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The Search

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I eased out of hyperdrive with mild pangs of space-sickness. Too many dizzying rides through the waves of stretched starlight; too many juddering descents onto unknown worlds. My eyes, tired from scanning the systems for habitable planets, from gazing at landscapes both fertile and barren, from staring through the atmospheric haze of a hundred disappointments, now longed to rest once more on the soft, green grasses and gentle skies of Leura Falls.

Looming before me was a familiar sight – the unloved furnace of Fustung. Through the gaseous blur of this reddish sphere, I spied my destination – a massive waterworld, a super-Earth with ninety percent of its surface covered in blue ocean. It was here, on one of the many green islands which dotted the briny waters, that I was determined to make my home.

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Leura Falls – or so I thought

I pointed the nose around the apex of Fustung and punched in the pulse drive. One more bumpy skip through the asteroid belts and I would be home. As the planet lined up in my sights, the targeting computer locked on and planetary data began its read-out on the screen. At first I paid little attention to this, so that I was already familiar with this information. Then, taking another glance, I saw the planet’s name, and blinked: Injamiaogul.

I was shocked. Wasn’t this Leura Falls? Was I not in the right system? I checked the galactic charts to confirm my whereabouts, and there was no mistaking it: I was unquestionably in the Faren Sav system – a system in which I had discovered every planet and landed on their surface. What then was this other planet? There had been another water-world in the system – Three Sisters – was I mistaking the two? If so, why would its name have changed?

I pulled up abruptly, cutting the engine and bringing my ship to a barely perceptible drift. Turning in a circle, I visually scanned the system to see if my would-be home was elsewhere. Perhaps there been another planet here all along, hidden from line of sight by one of the others. I looked closely into the seemingly endless sphere of space that surrounded me, yet there was nothing; indeed, I could not see another water world at all. Leura Falls had somehow changed, yet Three Sisters had been erased from existence altogether.

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As I hoped to find it…

I turned back to Injamiaogul, taking a closer look. Perhaps merely the name had changed, or the planet had reverted to its pre-discovery place-holder, which I could no longer recall. Perhaps if I flew down to the surface I would find things much as they been before and be free, once again, to name and claim the planet.

I kicked in the engine again and sped towards the surface. Upon closer approach, it was immediately clear that this was a different planet altogether. The colour of the islands had changed as well as that of the oceans, and my worst fears were confirmed when I broke through the upper atmosphere. Gone was the green grass and the swishing trees, gone were the docile grazing beasts I had spent some time studying. In its place was a lurid nightmare; a reddy, yellowy mess that felt wholly uninviting. I was, to say the least, gutted.

Such was my fate when I logged back into No Man’s Sky after its first major update – Foundation. The update has made significant changes to the algorithms that procedurally generate the planets, and, as a consequence, some have been re-generated from scratch altogether. The Foundation update had taken me by surprise – I was totally unaware of its release the day before I published my review of the original game, and was both shocked and excited upon discovering it.

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Reading through the notes, it was clear that much had been altered, making the bulk of what I had written about game strategies worthless. This was, admittedly, a little frustrating, but such was the promise of the swathes of changes to the game, that I was keen to get stuck in. Having just written about the game, and thus being on something of a roll, it made sense to play through the new material and review it as quickly as possible. The update has introduced the ability to claim planets as a home-world and build bases on them, and so it was that, upon logging in, I warped hundreds of light years across space, back to my favourite planet, in order to begin laying the foundations of a galactic empire.

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I could not find this planet at all, or was it perhaps Leura Falls that had disappeared? Confusing

 

The loss of Leura Falls seemed a pretty rough fate. It never occurred to me that it might not be there anymore and thought I would always be free to return here. After all, weren’t our discoveries in No Man’s Sky supposed to have the integrity of a real discovery? That what we found would be there as long as the game’s servers continued to run? I felt so deflated that I was ready to give up there and then. How many other planets? Did the same fate await me in all the systems I had explored? It seemed logical to assume that this was the case. Why some and not others? The missing planets were still showing in my records; still listed as part of the Faren Sav system, yet they were no longer in the game world itself, certainly not as they were. It was only later that I noticed that all my discoveries on the surface – flora, fauna and mineral – had been erased from the planetary data.

"What happened to Buzz-Saw ?" "He had to split."

“What happened to Buzz-Saw ?” “He had to split.”

My first thought was that this was only going to piss more people off. No Man’s Sky has, since its release, become a favourite whipping boy of gamers with accusations of fraud, dishonesty and deception circulating alongside a general anger at the lack of communication from the studio. Was this potentially going to cause another public relations nightmare for Sean Murray and Hello Games? As a fan of the game, I certainly hoped it wouldn’t, though I did feel let down on this score. I took a deep breath and put things into perspective. Okay, losing my favourite planet sucks, but if this is the price of having a much better game, I’ll be willing to wear it. There was, after all, a huge amount of new material and changes waiting to be explored. It was time to get stuck in.

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Time to get started again

Fortunately, the deletion of Leura Falls turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The tragedy of its destruction gave me pause. I didn’t want to found a base just anywhere, so I would need to find a suitable planet and this would take time. And anyway, what was the hurry? What was the rush to found a base? I had already learned to love No Man’s Sky for what it was – a game of exploration and discovery, of the freedom to visit quintillions of worlds, of the chance to sustain a restless, endless wandering. Settling down immediately might put an end to the joy of discovery. Could there possibly be anywhere near as much pleasure in construction and crafting as there was in discovering wholly new planets? Perhaps more importantly, I now at last had a real purpose to my quest; a real reason for this endless journey: to find a planet so utterly beautiful that I would actually want to live on it.

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How many worlds would it take to find a new home?

Thus began what can only be described as an epic journey across the cosmos. In three days I warped through more than thirty star-systems, flew through three black holes, caused the birth of a new star, visited more than a hundred planets, took part in numerous local conflicts, mined and traded millions of credits in minerals, and all the while I burned with a restless energy to find the perfect planet.

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In retrospect, I can say this much; there is no such thing as the perfect planet. Yet there are many planets which are remarkable, indeed, jaw-droppingly beautiful, along with many that are, in their own sweet way, appalling. The new algorithms and the new designs in flora and fauna have expanded the richness and diversity of worlds in a welcome way. Water is more interestingly distributed on surfaces and can even be found in dry places, such as the squelchy floor of a rocky canyon on an otherwise parched planet. It pools in the lowlands in a wider range of depths; some lakes are so shallow they never even bother your knees.

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All told, when it comes to planetary generation, the Foundation update is a huge improvement. In every other regard, it is practically a new game, very different in what it asks strategically and considerably better balanced. Nearly everything said before about mining and resources is now redundant, such is the manner in which they have been reworked: their frequency dramatically nerfed; the ability to mine them now contingent on technology; the range of elements significantly expanded; their distribution and appearance on the surface radically altered. They are also needed in new and more specific ways, along with being less interchangeable, as a source of recharging for example. Thus resources such as Plutonium and Thamium 9 become immensely valuable for survival, if not monetarily.

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There is much more to be said, but I’ll save that for a review. This post is really a travelogue; a photographic journal of my desperate quest across time and space before settling on the planet Sollomyth. One of the great pleasures of No Man’s Sky is that it offers an immersive experience of travel at a time when, on account of having a two-year old son, I can’t easily go travelling. As a photographer, this game lets me shoot scenes I could never dream of framing, outside of being a citizen of some intergalactic empire. The gorgeous rendering of these incredible places is nostalgic in tone, born of a love of the dreamy visions that adorned the covers of space-race science fiction. Often, everywhere you look is a potential book-cover, a fine example of art by algorithm. And, while it ain’t exactly the real thing, this simulation is almost as good as a holiday, a key sign of which is that the photographs fill me with a similar, if less potent, form of nostalgia.

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Home at last

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In Defence of No Man’s Sky

NOTE: Within seconds of publishing this review, I realised that a new and major update had been released the day before, introducing many of the features people had complained were missing from the game and making significant tweaks that will radically affect game-play. No doubt, by the time I get around to reviewing these changes, it’ll change again, but it is certainly pleasing to see that the changes have been made and it vindicates my faith in Hello Games and their continued commitment to making this great game even better. The Foundation Update notes can be found here.

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No Man’s Sky ended up having a pretty rough landing. Within the space of a week it went from being the most anticipated game in years, to making some of the most successful sales figures on release, to being flamed by users and put in its place by lukewarm reviews. Many players felt greatly disappointed, if not cheated and there has been a flurry of buyers asking for their money back. More recently the developers, Hello Games, were subject to a false advertising probe after claims that the content showcased in the trailer had not materialised in game and that the promotional material was therefore deliberately misleading. Company director and key designer of the game, Sean Murray, has seemingly gone to ground, with some speculating that his lack of communication suggests the independent studio has in fact been abandoned and that there is no intention of fulfilling the promises of further updates and expanded content, though this is unsubstantiated rumour and speculation.

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What lies ahead for No Man’s Sky?

Much of this criticism feels unfair towards a game that, in spite of what it lacks, still offers a great many magical experiences and is an important milestone in procedurally generated game-worlds. It is also pretty rough on the developers, who are a small, niche company without the massive resources that usually underlie such ambitious game developments. Perhaps Sean Murray needs to learn a thing or two about public relations, but, considering the manner in which haters, trolls and flamers on the net make their feelings known, he can hardly be blamed for stepping back while this shitstorm of nastiness runs its course.

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Looks like a shitstorm ahead…

Personally, I think Sean Murray and his colleagues at Hello Games should stand up and take a bow, for No Man’s Sky is a magnificent piece of work. For three weeks I wanted to do nothing more than explore this effectively endless galaxy and had no trouble in clocking up almost a hundred hours before running out of steam. Unfortunately, despite this seeming a worthwhile return from any entertainment product for a mere 50 odd dollars, (consider what you pay for a film at the cinema and how long it lasts) many people assume that the game should go on providing hundreds, if not thousands of hours of gameplay. Arguably such expectations are built into the game’s very premise. A galaxy that is, to all intents and purposes, never-ending, certainly suggests limitless play, but then again, arguably, the game delivers precisely that. Despite there being significant limits to what one can do in the game, there is absolutely nothing stopping players from continuing to explore this universe for decades.

So, where do you draw the line? There are many games which cost the same price and which can be completed in under ten hours. Do people ask for their money back with those titles? It all comes down to expectations, many of which were inflated not merely by Hello Games’ promotional material, but by players’ overzealous imaginings of what might indeed be possible.

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Not good enough?

Having said that, there are many legitimate criticisms of No Man’s Sky’s core promise of seemingly infinite procedurally-generated variety. Reviewers and gamers have complained about the shallow pool of elements which go into generating the planets, their lack of flowing water and the universal climates which prevail, with no distinction between the equatorial zone and the polar regions. Others have complained about the simplicity of space-battles and the absence of the more grandiose encounters hinted at in the promos, along with the general lack of game-play. It is not possible to craft anything beyond upgrades for one’s ship, Exosuit and Multitool, and once these have been taken to a decent enough level, there is little incentive to find resources, except for fuel, survival and trading, which are really just ends in themselves.

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Maxed your equipment? Just relax and enjoy the scenery

No Man’s Sky is, essentially, a survival and trading game, and on both counts, it has its limitations. You will spend much of your time monitoring life-support levels, recharging your shields and equipment and firing your mining laser at crystals, vegetation and ore deposits.

