Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Saga Review

Saga, developed and published by Silverlode Interactive.
The Good: Persistent online cities that function when you aren’t actively playing, units gain experience over time, elementary resource management, free to play with purchased boosters to replenish lost troops, PvP combat with organized play features like guilds
The Not So Good: Repetitive quests, bland and restricted combat, resource management is too elementary, outdated graphics, barebones tutorial
What say you? A card-based massively multiplayer real time strategy game that’s more combination than innovation: 5/8

The MMO. Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of gamers more than yet another massively multiplayer online game. While most of these titles have been pegged in the role-playing realm, more recent games have attempted to incorporate different genres as the base of their online worlds. While the real-time strategy game seems to be more includes towards shorter skirmish matches, the possibility of fighting in or for a persistent world is appealing, and that’s where Saga comes in. Saga takes the cards of role-playing games, the city building of, well, city builders, and the tactical strategy of strategy games and puts it in an online world where you can go on single-player quests or engage in player-versus-player duels. Does this mishmash (or, if you prefer, hodgepodge) of different ingredients produce a tasty MMORTS?

The graphics of Saga are reminiscent of the Total War series, but, unfortunately, they are reminiscent of Shogun: Total War. Well, that might not be fair, but clearly the presentation of Saga is not one of the highlights of the game. While Saga is rendered in 3-D, the environments are bland (but varied). The units have halfway-decent models but they are animated poorly, creating some laughably bad battles where friendly units are swinging their weapons at thin air. The weapon effects can be nice on occasion (especially the spells) but, like the animations, they are repetitive. The large banners that indicate each unit can obscure the field of battle, and the buildings that you will attack use the same design and textures over and over again. Other than the ground textures, there is nothing that differentiates one part of the game world from another. This lack of excitement permeates to the sound design as well. None of the objectives are voiced and each unit uses an annoying canned sound effect that loops frequently. The background music is decent, but the rest of the sound is repetitive and jarring. Now, a lot of these shortcomings can be forgiven since Saga was developed by a small company, but those shallow people who put a lot of emphasis on looks will be clearly disappointed with this game.

Saga combines real-time tactical battles and an online, persistent city. The first thing you’ll do is create a new town by choosing a flag design and which alignment you prefer (light, magic, machines, nature, war). You should choose the theme that you own the most cards for, as Saga’s troops are represented as cards you play during combat, much like a classic role-playing game. New players will start out with a basic deck full of human troops that can be used by any realm. Booster packs can be purchased (for $3) that will give a random set of new cards. While this seems like a good way of doing things, the result is that you will use your human units more since the basic cards come with a lot of those units (about 20). Getting a new card results in getting one new unit and one unit on the battlefield can be easily killed. Thus, it’s very difficult to field an army consisting of only specialized units and still remain competitive. It would be better if a new card gave, say, five units instead of one. Your new town will function online whether you are logged in or not: a neat feature. You start out with one town, but later on you can expand into surrounding territory. The tutorial is short and only covers the battle portion of the game, leaving the city building aspect of Saga to pop-up windows.

Managing your town is akin to a classic city builder. You will need to produce resources (gold, wood, food, stone) in order to afford new buildings. Each of these resources is produced by a specific building (mines or farms) and getting your basic economy going allows you to construct defensive structures and more advanced buildings that enable more advanced units. All of the construction in Saga takes place in real time, so if you queue a new building it will be finished in a couple of hours (a good thing to do before you logoff for the night). Your peasants, the population of which is dictated by the number of houses present in your settlement, can be assigned to gather resources at resource-producing buildings, police against attacks, or pray to increase your god favor (used to cast spells during battles). You can also tax your population to increase gold income, but make sure you are feeding them well enough or they will leave your establishment. Sustaining a balanced economy is simply a matter of constructing the right buildings and the process is very straightforward and almost trivial. If you are short on resources, you can trade in the market, exchanging gold for the other commodities. You can also offer unneeded cards to other players; since each city focuses on only one of the realms, all of the other cards you own are extraneous and can be exchanged for more appropriate cards to round out your army. Unfortunately, most of the proposed trades in the market are for single cards and you’ll have to scroll through thousands of trades to find an appealing choice. Like most online games, players can organize themselves into guilds to increase plunder gained from victories and battle against other guilds for supremacy. Towns developed by other players can be raided as well. The city management aspect of Saga is a good distraction from the quests and battles. While it would not be enough to function as a stand-alone game, running your town is a welcome feature to the game.

