Friday, December 4, 2020

Revisiting: War in Middle Earth (1988)

The title screen omits the "J.R.R. Tolkien's . . . " prefix that a lot of sites include in the game title.
         
War in Middle Earth
United States
Synergistic Software (developer); Melbourne House (publisher)
Released in 1988 or 1989 for Amiga, Apple IIGS, Atari ST, and DOS
Simplified version released in 1989 for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MSX, and ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 11 March 2011
Date Ended: 1 December 2020
Total Hours: 14
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 25
Ranking at Time of Posting: 169/392 (43%)
         
It was time for another easy loss-win conversion. I first played War in Middle Earth back in 2011, lost it a couple of times, rejected it as an RPG, and moved on. This was still during the blog's formative period, however. I wasn't yet familiar with Synergistic Software (I didn't start the Campaign series for another two years), and I didn't realize that War in Middle Earth featured the debut of an engine that would see us through Spirit of Excalibur (1990), Vengeance of Excalibur (1991), and Conan: The Cimmerian (1991).
   
Revisiting the game after 10 years leaves me more impressed with what Synergistic was trying to accomplish. From his earliest titles, Synergistic founder Robert Clardy seemed interested in blending the strategic and the tactical, the campaign and the quest. I've seen other strategy-RPG hybrids in which squads and battalions can "level up" and there are persistent heroes leading them, but Synergistic's approach does more than introduce RPG-style character development to armies. It literally changes the interface as you move from map to campaign to party, and you are essentially playing different games in those three interfaces. At the map level, you can study the state of the world; at the campaign level, you issue orders to armies and watch them fight; and at the street level (Synergistic calls it the "animation level," which is an unsatisfying term), individual characters interact with each other, use items, and fight one-on-one combats. 
        
At the local level, the hobbits set out from the Shire.
       
I was trying to think of a modern game that does anything similar and I came up short. There are games in the Far Cry and Assassin's Creed series in which you can view a large-scale map and see who controls what territory, but that "control" is largely theoretical; it has little influence on actual gameplay. All the real decisions are made at the individual level as in most RPGs. I can't think of a game in which one of your cherished party members can get wiped out while you're tinkering with the movement of armies on the world map, nor can I think of any in which you can lose your kingdom (and the game) because you were fiddling around trying to pick a lock on a treasure chest while the evil king's armies swept over your homeland.
         
At the campaign level, you view and give orders to armies.
        
That, of course, is part of the reason that the World Builder approach, however innovative, didn't really catch on. Most players don't want to suffer anxiety throughout the game, constantly worrying that events are happening at a different level. Perhaps more important, in its attempts to blend two or three different genres, the World Builder engine ended up being not very good at any of them. Character development, NPC interaction, and questing are too under-developed to make for a good RPG, and there aren't enough strategic and logistic considerations to make a good strategy game. Conan eventually abandoned the strategic side of the engine, and I rated it highest in the series. That doesn't mean that I feel that the approach was doomed from the start, however. I would love to have a modern game in which you feed and equip armies, manage them in battles against a foe, and then once you've conquered the castle, lead a party of four soldiers on an exploration of its dungeons.
      
The map level shows all your forces across the land.
      
I suppose I should say it even though it's obvious: War in Middle Earth is based on The Lord of the Rings. It starts at the local level with Frodo, Sam, and Pippin walking down a road, having been given the main mission to take the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it. Gandalf has left a note telling Frodo to meet him in Rivendell and suggesting he watch for Strider on the road. The ringwraiths are closing in.
 
A local-level battle has the Fellowship attacked by 20 orcs.
       
But zoom out to the map level, and you find that these are not your only allies. There are lights flashing in Rohan and Gondor, too. Eomer waits in East Emnet with 120 cavalry, and Faramir is camped in Gondor with 200 rangers. These are the only armies that you can control at the beginning, but others become available as the game progresses, some based on time, some based on luck (e.g., a hero has to encounter them), and some based on finding an item.
       
A campaign-level battle determines control of Minis Tirith.
       