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This sets up an at times tedious loop of resource extraction, finding a place to sell the goods, cleaning out your inventory, and then rinsing and repeating the whole thing over again. Survival in No Man’s Sky is also relatively easy, though this depends on the environment and climate. There’s rarely a shortage of elements to mine to recharge one’s suit and the biggest challenges usually come from the climate and weather. The good news is that it’s really up to the player to choose what level of challenge they are willing to accept. No Man’s Sky can be played slowly and safely on a clement world with mild temperatures and a hospitable atmosphere, where you can walk at your leisure and hardly ever have to charge your suit, or it can be played intensely in hostile environments where you are forced to seek shelter continually from radiation storms and icy blasts that send the thermostat below a hundred minus or up to 400 degrees centigrade.

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Frozen goggles

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328.5 Celsius – ouch

The challenge is also increased depending on the local attitude of the Sentinels. These are basically automated flying cameras with guns, which can be violently hostile on sight, or completely ignore your presence. Upon first landing on a planet, the relative degree of hostility is revealed by a rating, such as “passive”,  “hostile” or “frenzied”.

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Sometimes even looking seems to set them off…

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So much for paradise if you get attacked on sight

Much of the time they will ignore you, but mining too much of a material or destroying too much plant or animal life can really tick them off. There are also particular rare items that can be looted on planets such as Vortex Cubes or Albumen Pearls, and these will set the sentinels off irrespective of their attitude rating. “Frenzied” sentinels are, as the name suggests, cranky mofos and they will attack within five seconds of sighting the player. Either way, the sentinels are disappointingly easy to deal with and are more of an annoyance than anything else. They can also spoil immersion at times with their whirring gears and pulsing power sources intruding into the beautiful atmospherics.

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Don’t scan me, bro

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Careful what you harvest, it may anger the Sentinels

The ease or difficulty of play will inevitably appeal to different temperaments or moods. If you are happy just to wander in a pleasant, immersive environment and enjoy its beauty or bleakness, then the game offers such opportunities in spades. If you long for intensity and danger, it’s pretty easy to find a planet with an extreme environment to up the stakes.

The game begins on a random world, and consequently all players will have a very different starting experience, depending on the climate, environment, etc. The first job is to repair your ship, which offers a brief and not entirely intuitive tutorial-like opening, before moving onto the task of building a hyperdrive to allow you to travel between the stars.

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An early choice in the game, though the decision is by no means irrevocable

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Struggled to find Zinc at first. It’s in the yellow flowers…

Each planet, however, is, well, planet-sized and initially offers a huge range of exploration options. It is entirely possible to remain on the one planet forever and continue exploring, crafting and improving one’s equipment as, it seems, one player famously did in the days immediately after release.

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These pods can be used to purchase Exosuit inventory space

All planets contain a number of alien outposts, scattered about in densities that vary from world to world. These outposts come in a number of different forms; some being small research stations with a couple of shipping-container sized habitations, while others are more complete complexes – observatories, command centres, trading posts and spaceports.

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Space station stock exchange

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These trading interfaces can even be found floating at locations on the surface of a planet

These can be found simply by flying over terrain and looking for signs of structures, using the scanner on one’s ship, or, with the help of an easy-to-craft bypass chip, using the Signal Scanners which are often found at these outposts.

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Some of the larger outposts are occupied by one of the three different alien races in the game: the Gek, Korvax and Vy’keen (shown below, respectively) none of whom are hostile, though they can get pissed off at times.

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The encounters with the aliens are initially intriguing, if somewhat sparse and minimalist in dialogue, yet, limited though it might be, the dialogue is a puzzle in itself. One of the great innovations of No Man’s Sky is the ability to learn three different languages, which gradually improves your capacity to communicate. To begin with, they speak mere gobbledegook, but as you flesh out your vocabulary with key words, learned from Knowledge Stones, databanks, ancient alien sites, electronic encyclopaedias and encounters with other aliens, it becomes possible to make out enough of what they are saying to choose the appropriate response.

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The learned words, should they be used, will appear in English in the dialogue transcript, giving you the chance to decipher the overall meaning. This process is aided by one’s intuition, for the player is offered text-based insights into the actions and possible desires or intentions of the alien interlocutor based on observation of things such as body language or mood. This can at times make it very easy to choose the right response, but certainly not always.

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Say what?

The Alien ruins are attractive structures which allow the player to interact with them and usually face a choice with a chance for a reward. These often contain engaging story elements that can be quite emotive, but they also offer a chance for new equipment, upgrades, language learning and the chance to increase one’s standing with the alien races – a sort of diplomacy level that gives you more options in dialogues.

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These encounters also allow the player to learn new blueprints for technology which can be crafted. Blueprints can be acquired in a number of ways – through aliens, from wrecked machinery, crashed spaceships and various interactive terminals inside alien buildings. The blueprints are essential for improving the capability of your Exosuit, Multi-tool and spaceship, though the number available is disappointingly limited. After a flurry of discovery, you will find yourself constantly being told that the blueprint you discovered is already known.

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The only blueprints that seem almost impossible to find are those for the Atlas Pass 1, 2 and 3. Countless locked doors and containers in the game require one of these passes to open, and even after 100 hours of play, I’ve still only found the first pass, which opens practically nothing.

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By contrast, within only around forty hours of play, I had already maxed out my tech knowledge for the suit, ship and tool, which rather made exploring seem a whole lot less worthwhile. And ultimately, this is the main problem with No Man’s Sky. There is a feeling that sets in rather too early that there is actually almost nothing to do.

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Crashed ships can be claimed and repaired, though they are usually of a lesser quality than your own

There is certainly a lot of repetition in No Man’s Sky and this ultimately occurs in pretty well all aspects of the game. Outside of game-play itself, the terrain certainly has its limitations. The cave interiors on planets are universally built on the same template, with only minor variations in the undergrowth and shape of the mineral outcrops. They might be a great place to find valuable crafting materials, and initially very attractive, but they become all too familiar pretty quickly. Other frequent repetitions are the mushrooms which grow even on planets that are supposed to have no fauna, the large succulents which I call “jazz hands” and the iron ore outcrops, especially the ones that look like big upturned thimbles with shrooms sprouting from them.

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Jazz Hands aplenty

Underwater life is restricted to some very similar designs in flora, fauna and mineral deposits, though this does not in any way detract from the pleasure of swimming through these landscapes.

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Beautiful and smooth; underwater life in the variously coloured oceans

The range of surface temperatures also seems somewhat limited. Nowhere is really ever as cold as Pluto, nor do they get much hotter than a few hundred degrees, and then only during a fire storm.

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Extreme Toxic rain and hostile creatures, best to get off this planet quickly

All these elements are thrown together in different ways on every planet, but once you’ve visited around forty or so planets and moons, most of the terrain, rock formations, flora and fauna will all start to look familiar. And yet, there is no denying that plenty of those combinations are breathtakingly beautiful or astonishingly bleak and planets can be a delight either to walk around or fly over.

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How anyone could not find beauty in this game is beyond me

From space the planets seem majestic and inviting, or daunting, forbidding and mysterious. At times the nature of the surface only really becomes visible on close approach, or even during descent as the terrain resolves itself from the fog of the distant LOD. The first sighting of a world covered with oceans is thrilling, as are the green ones offering abundant life; such welcome and familiar sights.

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Green oceans ahoy!

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Another barren furnace?

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Spoiled for choice

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Breathtaking science fiction vistas abound

The star systems in the game come in different colours, Yellow, Red, Blue, Green which require different types of warp drive to access.

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The more difficult to reach systems offer richer pickings with regard to exotic and rare resources, but might also offer a more hostile welcome. They tend to contain more water worlds, which seem rather prevalent around green Type E stars. I personally had some gripes with the make-up of planetary systems, which are entirely devoid of gas giants.

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Many planets, but always just the one sun

Perhaps it just seemed pointless including planets whose surface could not be visited, though it would have been fun to let us learn the hard way not to fly into the crushing pressure of such beasts. Either way, the game feels less realistic as a consequence. Would it have been that difficult to throw a few into the algorithm, or even allow players to visit asteroids? There are also no binary systems, despite the fact that roughly 85% (yes, that’s correct) of known star systems in the Milky Way are binary or multiple systems. Gravity is also identical on every world and, while I can accept that it might have been no fun at all trying to move around on a planet with gravity ten times that of the Earth, surely this could be rectified with an Exosuit upgrade, and, on the flip side, it would have been a hell of a lot of fun to bounce across the surface of a low-gravity planet. I accept that this is a different galaxy and possibly a different universe, and hence it is up to the designers to choose the physics of this universe, which, are, to say the least, odd, considering the number of floating rocks and minerals to be found on planets. Still, binary worlds would have been a chance for even more beauty in the game, of which there is plenty, and which is never a bad thing.

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Wonderfully bleak

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There is also very limited information about the planets and the arrangement of these systems. Could we not know the distance from their star more readily? This is only really shown when heading towards a planet, and then only with regard to the time it takes to arrive there from your present position. That’s great if you want time to smoke a pipe, but not so great if you would like to know which planets are closest to the sun, something that is not always obvious. Could the ship scanner not provide a map showing their orbital paths relative to each other, as in Mass Effect? And with that in mind, what is the mass of these planets? Their diameter? None of this information is available and it’s disappointing for people such as myself who are obsessed with the dimensions of exo-planets and the many new dwarf planets we keep finding in our own system. Sure, we can see that some planets are much larger than others, but I’d like to know whether I’m on a super-Earth or a Ceres.

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Some pretty super earth-like worlds

The malleability of the terrain on these worlds is impressive and offers a lot of freedom. I’ve gotten utterly lost in underground caves before, unable to find a way to the surface and ended up blasting my way through the cave roof. Your scanner becomes your best friend in such situations, as it also reveals objects that are above you, allowing you to judge roughly how much rock is over your head. If you pick the right spot, you can blow holes in the rock with plasma grenades and, when the sky becomes visible above, simply jetpack out of there and kiss your claustrophobia goodbye.

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No way out? Blow a hole in the roof

Even when there is a lot of rock, you can blast a tunnel as high as your jetpack will allow you to fly, punch a ledge into the side of your shaft, and then get back to the job of blasting the rock above your head until the light breaks through. Now that’s cool. And, this strategy works both ways. Standing on top of a huge deposit, but unable to find an entrance to the cave system? Hey presto, just plasma grenade your way through the ground until you drop into the cave, or blast a tunnel as long as you need through the side of a mountain.

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A tunnel I dug myself, from one cave to the next

Being underground, or even just out of the wind, ensures that any harmful environmental effects are negated and this makes blasting a hole in the rock and hiding in it a great survival strategy in extreme environments.

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As if it wasn’t hot enough already – Radioactive storms!

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Don’t go too far from your ship or shelter on extreme worlds. Even the best protection won’t last long

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Another close call

In such hostile places, particularly when a storm strikes, the thermal protection bar will drop like a stone and you might well be caught in the open, too far from your ship to make it home. Many times I’ve had to run desperately underground, find a shaded windbreak, or blast my way into the rock, or the base of a mineral outcrop to create a sheltered cave. You can also exploit this terrain destructibility to mine safely in extreme environments.

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This used to be a huge Heridium deposit. Time to put in a swimming pool…

If you begin by blasting away the base of a mineral outcrop, you can climb into the hole, stabilise your thermal protection, and fire your laser upwards to mine the wealth overhead. Fortunately, on account of the strange physics in this game, the material never collapses on your head, even when none of it is left touching the ground. It just hangs in the air, as do huge floating hunks of copper and occasional rock platforms on some worlds, reminiscent of the Hallelujah Mountains in Avatar.

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Floating rocks!

As stated earlier, mining resources can become a little tedious after a while and it’s best to mix this up and not become too obsessive. Though mining is strangely compelling, it does get rather boring standing in the one spot and blasting, or “lazing” away at a gleaming chunk of aluminium, for example.

