Thursday, September 06, 2007

Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power Review

Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power, developed by and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Enjoyable strategy gameplay, challenging campaign, neat morale model, streamlined base management, emphasis on resupply rather than massing units, one unit per hex stresses realistic front lines, time of day drastically affects strategy
The Not So Good: No level editor, some missions are exceedingly difficult
What say you? This turn-based strategy game has a lot of good ideas, but casual users will dislike the tedious pace and high difficulty: 6/8

The Massive Assault series has been around since 2003, providing strategy fans with a decent series of games: the original Massive Assault, Massive Assault Network 2, Domination, Massive Assault: The Next Generation, and Massive Assault: Deep Space Nine. The Assault has now expanded from Massive to Galactic levels in Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power. This new title uses the same conventions as the Massive Assault series but a more conventional RTS approach (though the game is still played in turn-based modes) with base-building, unit recruitment, and faster-paced straight-up action. It was time for a change, since the basic game has been around since 2003 and each iteration really felt more like an expansion pack than a full-fledged game. Will Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power open to doors to a wide audience and provide a distinct gameplay experience?

The graphics of Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power are largely the same as in Massive Assault Network 2, albeit with more varied locations and new units. The game is rendered in 3-D and a lot of the same effects and attention to detail present in previous games carries over. The units move in a realistic method, utilizing roads and automatically moving to a column formation while moving. The unit animations are also well done, from the infantry lining up and taking their shots to the more powerful weapons in the game. The game uses a movie-style camera that zooms in on the action during large explosions: it is dumb, not necessary, but easily skipped. Overall, Galactic Assault looks good for a wargame, but lags behind the higher production values present in mega-budget real time strategy games. And that’s just fine with me, as the minimal interface has come to a very streamlined place and navigating through the game is very useful. Galactic Assault displays both morale (as a circular indicator) and health (as a bar) above each unit at all times, making assessing the battlefield situation easy. Galactic Assault is easy to get in to thanks to its mostly intuitive interface. The quality of the sound presentation is similar to what it was before: sporadic and not up to the graphics. The uninspired voice acting heard when passages from the book the game is based on are being read while loading a new campaign level doesn’t get you excited for the next mission. The sound effects, while decent, are sporadic (typical for a turn-based game) and don’t bring the full force of war to your gaming experience. The background music is good and doesn’t repeat itself much. Overall, Galactic Assault maintains the higher-than-average quality graphics for a wargame.

Like Massive Assault, Galactic Assault is a turn-based strategy game where you move units around to conquer enemy bases. The game comes with four campaigns (one for each of the races) totaling seventeen missions in all. The first set act as a sort of tutorial to the game, although if you haven’t played Massive Assault you will be almost completely lost: the in-game tutorials do not explain the user interface (and neither does the manual) and other nuances of the game very well if at all (though tool-tips are some help). A single mission can take up to an hour to complete (thanks to the slow turn-based nature of the gameplay), so Galactic Assault has a lot of content. The campaign missions are generally well done (though difficult) and strike a good balance between offensive and defensive operations with some stealth mixed in for good measure. There are also eleven objective-based scenarios and twelve deathmatch maps with identical goals for each side (capture the other base). You can also engage in hot multiplayer action over a LAN or using the in-game matchmaking. You can only play deathmatch, as the territory-based mode from Massive Assault is mysteriously absent. This is a good amount of content and it should keep you busy for a while, even without a map editor to incorporate third-party content.

Gameplay in Galactic Assault takes place over two phases: the combat phase where you can order troops and the reinforcement phase where you can purchase new troops and upgrade your bases. The game features a good number of real-world features that impact the gameplay, such as time of day (which drastically affects fog of war) and cover provided by terrain. Galactic Assault puts a lot of emphasis on good movement planning, forcing you to evaluate the terrain’s features well and note which kinds of troops can traverse the varied landscapes in the game. Units can be instructed to use camouflage (which makes them invisible to units beyond the adjacent hex) or entrench for improved defense. Engineers can also build pontoon bridges on shallow water and construct forward air bases. Unlike a lot of RTS games, new bases are not built; rather, they can be moved when resources run out (there is a finite level of resources at each location). This cuts down a lot on base management, as you’ll only have one or two places to worry about instead of many outposts scattered about the map. Bases can be captured by simply moving a unit into the center, so troops must be kept back on defense. Depots can be built surrounding a base to construct units, much like in Rise of Legends. Again, this makes finding unit-producing buildings very easy since you know they must be adjacent to your base. Each depot type can construct one type of unit, from barracks for infantry to ports for ships. Depots can be upgraded to unlock more powerful units. Each depot is limited to producing one unit per turn, since only one unit can occupy a single hex at a time (and each depot sits on one hex). Galactic Assault features conventional units: infantry, vehicles, tanks, transports, air, and naval. Each of these has their strengths and weaknesses, from attack ratings to speed to weapon range. Damaged units can be repaired for a much lower cost than making a new unit at their depot, if you want to take the time moving them back to home base. I like how Galactic Assault incorporates RTS conventions into its formula, and the result is an easy-to-handle game because of the streamlined base construction.

