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Thomas Was Alone ::: Review

Within my profession there’s a certain movement known as “programmer art”. This is usually identified as something created in Paint, taking results from a Google image search, or by use of very simple shapes. For the most part it plays its role as a placeholder until the real professionals breeze in, knock something gorgeous out in a matter of hours, and make me wish I’d never boastfully mentioned my A-level in art.

In the right setting, however, this look thrives. Listening to Mike Bithell’s director’s commentary for Thomas Was Alone, the simple shapes forming the core aesthetic came about because they were easy to work with. Couple that with a striking approach to shadowing that developed due to a wish to get something up and running quickly, and you have a game that is not only built on programmer art but defined by it.

It does nothing to diminish the game’s qualities, however. In fact it enhances what’s on show as the lack of high polygon models or master-crafted sprites highlight the heart of the experience, that of platforming and that of Thomas.

Each of the hundred-or-so levels are simply constructed, built from solid black lines where geometric design is key. There are no gentle slopes or undulating plains, everything is at 90 degrees to one another creating a world of floors, staircases and floating platforms. Strip away the tile editor from the old-school Mario or Megaman games and you’d probably find a very similar aesthetic, it’s just that Thomas Was Alone is not afraid to show you behind the curtain.

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What this achieves is a distilled platformer. There are no trappings to distract here, leaving you to focus on traversing the levels with nothing but the jump button to rely upon. Stripped of everything it puts a lot of pressure on the core mechanics but happily there is a subtle brilliance to the control you have over your cube and his friends.

With each dab of the stick the movement feels solid and as you leap through the air your momentum is predictable. With so few – in fact zero – visible cues from your characters it would have been easy to feel detached, as if you were merely guiding rather than commanding their path through the world. Yet the controls are tight and responsive and are a joy to play with. This isn’t the floaty feeling in LittleBigPlanet but a far more measured approach where you have utter confidence about when and where you can jump and exactly where you’ll land.

This foundation is built upon with each shape having different talents. Initially you’ll meet Thomas who is a rectangle of average height and possesses a relatively good jump, whilst Chris is a small, stocky cube who fails to jump anywhere near the height of Thomas. Levels that were easy for Thomas are now slightly tougher with a short-arse in tow, and so cooperation is required. All the characters at one point or another will become extra platforms for their less able chums to clamber up, though, not to be heightist, the smaller ones will be able to sneak through low gaps to trigger switches. It’s all about choosing the right shape for the job and then ensuring they can get there.

As well as mere size and reach, further shapes are introduced which add extra complexity to levels. Some can be used as trampolines, others float in water, though the best physics defying cuboids are left for later in the game. These in particular add a sense of experimentation and come about at just the right point to reinvigorate proceedings.

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Left here Thomas Was Alone would go down as a very elegant and well-executed platformer. It reduces the genre down to a base set of components and then builds up a stead degree of challenge. However there is more, as surprisingly the developer manages to inject personality into these simple shapes, causing you to care about them more than most polygonal game leads you’ll meet.

As the various quads are introduced, so are their characters. Our friend Thomas turns out to be an optimistic chap, fascinated with the world, and yet Chris is a dour, grumpy sod. He gets along with Thomas, but more because he has to rather than as a willing companion. It may seem a little contrived initially but as your time in this Flatland-variant continues you forget you’re puppeting faceless shapes. They turn rather into abstracted personalities and are very well suited to the form and its properties.

I remember back during the era of Worms and Cannon Fodder that my hapless soldiers would always develop their own traits, be it the coward always hiding at the back or the grumpy bugger that continually whinged because he had to carry the heavy rocket launcher. The same is true here, with Chris who always seems to need that extra helping hand due to his diminutive stature very believably having a chip on his shoulder. Then there’s the lean athlete who quite fittingly has the cocky attitude that he’s carrying the rest along, right through to the very self-conscious larger lady. I may be committed after this next sentence, but each shape is perfectly cast.

These personalities are all brought to life through the narration of Danny Wallace who at the start of each level reads an insight into the minds of one of our party. From the personal struggles of each through to the larger team dynamic, this storytelling makes the whole experience feel far more compelling than just a well-crafted platformer. It becomes the tale of personal struggle as a misfit bunch try and come to terms with not only the world about them but their own personal demons.

