Thursday, September 18, 2008

Multiwinia Review

Multiwinia, developed and published by Introversion Software.
The Good: Numerous game modes with customizable rules, speedy action-oriented gameplay, several viable strategies per game, simplified controls, distinctive graphics and sound, competitive AI, bonus crates for unpredictability
The Not So Good: Can't customize control scheme, all game modes are essentially the same and some are poorly balanced, randomized (or weighted in the loser’s favor) crates can dramatically (and unfairly) impact the outcome, no random maps or editor, lacks end-game stats
What say you? A real time strategy game for those want their action fast and furious: 7/8

Strategy games can be roughly divided into two categories: “slow” and “fast.” Sometimes you want an experience that progresses at a methodical pace like Europa Universalis or Sins of a Solar Empire, and sometimes you’ll prefer a quicker game like World in Conflict or Company of Heroes. There’s something for everyone, unless you don’t like strategy games, in which case you’re reading the wrong site. On the fast side of the strategy balance is Multiwinia, the latest game by Introversion, the developer responsible for DEFCON and Darwinia. Since they are porting Darwinia to something called an Xbox 360 (yeah, I’ve never heard of it, either), they needed to include a multiplayer aspect to the game, and thus Multiwinia was born.

Multiwinia retains the retro style of Darwinia: 80’s-style 3-D landscapes with a minimalist presentation. The result is an effective theme of an early computerized world. The look is certainly distinct; even though the graphics are simple, they are well designed from the flat Multiwinians to the in-game objects. The explosions and fire effects are also done well, making you almost feel sorry for all of the little digital people you are slaughtering. Almost. Despite what would seem to be simple graphics, Multiwinia has surprisingly high system resource use: while low settings can be used on a wide range of machines, high settings brought lower-than-expected performance. Multiwinia doesn’t really have any music (and certainly not the memorable theme from DEFCON), but does include a host of battle effects and screaming that is disturbingly beautiful in a disturbing way...disturbingly. No game looks and sounds quite like Multiwinia (well, except for Darwinia).

As you could probably tell from the title, Multiwinia focuses on multiplayer and lacks a single player campaign or story, just like Sins of a Solar Empire. However, you can play any of the game modes against the AI, and I’ll comment on its effectiveness later. The two tutorials, along with the manual, teach the basics about the game; in addition, all of the game modes are preceded with short explanations right before the match starts. It still takes a couple of matches to understand what’s going on, since there is rarely time to sit around and do nothing (games last 10-15 minutes by default). Each of the six game modes come with eight to ten maps with a maximum of four players: while this is a good number, the lack of randomized maps and an editor means Multiwinia can get repetitive after a while with the same old maps. Multiwinia comes with plenty of options to tailor your game experience: time limit, scoring mode, starting powers, sudden death, AI difficulty, reinforcements, armored units, turrets, and crates can all be customized. You can also introduce handicaps to help out losing players, increasing their spawn rate and giving them more powerful crates. While these are completely optional, they are on by default so they likelihood of them being activated online is high. Handicapping is generally unfair (which is the point): 2nd place gets frequent super powerful weapons to promote a comeback and keep certain victory for the leader just out of reach. For some reason, all of the time you spend customizing your rules is lost, as the game resets all of the options after each match.

Unlike the typical strategy game that only contains one (or maybe two) game mode, Multiwinia comes with six that take a lot of their cues from first person shooters like Unreal Tournament (not UT3, the good ones before it). All of the game modes are all essentially the same (capture stuff), but the way you go about capturing stuff is varied. Domination mode involves controlling spawn points where new Multiwinians will appear periodically; it is the most straightforward of the modes and also the least interesting in the long run. King of the Hill adds zones to occupy as an additional objective; you’ll have to balance gaining points by occupying the zones and capturing spawn points to gain additional troops. Capture the Statue presents a heavy object that must be lifted back to your base, similar to capture the flag. This mode usually concentrates the action to a specific location (where the statues is) and can introduce some tense back-and-forth action. Blitzkrieg is similar (identical?) to onslaught from Unreal Tournament: linked flags must be captured in succession. This mode has worked well in other games and it’s fun here, too; the action is concentrated to a couple of key locations at a time, instead of spreading out the carnage as in the previous modes. Rocket riot involves a three step process: capture solar panels to fuel your rocket, load Multiwinians onto the rocket, and then launch. It can be extremely difficult to stop a launch once the rocket is fueled, since the rockets are guarded by turrets and the person in the lead is in the lead for a reason. This mode is better in theory than it is in practice, since the winner has really been determined once fueling is complete unless its really close. Lastly, assault (UT, anyone?) puts one person on offense with lots of reinforcements against a fixed defender with lots of turrets, and then the sides switch to see who can do it faster. If the attacker fails to destroy the objective within the time limit, the defender automatically wins without having to switch sides. I found the assault mode unfairly favors the defender: not only do they get turrets that are difficult to defeat without the use of crate powers, but the defender also initially owns most of the land area and gets almost all of the crates! If anything, the attacker should get the nod, so that you can actually reach the objective in the fixed 15-minute time period. You waste so much time throwing troops at almost impenetrable turrets that assault mode isn’t very much fun. While none of these modes are terribly original, it is unique to see them all together in a real time strategy game.

