I was going to start this review with a stylish intro that detailed the sort of things you’d end up doing in Game of Thrones: Genesis. There would have been characters, subterfuge, a call to war, the whole shebang. It would have been like reading a little slice of the books, except better because I am the awesomest of writers.
In the end, I decided against doing that, for no other reason than it would confuse you as to just what the game gives you. Despite the insistence that Genesis is a prequel to the books, you don’t get an expertly driven narrative. What you get instead is a GCSE history report on the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
The land of Westeros has thousands of years of history, and throughout Genesis you will get a chance to miss all the important events by a matter of days. Every single campaign is devoted to preparing for some massive, realm shattering event. For the first few campaigns, this isn’t actually much of a problem – the establishing of Dorne as a nation is rather grass roots, and refugee kingdom merging with a charismatic duke and bringing the townships under their banner through pacts and treaties rather than by the sword – but once you reach the Targaryen dynasty, things start to go a little weird.
I am not heavily invested in the lore of A Song of Ice and Fire, and most of what I know comes from the TV series and this game. What I do know, however, is that the Targaryens conquered the seven kingdoms of Westeros using dragons, sword and general violent tendencies, so it is exceptionally irritating that their missions largely boil down to having a chat with some peasants to fund an army you don’t really get to use. There are the odd few fights, but they quickly show why the game avoids letting you take part in the massive battles you would expect of such upheaval – the combat is pathetic.
There’s two levels of warfare in Genesis. The first is largely for harrying the opponent, you hire a few mercenaries and go strolling into their lands for a bit of a ruck. This is warfare funded entirely by gold, which you get from making friends in the little towns. The second is with armies, which look exactly the same as mercenary units but are tougher, cost food, and can sometimes invade towns. In either case, to make these units fight other units, you just march them into each other and watch the unimpressive melee that follows. More often than not, the two units will just meld into each other to the sound – but most definitely not the appearance – of steel meeting steel, and the little green dots above one will start to disappear. There’s little in the way of meaningful feedback and there is no character to it at all. You might as well be flicking chess pieces at each other.
Thankfully, there are other ways to wage war that don’t involve armies, and these are much more satisfying. Maybe it’s just me, but I much prefer defeating an opponent without them even knowing you are their enemy, and this is something your usual strategy game doesn’t allow. Genesis revels in this, providing you with all the spies and assassins and rogues you need to bring your opponent down from within.
The varying tactics on offer would take a while to explain, so I shall give you a bit of an example of one of my preferred methods of conquest. Apart from your family home, the countryside is largely neutral – you need to send envoys out to persuade villages to side with you in any coming fight, and to pay you some delicious taxes. Maintaining these alliances can be tricky after a while, enemy envoys rocking up and stealing the allegiance of towns is commonplace. Send a few spies out into enemy lands, however, and you can set up secret agreements, creating a town of traitors that are loyal to you, but appear to work for your foe.
It’s a risky gambit, one easily undone by a bit of legwork from an opposing spy, but at the same time it can be easier to maintain than juggling overt alliances. The benefits of an overt alliance are certainly tempting – extra gold for one thing – but unless you can spare the money to marry a noblewoman into the town to create a blood pact, you’ll constantly be in fear of enemy envoys or riot-inducing rogues.
The important thing to remember, however, is that Genesis does actually allow you to strategise in a way many other strategy games do not. They tend to concern themselves with strategy in a military sense, and Genesis is very much trying for a mix of military and politicking. It’s not expert at this, but it certainly tries something different from the epic scale warfare of Total War, for example. It is entirely possible to win a game via politics instead of war – except in the campaign, where your options are always heavily directed – and there is a certain wry sense of victory in having subverted every one of your opponent’s towns. They’ll come for you with a military force, they’ll think they have the territory to fund it, and then they’ll see where their subject’s loyalties really lie.
The paranoia is the best part of the game, constantly second guessing the loyalty of every one of your units, constructing a network of spies to scout for prowling assassins and deploying guardsmen to arrest those that get caught in the net. Have they turned your envoy? Are these cities really on your side, or has your envoy been playing you for a fool all this time? The more you expand, the harder it is to double check every little thing. You’re going to have to take it on faith.
And that’s where Genesis really shines. Yes, the actual warfare stuff is poor, but there is more to running a kingdom than having a scrap with your enemies. Humiliating a man on the field of battle is all well and good, but having the opportunity let him humiliate himself is even better. I like this about Genesis – it’s a game of politics rather than cold steel. An unusual model of politics, to be sure, but the many options available to screw over your opponent make it something special.
It is heavily flawed in many areas. The campaigns are dull and really squander the whole prequel aspect of the game. The combat has less character to it than your typical game of risk with the military nerd who will name his bloody plastic horses. What it is not, however, is an insult to its parent works.
In all, I think that’s good enough, yeah?
MLG Rating: 7/10
Platform: PC Release Date: 30/09/2011
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a digital copy of Game of Thrones Genesis for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of one week on a PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.