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The Swiss-cheese approach to ore extraction

It is perhaps more exciting to venture into cave systems and head towards the grey treasure chest symbols revealed by the scanner, which indicate the most valuable metals. These cave networks can extend for very long distances and the further one ventures inside, the more one is rewarded with richer deposits, usually found in the green crystalline forms of Gold, Aluminium or Emeril.

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This at least makes the process of ore-harvesting more dynamic. It’s just a pity all the caves look pretty much the same, though they are, in their way, attractive spaces and there is something thrilling about watching the scanner burst like a wave through the tunnels.

Predators can also significantly raise the tension, particularly when trapped in a cave with them. Most of the time hostile animals will seem a mere nuisance, doing little harm and being easy to flee from. Yet, on occasion, when they appear in numbers in an extreme environment with other stresses already upon you, they can prove to be very dangerous.

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This thing was annoyingly bitey

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All those red paw symbols are hostile creatures

Such was the case where, trapped in a cave, hiding from a freezing storm, I was cornered by four scorpion-like creatures who bit the hell out of me before I managed to blow a hole in the wall and climb out of their reach. Of course, you can just kill them, but they take a surprising amount of damage at times and the gun can be frustratingly crap at hitting the target at times.

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Fortunately, he was friendly

All this variation in the intensity of the game-play means that it can be heart-pumpingly challenging at times, and immersively relaxing at others. Yet, after a while, when one has discovered many worlds, fleshed out all the available techs and upgraded equipment sufficiently to overcome all challenges, it begins to seem rather pointless. At present, after a hundred or so hours of play, my Exosuit and Multitool are sufficiently maxed to overcome any challenges and I struggle to see any reason to upgrade my ship, which already has the best possible warp-drive and seems able to win any encounter with hostile spaceships readily enough.

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Sure, I could improve my cargo capacity, but why? It’s easy enough to haul loot back to a space-station, or find a trader on the surface of a planet, which rather makes it an end in itself. This sense of pointlessness is not aided by the fact that it is not possible simply to start the game again. I thought I must be missing some fundamental option on the menus, but Googling this shows that there is no way to start afresh, without going through a relatively complex process of editing files and directories. You could of course just abandon your ship and start again with regards to your equipment, but you would still retain all your skills. The languages, fortunately, seem far more abundant in the number of words that can be learned. This must be a significant reservoir, because even after having learned hundreds if not thousands of words, the aliens still speak nonsense at me more often than not.

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There is certainly a narrative to the game and one is encouraged gradually to find one’s way to the galactic centre, where I imagine some kind of endgame kicks in, but I haven’t made it there yet and refuse to spoil the surprise by reading about it. Your journey there is made possible by visiting the Atlas Interfaces which can be found in some systems. These also offer a chance to learn a large number of words from the glowing balls which occupy the gleaming floor inside the Atlas Interface and to gain Atlas Stones, which are apparently needed when one reaches the galactic centre.

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Another magnificent and slickly rendered interior

Some systems contain Space Anomalies – a kind of space station – all of which contain the same two entities: Priest Entity Nada and Specialist Polo, a Korvax and Gek respectively. These two cheery fellows can set you back on your path to the galactic centre, give you tech blueprints and other rewards based on your achievements so far. For example, having spent five or more days on extreme worlds will open up a reward for your intrepid exploration. The problem is, as always, that you will probably know the tech blueprint offered already. Polo can, however, on first encounter, give you the Atlas Pass blueprint, which literally opens a lot of doors.

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The Milestones and achievements offer some minor incentive to pursue certain targets, yet most of these are merely incidental to what you do and can be racked up easily enough without actively pursuing any of them. Also, as is the case with learning new techs, these Milestones – for things such as distance walked, number of warps between planetary systems, or alien ships destroyed – seem to dry up pretty quickly. There is, all the same, something special about these moments, which are nicely done.

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Yet, either way, the main idea of this game was always to explore and map at least some small part of this vast galaxy with its much vaunted 18 quintillion planets. The developers make it very clear in game that the main story is optional, and its intrusions into the game are minimal to say the least. Exploring, in itself, is great fun and there is a real joy to be found in naming planets, star systems, flora and fauna. After a while, however, this too becomes repetitive and feels a bit like a chore, somewhat akin to that old RPG bugbear – inventory management.

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Much of this sounds rather negative and potentially off-putting, but I would still strongly recommend No Man’s Sky. The initial rush of discovery, the freedom and beauty, the ease and smoothness of it all is intoxicating, at least for a while. The game also looks spectacular. Yes, it’s stylised and not hyper-realism, but the colours, clean lines and aesthetic design make a gorgeous whole. It is also accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack by Sheffield band 65daysofstatic. Minimalist and unobtrusive, the music complements the loneliness and emptiness of this vast galaxy, offering eerie moods and subliminal cues that can set the tone of one’s imaginings. This is important because No Man’s Sky requires some imagination to give one’s actions and travels a sense of purpose outside of the very sparse and optional narrative elements of the game. At times you get as much from this game as you bring to it. There are 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 worlds, which, it has been estimated, would take one player 5 billion years to explore, and then only if they visited for one second, not counting travel times in between. That is, to put it bluntly, an effing big sandbox with a heck of a lot of sand. Even after a hundred hours of play, I still find great pleasure in visiting a planet for the first time, seeing its sights and knowing that no one else has ever been there before.

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Another great aspect of No Man’s Sky is the smoothness with which one can transition from one environment to the next. With an easy, simple flow, it is possible to descend from space, rumbling through the atmosphere, cruise down and land beside an ocean, jump out and plunge straight into the water. The jetpack allows for easy avoidance of obstacles and dangers. It constantly replenishes itself and doesn’t need fuelling, but even with upgrades, the burst is relatively short-lived; enough to scale a height, get across a narrow canyon or break your fall on a long descent. Swimming underwater is also a pleasure, as much in its beauty as it is in the sense of relief from often harsh environments.

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Fancy a dip?

Flying is a breeze; a smooth and elegant ride. You can coast in a sort of crash-proof autopilot, or lean in and speed across the surface. Space has an easy driftiness to it; punch in the engines and zoom towards a planet, float about and pick off asteroids for minerals or even blow a hole in one of the bigger ones and fly straight through it. Space battles are hard at first, but soon become rather routine; yet they remain fun – a bit of sport before you get on with the job of trying to find some meaning in all this.

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Eat your heart out, Dennis

In space you will come across drifting freighters that warp right into one’s locality when you switch off the pulse engine. Occasionally they send distress signals; seeking help in dispensing with pirates. They can even be attacked if you are feeling brave or suicidal enough. Their hulking designs are attractively industrial, like the epic ships pictured in the sci fi books and games I fed on as a child, and it is a pleasure just to fly alongside them for a time.

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Careful where you shoot in a dogfight, as a few stray shots can bring retaliation

Equally the range of designs of individual ships offers some real curiosities. Many of the ships look awkward, asymmetrical  and un-aerodynamic, while others are sleek and streamlined. If you see one you like, in a space port, trading post or space station, it is possible to speak to the pilot and purchase their ship, if you have the vast sum usually required.

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Entering the atmosphere of a planet, one is met with a roaring of wind, a reddening of the screen’s edges and a bumpy ride.

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Atmospheric entry is very atmospheric

If you don’t get the angle right or slow down, you can bounce right off the atmosphere and veer back up into space, though this is easily corrected and hardly hazardous. As you near the surface, the features slowly resolve themselves into focus, often resulting in the vanishing of apparent features that were a mere mirage from the upper atmosphere.

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Lovely lakes? Or is it just a mirage?

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Oceans or clouds?

What one supposed were lakes might dissolve into valleys and canyons as the detail sharpens. This can be an exhilarating ride, swooping over oceans, mountains, forests, grasslands or sandy dunes. Humps of precious metals and geometrical towers of crystal poke from the surface; alien outposts can be spied, and every inch of it is open to visit.

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Flying over the surface of a new world is a great pleasure

Such is the immersion offered by this game that one’s emotions are often affected by the nature of the environments. Hot and dusty places make me anxious and thirsty, the cold and windswept have me longing to turn on the heater, while in lush environments I feel relaxed and happy. The excellent environmental sounds in No Man’s Sky enhance the game’s immersiveness. Rushing winds, pouring rain, haunting echoes and the eerie cries of strange beasts lend the stylised visuals an authenticity that reminded me of The Long Dark. The calls of the wild are even more remarkable for the fact that they are modified according to the randomised throat structure of the procedurally generated creatures.

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Hear the haunting bellows of the Long-finned Punchohat echo across this frozen world

An animal with a long, thin neck, will make a sound akin to such a creature on Earth, making the implausible seem, well, plausible. This is just another fine example of the many things that No Man’s Sky gets right. It really is a clever and beautiful game, slick, smooth, graceful, even sexy in its bold, futuristic colourings. It is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played – high praise from a hardcore immersionista.

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Already this game has provided me with some of my very favourite science fiction moments. On a world of blue oceans, iron-red rock and dunes, I chased three ships halfway across the surface, hoping they might lead me to a trading post. In that friendly chase we dipped and climbed over land and sea, cruising across mountains, skimming across the surface of the waters; colourful contrails streaking from the jets of this trio of attractive ships. I soon forgot about my overfull inventory and flew half-way around the planet in their wake.

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Had I wanted to, I could have shot them down, but in such a lonely universe, without other players or anyone else who speaks my language, this random moment of bonding, entirely of my own generation, felt palliative.

The sense of loneliness in No Man’s Sky is one of its strengths. Never encountering another of your own kind and spending much of the game in vast, open spaces, venturing into mostly empty buildings, leaves the player with a sense of loss as well as a sense of being lost. In the small, rectangular habitats which are always unoccupied, one can switch the light on and off or swivel the chair and watch as it spins slowly to a halt; actions which become symbolic of a yearning for familiarity, for comfort and company in all the emptiness. The aliens, despite their occasional warmth, merely add to the loneliness with their preoccupied distance.

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Empty chairs and a light for no one. Evidence of habitation abounds, but not a soul to be found

Yet there is much relief to be found in sheer beauty, though this too is tinged with the sadness of experiencing it all alone. On my favourite planet of all, Leura Falls, the most Earth-like yet discovered, I strolled through swathes of shifting green grass, admiring the pink trees and bright blue skies and the vast blue oceans with their sandy shores. With a comfortable temperature of around 8.2 degrees and a benign atmosphere, I could explore for very long periods of time without ever having to charge my life support. Even the frequent freezing storms, which sent the thermometer plummeting to -23, hardly bothered my thermal protection. The shifting colours from dawn to sunset were mesmerising, soothing, awe-inspiring. It was very difficult to leave, and, indeed, I went back there for a while, missing its easy-going mildness and abundant, attractive life. I would love for others to visit this place, yet what are the chances of this happening in such a vast galaxy?

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The strange beasts that inhabit the worlds can also be a delight and a source of comfort. When the creatures are not hostile, it is possible to interact with them and feed them. This makes them happy, as indicated by a floating happy face above them, and they will then lead the player to a reward of some kind – usually a rare isotope or somesuch, but of pretty meagre value.

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The way to his heart is through his stomach

The fauna comes in different densities and some planets can be teeming with abundant life, while others contain a few scattered creatures. The variety of the animals is inevitably limited by the range of options available to the algorithms, but while many similar creatures have appeared, some of them have been wonderfully varied, amusing, and, at times, utterly ridiculous. The numerous species of “Sloppenders” (my name) had me laughing myself silly on first contact.

