Big Steaming Pile – Victoria II

The Victorian Era was a period of great advancement and upheaval in history. New technologies like the telephone and telegraph expedited communications, nations like Germany and Italy were united, and mankind continued to develop new and exciting ways to kill each other.

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Big Steaming Bonus – No Luca No

We’re going to do something a little different today. Ordinarily, as the title of our column implies, we cover games available on Steam, but this time, we’re going to take a look at a game available on XBox Live. We assure you, we will return to our regularly scheduled programming shortly.

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Big Steaming Pile – Train Simulator 2013

Simulators have been an expansive genre in PC gaming for quite a long time now, from the Maxis classics like SimCity and SimEarth, to the incredibly expansive Microsoft Flight Simulator series, to modern indie simulation titles like Autobahn Police Simulator, there’s always been a market for games that allow you to experience activities that you probably would never get the ability to in real life.

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Big Steaming Pile – Napoleon: Total War

Napoleon’s military prowess has been studied for centuries now, and in 2010, armchair generals got their opportunity to emulate the campaigns of L’Empereur with today’s piece of the Big Steaming Pile, Napoleon: Total War.

Full Disclosure: Napoleon Bonaparte is my favorite historical figure. Sure, there have been people who’ve done more for humanity, invented things, helped others and such. But for my money, give me the diminutive Corsican who came along at the right place and the right time to finagle his way onto the French throne and run roughshod over Europe so hard that he had to be exiled twice. Napoleon’s military prowess has been studied for centuries now, and in 2010, armchair generals got their opportunity to emulate the campaigns of L’Empereur with today’s piece of the Big Steaming Pile, Napoleon: Total War.

Napoleon: Total War is a half-sequel, half-spinoff of Empire: Total War. For the uninitiated, what we have here is a combination of real-time tactics and turn-based strategy. The main mode of the game, Napoleon’s Campaigns, takes you across several milestones in Napoleon’s military career: there’s a tutorial to get you familiar with the interface, the Italian campaign, where a young Bonaparte launched a dagger thrust at the Austrians to keep the French Revolution alive, the Egyptian Campaign, where Napoleon battles the Egyptians and the Ottoman Turks in the arid deserts of the Levant, the Europe campaign, which is basically an open-ended experience starting from Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France, and the Battle of Waterloo, where the curtain finally fell on Napoleon’s reign.

Each turn, you’ll start with a view of the campaign map. Here, you’ll manage the more macro aspects of your empire – conducting research, engaging in diplomacy, recruiting troops and the like. On a provincial level, you’ll need to focus on Capitals and Towns. Provincial Capitals serve as hubs for your nation, and in them, you can build various structures like Tax Offices which boost your income or Barracks that allow you to recruit more and increasingly powerful types of soldiers. Towns can only hold one type of building, but they get different construction trees, like Supply Posts, which allow your troops to reinforce at a faster rate between turns, or Gunsmiths, which lower the cost of raising regiments in that region. If you’re not interested in handling that yourself, you can automate the building process, however, you and the AI might have different opinions of what your war machine needs, and it will not hesitate to spend your precious ducats on projects that aren’t really worth it at the time.

Well-covered French infantry holding off Sardinian troops.

Of course, we didn’t come here for road-building and diplomacy, we’re here to take what we want at gunpoint. When you march one of your armies up to an enemy force and it’s time to throw down, the game shifts to a real-time strategy setup that features some of the deepest tactical flexibility I’ve ever seen in a strategy game. Depending on a number of factors like the skill of the commanding generals and which side is attacking as opposed to defending, one side will have to deploy their troops first and the other side gets to see their enemy’s formation before deciding how to counter it. In this pre-battle phase, you can do things like form groups of regiments that can be called upon with the push of a button, so if you want all your cavalry to be one united force or your light infantry all together, you can do so. You can unlimber your artillery so that they’re ready to open fire at the beginning of the battle instead of having to wait for them to get set up first, and if you’re being attacked after your army has been stationary for a full turn, you can set up defenses like earthworks to protect infantry or spikes that shred enemy cavalry that attempt to charge you.

