Friday, April 20, 2007

Great Invasions Review

Great Invasions, developed by Indie Games Productions and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Control several nations at once, randomized diplomatic actions are neat, active AI, automated trade, fairly constant “action”
The Not So Good: Controlling several nations at once is very overwhelming, needs an on-screen tutorial, poorly designed user interface, typographical errors and other small bugs
What say you? An inaccessible grand strategy game whose greatest innovation is its greatest flaw: 5/8

We’re starting to get a lot more grand strategy games. While the RTS has been the more prominent strategy game on the PC, recent releases like Making History, AORoyal, and of course Europa Universalis III show that there is a large audience who’d like to control an entire country instead of just a measly little army. Designed by the same mind behind Europa Universalis III, Great Invasions takes place in the Dark Ages of Darkness, from 350 to 1066 A.D. Europe was in a state of flux, with new civilizations being born and quickly dying out, so this chaotic setting, it would seem, would make a good place for a game, and one that hasn’t really been covered that often. Will Great Invasions provide enough great innovations to make me shy away from EU3, at least for a little while?

The graphics are very reminiscent of Europa Universalis I: 2-D sprites on a 2-D map. In fact, a couple of design changes at the games are splitting images of each other, not surprising considering the common designer. The maps have some nice detail to them (like EU1), and selecting armies is easy enough. Sadly, after playing with the polished user interface of EU3, doing things in Great Invasions requires a lot more work than it should. Mouse selection of units is imprecise (no selection boxes), boarding ships should be easier (you must press a special icon to do so), and a lot of important information is either buried deep within some menus or not clearly displayed on-screen with tool-tips. Maybe EU3 spoiled me, but getting around Great Invasions is hard, especially for beginning players. Add in the fact that you’re controlling 6-10 nations at a time, and you can imagine the confusion that will result. The sound is typical for a game of this type: sound effects from battles, appropriate background music, and selection notices. All of it is very average, and when paired with the archaic and cumbersome (a word you’ll hear a lot in this review) user interface, Great Invasions falls behind the curve in terms of presentation.

The object of Great Invasions is to accumulate the most victory points in a game. Each game only have four players, but each player controls several countries: the most easily identifiable unique characteristic of the game. Unfortunately, controlling several countries at once isn’t very fun. First off, you control nations that are nowhere near each other. In one scenario, you control modern-day England, southern Spain, Bulgaria, southern Italy, eastern France, Saudi Arabia, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq. As you can imagine, being in charge of all these countries at once requires a lot of switching back and forth across the globe, and remembering all of the diplomatic agreements, military unit productions, religious activities, and everything else is a very tough task. It would have made a lot more sense to give you countries in a specific area of the world, or at least of the same religious group. Another option would be to let you choose the countries yourself like in Risk, but you’re stuck with the insane combinations the developers chose. You can turn any of the day-to-day actions over to the AI, but then what’s the point of controlling more than country in the first place? You’ll really have to be able to multitask to enjoy Great Invasions, especially since the game takes place in real-time. Not helping things is the rough tutorial. You need to read along in the manual as there are no on-screen directions, and the directions are even incorrect: you can’t accomplish the first task the game gives you, as four military units can’t be loaded onto just two ships. If you were a beginning player, you’d be able to play for one minute before getting stuck in the tutorial! It’s not very nice to confuse everyone on the very first instruction of the tutorial. The manual itself describe everything in the game in a sort of backwards order, covering the user interface last and all of the game mechanics first. If you’ve never played Europa Universalis III, you’d be hopelessly lost in Great Invasions.

It’s too bad that there are fundamental design flaws with Great Invasions, because there are some interesting aspects to the gameplay. The game lets you choose different starting dates during the time period from 350 to 1066 A.D. Each country “ages” during gameplay, which is a neat way of abstracting the drastic rise and fall of ancient empires. This is part of the reason you’re given multiple countries, because they will change during gameplay. In the first barbarian phase, it’s all about rapid expansion. After to achieve a certain size, you can enter the kingdom and, later, the empire phases, where you stay a more constant size and negotiate with other nations. As you might expect, religious elements are present in the game: the different religions each have their own special units and events, and having the same religion also helps with diplomacy. Great Invasions has the usually declare war and peace treaty options, but it adds another unique aspect to the gameplay with special diplomatic actions. Periodically, “tokens” are distributed randomly to each player that contain powerful diplomatic actions that must be accepted by the other party. Barbarian nation sieging your city? Throw a corruption coin their way. Neighboring country building up for war? Force them into a royal marriage. Losing a war? Eat a grand treaty, sucker! This is really cool and it adds an element of randomness to the gameplay that can make each game play out differently.

A lot of the economy in Great Invasions is automated: other than signing trade agreements with other countries, trade is automated in the game (no more endlessly clicking merchants like in EU3). The AI is very active in making trade agreements, too, so you’ll rarely have to initiate the action. Speaking of the AI, their level of activity makes Great Invasions one of the more action packed grand strategy games. Unlike EU3, where you can have long stretches with nothing really going on, Great Invasions is always bombarding you with trade proposals, scripted events, declarations of war, and more. It’s a bit overwhelming, especially since it’s coming at you six to ten times over, but you’ll never be sitting there watching the clock go buy waiting for something to happen. The scripted events make sure that something’s always going on, but once you play the game for a while, you can predict when declarations of war will happen. This is why I like the contextual events of EU3 better, but the Magna Mundi mod for EU3 shows that I might be in the minority.

The high level of micromanagement required to play Great Invasions is increased even further with the administrative and logistical points. Each of these is required for kingdoms and empires, cost some gold, and must be purchased in advanced. You need administrative points to appease your population and have a smooth running government, and logistical points are needed by traveling army groups. Again, How are you supposed to remember which countries need them when you control 5-10 nations scattered all over the globe? Speaking of army groups, Great Invasions has the typical selection of military units: infantry, archers, cavalry, and ships. Combat is automated like (surprise!) EU3, and you must siege a city before wrestling control of it. You may apply a number of “stratagems” during combat that give you bonuses, but the game (and the manual) never mention how often they are replenished or how you even earn new ones. What a surprise. You know, there are some original innovations that Great Invasions makes; it's too bad the game is mired in overwhelming and unnecessary complexity.

Great Invasions tries to make a couple of interesting innovations to differentiate it from the other grand strategy games, but it doesn’t work due to the cumbersome gameplay. The game isn’t all bad: in fact, there are a number of unique aspects (diplomacy, active gameplay) that make Great Invasions at least a distinct title. I just can’t get over having to control so many nations at once: it’s too tall of an order, and that’s coming from someone experienced in grand strategy games. I can’t imagine what it would be like to a new player to try out Great Invasions. There is a great likelihood that your head will explode while attempting to play this game. The game does offer constant action and there’s always something to do, but even this adds to the complexity of the game. Great Invasions would have worked so much better with just two or three nations each in the same region, but the seemingly random rosters are fixed by the developers and can’t be changed. If you can manage eight unrelated countries scattered over Europe in real time, then be my guest, but you’re better off just playing Europa Universalis III, as the new ideas Great Invasions comes up with are overshadowed by the awkward gameplay.