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Strawberry Sloppender – named after the heavy pillow that was banned from childhood pillow fights

Some players have complained of glitches, crashes, issues with frame-rates locking up and the like, but from the day of release, I’ve had no such issues at all. Indeed, I was greatly impressed on first firing the game up at how seamless it all was. I saved the game frequently to avoid any catastrophes, but soon found this to be unnecessary as the game has never crashed. NOT ONCE. As with any game, there is a learning curve, particularly with regard to crafting and understanding what is worth keeping extracting or looting. You will also likely come out of your first space battle the worse for wear, if you don’t simply get blasted out of the sky, but this is ultimately an extremely smooth game with an elegant flow and ease of movement and play.

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No Man’s Sky is a Milestone in itself

No other game has yet come close to No Man’s Sky in attempting to realise the incomprehensible scale of the galaxy, let alone the universe. No other game allows the exploration of so many fully-rendered environments. Our galaxy alone contains more than two hundred billion stars and an even greater number of planets yet to be discovered. It is unlikely that we will ever be able to explore it so freely as we can in a game, but by simulating such a vast and unexplored space and the wonders it must contain, certainly in geography, almost certainly in other forms of life, it might encourage us to try. Getting through the next hundred years is challenge enough, but if we are still stuck here in that unimaginably distant future when the Earth can no longer support life, then we’ll really be in trouble.

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Future Earth?

If you are content with an open world (galaxy) that allows you to explore extensively, to construct your own narratives, pursue your own goals and to revel in the moments that come at random, rather than necessarily as another complication or climax of the narrative, then you will find a lot of possibility in this game. That one cannot construct a base or space-station or anything else beyond a ship does place some limits on realising your imaginings, though I suspect this is designed to encourage players to continue exploring and not merely bunker down on a single world. Such options, however, have been promised for future updates and the game’s critics may yet be answered with new and significant content. Yet, even without any further updates, the game is still worth playing in its present form. The joy I received across tens of hours was worth every penny and I continue to get pleasure from No Man’s Sky. It might be a flawed masterpiece, but it is, in fact, a masterpiece.

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Playing the Western Roman Empire (hereafter WRE) in Total War: Attila can be a pretty tough assignment, and, some would say, nigh impossible. For the most part, everyone is out to get you and they will combine forces to take you down on many fronts. The opponents you will face initially, however, are as nothing compared to what the Huns bring later in the game. So, the one thing you need to bear in mind is that you have until around AD 420 to get your house in order before Attila descends on Europe. This is, in fact, plenty of time. The following strategy guide offers some important tips on how to survive and, indeed, prosper as the Western Empire. For fuller, general coverage, including a greater number of screenshots, see my review of the game.

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Keep the flag flying

The first thing to do is study your empire in some detail. Take a good half hour to go through all your cities and regions and check out the position of your armies and the state of your economy. The WRE begins with 68 regions, many of which are already in a state of rapidly declining order and on the brink of disease, but they also present huge possibilities with regard to economic development.

Initially you need to focus on improving the amount of gold you earn per turn, otherwise, it will soon become impossible to fund armies and pay for vital city improvements. One slightly radical way to do this is to destroy every single religious building in your empire in your first turn, except for the one in Rome itself which is already capable of building priests. This may sound counter-intuitive, but religious buildings cost money to maintain and are not really worth the investment – certainly not in the early stages of the game. The maximum religious penalty in regions in which the dominant religion is not strong – in this case, Latin Christianity – was recently increased to -6 per province, which is wearable, especially as it will take some time for Latin Christianity to decline significantly enough in those regions to give you a real headache. You can far more easily suppress disorder through classical architecture – amphitheatres, theatres etc, which cost food to maintain, not money, and provide far larger bonuses to civil order than religious buildings. In the early game, food is much easier to come by while fertility is high and is the better option as a currency through which to maintain order.

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Roman army in the snow

Demolishing the churches will not only hugely increase money immediately – as demolition puts the value of the buildings in money into your  coffers, but it also removes significant maintenance costs for the buildings. This money could be far better spent maintaining aqueducts and paying for other vital improvements. If you don’t like the idea of demolishing churches, bear in mind that you can always increase your religious output and shift your city-development focus later in the game, but initially it is not a good investment and will hinder more than help.

While on the subject of religion, my very strongest piece of advice when playing the WRE is DO NOT, repeat, DO NOT research ANY of the religious techs. These cause you to forget earlier techs and thus lock out the construction of key infrastructure which is far more valuable, especially where sanitation is concerned. Instead of being able to build amphitheatres and aqueducts, you will have to rely on expensive-to-maintain churches, which provide less happiness and nowhere near enough sanitation. Another problem with the religious sanitation buildings that can be constructed in the capital cities is that their effects are local only, and not shared with the other regions of the province, unlike the aqueducts. Again, this might sound like a radical suggestion, but you can skip these techs altogether and it will not hamper your game, indeed, quite the opposite.

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A long front line – spearmen in the desert

The first time I played the WRE I practically crippled myself by losing the ability to build aqueducts and tier three or four entertainment buildings. On the second run, things went much more smoothly, largely because I still had access to these techs and could build, for example, aqueduct networks will give +16 sanitation and +4 happiness to all regions in a province, but cost only 200 to maintain. On the happiness score, for 100 food, the top tier theatres and circuses are manageable provided you structure the region’s agricultural output to cater for this, offering between + 13 and +17 bonus to happiness. But the top tier religious building in a regional capital – the Patriarchal See, costs 3000 per turn to maintain.

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Overpriced and best demolished…

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A far cheaper way to improve sanitation, not something you can afford to do without

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3000 per turn? Ludicrous

That is not just an outrageous price, it is a total rip-off considering they offer fewer bonuses. Not researching religious techs only means you can’t research more religious texts, and does not interfere with any other lines of research. Plus, you can always go back and research these techs at any stage in the game if you change your mind, though I can’t imagine why anyone would bother. It is, purely and simply, much easier to play without them altogether.

As might be gleaned from the above, Sanitation is a key focus early on in the game. This should be your first priority when it comes to construction. You need to build as many waterworks as possible in your capital cities until every province has healthy sanitation levels. If necessary, break down any military buildings in capitals that lack waterworks – in the early stages, your basic troops types will be sufficient against mostly tier 1 enemies, and you can find enough cheap to maintain barbarian archers, slingers and cavalry to supplement the testudo-capable spearmen, which are the bedrock of the Roman army. The one thing you really might need to build early on is a carpenter in one of your capitals. This will allow you to build onagers, and personally, I think every army should have at least one, as it allows for an immediate assault on a walled city and can be used to destroy forts when an enemy has bunkered down.

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None shall pass

Sanitation issues will kill you early on because disease causes a huge loss of income and punishing happiness penalties, which become cumulatively worse as other cities in the region succumb; disease spreads from city to city and can also be carried by armies. If it gets into your troops, they will suffer attrition for a random number of turns, which can seriously weaken your forces and make them incapable of garrisoning without spreading the disease further. If disease gets out of hand, it can cripple your economy and will hamper your ability to solve the problems, thus creating a vicious circle. It is generally easier to build the major sanitation buildings in your capitals and not worry about fountains and bathhouses in the other towns – these are only really useful where you do not control the capital and, anyway, you will want those slots in the minor towns for food and the like.

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Coastal raid

It is worth mentioning that however hard you try, you will suffer a lot of disease early on. This is because it springs up surprisingly often and then it spreads along roads and trade-routes from city to city, so it gets around.  Don’t be lulled into thinking a 1% chance of disease outbreak means it will not happen. This game seems to make the unluckiest of dice-rolls and those percentages are at best misleading and at worst, completely fictional. Inevitably, you won’t be able to build sanitation buildings quickly enough, so start with your richest provinces to ensure they are safe and sound first. They still might get disease even then, as seasonal penalties such as “Bad Winter” results in +5 squalor, which seems to make cities unreasonably vulnerable to outbreaks. Once you have your sanitation in place, the disease will gradually disappear from your empire except for occasional outbreaks. This will make maintaining happiness and income far easier going forward. Just make sure you pay attention to sanitation levels in each region when building improvements, as you will also need to upgrade your sanitation accordingly.

On the economic front, I would recommend focussing as much as possible on generating money. Thus, you should initially favour economic techs over military. In fact, over the first few turns, it’s a good idea to alternate between the military and economic techs, until the first tiers of each tree is fleshed out. This will both improve your income and also improve the standard of your baseline troops – allowing upgrades of the Limitanei Border Guards to Comitatensis Spears, which will be your key frontline unit throughout most of the game, as well as reducing their maintenance costs.

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Defensive formations are key, especially against cavalry armies. Save your cavalry for flanking attacks and mopping up. Charge, retreat, rinse, repeat

Initially you can probably ignore the siege-related technologies, and, on the economic side, those relating to religion as noted above. After sharing between military and economic techs in the first tier of the technologies, you should primarily focus on economic techs for a good while. The reason is that your unit types will be sufficiently advanced to withstand your enemies for a good twenty-odd years, and later you can begin to research high-level military techs. Roman cavalry is generally not great, and I tend to rely primarily on barbarian mercenaries anyway, so you can ignore developing this line until much later. The key areas of focus really should be – Military techs which improve the baseline infantry troops and reduce maintenance costs, and economic techs which improve tax rate and income from buildings, primarily focussing on animal husbandry.

On the subject of food, it is vital that you don’t neglect to sustain a surplus across your empire. If your total production is negative across all provinces, your armies will all suffer attrition and will not replenish. Also, for each province that is short of food individually, there is a -25% penalty to income, which is hugely significant. It’s a good idea to really stay on top of your food situation. This won’t always be easy, but it’s a key strategic consideration.

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Agriculture

When it comes to food, the Romans are a little hard done by compared to others. Initially, many of your provinces will have wheat farms, as wheat produces by far the most food – when you have a fertility bonus to a region. However, the baseline food production of wheat is the lowest. Cattle Herds and Sheep Pens, on the other hand, produce more baseline food than wheat, but less bonus food, though they also produce more income. What you have to consider is that in AD 400, about twenty turns into the game, the first hit of climate change will happen, reducing each province’s fertility by 1. This means that while, initially, wheat farms will produce a lot of food, their output will gradually decrease and you will eventually have to switch them for cattle and sheep. It might be better to focus on cattle and sheep from the start, because these should still provide enough food for you, but also they produce more much needed income. Once a region reaches zero fertility, you can convert all the wheat to cattle, etc, which will ultimately be less food than when fertility was high, but will likely get you over the line so far as feeding the region is concerned. Food markets in the capital, fishing ports and special resources can supplement food hugely, so bear them in mind. Always bear in mind the food costs of any building you construct in your provincial capitals and, as with sanitation, plan accordingly to get the balance right.

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Worth defending

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Winter in a Roman town

It is also vital to plan how much food you will need going forward, in order that building food-taxing improvements doesn’t suddenly leave your people starving. So, do the maths and plan well. In some provinces you will not be able to maintain a surplus, and it is often a good idea to dedicate one whole province to military improvements, for example, and rely on the overall surplus of food across the board. If, as I would recommend, you ultimately rely on animal husbandry buildings, then it is wise to pair these with tanners and leather-workers in the local industry building tree. These not only produce significant income themselves, but also add an incremental percentage increase to the wealth generated by the cattle, sheep and horse farms.

Another good way to make money early on is to build trade wharfs in every coastal city in which the region can maintain a food surplus without fishing. Trade wharfs are the lowest hanging fruit so far as income is concerned – the tier 2 building produces 900 gold per turn, and they also provide naval garrisons, as do all port-related improvements.

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Trade Ports are a great way to increase income

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Coastal defence against barbarian raid

In all three run-throughs as the WRE, I’ve neglected building industrial improvements in the early game, beyond any of the special resource related improvements, such as gold-mines, marble quarries, lead, iron and the like. This is largely because I prefer to prioritise food, sanitation and happiness improvements first, including garrison encampments, and there is rarely enough space to accommodate any industrial buildings. In an ideal world, industrial development could begin earlier, but being on top of the other areas is more important early on and enough money can be made from food, trade and specialist markets such as wine markets. In the later game, I tend to invest a lot more in industrial buildings.