There isn’t any resource collection per se in Multiwinia, but controlling the spawn points located around the map will create new units. A feature that serves up some variety is the inclusion of crates that drop in from the sky. These can either appear in random locations or be weighted in favor of the loser to allow for a comeback. There are a lot of crates that can appear, and not all of them are good. You can get APCs, turrets, bombs, meteor strikes, nuclear subs (a reference to DEFCON), and air strikes as more conventional weapons. A number of creatures can be hatched by placing eggs, ant hills, or by chance. You can also unfortunately find infections, fire, or trees that can catch on fire. The possibility of finding something horrible decreases the amount of troops you’ll want to commit to capturing a crate, although the more troops there are the faster it will become yours. You can save deployable items for a more opportune time and really take it to the enemy. More exotic crate items can be disabled by selecting the “basic crates only” option before a game starts. A significant, powerful crate early on in the game can doom your chances of victory: a nuclear barrage or an ant hive placed near your initial spawn point will almost certainly mean defeat. The tactical aid system from World in Conflict would probably work well here, removing the luck associated with the crate drops. Since kills aren't used for anything (they are just a by-product of the objectives), you could incorporate them into getting good crate drops or even specifying which crates to receive, saving up for more powerful attacks. This wouldn't have to be the only way to play the game, just an additional option for those who wanted more strategic options instead of pure chance. The APC units (called “armor” in the game) are necessary to traverse the large maps in an expedient manner, and the powerful turrets (in regular, rocket, and flame varieties) are difficult to mount an attack against (the main reason that assault mode is unbalanced). You can control a turret manually in a first person shooter mode; this has been tried in other games and it’s completely unnecessary here since the AI will do a fine job and you can’t keep track on how your troops are doing elsewhere.

You can tell that the control scheme of Multiwinia was designed for an Xbox controller (whatever that thing is), as the inputs are relegated to using the mouse buttons (left click select, right click move or order), tab (select special ability), and shift (move) exclusively. This simplicity makes it easy to learn how the game is controlled, but strategy veterans will surely miss copious amounts of keyboard shortcuts and you cannot change or modify the controls in any way. Officers can be promoted by right-clicking on any Multiwinian: officers can give move orders to subordinate units by right-clicking on a destination, or assemble units into formation for more effective offense and organization by right-clicking next to the officer. APCs can be toggled between loading and unloading troops by pressing the right mouse button. Multiwinia also has a really innovative selection designed for one click: just hold down the left mouse button to circle-select troops near the pointer. It’s an elegant way to working around the typical box selection method and works well for choosing troops in a small area. The bottom of the screen lists all your available crate items that can be selected by using tab (or just clicking on them); I would like officers to be added to the list, although the icon size would have to be decreased. Multiwinia does an excellent job showing important objects on and off the screen using clear, large icons.

Joining a multiplayer game is a straightforward affair: all games are placed in one listing. You cannot join a game already in progress, even if you would be replacing an AI player. AI players will take over for dropped players, though. In another strange shortcoming, you cannot chat or say that you are ready in the game lobby; these features are enabled once you enter a game, but not being able to communicate with others in your server before the game begins is very weird. The peer-to-peer games offer some lag, depending on how far away the other players are, but I have not experienced the degree of connection problems seen in the early versions of DEFCON; having a maximum of four players probably helps. Playing against others is a blast, as the chaotic pace of the game really makes the time fly by. There is hardly any waiting in the game for, say, resources to accumulate, a common pitfall in the strategy genre. It’s all action all the time. You also have to make tough decisions on where to send your troops: a spawn point, a scoring location, or both? If you don’t want to embarrass yourself online, you can play against the AI. The computer on “hard” can be a challenge, but it's still not aggressive enough at the beginning of the match, tending to fall behind early. The AI is poorest in assault, there it features uncoordinated attacks that are quite easily defended; this may have more to due with the level design than shortcomings with the AI, however. Team games with the AI are essentially pointless: since you cannot communicate or give generic orders (defend or go here) to your computer ally, you just have to react to what they are doing. Troops are fairly self-sufficient: Multiwinians will capture locations and crates on their own without direct intervention, which helps a lot when tons of things are going on at once. Pathfinding is decent: troops will go around water and some obstacles but they have problems with mountains. Multiwinia lacks end-game stats other than the winning score: a surprising limitation.

So after all of those words (2,350 to be exact), what’s the end result? Multiwinia is very good but not great. The mechanics of the game can result in some fantastic strategic gaming, and those who thought World in Conflict was too slow will enjoy the breakneck pace of Multiwinia. However, each good thing usually comes with a small “but.” The game modes offer enough variety to produce some favorites, but they are similar and the assault mode heavily favors the defender, resulting in a lot of stalemates. The control scheme is simple for a real time strategy game, but it cannot be customized to your liking. Some very interesting crate items can be gathered, but they can be too powerful and influence the result too heavily. The AI can be competitive on the hardest setting, but it’s a slow starter. Joining a multiplayer game is easy, but you can’t chat until you’ve entered the game. The graphics are unique, but they are more power hungry than you would think. There are eight to ten maps per game mode, but there is no editor. Units can do some actions on their own, but the occasional pathfinding oddity can be annoying. And there is all of this wonderful violence, but Multiwinia lacks end-game (or online) stats. See what I mean? Admittedly, most (if not all) of these shortcomings are minor at best, but they add up to a slightly less-than-perfect overall experience. Multiwinia is a blast to play and the random crates breathe some unpredictability into each contest, but it’s a couple of features short of being a top-notch product.