when you get the chance to swing around with the new grappling hook.  It doesn’t hurt that Uncharted 4 is visually stunning; on numerous occasions I found myself stopping during these calmer sections to admire the gorgeous vistas and lush vegetation found in many of the environments.  In addition to the platforming, there are also a few moments when you are tasked with solving a puzzle in order to find the next clue to the treasure’s location.  While the puzzles aren’t too difficult to solve, they are a nice chance to use some other brain cells and they add to the intrigue of the treasure hunt.

While the levels tend to be very linear, there are a few branching paths here and there that usually offer some reward, often either a new journal entry that adds to the lore, or one of the dozens of collectibles scattered throughout the game world.  The collectibles work the same way as they have in the previous games in the series -- Nate walks up to a shiny object on the screen and picks up an old artifact -- but the mechanic feels a bit shallow and dated in light of how the new Tomb Raider games handle the same idea; where Lara Croft will provide some insight into (and personal reflections on) the item she is picking up, Nate says nothing (odd, considering he’s otherwise quite the chatterbox).  It’s a minor gripe, but this mechanic in Uncharted 4 would have benefitted from a bit of evolution.

On top of the single-player campaign, Uncharted 4 also has a multiplayer mode that lets players compete with one another in one of three game types: Deathmatch (first team to 40 kills wins), Command (capture zones and KO enemy captains to earn points), and Plunder (carry the ancient idol back to your base).  The maps are well-designed and allow you to make use of the core mechanics of the game, including traversal moves like climbing up buildings and swinging across gaps.  There are also some cosmetic items (such as hats, shirts, and weapon skins) that you can use to customize your character, and which are purchased with in-game currency that you can acquire either through completing multiplayer matches or through microtransactions (AKA, real money).  Altogether, Uncharted 4’s multiplayer feels like icing on the cake; it isn’t incredibly deep, but it’s well designed and adds some extra replayability on top of the already fantastic single-player offering.

Naughty Dog has once again put together an absolutely incredible game, sending the series out with a bang.  Between the exciting gameplay, stunning visuals, and wonderfully written characters, Uncharted 4 is a gem that no PS4 owner should miss out on.


OVERALL SCORE: A+