Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hornet Leader Review

Hornet Leader, developed by Dan Verssen Games and Storm Cloud Creations and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Easy to learn with simple mechanics, variable strategy, fast pace, false intelligence creates uncertainty
The Not So Good: No tutorial, single-player only, frugal graphics and sound at a fixed resolution, cumbersome interface with response lag, repetitive missions, can’t exit or save the game mid-mission
What say you? This strategy game has limited features and lacks flashy graphics, but it’s still fun: 6/8

For those of us without any friends, playing card games is an impossible activity (except for Solitaire, of course). Luckily, computers can now substitute for real human companionship and serve as an adequate foe. Thus, we are starting to see a lot of card games make their way onto the PC. One of these was personal favorite Down In Flames, and now comes Hornet Leader, based off a card game from the same author. In Hornet Leader, you lead a swarm of angry bees in a revolt against their human captors. Or you command a group of fighter pilots. Either way, I’m sure it will be fun!

Hornet Leader features graphics that are, how you say, old. Hornet Leader is based off a card game, but that doesn’t mean it has to feature outdated visuals. The background of the game map is a stark black, which doesn’t seem like a very realistic theater of operations. The icons used in the game are generally small and you need to scour the manual to figure out what all the numbers mean. The explosions consist of a magic green cloud of dust. Hornet Leader is played at a fixed 1280x1024 resolution; while I commend the use of a common higher resolution, some laptop owners will not be able to play. The sound is equally uninspired: some annoying firing sounds, repetitive explosions, and sporadic and jarring audio clues. Those expecting cutting-edge 3-D graphics and surround sound will be sorely disappointed, and Hornet Leader is even bare-bones by wargame standards. But as long as the gameplay is good, it doesn’t matter how it looks, right? Right?

Hornet Leader features four single-player only campaigns from Libya in 1986 to present-day North Korea. There isn’t much difference between each of the scenarios so they all play very similarly. The game does not have a tutorial, but thankfully the mechanics are relatively easy to learn and there are help button present on all of the screens with detailed information. Each of the scenarios comes with eighteen targets that will appear in a semi-random fashion; you can typically choose between two or three targets, and each will grant different benefits and levels of difficulty. You can choose different campaign lengths, from three day skirmishes to ten day wars. Hornet Leader has six difficulty levels which award bonuses for or against you; I found playing on the balanced “average” setting is tough enough, so Hornet Leader should never get too easy for experienced players. For each campaign, you can select twelve pilots from a larger list; they have varying specialties, such as air-to-air skill, and you must pick a variety of overall skill levels. Pilots can gain experience by successfully completing missions that will increase their stats. Choosing a variety of pilots with different strengths seems to be the best course of action. Although each campaign uses the same pilots (kind of weird considering the game spans almost 20 years), there are enough to choose from to make some hard decisions come about.

A lot of the strategy involved with Hornet Leader comes about even before you technically start the mission. Each mission limits you to a specified number of pilots, and the game gives you a rough estimate on how many enemies you will run into. You will have to balance strengths, pilots needing experience, and overall difficulty when choosing an appropriate roster. The missions are repetitive: blow up a ground or air object and encounter resistance along the way. Luckily, the arrangement and type of enemies changes and requires you to plan for all possible situations. Before you lift off, you will need to air your planes. You can choose between air-to-air missiles, pods (used for passive defense, although the manual neglects this information), iron bombs, anti-radiation missiles (for radar), air-to-ground missiles, and smart bombs. Each mission has a weight limit (tied to how far away the target is, to simulate fuel load) so you have to plan accordingly. Each weapon differs in range, firing altitude, and rolls required on a 10-sided die for a hit. Really sweet weapons require a special cost. There is a good variety of weapons and Hornet Leader offers a multitude of arming strategies: long range or short range, high altitude or low altitude, bombs or missiles, air-to-air or air-to-ground, and so on. Unlike some games that come with an optimal build order or fixed units, Hornet Leader gives the player the freedom to royally screw up.

The first step in a mission is to plan your starting locations and altitudes. Before this happens, though, you can receive a random event that might completely change your chance of success. There are positive ones (like bombers softening up the target) and very negative ones (like running into a SAM site). Sometimes you are given a choice of using some of your weapons to avoid the event or just take your lumps. It should be noted that Hornet Leader crashes if you choose to use weapons you don’t have, although I think this may be fixed in a patch. In any event, you are given the choice of placing your aircraft in eight approach zones (one for each cardinal and ordinal direction) and set their starting altitude. You will want to avoid dangerous weapons and try to fly out of the range of enemy strongholds; since some weapons can only engage low altitude planes, this can be done to some extent. Each mission consists of four turns and each turn has four stages: fast pilots attack, enemy sites and bandits attack, slow pilots attack, and movement. Engaging an enemy requires selecting the shooter, clicking on the target, picking your weapon of choice, and pressing fire. The interface could have been designed better, since some objects have a very small clickable range, and Hornet Leader has large amounts of response lag after a shot is taken. I’m not sure if this is to let you see the results, but it’s annoying if you are clicking on something and the game doesn’t respond because it’s paused automatically. All of the computations in the game are done with a ten-sided die: if your roll exceeds the number on your missile, the target is destroyed. You can fire multiple missiles per turn to increase your odds, but once a pilot has fired once they cannot fire again that turn.

Defending against enemy attacks is a bit more complicated than attacking. You can choose to suppress an attack by using a precious weapon, evade an attack which will increase your odds at surviving but increasing stress, or just take it like a man and hope for the best. These are some really tough decisions: you can’t suppress all of the time, because then you will run out of weapons. You also can’t evade all of the time, because stats decrease as stress increases.

An enemy’s attack can have one of four results, depending on how high the dice roll was: nothing, a gain in stress, a loss of weapons, or complete humiliation. You can luck out for a couple of turns, but eventually poor planning will catch up to you. The random events that take place before and after combat can also mix up the action quite a bit, making a previously daunting mission easier, and vice versa. Hornet Leader has a very fast pace: a single mission takes around ten minutes or so to complete, depending on how many planes you have under your command. This makes it a little easier to understand why you are not allowed to save, or even exit, the game during a mission, but those two features are still questionable in their exclusion. Hornet Leader does feel a lot like a card game (not surprising) and the mechanics are generally good, with easy-to-understand rules and straightforward gameplay. Hornet Leader could benefit from more features, such as multiplayer (where one player could take the defender) or more dynamic graphics, but the game is still fun to play and it is a good fast-paced strategy title.

While Hornet Leader is a more limited title than Down In Flames, it still shows that Dan Verssen Games knows how to make a fast-paced engrossing card game. And the computer version of Hornet Leader isn’t too shabby either. The basic gameplay is simple enough where anyone can learn it, after they figure out what all those little numbers mean. Although each campaign is the same, the replay value is still high thanks to randomized enemies and special events during each mission. There are a lot of choices the player needs to make during each game, including the initial roster, mission setup, loadout, positioning, weapons use, countermeasures, and more. Hornet Leader gives a lot of freedom without being overly cumbersome in its design. The game does lack some of the features present in more well-rounded strategy games, but I still had fun while playing it. Hornet Leader is also difficult enough to keep people coming back well into the future. Hornet Leader is another fine card-based game that should keep strategy fans busy for a while.