As to military buildings for constructing more advanced units, again it might seem counter-intuitive to say so, but I rarely build them at all. Indeed, it is possible to dedicate a single region to military buildings for constructing different unit types, and have your armies fan out from there. This is not exactly practical, but in truth the armies already stationed in provinces can definitely make do in the early game with the baseline spear units and barbarian archers and cavalry. I’m a big fan of cavalry and like to have a minimum of four units in each army, which I do my best to keep in reserve until the enemy are engaged along the front line, then use them to flank and charge the rear of enemy infantry, or smash through a bunch of missile units, once they are no longer protected by infantry. Cavalry are also vital for mopping up after a battle. Most enemies use their cavalry suicidally, charging them onto turtled-up spearmen. The remnants can be picked off by your own cavalry, without much harm to them.

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Mercenary Cavalry, taking fire

It is worth mentioning that when you win a battle, be sure to take the time to wipe out as many routing enemy units as possible. This is not necessary if they have no retreat option, but if they can retreat and you let their routing units get away, it means you will have to fight them again. When the white flag is up they cannot harm your units further, so hit the maximum speed button, switch to the strategy map, and chase down as many as possible. It can get a bit tedious, but this is especially important when your own troop numbers are low. Sometimes, you can destroy the entire enemy force in this manner. Just be careful not to shoot your own troops with archers and artillery, or towers, in the process. It is also a good idea, despite the negative effect on experience, to replenish your own troops at the end of a battle with captured enemies. This is a particularly vital way – indeed, the only way – to replenish when in hostile territory, and becomes especially important when you may need to fight again the following turn.

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Very close indeed, thank goodness for that fort…

Moving on to all matters military and strategic, the key thing in defending the WRE is to keep your enemies at the frontier, and limit the number of frontiers you need to defend. Once armies get deep within your empire, it can be difficult to chase them down and this requires moving armies into the interior rather than keeping them at the frontiers where you will need them to keep out the enemies who will pour across the Rhine and Danube.

Your very first move as the WRE should be to take care of the Suebians, who begin inside your borders in Gaul. If you don’t sort them out they will almost certainly attack you within the first few turns, so you might as well confront them on your own terms. You can get three armies there by around the second turn and smash them, wiping them out, at which point you’ll be wanting to hurry those armies back to the frontier.

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Boo-yah

The other possibility is to grant them a region in Gaul / Belgica and leave them in peace. This will likely lead to favourable relations within a few turns, as the gift of a region causes a huge diplomatic boost. Within just a few turns you will be able to trade with them and shortly after, form a defensive alliance. Once they become engaged in fighting the same enemies, the diplomacy system will ensure very positive relations henceforth. They could provide a very useful ally to bolster defences along the Rhine.

The same option is available with the Vandals, who will likely appear inside your borders in Pannonia. Pannonia is a difficult place to defend initially and it makes sense to sacrifice one region to a faction who will, as above, likely become a defensive ally and trade partner within a few turns. This is very helpful on the eastern Danube frontier, which is an area I choose to neglect partly, initially. The reason for this is that my principal concern is to stop everyone who threatens to get deeper into the Empire, where they will be harder to stop. If one or two regions on the Danube fall, it’s not the end of the world, and they are still at the frontier. You can always muster more strength later to take them out.

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Fighting in light forest

In some cases, the loss of a region can prove surprisingly beneficial. I found it very helpful when the Illyrian faction sprang up in the region of Iuvavum. I swiftly subjugated them and, next to the Vandals, had very helpful and willing allies to manage that frontier while I focussed elsewhere. By no means abandon Pannonia, just play a defensive strategy initially, making sure Sirmium does not fall and switching between the frontier towns to support them defensively. It’s possible, but very difficult to do this with one army, but if you build those towns up and increase their garrisons early, they can usually survive the initial assault. Get them to size 2 as early as possible and put a garrison encampment in them. Managed successfully, they will hold off an army with their garrison until relief arrives, especially if you have a defensive ally / puppet state on the same frontier. When those towns reach size 4 and obtain walls, they will be impregnable, except to the Huns, by which stage you should have more armies in the region.

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Gods, help me, I’m surrounded

On the defensive front, you should always avoid auto-resolving defensive battles. The AI is awful at defending towns and if you are at all outnumbered, it will lose the battle for you. It is, however, possible to defend a town against a much larger force, if you defend wisely. This largely depends on the design of the town – some of them are a lot easier to defend, but the basic rule is to hold the centre, keep your units close and block entry to the main capture point. As soon as the enemy general is in range, switch any archers to heavy shot, and, if possible, use their special ability to increase damage. Often, in this way, you can knock off their general early and break morale. Just be careful not to shoot your own defending troops in the back, which can be avoided by ensuring a clear line of sight. The AI is, for the most part, a slogger, and will just drive up against your units. Thus, the comitatenses in defensive testudo formation is the way forward. Often one such unit can hold a narrow passage and see off several entire units.

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Artillery, well placed, are devastating against naval units

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Sally forth when the time is right

Another key strategic aspect is, inevitably, choosing the right technologies in the right order. After filling out the first two tiers in military and civil developments (avoiding, of course, any religious techs), I prioritise anything that increases income or reduces maintenance costs and then go straight for the techs which allow one to build larger-sized towns. Tier IV towns gain walls and more sturdy towers and are far easier to defend, especially as enemies need to siege or bring siege equipment in order to launch an assault. This not only allows the towns to hold off attacks more easily, but again, it buys time to bring up armies when you are overstretched and can’t garrison every town. Ideally, all your cities along your frontiers should hit tier IV before the Huns really kick off in 420. You needn’t worry so much about the regional capitals, as these already start with walls in place, though by no means neglect them – the Huns always bring artillery.

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Another winter campaign

Returning to the subject of finding useful defensive allies, one of the key strategies for defending the WRE is to create as many puppet states as possible in the west. This isn’t always easy to do, especially as you can only subjugate enemies who have one single region, and it is not possible to subjugate hordes, unless they settle in a city. Yet, if you are patient, and have armies stationed along the frontiers ready to roll, you can wait for the right opportunity and attack. This is often best done after having been attacked. If the Franks have a shot at you, and you crush them as you should, send an army straight to their capital in Frisia and hit it while they are licking their wounds and desperately trying to rebuild. You can use similar strategies with the Allemans, for example, and potentially the Saxons etc. Once you subjugate an enemy, they instantly make peace with all your allies and declare war on all your enemies, turning your enemy into an instant ally. This is great for a number of reasons – you have friendly regions across the borders in which you can replenish; they lend battle support and will even attempt to expand by taking your enemies’ territory, and, if nothing else, they take the aggro much of the time, acting as a magnet which draws enemies away from your borders. You will also, within a few turns, be able to establish a trade route for more vital income.

The next most important strategic move – and this is absolutely key in my books – is to defend Britain to the death. Many players recommend abandoning Britain, but this is, without a doubt, the worst possible mistake you can make as the WRE for a whole range of reasons. Indeed, far and away the most sensible strategy is to complete the conquest of the British Isles before anything else. Once you have dealt with the Suebians in the first two or three turns, Britain should be your first real military focus.

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To subjugate or not to subjugate. Best to knock them off altogether.

Build another army there and, if necessary, send one across before the rest of western Europe declares war and attacks you in Gaul, Belgica etc. Hit the Caledonians first with two or three armies and subjugate them swiftly. They will keep the Picts at bay or take the heat, allowing you the chance to send all two or three armies across to smash the Ebdanians. You can subjugate them, but personally, I’d take the territory to avoid ever having to think about it again. Once you have conquered Ireland, march back across into Scotland, smash the Picts and wipe them out. This will alleviate any worries in that entire region. The Caledonians will defend Britain for you pretty much for the rest of the game, and you will only have to keep a smallish army and navy in Camulodunum. The proximity of the cities in Britain means you can cycle your army between those southern cities to respond to any seaborne threat or plug a disorder gap. You will need to invest in improving civil disorder and a good trick is to make a priest in Rome early and send him all the way across. One priest in Britain, moved about strategically, can take care of the whole islands.

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Britain, the way it should be – Roman

The reason Britain is so key to keeping the WRE intact is that it prevents any armies coming down the coast of Gaul while you are busy at the frontier. If Britain falls, for the rest of the game you will have the Ebdanians, Picts and Caledonians sending armies down the west coast of Gaul and into Spain, where you will be forced to keep armies to chase them out. If you stop this happening early, you can get away with keeping no armies in western Gaul whatsoever. It effectively means that there is no frontier in the west, and you have the edge of the map completely secured and protecting your rear, leaving you to focus solely on the Rhine and Danube. Any armies that try to come through that way can be stopped in the English Channel by your fleet in Camulodunum, backed up by your army if necessary. This frees up a huge number of regions that no longer require defending, nor defensive investments. You can keep one army in southern Gaul to take care of Gaul and Spain; quick-marching back and forth to deal with the rebellions that will spring up from public disorder issues. Even if you do lose a region to rebels, they usually just sit there and don’t expand, so can easily be dealt with at a later date. Some, however, will form new factions, and these are best subjugated ASAP as factions which spring up from rebellions are often the most aggressive when it comes to expansion and usually have Roman unit types, which are harder to defeat. If you get the timing right, the entirety of Gaul and Spain can be handled by one army, and all your other armies, with the exception of one in Africa and one in southern Britain (alongside a fleet), can move to the Rhine and Danube. With your initial allocation of 8 armies as a maximum, you will have just enough to stop anything at the border, and just enough to stop any rot spreading inside your borders. More likely, however, you will already be able to field 10 armies by the time you complete the conquest of the British Isles.

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It can get messy in the British Isles, but worth persisting with

Another key strategy is to get as many agents as possible. I also ensure that my agents max up their extort, persuade and oppress ability as much as possible, so I can capture enemy agents and use them myself. If you keep this up you can end up with ridiculous amounts of agents, who can seriously hamper enemies, improve income, spot approaching enemies, increase public order and train your troops. You must also pay attention to the management of your faction. On this score, try to keep your faction strong through marriages and adoptions. It’s also a good idea to get your emperor into the field to increase his influence. This is not only key to maintaining a strong empire, but is a fun way to re-shape history. Who would ever have imagined the emperor Honorius weathering the tide of invasion in the west, overseeing a re-strengthening of the Empire, and then campaigning to recover Egypt from the hands of Ethiopian separatists after the collapse of East Roman power in those provinces?

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Roman reconquest well underway.

The emperor, however, can also be a serious liability. If he develops cruel traits, such as Tyrant, Torturer etc, which cause public order penalties across all regions, sometimes the only thing to do is to get him killed in battle. This needs to be carefully managed, so a whole army isn’t routed, but just wait until the tide is turning in your favour and send him in suicidally while everyone else hangs back. It kinda sucks having to do this – and you must ensure you choose a good heir beforehand – but it can completely transform your fortunes in the game, particularly with public order.

On the subject of public order, you will have to learn to live with rebellion. It will be almost impossible to stop it altogether, and every so often, rebels will spring up and you will have to deal with them. The good thing is that the way disorder works, once a rebel army appears, you can a positive +20 bonus to public order every turn, which represents all the malcontents heading off to join the rebellion, leaving the happy people in the cities. Thus, in effect, the rebel army becomes the manifestation of the unhappiness. Often it can be beneficial to let the army grow for two or even three turns, and sometimes you will have no choice but to do this. This means that when you do wipe them out, you will be left with a much better public order situation, which will buy you enough time to hang on for the next rebellion, or find some other means of improving order. Be warned, however, rebel armies grow by four units a turn, and a twelve unit army might well be enough to sack and capture a city. Most garrisons, even of just 4 units, should be able to hold out anything of 8-strength and under – you just need to turtle up and let them commit suicide against your spearmen and in trying to capture and destroy your arrow towers.

