The first thing to know is that this strategy game based on George R.R. Martin’s suddenly ubiquitous A Song of Ice and Fire novels was commissioned and primarily developed before this Summer’s TV adaptation. So if you’re hoping for voicework from Sean Bean and Mark Addy or cameo appearances from that bloke from Robson and Jerome, you’ll be out of luck. This is based only on the books - specifically, on the 700 years predating their tales of civil war, dragons, snow zombies and bonking.
Whether that justifies the game’s decision to almost entirely overlook all those key elements of Martin’s still-unfinished fantasy saga is another matter. What A Game of Thrones: Genesis does, and rather ingeniously to a degree, is scrape away the fantastical and sometimes trashy surface to look at the underlying theme: the political duplicity employed by the land of Westeros’ oft-warring families in order to secretly obtain power. While there are battles, loosely playing to real-time strategy stereotype, these are small-scale and marginal to a quieter war: trying to talk neutral territories into joining your side. This is done primarily by sending Envoys, who after a few seconds in a nearby settlement will turn them to your cause. Of course, the enemy faction could always send in its own Envoy and then enjoy that town’s steady stream of wealth instead.
So, on top of this essential push-and-pull of territory, there’s a slew of counter-units and counter-moves. Send a Spy over instead of an Envoy and you can form a secret alliance, so the targeted town appears to be supporting your enemy but actually they’re not getting any cash out of it and, should war be declared, that settlement will declare itself for you. If you suspect that’s been done to a town that’s ostensibly on your side, send in another Spy and it’ll dig up the treachery. Or you could use a Rogue to sow sedition and rebellion in an enemy settlement, or get your Spy to secretly convert an enemy Envoy to your cause, or recruit a couple of Assassins and have them take out any rival Envoys that get too close to your settlements, or… Well, hopefully you get the picture. It’s a complicated, thoughtful rock, paper, scissors setup that requires constant, sometimes exhausting attention in order to ensure a) you’re grabbing enough territory b) that it stays yours c) that it really is yours in the first place.
It’s clever stuff, focusing on the concepts of subterfuge and deception rather than what would have been the easy road - build’n’bash warfare in the age-old Command & Conquer / Age of Empires vein. Trouble is, it’s all so drab in tone - flat, muddy graphics with every faction looking the same save for the colour of their flag, looped and cheerless voicework, and little sense of purpose because it comes down to a race for points rather than anything that looks and feels like victory. Plot-wise, the singleplayer campaign is a dry collection of anecdotes from Westeros’ past, with no overarching story or reason to care about the character you’re nominally playing as.
Fans of the books may nod solemnly at the namechecking of all the right lords, ladies, kings and queens, but not a one of them could be said to have a personality. Worse still, the campaign is little more than an extended tutorial for the game’s elaborate but variety-free systems. The real game of thrones doesn’t make itself known until you attempt multiplayer or the House vs House skirmish mode, where you have full access to the game’s assorted units and strategies.
Even then, it wears thin fast. It’s both too try and too frustrating, requiring a constant, looped dance from settlement to settlement, checking everything’s okay. At a certain point, the game will decide that it’s time for open war to be declared, at which point you can turn more towards hiring a small selection of soldiers and waging poxy, boring microbattles against whatever the enemy dribbles out. Like the subterfuge element, all right components are there, but in practice it seems so verve-free and even miserable.
It all seems such a shame - not because it’s a waste of the license, because let’s face it, games very rarely treat licensed properties too well, but because Genesis genuinely tries to be innovative, to add something new to the too-often staid ranks of real-time strategy. A bigger budget, more variety and a more enthusiastic aspect and this could have been an out-of-nowhere surprise. Instead, it’s a collection of good ideas drowning in a pond of mediocrity.