You can't neglect any of the three levels. If you never visit the map view, you might forget about important units. It's frustrating to discover you had an extra army with 700 knights and 2000 infantry in some distant port minutes before you lose the game. The campaign level is where you probably spend most of your time, moving units from place to place--and you really do have to micro-manage them. (One of the most frustrating things about the game is units' stubborn refusal to follow your exact orders.) But if you don't venture to the local level frequently, you'll lose out on the ability to get hints from NPCs and to find items.
         
A random old man--not Gandalf--offers a hint.
        
There's an awful lot packed into this game, and no two attempts to win are going to produce the same outcomes, even if you route your people in the same directions. I had games where I was able to field an army of ents and other games where I never even saw an ent; games where I scattered the heroes hoping to find enchanted artifacts and games where I never picked up a single item and just focused on getting to my goals. Sometimes you meet a balrog wandering around in the wilderness. Sometimes you meet Gollum.
    
If I were more of a Tolkien fan, I think I'd be both intrigued and frustrated. In some ways, it's fun just to explore the map and note far-flung cities and ruined castles. But there's so little to do in these locations that it's ultimately unsatisfying. The only thing to do at the local level, other than enjoy the EGA graphics, is to pick up or drop the occasional object. You can't even instigate conversation with NPCs; you have to wait and see if they want to talk with you.
      
The game is hardest at the beginning, when the three hobbits are on the road by themselves and Nazgûl are swarming everywhere. If they run into you, there's a chance you can evade them, and even if you enter combat, there's a (small) chance you can defeat them, but in general I lost about half my games before even reaching Buckland or Bree and picking up Merry and Aragorn, respectively. If Frodo dies, not all is lost--any hero can bring the ring to Mount Doom--but there aren't many alternate heroes in the early game.
        
Most of my early games ended like this.
       
I gather that a lot of players use the early game to try to find artifacts. Once you get the message that Sauron's forces are on the move, the specific timing of which seems to be randomized for each game, the game changes considerably and time becomes more dear.
    
The game has several winning conditions. The player can win by bringing the One Ring safely to Mount Doom or by killing Sauron. The latter method involves bringing an essentially impossible number of forces to Barad-Dur, which itself has 9,500 orcs and 500 trolls and is surrounded by fortresses with just as many. I'm sure someone's done it, but I don't see how.
 
Sauron is well-protected.
        
The enemy wins by killing the ring-bearer, having a Nazgûl swipe up the Ring, and bringing the Ring to Sauron in Bard-Dur. But they can also win by conquering three of five cities: Minas Tirith, Edoras, Hornburg, Lórien, and Thranduil's Palace, the last of which is so far removed from the rest of the action that it's annoying to have to defend it.
    
One of the problems with the game is that it's fairly easy to win. You just have to bring most of the armies to the five cities and hold them against Sauron's repeated attacks. His forces grow and replenish as time goes on while yours don't, so it's a little unfair from a strategy perspective, but the AI in the game is pretty bad, and most of the time, Sauron won't send his forces very far to attack. So there might be 20,000 orcs milling about Minas Tirith, but they won't march off to attack the Hornburg; all of Rohan's threats seem to come from Isengard or not at all.
      
I task an army of elves to retake Lorien from the orcs.
      
If you can hold the cities, all you have to do is get a ring-bearer to Mount Doom. This is easier than it sounds. The key difficulties are supposed to be crossing the Misty Mountains and crossing the mountains into Mordor. You can try to clear the passes by sending armies against the strongholds there, or you can attempt to sneak through with a small band. But you can also walk around the mountains or even directly through them (this takes some coaxing) without using the passes.
    
One fun way to win quickly, although it requires a bit of luck, is to allow a Nazgûl to kill Frodo and take the ring early. The Nazgûl will make a beeline for Barad-Dur, entering Mordor through either Minas Morgul (west) or Morannon (northwest). If you can anticipate his route and intercept him, Faramir can kill him, grab the ring, and then quickly cross the mountains to Barad-Dur, sometimes even before Sauron's forces have been activated.
      
