Monday, April 06, 2009

Elven Legacy Review

Elven Legacy, developed by 1С:Ino-Co and published by 1C Company and Paradox Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Sort-of non-linear campaign, improved interface, new units, Internet multiplayer, map editor, solid gameplay remains
The Not So Good: No drastic improvements from last time
What say you? Not much has changed since Fantasy Wars, but it’s still a good turn-based strategy game: 6/8

Russia and its associated former provinces have proven to be quite the good source of quality PC games, with recent examples being Men of War and King’s Bounty. Another one of the better PC games to come out of Russia was Fantasy Wars, a generically-named turn-based strategy game that was approachable to beginners but still delivered the depth we so desire. The series is back with a new international publisher and a new name: Elven Legacy. The Elves come to the forefront, with their legacy and whatnot, to kill things in a hex-based format. Has the series improved a little over a year later?

Elven Legacy shows how to make a hex-based game look good (counter-example). The game features bright and colorful graphics that look great close up and far away. The environments are great and filled with details like trees, mountains, and towns. Only rarely do the hex-based layouts become obvious: Elven Legacy does a great job blending this mechanic naturally into the map. The high level of quality extends to the units, which look great at any angle. The well-over-100 units have detailed models and textures and they are easily identified thanks to using a single large representative unit for squads when viewed from a distant perspective. Elven Legacy adds full-screen anti-aliasing for an even-better visual experience. In terms of sound design, Elven Legacy delivers a solid package: appropriate if sporadic battle effects, fine background music, and voice acting that is certainly better than some other Russian imports. The background music is enjoyable, rounding out a solid-but-not-impressive sound package. Elven Legacy is a game that sheds the stigma associated with the “hex-based” moniker, though, as the game looks fantastic.

So you have Fantasy Wars and would like to know what’s new in Elven Legacy. The short answer is not that much: a new Elves campaign that is on the short side, interface improvements, Internet play, and better AI. While the interface improvements do make playing the game much easier, the foul elimination of the old campaigns reduces the content of Elven Legacy. This is definitely more like an expansion than a true sequel, so it’s difficult to recommend this game to people who already have Fantasy Wars. At least Elven Legacy is $30 instead of fully-priced.

As you might imagine from a game called Elven Legacy, the campaign centers around the Elves. This time around, instead of having three campaigns centering around all of the game’s races, you only get one ten-mission campaign that uses thirteen missions. How’s that, you ask? The game is slightly non-linear: there are three instances where you get to choose your next mission (two choices each time). This certainly isn’t as dynamic or user-dependent as in other strategy games, so the “non-linear” selling point is a bit dubious. There are also five more missions that are unlocked by earning “gold” in specific campaign missions (completing them in a set amount of turns). After you run through the campaign twice (to play all the missions and unlock everything), you can enjoy the seven single missions or multiplayer. This time around, in addition to hot seat and LAN play, you can actually play over the Internet and search for available games: welcome to 1996, Elven Legacy! This being a review of a game that isn’t out yet, however, I cannot say how smooth Internet matchmaking is, but the interface looked like standard fare. There are sixteen multiplayer maps to choose from supporting two to four players. Instead of opting for simple “deathmatch” rules, most maps have a central objective that must be achieved; this is a nice integration of campaign concepts and beyond the typical strategy game online offerings. For some reason, the AI cannot play against you in all of the missions (only about half): a strange limitation. Elven Legacy comes with the same watch-a-movie-then-do-that tutorials from Fantasy Wars, identical in every respect (even referring to the original game by name at the conclusion). Elven Legacy also apparently comes with a map editor where you can create your own levels, although you must select the option from the installer. I don’t know why it just isn’t installed by default, and since I did not know this while installing and I am not spending another six hours downloading the entire game just for the editor, I cannot authenticate its usefulness. But it’s there, they say.

The gameplay, not surprisingly, is eerily similar to Fantasy Wars. The developers have not made any changes at all to the core gameplay: this turn-based game allows one land and one flying unit per hex, and each unit can move and attack once each turn. Each scenario has objectives that usually revolve around capturing towns or reaching specific locations on the map. The interface has been improved with more identifiable information regarding unit levels; it was pretty good to begin with, offering probably losses to each side before engaging in combat (very useful) and listing all of your units in one place. Gold that is earned by controlling towns can be used to purchase new units. The five races in the game (elves, humans, orcs, dwarves, and new elves) each have the same basic assortment of units: heavy and light cavalry, heavy and light infantry, scouts, archers, war machines, air fighters, air bombers, and heroes (both ranger and mage varieties). Each of these units have appropriate strengths and weaknesses, but the setting doesn’t really provide for exotic, original units, so the combat in Elven Legacy is a typical affair. About the only remarkable aspect to the tactical game is placing ranged units behind front-line skirmishers: they will automatically attack enemy units, making a fragile unit that is protected much more deadly. But the game mechanics are streamlined and well-done as a whole, and Elven Legacy is certainly more approachable than most hex-based wargames. Elven Legacy focuses on low, fixed population caps: most scenarios only give you around seven units total. Purchased units, then, are more for replacement than as a compliment to existing units. The fact that units can be partially or fully healed by sitting still for a turn makes changing your starting roster even less of a probability. Making things more interesting is offering unit upgrades (such as peasants to scouts to rangers to elite rangers, reminiscent of Mount&Blade) and new abilities or spells through experience. The abilities are noteworthy, as you can tailor a unit for a specific role (defense) or terrain (mountainous) and then totally pwn the enemy. Your AI opponents usually have very scripted positions to increase the difficulty; they can occasionally exhibit some advanced moves, but the next turn they will send a low-level unit towards your powerful hero and meet instant death.

For those unfamiliar with Fantasy Wars, Elven Legacy delivers pleasing turn-based strategic gameplay that’s simple enough for novices to grasp, serving as an excellent introduction to the genre. However, it’s more of an expansion pack than a true sequel, especially when you compare it to the dramatic changes found in other follow-ups: you get a slightly-new race (it’s still elves), somewhat significant interface improvements, and Internet multiplayer. Is that worth $30? Clearly not, but I am assuming that most of you did not play Fantasy Wars; in that case, Elven Legacy is a great value if you take it as a whole. The relatively simple gameplay still yields some noteworthy strategic goodness, from upgrading units to specific defensive placements. Units have a specific purpose, and using the appropriate abilities and upgrades effectively will mean the difference between success and untimely death. The campaign provides some fun while it lasts, and Internet games and the occasional skirmish against the mixed-bag AI will fill other gaming voids. The map editor will also extend the life of the title, assuming, of course, that you remembered to install it. Owners of Fantasy Wars need not bother, but the rest of us will find some good strategic gaming to be had.