Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Armageddon Empires Review

Armageddon Empires, developed and published by Cryptic Comet.
The Good: Interesting deck composition strategy with no restrictions on beginners, numerous viable plans for victory, random turn order varies gameplay, decent AI, not much micromanagement due to low unit counts
The Not So Good: No tutorial or campaign, slow start, tedious drawn-out combat between equal foes, no included starter deck arrangements, lack of multiplayer options
What say you? This card-based strategy game has some good mechanics but it is tough on novices and lacks some features: 5/8

When the world comes to an end (probably caused by Lindsay Lohan), survivors will battle for control of what’s left, if television, movies, and video games have taught us anything. A post-apocalyptic environment is one of the popular settings for games (not at the level of World War II, of course), as it allows for both conventional and mutated or robotic units in a plausible setting. Armageddon Empires features the struggles of humans, machines, aliens, and mutants three hundred years after first contact in the disturbingly-close year of 2025. This is a card-based strategy game, infusing the popular elements of games like Magic: The Gathering (not that I would know; I just saw a commercial for it) with strategic hex-based board games. Is Armageddon Empires a successful combination of two strategy game types?

Armageddon Empires looks exactly like you would expect a card-based board game to look. The game adds nothing to the equation in terms of graphical flair using the computer medium, and Armageddon Empires could easily be replicated in table-top format exactly as it is rendered here. There are no battle animations or other pieces of flair that would contradict the boring presentation: in fact, the only sense of movement in the game is the rolling dice, and that’s not exactly stimulating. The tile-based maps are basic with only subtle differences in the desert landscapes: they are not very exciting to look at. The user interface could be better: the game cuts off a number of the cards in your hand from being displayed, although the ability to render the game at higher resolutions would fix this problem. As it stands, you can only see five cards at a time and you must scroll to reveal the other cards in your hand. The level of detail on the cards themselves, however, is the graphical highlight of the game and it can rival the best creations of any card-based game available. The audio of Armageddon Empires is typical for wargames: a few subtle battle effects. Again, nothing separates this game from any analogue board game in terms of presentation, and the main sound effect involves (again) rolling the dice. I did, however, enjoy the background music: though it is repetitive, it is catchy enough not to become repetitive. The graphics and the sound of Armageddon Empires are disappointing, as the game adds nothing to the basic formula of card and board games to make the title take advantage of computing power.

Surrounding the struggle for future earth, Armageddon Empires features solely skirmish matches against the AI. While the game is seemingly built for play by e-mail, Armageddon Empires lacks any multiplayer features whatsoever, even hotseat games on the same computer (strange for a turn-based game). Armageddon Empires lacks a campaign or even a tutorial, which is quite detrimental to the game since the unique mechanics and conventions are a bit unique and will throw off even seasoned veterans. For each match, you can set the deck size limits, map size, and the availability of resources and special locations. You can have anywhere between one and three AI opponents, depending on the map size. There are no team matches and the AI difficulty cannot be adjusted. As you can tell, Armageddon Empires lacks a lot of the features that contribute to long-term enjoyment in a strategy game: multiplayer, different victory options, adjustable difficulty, team play, a tutorial, and a campaign. The limitations of Armageddon Empires certainly hinder its appeal.

Before you start a new contest, however, you will need to design a deck. Armageddon Empires lacks (surprise!) default starter decks, only coming with the one used in the demo. You can copy over the AI decks and use them, but for the most part you are on your own, wading through the manual to understand the mechanics. It takes a couple of games to realize what composition of forces and structures you need. The deck customization does leave a lot of room for different strategies, though, and once you realize the capabilities of the format, the game opens up and becomes intriguing. Since you can impose different deck restrictions in forming a new game, you can compose several decks for each race. There are a number of card types available in the game; each of the four races share the same basic types, but attributes of similar units are slightly different. Heroes lead armies around the map and may have special abilities, such as constructing units, assassinating enemy units, conducting espionage, or general stat increases. Heroes also have an amount of fate that can be used to alter dice rolls for combat and other events. Tactical leaders can employ tactic cards that can also influence dice rolls. There are a number of units available, from basic infantry to scouts, engineers, tanks, and very large creatures. You can also include resource-collecting facilities, one-use attacks, weapon attachments, or enhancements in your deck. The options in deck composition are numerous, so everyone will be able to find an overall strategy and tailor a deck towards it.