One ringwraith is no match for Faramir and 200 rangers.
       
The longer way involves fully activating the armies of Gondor, Rohan, the Elves, and the Dwarves by bringing the leader their associated artifacts, then using the armies to clear a path for the ringbearer's small party. Those items, and the other artifacts in the game, are always found in the same places. Experienced players inevitably develop early-game strategies for collecting as many of them as possible before deciding which paths to take to Mordor.
        
The hobbits find an elven blade at Tom Bombadil's house.
      
I won three times during this revisit, once with the Nazgûl/Faramir strategy (though it took a few reloads), once by painstakingly following the strategy laid out by a fan named Leon (excellent site), and once through my own method of holding the key cities while sending Frodo, Gandalf, and 500 elves around the mountains of Mordor to walk in from the east. 
        
Gandalf approaches Mount Doom from the east. Faramir already holds it, so there's no concern about enemy forces.
      
I had originally given War a 21 on the GIMLET. In reviewing my ratings, I think I got it right for 9 of the 10 categories, but I can't countenance the 2 I gave it for "gameplay." It's eminently replayable, has a bit of nonlinearity, and offers a good challenge in a reasonable time frame. I bumped the score to a 6 and thus the final score to a 25.
       
The winning screen!
      
As I said, the game ultimately under-performs in its constituent categories. As a strategy game, it doesn't work well because you have no control over the development of your forces and there's no advantage to controlling any cities except the five key ones. As a wargame, it doesn't offer enough combat tactics. Your only options are to have units "charge," "engage," or "withdraw." ("Charge" seems to offer a potentially-large payout for an equally large risk.) As an RPG, the characters don't develop, and not enough happens at the street level to make it interesting. These problems persisted throughout the World Builder series, although they did get better. The two Excalibur games brought stronger (if still not very strong) approaches to character growth and inventory, and Conan gave us a lot to do at the local level. Both offered lovely VGA graphics that made it fun to visit different locations. We have one World Builder game ahead of us--1993's Warriors of Legend--and I look forward to seeing the engine in its final form.

50 comments:

  1. "...nor can I think of any in which you can lose your kingdom (and the game) because you were fiddling around trying to pick a lock on a treasure chest while the evil king's armies swept over your homeland."

    Midwinter is that game.

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    1. Yes, and Lords of Midnight which is really inspired by LOTR.
      Mentionned below as well, Birthright.

      The addict played another he seems to have forgotten : Spirit of Excalibur

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    2. I just realized that the Addict mentions "Spirit of Excalibur" in the intro and that it uses the same engine. Further, he asks for "modern games".
      Just ignore my message I guess :)

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  2. I was trying to think of a modern game that does anything similar

    Mount and blade does a decent try I think. Though it does suffer similar problems this game does.

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    1. There's also Dwarf Fortress, although it might be cheating to mention that game since its stated aim is to eventually simulate EVERYTHING in a fantasy world. In the latest version I played, you could send raiding parties out from your fortress to attack other settlements and civilizations, with a variety of mission objectives. You could equip them and specify who's going, but once you sent them off you can only wait for them to report back or get killed. Then of course there's sieges on your own map for more regular strategy, and Adventure Mode to fulfill the "individual explorer" part.

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    2. Pathfinder: Kingmaker also kinda exists in this vein. I don't *think* it quite has the direct strategic layer this game does with commanding armies (although maybe I just haven't gotten far enough yet!) but it has a kingdom you have to manage alongside Baldur's Gate style gameplay, and both gameplay modes have loss conditions for the overall game.

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    3. It's a different sort of strategy, but it's fairly complex. More to the point, there are time limits within which you must accomplish certain things, failing which you can lose the game.

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    4. Another possibility, although I haven't played it myself, is the recently released Empire Of Sin.

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    5. King of Dragon Pass is a game in that genre. You can send out exploring parties, but don't have any control over them until they arrive and have an encounter. You send out raiding parties, others can raid you, and you have a limited strategic game where you expand the boundaries of your clan and then tribe. KoDP is an awesome game, with the drawback that you really have to have a background in Runequest's Glorantha setting to understand what's going on. But if you do, wow. What an awesome game that really does an excellent job simulating what it must be like as an ordinary Orlanthi tribe.

