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A Game of Thrones: Genesis review: Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap

Steven Wong

A Game of Thrones: Genesis' literary goals are pretty auspicious: The game recounts a thousand years of history, filled with bloody conquests and backstabbing, that lead up to the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. You won't necessarily need to know a lot about the books or the cable TV show, but the game loses a lot of its appeal if you can't recognize the names of prominent families like Stark, Targaryen and Lannister.

Without knowing at least some background, the campaign will seem like a collection of loosely connected stories, rather than the sweeping, epic tale originally spun by George R.R. Martin. It may have some appeal to general fans of strategy, but Genesis is mainly geared towards letting fans experience an abridged look at the events that shaped Westeros.

Gallery: A Game of Thrones: Genesis (7/12/11) | 4 Photos

In order to earn prestige and influence, players must use a network of spies, envoys and saboteurs to undermine enemies without (or at least before) openly spilling blood. The game can be won through diplomacy, treachery, or by military might, but the campaign forces you to take specific routes to victory by locking access to the units you need to execute each of those strategies.

Raising a sizeable army can be tricky, since each successive unit costs significantly more than the last, and alliances degrade over time unless you marry the town lord into the family. So you'll need to do some political finessing and backstabbing in order to get the fungible resources you need. You can also pay off enemy units or play as what might be the medieval equivalent of a pimp by using a "Noble Ladies" unit to seduce them into joining your ranks.

The only caveat is that your enemies are doing the exact same to you. While this might sound like an interesting twist on real-time strategy, it soon turns into a tiresome string of tug-of-war matches.

The first few chapters start painfully slow, since the majority of units are locked, and events are completely scripted. The economy system discourages amassing large forces, and soldiers don't really look like they're fighting - more like haphazardly piled together and flailing - so battles come-off as subdued and don't capture the epic scope of the world and its history. It's also difficult to manage and differentiate between units since banners only show general unit categories, not specific sub-classes.

Players have the option to hide troops in bushes and lay in an ambush, but unless you're in a multiplayer match, you hardly need to be so clever. Units ignore enemies and skirmishes that are more than two feet away, so soldiers can be left out in the open to much the same effect. By that same token, players need to keep a watchful eye on battles to ensure soldiers aren't standing around staring at their toes while their comrades are being cut to shreds.

Fatal accidents like these wouldn't be so infuriating if the game didn't rely completely on checkpoints instead of allowing players to save whenever they want. So if a battle doesn't go the way you want it to, or you want to take a break, you'll either have to restart the mission entirely or return to a checkpoint, which you may have passed miles and miles before.

There's also a terrible lack of automation and feedback, both of which are vital to the design of real-time strategy titles. You can't set units to patrol an area, which is surprising considering how you have to make the most out of handful of troops. Alerts pop up when units are attacked or when a town is lost, but it would be helpful if the game could warn you of other important events, like when an alliance is about to expire, or when an assassin is stabbing everyone in sight.

If you're hoping for a compelling narrative to complement the books and/or show, then you'll be disappointed. There's hardly any characterization of the Great Lords beyond their desire for more land/power/money. Their avatars don't do anything except stand around, and they rarely have anything profound to say outside of presenting new mission objectives with intrusive pop-up dialogue boxes. Even the stories, each focusing on a different era, turn out to be dreadfully anticlimactic.

The one redeeming quality is the House vs House multiplayer/skirmish mode, which represents the themes from the series far better than the campaign. Without the constraints of arbitrary mission goals and unit restrictions, the tug-of-war feels more like a genuine match of wits and strategy, despite the fact that you'll still be sparring with the game's fairly dimwitted AI.

The Great Lord avatar can move around (making him a primary target for assassination) and serves different purposes, like producing an heir or a litter of bastard children. Unique units (though not dragons) can be employed to spice things up, and players need to keep close track of resources. However, it is subject to its own set of arbitrary rules. For instance, each map can only be played using specific families, a decision that further produces a sense of disappointment.

A Game of Thrones: Genesis feels cheap. The unique focus on treachery politics might have been enough to compensate for the lackluster graphics and gameplay a decade or so ago, but it's on the fast track for the bargain bin by today's standards. Even fans of the books may want to think twice before picking it up, since its poor presentation could negatively impact their view of the fictional world of Westeros and its rich history.

Much like the families who tried and failed to seize the Iron Throne, there's no getting past the feeling that A Game of Thrones: Genesis is destined to fall into obscurity.

This review is based on final code of A Game of Thrones: Genesis sent to Joystiq by Focus Home Interactive.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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