It’s a surprising outcome for a game primarily focused on getting you to jump from left to right but proves almost more rewarding because of it. Your motions are analogous with the shape’s journey and your reward for reaching your goal is helping them towards theirs.

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Thomas Was Alone ::: Hands On

A stripped down and refined platformer, Thomas Was Alone somehow managed to inject personality into a series of four-sided shapes. It’s a feat, so join Ali, James, Claire, Thomas, Steve (or Chris) and Laura as we run from the evil pixel cloud.

Ni No Kuni ::: Hands On

I set sail on the seven seas, off to seek treasure, adventure, and to rid the world of evil magic. For the time being.

Ni No Kuni’s been wearing me down but before I moves on to Tomb Raider and Sim City this week join me for a brief gander round Level 5 and Studio Ghibli’s latest JRPG.

Birthday Honours

At this time of year, as the Christmas trees come down and attentions turn to hot cross buns, award ceremonies are ten-a-penny with every magazine, show and website handing out accolades left right and centre. And by golly by jingo we want to get in on the action.

So whilst more reputable publications hand out Game of the Year plaudits, we present you with a list of those titles that have proven themselves enough to make the resurrected BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

Biggest Surprise: ZombiU

At Gamescom ZombiU and I did not get on well. In a noisy hall, shoulder to shoulder with fellow gamers, I attempted to get to grips with a seemingly clunky, cricket bat swinging survivor of the zombie apocalypse. He wasn’t a survivor for long. Neither was the next chap. Or the subsequent poor lady.

In the comfort of my own home, however, Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title came into its own. It wasn’t a game to excel on a show floor, but a considered title that required patience. In return it repaid you with a unique experience that could crank up the tension by merely placing a pair of blips on your radar.

In an era where most games seem to be going for a more instantly accessible and, some may say, dumbed down mainstream experience, ZombiU embraces being slightly obtuse. Now whether this is a design masterstroke or a pure accident it’s hard to tell but it’s come from nowhere to be the most surprising title of 2012.

Honourable mentions: Wii U, PlayStation Plus’s instant game collection.

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Most Likely to Make My Mind Melt: Fez

For a handful of us, our April was consumed by talk of glyphs. We had notebooks and smartphones full of pictures and scribbles as Phil Fish’s mind boggling platformer took over our mental faculties. It started simply enough, presenting itself coyly as an 8bit indie darling. Slowly, however, the truth was revealed and not only was it an inspiring mix of retro visuals and stirring platforming but a vessel that contained an entire new language that had to decrypted.

There was no bluntness to it, though. The language was part of the world, etched into the walls, with a subtlety that meant when its importance was revealed it made you look at the world from a completely different perspective.

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Greatest Multiplayer Experience: FIFA 13

As a concept it may not be revolutionary, but EA’s latest incarnation of the beautiful game is as polished as can be. Part of that comes from the various game modes: grouping each club’s supporters together and charting shared success; a collectible card game where you put your best Panini stickers against a friend’s; or online leagues that shows the best implementation of “True Skill” since Halo 2.

In the last twelve months though there has been no multiplayer experience that has topped getting half-a-dozen friends together and marching out onto the virtual pitch. Each of us takes a position – I like to think of myself as the digital Scott Parker – and attempt to work together in sync, watching for each other’s runs, sliding through through-balls, and hopefully working goals that even Messi would be proud of. Though sadly the opposition seem equally adept. The swines.

Honourable mentions: Nintendoland, Journey.

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Reaffirming My Belief That Games Can Just Be Pure Fun: Nintendoland

If there was a period that sold me on the Wii U it was the Monday lunchtime right after it had launched. A colleague had brought the machine, Nintendoland and a bagful of Wii-motes into the office and an hour later I was plotting a visit to GAME.

Some may say that Nintendoland doesn’t sell the Wii U as well as Wii Sports sold the original Wii, but that’s beside the point as the Luigi’s Mansion mini-game is almost worth the price of admission alone. A simple collection of games based around almost playground concepts, the collection excels at stripping away overly complex controls schemes and allows players to revel in the glee of tig for the modern era.

There are duds, but most either excel in multiplayer or reveal a surprising amount of depth or challenge when tackled solo. They’re simple, but when simple is done so well why overcomplicate matters.

