Sunday, September 30, 2007

Machines at War Review

Machines at War, developed and published by Isotope244.
The Good: Easy to learn, smart automated units, quick games, allows for different strategies, robust technology tree, some advanced gameplay mechanics, random maps, available on multiple platforms including phones
The Not So Good: Lacks multiplayer or alternative modes like team play, stalemates on occasion due to strong defenses, needs a directed tutorial
What say you? A straightforward RTS game with some clever ideas that is a few features short of complete satisfaction: 6/8

With cellular telephones becoming increasingly more powerful, games have started to appear in ported form on the platform. Better hardware means more sophisticated games, and now phone software can rival the PC in terms of gameplay complexity. This brings us to Machines at War, a real time strategy game that appears on the Windows and Macintosh operating systems, as well as Pocket PCs and Smartphones. Obviously these formats cannot compete in terms of graphical quality, but gameplay is of paramount importance and Machines at War could deliver an engrossing experience. I’ll be looking at the Windows version of the game, but the other formats are eerily similar, with only some differences in screen resolution. Will Machines at War deliver an entertaining strategy affair?

Despite being played from an overhead perspective, the graphics of Machines at War are actually pretty good. The game is rendered in 2-D and contains some nice detail, from the individual trees that dot the map to the amount of destruction that comes about from a heated contest. There is an impressive amount of smoke that billows from defeated machines (you know, the ones at war). Machines at War lacks cutting-edge pixel shaders and all those graphical features that makes your games run slowly, but it really doesn’t need it as the title maintains a nice feel, reminiscent of, say, Red Alert 2. The game runs fast, as you would expect for a title that can also run on a phone. The audio is nice, though somewhat repetitive. The background music is well done, and there are some basic sounds that aren’t quite as varied as big budget RTS titles, but that is to be expected. Still, there are enough explosions and unit acknowledgements to create a believable environment. I’m not sure what makes the low-budget presentation of Machines at War so effective, but it all comes together nicely resulting in a pleasing 2-D RTS title in terms of graphics and sound.

Machines at War is a classic real time strategy game collect resources, build units, and kill stuff. The main complaint about the game is its lack of features. First, the game features only single player action against the AI. Second, there is only deathmatch, no conquest or capture the flag or domination modes to enjoy. There aren’t even team games, as each contest is a free-for-all no matter how many sides are playing. Third, the game’s tutorial is all reading and no interaction, and we all know reading is no fun. Any of these things would have been quite nice to include and allow the game’s replay value to increase. Thankfully, the AI is a good opponent at hard difficulty levels so you’ll have some entertainment there. For each game, you can change the landscape and climate, which will affect the appearance of the game’s randomly generated levels. Most of the levels look about the same and there are no extreme changes in geography, but having them somewhat randomized is still a nice feature. You can also adjust the map size, population cap, and how the map is revealed. The lack of multiplayer and alternative game modes is really the only sore spot in an otherwise entertaining game.

The first step towards victory in Machines at War is resource collection. This is done automatically by scavengers, who will gather ore and deliver it to your base without any interaction needed. You can also build scouts (usually one will suffice) who will automatically go around and uncover the map. Both of these are great features that allow the player to focus on the more important decisions in the game. Buildings in the game have a monetary and power requirement; power is generated using (surprise!) power-generating buildings. Since the game is called Machines at War, you will be building machines: there are no infantry units in the game. These are constructed at your garages and factories, while airports can add helicopters to the mix. If you double click on one of your garages, all will be selected; picking one unit will build that same unit at all garages, cutting down on micromanagement considerably. The tooltip for the money required does not scale, however, so you’ll have to do some quick math to figure out if you can afford five Humvees at once. In general, each unit counters another type of unit, usually not its own type. For example, the lightly-armored Humvee counters heavy armor, while the heavily-armored Challenger takes out light armor. This puts the emphasis on mixed units to push back any type of attack the AI throws at you.

The lab is one of the most important structures in the game: it unlocks more advanced structures and allows for research. The research tree is quite extensive, allowing for offensive, defensive, and resource-based upgrades. You are given a set number of points you can allocate to unlock the opening technology in a group and subsequent upgrades down the line. There is the choice of focusing on one area of research (which could potentially be countered by the enemy) or spreading yourself out with low-level techs. There are some interesting decisions to be made, for sure. There are some nice structures in the game other than the basic unit-producing buildings: the extractor will provide a constant flow of resources, the radar station detects enemy units outside of sight range, and the refinery can serve as a drop-off point for resources far away from your HQ. You can also construct defenses, including various guns and walls. The defenses in the game are quite strong and difficult to overcome; this results in a lot of stalemates until you mass enough units to take them out. This is the same problem as in Supreme Commander: defenses are too cheap and too powerful.

Machines at War includes some interesting subtle enhancements in its gameplay. The more structure you build at once, the slower they will build; this is a good abstraction of construction units without having to worry about construction units. Also, buildings will build faster if you have more spare power, creating an advantage for those who employ good power management. While most of the user interface is well-designed (I’m curious how well it handles on a phone), Machines at War does need a “select all military units” button; while using a select box will only choose military units (good) and you can double-click a unit to select all on screen, you cannot select everybody everywhere. This makes handling a large force difficult, especially since you can’t zoom out. The AI performs well on hard levels, building large bases, acquiring new resource locations, and constructing a large force. They seem to use the same strategy each time (a happy medium between rushing and turtling) so you might be able to counter them with the same plan each time. This is why I would like to see multiplayer incorporated into the game, since you can’t anticipate what a human is thinking…most of the time.

Machines at War is a well-designed old school real time strategy game. The number of strategic decisions to make causes Machines at War to become quite stimulating. I also like some of the innovations Machines at War brings to the table, such as the building speeds. You have to strike a balance between build speed and volume, balance your resources, construct the right units, and use the technology tree to your advantage. Machines at War contains enough automation to make the menial tasks of resource collection and early scouting disappear; this lets the player focus on the bigger picture. The user interface is well designed and works well on the Windows platform (just give me a “select all military units” button, please). While the game generally plays out the same each time, there are some different strategies you can successfully employ, although the decent AI will follow the same path. The only thing this game lacks is multiplayer and some new modes of play; add those and Machines at War will become a very nice title.