Last year's sojourn to Stockholm was more of a shock to the system than this year's visit. After a January living in a UK completely enshrouded in snow, touching down in the Swedish capital city for Paradox Interactive's yearly winter showcase to see yet more of the white stuff before exiting Arlanda airport into the biting cold just seemed like coming to another home away from home.
Following a debate at Stockholm City Hall - Sweden's stunning Nobel Prize venue - on the future of videogame development, we went back to our hotel room to prepare ourselves for an extensive presentation of Paradox's 2010 line-up. And as ever, the wealth of games on show from the Swedish publisher's massive portfolio was a varied selection ranging from hardcore RTS titles to more casual and mainstream fare such as Wild West-themed team-based cowboy shooter Lead & Gold and Norse-inspired multiplayer action adventure, Magicka.
Stockholm City Hall is an amazing building. It's only 100 years old, but the gold room has to be seen to be believed. It's made up of more than 80 million pieces of gold. We didn't count and check mind you.
Proceeds began with a talk-through of AGEOD's grand strategy, Rise of Prussia, a game built upon a foundation of five years experience with the genre, beginning with turn-based strategy Birth of America. Naturally, there are reams of daunting stats for grand strategy fans to get swept up in, although we're told the game is more accessible than previous AGEOD titles and is “easy to play, hard to master.”
Rise of Prussia is impeccably-presented with cool little portraits of Kings and Brigadiers to go with the masses of numbers, but it's the drag and drop system and the thinking time you're given that makes AGEOD's game more appealing to hardcore and slightly less hardcore strategy hounds alike.
Next up, was the follow-up to highly-acclaimed tank sim, Steel Fury: Kharkov 1942 – Graviteam's download only Achtung Panzer. Frankly, we were sold on the word 'tank', but when the chaps from Graviteam then went on to tell us about how there are howitzers, planes and the ability to destroy absolutely anything in the name of tactics, they had our undivided attention.
Achtung Panzer is certainly incredibly detailed, with a painstaking reproduction of the Kharkov landscape circa 1943, where the immense tank battles take place. All of the game's vehicles are thoroughly replicated to be as authentic as possible too, with realistic AI to match, but it's being able to blow holes in stuff that made this one stand out for us.
And now for something completely different. Magicka, developed by Arrowhead Studios, is a fast-paced action-oriented fantasy romp that's all about casting and combining various spells using a radical menu system and beat 'em up combat mechanics. Arrowhead are surprisingly candid when talking about the game, which is set in a “world (that) is super generic.” Magicka's setting is tongue-in-cheek fantasy built around a 4-player co-op experience and ten different spells to mix together in battle.
Magicka's four protagonists are outcasts in a humorous world packed with cliché, which also happens to be a 3D isometric adventure with a few RPG elements tossed in for good measure. It's the satirical leanings and knowing winks to pop culture and old school fantasy games that make Magicka sound like it will a lot of fun when it's released later this year.
We found this unappetisingly named chocolate bar at the airport. It doesn't taste as bad as it sounds. Honest.
By this point, the heat in the small presentation room begins to stifle and after a break, a caffeine injection and a handful of chewy sweets, we're ready to take on the second wave of games, which is appropriate given that Ship Simulator Extremes is next on the agenda. For more on V-Step's wet and wild sailing game full of rusty boats and other fraught missions on the high seas, check out our preview.
Once the taste of salty brine and the sound of sea shanties had dissipated, we were then shown Majesty 2's expansion, entitled Kingmaker, which came out on March 26th. Promising a free map editor, randomiser feature and an in-game shop alongside the brand new Return of the Grum-Gog campaign, Kingmaker is quite a substantial add-on for Majesty 2, and a quick demo of the powerful map editor manages to impress even us cynical journos with the level of detail you can tinker with. Nice stuff.
Mount & Blade Warband galloped into the room on a gigantic steed, armoured up to the nines and brandishing a broadsword (not really), showing off it's many improvements over the much-loved first game. Released on March 30th, Warband has a ton of new stuff for the medieval slice and dicer, including romancing fair maidens to marry into nobility and expand your influence, a new desert faction called the Sarranid Sultanate with their own Middle Eastern-style architecture and plenty of lovely visual enhancements across the board.
Multiplayer has been bolstered too with greater fluidity for its 32 vs 32 matches, which include Deathmatches, Conquest, Battle and the always excellent Siege, where you'll want be on the look out for the enemy trying to breach your castle stronghold, by busting through the doors or climbing up to the ramparts. Our tip? Shoot them with a few arrows through those little slitty windows.
From medieval times, to the wild west then as Fatshark's Lead & Gold: Gangs of the Wild West strolled through the heat haze and tipped its stetson before introducing colourful Team Fortress inspired multiplayer mayhem. Consisting of short, sharp objective-based team matches such as a capture-the flag type mode called Greed and a Counter-Strike bomb site game-type called Powder Keg, Lead & Gold is fun and frantic, as a quick hands-on with the game revealed.
Stockholm is always an amazing city to look at and wander around. Two days just isn't enough time. Not that we're complaining, you understand.