Honourable mention: Super Mario 3D Land

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Most Interesting New Tech: Book of Spells

I’m always a sucker for technology that verges on the novelty. Last year’s obsession with Skylanders and its Near Field Communication toys proves that out. This year it was Sony’s Wonderbook that won me over; effectively a giant set of Augmented Reality cards bound in a cover and combined with an Eye-Toy.

As always, though, it’s how it’s used that makes it wonderful. Wonderbook’s ability to turn your room into a classroom at Hogwarts is achieved by more than simply rendering dragons on your coffee table. You get sucked into the magical castle, shown tiny paper-based dramatizations of spell’s histories, and transported to fantastical locations. At each you flick and swish your wand complete with all the sparkles you need to levitate toads and set Deatheaters on fire.

It may also help that there’s a Walking with Dinosaurs tie in coming later this year.

Honourable mentions: Vita, PlayStation Plus, Game Boy Camera.

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Most Likely to Make Me Miss My Bedtime: Minecraft

Sometimes a glassed walled lair hidden beneath a manmade volcano just has to be made. Then of course when that’s completed it needs attaching to the mine cart network so you can speedily reach the giant floating castle. Well, that would be if my giant floating castle hadn’t burnt down when I installed the fire pit. Next time: don’t use timber.

With each new construction the late nights were worth it. Not since Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts have I had a virtual Lego set that kept me up to the wee small hours as walls needed finishing, ponds needed digging, and giant squid needed herding.

Honourable mention: Wordament

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Oddest: Tokyo Jungle

Possibly the hardest fought category but by a smidge Tokyo Jungle made my mind boggle most. The sheer bizarre concept of playing as a Pomeranian, savaging cattle and courting flee infested mates doesn’t sound like a winner, but it worked.

It felt like a modern incarnation of Double Dragon but when you take into account the story behind the animal adventure the mind truly boggles. Time travels, future humans trying to save themselves by sacrificing the past, and golden retrievers declaring themselves king… I’ll never slag off the Halo storyline again.

Honourable mentions: Frog Fractions, Fez.

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Bestest Game: Journey

Hands down this was by far and away the best game, nay experience, I’ve had all year. It combined charming, mute characters with wondrous landscapes in a platform-come-pilgrimage that saw you gracefully slide down sand dunes, scale snowy peaks and soar through the blue skies above. It constantly changed, but never felt forced or jarring in its transitions just that it always wanted to take you on a new adventure.

More than that, however, it touched me emotionally. The beautiful story conveyed in such minimalistic ways joined with an online cooperative experience that seemed so unique but equally compelling to everyone I spoke to was moving. It may only be a few hours long but that time can be held up as the finest time that can be found in our hobby.

Honourable mentions: Witcher 2, Fez

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Book of Spells

I’m a sucker for interesting peripherals. Over the years, my living room is full of bongos, plastic guitars, portals of powers, balance boards and a variety of console branded webcams. Now, a large AR book joins the ranks, and with it an opportunity to enter Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Roping my HP obsessed wife in for the ride, we swish and flick our way towards our O.W.L.s.

Tokyo Jungle

Think of a game solely starring animals and you may conjure up images of the rather splendid Lion King platformer or the colourful Viva Pinata. Most games purely focusing on fauna have a decided friendly approach to their doe-eyed characters.

Tokyo Jungle laughs at this. The soft and cuddly creatures you’ve played with in the past wouldn’t last two minutes on the cruel streets of Japan; the Jungle would turn them into a Simba sandwich with a side of Fizzlybear fries.

Reason being, mankind’s time has come to an end. In sudden circumstance humans have been wiped from the face of the earth leaving the plants and the animals free to make our concrete jungles their own. For the likes of the coyotes and lions once trapped in zoos this may be a very base instinct that they’re happy to obey, but for the lapdogs and pampered pussies this is somewhat of an adjustment. To survive they need to adapt, and adapt fast.

Taking the reins of one of these hapless critters there are but three things to remember: eat, pee, and mate. The staples of life.