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We should struggle together! We are struggling together!

Strategically, the biggest unknown is Africa, which can go a number of ways. It all hinges on whether or not the Gaetulians, Garamantians or Maurians declare war. This seems to be a huge variable. I’ve had one of them declare war as early as the third turn and as late as some time after AD 420. It might be worthwhile trying to get away with just keeping one army in northern Spain to take care of rebellions, and hope that, should an emergency arise, you can get down there quickly enough to offer relief. I’ve run it this way successfully in the past, though you may have to pull off some pretty epic garrison defence battles and hope, in the case of a defeat, that they only sack you, thus allowing time to get an army down there to overcome them. The African factions are usually relatively easy to defeat as their units are not quite up to the same standard.

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Hot and dry in the summer

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A peaceful moment

Another possible strategy is to build an army early on in Africa and eliminate or subjugate these factions successively. If you’re a good enough general, one twenty-stack army should suffice to subdue the whole region. Judicious use of spies to delay or stop armies over successive turns can allow you to wipe them out in the field, then hit their capitals. Subjugation can eliminate the need for keeping any armies in the region at all, thus turning the presence of these factions into a defensive bonus. I find that at some point in the game they will almost certainly need to be dealt with militarily – exactly when, however, is pretty open. Of course, the longer you avoid war with them altogether is likely better. The Rhine, Danube border and Britain are the real front line initially and having one less army in the north is a significant enough disadvantage to be worth avoiding.

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Winter trees

It will be a long hard road, frustrating and at times tedious, but such a strategy should get you over the line. Save at the start of every turn in case of disasters and be patient. Eventually, though it will seem like an eternity, you will bring order and stability to the western empire and be able to keep just a couple of armies on the Rhine frontier, and shift pretty well everyone else to the east, along the Danube. If you let Pannonia go, which is the one region I’d consider sacrificing, you will now be well placed to take it back. You will need a lot of armies to fight the Huns. Most armies will lose against them in a one-on-one because of the morale penalties the Romans suffer against the Huns, and also because the Hunnic units are hugely overpowered. Try to outnumber them always, or fight defensive battles, using towns or forts where possible.

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Always take artillery to attack a fort. Switch off auto-fire and target the towers. Wait till it all burns down, then attack.

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When Attila is defeated and finally killed, you have, in effect, won the game. Yet this is by no means the end and I rather love this later phase of the game. Without one monster enemy, it feels more like a traditional Total War game. There isn’t much left to do after this except perhaps recolonise the devastated regions or attempt to rescue the Eastern Empire.

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Rebuilding in the East

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The war never ends. More great battles await with the passing of Attila.

Taking on the Sassanids and reasserting Roman hegemony in the east can be a lot of fun, strategically, and it feels like a more even fight. I’ve made it as far as about 460 in one game, and in truth, I’m not sure how much further it is possible to go. I always imagined that if an end date were set, it would be 476 – the year in which the last Western Emperor was deposed. But, for all I know, it continues even beyond that. I’ve never given much of a stuff about the victory conditions, but prefer to focus instead on my own martial ambitions. By this late stage of the game, it’s really up to your own sense of whimsy as to how long you stick with it. If, however, you follow the advice I’ve given above, you should at least make it this far.

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The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century is a problem I’ve spent far too much of my life thinking about, including doing a PhD on the subject. The what-ifs and may-have-beens are innumerable and incalculable, yet there was certainly nothing inevitable about what happened. Had the Empire collapsed during the third century “crisis” we might have assumed, with historical perspective, that this was no less inevitable. Yet it didn’t collapse then, and it needn’t have done so in the fifth century. The unique combination of internal and external pressures faced by the Western Empire, some of which were all too deliberately deflected from the east, were not insurmountable. Clumsy policy, poor leadership, lack of responsiveness, in-fighting were all factors which had plagued the Empire throughout its history. There were many turning points and missed opportunities. Even as late as the 450s and 460s, had the Vandals been driven from Africa, a task which should have been far easier than it was made to look, the west might have found its feet again, though things were already quite far gone by this stage.

Winter is coming

Total War: Attila is a game I have dreamed about for decades: a grand simulation of a period of history that is all too often neglected. The team at Creative Assembly have gone there before – the 2005 Barbarian Invasion expansion of Rome Total War I dealt with the same period of history and, indeed, contained many of the same ideas present in Attila, such as the existence of horde factions – groups with the ability to pack up and move as a group, thus not being rooted to a city or province. Yet it was, I felt, poorly balanced and unsatisfying. Total War: Attila makes up for all those shortcomings, including many of the shortcomings of Total War: Rome II – a flawed masterpiece in itself. This game too has its flaws and is not as perfectly balanced as it could be, yet its strengths are so great that it ultimately shines through.

The opening narrative is rather sanctimonious and moralising

It's all about the Huns

As with all Total War games, it is the attention to detail that makes Attila such a wonderfully immersive experience. We can’t expect complete historical accuracy – it’s impossible to simulate the complexity of reality – but with Attila we get a satisfying approximation of the initial set of circumstances and existing conditions. It is, of course, an approximation and it is also created with the idea of playability in mind, and thus liberties need to be taken. Many, for example, might question the logic of a technology tree in which the Romans almost seem to rediscover past talents from the earlier empire, and, in which, by adopting religious enhancements, older technologies are forgotten. I would certainly question the tone of the opening narrative, which is rather tiresomely sanctimonious and moralising. Still, we can’t have it all.

Don't research religion! You won't be able to build aqueducts or amphitheatres...

The game kicks off in AD 395, immediately after the death of Theodosius the Great – the last emperor to rule a unified Roman Empire before its division into East and West. In the west, Honorius is on the throne in Milan, whilst in the east, Arcadius rules in Constantinople. The player has the choice of playing a variety of factions; either half of the Empire, the Sassanids, the Huns and a whole swathe of barbarian factions depending on which DLC packs one has: The Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Suebi, Franks, Alans, Burgundians, Saxons, Allamans, Langobards, Picts, Ebdanians, Caledonians, Jutes, Danes and Geats. Some might question the prominence and, indeed, starting strength of some of these factions, yet, after all, it is a game, not an accurate historical simulation. I mention this point again, because I had constantly to reassure myself of this in order to avoid frustration at numerous points with some of the liberties taken.

Choose your faction - Arcadius

Without a doubt, the toughest assignment of all is to play the Western Empire. It shouldn’t be as hard as it is, yet in this game, everyone will declare war on the west and most factions already have huge and powerful armies ready to roll in and cause havoc. Indeed, some factions actually start with armies inside Roman borders. The Romans, on the other hand, begin with scattered, weak armies which are already depleted of troops on account of the civil war which was recently fought to assert Theodosius’ rule. Depending on how rapidly the other factions declare war, it can be nigh impossible to stand up to this wave of invasion. Yet, it can be done.

Maybe things will go better this time...

Rome. Tired and sore, but ready to be awesome once again

Likely the easiest start is the Sassanids. They begin with a number of puppet states across the east and not only command a formidable force of their own quality troops, but are ably backed up by capable allies. They have the eastern edge of the map at their backs, thus limiting the frontiers they must defend and their economy begins in good shape – the coffers filled not merely through the economic wealth of the regions they command, but also through the trade and tribute from their puppets. They can give the Eastern Empire hell as war with the Sassanids inevitably means fighting all their puppets – an almost constant stream of armies will pour from the orient. For the Eastern Empire, it might be best to strike early, and go in hard and fast.

The map after an Eastern Reconquest after western collapse. Puppet Gallic and Britannic states in Gaul, and a rump few regions for the remnants of the Western Empire

The game begins with a cut-scene narrative of a world falling into darkness. Winter is coming and so is a wave of death, destruction and barbarism. The old world is on the brink of collapse and only a herculean effort will save it from being overrun and picked apart, or, indeed, razed to the ground. Appropriately therefore, the first mission issued is to “Survive until AD 400.” It sounds ominous, but then, the same mission is issued to all factions, irrespective of power or starting status. For those choosing to play a horde faction, the game can resemble a survival game. Unless one settles into a region and secures a base from which to grow an empire, you will constantly be on the run from the many potential enemies who don’t like you wandering through and raiding in their lands.

Dynamic fire - cities will burn

The narrative continues with cut-scenes at key historical milestones. In AD 400, we witness the birth of Attila, who, it is said, “was born from darkness and despair.” The scenes are engaging and evocatively atmospheric, yet Creative Assembly needs to abandon its habit of using its battle-field models as actors in these cut-scenes. They are wonderfully detailed for individual soldiers in a strategy game of massive armies, but look amateurishly rendered when viewed close up as protagonists in these animated dramas. In AD 420, Attila comes of age, and from that point forward, you will constantly be asking yourself: “What fresh hell is this?”

Er, can I see the Face Doctor in Riften?

Bad Omens are coming

More portents

And behold, a slightly silly narrative of apocalypse...

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One of the eternal cities

The basic mechanics of the game will be very familiar to any who have played Total War games in the past. It is turn based strategy, based around managing regions, cities, armies and agents. One can make alliances and trade with other factions, subjugate factions and turn them into tributaries or foederati, and, of course, wipe them out altogether. What differs in Total War: Attila  is the ability to raze cities altogether, and, indeed, to refound them.

Expensive, but well worth it sometimes - resettlement of a devastated region

A new city emerges in the ashes of the old

What also stands out is the unique capabilities of the Huns, whose armies spawn repeatedly in the east and drive west and south, razing, pillaging and basically murdering everything in their sight. Their armies are initially comparable to those of other factions, yet, once Attila comes of age, their spawn rate steps up and all their units suddenly become tier 3 merchants of death. They are, without a doubt, far too overpowered for the sake of balance, and their ludicrously impressive units are made all the more devastating by the fact that they inflict a -10 morale penalty on all who face them.

Chosen Uar Warriors - Not one single dump stat on these mothers

That is, trust me, savage indeed, and fighting them can be so extremely frustrating that one is inclined to pile three armies in just to take out one Hunnic force, and hit the auto resolve button to avoid overly raised cortisol levels. The Huns inspire such a sense of utter hatred that I don’t think I can remember any other game in which I was so motivated to exterminate my enemies. And, in truth, the only way to defeat them is total extermination – because otherwise they will exterminate you. Until Attila is dead, the Huns will continue to spawn huge and powerful armies, and even after his death, any lingering hordes can cause havoc.

Attila himself! Just before I put a javelin in his back and trampled him to death

Using terrain wisely - Facing the Huns, you really better get it right. A Heroic Victory was here enjoyed : )

It might, therefore, seem a simple enough mission: kill Attila and then proceed to finish off the Huns. The problem is that Attila, most annoyingly, has a randomly generated number of lives, so even if you destroy his entire unit and watch him killed in battle, he will escape, wounded, and turn up leading another horde next turn. This can drive any player bonkers, especially as whether he lives or dies seems rather arbitrary. I’ve read many opinions in the forums stating such things as the need to kill him twice in non-autoresolved battles, but this doesn’t stand up to repeated experimentation – in one game I killed him six times in battle. It seems truly random. At some point, however, a message will pop up informing the player that Attila was, after all, Only a Man – and from this point forward he is vulnerable and will indeed die if killed in battle or assassinated. Once he’s gone it’s almost an anticlimax, but when he’s there, you cannot rest. This is not a game for the faint-hearted. You will swear a lot, trust me.