Once the fight gets underway, you still have a myriad of options at hand. You’re not limited to making formations a certain depth or length, you can stretch out a regiment into a single file or pack them tight to occupy a narrow valley. You can tell dragoons to dismount their horses and fight afoot with carbines, you can tell skirmishers to adopt a hit-and-run strategy, grenadiers can lob a volley of grenades, and certain artillery types can switch between regular cannon fire and deadly quicklime rounds that, if they score a solid hit, can decimate an enemy regiment long before they reach your lines. Now, one thing to keep in mind is that, unlike a lot of RTS games, your goal isn’t necessarily to kill every enemy on the field. Instead, every regiment and unit has a Morale meter, and when it reaches a low enough point, the unit will rout and, depending on how badly it’s getting pounded, it will either attempt to retreat and rally back to the fight or they will bail on the battle completely. There are a number of factors at work here, like whether the army commander is nearby, whether certain elite units are nearby, if the regiment is taking both musket and artillery fire, and whether they’re holding high ground or attempting to seize it.

You’ll also have to take factors like terrain and weather into account, as well. Troops can hide in forests, making them mostly invisible to the other side, they can use walls as cover, rivers have to be crossed either at specific fords or by bridge, which can bottleneck a large army, and regular artillery has to have a clean line-of-sight to hit targets. The weather can also play hell on an army; wet weather means gunpowder may not work properly, leading to misfires that blunt musket attacks or damage artillery, extreme heat or cold tires troops out, as well, and a tired army is an ineffectual army.

After each battle, you get an account of your survivors, casualties inflicted, and experience gained by your troops, which affects stats like reloading time, accuracy, and unit morale. If you were attempting to take a city and won the battle, you’ll then get the option of how to handle your new prize: peaceful occupation or shameless looting, although the latter almost inevitably leads to a local revolt and a boatload of rebel troops coming to retake the city. After naval battles, you might also get the opportunity to seize enemy ships and add them to your own fleet, but regardless of land or sea, you’ll be brought back to the campaign map to plan your next move.

Admiral Horatio Nelson: the Royal Navy’s sledgehammer.

There’s a few other modes worth perusing as well. There’s a Quick Battle, which allows you to select from a wide variety of nations and select your army or navy composition, Napoleon’s Battles, which drop you into some of the most famous fights of the era, from Napoleon’s masterstroke at Austerlitz to the frigid stalemate at Borodino, and for those looking to thwart the Little Corporal, there’s Campaigns of the Coalition, which allows you to play the Europe Campaign, but as the Prussians, Austrians, Russians, or British instead of France. There’s also the option for online play, but seeing as this game is seven years old at the time of this review, there’s probably not gonna be a lot of potential opponents out there.

The presentation here is stellar, especially during battles. The scale of the battles themselves is amazing; even on medium graphical settings, you’ll witness hundreds of individual soldiers on the field, and while they don’t look great zoomed out, if you pull the camera in tight, you can observe details like artillerymen covering their ears before launching a round, infantrymen going through every step of the arduous process of loading a musket, and even which of your troops are clean-shaven compared to who has beards and mustaches. There’s a lot of speech to be heard as well, and each nationality has their own language, so Austrian troops will actually scream in German as opposed to badly accented English, which is a very nice touch. You know you’re going to be in for a good show when the intro video is fantastic.