The first is achieved by putting any thoughts of ever seeing a can of Pedigree Chum to one side and taking down a more hapless creature than yourself. You can wade in claws flying, wearing you prey down, but it’s deeply inefficient as chances are that they’ll flap and scramble away causing you to pursue, all the time your hunger meter draining. A more canny use of your time is carefully stalking your intended snack. Leap at the right moment – indicated by a pair of circling red jaws – and you’ll score a clean kill, taking them down in one strike.

In an abstract sense, Tokyo Jungle reminds me of the street brawlers of the 90s. You roam the streets, going from district to district, scrapping your way to success with limited buttons (and in turn moves) until the city has become yours.

It’s not always you who is going to be the aggressor either; there are more than pets roaming the abandoned city. Larger carnivores and packs lurk waiting for you to fill their health meter. At this point stealth and patience are crucial as you need to take down scouts before they can let the rest of their pack know or just scoot around the edges and avoid confrontation altogether.

Although there’s a certain amount of balance between being both the hunter and hunted when playing a carnivore, should you pick the deer, chick, or similar animals of vegetarian persuasion then expect a far more nervy experience. Sony takes an old school approach with the stealth as you creep through bushes for cover and take wide arcs around others to avoid detection. This is rounded off with a threat meter sat in the bottom left to reinforce just how much trouble you’re in. That’s not to say an old school approach is a poor approach; on the contrary, the very simple and well defined mechanics leave you in very little doubt as to how safe you are.

But all this risk is not for naught. Exploring the streets and marking territory (read: peeing on flags) is required to attract a mate. Each area of Tokyo has its own markers and making your way to each, through the teeth and claws of other species, will eventually deem you attractive enough to find a partner. A romantic snuggle later and you begin again as one of your own offspring, receiving some generous hereditary bonuses from your parents to improve your base stats.

And so the circle of life continues: exploring, eating, peeing, and mating your way through the years. They’re simple principles and built upon elegantly to bring out the best from Tokyo Jungle.

For one there are the Challenges. A series of tasks are set asking you go here, kill so many of that, or find this before a number of years have passed. They help funnel your experience and reward you with upgrades to your character.

Also, each time you enter the world it’s subtly different. Whilst roads and buildings remain intact, different species will wander the streets, unique events will take place to attract you to distant areas, and chances of pollution and famine can severely affect your gene pool’s chance of survival. Though when I’m told a dinosaur’s awoken in the park district, not even the turf war between the chimps and the alligators will put me off going.

Lastly, it’s the ability to unlock new animals to play as. Everything from chicks to lions, alley cats to dinosaurs, and everything in between can be found. The prospect of handling a new, larger, better equpped hunter or more hardy herbicide can be quite compelling, even if they all do handle the same. Specific challenges appear for such unlocks and they’re the only way to wring true longevity from Tokyo Jungle.

Sadly, they are as much earned through stubborness as they are skill. To reach the level of lion involves going through a dozen interveening creatures, and whilst I’m more than happy to wile away many an hour roaming Tokyo’s streets the sheer obsfucation of many of the more interesting animals is deeply disappointing. Taking down bosses that hide so many of the unlockables is a tough, especially as the lack of a checkpoint system means it’s a hard slog to get what you want.

However, whilst this barrier is as equally likely to shorten as it is to extend the experience, it shouldn’t detract from what is overall a well-structured game. Its design is highly concentrated, stripping away a lot of fat that exist on many modern games that could have dragged it down. Instead, bereft of storyline and mass-customisation, you are faced with simply proving yourself: How long can I survive? How far can I go? Can I take down that hippo?

Though at times frustrating, there’s a quality in Tokyo Jungle that made me want to continue plugging away, ensuring my animals lasted as long as possible, explored the next area of the map, and scrapped until my last breath. It’s a simple but fascinating game that marries older gameplay principles with a modern streamline approach.

Grab yourself a Pomeranian and head into town.

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We delve once more into PSN and look at another oddity, Tokyo Jungle. It’s the near future, mankind has disappeared from the face of the other, and the animals are taking over the streets…

The Unfinished Swan

Welcome to the dawn of a new age. Buoyed by our technological success at GamesCom – yes, I’m still talking about the Game Boy Camera – we’ve decided to move to the next level and try our hand at video.

Now, admittedly, the audio is the same as our written review we published last week but hopefully you’ll enjoy the content and help us warmly usher in a new visual age for the site.

Enjoy.