No more respawns after this. He's just one big Achilles Heel

The game does not end at this point, but it does lose a certain intensity - still, there is a whole world simulation to be getting on with...

No more Hun hordes after this

Post mopping up

As mentioned earlier, Attila only appears as an active agent in the game after about AD 420, and yet the world is usually already greatly destabilised by this stage and not well placed to meet him. This is largely because the western and eastern Empires often collapse in a balsa wood heap pretty early on in the piece – in some cases, even prior to AD 410 – so poor is the AI at playing these factions. If you want to see them survive at all, generally the only option is to play them, and that’s easier said than done.

Another desperate defence. Time to turtle up

In this regard, the game is problematically a-historical and is largely a consequence of the level of hostility of the barbarian factions towards Rome, and their significantly over-powered nature. When it comes to the Eastern or Western Empire, the AI runs around like a chicken with its head cut off; indeed, it is rather hopeless at defending large empires, but well suited to expanding small ones. It doesn’t know where or how to defend itself and continually makes stupid decisions. One particular frustration is its unwillingness to recapture its lost cities, even when they are undefended and they have sufficient armies sitting outside. More often than not they will sack the city and leave it to whoever presently holds it, even in situations where they could subjugate a faction with a single city, or recapture a vital choke-point and resource. Countless times I have attempted to support the Roman factions by moving armies close to their former cities, but instead of recapturing them, they either sack, raze or completely ignore them. In some cases they leave their armies camped outside pointlessly, turn after turn, and in one particularly shameful case, the Western Empire razed Rome which had fallen into the hands of the Visigoths. Really? I mean, come on. This really needs fixing – some algorithm to prioritise the recapture of former territory, rather than more futile expeditions across the Mediterranean, and some means to stop the Romans razing their former cities, which seems unnecessarily out of character if nothing else.

Barbarians at dawn

The game also suffers from a problem of time-scale, which affects the possible scope of the campaign. I had hoped things might carry on as far as the 6th or even 7th centuries – after all, Total War: Rome II begins in 273 BC and is playable right through to times AD. Yet with four seasons in one year, and thus four turns to a year, Attila moves through time at a much slower pace. This has two significant consequences; firstly, the family tree hardly advances through more than two generations, which robs it of some of the pleasures of creating a dynasty; secondly, far too much happens in too short a period of time, historically speaking. In a way this feels unsatisfying. Playing the Western Empire in my first hit out, I had wiped out the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Sueves before AD 405, which was curiously disappointing, and, as mentioned above, I’ve seen the Western Empire reduced to just a couple of regions as early as AD 408, from a starting point of 68.

The Western Empire, already like a Swiss cheese, about to topple altogether.

The completely a-historical effect of climate change, however, is my biggest gripe in this game. It is far too greatly exaggerated. Every time we have a cut scene – AD 400, AD 420, AD 432 and so on, the game increases its climate effects in a way that is savagely debilitating. Each region suffers a -1 to fertility for each change, which means by 432, you have a -3 fertility penalty to all regions, and it doesn’t stop there, but ticks over again in 445 and, I think, 460.

Er, okay...

Winter is here...

This turns some areas infertile, which affects food production and economic capability. Even more debilitating, however, is that the area of the map which is covered by snow in winter extends southwards with every increase in climate change, and the snow increasingly stays on the ground throughout spring. This means that troop movements anywhere north of the Mediterranean cause horrible attrition. This is certainly a problem for the player, but much more so for the AI which seems to take little notice of the situation and persists with wandering armies through snow until they are significantly depleted.

Yup, frozen Egypt

It’s all rather ludicrous, considering that whilst there were mild climatic changes during the period, they were certainly not this pronounced, and the most significant effect occurred much later – c. 535-6 – when an especially cold period is recorded, both in chronicles and in the archaeological record – a nuclear winter caused by an enormous volcanic eruption, perhaps Mt Tambora in Indonesia. It wasn’t a trend but rather an anomaly caused by a single incident, yet the game persists in this debilitating fiction. I understand that the idea of an increasing climate penalty is a mechanic to drive people further south and add an impending sense of doom to the scenario, yet it is also highly limiting in that its continued application and increasing severity mean that most of the map is designated “infertile” by the middle of the fifth century. That’s pretty stupid, let’s face it.

Stunning

Snow in Attila is divine

Winter wonderland

The other major issue is the aforementioned weakness of the Western Roman Empire and the strength and number of its foes. In the first few turns, most of the barbarian factions across the border, and the hordes both within and without, will declare war. As the Western Empire begins with a few small, depleted armies, and most of these factions already have twenty-stack armies ready to roll, the west hardly stands a chance. If it isn’t external enemies, it is internal rebellion, civil disorder, lack of funds, sanitation problems leading to multiple disease outbreaks and the like. It doesn’t help that nearly every single faction near the west declares war. The game’s diplomacy works on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and as all the barbarians are fighting Rome, they all have very positive relations with each other and lend battle support with multiple armies, further making Roman victory a strategic impossibility much of the time and making it impossible to make peace with any single faction. It would be nice to see the Empire more able to hold its own, and a mechanism which encourages the barbarian factions to fight amongst themselves more, as they tended to do.

Defending the ruins of an ossified culture - note the re-purposed arena.

Gripes aside, and they are not insignificant, the game looks and plays magnificently. It is wonderful to see the return of the family tree, which makes the whole business of running one’s faction more engaging and personal. This requires some management to sustain loyalty and faction strength, whilst being relatively undemanding. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of it is the high rate of infant mortality. Likely more than half of your children will die as toddlers, which is rather frustrating, especially considering it takes, in effect, around 72 turns for them to come of age. Best to reload the auto-save; after all, it is a random seed determined afresh each click of the turn button.

The family tree

Assigning governors

With a name like that, he never stood a chance

Ouch

Again we are treated to a gorgeous campaign map and stunning battle maps covering all the diverse landscapes of the entire Mediterranean, stretching as far west as Britain, as far north as Scandinavia, as far East as Afghanistan, and as far south as Sudan.

Hadrian's Wall is on the map now

Crete

Long-legged Italy kicked poor Sicily into the Mediterranean Sea...

A cold spring in Britain

As with Total War: Rome II, the game also offers lovely levels of detail with regard to demographics, diplomatic relations, region growth, fertility and the distribution of religions. These can both be vital aids as well as providing more immersion in the minutiae of this huge simulation.

Faction attitude

Religious distribution on known map

Note how infertile things are getting round the map

Getting harder to produce a surplus in some regions

The weather and lighting effects are achingly beautiful, and the usual attention to detail in troops’ outfits and equipment is laudable.

Gorgeous

Running up that hill

Stormy weather in the east

Gnarled tree

Dawn battle

Autumn forest

Magical snow

Hazy by the sea

Bleak forest

Autumn forest

The option to wait might bring better weather - or worse

Like Total War: Rome II, of which this game is truly a direct descendant, the troops in the armies have a diverse range of faces and emblems, and one’s generals can be seen sporting the face that appears in their portrait, on the battlefield. There are also many lovely illustrations to accompany event notifications which add variety and atmosphere to the setting.

Birth of Attila

Naval Blockade

Religious dilemma

Celtic storyline

Attrition - in desert as in snow...

One of my favourite elements in the game are the cities and towns, which are a real pleasure to witness. The designers have done a great job in capturing the architectural flavour of the late Roman period, as well as referencing some known phenomena such as the re-use of spaces like amphitheatres for residential purposes.

Just bloody splendid - the re-purposed amphitheatre

Interior view of amphitheatre

Vegetable garden in the snow

Fountain in the east

East Roman city

Eastern defensive tower

East Roman brickwork

A remnant of the classical style, still largely present in western cities

Waiting for the barbarians

Sweet little garden

Many cities have abandoned, ruined areas which contain ruins of an earlier, classical style

Wonderful building models

West Roman church

This is likely anachronistic in its rather early occurrence, but it adds great flavour to the image of Europe transitioning into its rather less grandiose medieval phase. This kind of minutiae adds a lot of colour to the game. It is worth taking some time and exploring the map, finding things such as vegetable gardens, laden carts, peristyles, cloisters, georgeous tiled floors etc. amongst the building models in the cities. Coastal towns are especially attractive, and, as in Rome II, the ship models are highly detailed and glide and bob majestically on the stunning seas.

My favourite shot - the harbour of Camulodunum

Coastal city in the morning mist

Longships!

Coming into port

Key river crossing

Maurian raiders!

Coastal city docks

Hillfort and approaching naval assault

Beautiful coastal longhouses

Cities are also now easier to defend, which is a relief. Many players complained about the inability to erect walls in Total War: Rome II, which has now been rectified in that non-capital cities which reach size IV automatically gain walls. All cities and towns now have defensive towers, which unleash flaming arrows of death at approaching foes. Many cities also have internal ramparts, which can really assist in defence by protecting defenders and funnelling enemies into corridors of death. There are, however, too few city and town models to choose from and I found myself, much of the time, fighting in one of a limited number of commonly recurring town designs in Western Europe. This is great for strategic purposes in that one develops an intimate understanding of how to defend each design, but not so great in terms of variety and diversity. The game does, however, do a wonderful job of rendering different cultural architectural styles. They are inevitably, too uniform, in that there is a Near Eastern and African style, west Roman, Barbarian, East Roman etc, but they’ve put a lot of love into each of these and they are beautiful to behold in their own sweet way.

Gates and broken towers

Barbarian hillfort

Snow in the east!

Sweet in the detail - wagon and amphorae

East Roman city in the rain

Fighting over a razed city's ruins

The chieftain's longhouse

Hazy day in the Eastern Empire

Just another splendid part of the battle map

Another most excellent building model

Celtic monument

A beautiful town I'd love to visit

A crumbling theatre

And of course, the game achieves its greatest levels of enjoyment when it comes to the battles. This is always what Total War games have been about, and it is absolutely key that you get in there and enjoy them first hand, rather than playing this as a strategy game and just spamming the auto-resolve buttons. After all, any good general should really be able to win a battle where they aren’t too ludicrously outnumbered, and often enough, with real tactical prowess, one should be able to win battles for which the auto-resolve options only offer ignominious defeat. As in Rome II, one can hit the insert button and get up close and personal with the troops by zooming the camera into a unit view. It’s not a practical way to view the battle as a tactician, but it’s a beautiful way to immerse yourself in the game. Battles in Attila, as in Rome II, can be absolutely epic in scale and duration and it is where the real pleasure of the game lies.

An epic clash with mountain backdrop

Stunning visuals throughout, don't skimp on that GPU

Such majesty and romance in what this game tosses up visually

Legions fighting in the desert

Mopping up after a bloody battle

We have some excellent polish in our cohort...

An epic fort defence. The towers on these things are so effective, you can defeat armies almost three times your size if you hold the gates.

Alans on boats!

Great mix of faces among the soldiers, and a wonderful ethnic blend mirroring the curious cultural mix of the late empire

Riders in the snow, moving to flank

An uphill battle

One of the most epic battles ever - note the size of the two opposing armies - Sassanids in the distance

Enemy ships on the horizon

Desert riders

Elite troops waiting in camp

A monstrous battle for a city

Christianity is now the dominant religion around the Mediterranean, including for many barbarian factions

Roman spearmen in the hills

A barbarian circular fort

Another bloody battle in a bloody world

Cavalry on the coast of Spain

Artillery hidden in the forest. Fire at will!

