Paradox Interactive in 2011

While at GDC I went to a PR event organised by Paradox Interactive, to look at some of the games in development for their publishing arm. They were set up in a Downtown apartment which probably looked quite tasteful before they filled it up with tables and computers. After a classic display of ineptitude on my part regarding the operation of the front door buzzer, I eventually settled in for a guided tour of the following five games:

* Pirates of Black Cove (PC)
* Supreme Ruler: Cold War (PC)
* Defenders of Ardania (PC, iPad, XBLA, PSN)
* Magicka Vietnam (PC)
* Mount & Blade: Fire & Sword (PC)

Full disclosure: They offered me a soft drink, but I turned it down.

I would describe Pirates of Black Cove as a real-time tactical RPG with an overarching management bent. Assuming the role of a young pirate captain, players must build a base of productive facilities in a friendly port, summon up a handful of seamen, and then sail around the Caribbean in search of tick-box mission objectives. These objectives tie in to a plot about uniting the warring pirate factions to defeat a dominant horde of ‘evil’ pirates, but let’s not think too hard about that right now.

Obvious comparisons could be made with Sid Meier’s Pirates! but as the team from Nitro Games walked me through a typical mission – rescuing a kidnapped governor’s daughter – a very different game began to emerge. While Pirates! presented your character as a lone hero, leading a pack of seadogs who were treated as little more than an expendable resource, Pirates of Black Cove has a much more personal focus on your crew.

Play begins at a friendly port town. Players can explore towns in a manner similar to Diablo, talking to NPCs in order to visit shops and collect quests. In certain empty plots around town players can charter the construction of barracks, blacksmiths and other productive buildings, from which they can recruit up to around a dozen crew members and research upgrades. Once they have a ship and a crew, players can cast off and begin cruising around the open waters in search of hidden treasure and rival ships to fight – ship-to-ship combat is fast and light-hearted, with a shipwright inspired by James Bond’s Q branch packing homing missiles and other gadgetry into your gunwals.

Once the player makes landfall – such as at the secret den of a kidnapper’s gang – gameplay switches to an interface that sits somewhere between Baldur’s Gate and a real-time strategy game, but feels vaguely reminiscent of Rainbow Six. The player must hector their units through these hostile areas, using each unit’s unique attacks and abilities to kill bad guys and plunder treasure as they go. I was particularly interested by the way the kidnapped governor’s daughter insisted on travelling alongside the main character one she was rescued – this gave her some personality and transformed the pirate captain from the most dependable unit at the player’s disposal into a great liability, which added a great deal of tension to the long walk back to the ship.

Supreme Ruler: Cold War, described to me as a ‘geopolitical strategy game’, is the latest in a long series of terrifying nuclear war simulators almost 30 years old. Sitting somewhere between Diplomacy and Risk, the basic aim of the game is to steer a country through the Cold War era without being purged in atomic fire.

In practice, the aims of the game can be left to the player’s own definition. The primary mode of play is to manage either the USA or USSR and attempt to ‘win’ the war in a scripted campaign, but many other options are available in the sandbox mode – I am assured that every country is a playable faction, and players can easily set their own victory conditions and limit themselves to smaller theatres of conflict. If you’ve ever wanted to play a strategy game in which Burundi rises from its slumber to conquer the whole of Africa, against the distant backdrop of warring nuclear superpowers, then Battlegoat have got you covered.

The whole game engine is built around the historical Russo-American conflict, with a large ‘influence bar’ charting the power struggle between their Communist and Democratic political blocs – even if you are playing as Samoa, the battlelines between the superpowers still loom large across your screen. And the fact that the AI continues to simulate the global political environment while you focus on your own personal conflicts opens up the exciting possibility that your otherwise successful trade war with Micronesia could be cut short by an unexpected nuclear apocalypse.

Defenders of Ardania is a tower defence game.

I don’t know what to say about tower defence games. That’s not a polite way of saying I hate them, just that I’m not familiar enough with the format to form any kind of meaningful opinion. How is a tower defence game supposed to make you feel? I cannot say. I suppose they must have their roots in the act of turtling in RTS games – the satisfaction of building an unbreakable defensive wall, watching your opponent’s attacks break harmlessly like waves against a cliff.

What I can say for sure is that this is a multiplayer game for up to four players, and you build towers to defend your HQ and send troops to attack other players. Apparently the sending of troops is an unusual new addition to the genre; personally, it just reminded me of games like Warfare 1944. To return to my earlier comments, this basically makes the game a full-blown RTS with direct unit control streamlined out, which seems appropriate for many of the platforms they are targeting.

Defenders of Ardania features three different factions – generic fantasy good guys, generic fantasy monsters, and demons & undead – which is an intriguing number for a game that will probably be played least often with three players. It would seem that the designers at Most Wanted Entertainment are planning a Starcraft style of factional imbalance. That’s pretty interesting, right? I was also shown a system of economic controls, managed through a set of competitive advantage doctrines – for example, you might choose to take a 10% discount on the cost of towers that comes with a 10% increase in the cost of units. Speaking as an economics nerd, it made me feel all warm inside.

If you have an in-depth understanding of tower defence games and would like to explain their appeal, please write up your thoughts as a comment on this article. I enjoy learning.

I was shown the trailer for Magicka Vietnam and if you watch the following video you will know almost as much about it as I do:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cs2DsoiA54Y[/youtube]

I say “almost” because I also got to chat with Johan Pilestedt, CEO of Arrowhead and game director on Magicka. He told me that there would be a few new spells in the game, but no new magical elements – the main draw of the game isn’t the new gameplay features, but the new levels and content. That said, the change in setting is leading to some changes in gameplay. One example of this is that, because of the widespread use of guns and grenades among your enemies, there will be an increased emphasis on tactics and cover instead of using purely magical defence.

Johan Pilestedt has a bitchin’ business card and is younger and more successful than me 🙁

Unless you happen to be a fan of Eastern European historical novels, Mount&Blade: With Fire & Sword is basically just Mount&Blade: Warband with some new features. Set in 17th Century Poland – a period where the country was under regular attack from all directions – Fire & Sword departs from the fictional universe of TaleWorlds’ previous games and introduces a bit more realism in the process.

Blackpowder weapons such as muskets and grenades are now available, siege options have been expanded to include the bribery of guards and the poisoning of wells, and team multiplayer has been improved with a mode in which players can command their own personal unit of warriors on the battlefield. On a more nuts-and-bolts level many of the attack animations have been revamped, which should make your character look less like they are having a seizure when fighting from horseback. Many of these features have already been unofficially added to the game through its extensive collection of fan mods, but it is good to see them brought in-house.

If by chance you are a fan of Eastern European historical novels, you’ll probably be pleased to hear that the storyline is based on The Black Hetman by Alex Trubnikov, with some characters taken from the Henryk Sienkiewicz’s book With Fire and Sword (which is apparently hugely popular in Poland). I have not read either book.

Each of the five games are in very different states of development but, while I’d rather not speculate on specific release dates, they look like they could all be released within the next 12 months.