Game of Thrones: Ascent
A great many gamers write off social networking games as overly simplistic, even idiot proof time sinks whose sole aim is to harvest microtransactions off of Facebook addicts. I was one of those skeptics, having dabbled in the genre to a small degree and finding nothing of serious interest. And granted, these assumptions are not far from the truth, but that hasn’t stopped Disruptor Beam from making Game of Thrones: Ascent a very enjoyable distraction for fans of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Those who aren’t fans of the fiction will find a well-crafted but otherwise generic kingdom-of-menus experience that’s best served up a few minutes at a time.
Given the state of the free-to-play market, simpler interfaces like Game of Thrones: Ascent are bound to saturate the existing market, and have been on their way for some time. More often than not, the result has been an average collection of grinders that simply allow the social free-to-play model to work its money-making magic. Game of Thrones: Ascent provides good fun in small increments as you manage your house in times of constant threat and tumultuous politics. Add in the social elements that come with the genre and you’ve got a casually simple and wholly efficient browser game worth the few minutes of upkeep it requires every day.
House of Beginnings
In the prologue, you’re given a very basic overview of the simple game mechanics, which will be familiar to anyone who has dabbled in social networking games before. The arrows guide your choices through the opening steps, giving the player just enough choice in morals, beliefs, factions and affiliations to build a unique house. In order for a game focused solely on text, choice and personal management to succeed, the heavy guiding hands of suggestion need to ease off and let the player make their own way. This is accomplished to a sufficient degree, though the consequences of using diplomacy versus violence seem to be missing entirely.
Making progress in the game means nothing more than a few clicks to send others to do your bidding, but presenting the play from that standpoint does make you feel like the aloof lord. Simply put, this game is a perfect inbetweener. In fact, you’ll frequently run out of things to do and will have to wait for certain tasks to finish.
The perpetually evolving nature of the game will require fairly regular upkeep. Even the rewards systems, the incoming aggression from other players (after the 6 day protection period ends), and the limits of your counting house have you logging in daily just to keep up with the Joneses (of House Jones, of course).
Basic resources like horses, ore and small folk can be acquired either through quests or by producing them in the village center. The Silver Stags are currency generated through taxes and quests, to be used in-game for various items. Gold Dragons, however, are the pay-to-win currency of choice, and allow the player to greatly speed up the already fast-paced gameplay.
In the Game of Thrones, you never really win actually...
The time delays involved in production, training, missions and the like allow the player to manage other elements of the house. One of the biggest draws for spending your cash on the game is simply eliminating the time required to do, well, anything.
The layout and interfaces are efficient, but surprisingly not oversimplified for the social gaming market. It’s almost reminiscent of the grand strategy interfaces of genre bastion Paradox (Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, Hearts of Iron, etc.), though it’s unable to meet that level of complexity. Those looking for a more serious dive into this territory should check out the Game of Thrones mod for Crusader Kings II.
Despite some unwanted additions from standard social gaming mechanics, the narrative design is actually quite excellent, allowing the player to feel like their keep, which has sworn their fealty to a major house (Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Greyjoy, Targaryen), is actually a player in the game of thrones.
In the end, like with any other social gaming experience, you never win. That’s not the point of it. You only continue to build up the state of your house through indirect competition with friends and others on the leaderboards. There is no known level cap, but there are a limited number of buildings, upgrades, and sworn swords to look forward to.
Die Alone, Prevail Together
Multiplayer largely consists of sending out war parties with friends, alongside the competition for getting the most power amongst your friends. You can make pacts with friends to protect each other, as well as join together in the guild system.
It would be a welcome change to have a browser-based game that didn’t have all sorts of site-related distractions blinking outside the game window. And fortunately, Disruptor Beam delivered on that end. Though the game is available on Kongregate, the ads, the account notices, and the site features around cheapen what is otherwise a well crafted nicely thematic browser game interface.The music was a big surprise in this regard. The presentation on disruptorbeam.com is far superior in its immersion, which is another refreshing part of the experience. Playing the game through Facebook simply redirects the user to the developer’s own interface.
The background to the game is a well-crafted portrayal of the constant growth of your holdings. It shifts, along with the soundtrack, quite suitably from environment to environment - the halls of your keep, the woods surrounding it, the brothel or bar in the next town.
The social gameplay characteristics laid out here (drawn up from Gothenburg University’s Staffan Björk’s GCO presentation on the subject) are followed to a T. This is a good thing, though, because the excellent execution of every other element of the game perfectly suits this free-to-play sidebar distraction.
A Worthy, Sporadic Distraction
As I write this review, I bounce back into the game, just for a few minutes. I collect the revenue from the counting house derived over time by taxes, before ordering the village center to produce some furs. I send my sworn sword off deal with a brothel prostitute who knows something of King Robert’s bastards, this time using gold instead of iron. I complete a quest, choosing to uphold the Old Ways, rather than the New. All of these activities take a few clicks and less than a minute to read, then the the timer starts counting for each one. Some timers are just a minute, others are nearly half an hour. I’ll check my email, browse Reddit for a moment, finish a paragraph, put on the kettle. Then pop back to start some new production and train a unit.
This game is dangerous at work.