Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier Review

Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier, developed and published by Sandlot Games.
The Good: Simple resource management, lots of buildings, explicit objectives, easy to find units
The Not So Good: A lot of waiting for resources to gather, lacks management depth, sporadic tool-tips, repetitive music
What say you? A city and resource management game hurt by a sluggish pace: 5/8

Everything I know about The Old West I learned from Back to the Future Part III: teachers commonly fall into canyons, Clint Eastwood is a coward, and trains can go really fast if you use explosives. Oh, and hoverboards are wicked awesome. But how difficult was it really to run a small town in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by buttes and/or natives on top of buttes? This burning question has been addressed by Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier, a city management game about The Old West. See how I referenced The Old West before and now the game is about The Old West? That’s called “quality journalism.” Does Westward II thrive in hostile territory, or devolve into an orgy of cannibalism?

Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier features decent graphics. The game is played from an isometric perspective and features 3-D graphics, although the level of detail is certainly behind the times. Animations are well-done, but most of the buildings are jagged and lack awesome textures that many city builder games have. Still, for a budget-priced game ($20), the graphics are acceptable. The sound is a bit worse off: none of the dialogue is voiced, though each character will say a handful of stereotypical phrases that obviously get repetitive. Also, the Old West theme of Westward II quickly gets bothersome as it cycles over and over, but it does fit the overall theme. Sound is not an area that gets a lot of attention in most games, and it was certainly an afterthought in Westward II. Overall, though, the presentation of Westward II is exactly what I expected, and nothing more.

In Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier, you take a fledgling western town and turn it into a less-fledgling western town. The first thing you’ll have to do is the long, drawn-out tutorial that you can’t skip: anyone who is familiar with any type of strategy game will be completely bored by it. Once you complete it, though, you unlock the mission-driven story mode and sandbox mode. The sandbox games are lackluster without the objectives present in the story and there are only three maps to choose from, but more maps are available to download on the official site. The game does a good job gradually introducing more advanced structures along the way without overwhelming new players, although experienced gamers might dislike the slow pace at which new ideas are shown. The interface is generally well designed, as it’s very easy to find units, especially idle citizens and your ever-important hero. Tool-tips could be better: anything other than the buildings lacks additional information (like the mysteries of the top information bar). Westward II does give you very explicit objectives and clearly indicates characters that need to be talked to in order to advance the story. Overall, it would be difficult to be frustrated by the interface.

You are given one hero unit that can build new structures and collect small amounts of resources. There are a lot of buildings to choose from that provide housing, resource gathering, military, and increased happiness, just to name a few. They are unlocked by completing missions and using resources in the store, which is a fine way of doing it. Most of the time, the story mode will pretty much tell you what to unlock next, although the player has some small amount of freedom in their chosen path. Westward II only offers four resources to collect: gold, water, food, and wood. Each of these is collected at one type of structure, and it’s simply a matter of assigning an idle citizen to the correct building and everything else is automatic. New citizens are gained by building additional houses, and each house brings down the happiness, so you have to also build happy places to compensate. The key problem of Westward II is the excruciatingly slow gathering rates. Most of the game will be spent not building things or fighting robbers, but waiting for resources to accumulate. Now, I realize that you don’t want the user to zip right through the game in a matter of minutes, but I don’t enjoy sitting there waiting while I am supposed to be having “fun.” There is also a sensitive balance of materials and it can be too late before you realize that you will be short in a particular resource, since the game just provides amounts instead of rates. Every building requires gold and wood, even the gold-producing mines and wood-producing huts, so if you are short in either of these resources and don’t have enough to build the producing building, you are stuck in an endless loop. That’s not very fun, as you can imagine. There is some simplified combat in the game: successfully defending your town is just a matter of recruiting troops at the saloon and producing weapons to increase their attack ratings. Fighting is just point-and-click, with no formations or counters: it’s just who has the most men with the better weapons, rather than the best tactics. There will be an audience that will enjoy the significantly simplified mechanics, but Westward II may be too simple for its own good.

While Westward II certainly gets the basics down, the snail pace of the game ruins the overall experience. The game is undoubtedly designed for novice players, from the basic resource collection to very simplified combat. Not that there is anything wrong with that, and I think beginners to the city building genre will enjoy the more simplified approach; nevertheless, everyone will have to contend with the slow pace. Resources simply need to come in faster so there isn’t so much waiting around; if you have your economy running it should run, not walk. The interface does a good job of letting you control the game and the story mode is OK with clear-cut objectives. The sandbox mode is generally pointless with a lack of direction, but it does allow you to experience all of the buildings Westward II has to offer. The game does fall in line with the expectations for a budget-priced city simulation and it’s a couple of tweaks away from being more entertaining.