Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Mosby's Confederacy Review

Mosby's Confederacy, developed and published by Tilted Mill Entertainment.
The Good: Lots of interesting and important character attributes, NPC growth through experience
The Not So Good: An abundance of recruits reduces concern over losses, inadequate minimap leads to a lot of dull searching, problems with attack-moves, can’t save mid-mission, very poor enemy AI, limited tactical map variety, outdated graphics with clipping problems, lacks polish
What say you? Potential not delivered in this incomplete and tedious budget strategy game: 4/8

Remember Mel Gibson in The Patriot? He led a rag-tag group of commoners against the evil British and their evil red coats of redness during the American Revolution. I’m not quite sure how historically accurate that may be, but it sure makes for some exciting over-the-top violence. Slightly closer to reality is Mosby's Confederacy, a strategy game that involves the exploits of John Singleton Mosby and his guerilla-like raids against Union supplies and troops. Rag-tag group? Check. Hit-and-run tactics? Check. Mel Gibson? Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

It was established by Tilted Mill’s previous game Hinterland that they are not aiming for spectacular graphics, and Mosby's Confederacy certainly delivers on that promise. The couple of highlights are good character models when viewed up close and satisfying rifle smoke after shots are taken. The rest: not so much. The environments are bland and repetitive, made even worse by the fact that there is only a handful used in the game so you would think the ones we get would have a better level of detail; at least the scenery changes with the seasons. The characters occasionally have animation problems, especially (surprisingly) Mosby himself, who continues to fire at defeated enemies long after they are dead. You also cannot zoom out very far (or at least far enough for my tastes) or tilt your view. Finally, there is a host of clipping problems: characters walking right through rocks and campfires without a care in the world. Even though the graphics are not the best, performance dips considerably once you’ve played a couple of games in a row. As for the sound, we get the same budget-level presentation: background wind, some theme music for the menus, and repetitive sound effects that occasionally just stop working. While not investing a lot of time into the graphics lets you get the game released faster, there is something to be said for a more polished, and subsequently more satisfying, presentation.

Mosby's Confederacy features a 24-turn, two year campaign where you lead a small group (under twenty) of units and harass Union forces by stealing supplies and killing them (I would find that highly annoying, myself). This game is single-player and only features the campaign mode, as you cannot engage in skirmish battles or randomized events outside of the campaign. You get to play until your two-year duty (heh, I said “duty”) is up or Mosby dies; if you score enough points by successfully completing mission objectives, then you are a winner! Mosby's Confederacy lacks a manual and a tutorial, but it does offer a short help file within the game. However, it mysteriously goes missing if you play a saved game; this is one indicator of Mosby's Confederacy's general lack of polish.

The strategic map covers the northwestern part of Virginia where the real-life Mosby operated. Each month, you are given three or so missions to choose from: intercepting supply wagons, capturing horses, or generic combat against unorganized Union forces. The objective locations are clearly marked for the first two types, but I absolutely abhor the combat missions, as the developers have kindly hidden enemy troops randomly all over the map and due to “poor scouting” you have no idea where they are. Talk about an exercise in tedium. The tents scattered around each map give no indication about where enemies might be placed; I guess the Union soldiers just light campfires everywhere for kicks. The combat missions are also the least useful, as the supply and horse missions add resources to your cause; munitions are used to field future missions and horses are used for intimidation and transportation. Resources are stored in towns; reputation can be used to upgrade town capacity, in addition to raising support, increase healing rates, and providing better weapons.

For a mission, you can use recruits that are located within surrounding towns. The game starts you out with a mix of exactly ten units in each town, and this is frankly too many to deal with. This means you don't “bond” with your troops and they become dispensable during a mission. It would have been better if the recruit pool grew as your commanding ability grew, so that you’d consistently see the same handful of support troops in the same area of engagement. By far the best aspect of Mosby's Confederacy is the unit special abilities: as units gain experience and level up (earn rank promotions), they will earn additional attributes like better rifle skills or improved morale, among many, many others. This makes for interesting strategic planning as you can use the subordinate troops with the most complimentary and useful mix of skills. Mosby himself can add a new skill each month, set up in a research tree; this gives the player flexibility and customization in planning how their leader will be used and how he will be effective.

Once you enter a battle, it's time for phase two of Mosby's Confederacy: the tactical battles. Most of the battles play out the same: you'll lead your troops to the objective locations (or across the entire map) and encounter unorganized enemy troops. Lather, rinse, repeat. Each battle is just like the last, usually happening on the same handful of maps (although the locations seem to be somewhat randomized). You are limited to five units in a control group, which results in a lot more micromanagement. You can give some basic instructions to your troops: where to move, which weapon to use, whether to charge. Right-clicking on an enemy unit after you have issued a movement order only occasionally results in the unit actually attacking, and units won't stop to engage if they are moving first. However, units without orders will move and engage enemy units in the area; really, all you have to do is place your units near an enemy encampment and let the game do the rest. The combat is, unfortunately, tedious and boring, requiring no real strategy, especially early in the game. When you get experienced troops with a lot of attributes later on, things do improve and become more interesting, however. The tedious battles are not helped by the uninformative minimap during the too-popular combat missions. How can I know that my objectives are exactly 47% complete, but I can’t get an informative minimap? There is no indication on the map as to where the enemy units may be in an eliminate mission, and the woefully inadequate minimap leads to a lot of tedious searching.

Mosby's Confederacy allows you to take on superior numbers of enemy troops by scattering them about each level to thin out their concentrations. The enemy AI is poor as well: mounted troops rarely charge or even move, and enemy units only work together if they were placed that way. Units will also comically keep firing even after the enemy unit is dead. Once you complete the objectives, it’s over: there is no need to go to the exit points (an unnecessary step I am glad was eliminated). You cannot save your game in the middle of a mission, because you obviously don't have anything important to do except play Mosby's Confederacy.

This, like Tilted Mill's previous game, is dripping with potential that is not realized, though Mosby's Confederacy comes off worse. The game's lack of polish inhibits the overall experience, from the rough graphics to animation glitches to general bugs. The outstanding unit attributes are overshadowed by the sheer number of friendly troops, meaning that you will only occasionally encounter familiar units. You get soldier names, but you so rarely play with the same town in a row, you forget about them. I was not impressed by the tactical battles, as they are all similar and quite tedious. There is too much searching for enemy troops in strange locations, and the battles are uninteresting thanks to poor AI. You also can't save mid-mission and the map variety could be a lot better. Things get more interesting further along, as your rank-and-file units gain experience and more attributes that you can tactically use during battle, but you'll have to complete a lot of generic missions before this point. The problems of Mosby's Confederacy could most likely be fixed by additional development, but its current state's problems overshadow any potential areas of innovation.