It's classic 4 on 4 red vs. blue stuff, with distinctive classes to choose from – Trapper, Blaster, Deputy and Gunslinger – each with their own buffs that can be synergised to share the benefits. Hence an emphasis on working together and using the different classes to the best possible effect. Weapons are authentically weak, but no less deadly when used properly and successful kills reward level up rewards for the current round. It's incredibly entertaining and compulsive enough to keep us playing for longer than we were allowed, so potentially Lead & Gold should well be worth a look when it's released on April 8th.
Back to the grand strategy and Neocore's Lionheart: King's Crusade, a detailed history lesson that aims to send players back to 1189 and the time of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. It's Europe vs the Middle East, Crusaders vs Saracens on sprawling battlefields, where real-time, large scale skirmishes take place across a variety of terrain with thousands of realistic soldiers. It's very campaign-driven, demanding that you invest in your army by winning their hearts and minds through your actions. The campaign is non-linear inasmuch that you're able to choose from a couple of different missions upon completing one.
The raft of tactical options at your army's disposal is huge, enabling deployment of iron nails, catapults, oil slicks and low walls to aid your struggle towards victory. You can also cut down forests and burn villages during your engagements, increasing the battlefield area that you can occupy to fortify your position. It all requires a great deal of strategic planning and management of your resources as well as raising your fame and the faith of your loyal army as you march upon the Holy Land in a bid to change or preserve history. Lionheart: King's Crusade is slated for Q3 2010.
Victoria II keeps the grand strategy steam train rolling, with Hearts of Iron veteran Johann Andersson presenting screens of brain-frying statistics that cover every aspect of managing complex politics and economical factors to keep the whinging population happy. “Victoria II is about shaping society,” states Andersson, which means keeping a close eye on social changes in addition to military concerns. While the huge game map is lovingly fully-textured and the user interface is carefully colour-coded for ease of use, the politics and ideology are black and white, which Andersson says will give you a more straightforward view of the game world.
That's not to say that Victoria II will be making too many concessions to increased accessibility. It's still as in-depth as any of Paradox's in-house strategy titles, boasting 200 countries to play as and a staggering number of options and figures to fiddle with. Will you be able to successfully balance resources, keep your workforce happy, deal with taxation, spending, costs, production, ideology, religion, voting, issues, migration, jobs, wealth, resources...the list goes on and on, but the info is all at a glance, Andersson is keen to point out. Victoria II is out late this summer.
The day ended with festivities at this medieval restaurant with fire-eaters and all sorts of entertainment from the Middle Ages. Even the bagpipes sounded good.
Manage, rule, fight is the mantra for Nitro Games' Commander: Conquest of the Americas, which sees the end of a lengthy presentation in stuffy sauna level temperatures. It's a trading and strategy game, which is a sort of semi-sequel to East India Company, so as such, there are dynamic naval battles between huge fleets, and a new world to colonise in order to expand your 'sphere of influence'. Creating a new empire is the goal, which involves growing your colony, generating resources and putting these processed materials into products for trade.
Whether you're an unscrupulous slave driver , diplomat or all-round nice guy to the natives has varying impact on production and trading, as does the advice of your advisers, who have specific fields of interest, ranging from military, religious and import/export. There's a versatile trade route planner for the latter, where you'll generate profits to pump back into acquiring luxury items and boost your income even higher. There are six European powers including Britain and Sweden, who will naturally be at war with each other meaning you'll interact with AI factions and engage in detailed naval skirmishes with 20 different customisable ship types. The game's due for launch Q3 2010.
There are two other titles we're shown that are still in the early stages of development, and so concept art is the only asset on display. Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter is first up, with snatches of concept art showing a new human class Leviathan vessel, customisable ships and a new addition to the six factions known as the Suul'Ka race. There'll be Destroyers, the Liir carrier and more organic-looking craft in the game, which Canadian developer Kerberos Productions say will be more than your usual 4X (expand, exploit, explore, exterminate) space game, with 3D space combat and 8-player multiplayer promised when the game releases in 2011.
This is the beginning of the end. If you're going to serve flagons of mead this big and then send us to a rock club and buy tequila, it's gonna get messy.
Magna Mundi meanwhile is the final game of the day, which looks very basic in its current state, but promises to deliver a new approach to grand strategy gameplay with emotional engagement. How it aims to accomplish this is by confronting players with over 2000 moral decisions to make over the course of a dynamic and innovative narrative. It was hard to visualise given the simplistic screens we were given, but the developer said all the right things, hinting at a deep yet accessible strategy experience where if you overreach, you'll get burned, apparently.
Rubbing our bloodshot eyes, we filed out of the presentation room and retreated to the hotel for a brief rest before the evening festivities. Whisked off to a medieval-themed restaurant, Paradox laid on a hearty buffet and an inexhaustible supply of mead in huge terracotta flagons. Suffice it to say that we got horrifically drunk, passed out after too much post-mead tequila and had to be dragged back to the hotel room by the very kind PR chaps. We'd like to apologise to them and the hotel receptionist, who had to watch as we assumed a foetal position on the lobby coffee table in an inebriated stupor. Sorry, but it was one hell of a day.