Friday, February 08, 2008

Band of Bugs Review

Band of Bugs, developed and published by NinjaBee.
The Good: Generally solid (but not terribly original) gameplay, some interesting special actions, level editor, multiple game types, bugs are fun
The Not So Good: Poor interface and controls clearly not for the PC, fixed resolution not designed for LCD or widescreen monitors, fixed starting units (even for skirmish missions), AI is not challenging unless the player is outnumbered, multiplayer browser has too many filters, no manual and insignificant in-game documentation
What say you? A rough PC port of an average introductory turn-based tactical strategy game: 4/8

About the only way you’ll see strategy games on the consoles is in a light tactical flavor: a handful of units moving around a map attacking other units. This is part of the reason I loathe (well, loathe is such a strong word…more like “hate and want to kill”) the major consoles, as my favorite genre (strategy games) is not represented well at all. Of course, there are plenty of great strategy titles to enjoy on the PC, and adding to the mix is Band of Bugs, a game ported over from something called “Xbox Live Arcade” (yeah, I’ve never heard of it either). How will Band of Bugs stack up against the litany of PC strategy titles?

Things don’t start off well for Band of Bugs in the graphics and sound department. I don’t have much issue with the simplistic 3-D graphics, considering the game is coming from a small developer; I know I play enough games where graphics aren’t exactly the strongest feature. The bug models are well done, although it is difficult to tell teams from the subtle color differences. The environments are obviously tile-based, but they look decent enough; they could benefit from some more detailed textures. Some of the spell effects are nice as well, so really the graphical package of Band of Bugs is pretty much what you’d expect for a budget-priced game rendered in 3-D. My problem lies with the fact that Band of Bugs is fixed at a resolution of 1280x720. Does anyone even use this resolution anymore? When I played the game on my computer, with an LCD monitor that displays at 1280x1024, everything was (obviously) hideously stretched out. You can’t play the game in a window or turn down the resolution, which means my crappy laptop (with a maximum resolution of 1024x768) can’t run it at all. I would imagine that widescreen monitors will have similar issues. When you make a PC game, you must give the option to change the resolution or play the game in a window. The fact that Band of Bugs does not offer either of these options is unforgivable. You can’t make assumptions about people’s hardware on the PC platform: you must be flexible, and Band of Bugs is not. Band of Bugs simply looks like crap because of the resolution issue. The sound is pretty bad as well: repetitive two-second long “bug talk” sound bites accompany each section of dialogue, and the weapons and death effects are monotonous as well. Clearly more work could have been done in the sound department.

Band of Bugs is a turn-based strategy game that involves a handful of units (usually around four) vying for supremacy. The game doesn’t come with a manual (a disturbingly growing trend these days) and the tutorial just offers the basics of movement. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like a printed list of all the units and spells and interface features when I play the game. Band of Bugs does come with a short-ish campaign of around 20 missions, each of which takes no more than twenty minutes or so to complete. It follows the story of a bug on his quest to kill stuff. Band of Bugs also features a handful of stand-alone missions and several maps for skirmish games against the AI. Band of Bugs features the standard kill-everything elimination mode, but also has modes where you capture the enemy spawn, escape the map, and hunt spiders. You can also play any of the skirmish game modes online (including the stand alone missions). While this is a nice feature, finding a game is unnecessarily difficult. You must choose a game type before seeing all of the servers. Since there are five game types, you must choose one, see if there are any severs, and if there are not, you must go back a page, select and different one, and try again. The browser should show every server using every game type on one page and allow the user to filter them if they want, but, alas, this is not the case.

To expand upon the list of maps used in Band of Bugs, there is an easy-to-use level editor included in the game. Levels can include some environmental effects, such as ice that can be melted, edges of the map (that cause death if you are pushed off them), and disappearing tiles. Unfortunately, Band of Bugs does not allow you to customize your roster of units, so you are stuck playing with the same exact units each time you play the same map. This also means the campaign missions are identical each time, so there is no need to play through it more than once. While this may be fine for historical games that have some sort of context, this restriction in Band of Bugs is not welcome. Most strategy games these days let the user tailor their force to their play style, but Band of Bugs pigeonholes the player into a set squad.

It’s pretty clear that the developers of Band of Bugs haven’t played a PC RTS in a while, or were just going for a quick and dirty port: the interface and mouse controls are horrible. I think it’s pretty much convention now to use left click to select and right click to move, right? Band of Bugs uses left-click to select, double-left-click to enter move mode, and another double-left-click to actually move. Huh? It took me a while to get used to playing Band of Bugs since I play a lot of strategy games. You also need to click on the square instead of the character to attack or cast a spell: this results in a lot of mis-spellings (so to speak) as it’s pretty hard to find the ground if units are clustered together. Band of Bugs also lacks health bars (you must select a unit to see their status), making just another step in taking your turn. Band of Bugs is yet another game that suffers from having a limited console interface first.

Each turn, one unit moves, takes an action, and changes their facing. Units in the game include standard melee infantry, ranged units, spell casters, and healers. Of course, you don’t get to choose which ones to use before each game, so you must alter your strategy to what the developers think is right. The actual gameplay is Band of Bugs is fairly interesting, which is why it’s sad the game fails in the ancillary areas. There are some intriguing special actions: heal, speed, slow, powerful attacks, and more. You can imagine interesting combinations and the subsequent strategies that can be employed. Attacks are more powerful if units are flanked (attacked from the side or, even better, from behind) or surrounded by several units. Eliminating enemy units gives you successive turns, allowing the user to “chain” several spells and attacks together. This makes it important to preserve your units as losing turns is the first step towards failure. Not that you’ll be failing much: the AI is easily beatable with matched forces, and it’s only challenging when overwhelmed. The AI makes really dumb moves (moving over ice when it could be melted, for example) and doesn’t concentrate its fire, but at least the AI doesn’t gang up on the human player. Of course, the AI problems are eliminated when playing online, assuming you can find a game using the restrictive browser.

Band of Bugs is very frustrating because I think there’s a good strategy game buried somewhere beneath the sub-par PC port. The design of the game makes it perfect for players new to the genre, as the combination of movement, facing, and spell strategy can make for some fun times. Executing a well-planned strategy is at the heart of any good strategy game, and it’s certainly an enjoyable part of Band of Bugs. Since Band of Bugs is similar to the hordes of other turn-based tactical games on the market, what makes the difference is the features, and sadly the PC version of Band of Bugs is poorly executed. The fixed screen resolution. The archaic interface. The unwieldy controls. The lack of customizable forces. The arbitrarily restrictive multiplayer browser. No manual. All of these things add up to make an unenjoyable title, no matter how the actual gameplay is. The AI isn’t the sharpest tool in the tool box, either, and the only challenge will come from being up against a huge number of enemies (a cheap strategy employed by Band of Bugs). Band of Bugs is simply too annoying to play thanks to a number of technical issues, and there are more rounded strategy titles already available on the PC.