During the combat phase, units can move and shoot in the same turn. Since there is no stacking in Galactic Assault (each hex can only contain one unit), there is a lot of planning involved when you start to move troops around. The game displays the attack range of each of your units when you select them, helping out the process. Most of the units for each of the races are the same (although they look different), so you can plan your movement and orders accordingly. . Luckily, you can queue your commands up in succession, so you don’t have to wait for the last unit to finish moving before issuing orders to the next unit: this speeds up the gameplay somewhat. You will need to maintain a front line of units to prevent fast units from moving past your units and engaging fragile artillery or capturing your base. Units can return fire on defense and support artillery can protect nearby units automatically by engaging three enemy units during the opposing turn. Galactic Assault comes with end-turn prompts that remind of you unmoved units or those that haven’t fired yet, helpful for making sure all of your firepower has been used. Galactic Assault has a good morale system: units that suffer incoming fire and the death associated with said fire will experience lower morale. Lower morale will result in decreased firepower, and units with the lowest morale won’t fire at all. The morale model is well done because you don't have to annihilate every unit on the map to make them ineffective. Of course, they can still act as road blocks, so some enemy units will need to be completely destroyed in order to advance across the map. Specialized units like hypno-transmitters can increase morale, but the best way of keeping morale up is not to die. Units can earn combat experience, which increases damage and morale values. The one unit per hex restriction makes Galactic Assault easier to handle than a lot of wargames, and the morale system is very straightforward. So, with all of these good things said about the game mechanics, why doesn’t Galactic Assault completely succeed?

Galactic Assault is too hard. The AI is good enough to engage a human opponent head-on (although it isn’t quite as aggressive as a human in deathmatches), but the developers seem to be hard-set on making each campaign and standalone scenario unbalanced with too many enemy units. This was a problem in Massive Assault and the trend continues in Galactic Assault. Easy is challenging enough, and anything higher than that is very hard and meant for strong veteran players. I’m no slouch at strategy games (I review plenty of them), but I had a terribly time winning even the introductory scenarios on medium settings. It took a while for me to “get over the hump” and start enjoying Galactic Assault. The game does require you to be almost perfect in order to win with any regularity above “easy” difficulty (and even that level is no walk in the park). You will need to carefully scout ahead to eliminate enemy surprises (of which there are many in the imbalanced campaign), carefully maneuver your troops to prevent enemy units from breaking through your lines, are carefully direct your fire to take advantage of counters (like anti-tank units), positioning, and morale. Galactic Assault requires you to be perfect, and that’s a very hard thing to do in a game with multiple variables. The deathmatches and multiplayer modes are more evenly matched, but the campaigns and stand-alone scenarios border on frustrating difficulty. While Galactic Assault has a faster pace than Massive Assault, the tedious gameplay will annoy some users. Units (especially infantry and artillery) move very slowly when not on transport units, making reinforcements a long time coming. It also usually takes a turn or two to destroy a single unit, so the combat pace is also slow. This deliberate pace allows for some thinking and more involved gameplay, but the does get annoying after a while at how long a single match takes and how little each unit can do in a single turn. The pace is in line with other turn-based strategy games, but Galactic Assault seems to drag along more for some reason. This game is certainly more approachable than Massive Assault, as the units are more conventional and the base building elements add familiarity. I do like how this aspect of the game works, providing funds over a limited time and requiring users to expand to new territories. I think the developers tried to expand the audience with a more conventional structure and they were successful on some levels, but the deliberate pace and requirement of perfection will dissuade some players.

Veteran wargamers will have a grand time with Galactic Assault, but beginning players who aren't accustomed to the gameplay mechanics of Massive Assault will feel lost and overwhelmed by the high difficulty and level of planning required in order to be successful. There are a lot of things in Galactic Assault that I like: the units, the base building, the amount of content, the morale model, the non-stackable units, and the general gameplay are all fine and dandy. But the game is really difficult and slow, two things that won’t appeal to a large audience. I much prefer Galactic Assault to Massive Assault and it does a lot of things well and more often than not I am having fun playing the game, but then I encounter an unfair or overly difficult scenario that causes me to quite playing. There is nothing wrong with a challenging game, but it should be challenging on “hard” settings, not on all settings. Ultimately, Galactic Assault is a high-quality wargame that will appeal to wargamers, but not many other people.