I do have some hangups, however, but none are truly game-breaking. For one, the AI, while quite capable of putting up a decent challenge to even hardened veterans, is occasionally capable of some questionable decisions. For one, if enough of your regiments are hidden, the enemy will not march on you until you move your hidden troops. And I don’t mean they’ll try to flank you or probe around instead of attacking head-on, they will literally stand still and allow you to blast them to death with artillery. Also, as I said, the biggest factor during battle is troop morale, and the easiest way to smash enemy morale is to kill their commanding general, which, in reality, was considered a no-no in Napoleonic warfare because it was considered uncivilized, but here, the best way to start almost any battle is to train your cannons on the enemy general and pick them off while there’s still tons of space between you and them. Also, the game at times has a nasty habit of putting way too much emphasis on generals’ abilities over the armies they command. For example, if you don’t wish to fight a battle yourself, like if you grossly outnumber the enemy and don’t feel like spending 10-15 minutes on mopping up a weak force, you can allow the game to auto-resolve the battle instantly. Unfortunately, and especially if you’re playing as a Coalition nation against France, the game values French leadership so much that you will sometimes lose battles where you outnumber the enemy twice, even three times over because the game decides that their general was just that good, which is somewhat understandable if you’re up against Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, less so against a handful of basic line infantry.

Those minor quibbles aside, Napoleon: Total War is an excellent hybrid of real-time and turn-based strategy, set in perhaps my favorite era of history, and with tremendous visuals and sounds. It’s quite deep, but not intimidating, and the amount of tactical options and abilities available mean that you never have to fight the same battle twice. The historical battles and Campaigns of the Coalition mode add some great replay value, and there are quite a few quality mods out there to extend this game’s life even further (I recommend Napoleon: Total Factions, which allows you to play as any country featured in the game). I highly recommend it, and if you pick this one up, hopefully you’ll complete Napoleon’s Grand Empire and not get exiled to Elba. Or Saint Helena. Because you definitely don’t come back from the second one.

Current Price – $19.99

Is It Worth It? – If you’re a fan of strategy games or this period of history, absolutely yes. Even if you’re not, this might convert you.

Big Steaming Pile – I Am Bread

One of the aspects of game design that’s always fascinated me is character design. From plumber brothers to blue hedgehogs to whatever the hell Crash Bandicoot was supposed to be, I’m always intrigued by what characters stick and become memorable and which ones fall by the wayside, because there never seems to be any guidelines that dictates what gets over and what doesn’t.

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Big Steaming Pile – Sunless Sea

Victorian London has sunken beneath the Earth’s surface, into a deep, dark underground ocean pockmarked with a sprinkling of islands and untold flora and fauna. As in times past, brave explorers must take to the sea and attempt to conquer it for their own purposes, facing the myriad of dangers that lie both above and below the waves.

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Big Steaming Pile – Shadowrun Returns

The Shadowrun franchise has been around since 1989, combining fantasy tropes like magic and creatures like orcs and trolls with sci-fi aspects like cybernetics and digital worlds in a futuristic version of Seattle, becoming one of the most successful role-playing games ever, and is perhaps the most well-known example of the “cyberpunk” genre.

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Big Steaming Pile – Autobahn Police Simulator

It’s not terribly uncommon for video games to put you in the shoes of a law enforcement officer. From Police Quest to the SWAT series to True Crime: Streets of L.A. to the immortal TimeCop, there are plenty of titles out there that make you one of the boys in blue.

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Big Steaming Pile – Verdun: 1914-1918

Anyone who’s familiar with the Western Front of World War I would probably not be inclined to think it would make for a very enjoyable game. Bolt-action rifles, trench warfare, mindless human wave attacks repelled in the face of machine guns, gaining precious few yards of ground in exchange for tens of thousands of casualties – none of these sound like ingredients for a fun game. But, we here at the Big Steaming Pile are here to explore concepts that you’d never think would be molded into video game form, so let’s go into the trenches with today’s piece of The Pile, Verdun: 1914-1918 by Blackmill Games and M2H, released in 2015.

Verdun is an online-only multiplayer FPS that takes place on the Western Front of the Great War. The main mode of the game, Frontlines, attempts to recreate the brutal deadlock of trench warfare by having players engage of a series of attacks and counterattacks for land held by one side or the other. Each force has a limited amount of time to capture an enemy trench by clearing it of enemies and occupying it themselves, with the wait time decreasing if the attackers outnumber the defenders currently in the trench. If an attack runs out of time, the roles are reversed, the attackers retreat to their own trench and the defenders go on the offensive. If the attack succeeds, they will defend their newly won territory against an enemy counterattack launched from further back. If you’re looking for more traditional FPS action, there’s Attrition mode, which plays like a classic deathmatch, Rifle Deathmatch, where you only fight with rifles, but can unlock upgrades like scopes and bayonets over time, and Squad Defense, where a single squad tries to hold off as many waves of CPU invaders as they can.