Most of your time will be spent completing quests, as they are a way of getting small amounts of resources and giving experience to your troops (experience can also be gained through training but it’s very expensive). Before you enter a battle, you should organize your army. You are limited (by your overall experience level) in the number of troops you can deploy at once and how many total troops you can bring along as reserves. The cap is very small when you start out, so you’ll only be able to field about three units and bring around 20 total. As you can imagine, this severely limits your strategic options and makes the combat for new players quite bland. Units can be outfitted with weapons and armor you have collected in quests, although not all weapons can be used by all troops. The items give small attack or defense ratings that make a small difference in combat.

The quests in Saga have repetitive goals (either kill everything or capture buildings after killing everything). The quests are different for each realm, however, and the difficulty seems to match well with the level the game suggests. You can replay levels on more difficult settings (silver and gold levels); replays involve more powerful enemies but more desirable loot. While replaying a quest does sound quite repetitive, new quests are unlocked frequently enough (assuming you keep winning) where it’ll be a while before you need to cycle through them again. The quest map shows the locations of new quests, but it takes some time to find the actual locations since the bronze color for bronze quests camouflages into the color of the map; a simple list of quests would be quicker to navigate.

The combat in Saga is pretty typical for a strategy game: pick a formation, move troops around, and attack. Each unit (which is actually a group of individual units, much like the Total War series) can be assigned a formation that is designed to defend against specific attacks. For example, melee defense will grant increased defensive ratings against melee troops, but then units will be susceptible to ranged attacks. Because of this trade-off, it’s better to have a mixed set of troops attack enemy units so they cannot take advantage of formations. Flanking is also a desirable maneuver: units that are surrounded will suffer exaggerated morale hits and subsequently die more quickly. The AI in Saga is very basic: it sends troops directly at you and occasionally uses a flanking maneuver. Of course, the combat in Saga isn’t exactly the most advanced in the world, but the AI is easily defeated if they have comparable troops. Later quests will prove to be more difficult as the AI gets more (both in terms of quantity and quality) troops and you’re stuck with the same ones since the booster packs only give one or two useful troops each. You’ll get to the point where you simply can’t win, and you’ll have to replace defeated troops with new booster troops and eventually fall behind the curve. Not helping this fact is the watch towers that populate most maps are very, very powerful. They, like most buildings, have high health and it’s easier to capture the structure than to destroy it. While you are capturing it, however, your units are taking damage and the watch towers can easily annihilate entire squads if they consist of 5 or less units. Beating the AI and winning a mission but losing because of watch towers is not very enjoyable, and I’ve lost a number of missions simply because of this. Troops die very easily; I would guess this is on purpose, since you’ll need to spend more money on booster packs (the game has no monthly fee, so this is where the income is derived). You can play human opponents in player-versus-player battles where you take on their town. The game doesn't tell you opponent's level when joining a match so you can easily be outmatched and lose a lot of troops. Still, the PvP battles are more interesting since humans (generally speaking) perform more intelligently than the computer.

Saga is a good idea and the potential is there, but the game just isn’t fun enough due to a slow start and random (and inadequate) troop recruitment. The initial unit limits make all of the battles small, uninteresting skirmishes. Booster packs are a good idea, but you get so many useless cards and the trading interface is poorly organized. I like the city building mode, as its serves as an entertaining distraction and also an important battle element when PvP contests are fought. The strategic controls are clearly designed for novice players, as simple formation stances are the only components to choose from. Winning a battle seems to be somewhat reliant on luck, as you must deploy appropriate troops since you are very limited in your selection. You could do a better job countering enemy units if you were given a bigger selection to start out with: three units is not exactly an imposing force and doesn’t lend itself to advanced tactical maneuvers or strategic planning. Since the game relies so heavily on getting the right random cards, you really need to sink a lot of time and/or money in Saga to make the game fun. Once you have played the game for a while, Saga does get enjoyable when you start fielding a lot of varied units, but this does take a while. Saga is geared towards novice players (not that there is anything wrong with that) with simplified combat and simplified city management, so more experienced gamers will likely grow bored of this title before the game becomes more interesting later on. Saga is one of those games that sounds good on paper, but a couple of design decisions make the overall product less fun.