Saturday, December 12, 2009

Armada 2526 Review

Armada 2526, developed by Ntronium Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Varied races to choose from with diverse victory conditions, informative user interface, huge randomized maps, optional computer control of colonies, decent AI opponents
The Not So Good: Offers no drastic gameplay innovation, bland real-time combat, uninspired research, generic diplomatic options, no online multiplayer, brief tutorial
What say you? An introductory 4X space strategy game that lacks the “hook” of more robust offerings: 5/8

The space 4X strategy genre is certainly in the midst of a renaissance (that's French for “baguette”). Just look at all the quality titles of late: Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations II, Sword of the Stars. Competitors such as Space Empires V, Supernova 2: Spacewar, and Lost Empire (not to mention any of the games I haven't personally reviewed) have struggled to find a place within the increasingly crowded genre. Well, add another game to the mix with Armada 2526, from a developer of the Total War series of games. Hey, that pedigree should be enough to check out this new entry, so let's do just that!

The graphics of Armada 2526 are just OK. The game is presented in top-down 2-D, both on the main star map and during the tactical battles, and the results are underwhelming. In a setting that prides itself on stunning visuals, Armada 2526 comes up short. The background is a drab black and the ship models, though varied, do no contain much detail. The planets and stars are typically small glowing orbs that lack fine detail. The battles do involve some lasers and explosions, but nothing that compares to the pure carnage of Gratuitous Space Battles (also a 2-D game). Armada 2526 does have animated 3-D portraits of all the alien races, but they are nothing above the quality found in Galactic Civilizations II. Armada 2526 is best comparable to Weird Worlds, and this game actually looks less spectacular (at least the map does) than that four-year-old title. The sound design is very predictable and quite basic: just some simple battle effects, notification alerts, and suitable background music. Armada 2526 certainly looks like a wargame in space with its simple graphics.

In Armada 2526, victory is attained by having the most victory points when time runs out (arbitrarily set when the game is created). Your victory conditions will change depending on which race you have chosen; this is a really neat feature, as some races will focus on happiness, others population, and others technology (plus more variations). It’s probably the best aspect of the game, and it results in some very interesting gameplay since players will all be attempting different goals. Alien races also come with a large number of starting bonuses (or penalties), like poor research or varied behaviors (such as warlike). You need to take advantage of your strengths, which can be difficult since I can’t find where your starting bonuses are listed in-game. Custom games can support up to twelve players and you can set the game length, difficulty level, and map attributes. Armada 2526 supports some really huge maps of any size, as long as your processor can handle them, since you can freely input any dimensions for the galaxy. If randomized maps are not your thing, Armada 2526 also comes with a map designer for a more planned feel. Newcomers will find a brief but effective tutorial and a starter scenario to give you time to grow before being attacked by those pesky extraterrestrials. Sadly, Armada 2526 does not feature multiplayer other than same-computer hot-seat action, an odd shortcoming for a turn-based game.

The second-best aspect of Armada 2526 is the user interface: it gives easily accessible information through a couple of key features. The first is the advisor, which gives helpful information on star colonization (suggesting which newly-scouted stars are good candidates) and other in-game actions. The list view displays all of your fleets (location and current action) and colonies (population, construction orders) in a handy location; this makes managing a large, sprawling empire actually possible. The game’s reports don’t give the amount of economic detail I desire (you need to visit individual planets for that information), but the tool-tips are useful to determine how star attributes will affect colonies. Movement in the game is restricted to between stars only (similar to Sins of a Solar Empire) initially, until you research some l33t tech; orders are executed by left-clicking a star and right-clicking a destination, then selecting which ships you want to travel. This method makes it easier to select a specific composition of craft than the usually box-selecting method employed in other strategy games. The restriction of movement also makes travel more predictable and easier to manage overall. Units can be instructed to repeat orders (useful for shuttling cargo between systems) as well. There is one caveat, however: you have to actually issue a move order before you see which ships are at a particular star. This is a minor annoyance, however, as the remainder of the interface is quite excellent.

