Saturday, November 18, 2006

Left Behind: Eternal Forces Review

Left Behind: Eternal Forces, developed and published by Left Behind Games.
The Good: Unique base building, resource collection, and unit production, useful tutorial, appropriate (if overdramatic) background music
The Not So Good: Difficult and frustrating until you discover pray-spamming (and even then the game does not play fair), no skirmish games against the AI (mostly due to the lack of a competent computer opponent), first few missions are boring with lots of running from location to location, tons of micromanagement, outdated graphics, horrible voice acting, New York City setting becomes repetitive quickly, unit pathfinding needs work, friendly units often block other friendly units, game does not graphically differentiate between primary and secondary objective locations, units have unrealistically small sight ranges, oodles of in-game advertising
What say you? Religious matters aside, this is simply an unentertaining and tiresome real time strategy game: 4/8

Numerous people have told of the end of the world, or the Rapture, which may or may not have occurred in 1000, 1666, 1844, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, or, most famously, in the year 2000 (my guess is next Tuesday). The apparently successful Left Behind book series tells the tale of those people “left behind” on Earth, after all of the Christians get a one-way ticket to Saginaw, Michigan, who must deal with the incoming evil invasion. Of course, this epic battle would make an excellent base for a video game; you could digitally kick some satanic ass! Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a real time strategy game where you assemble a force of good to battle the force of evil in an epic struggle over control of New York City and who gets the last cookie. You’re not going to let the Antichrist enjoy untold qualities of chocolate goodness, are you? I didn’t think so!

Left Behind: Eternal Forces has been in development for quite a while, and boy it looks like it. The entire game takes place in New York City, and I have not seen a more dreary representation of the nation’s most populous city. The maps are almost devoid completely of color (except for Central Park, which is green), as all of the streets and buildings are gray, gray, and more gray. The maps are also devoid of much detail, other than the occasional bombed-out car (or, if you’re lucky, bus). The only thing really colorful about the drab New York City of Left Behind: Eternal Forces is the in-game advertising. If you thought there was an uproar regarding the in-game advertising of Battlefield 2142, this game is literally covered with ads. What higher power do TV evangelists worship? The All Ighty Ollar! The units don’t look much better; all friendly converted units look like Ned Flanders, as Left Behind: Eternal Forces uses repetitive unit models for each unit type. Even the regular citizens that are wandering around the map don’t offer much in the way of variety. In addition, the game exhibits moments of extreme slow-down during special effects portions of the game. Some of the effects are well done, but most of them are pretty generic. While the background music of Left Behind: Eternal Forces is decent, the game features some truly horrible voice acting; I actually laughed out loud multiple times during the game (and I wasn’t laughing with the game, I was laughing at it). Most of the time, you’ll just skip past all of the painful dialogue to keep the game moving. For a game that’s been in development for so long, it’s greatly disappointing to see (and hear) how Left Behind: Eternal Forces stacks up against other contemporary real time strategy games: the game looks like it was released in 1998, not in 2006.

Left Behind: Eternal Forces features a single player campaign, where you lead the aforementioned forces of good against the aforementioned forces of evil. The game’s tutorial is well-written and informative, and it’s actually the best part about the title: you’ll learn how to play the game rather quickly. The game also has multiplayer through GameSpy, where one person can assume the forces of evil in a battle over several maps included in the campaign. Left Behind: Eternal Forces does not have skirmish games against the AI, a cardinal sin (see, that was a religion joke…ha!) in real time strategy games published in 2006. This is probably due to the fact that Left Behind: Eternal Forces lacks any sort of artificial intelligence, let alone a computer opponent capable enough to be a worthy opponent. The game’s campaign is terribly boring, especially the first missions. You should spend the first mission getting the audience interested in your game, not making them issue endless movement commands. Plus, the first mission is insanely difficult, as getting close to any one of the hundreds of bad guys scattered around the map will result in instant mission failure. Sometimes enemy forces will try to “guitar” your forces to the side of evil, sometimes they will not, so it’s hard to determine whether you can safely sneak by opposing forces during the game’s campaign. I had to restart the first mission eight times before I passed it (you can imagine the visceral excitement of issuing movement commands for 45 minutes). In fact, the dangerous bad guys seems to change depending on where you are in a particular mission, so a previously unimportant enemy unit may convert one of your hero units and end the mission 5 minutes later. As you can imagine, this is very frustrating. The campaign also moves way too slowly; you get to do more in the 3 mission tutorial than the first 6 missions in the campaign. I want to unleash some holy revenge, darn it! Plus, the mission sequencing is completely stupid: in the first mission, you issue movement commands to a church, but in the beginning of the second mission, you start in the same location as the first and must navigate through the bad guys to the church again! How did you magically transport across the map, I wonder? Could it be…..SATAN? The campaign does a really poor job in getting new players interested and excited about playing the game, as the real action doesn’t start until at least mid-way through the mission list.

