Stalking the perfect PC endgame

Here’s the thing about endgames: if the midgame was any good at all, the endgame has to be radically different.

That’s because a good midgame basically consists of a series of new obstacles, skills that must be mastered, or other permanent developments (My black bishop has been taken! I can now Force-push!) and eventually they pile up. By the time you’ve gotten to the end of a robust PC game, you’re likely to be either:

  • buried in accumulated minutae: say, micromanaging planets in a 4X strategy game like Master of Orion;
  • stuck in a monotonous slugfest: cf. Black and White, Age of Empires, or the countless real-time-strategy games that disintegrate into resource management; or
  • boringly overpowered: ol’ Diablo has the endgame mechanics of backgammon: just keep rolling the dice until it’s over.

Instead, a good endgame turns a corner somehow, cutting across all the skills you’ve gathered or perhaps requiring an entirely new sort of skill. And for my money, a good endgame is the key to making a good game great.

Below the fold: a few endgame techniques to look for and my pick for the best endgame ever.

Here they are:

  • The plot twist. When you’re working with a rich story, the mechanics don’t always need to change. Fallout 2‘s hard-charging plot at the end makes up for its mechanical imbalance. My beloved Wizardry VII is a sword-and-sandal RPG that breaks genre beautifully as it rounds third base.
  • The new assignment. This isn’t a twist, it’s a shift in the actual mechanics: in Colonization, it’s the revolution you’ve been warned about since the game began, cutting off your population supply and throwing you into a military death match. In Civ III, you’re likely going to be forced into a war of conquest with a powerful opponent late in the game in order to control the world’s uranium supply. Which I think we can all agree is an awesome thing to be forced to do.
  • The grand finale. This method doesn’t require you to do anything radically different, it just requires you to do things well. Or, rather, to have done things well — in these endgames, you don’t actually find out how well you did in the midgame until you get to the end. In the awesome real-time text adventure Border Zone, for example, the end of each act consists of you typing a long string of memorized commands in quick succession, praying that there’s no detail you’ve missed. In Battle for Wesnoth, the last battle of each campaign depends entirely on whether you’ve balanced gold savings and character advancement properly throughout the prior battles.

Finally, here’s my nomination for the perfect endgame: Alpha Centauri. I love everything about this game — the unit workshop! the tech tree! the inflight movies! — but the last half-hour of a Transcendence victory is what makes it a freaking masterpiece.

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You’ve got the plot, which not only twists satisfyingly but corresponds with a fairly important mechanical change (the growing usefulness of xenofungus). At five minutes to midnight (or, in my case, five minutes to 6 a.m.), you get the huge mechanical change from the Telepathic Matrix and Cloning Vats projects (no drone riots and a population boom), at which point you cease to micromanage any of your bases. This frees you up to hit the “end turn” button over and over again, giving way to the game’s hammering aesthetic climax: the color text from the “Transcendent Thought” advance, echoing through your room over and over again as you’re sitting there, bleary-eyed, while the sun rises and your civilization becomes a god. Damn.
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/spoiler

As you can tell, most of my experience is with turn-based, single-player strategy and adventure stuff. In addition to your own favorite endgames, I’d love to hear any thoughts on great endgames of, say, first-person shooters.

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7 Responses to Stalking the perfect PC endgame

  1. Mike says:

    A few scattered endgame thoughts.

    President Forever, the best campaign simulator I’ve played, ends in a election-night map, complete with rolling results and news reports, where a cutscene would usually be. It’s awesome.

    Entrepreneur is probably my favorite game that has a totally unsatisfying endgame. Though the late-game price wars and research bonanzas can get sort of exciting.

    Galactic Civilizations, also from Stardock, tries to escape the 4X micromanagement trap by abstracting lots of the tasks for easy automation. I don’t know how well it succeeds, since I’ve never finished either GalCiv game.

    Mike’s prize for the crappiest endgame goes to Rome: Total War, a gorgeous, lovingly detailed game that simply does not scale well. There’s no way to avoid the colossal tedium of this endgame; even the tactical battles fail to change in interesting ways over the course of the game. At least the final cutscene isn’t worth seeing, so you can safely decide never to finish the game. Yuck.

    Finally, I realize that many of the games I criticize were built for multiplayer and don’t work well in single-player because their AIs are too weak. I’m antisocial, okay? Sue me.

  2. chikitaronin says:

    End game now isnt that a term we all love to hate ??? i mean we have all been there at one point, spending houers upon houers to get to the final stages of a game. and this is usually where a game (no matter what genre) is put to the test, for if there is no endgame enjoyment there is hardly any replay walue which imo is just as important.

    In all my days of gaming i have to admit ive found very few games that really had enjoyable endgame, most games simply end, usually the case in fps games and some adventure games where you follow a story arc, that logically has to end at some point some do a good job at this like the Max Payn series while others fail miserably like demon world.

