Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cyber-Wing Review

Cyber-Wing, developed and published by Martian Arctic Games.
The Good: Neat and tactically interesting (though not original) mix of first person shooting and real-time strategy, Internet multiplayer, very inexpensive
The Not So Good: Limited number of commands and units, needs a longer respawn time for commander unit, tedious unit transport, short single player training campaign, only five multiplayer maps, can't save mid-mission
What say you? Basically a 3-D, online multiplayer version of Herzog Zwei, but there's nothing wrong with a good copy of quality game design: 7/8

Remember Herzog Zwei? Yeah, me neither, but apparently it was one of the first real time strategy games, if Wikipedia is meant to be believed (and when has it ever steered us wrong?). Instead of being an omnipresent commander, you directed troops from a single unit, ordering additional support and transporting allies to the front lines. Frankly, it surprises me that more clones haven’t cropped in the past 20 years. The cool thing to do nowadays is combine different genres into a cohesive product, so that’s exactly what Cyber-Wing attempts to do here. This title can be thought of as a remake of Herzog Zwei, but with 3-D graphics and online multiplayer. That’s enough to get me interested: how is it?

Maybe it’s because I play so many independent games, but I found the graphics of Cyber-Wing to be decent. Sure, the game lacks cutting-edge fancy of high-budget first person shooters, but it does deliver some nice varied environments with detailed terrain. The units have some nice models and the textures are certainly done well. The effects are where the game lags behind: unit animations are erratic (especially death) and weapons and blood are simplistic at best. Still, for $5, you definitely get your money’s worth. The sound design is less impressive, as non of the in-game dialogue is voiced, save for the occasional order, and the effects are quite basic. I did find the background music to be decent enough in a campy sense, though. But, hey, what do you want for $5? Candy? Me too!

In Cyber-Wing, you control a transforming mech-jet thing, purchasing and ordering units from a first- and third-person perspective to assist in your assault on the enemy strongholds. To learn the game, Cyber-Wing features eight single player training missions (which can be completed in any order) that gives you a new ability each mission, from your weapons to the abilities and the units. The game doesn’t say it gradually unlocks things, though, so I was trying to order units around in the first mission when that ability was disabled. Most of the missions (except for one defend mission) involve taking all of the enemy bases, but the gradual introduction of new units makes them play out differently enough. The game saves your best scores for each level (time and casualties) for future comparison. Cyber-Wing does not allow you to save your progress mid-mission, however, so once you sit down you had better finish. While the game does not give explicit directions on how to do things, the single player missions serve as a good introduction to the game’s mechanics. Cyber-Wing lacks off-line documentation, but there is an online manual to peruse. You can also engage in skirmish matches against the AI: “hard” AI is faster and does more damage and actually offers a good challenge. But the real focus of Cyber-Wing is multiplayer. The game offers one-on-one and two-on-two matches on any of five maps. While a larger selection would be nice, the linear nature of the map layout (necessitated by the simplified command system) means that most maps play out the same anyway, so additional maps wouldn’t really increase strategic variety. Regrettably, there is nobody playing the game online, essentially negating this important aspect of Cyber-Wing. That’s too bad, because the game is quite enjoyable.

You control Cyber-Wing from within your mechanized robot plane called a “ZOG”. Movement uses the traditional WASD keys, and additional keyboard controls are used for ordering and commanding troops. Most importantly, you can transform into a plane: this is useful for covering ground quickly and it’s required for transporting newly constructed units. To balance its usefulness, fuel is required to fly, replenished only while near a friendly base. Fuel appears to be time-based rather than usage-based, so quick movement is important. The game is balanced to give you just enough fuel to proceed to an enemy base and back to a friendly one, so smart planning is required. As I mentioned earlier, you need to fly units from any base to wherever you want them; this process is tedious to be sure, but at least the unit counts are small and it does slow the quick pace of the game down some. It also leads to some anxious waiting while your forces recover. There are a couple of oddities with the interface: friendly units are red while enemy units are blue, which is the total opposite of every other game (except, of course, for Herzog Zwei). This is only true half of the time in multiplayer, but it is always the case in the tutorial missions; it would be nice to always have the enemy red to keep things consistent. Red means dead. Oh, and the mini-map is too small, both in actual screen size and range: a scale option would be nice.