The one thing Left Behind: Eternal Forces has going for it is some superficially unique resource gathering and base building elements. The primary resource in the game is people; you need people to come to your side, so that you can train them in a specific occupation. Your recruiter units can convert neutral and enemy units to fight for your cause; these units can then be trained at a number of buildings to fulfill a specific role. Builders can capture neutral buildings and covert them into a useful structure that either trains units or provides a resource. The population cap is increased by acquiring more housing, food is gained by capturing more cafes, and money is made through banks. There are also influencers (musicians) that can affect an entire area’s faith level, healers, soldiers, and vehicles. Most of the missions in the campaign stress non-violence, so soldiers are not used very much until the end. The game does offer an interesting dynamic of capturing buildings and converting units that isn’t present in other games, so in this sense the game is unique. This would be enough to make a compelling title if Left Behind: Eternal Forces wasn’t so full of problems.

Each of the units have special abilities available to them (heal, conduct an exorcism), but all of them can pray. Since units are converted by decreasing their faith level, you can continuously pray during the game and almost never lose, unless the game starts to cheat by placing tons of enemy units in your restricted path. There is a limit to how often units can pray, but since they can pray and move at the same time, most units can just pray on through enemy lines with no ill effects. Once you discover this sneaky tactic, the missions in the campaign get a whole lot easier. While the basic design of the game is fine, Left Behind: Eternal Forces requires a lot of micromanagement, and since you’ll typically have tens to hundreds of units on the screen at a time, this can get maddening. Units can be instructed to auto-perform certain tasks, but since each unit has an impractically small sight range (apparently, you can only see halfway across the street in New York City), the auto function does not work half of the time. In addition, newly converted units will follow the unit that converted them, typically blocking their path and not moving out of their way unless specifically ordered to. You can imagine how large battles involving hundreds of units can become a mess when friendly units are blocking the path of other friendly units and not moving out of the way. Also, you have to explicitly move units in and out of buildings (builder units have to be physically inside a building in order to upgrade it), and if you don’t manually set a rally point for each structure, they will exit at a strange side of the structure (not necessarily where the door is located). The game’s maps are laughably restricted; sometimes, a path is magically blocked by four buses laid end to end, but sometimes the game just doesn’t let you down that path for no reason whatsoever. Not only does this make the way to need to go laughably obvious, but the unit pathfinding gets confused by the restrictions imposed by the scenarios designers; I have seen units go up a street to its “end” (noted by an impervious dashed yellow line), turn around, and head back down the same street. If you’re going to limit where the player can go, at least make usable unit pathfinding. Left Behind: Eternal Forces also does not distinguish between primary and secondary objective locations on the game map or minimap, so you could be braving through hordes of enemy soldiers toward a blinking location and find out once you go there that this path was optional. Thanks for wasting my time, Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

While the background story and overall game elements of Left Behind: Eternal Forces are unique, the game as a whole fails in too many basic areas to make it worthwhile. It’s really sad that this game was in development for this long and it still has so many basic problems. There is absolutely no reason to play this game, as everything contained here is done much better in most every other real time strategy game. Just because you make a game with religious tones does not make it unique enough to purchase: it also has to be fun to play, and I did not have fun once while playing this game. The missions are dull and boring and the game will lose most people in the first 30 minutes of gameplay, either through the monotony of issuing movement commands or the unfair and cheating difficulty (I know…let’s put 20 new bad guys on the way to the final checkpoint: that will make it exceedingly challenging!). This game will not appeal to fans of the books or fans of real time strategy games. There might not be very many religious PC games out there (although one could make an argument for the superb Sacrifice), but Left Behind: Eternal Forces is such a broken and uninteresting real time strategy game that it’s recommended for no one. It may be the end of the world as we know it, but I’ll feel fine by not playing this game.