Tuesday, August 12, 2008

SunAge Review

SunAge, developed by Vertex4 and published by Lighthouse Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Lengthy campaign, innovative base building mechanics, preferred unit targeting, map layouts encourage aggressive play, 2-D graphics don’t look terrible
The Not So Good: Can’t select diverse units, can’t adjust difficulty, special abilities must be micromanaged, deathmatch-only multiplayer, still has bugs
What say you? An old-school real-time strategy game that has a couple neat ideas but is missing some modern features: 5/8

The game that ushered me into the world of real-time strategy was Command and Conquer: Red Alert. There’s something to be said for simple strategy games where all you do is mine resources, build units, and blow stuff up. SunAge is a game that attempts to bring that nostalgia back in full force, complete with 2-D sprite-based graphics, simplified tech trees, and lots of units. This game was actually released in Europe late last year (and the U.S. earlier this year), but I’m checking it out after a couple of patches (which, according to what I have heard, is a good thing) and seeing if SunAge invokes fond memories of games past.

When you hear “2-D sprites,” your expectations probably are not going to be high. Well, surprisingly, SunAge actually doesn’t look that bad. The units may be small and you can’t zoom in or out, but the landscapes are varied and well-detailed and there are some modern fog and lighting effects present. The weapon effects can be good on occasion, although unit damage models are certainly not breathtaking. You can tell the game uses 2-D buildings and units, but it never detracts from the gameplay, so I don’t have a problem with it. You don’t need top-notch graphics to have a top-notch game. The voice acting, while not terrible, can get annoying to listen to after a while. I like the minimalist background music as it coincides with the tone of the game. Overall, SunAge isn’t as horrific as you would think, so that’s good.

SunAge is a classic real time strategy game: collect resources, build your base, form an army, and attack the enemy. The meat of the game is contained in the lengthy single player campaign that will keep players busy for a while. While the story is not very exciting, it does give you the chance to test out your strategic mettle. A tutorial is integrated into the campaign, but the messages that pop-up are annoying and truly interrupt the flow of the game since you must click in order to dismiss them. SunAge does not autosave during a mission, and since the level of difficulty is quite high, you'll have to manually save your progress early and often. Multiplayer is a very standard affair: an in-game browser lists games (most of the time) and you can join free for all or two-on-two games for up to four players. There are a number of maps to choose from, but the deathmatch-only gameplay doesn't offer the variety present in a lot of contemporary titles. In addition, there are no alternative victory options or other settings to customize your experience.

The first thing you'll need to do is collect resources. There are four (blue, green, yellow, and red) that are required for increasingly more sophisticated units. The developers take advantage of this by designing the multiplayer maps with the high-level resources located at hotly-contested crossroads. This encourages aggressive play, which tends to make multiplayer matches action-packed. These resources are used to purchase the typical buildings of any strategy game: a resource collector, unit-producing buildings, and a research lab. The one innovation that SunAge adds to the equation is the upgrade module, which may be morphed into a defensive structure, or increase the population or resource cap. SunAge borrows (steals) a mechanic from Perimeter in that all buildings must either be adjacent or connected by power lines. This makes it so you can find enemy structures easily and speed up the end-game: a great feature, even if its not completely original.

A very important part of any strategy game is the user interface, and SunAge lacks a couple of important features. First, some good news: leaders can be attached to squads to increase their effectiveness, and partial squads can be combined to create a full-strength unit. You can also queue actions by holding down the shift key: movement, building, repair, and combat. In addition, you can preferentially attack certain enemy units (such as leaders) by clicking directly on them. Now, the bad news: you cannot select mixed units, like infantry and tanks. This drastically increases the micromanagement and, subsequently, annoyance found in the game. You can choose the facing of units and their formation by holding down the right mouse button (just like Rise of Nations), but it doesn't work very well at all, usually resulting in units strung out and facing the wrong way. The ever-important minimap scrolls in SunAge, a truly annoying “feature;” it is imperative to show the entire battlefield on the minimap, or what's the point? This, coupled with not being able to box-select diverse units, means SunAge tries its best to make the game hard to play.

Units in the game are very typical: infantry, tanks, armored personnel carriers, aircraft, and so on. There are some neat unit attributes, like bio-mechanical troops, but in the end there is nothing original here that would require new strategies that haven't been used in previous games. Special actions, like switching from regular rifles to sniper rifles, requires manual input, which (again) increases the micromanagement. Combat is a pure rock-paper-scissors system that is clearly listed in the detailed unit attributes, so if you've played any strategy game in the past 10 years, you'll figure out what to do here. The AI is just O.K.: they will attack aggressively, but computer opponents will also stop for no reason and make random, undirected attacks on occasion. The difficulty in the campaign results from being completely outnumbered, rather than using advanced tactics. This severe difficulty can't be changed, which makes SunAge appropriate for only the most hardened strategy veteran.

While SunAge has a couple of things going for it, its shortcomings overshadow any potential for satisfying strategic gameplay. There are definitely things I like: the base building, targeting specific units, and (gasp!) even the graphics (well, I don't hate them, so that's something). But there are more things I do not like: the static high difficulty, the poor interface, and the level of micromanagement. I don't mind a game that offers up some old-school charm, but it should come with at least a couple of new-school features. Apparently, SunAge had a whole bunch of nasty bugs when it was released, and, even with the latest version, they still crop up: making a free-for-all 4-player multiplayer game gives me an error message. So, in the end, SunAge is intended for a very specific crowd: experienced strategy gamers who would like a blast from the past in the present. Everyone else, look away.