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Free for All: Gaming with Game of Thrones


I have really been enjoying the new series Game of Thrones over on the HBO network. In fact, when I recently changed to a faster internet provider, I deliberately added on the exclusive channel just for the series. Even though I have never read the books, a 15-minute preview of the show was enough to convince me to watch it. While I am truly enjoying the break from fantasy that is chock-full of smart-alec modern-day references (all delivered by smirking hipsters with swords), I admit to still being a little afraid that the series will take a turn for the goofy or overly dramatic. If a single vampire shows up in this one, I am going to turn it all off and go on a long vacation.

So far, though, it's been a delightful romp into a cold, realistic world. After I watch a new episode, I avoid the internet for fear of random spoilers or the temptation to look at character bios. I simply do not want to know what's going to happen, so please do not tell me. Since the series has started, I have begun to notice how I enjoy the same basic entertainment in my gaming.

I want political intrigue, amazing landscapes, and the occasional epic, bloody fight. Join me past the cut and let's look at some games that provide those three things.

Political intrigue

We cannot start this conversation without mentioning my current favorite browser-based real-time-strategy game, Illyriad. I have talked about it a lot lately because I have played it a lot lately. Of course in the realm of Illyriad, that could mean as little as 20 or 30 minutes a day, but as in all good strategy games, some of the most fun is had in imagining the alliance lines being drawn or the secret meetings that decide the fate of entire sections of the globe!

Illyriad achieves this feeling, not by brute force but by allowing you to get to know your neighbors -- and your enemies. Travel and trade is realistic, as far as the time required to do both. Despite the fact that players can purchase "prestige" to help speed up deliveries or building upgrades, research is unaffected by any boosts. This means that players have to wait to become smarter, as in real life. If you zoom out on the map, you will see just how large the world is and just how much time it might take to cross it. Search the map for alliances and you witness how many lines are indeed being drawn. Despite the very friendly community, I never once stop thinking about the battles and wars going on at that very moment.

As runners-up, Face of Mankind and Wakfu are doing their part to grease the wheels of the political machine. In Face of Mankind, players vote for their factional leaders. While I did not experience the system directly during my time with the game, it seemed to be everywhere. Players talked about their leaders, argued about them -- it was unsettling (in a good way) to not know exactly who was who. Wakfu, the up-and-coming MMO by Square-Enix and Ankama, promises a political system that players can participate in by running for powerful positions and voting for their favorites. The system is currently in beta, but it is already something to look out for.

Amazing landscapes

This might surprise many of you, but Alganon has some of the prettiest landscapes I've seen in a while. The environments are not the usual fantasy fare, and they feel closer to the setting of a Ryzom than a World of Warcraft. Flaming forests, deep valleys... Alganon truly shines when it comes to environmental design. I could do nothing in game but ride around, exploring the ocean or desert, and remain happy. Actually, I have done nothing but that many times.

Speaking of Ryzom, I should note that the planet of Atys is a true wonder. Like the planet serving as Game of Thrones' setting, Atys is something completely different. Have you ever thought about what it would be like to live on a giant rootball? Well, that's how Ryzom's homeworld can be described. Although most gameplay takes part on the surface, or "bark," players can descend into the depths of the prime roots, a glowing, ethereal underworld filled with danger and glowing plants. If you saw that horrible movie Avatar, then you have seen what it must look like in the prime roots.

Weather seems to play a massive role in Game of Thrones, so it's worth pointing out that Ryzom is one of the few games that has actual weather patterns, seasons, and effects that can actually change gameplay. Certain materials can only be gathered during a certain time of the year or while unique weather patterns are developing. No game makes me worry about the weather like Ryzom does, and that reminds me of the saying "winter is coming."

Bloody combat

This was an easy one. Vindictus gets the award for amazing, hardcore combat -- hands down. To be fair, TV's GoT has not shown much combat yet, but I have a feeling that if it happens, it will happen like it does in Vindictus. You grab your foes, smash their faces into a wall, throw them into each other -- all thanks to a very simple, intuitive interface and combat system. Granted, some readers might not qualify the hardcore slasher from Nexon as a "true" MMO, something I actually brought up to Min Kim, Vice President of Nexon America at last year's GDC. He knew about the concern with the definition and admitted to thinking of calling it something else.

Still, the exact definition does not matter to me. There is a persistent world, even if it is limited, and the instanced combat zones are no different than any other raid in any other MMO -- aside from the amazing real-time combat, of course. There is that horrible scene in the beginning of Game of Thrones in which a small band of Night's Watch guards are attacked by some sort of monster. It is terrifying and bloody but pretty damn awesome, too. Moments like that happen in Vindictus all the time.

I'll have to update this list pretty soon, if the foreshadowing in the series is any clue. There are massive armies moving from the desert, led by a young, beautiful woman with a trunk of magical dragon's eggs. Sean Bean plays the role of a quiet, strong leader who is pulled into a web of politics and controversy, with his young family in tow. There is so much tension between some of the characters that surely something horrible is going to happen.

On top of all of the drama, the very first episode showed some kind of cold-weather blue-eyed monsters -- who are they and what do they mean for the North? Armies are growing, even though we cannot see them. I, for one, cannot wait for the stories to play out. Luckily for me I have these amazing games to keep me entertained while I wait for a new episode.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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