Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fantasy Wars Review

Fantasy Wars, developed by Ino-Co and published by 1C Company and Atari.
The Good: Informative user interface, straightforward and streamlined gameplay
The Not So Good: Multiplayer through LAN or hotseat only, lacks replay value
What say you? This simplified hex-based strategy game is actually pretty fun, though it has limited features: 6/8

I’ve reviewed my share of hex-based strategy games. It probably has to do with the fact that I like the genre so I request those games the most. Most of the games in the genre fly under the radar and lack a major in-store presence, catering to the small but devoted fan base. So I was somewhat surprised to receive Fantasy Wars, a fantasy hex-based strategy game that arrived in a real game box with a real game DVD; it’s been a while since I received a wargame I didn’t get as a digital download. This is the continuation of Atari’s mission to publish every single 1C game released in Russia, which has ranged from “bad” to “worse” to “not as bad.” How will Fantasy Wars stack up?

Fantasy Wars features some surprisingly decent graphics. The game is rendered in 3-D and it looks good up close and from a distance. I was initially impressed by the vibrant grass in the levels and the fine attention to detail with the characters and objects in the game world. Most (all?) of the wargames I play are in 2-D, so a game that actually takes advantage of the third dimension should be commended. Fantasy Wars has a nice overall theme that is reflected well in the graphical presentation. The sound is pretty standard: some unique unit sounds, abrupt battle effects, and fitting background music. Nothing too spectacular, but it gets the job done. Overall, Fantasy Wars is on the upper end of the presentation quality scale when compared against other hex-based strategy games.

Fantasy Wars features three single player campaigns as the most dominant feature: they are lengthy enough and cover the major races in the game. Although there isn’t a large difference between the factions of Fantasy Wars, there are some small unit ability changes that are worth noting. Units from each campaign mission carry over to the next scenario with the experience intact, whether they are alive or not. This means you’ll have access to some very powerful creatures at the end of each campaign; watching units “grow” over time is a nice feature. While the campaigns offer a decent amount of content, the rest of the features are clearly lacking. There are two tutorials which are strangely presented: you watch a video then they tell you the same information as you do it yourself. Seems kind of repetitive to me. The game only comes with five (five!) missions for single play against the AI or multiplayer competition. In addition, multiplayer can only be done on the same computer or over a LAN or known IP address, as there is no matchmaking system in place. This reduces the replay value of Fantasy Wars a lot; most wargames come with a lot of standalone or randomly generated missions so the lack of these features in Fantasy Wars is quite disappointing, especially when you consider that the game is enjoyable.

Fantasy Wars is a hex-based game, and only one unit can occupy each hex (no super huge stacks to worry about). One of the highlights of the game is the well designed interface. It lists all of your units at all times (although a large army will require some scrolling) and displays whether they have moved and attacked this turn. Anyone who has played a wargame will note that this is wonderful information to have at a single glance and it makes playing the game so much easier. There are also overlays that display where a unit can move, displayed in a green glow that is easy to see. The attack cursor is very touchy, though, as you need to put mouse directly on enemy unit, not just the hex they inhabit. Like the Decisive Battles series, probably losses are displayed for each side before you fight; choosing which battles to undertake is no longer a guessing game. Fantasy Wars makes it very easy to get into the game through its excellent user interface.

In most scenarios, you will be given a fixed set of initial troops (again, reducing replay value) that can be deployed on the map. Units include an array of light and heavy cavalry, light and heavy infantry, archers, ranger and mage heroes, skirmishers, war machines, air fighters, and air bombers, each with different stats and terrain bonuses. Units gain experience through combat and you can choose upgrades for them (called “perks”) that will grant some stat increase; over time, especially through the course of a campaign, you can tailor your units towards your favorite strategy by choose the perks that interest you the most. This makes having set units a little easier to swallow. Most of the focus of Fantasy Wars will be made on capturing towns; towns have a large defensive bonus and are easily protected, even by minor units. They do offer cash rewards that can be spent on new units and on most maps they reside in choke-points, so their importance cannot be ignored. You can recruit new units by choosing them from a confusing and unorganized list (the only downfall of the interface), but most of the time you’ll be up against the population cap anyway so a majority of new units will end up being replacements rather than additions. Damaged units can rest (not move) to heal, so Fantasy Wars is less about producing units than tactical positioning and strategy. Artifacts can be equipped to units that also provide bonuses in combat, and powerful hero units can bring the pain. I certainly wasn’t expecting much from Fantasy Wars and I was pleasantly surprised by the enjoyable strategy gameplay. This game is really geared towards new players with the one-unit-per-hex limit and simplified mechanics. But that doesn’t mean it’s too infantile; there can be some advanced strategy when you start incorporating artifacts and perks with the standard units. Fantasy Wars is a well designed game and I wish it came with more multiplayer and skirmish features to round out the excellent design.

After four recent games, I finally got a good 1C import published by Atari. Hooray! Fantasy Wars is great for beginners as it features simplified (when compared to some games) gameplay with a great interface. I didn’t have to squint or search around for lost units once while playing Fantasy Wars. The three campaigns are long enough to keep you interested, although the objectives tend to be linear (capture this, defeat this). While you are generally given a set roster of units, you can customize your army somewhat through artifacts and upgrades you can earn or find on the battlefield. Fantasy Wars is pleasing to look at as well, something that can’t be said for a lot of hex-based games. There is a variety of units to choose from, from melee to ranged to flying, and this allows for varied strategy when dealing with the enemy. The only downside of Fantasy Wars is the lack of many multiplayer and skirmish maps to play after you’ve finished the campaign. This is quite sad, especially for those people who enjoy customizable or multiplayer content. Still, the quality of the game mechanics can’t be ignored, so strategy fans should definitely give Fantasy Wars a look.