Monday, January 25, 2010

World Empires Live Review

World Empires Live, developed and published by Firepower Entertainment and Noble Master Games.
The Good: Automated research, decent music
The Not So Good: Single expansion-through-combat strategy, trivial economics, inactive AI opponent, no tutorial and useless manual, only one map and no game customization options, rough mix of turn-based and real-time play, can't host games if behind a router, absent online population, low resolution graphics and limited windowed mode support, can't save the game, subscription fee
What say you? A simplified multiplayer Civilization game stuck behind many issues: 2/8

Civilization IV was the first game I gave a perfect score to because it was good. The turn-based global domination series has certainly inspired its share of copycats and clones among the PC strategy genre. Speaking of, here comes World Empires Live, an online centered approach to leading your feeble city towards world notoriety, fame, and fortune. This title strips down the genre to its basics and chooses more streamlined approach for faster online game. Does it work? Well, looking at the score, I'd say no. No it does not.

World Empires Live takes place on a 2-D map of the world, featuring graphics that are not much better than Civilization II. The game features some very basic unit animations (two frames, typically) on a very bare map of the world. In addition, the game is displayed at a low resolution. This isn't a big deal, but windowed mode is dreadful: it's always in the upper left corner of the screen, and World Empires Live does not play well with Windows 7, requiring the Aero features to be turned off in order to run. For how basic the graphics are, I was obviously surprised at how poorly the game runs. There are performance delays all over the place especially when attempting to scroll the map. In a game that plays out in a turn-based, real-time hybrid where actions must be completed within a time limit, this is a grave problem. It should also be noted that you cannot save your progress, and quitting the game has about a 50/50 chance of success. It's clear that World Empires Live is not ready for an official release. On the bright side, I did like the music, so it has that going for it, which is nice. Of course, the sound effects were abrupt and repetitive, so that grounds the audio package. I want to make clear that I am not disparaging the 2-D graphics, but the performance thereof: the game approaches an unplayable condition.

In World Empires Live, you lead a meager one-town civilization towards global domination. As the “Live” in the title indicates, this is intended as an Internet game, though you can play against the AI. World Empires Live provides some very limited options for setting up games: you can have anywhere between two and eight players, but there are no choices for rules, technology or economic rates, or even starting position, as the game just assigns you a random city. World Empires Live takes place on only one map (the world) with no randomization whatsoever. Though the game does come with a server browser, multiplayer features are otherwise disappointing: the game does not save your login information and you can’t even host a game if you are behind a router (a limitation I haven’t encountered with any other online title in recent (or even distant) memory). In addition, I’ve never seen anyone else online, probably because of all the issues with World Empires Live. Learning the game is also a difficult chore, as World Empires Live lacks a tutorial (really?!) and the online manual is really bad and doesn't explain game basics, like how to deploy units. The manual is also poorly organized to boot, so you will most likely be completely lost starting out, as I was. It should also be noted that World Empires Live uses a subscription model: three months for $9 or a year for $25. This is not exorbitant, but it’s not like World Empires Live features anything better than your typical online strategy game.

You start out a game of World Empires Live with only one city, and since you can’t build any others (seriously?!), you will need to expand quickly. Towns need raw materials, luxury items, and researched technologies to allow for city upgrades, which in turn produce more manpower (for military units) and victory points as cities grow. You will collect the main resources by sending out a prospector unit to a potential mine. There is only a 20% chance of actually being successful, and since everyone is only given two potential resource sites, most games you will be stuck having no resources whatsoever. That’s simply bad game design. You can use cash income (from taxes, mostly) to offset these resource deficiencies, but it still really dumb. If you are lucky enough to actually get a resource site, once you have enough money you can activate it. Negotiators can be sent to foreign resource locations to “steal” their resources (the manual, of course, doesn’t tell you this at all; I had to e-mail the developer). Another source of income is fishing: research the tech, build a sea port, and any naval unit next to a fish hex will produce money.

There is one good thing about World Empires Live: automated research. Spend money on scientists and assign them to four fields of study: combat, mining, economy, and infrastructure. Three different projects are concurrently researched in each group, although you can choose one to focus on. It’s nice to have this part of the game taken care for you, instead of having to choose a new project every couple of turns. New technologies are used for better military units, structures, production, and upgrades. Diplomacy in the game is very simple: declare war (though you can have truces or non-aggression pacts, but why?). In order to do so, you need to have at least one military unit on their border (which makes it trivially easy to scout incoming attacks) and not have too many wars going on at once. Simple enough.

Each era in the game, determined by your technology rating, has a couple of units divided into normal (ground), ranged, mobile, siege, and special types. Units are ordered in one menu and (of course) deployed using a completely other interface button; the manual (of course) doesn’t explain this at all. Combat is done by using offensive (ground, anti-ranged, anti-mobile, effectiveness) and defensive ratings (survivability). It’s all quite predictable.

World Empires Live uses a mix of turn-based and real-time play that doesn’t work. Essentially, a time limit is imposed for completing each turn, and the default of 10 seconds per turn is way too short for the middle and end of a game when you have lots of units and wars going on. Slow clickers will definitely be at a disadvantage, and the slow and unresponsive interface doesn’t help matters at all. I suppose this is how you adapt a turn-based game for multiplayer, but it’s just a mess; it would have been easier to just add in “end turn” buttons or a limit that dynamically adjusts based on how far along you are in the game. In the end, though, World Empires Live is a game about combat: since you can’t found any additional cities and successfully mining resources only happens about 20% of the time, you will need to expand quickly. This means World Empires Live only has one strategy: military. Economic or diplomatic victories are all out of the picture, as the only way to accumulate enough victory points is to add new cities and increase your tech level (which means you need more resources “borrowed” from your neighbors). As a result, World Empires Live lacks the depth of other world domination titles and becomes quite repetitive. There are no difficulty settings for the AI, as they are permanently set to “dumb.” Your AI opponents hardly do anything other than producing the occasional units. You won’t be playing for long, however, as World Empires Live will pound you into submission with its inept interface, performance problems, questionable design, frivolous strategy, and limited features.

World Empires Live probably sounded like a good idea at the time, but the execution is so appalling that the game has no appeal. The game’s lone feature of merit, automated research, is lost among a sea of ineptitude. First off, the game is barely playable as the performance of the 2-D game overall is awful. The game options are lacking as well: you are given no choices for game rules, there is only one world map, you can’t even host if you use a router, and you can’t even save or quit the game. Learning the basics is difficult as World Empires Live lacks a tutorial and the online manual isn’t organized at all and leaves out several important game concepts. The economics model is basic, and acquiring these resources is next to impossible thanks to the low success rate in mining potential sites. Because of this, and the fact that you cannot make any new cities, you must expand and expand quickly, declaring war on your neighbor with the fewest military units. This military-only approach makes World Empires Live only have one real strategy, which means every game plays out the same. The game’s use of time limited turns makes playing the game confusing and needlessly hectic. The AI doesn’t help either: it usually does nothing, occasionally building military units or upgrading its city, but never providing a capable opponent. While World Empires Live is designed for online play, I can’t imagine anyone putting up with this long enough to renew their subscription.