A lovely day for a ride

Coastal assault

Naval units backing up city defence

Eastern mercenary archers

An unconventional battle array

A hard-fought tussle on the beach

As stated above, cities can be razed to the ground and then rebuilt, though it costs a fortune and half your army’s troops to do the latter. Sadly, all too many settlements end up being razed to the ground. Particularly by the Huns who are the one faction that cannot capture cities and transition from horde mode to settled mode. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to play the Huns. I get no pleasure from being purely destructive, and, anyway, they are so overpowered it would not be a great deal of fun. I far prefer to take them on as the defender of civilization, crush them and see them driven before me. They do, however, create some splendid units available for hire as barbarian mercenaries.

Razing a city - it's pretty dramatic. This is one way to create a handy buffer for the Eastern Empire early on. Go hard and raze every city along the Tigris / Euphrates. It makes the frontier very manageable and buys time to prioritise other pressing business.

What I did particularly enjoy about this game was, as stated in the intro, the ability to take on the leadership of the Western Empire and face down the encroaching hordes. Honorius, a rather weak and ineffectual puppet in the west who ruled for far too long, in my game became a conquering hero, who, after defeating the Huns in eastern Europe, campaigned as far away as Egypt and led the Western Empire to renewed glory. This amused me no end, especially the idea of him leading resurgent western armies against the Sassanids and putting down rebellions across north Africa.

Honorius, the Conqueror, campaigning in the marshes of the Nile

Arcadius - a more than capable emperor in this version of history

The map is huge, the scope is huge, the odds of survival are initially slim, but if you love the idea of rewriting history, or seeing it rewritten before your very eyes, then this is the game for you. Attila Total War is not an easy game, indeed, it can be notoriously difficult and it takes a hell of a long time to play out a full game – possibly as much as 100 hours. It has its flaws and can be highly frustrating, and, on reflection, there are probably more complaints in this review than there is praise, but once you are in there, fighting to death against seemingly impossible odds, the stakes are raised so wonderfully high that victory offers a level of elation and rejoicing rare in strategy games. I can’t think of any previous strategy game wherein I have become so deeply invested emotionally. I complain about these frustrating elements, because I love this game so much – for its setting, atmosphere, scale, intensity and its attractive, if GPU-heavy look. The battles are ferocious, the music is epic, the addictiveness and immersion is supreme. You will shout, you will cry, you will swear and you will punch your fist in the air and whoop with pride and pleasure – but you will no doubt share my conviction: no matter what, that mofo Attila, the Scourge of God, must die.

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Skyrim Revisited

Bethanie in Markarth

Bethanie outside Markarth

On the day of its release – the 11th of November 2011, I went straight out and bought a copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Few game releases have gotten me so excited, and they certainly hadn’t for a while. The sense of anticipation with Skyrim was palpable across the net and it was also widely advertised off the net. In a sign of how computer games are increasingly coming to dominate the entertainment industry, there were even advertisements on buses and stencils spray-painted on pavements around town. Fortunately, the game more than lived up to the high expectations.

Skryim Cometh, King St, Newtown

Skryim Cometh, King St, Newtown

I plunged into Skyrim with all the enthusiasm I could muster, and it was not misplaced. As I made clear in the review I wrote at the time, this is a very special game that offers hundreds if not thousands of hours of totally immersive enjoyment. As with all previous Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim’s key strength is the size of the world created and the complexity and skill with which it has been done. Few games ever give a player so much freedom to customise their character and direct their own playing experience. I quote again a passage from a review in PC Gamer UK, which makes this point so well:

“The games we normally call open worlds – the locked off cities and level-restricted grinding grounds – don’t compare to this. While everyone else is faffing around with how to control and restrict the player, Bethesda just put a fucking country in a box. It’s the best open world game I’ve ever played, the most liberating RPG I’ve ever played, and one of my favourite places in this or any other world.”

The Elder Scrolls games have always offered a welcome alternative to the more common RPG experience of being railroaded through a core storyline with a limited number of cookie-cutter sidequests . Even with the games that have come from Bioware’s incredible stable, there has been relatively little freedom to shun the main quest and explore the world freely. Baldur’s Gate I set an early precedent for this, but few games have followed up as successfully and impressively.

Go where you please, the choice is yours

Go where you please, the choice is yours

In Skyrim, as with Oblivion and Morrowind, it is easy enough to forget that there even is a main quest. After the initial introduction, it remains entirely up to the player whether or not they wish to engage with this storyline. It’s simply a matter of ignoring the quest and going wherever one pleases in this seamless, open world. There are hundreds of other, often extremely detailed, long and complex quest lines to engage with, some of which can span many locations and characters. One could even play the game without engaging in any questing at all. It is possible to spend all of one’s time hunting, crafting, exploring, fighting bandits and looting old forts and ruins. Skyrim allows you to role-play very freely, and, in a sense, to set your own limitations, goals and conventions for your character. Not only does this make for a very satisfying experience initially, it also hugely increases the replayability of the game.

Clive Morrowind in Windhelm

Clive Morrowind in Windhelm. Main quest? What main quest?

I don’t wish to go into too much detail about Skyrim here, having done so elsewhere, suffice to say that after an initial period of hardcore indulgence, I stepped away from Skyrim and took a long break. Skyrim wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry and I wanted to give the community time to come up with the inevitable thousands of mods to improve textures, models, interface, game-play etc, or just to add extra detail to the world. Sure enough, as any quick look at the Skyrim Nexus website will prove, there are thousands of amazing mods out there to download.

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Hey ladies, come in, the water’s lovely

The range of mods is truly mindboggling: ones that alter the entire look of the game, introduce richly drawn quest lines and characters, add or significantly modify entire towns and regions, and the more purely whimsical – some of which are so outlandish, brilliant and, indeed obscure, that any attempt to provide examples is doomed to inadequacy. Great coverage of these can be found on MMOxReview, whose many Skyrim Mods videos review and highlight some of the best and most peculiar. The variety of mods caters for the variety of players – from sexing-up the game to increasing depth and immersion, from greater realism to the more fantastical, from those rooted firmly in lore to those which indulge in amusing postmodern intertextuality and pastiche. The process is made extremely easy now with the Nexus Mod Manager, which manages the downloading and installation of the mods and provides an easy interface through which to keep track of the changes and updates to the many mods one can layer on top of the vanilla.

Bethanie and temple interior

Bethanie and temple interior

I’ve always been a fan of high fantasy and the epic beauty conjured in books of the genre – Lord of the Rings being the most obvious example. It is the paradigm on which most modern fantasy has been constructed and Skyrim’s foundations just as surely rest there, as they do on the shoulders of Dungeons & Dragons, to which every modern role-playing game owes an incalculable debt. Visually, Skyrim continually conjures scenes of astonishing beauty and potent atmosphere and it is the beauty of the game and its immersive qualities that kept me going back. Few games inspire players to walk long distances across a vast world when there is a fast-travel option available, yet in Skyrim, I would frequently forego fast-travel and an entire play session might revolve around travelling from once place to the next, rather than just teleporting there to do the quest.

It is so beautiful to watch and listen to the environment and slow-travel is frequently rewarded with interesting random encounters, survival situations, hunting opportunities and the beauty of watching the day’s cycle moving from light to night. It can feel wholly rewarding just to find a nice, sheltered place to pitch a tent, build a fire and settle in for the evening.

Magical Tent, cast it where you like!

Magical Tent, cast it where you like!

I especially enjoyed the official Hearthfire expansion, which introduced the purchasing of land and the ability to construct a house on these plots. There could have been a wider variety of options so far as construction style was concerned, yet it was still satisfying to go through the stages. No doubt more options are now possible courtesy of the modding community, though I haven’t looked. This expansion also allowed one to adopt children, which provided a nice chance to help some of the poor orphans in the towns and villages of Skyrim. Another beautiful example of just how many different ways there are in which to play this game.

Lusetta Sorrowdusk marking out the foundations

Lusetta Sorrowdusk marking out the foundations

Adopted Daughter in her new bed

Adopted Daughter in her new bed

Having said that, I’m no longer playing Skyrim – having seen and done enough on various characters. I do, however, occasionally fire it up and go for a walk through the beautiful environments. I still feel nostalgic about Skyrim, as I do about Oblivion, and miss the sound of the wind whistling across the snow, the beautiful landscapes, the lulling, transportive soundtrack and, of course, the exciting and visceral action of the game. I certainly miss the sense of wow and wonder that struck me at times upon discovering new areas or being surprised by an element of plot. Sometimes it was the simplest things in the game which provided the greatest joy – like casting Magelight – a spell which sends a brightly glowing magic ball towards wherever one aimed it. As it flies over the terrain, down passages and tunnels or across vast caverns, it lights everything it passes and, upon coming into contact with something, be it a wall, tree, gate, or even a living creature, sticks fast and continues to pour out light. This was a beautiful way to see what lay ahead in the dark, or to provide a light source in the many dim places in the game. It never once lost its appeal throughout the many castings.

Distant Magelight illuminates the dark docks of Morthal

Distant Magelight illuminates the dark docks of Morthal

The following collection of screenshots is just a taste of the game’s variety and hardly representative of the crazy, diversity of mods such as Tropical Skyrim, which speaks for itself. When modding, I was mostly interested in improving the quality of textures rather than changing things completely, and so my Skyrim, for the most part, retains its classic appearance. Not all the textures have been upgraded to the highest standard to avoid reducing frame-rates – a seamlessly flowing game is not only far nicer, it has the added advantage of not inducing nausea. My principle focus therefore was on upgrading characters, clothing and equipment, along with clutter and vegetation.

Better looking clutter

Better looking clutter

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Better looking floorboards

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Better looking stonework

Without a doubt the most outstanding mod I came across was Vilja in Skyrim. This mod is a remarkable piece of work – a companion character with over 9000 lines of subtly voiced dialogue. Vilja not only engages in conversation, but responds to innumerable locations and encounters, offering her opinions on people, places and quests the player comes across. Not only are there a great volume of dialogue and interactions, but they are cleverly written, droll, amusing and touching.

Vilja – had a buggy habit of switching to her nightdress

Vilja in the background, waiting and watching

Vilja in the background, waiting and watching

An equally impressive mod is Interesting NPCs which adds more than 250 fully-voiced characters to the game. Some of these have quests, can be romanced, and can join the player as companions. Again, the quality and intelligence of the voice-work and characterisation is outstanding, adding many hours of interesting, entertaining and intriguing conversations. This particularly enlivens visits to taverns, to almost all of which (possibly all, I didn’t check) new characters have been added.

I am, of course, like the next man, a fan of sexy characters – be they male or female – which has become a requisite staple of the fantasy genre. Many of the mods revolve around enhancing the female and male body, often to rather ludicrous proportions, along with providing all manner of sexy clothing and armour. However one feels about the message underlying all this, the work is, in some cases, incredibly impressive. The Sweet and Sexy Lingerie Shop which can be added to the city of Solitude is a true masterpiece.

Perhaps black stockings are more appropriate...

Perhaps black stockings are more appropriate…

The costumes are highly detailed and, as a space, the shop itself is very cleverly designed. It was hard to resist indulging in some titillation whilst playing. My fantasy gaming motto has always been look good (or, at least, striking) and play gritty, and that certainly describes the story arc of those who appear below. After all, it is fantasy. The skill and detail of the costumes designed by modders across the board, sexy or otherwise, is astonishing and well worth a look. At present there are no less than 1027 clothing mods.

Japanese Onsen and matching garments

Japanese Onsen and matching garments

As I cautioned in my original review, these shots are all static, which rather diminishes their immersive capacity and allows one to see through some of the virtual illusions. The leaf textures, for example, often look alarmingly jagged in stills, an aspect that is disguised by their subtle motion during play. I spend a lot of time lining up and taking screenshots in games and see it as an extension of my travel photography. In essence, these are not merely captures from a game I played – these are photographs from a fantastical world in which I had the pleasure of spending many delightful hours. Skyrim will forever remain in my heart as one of my favourite holiday destinations.

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