      And in a wonderful inversion of RPG tropes, there is an encounter where an oddball assortment of weird creatures shows up wanting admittance to your tula. Completely out of place in the game's world, but the player (out of game) recognizes them immediately as a PC adventuring party. If you let them in they're jerks, they want you to change worthless money from some distant kingdom into your local currency, they hit on your women, they get drunk and start fights in your tavern. The great part comes when you realize THEY are the treasure! You attack them, kill them all (you have dozens of warriors and hundreds of militia after all) and take their stuff. And they've got good stuff.

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    6. Not that modern, but in addition to XCOM cited below how about the Jagged Alliance series as well, especially Jagged Alliance 2? Squad-level tactics and army-level strategy, along with individual units that gain levels and improve their abilities through training.

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    7. KODP is great. I really like how many slightly off-the-map forces can destroy the tribe instantly. You can only push those ducks so far, for example...

      Then again, it's always clear that such a fate came completely from my ill-advised decisions.

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    8. I think the Birthright RPG may do this. It follows the Birthright campaign rules from AD&D 2nd ed which had you ruling a province, but you also got to go adventuring, and lead armies. IIRC, that is.

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    9. While I somewhat like Xcom (particularly Apocalypse) I don't think it's really an RPG. Birthright had broken overland battles and exploits in the adventure mode. Better examples would be King's Bounty series, HOMM series, Age of Wonders, Lords of Magic, Master of Magic etc. In Starfleet Command you manage your career and ship upgrades in a dynamic campaign (unlike games like Wing Commander with a linear story), in some ways more RPG than regular CRPGs (but the same could be said for the Sims I guess).

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  3. This game sounds heavily influenced by Lords of Midnight. In fact, they share a designer in Mike Singleton!

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    1. Who went on to do Midwinter, which improves the formula a bit but messes up on the control during the 3D scenes

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  5. Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance is similar with this - Turn based strategy where one of the actions you can take in your turn is go dungeon delving for artifacts.

    1997 so still quite far away.

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    1. I was about to come in here to talk about Birthright again, but remembered that I've done it almost every time the Addict's covered a Synergistic game. They really have a type, turns out.

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    2. Yep, Birthright certainly fits the bill. It was an ambitious game, but like many titles that try to simulate multiple levels (strategic, tactical, dungeon delving) none of the different parts was very good.

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    3. Speaking of RPG/Strategy hybrids, I'd add Spellforce series to the list. While it uses single-scale maps, it does a decent job balancing RPG-style exploration with base and army building and more large-scale battles. And you very well might find your base destroyed while adventuring solo.

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    4. I agree, the first Spellforce in particular is a great blend of RPG and RTS. Of course, the RPG part doesn't have the depth and complexity of, say, Baldur's Gate 2, and the RTS part doesn't have the tactical diversity of StarCraft, but the fact you can transition between playstyles so easily makes it a winner in my book. The visuals and music were also really nice. Unfortunately it doesn't support widescreen resolutions out of the box, though there are inofficial patches that are supposed to fix this.

      Spellforce 3 is pretty good as well, with some innovative ideas. I never got into the second game, which for some bizarre reason decided to drop the exact mechanics that made the first one so enjoyable to me.

      Coincidentally, the entire series is on sale at GOG right now. Well worth throwing a few bucks at IMHO.

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  6. ActRaiser for the SNES tried to blend a side-scrolling action game with a city-builder. It didn't quite work, but it's considered a cult classic today.

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    1. There, the two halves were wholly segregated. The only direct effect I can remember is that you had a few small bonuses based on population.

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    2. Nah, they were entirely seperated in Actraiser. Your character in the action sequences levelled up by killing foes in the action sequences and by having more villagers in the strategic view. Combat magic (both different spells and addition charges for their use) for the action sections were acquired in the city view. I'm not saying it was tied together especially well, but Actraiser also is pretty shallow in terms of mechanics in general, so it's like they missed any obvious opportunities to tie the two together.