Now, before we go any further, there’s something you should be made very aware of: if you attempt to play Verdun like Call of Duty or Battlefield, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. A LOT. FREQUENTLY. Well, to be fair, you’re gonna die a lot anyway because this is trench warfare, but still, you’ll die a lot and with very little to show for it. If you think you’ll be able to run gung-ho alone against a well-defended trench line and soak up bullets like rainwater and survive, or that you’ll be able to bunnyhop and no-scope your way to victory, or you think that kill/death ratios are the be-all, end-all, this game is not for you. This is a much slower-paced kind of action here; one good shot from a rifle is enough to drop you here, so the proper use of cover, both when advancing and defending, is imperative here. The slower firing rate of WWI-era weaponry also means you won’t be spraying and praying here, instead, you have to make sure your shots count, and to that end, you’ll also have to adjust to using old-school iron sights, which can take quite a bit of adjustment if you’re used to modern aiming aids. This is even a game where a bayonet is a viable weapon instead of a novelty.

German troops prepare to defend a newly-won trench.

The other biggest habit you’ll have to learn to succeed here is that teamwork is essential. Each side is broken up into four teams, each with four roles available. Teams are modeled on participants in the Western Front, so if you’re playing as the Entente Powers, teams include the British Tommies, the U.S. Marines, the Canadian Corps, and the Scottish Highlanders, to name a few. On the German side, team choices feature various branches of the Kaiser’s army, from the front-line Landser units to the nimble Stosstrupp and the fearsome Pioniere engineers. Each team has four designated roles that complement each other, for example, The French Poilu team features a Grenadier that is good for softening up enemy trenches before charging in, a Mitrailleur (machine gunner) who can anchor a defensive line, a Fusilier who can lay down aimed rifle fire at a distance, and a Caporal, the squad leader who can activate each team’s special ability and lay down waypoints for his teammates to attack or defend. Each role also comes with its own specialized loadouts, and three loadouts can be unlocked for each spot, although not all of which are ideal; the Canadian Raider’s final loadout is a trenchclub and a handful of grenades and that’s it. He doesn’t even get a gun, so he has to rely on his teammates to get him in close enough to do his damage.

Communicating with your fellow soldiers is also very important, whether it be telling defenders that there’s been a breach somewhere in the line that needs reinforcements, or telling attackers to hold up before pushing for a trench because artillery is being called in. That machine-gunner that’s holding off your advance? Call his location in to a friendly sniper and let him open the door for you. Recon showing a cluster of guys waiting for you to stumble into the trench? Ask your buddy on the flamethrower to help thin the herd before going into the breach.

Aside from the specialized roles, the other method Verdun uses to emphasize teamwork is the system of Co-Op XP. Y’see, when you play repeatedly with the same players on your team, you earn Co-Op XP for your squad, which allows the squad itself to level up. As the squad levels up, the team members earn bonuses, like quicker reload time or the ability to sprint for longer, as well as a more powerful squad special weapon, such as the Stosstrupp’s gas attack going from weaker chlorine gas to phosgene and eventually mustard gas. Not only that, but as a nice bonus, squads with high Co-Op XP unlock uniforms from later in the war, so a Poilu squad starts with képi hats and red pants and builds up to the all-blue uniforms with Adrian helmets. Now, granted, none of these upgrades are game-breaking, but I did like the idea of incentivizing players to form lasting partnerships with other players and reward people who like to play with friends often.

Speaking of other players, you might very well be wondering what the community is like. After all, there’s nothing that kills any potential fun you might have with a multiplayer game than loading it up the first time and finding that most of the people playing are abusive trolls. Thankfully, and I am VERY happy to say this, the Verdun community is actually quite welcoming. Yes, there are more than a few “edgy” team names and user handles, so if you’re tired of Harambe jokes and Trump memes, well, they’re still found here, but for the most part, most everyone I’ve encountered while playing tend to be very civil and sportsmanlike, and if you ask a question, you’ll usually get a straight answer instead of being decried as a noob or worse.