As always, please do leave comments. This is our first tentative step into a brave new world and can only adapt to your tastes if we know what they are.

The Unfinished Swan

The PlayStation Store continues to deliver. Offering exclusive downloadable titles that appear to fly in the face of mass appeal, opting instead for a more art-house approach, it is possibly my favourite aspect of the entirety of Sony’s platform. From the early days of PSN and fl0w right up to the recent Journey, at first glance style lauds it over substance. Take a step into each however and you’ll find that’s nowhere near the case, as each one hides a very different but equally compelling offering going beyond mere visuals.

Latest in this unique series is Unfinished Swan, a collaboration between Giant Sparrow and Sony’s prominent Santa Monica studio. And what is most telling about Unfinished Swan is the option on its title screen marked “Toys”. It sums up a lot about this quirky, first-person adventure.

A lot of the early coverage on this very striking game has focused on the initial steps of your journey. You take the role of Monroe, a young boy who has grown up in an Orphanage. The only reminder of his parents is his mother’s silver paintbrush and a solitary, incomplete painting of a swan. One night he wakes up to find not only that the swan has gone but a mysterious door has appeared in his room. Not one for letting avian abductions go uninvestigated, he picks up his brush and heads through the door.

On the other side, it’s white. Not the white of a bright day or of a polar bear convention, but the kind of white where there are no shadow or edges. He is as lost as if he were blind. Or at least he would be if it weren’t for his brush. A flick of its bristles and you throw a black ball of paint that splatters on the background, breaking the sterility of the environment. A few more flicks and you find that you’re not on an endlessly blank plane but there are walls about you. Following the now evident corridor you discover bannisters, carts and trees. There is a whole world to explore and the only way you will do so is through you paintbrush.

It’s an amazing sense of exploration, one I’ve not encountered in any other game. You don’t as much roam about, seeking the next door, but probe gently and tentatively. Features burst out of thin air as the contents of the world make themselves known to you, and even objects that would be almost inconsequential in more traditionally visual games become somehow wonderful. Stairwells with gaps between the railings, crates with slightly raised planking, and other simple objects take on great depth when splattered from the right angle.

Amusingly enough it’s worth considering where you throw you paint. It’s funny that, unaware that you’ve been walking into a white wall for several seconds, you lob a paintball only for it to explode at point blank range and turn your whole vision black. It’s made me jump a few times, too.

The Unfinished Swan is a modern maze game; but before it gets too settled things begin to be shaken up. The story unfolds a little and shadows appear in the world. By contrast the world it still very minimal but their entry has a large impact on proceedings. For one there’s less need to liberally lob paint around as you can see corners, but for another there’s a sense of loss. Now the world and its edges can be discerned, what are you pressing on for? Where has the neat little mechanic that wowed me at Gamescom gone?

It seems the monochromatic world is merely the first of several that you and Monroe make your way through. In each the paint brush takes on different qualities, every one enabling you to tackle that particular passage’s troubles. Sadly, however, none prove as edifying as its first.

I’ll refrain from spoiling just what is in store for this modern day Penny Crayon, but it’s fair to say that you should never become attached to any single theme. None are left to sit for so long that they become stale; instead the designers prefer to whip them away just as you warm to them. Though this may keep proceedings moving, again there are times when you are left feeling a little empty, knowing that you could have quite happily played with that previous concept for a good few minutes longer. Some fill gaps, but others seem to have the potential to be the focus of full games themselves.

The tale that strings each chapter together is equally erratic, failing to add any meaningful coherency to proceedings. That said, the tale of Monroe is a light-hearted and sentimental one that is hard to scorn. The characters it introduces could all find a home in a modern day fairy tale and help set the playful tone and aesthetic to the world.

Despite my misgivings over how the gameplay evolves, the game as a whole can be described as nothing but delightful. Three hours with Unfinished Swan will not be regretted, as throughout it offers a mix of visual styles and concepts to keep you entertained. The structure is, in some respects, almost comparable to Portal, where different chambers (or in this case, chapters) allow you to explore each toy before moving onto the next.

Unlike Portal, however, you feel that much of what is on offer is only partially explored. It’s not about budgets or production values, what you’re asked to do is novel, engaging and at times unique, but also it has the sense that it’s never pushed beyond the obvious.