Victory is gained by capturing the enemy headquarters. This is done by using collected resources to play cards to produce units that can be moved around the map. At the beginning of each turn, there is a roll for initiative to determine the play order. While going first has its obvious advantages, you will also get more action points to use during your turn. Action points are required for pretty much every action in the game, from using cards to moving units to forming armies. You can spend some resources to increase your chances of winning. I like how there is a measure of randomness introduced into the game that affects how you will play each turn. Your big plans might go to waste if you end up third in the pecking order. Dice rolls make up a large majority of the game, so everything isn’t as cut-and-dry as some rock-paper-scissors RTS games where unit counters are more important. Make sure that you turn fast rolls on: otherwise, you’ll sit through minute-long presentations of watching dice (fun!). The four resources required to play cards are found in various locations around the map. Some places, like towns (which can be identified by their characteristic hex, even before you scout them) have resources that can be collected by defeating the natives and constructing a resource-collecting outpost. You can also gain one-time resource bonuses, in addition to weapons and other improvements, by discovering old ruins scattered around the map. It pays to scout.

Units in the game don’t move individually, as they must be assigned to an army (which costs action points to form). Leaderless armies can only consist of two units, but heroes can increase that limit. Because of the limited resources available in the game, there is not much micromanagement and the unit count is kept very low. Typically, you’ll only have a couple of armies moving around the map during the entire game, and their movement is somewhat restricted by the supply radii from each base you own (there are supply units available to incorporate into your armies, though). This has its drawbacks, however, as starting each game is a very arduous and slow process, since you can’t afford very many units. Once you play a card, it is removed from your deck and you can draw new cards for an action point cost. A lot of the game centers around good management of resources and action points on a per turn and overall basis, sighting cards that are in your hand and saving up over several turns to afford powerful units down the line. There is a good variety of units to choose from, and you’ll rarely encounter generic units as most cards come with a special ability or two, such as stealth, sabotage, or the ability to kill opposing leaders. Using the cards you have placed in your deck to their utmost worth is how you win.

Combat involves dice rolls (surprise!). You will alternate turns until each unit has made one attack. Combat is done by selecting a unit and a target and the attack and defense values determine how many dice either unit receives. The target receives hit points representing the difference between the attacking and defending rolls. While this means that combat between very strong and very weak units will be over rather quickly, battles between evenly-matched foes can devolve into a stalemate, as neither side is able to overcome the opposition’s defensive characteristics. Combat can last forever if this is the case, but you don’t want to retreat because you have a good chance of winning. It takes a couple of games to learn the basics of Armageddon Empires, thanks to the lack of a tutorial and an overly wordy manual. Once you learn to send out scouts to discover resource locations, engineers to build resource collecting cards on those locations, and then make big armies, then you will be all set. The game has a good combination of luck and planning: getting certain cards and going first adds a bit of chance to the gameplay that varies it. The slow starts might ward off some players, as the beginning of each game is actually the most boring part of a match. In most strategy games, you usually do the most work (issuing orders or queuing buildings) in the first five minutes of a game, but in Armageddon Empires you spend most of the first turns waiting for resources to accumulate: not exactly stimulating gameplay. Capable AI is featured in the game, and even though their strength can’t be adjusted to compensate for beginning or experienced players, the computer opponents will put up a good fight and take advantage of your mistakes (such as leaving your HQ undefended…I learned my lesson).

Armageddon Empires has the makings of a good strategy game, although it lacks the features for a more complete experience. It desperately needs a comprehensive tutorial, as the mechanics are different enough where I was lost (and I play a lot of strategy games). The skirmish-only single player gameplay is underwhelming, as its turn-based nature would seem to lend itself for some good multiplayer action. The lack of a campaign also makes the background story superfluous and almost irrelevant to the gameplay, if it were not for the unit design. There are some good gaming elements here, though. The deck customization options allow for multiple configurations and approaches, though I would like to see some default decks to get you started. While the slow-paced gameplay is not the most exciting thing in the world, the basic game is well though out, but Armageddon Empires lacks the polish needed for mass acceptance. It’s definitely a good start and an intriguing battle system that, at least on a basic level, successfully combines card and board games. A more user friendly implementation of Armageddon Empires with some additional features would go a long way in making the title more engaging overall.