Verdun is also available for PS4 and XBox One, but if you’re playing on Steam, odds are, you’re using the good ol’ keyboard-and-mouse combo, and on a positive side, the controls here are pretty simple. Aside from the basics like shooting, jumping, and reloading, there aren’t a whole lot of extraneous buttons to remember. You can hold your breath while looking down your sights, which steadies your aim and gives you a little bit of zoom for a limited time, you can don your gasmask, which protects you at the cost of your peripheral vision and makes close combat even more claustrophobic, and squad leaders can call in gas attacks and artillery strikes and the like at a push of a button. I myself play with a gamepad, and I don’t feel this puts me at a disadvantage compared to traditional PC players, either, so if you’re playing on Steam but still want the feel of a controller in your hand, you’re still mostly on even footing.

Let’s go, boys! Their hole is our goal!

Perhaps the most striking feature about Verdun is the presentation, most notably, the historical accuracy. The maps are based on sites of actual battles of the war, from the wooded hills of the Aisne to the frantic close-range battle for Fort Douaumont. The uniforms for each side are very nicely rendered, down to the Highlanders’ kilts or the iconic spiked German helmets. The weaponry also shows the extent of the detail, as you’ll even be able to read the manufacturing marks stamped into your rifle if you’re crawling along on the ground. Characters shout back and forth in their native languages, also, which, aside from being cool, can also be a useful tool; if you’re sneaking along a trench as a German and hear someone around the corner shout something in English, you can be sure that’s not a buddy. The trenches look appropriately dismal and gloomy as well, especially in the rain of Flanders or the night shadows in Champagne.

I do have a few complaints about Verdun. One, as I said, it’s an online-only multiplayer game, so there’s no single-player mode, and Squad Defense is the closest thing to a practice mode, and if your internet connection is wonky, you’re probably not gonna want to plunk down for this. Two, I would’ve liked some more customized loadouts, at least amongst unit types from the same country. My favorite weapon in the game is probably the Canadian Ross rifle, and only ONE loadout (Level 3 for the Specialist) features it. Even other Canadian troops can’t use the Ross, which is a little disappointing. Three, and this is no fault of the game itself, while the community here is quite good, it’s also not exactly huge, and Battlefield 1‘s release kinda saturated the market a bit, so there might be some times where you’re up for a game at three in the morning and there’s not enough people on to form a full 32-player game. Although, I should say, Verdun is clearly the superior choice for someone wanting a more realistic version of World War I combat than Battlefield 1.

If you’re looking for something to scratch the fast-paced, frenetic itch between big-name FPS releases, Verdun isn’t it. If you’re looking for something a bit different, something more grounded in realism, more focused on teamwork, that emphasizes marksmanship, and put in an interesting historical setting, Verdun might just be what you’re looking for. It handles smoothly, looks and sounds terrific, and the community is great deal more tolerable than the average online gaming pool. The learning curve might be a bit steep, especially if you’re used to the way other shooters play, but if you take the time to get into Verdun, you’ll find an experience quite unlike most anything else being brought to the table, and I recommend it, especially if you’re into this period of history. Even if you’re not a World War I buff, it’s still worth a look if you’re looking for a new way to put steel on target.

Current Price – $24.99

Is It Worth It? If you’re absolutely sold after reading this, yes. If you’re still somewhat on the fence, wait for a 50% off or more sale. This isn’t for everyone.

Big Steaming Pile – Papers, Please

Hello, everyone, I’m Uncle Dave! You might know me from my review work at Just Games Retro, and if not, that’s quite alright, too, because I’m here today to welcome you to what I hope will be your new favorite recurring article here at The Casual Geekery, Uncle Dave’s Big Steaming Pile, where we’ll take a look at games available through the Steam store!

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