Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Zatikon Review

Zatikon, developed and published by Chronic Logic.
The Good: Lots of unique units beget varied strategies, in-game chat makes it easy to find opponents, numerous game modes, multi-platform
The Not So Good: Unit icons need to indicate owner more clearly, no tutorial, bland graphics
What say you? A flexible multiplayer tactical strategy game that thrives on unit variety: 6/8

With an increased use of digital media, some PC games have left brick-and-mortar shelves in favor of exclusive online distribution. There are a lot of great games out there that you simply won’t find in stores. These can range from small, browser-only casual games to more sophisticated strategy titles, role-playing games, and first person shooters. Zatikon (what do you mean that’s misspelled, red underline?) is a tactical strategy game from low-voltage-but-high-fun developer/publisher Chronic Logic, the company responsible for a bunch of bridge building games plus this one and this one that they published. You know that I am always up for a good strategy game, so let’s see what the strangely-named Zatikon has to offer.

Unfortunately for Zatikon, we have to talk about the graphics. Zatikon is a Java-based application, and partly because of that is has uninspired 2-D graphics. The entire game plays out on a chess board, rather than semi-realistic terrain that could still use a chess board layout. The units are small and sometimes it’s really difficult to tell who is on which team as the warring factions are only differentiated with subtle hints of red and blue. A partial shading of the icon’s background would help immensely: look here and tell me which team the horse in the bottom left is on. Heck if I know. The sound fares better, if only for the pleasing music that I do enjoy. While I do not mind low-rent graphics, when they hinder the gameplay, I do have a problem.

In Zatikon, you attempt to capture the enemy base by moving one of your units into it. While this game is designed to be an online multiplayer experience, there are several ways of playing Zatikon. If there is nobody to play against, you can take on the computer in single player action. The AI opponent has unlimited units and starts out trivially easy, but the frequency of unit spawns and level of aggression increases with each successive game. It’s pretty easy to find other opponents since Zatikon comes with an in-game chat feature and selecting a game type will search for others who are also searching for others (huh?). The “standard” mode of play is a constructed match, where two pre-designed armies will clash for battlefield superiority. You can also assign a random army to each side by playing a random match; while this does let you practice with a wide variety of units, it may result in an unbalanced game. Cooperative matches let you and a friend take on the computer, involving something called “team work.” Your army can consist of 1000 points (you can have up to ten armies saved at a time), and each of the units in the game are assigned a point value based on how good they are. This prevents an experienced player from fielding a superior army simply because they have unlocked those units. You can’t field just any units, however: first, they must be unlocked by spending gold you earn by winning matches. The units that are unlocked are picked at random, so there is an element of chance introduced there. Zatikon lacks an in-game tutorial, but the game isn’t very complicated for anyone accustomed to strategy games and the online manual does a good enough job. One advantage of Zatikon’s Java roots is that the game will run on any “real” operating system: Linux, Macintosh, and even that niche product, Windows.

Zatikon has a lot of units: archers, black mages, clergy, commanders, horsemen, nature, scouts, shapeshifters, siege, soldiers, structures, white mages, and wyrms. And that’s just the classes, as there are typically four to six types in each class. There aren’t just cosmetic changes within and across the classes, either: it’s more than just more powerful attacks and health. Most of the non-conventional units have a special ability or three that make them special, such as sprouting serpents or switching places with an enemy unit. There are too many to mention, mainly because I forget a lot of them and the online list isn’t up yet. I will say that the special abilities are pretty well balanced, as there aren’t many “must have” units that I have come across yet that don’t have a possible counter. Each unit does have more standard attributes: life (health), power (attack), armor (armor), deploy cost, and actions per turn.

Zatikon is turn-based, and you start out with five commands (moves) per turn, but this can be increased by moving tacticians (or a similar unit) onto the battlefield. Thankfully, each person is limited to a 90-second turn, cutting down on the game time which is already pretty short (a typical game takes 10-15 minutes I would say). The large variety of units makes for some really innovative and truly unique strategies, and it’s quite satisfying to watch a plan develop successfully during your turn. The special abilities and unit attributes make for a wide range of viable tactics, and no two games will play out the same. There is no “build order” or preferred army composition, and this amount of flexibility makes Zatikon far more sophisticated than a lot of big-budget real time strategy games. Zatikon reminds me a lot of Dominions 3: a simple game graphically that has an intriguing strategic underbelly thanks to a diverse selection of units (although Zatikon is a couple of notches below that stellar title overall).

Zatikon is a fun little strategy game. The highlight of the product is the variety of units and their subsequent variety of abilities and attributes, and assuming you can look past the pedestrian graphics, then a quality strategy title is contained herein. The diverse selection of units is beyond the typical model change and stat alterations: there are some really unique units to deploy and a range of strategies to play with. Add in a handful of different game modes, a straightforward method of joining games, and multiple operating system support, and we have a strategy title with above-average longevity. While it would be nice for the game to come with cutting-edge graphics, it’s not necessary, although differentiating between each side’s units should be easier. I think that if the game came with high production values from a large publisher, Zatikon would be a hit and get a ton of press. Still, Zatikon is easy to learn and should prove to be a good game for those looking to get their feet wet in the turn-based multiplayer tactical strategy genre.