Long into the game, I was still entertained with all the toys but I always yearned for was more time in that white room.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013

This isn’t the first Duels of the Planeswalkers and I’m pretty certain it won’t be the last. Since Magic: The Gathering has taken a leaf out of EA’s book and started producing annual updates, they hit a rich vein of form and brought the hugely successful card game to the digital masses.

With each release the core has sensibly remained unchanged. This is seen in the continuing Duels tagline that singles out this particular branch of Wizard’s empire and the faithful recreation of the physical game itself. Not wishing to pander to a more casual audience or to try and make themselves more appealing to the console generation, it is unchanged. Not only is it unchanged, however, but it’s also wonderfully adapted for the joypad. Ample consideration has been paid to allow both experienced players to play swiftly and yet the novices to have full information on cards and abilities easily without diving through reams of menus.

And it is needed to begin with, for as quick and intuitive as Magic can become once you get a feel for you deck, it can prove a little overwhelming initially. Magic is a card game in which you battle another player – a Planeswalker – by playing the monsters and spells in your decks against theirs. Such powerful fiends need to be paid for though, and your deck also contains resource cards that are required for casting. Success is then a blend of having the best cards at home in your deck and hoping that luck will present you with the right cards at the right time. Though that may sound as though your success is in the lap of the gods, Magic is just as much about calculated risks and tactics as it is praying for the right card at the right time.

The basic rules are about as simple as can be. Starting with seven cards, each turn you draw another and then are able to play a single resource card and as many spells or creatures are you are able to pay for with your resources (which are refreshed each go). Most typical cards are soldiers, animals or supernatural beings with a damage and defensive value, any of which already in play can then be targeted at your opponent. In return however they may block with their own cards, allowing them to absorb the attack in order to protect themselves. The clash may wipe out one of both cards and so often a game of cat and mouse ensues as players seek to gain the upper hand without risking their assembled forces. Striking too early can often see both sides constantly scratching around with few options on the table whilst the more cautious games can see dozens of cards in play and waiting for their moment.

Knowing what is contained within your deck is key to everything. Initial games will no doubt see spells cast to see what they do as much as anything else, but as time goes on you begin to get a feel for what is possible. At that point the real depth of Magic becomes apparent. Knowing which cards to play early, what monsters are more effective when, which spells compliment others, all take it from a game of snap to a far more tactical one.

The sheer range of opponents you are pitted against really show this strength off. There are those who prefer vicious flying monsters, others focus on destroying your cards before going for the kill, whilst further still favour hitting hard and fast. Each will most definitely provide a challenge, and in the same way it takes a few games to get used to your own deck the same can be said with theirs. Knowing just what they are capable of and knowing how to counter them is almost as important as the offensive strength of your own cards.

Those who have played previous years’ offerings will definitely notice the increase in difficulty. This can lead to frustration at times, but the rewards for each victory sees new cards for your decks unlocked, increasing your potential. It’s a clever mechanism to slowly keep you hooked, pulling you further down the otherwise rudimentary campaign trail. Basically animated Planeswalkers will introduce themselves during each major battle but otherwise presentation is limited and perfunctory.

On balance, this is a reasonable sacrifice. Once I did wish for fully animated combat, even if it were only of a Pokemon Stadium level, but the level of interruption that would introduce would soon become untenable. Developers Stainless Games have done a fantastic job of creating a frictionless experience, understanding the balance between presentation and the flow of a general game.

They also include an interesting variety of games to tickle your fancy, too. Away from the traditional one-on-one there are also specialised challenges and a bizarre four-way battle. The latter is sadly a little too much, introducing locations and random dice events that sees chains of events happen with very little involvement from yourself. It’s an interesting addition but removes the strategy that I found so compelling in the other modes.

That in itself proves what has been Magic’s strength. The reason it has been so successful over the years can be put down to its core gameplay which is extremely simple. The depth and strategy comes from the cards themselves and the order in which they arrive, the random nature of which mean that no two games are the same.

Duel of the Planeswalkers 2013 is a must for fans of the series, providing a large array of decks for comparatively next to nothing compared to the price of their physical counterparts. For those new to the world then don’t dismiss it; for a small investment a very moreish world of strategy games could open up to you.