    Then there are the turn based strategy games, although not my style i must admit that these games have really masterd the endgame aspect (or atleast the ones ive played) there are endless posibillities and rarely do these games feel alike which also creates replayabillity.

    Finally there is my favorite, rpg style hack n’ slach ranging from mind numbing simplicity in Diablo 2, were there really was no sigleplayer endgame (battlenet however ^^) to master pieces of ingenuity in Sacred, although some evil spirited people clame sacred is just another d2 clone i highly disagree, first of all the story is much more intriguing than d2 ever was, and second of all there were a lot more choices to be made in this game, as of end game the fact that the story ends (more or less) like any other adventure game is sort of expected, but that your allowed to continue roaming around in the world untill your done with what ever you wanted to do is just brilliant, i mean its not like d2 where you just had the pre-renderd enviroments to run around in, in Sacred you had the entire world… and believe me its friggin huge compared to d2… although i must admit that the game can be dull at times (not a word about those silly dragon fights) but id still say there are more ups than downs as in most games these days 🙂

    to be honest i think that most games either last or break on the actual endgame, most games however have multiplayer as a means to get around this (especially fps games) i wouldent say that this is a solution hell some games cant even survive multiplayer but it is atleast a solution in most cases as this can often lead ones attention away from the actual endgame when your having fun in multiplayer with some friends.

    i wonder how the endgame experience is in RTS games? never really played this genre much 🙂

    oh gawd that was a long post… hope you dont mind to much ^^

    regards Chikita Ronin

  3. TheGnat says:

    Gah! Chikita, the run-on sentence in paragraph four is monster. Please, next time use some punctuation @_@

    Ahem, moving on. I loved the “end-game” to “Vagrant Story”, because although on the replay you can’t further the story, you get access to a great deal more. There’s also that it’s quite a plot twist with a relatively open ending.
    A small rpg that is really incredibly repeatative but still very enjoyable is “Fate”. The endgame is that you can “retire” a character, passing on a piece of equipment and a few free levels to your own descendent.
    As a collector-type personality, I really love Kingdom Heart’s endgame, with completion of various tasks and collections resulting in a slightly different ending, depending on your mode of play.

    Then there’s “System Shock”, both one and two. Classic FPSs using the “Theif” engine. It falls into the “plot twist” category. Additionally, I don’t know how many times I’ve played them, and there are set events in certain rooms that never fail to make me jump or stop eating my snack, even if I’ve just told a friend I’m playing in co-op mode with that it’s coming. And I don’t usually find games to be scary, especially if they are meant to be.

    Endgames I hate? World of Warcraft. The game just becomes more and more pointless. It caters mostly to pride and prestige, with customization completely out the window by endgame.

    My experience has mostly been with RPGs and turn-based RPG stategy games (like Fire Emblem). I’ve found that neither of these genres really “needs” an endgame at all to be good, so long as the game is enjoyable and the story good. Not even MMOs need an endgame to stand the test of time. Ragnarok Online is something like 9 years old, and has simply added new mid and late game content constantly, as well as a bit of early-game content (such as new beginning job classes).

  4. Will says:

    I find it funny that you mention chess early on, since it doesn’t fit into any of your categories. It doesn’t have a plot twist (or, you know, a plot), there’s no new assignment, and there’s no grand finale.

    Maybe you’re talking exclusively about single-player games (in which case, what about Solitaire)?

    The more I think about it, the more I think you’re looking only at “core gaming” (versus casual gaming). Casual games tend not to have an end-game at all.

  5. Mike says:

    I thought about that too, Will, and decided that actual abstraction was a beast I didn’t want to tackle. You’re obviously the guy for it, if anybody is.

    Solitare has a midgame of sorts, since once you’ve seen the entire contents of the deck, the decision to play a card from the deck theoretically becomes more complicated. Moving cards into suited stacks might qualify as a weak “new assignment,” I think, since it’s such a big mechanical change and since your success relies on choices you made while working through the midgame.

    I’ll try to make a case for chess. We could say the early game requires memorization, the midgame requires the ability to make new plans on the fly and the endgame requires technical perfection. Actually, chess has kind of a crappy endgame, doesn’t it? Is there any other non-casual game in which the players routinely agree that they’re simply not going to play the endgame?

    Anyway, you’re quite right that chess doesn’t really fit any of my categories. I certainly welcome new ones.

    I’m not sure how to define casual gaming. Maybe it’s appropriately applied to games with minimal mechanical changes. Do you have a working definition?

  6. chikitaronin says:

    sorry about the monster paragraph, usually happens when i get excited about something : /

  7. Will says:

    I don’t know any other games that let you agree not to play the endgame, but I wish the Civilization games would!

    It’s hard to define what makes a game casual. Some things that most casual games share are short play periods, not requiring great hand-eye coordination, easily-explained game mechanics, simple graphics, often a social component (comparing scores, etc.).

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