The first step in any 4X game is to expand (although shouldn’t they be “4E” games, since all of the terms start with “E” and not “X”?). Founding colonies is done through an ark ship, sent to neutral worlds and colonized with a simple click. While the population will increase slowly on its own, it is important to shuttle transports full of citizens back and forth (relatively easy to do thanks to the “repeat” function) in order to increase the population, and your tax income, more quickly. You will need to manage each of your colonies in several aspects: income from taxes, structure and ship upkeep expenses, happiness (affected by pollution from industry), popularity (affected by native population, tax rate and empire size), security (used to counter low happiness and popularity), population growth, and biologic infections. This is done mainly by setting the tax rate and constructing buildings, like mines, research labs, entertainment, security, and planetary defense. Unlike most 4X games, you most certainly do not want to max out your construction slots because you will not be able to afford the upkeep; this counter-intuitiveness is not clearly explained in the tutorial or manual, and it’s only after your first game or two wallowing in debt that you realize that restraint is the best option. Once available planets are fully colonized, it’s time to invade. Once you destroy the enemy forces, you have a variety of ways of dealing with the native population: you can simply take it over (but have to deal with unhappiness), exterminate the natives, loot the economy, spread a plague, or cause massive damage. While having all of these options are nice and all, they are superficial decisions that really just hinge on whether the colony is profitable or not.

Before you go around blowing stuff up, you’ll have to entertain some diplomatic action. The diplomacy in Armada 2526 is basic: non-aggression treaties (for a number of turns) and the exchange of money, technology, map information, buildings, and colonies. The game shows the balance of each agreement, although this does not necessarily mean your partner will agree to an arrangement. The AI is a sporadic negotiator, offering some insane counter-offers involving inflated amounts of cash in exchange for simple technologies. Speaking of technologies, there are seven fields to choose from, like weapons, defense, information, and biological. You can research one technology in each field at a time, and you can adjust the funding level of each field in accordance to your goals. The game has a linear technology tree that is generally the same (save for some unique high-level techs) for each race. The only original aspect of the technology model is the skunkworks: it’s faster, but it produces a random technology that you might already be researching. Other than that, though, research is nothing we haven’t seen before.

Armada 2526 features a decent selection of ships, from small and fast scouts, to medium corvettes, to powerful destroyers, to massive dreadnaughts and carriers. The selection in not as varied as you would like, however, because there is no ship design or custom parts available through research. In fact, all of the races have the same ships, except for some super ships at the top of the tech tree. Partly because of this, combat in Armada 2526 is a drab affair where the side with the most ships wins. The real-time battles are really disappointing, as you are only given simple move/attack commands and formations; there is nothing tactically interesting about it. Once you have selected your ships, it’s all over but the cryin’. The battles have a timer and there is one interesting formation to choose from (the rotating circle of the caracole), but with no cover, no obstacles, and no map variations, you’ll be resorting to automated combat most of the time. The AI of Armada 2526 provides decent competition, although it is generally not too aggressive and its diplomatic skills could be improved. The game is easy if you have defensive victory conditions; most races (apart from the couple of aggressive ones) will leave you alone, even if you have a significant lead in victory points. Since you can only play against the AI, it simply does not provide enough long-term challenge to make Armada 2526 a recommended 4X strategy title.

Armada 2526 has two good things going for it: the user interface and varied alien races. Other than that, though, it’s a generic space 4X title, and in order to become a notable game in this competitive and oversaturated genre, you need more. The map options are nice, as you can create a game world as large as your computer can handle. The alien races are also quite distinct and offer different strategies for victory with a wide range of starting bonuses and victory conditions. The AI is a competent opponent, and since Armada 2526 lacks any multiplayer offerings other than simple hot-seat contests on the same machine, you’ll be playing exclusively against the computer. The interface is excellent, providing easily accessible information on all your colonies and ships, a helpful advisor, and tool-tips to aid in colonization. Managing your colonies can be quite difficult as Armada 2526 does not want you to build, build, build: you need to pace yourself or you will soon become broke as pollution from industry causes widespread turmoil. The diplomacy and research aspects of the game are generic, offering nothing new other than the faster-but-random skunkworks technology group. The real-time battles are very simplistic: there are no obstacles or terrain to use for a tactical advantage, which makes Armada 2526 simply a test of who has the best and most numerous ships. In the end, Armada 2526 is just another space 4X strategy game that places behind genre leaders Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations II, and Sword of the Stars.