Sunday, March 29, 2009

Age of Booty Review

Age of Booty, developed by Certain Affinity and published by Capcom on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Straightforward mechanics, customizable multiplayer settings, map editor
The Not So Good: No coordination with AI allies, pooled resources can be monopolized by bad teammates, short respawn times grants no severe penalty for death, plentiful annoying town flipping, lacks depth, no server list for multiplayer
What say you? Numerous game balance problems hinder this casual strategy game: 5/8

Welcome, my friends, to the Age of Booty. This is a fortunate occurrence, since I like big butts and I cannot lie. You other brothers can’t deny that when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a round thing in your face you get a casual strategy game from Certain Affinity. This game came out almost six months ago on the XBOX 360 and the PlayStation 3 (whatever those things are), and now it’s finally the PC’s turn to enjoy some pirate-related terror on the moderately high seas. So grab your bottle of rum, hat, and whatever else stereotypical pirate item you can think of and set sail to Aruba, Jamaica, Bermuda, Bahama, Key Largo, Montego, and possibly Kokomo (if we have time).

The graphics of Age of Booty are not quite bootylicious. The game is very obviously hex-based because the landscapes and tiles don’t even attempt to hide this fact; compare this to a game such as Fantasy Wars that does an excellent job blending in the classic wargame layout with natural-looking environments. The game also lacks detail in all of the models, from the island tiles to the towns and ships. Combat animations aren’t impressive by any means, and only the occasional appearance of fire breaks up the monotony here. Water tiles do look nice, however. It should be noted that Age of Booty offers are very limited selection of screen resolutions: the highest you can use is 1280x760, so most people will be running Age of Booty in a window. I don’t expect Age of Booty to be comparable to Empire: Total War, but it should at least be at the same level as Pirates!, which came out in 2004. The audio design is much the same: you get your typical jaunty pirate music that is enjoyable enough with occasional repetitive sound effects for battles and in-game notifications. There is nothing notable or impressive about the graphics or the sound in Age of Booty: $10 it is.

Your task in the Age of Booty is to capture most (usually all) of the towns on a particular map by bombing the crap out of them. In terms of single player content, you get twenty-one levels equally spread across three difficulty levels. You can pick any of the game’s levels from the beginning: always a good option. Missions occasionally introduce a time limit or alternative objective to the primary mission of capturing all of the towns, which varies the experience at least somewhat. The more difficult levels usually involve being unfairly outnumbered by several AI opponents instead of presenting increasingly sophisticated behavior. As you can imagine, it can be quite difficult taking on multiple opponents with only one ship that can’t possibly protect all of your towns at once. Age of Booty is really geared more towards multiplayer play, and the game comes with twenty-three maps covering 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, and 2v2v2v2 matches. While Age of Booty uses Gamespy for matchmaking purposes, it lacks a server browser (instead opting for quick searching only); this wouldn’t be an issue is there were people actually playing the game. Or maybe there was, but I couldn’t ever find a game, and without a server browser, I’m not sure if it’s because the matchmaking software stinks (we’ve seen that before) or it’s because nobody is playing. In either case, I was never able to test out the multiplayer portion of Age of Booty since I never, ever found anyone to play against. That’s too bad, because Age of Booty seems like it would at least somewhat entertaining online, with server options for scoring and upgrades and fast-paced games. The game’s map editor is easy to use and would seem to promote diverse online games, but, alas, the servers are not very popular (or broken).

Age of Booty is very apparently a console port, and this rears its ugly head in the control scheme (and the lack of multiple resolution support I mentioned earlier). The game allows you to use the mouse, but I found scrolling the map to be very rough and inconsistent; using the keyboard to scroll added more difficulty since it used the current mouse position as reference for scrolling (very disorienting). Being used to smooth camera control in “real” strategy games like Dawn of War II makes the transition to Age of Booty difficult at best. Adding insult to injury was the laughably inept mini-map that can only be called up by pressing “shift” and cannot be clicked on. You can press “tab” to cycle through towns and “spacebar” to center on your ship, but friendly towns are commonly forgotten by the “tab” key so this method is a poor substitute for an informative mini-map.

Capturing towns (your primary objective) is easy: get in an adjacent hex and the game takes care of the rest. All combat in Age of Booty is automated: your ship will engage any enemy or neutral object (towns, ships) in adjacent hexes. While having automated combat makes the game easier to play, only having one ship to worry about makes this an unnecessary simplification; Dawn of War II automates combat as well, but you can still use special abilities for a more strategically pleasing result. Retreating back to your home base or any friendly town will reheal your ship over time (yet another Dawn of War II parallel), although going back to your base will do this faster. Towns supply resources that are used for ship and town upgrades. Wood and ale are used to improve your ship’s cannons, armor, or speed, each of which can be improve three times. Wood and gold are used to increase town health and attack rating. One curious game design decision is the sharing of resources: anyone on your team can use the accumulated wood, gold, or ale to upgrade their ships or friendly towns. Since ship upgrades can only be done at the home base, a poor teammate who camps at home while everyone does all the work can steal all of the upgrades for themselves. Not only could human players do this, but AI allies do routinely steal your hard-earned resources for themselves. Dawn of War II (there’s that game again) shares resource rates, but not resources, allowing people to work together but still compensate for a greedy teammate.

In addition to towns, resources can be earned by blowing up natives (compassion was not a factor during the Age of Booty, apparently) or collecting randomly-placed crates and those from sunk enemy ships. Merchant ships (also known as “moving targets”) can be blown up to earn curses, special powers that be used on the map. These curses (a bomb, whirlpool, ghost ship, and resource pilfer) are generally unimpressive and restricted in their scope, but a well-placed whirlpool (which warps a ship to a random location on the map) can drastically affect the game. There are a number of game balance problems that make Age of Booty less enjoyable overall. The first: towns are too easily captured. Because movement speeds are generally slow (and maps large) and you only have one ship, you must rely on town defenses to maintain your economy. The problem is that towns cannot defend against any enemy attack, even against an unimproved enemy ship with a fully-upgraded town. This means you’ll have to constantly maintain a mobile defense using your own ship; this leads to a lot of stalemates as both teams cannot capture additional towns without leaving their own vulnerable. On the flip side, since ships can be rehealed next to towns, a ship-town combination is impossible to attack without good teammates (a rarity). This is further magnified by having no penalty for death: it’s often faster to die and respawn than to spend 30 seconds rehealing. Where’s the strategy in that? I’ve never played a game that’s actually promoted losing. Dying is a common occurrence, thanks to AI allies that have their own agenda and cannot be given orders. Considering that Age of Booty is all (and only) about positioning, not being able to tell your AI friends where to go is a significant shortcoming. The AI enemies coordinate very easily amongst themselves, leaving you to experience the wetness of Davy Jones’s Locker.

Age of Booty ultimately suffers, I think, from being too simple. There’s something to be said for easily-approachable gameplay, but not at the expense of strategic depth. The non-interactive combat leaves a lot to be desired. Pooled resources favors an uncooperative teammate, human or AI. Upgraded towns are no match for one ship, so they must be constantly guarded (impossible on large maps). And I’m not sure I like a game that promotes suicide as a viable strategy. While the enemy AI puts up a good challenge, but your allies are not as talented and they love to spend your hard-earned resources. The lack of coordination with AI allies makes the single player campaign overly difficult. Multiplayer, while offering a large number of maps and settings, lacks a server browser, a death sentence for a seemingly unpopular game. Let me see if there’s anyone playing before I waste precious minutes searching for games that don’t exist (I could have been killing Tyranids, darn it). Age of Booty lets you move and spend, and that’s it; this minimalism is the game’s downfall.