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  7. Unless the dungeons are so physically small as to prevent an army from approaching, or stealth is vital every single time, I don't think controlling armies and individual dungeon explorers in the same game makes sense. "Why can't I send a few hundred rangers into Moria? Why can I only take nine dudes?" is the question I would be asking. There can't be an excuse for every dungeon to be immune to conventional armies yet vulnerable to a small party of highly-specialized heroes.

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    1. it was a pretty nice feature in Sengoku Rance, but the army combat also felt more like the heroes facing off against each other with soldiers instead of HP...

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    2. The Addict addressed this problem before in his review of Sword of Aragon:

      "Instead, I've received a selection of standard RPG-style quests--kill a monster, rescue a child, find some treasure--but instead of setting out to complete them as a lone hero, I have a company of cavalry and a battalion of bowmen at my back. One frankly wonders why more RPG protagonists don't try this route."

      I was on the floor laughing.

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    3. In "Return of Medusa" you have a strategy game in which you control vast modern armies armed with guns, tanks, etc.. You also explore dungeons hidden in the subways of cities - solo until you release prisoners, constantly looking for food, ammunition and something better than a simple pistol to survive. The arms dealer where you buy bazookas etc. to equip your army is right next to the subway entrance.

      As a kid I didn't really think much about if the games I played made sense, but this felt silly even back then.

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  8. Not modern--in fact, it's older--but the game Genghis Khan has some of these elements. I know it from the NES, but apparently it was available in DOS and Amiga as well. Definitely more of a strategy game, but I always hold out hope it'd get a B.R.I.E.F. treatment or something similar.

    On any given turn you could be taking actions as diverse as training personal stats, promoting family members to rule, fighting stats-based duels, trading treasures, recruiting troops, or going to war on a strategic battlefield.

    It's turn-based instead of synchronous so you don't have the same panicky feeling of losing track, but you definitely still have to juggle elements from the small to the global all at once.

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    1. koei, the company that made Genghis Khan (I and II) also experimented with the personal/strategic/national play levels in the Taikou Risshiden series (sadly to never get English versions) and in a few of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games. Taikou Risshiden 5 is especially interesting as you can be anything from a lord conquering territories, to a wandering merchant, doctor, or pirate and transition between them.

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  9. "I was trying to think of a modern game that does anything similar and I came up short."

    One could make a case for the 90's Xcom games and their modern descendants , Xenonauts more so than the Firaxis games. Granted, those are startegy/tactical games first and foremost, but there's a strong RPG element in how your soldiers improve their ability scores through combat experience. The games certainly work on multiple levels - a global view for UFOs detection and interception, a strategic level where you manage your troops, equipment, funds and research, and tactical, squad level combat.

    The more I think of it, the more it seems likely that Synergistic Software's games influenced the design of those later titles.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Let me try again. X-com (the series that started in 1994) let you rename your squadies. Doing that using some of my usual rpg names helped x-com play very much like an rpg.

      Both the x-com and the xcom (the the 2012 Firaxis reboot) lineages do an excellent job with the global overlay. The resulting almost constant tension is a huge part of the gameplay, although very stressful.

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    3. I also though in the "X-Com" series as a modern game that tries to blend the strategic with the tactical and a campaign with quests. In X-Com, the world map looks similar to a "Civilization"-type strategy game, building your bases and choosing which technologies to investigate. Then, you have to manage your vehicles to intercept UFOs and respond to terror missions, which works closer to an RTS. And last, you have the missions itself, which aren't so different from a "Realms of Arkania" combat.

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    4. One area where it was different, and IMO probably better, was that the world map paused while you were in a ground combat. Things only happened on the world map when you were zoomed out to that level; the thinking there probably being that the time scales were too different.

      Plus, I believe the game internally hands control to a different binary, one for ground combat. That program probably doesn't have the smarts to handle the world map, too. There's not a lot of RAM on those early PCs, and the algorithms on the world map were startlingly intricate.

