Sunday, November 23, 2008

Iron Grip: Warlord Review

Iron Grip: Warlord, developed and published by Isotx.
The Good: Very challenging and requires team coordination, both first person combat and strategic defensive placements, plentiful upgrades based on performance, chaotic fun
The Not So Good: Can’t play as the offense, brain-dead AI doesn’t cooperate well or engage vehicles in single player, only a handful of structures, enemy vehicles are overpowered
What say you? A semi-interesting defensive shooter-strategy hybrid that feels more like a mod than a full game...but it's still pretty fun online: 5/8

The movie 300 shows that sometimes its fun to defend against high numbers of invading attackers and mow them all down (the Spartans did win that battle, right?). The defensive side of the gaming equation has only gotten sporadic attention in the form of strategy games like Stronghold and unfairly balanced first person shooters like the Serious Sam series. Most of the time, even in assault games, there are people on both sides fighting for freedom (and usually screaming about it). This (I think) brings us to Iron Grip: Warlord, a defensive game where you and a team of buddies defend against an AI invasion by building defensive structures and shooting people in the face. The Isotx team previously developed a total conversion mod for Half-Life 2 which, as far as I can tell, is significantly different from Iron Grip: Warlord except for the setting and the combination of both first person shooter and real-time strategy gaming.

Visually, Iron Grip: Warlord is very similar to pretty much any other independently-produced, lower-priced ($25) first person shooter: good but certainly not great. The game is very reminiscent of both Rising Eagle and War Rock, although Iron Grip: Warlord looks slightly better overall. The towns contain a varied assortment of buildings, enough that each map is distinctive. The character models, although they lack completely fluid animations, are detailed enough. The weapons have a nice retro-futuristic touch to them, going with the overall theme of the game. Fire effects are done well and are convincing. The structures that you will construct look better at a distance, as the textures aren't quite as good as you would like. Overall, Iron Grip: Warlord just lacks the upper-level polish and fine detail that top-of-the-line first person shooters have. The sound is pretty typical for the genre: combat sounds with weapons and vehicles combined with the ever-present whistle of incoming troops. Nobody will get blown away with the quality of Iron Grip: Warlord's presentation, but it gets the job done.

Iron Grip: Warlord is a purely defensive game, where you must protect your stronghold against an insane number of enemy troops. While you can play with AI bots, there is no real point to playing single player due to a lack of coordination and cooperation. The AI bots will fill out missing players in online play anyway, and since you have to download the game to begin with, I doubt many people will mess with the single player aspect of Iron Grip: Warlord. This ignorance is further increased by the lack of a single player campaign, although with one six maps, a linked campaign probably won't last too long anyway. Joining a multiplayer match is a breeze, as the in-game browser shows the usual information like ping and the number of players on each server in addition to the difficulty level: a great feature.

The gameplay of Iron Grip: Warlord comes in two flavors: first person shooting (where you will be spending most of your time) and real time strategy. This has been done before in another online game, Savage 2, but this game's more defensive tilt makes it stand out. You will constantly earn power, either over time or killing enemies, that can be used to purchase personal upgrades or build defensive structures. Iron Grip: Warlord gives you a large assortment of weapons to choose from (rifles, machine guns, flame throwers, rockets), although the lower-level weapons (namely the light machine guns) and default musket are not very good. Interesting is the fact that the heavy machine gun must be placed (either in a crouched position or on a wall or window) before it can be fired; I can't remember another game balancing the weapon in that fashion. In addition to more weapons, you can upgrade your character with health, damage, rehealing, or speed improvements. Iron Grip: Warlord gives you the freedom to customize your character during the game in the way you see fit and the role the team needs: slow machine gunner, fast sniper, or any combination thereof. It's refreshing to eliminate boring classes and give the user the freedom to choose their character role.

You can also use earned power to construct things. These come in several flavors: turrets (for both people and tanks), traps, and support structures. There are only seven to choose from, so the variety of strategies is somewhat limited. You can upgrade a structure by clicking on it and devoting some additional power; the manual fails to mention how to do this, so I had to ask the developer directly. I feel that the developers could have provided a more interesting mix of exotic structures, considering the setting. As it stands, pretty much everyone just spams machine gun turrets and equips themselves with rockets to deal with the vehicles. Then, just have one person place a nearby support station at a chokepoint and you essentially have unlimited ammunition and health. If you can attain this level of coordination and planning, defeating the incoming horde becomes almost trivial. Unfortunately, the AI doesn't fare so well against armored opponents, so a couple of tanks are serious concerns in single player games. While the enemy is trying to cause damage to your stronghold, the only way to defeat their advances is to assassinate the officer. While all regular enemy (and friendly) units are constantly depicted on the radar, the officer is only placed once you see them. You'll need to kill about four to five of them in order to complete the mission. While they are tougher than the regular units, you do get a huge power bonus for defeating them and you get to take their powerful minigun and turn it against them. Overall, I found Iron Grip: Warlord to be easy on easy (with linear enemy paths and less of them to deal with), hard on medium (multiple paths and vehicles), and “don't ask” on hard. The game is much better online with humans that are smart, and coming up with a good plan and executing it successfully is satisfying. Iron Grip: Warlord certainly has a Serious Sam-style quality to it, as mowing down countless (well, the game keeps track of your stats) enemy units is pretty fun. The enemy AI is not smart, but it doesn't need to be as long as you are playing online. When you are doing single-player action, however, you will miss competent allies and the poor AI will make anything above easy difficulty almost impossible. Speaking of almost impossible, the enemy vehicles difficult to bring down and require a lot of rocket launchers from hidden positions.

While it may not be the most in-depth shooter on the market, Iron Grip: Warlord would provide some fun for defensively-minded gamers. The real-time strategy aspect of the game could benefit from more structure variety, possibly calling in airstrikes or varied building attributes; see Enemy Territory: Quake Wars for a more well-rounded structure-based shooter. I do like how you can customize your attributes and weapons at will without being restricted by arbitrary classes. Being a fast-moving sniper is a much different experience than a slow-moving but heavily-armored rocketeer. You can't play the game on the offense, something that might prove to be interesting: imagine one player as the enemy officer against everyone else. Single player is pointless due to the poor AI, but joining a multiplayer game is very easy and the game puts all of the pertinent information on the browser list. I certainly spent more time playing the game than the rating might reflect (even after having finished the review) and had fun doing it when I found competent people to fight along with. Plus, Iron Grip: Warlord is still installed on my hard drive, which is better off than most games. This is a budget-priced shooter that certainly provides budget-priced fun, though there are some small areas that could use improvement.