There are eight units you can build in Cyber-Wing, each suitable for a specified purpose. Four infantry are required to capture any base, and their fragile nature means better units must protect them. Mechs (cheap) and tanks (expensive) provide most of your firepower, SAM launchers combat enemy commander units, boats can float, and support vehicles heal. Stationary gun batteries can also be purchased, and moved to other locations if needed. Finally, commandos are faster, more robust infantry units that learned how to swim and climb rocks. You don’t actually control any of these units directly, instead issuing one of four orders: attack the nearest unfriendly base, defend, destroy the enemy headquarters, and retreat. You pick one order at a time to use, which can be issued to newly airdropped units or any surrounding forces. This system does not provide the precision desired in true RTS games, but it actually works pretty well and allows you do put together some interesting strategies. Units are produced using resources that are automatically collected according to the number of outposts and refineries you control: more is better. The friendly AI is smart enough to follow the simple orders, and the enemy AI is good at efficiently producing troops and attacking undefended bases. The enemy is not as aggressive as I would like, but on “hard” difficulty, they do put up a good challenge. Cyber-Wing does have some pathfinding issues, though, with units blocking infantry from entering neutral or enemy bases; this can be countered by manually airlifting the roadblocks, but this shouldn’t be necessary.

On the surface, Cyber-Wing looks to be simplistic due to the limited unit count, but it does offer some interesting strategy. The main strategic decision is when to assault the enemy base: when do you have enough troops? You need to make sure you have enough infantry to flip the base, or the enemy commander will respawn and easily dispatch of all of your units. There is certainly a tense build-up of units after a major fight, especially since units must be individually and manually deployed onto the battlefield. The unit cap of twenty-five units isn’t that low since it takes so long to build up a significant army. You cannot queue units even if you have the resources; I'd like the game to automatically start building the next unit in a queue one once you've picked up the previous one. Cyber-Wing is similar to control-point based first person shooters, where it is important to control bases for resources and more troops, which tends to concentrate the action around the linear set of outposts. My main (probably) fixable complaint has to do with the respawn times for the commander unit: instant respawn means a lot of spamming (seeing the enemy commander over and over again) if you are one outpost away from the enemy base; the enemy commander can dispose of a lot units on their own, so if you don't have overwhelming force, you can lose forward bases quickly. I think adding a respawn time and making it proportional to how many bases you have left (the more bases, the shorter it is...especially since you'll be further away from the action) would remedy this. Still, this is a minor complaint in an otherwise entertaining hybrid game.

Cyber-Wing is successful at what it attempts to do: bring Herzog Zwei into whatever century this is with 3-D graphics and online multiplayer. The 3-D graphics are quite acceptable for a $5 independent project, and so is the gameplay. Commanding all of your units from within your transformer is quite effective, issuing simple commands to take enemy bases or defend against incoming attacks. One could argue that the commands in Cyber-Wing are no less complicated than any mainstream RTS, and it’s quite fun to fight along side your troops. This method is far more interesting than simply controlling a random unit, as your flying abilities and powerful weapons make you a force that can turn a stalemate less stale, much like the demigods in Demigod (actually, Cyber-Wing is similar in several respects, although here you get direct control over subordinate units). Transporting units back and forth can be cumbersome, since you cannot queue unit production and you must pick up every unit individually from your base or a friendly outpost. Still, this results in some tense gameplay as both sides build up their forces and wait for the other to attack. Despite the roster of only eight units, they do give you some strategic liberty with their varied uses. You will spend most of your time using the flying mode, since it is required to transport units from bases to their destination; I do like the feeling of changing from a plane to a mech, guns blazing as you transition to the ground. The AI provides a competent yet cautious opponent, taking undefended bases and providing good training for online matches. There are some pathfinding problems with the AI, namely with infantry getting stuck on other units, but you can airlift stuck units manually as a solution. Unfortunately, multiplayer, the real focus of the game, is not populated with human opponents, but hopefully this review will change that. Cyber-Wing features a training campaign of eight missions and only five multiplayer maps, but it certainly has a fantastic foundation on which to build. Those looking for a more action-oriented approach to strategy gaming should check out Cyber-Wing.