      The upshot is that the world map pauses completely while you're fighting an engagement, and resumes as soon as the battle is over, whatever the outcome might be.

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  10. I don't think anyone has mentioned Dragonshard yet, but that's a good example of a genre mix like this. There's a pretty decent real-time strategy game that turns into a not-so-great dungeon crawler when your units enter a dungeon. I don't remember if it's possible to lose the RTS game while your guys are in a dungeon, but I think it is. In any case, I quite enjoyed it.

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    1. Your base is under attack, hero

      Completely possible depending on the level you're playing through

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  11. This was one of the first games I played on the Amiga and the graphics impressed the hell out of me. It was still that time that the PC was embarrassing next to the Amiga.

    But I was still too young to make any sense of it, and had no idea what was Lord of the rings

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  12. Herman GigglethorpeDecember 5, 2020 at 3:17 PM

    ". . .nor can I think of any in which you can lose your kingdom (and the game) because you were fiddling around trying to pick a lock on a treasure chest while the evil king's armies swept over your homeland".


    Star Fox 2 isn't an RPG, but it is an example of a game where events on the strategy game map still occur while you're in a dogfight or assaulting a planetary base. Chances are some players have lost when they spent too much time in a Star Wolf battle as the last missile struck Corneria.

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  13. It's not really like this at all, but Koei's Warriors games tend to blend hack and slash gameplay with some light strategic elements. It's only on a per-map basis, but you do have to pay attention to the enemy movements so you don't end up in a situation where they're about to take your main base while you're halfway across the map doing something else

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  14. The easiest way to make such different layers work without inducing anxiety is by either making them turn based or by having them use different time units. Like, say, when you fight a battle or explore a dungeon, the world map time stops progressing until you're done. This would make sense because world map action proceeds at a quicker pace than detail action.

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    1. I've read "different time units", and it hit me - Matrix sequences in Shadowrun Returns series are exactly an example of this multi-scale approach Chet is looking for, just in a very different context. Time in Matrix flows slower (3 Matrix turns per "real-life" turn) but what happens inside can have a great effect on the outside (e.g. hacking turrets or video cameras) and vice versa (the decker is helpless while decked and needs to be defended).

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  15. Suikoden had some strategic battles that fit into the story and actually changed the world in some manners depending on how well you did.

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  16. Can you win with Boromir as your main hero?

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  17. This game *really* reminds me of Lords of Midnight.

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    1. Well, the same creator, Mike Singleton, is credited for "game concept" on the 16-bit versions, and for "game design/additional programming" on the 8-bit versions. These even use the Lords of Midnight/Doomdark's Revenge font. I could be completely wrong, of course, but maybe the 8-bit versions came first, and the 16-bit ones expanded on them, with Synergistic expanding Singleton's design into what would eventually evolve into their Excalibur games?

      I'd love to see Chet play through Lords of Midnight on the ZX Spectrum, but it's no more an RPG than this one is, so I'm not holding my breath. :)

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    2. LoM definitely deserves at least a brief entry since it does create context for this engine. A really unique game which has great ideas for the time.

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  18. Cryo's Dune attempts to do something similar.

    At street level it is a first-person adventure, where you play as Paul Atreides and you advance the plot through world exploration and dialogue.

    At map level it is a resource management/strategy game, where you can order Fremen to mine spice, train as military units, explore the map, attack, fortify...

    Troops, equipment, locations discovered during the adventure part become available in the strategy part, while defeating Harkonnen forces in the strategy part advances the plot in the adventure part...

    Not an RPG, but a very interesting multi-layered game (if a bit on the short/easy side).

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    1. That’s a game which felt like it needed a few more months in development to really shine. As you mentioned, the main problem was it’s too easy — the adventure segments was very straight forward and it quickly crumbles away once the main strategy section comes into play. The ending was all a bit anticlimactic which was a shame. If they added a bit more to the adventure segments and made the harkonnens harder (maybe actually have the Atreides get betrayed and you lose access to the main settlement and you had to them work solely with the fremen) then it could’ve been really special.

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