Saturday, January 24, 2009

Space War Commander Review

Space War Commander, developed and published by Dreamspike Studios.
The Good: Very easy to learn with simple controls, straightforward economics and production, tough AI, randomly generated gauntlet maps
The Not So Good: High level of difficulty cannot be adjusted, simplicity eliminates alternative strategies, too easy for AI to turtle, archaic 2-D graphics, lacks multiplayer
What say you? A light but exceptionally challenging strategy game: 5/8

While the big budget strategy game might be on its way out, we can still rely on independent developers to satisfying our strategic cravings. There have always been a number of complicated strategy titles, but a recent trend has put the focus on streamlined games that are more approachable and intended for a wider audience. While insanely complex games certainly have their place, it's nice to play a more casual title every once in a while. That's the focus of Space War Commander, which removes base building and research in favor of income rates and capturing planets. Does this approach work?

Space War Commander looks very, very old. The game features completely 2-D graphics, which I don't have a problem with: you can have rather nice 2-D games, including ones set in space. Space War Commander does not take advantage of its setting to produce compelling graphics. Space strategy games can look quite nice, but the essentially fixed resolution (using higher settings simply results in additional blank space on the sides of the screen) and small icons make it difficult to visually identify useful information quickly. Add in very simplistic battle effects (lines) and we have a very limited package indeed. The sound design is also very limited with a handful of notification effects and some minimalist music, rounding out a very unimpressive gaming environment. I can certainly look past the graphics and sound in strategy games, but it's always nicer to have an impressive looking game, and Space War Commander certainly is not one of those.

As in pretty much every real time strategy game, the object of Space War Commander is to eradicate the galaxy of any opposition (isn’t genocide wonderful?). You are limited in the amount of time that you have to do so, since all bases slowly self-destruct over time; because of this, most games in Space War Commander last no more than fifteen minutes. There are two main modes of play: conquest mode, which provides a series of missions (including a guided tutorial), and gauntlet mode with chains of randomly generated maps. You are allowed to skip past five of the missions in the conquest mode if you find the mission too difficult (and you will). The maps in the conquest mode provide a good variety of mission types and objectives and each one requires a different strategy. The gauntlet mode gives you a series of random maps, each of which can contain any number of enemy bases, planets, and asteroids. You are given a cache of money at the beginning of the map set that must last through all of the levels: fairly interesting. You can’t design your own maps (or set specific guidelines to follow, such as a particular number of enemies), but the random nature of the gauntlet mode provides a good amount of replay value. Space War Commander lacks multiplayer, such is quite surprising since the straightforward design of the game and the amount of random maps seems perfect for online play. It’s odd to encounter the strategy game that lacks multiplayer features, as this tends to extend the life of the title. As it stands, you are stuck playing against the AI in Space War Commander.

Space War Commander makes things very straightforward and easy for the strategy game novice by stripping away a lot of the ancillary materials that bloat a lot of RTS titles. The only resource is money, and money is earned by controlling planets (by placing at least one ship on them) or by trade. Trading involves sending a freighter from a planet that produces a good to a neutral port and it provides a given amount of funds. Setting up infinite trading routes is easy: hold down the TAB key as you set up three waypoints (the planet, the port, and the planet again). You can also trade goods for better goods at a planet and create a sort of chained economy. Money is in turned used to buy new ships: there is no research (all ships are initially unlocked), no structures, and no other improvements to worry about. Space War Commander is certainly one of the most simplistic strategy games to be released in recent memory: its intuitive nature makes it perfect for new players or those looking for a clear-cut approach to the genre.

There are seven ships you can purchase in Space War Commander. They differ in terms of cost, speed, damage, and armor. Some also have special properties: scavengers earn $5 for each enemy ship destroyed, freighters can carry goods, and bombers receive a bonus against bases. The remainder of the ships fall into the typical categories: fast and cheap, slow and expensive, and somewhere in between. All ships are constructed at your base, and ships located at the same planet are automatically grouped together, although you can issue orders to parts of the group if you wish through the interface. A fleet will move at the speed of its slowest member, so it’s typically prudent to split up your ships according to movement rates. The interface puts everything on the main screen and its easily accessible: you can build without selecting your base, and you can view members of a fleet easily. Space War Commander also comes with speed options, from “slow” and “fast” to a warp setting that skips ahead a significant amount of time. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that a relatively simple game has a simple but effective interface, but this is an area of the game design that a lot of strategy games screw up, so it’s nice to see that Space War Commander handles it well.

Ships will automatically engage enemy ships located in the same sector, removing micromanagement induced by most games in the genre. Ships can be ordered to disengage by right-clicking on their icon: they will not receive any additional damage but they will not attack either. Since damage is dealt out randomly, those people who enjoy tactical battles will feel limited by Space War Commander. Personally, I like having the game handle combat automatically anyway, so I found the use of automated combat in Space War Commander to be a good feature. Damaged ships will automatically repair if they are not moving.

I suppose that Space War Commander is best described as a streamlined version of Sins of a Solar Empire; this was the game that first came to mind while playing Space War Commander, only in the sense of the long travel times and allowing time to react to an attack. This is one tough game: I had a very tough time completing the second tutorial level. I’m no slouch at strategy games (I review enough of them), and I’ve attributed the difficulty of Space War Commander to several factors. First, the game design makes it very easy to defend with a lot of ships. In that second tutorial level, the AI just kept all of their ships at the home base and sent out single bombers at my base. Since I had to spread out my ships in order to collect a stream of resources, I could never mount an effective attack against their superior position. Secondly, you don’t have much time to become economically superior before your base explodes, especially if the AI keeps sending bombers at you (which it will). The lack of base defenses makes annoying sneak attacks a disturbingly effective strategy. The AI is repetitive, though: it’s clear that the AI for most levels (at least in the conquest mode) was given specific instructions that are predictable after a while. You never have enough money to hold all of the planets that would give you a significant advantage, and the slow pace of the ships and short time limit do not mix well, resulting in a lot of stalemates instead of interesting strategic gameplay. I think in this sense the simplicity of Space War Commander works against it, making the game feel more like a grind than a varied experience.

Space War Commander strips away most of the conventions of real-time strategy games and it almost works. The interface is trouble-free, the economics are very basic, and the game as a whole is very novice-friendly. It takes minutes to learn the entirety of the game, and Space War Commander still maintains some level of strategic variety, as you must decide how much money to spend on defensive ships, offensive operations, and trade. Space War Commander inexplicably lacks multiplayer; while there probably wouldn’t be hordes of people online, the short game times and simple mechanics would be ideal for an online environment. While some people will not like the complete removal of resource collection, buildings, and research, the simplistic mechanics of Space War Commander is a refreshing take in a genre that seems to offer increasingly more complicated games. Of course, the lack of defensive structures means you’ll be relying solely on your ships, and you never have enough ships to cover all of your interests. This leads to a lot of stalemate games, as either side can really only effectively cover about half of the map before spreading themselves too thin. Space War Commander frustrates me, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Seriously, you shouldn’t have a tough time with a tutorial level, especially if you are versed in strategy games. The AI seems to play fair; the game just doesn’t give you enough time to utilize your economic advantage before your base explodes. I suppose I could use the same cheap “spam bombers at the enemy base” strategy the AI does, but where’s the fun in that? Space War Commander is a good attempt at a more efficient real-time strategy game, but the lack of several features and balancing issues makes it more trouble than it should be.