Thursday, March 11, 2010

Flotilla Review

Flotilla, developed and published by Blendo Games.
The Good: Engaging simultaneous turn-based tactical battles with varied strategies to implement, randomized adventure mode and skirmish maps add replay value, upgrades provide ship roles, stylish presentation, nice interface makes 3-D movement easy to execute, $10
The Not So Good: Lacks remote (PBEM, Internet) multiplayer, inconsistent AI
What say you? Quick random campaigns and satisfying tactical combat highlight this turn-based space adventure: 6/8

Some of us, frankly, don't have the time to spend on a marathon session of Sins of a Solar Empire; we need to blow space stuff up now! The hallmark of quick-and-dirty space exploration has been Weird Worlds, offering up bite-sized samples of extraterrestrial combat. In Flotilla, you visit exotic, distant lands, meet strange, interesting people, and shoot them with big freakin’ laser beams. The combat is not automated, rather relying on simultaneous turn-based executing of orders issued every thirty seconds, similar to the approach used in games such as Combat Mission. Is Flotilla a supernova of excellence, or just a black hole near Uranus?

I like the style that Flotilla brings to the table. Independent developers know that they are working with limited resources, and Flotilla puts constrained funds to good use to produce a distinctive package. The universe is a simple map of planets and stars that looks slightly better than a typical 2-D space game as it incorporates some three dimensional effects. As for the battles, there are no textures for the ships or other objects in the game, just simple monochromatic colors. This cell-shaded effect is successful, in a futuristic minimalist way. The ship models are characteristic enough to identify classes based on looks alone. The special effects can be impressive (a slew of missiles, especially), and the explosions are decent enough. The orange backgrounds become repetitive: while they contrast well with the colors used for the ships, some more variety would be nice to promote the cheap showiness of outer space. Flotilla behaves better when windowed (running full-screen resulted in a blank display about half of the time) and the minimum resolution is high (1280 by 720), so low-res gamers beware. The sound design is also pleasing: I like the classical music that fits the deliberate pace of the game, along with a “ding” when you earn a critical hit and enthusiastic applause when you win. Overall, Flotilla delivers a great presentation, especially for the price.

The main method to enjoy Flotilla is through the adventure mode. A pilot with only seven months to live leaves on the promise of adventure and meeting rogue cats on the run. The adventure mode features randomized maps so each game is slightly different. The events and encounters are also randomized, although after about four or five run-throughs you’ll start repeating things. You’ll run into a lot of deliberately strange characters out in space, from chicken pirates (obviously) to a reference to Ren’s space madness. Encounters can grant upgrades if you are successful in combat or produce other side effects, like extra ships or battles down the road. Upgrades can be used to customize your ships’ roles, providing positive enhancements in armor, firing rate, and ship speed. The adventure mode is meant to be quite short (in the same vein as Weird Worlds): most games won’t last more than a half-hour, and most take around ten minutes to complete (and by “complete” I mean “die”). You cannot save your progress during the middle of an adventure, but because of the short mission length, it’s not really an issue. You won’t lose progress by dying (which happens frequently), and the game suggests starting anew with another adventure using a sequential numbering system. The downside to these short game lengths is that you never really survive long enough to control the big ships. There is also a lot of luck involved in determining which (and how many) enemies you encounter. Some battles are simply too imbalanced against you to survive, so it’s time to exit out and start another round. You can focus on avoiding the red, combat-guaranteed planets early on as you build up your fleet, but if you get unlucky with events, you can be dead after the first turn. Again, it’s not a big deal since a game is supposed to be quick anyway. The game keeps a record of your high scores (seemingly based on how many turns you survive), although it would be nice to save your journal entries along with the score for some historical flavor.

Apart from the adventure mode, you can take part in two-on-two skirmish matches against the computer or a friend on the same machine. You can customize the ship types involved, from missile destroyers to torpedo gunships to battleships (six in all), and have up to six ships for each side slugging it out. The skirmish mode features randomized tactical maps, extending the replay value of Flotilla. Unfortunately, Flotilla lacks multiplayer over the Internet or play by e-mail. The turn-based nature of the game would have been seemingly perfect for e-mail contests, where you can take your time overanalyzing the next move. While the population of the game might not support it, real-time online action through a server browser would work well too. Flotilla would be so great as a multiplayer game, and its lack of robust support in this area is deflating.

Flotilla is a simultaneous turn-based game, meaning that each person executes his or her (well, his) orders while the game is paused followed by thirty seconds of non-involvement. Orders are given in a stepped process that streamlines the process and highlights the well-designed interface of Flotilla. First, you choose a movement mode: a balanced attack, flank movement that trades fire power for speed, and a focus fire mode that offers the opposite. Next you plot your destination, starting with horizontal movement; the game shows the end as a circle on a flat grid, along with the positions of other ships. This makes moving in 3-D space very straightforward and eliminates the confusion inherent with complex movement. Afterwards, you can choose movement along the vertical axis. While it would be nice to have multiple waypoints in a 30-second interval (for circular or more intricate movement), the time interval is short enough where it never really becomes a significant issue. After you plot your movement, you can choose the orientation of your ship. The game automatically points your ship towards a designated enemy, but this actually isn’t the most optimal placement. More damage is suffered on the bottom and rear of your ships, so you’ll actually want to manually adjust your ship to keep the top towards the enemy.

The key to Flotilla is getting behind and below the enemy. It would seem that the best option would be to dive, dive, dive, but since ships can roll over, an opposing unit can quickly (during one thirty-second turn) put you “on top” (there is no “up” in space) and negate your strategy. You can also use obstacles as cover: asteroids and space junk is randomly placed around the map, and you can use this “terrain” for strategic purposes. It’s easy to win with the default ships you are given if you are up against beam destroyers: while a beam will kill you in one or two shots, you can stay out of range and pick them off with missiles. Once you discover this basic strategy, Flotilla becomes almost trivially easy. Battleships provide a tougher opponent with their mixture of short- and long-range weaponry, but as long as you don’t run your ships into each other (as I found out during one adventure), you’re good to go. The AI opponents are average at best: they will almost always attack your ships instead of using flanking maneuvers, and they will rotate on occasion, but it’s still too easy to get below and behind them for an easy kill. Although the AI rotates to shield vulnerable areas from incoming fire, it doesn't flank often enough, especially when it has superior numbers. Flotilla really only becomes difficult when they severely outnumber you, and even then you can escape with a victory more often than not. It took me about eight adventures before I fully learned the game and started dominating the AI, no matter how many ships they (or I) had. Online or play by e-mail features would obviously counter the AI shortcomings, so we are only left to wonder what could have been.

Flotilla is one of those games you fire up for twenty minutes for a quick lunchtime play session. It reminds me strongly of Weird Worlds, replacing robust space items with tactical battles. The adventure mode incorporates random maps and events to keep each game slightly different, although you will encounter the same characters once you’ve played a couple of times. The adventures are meant to be short (which negates the inability to save), lasting under half an hour and ending when you unluckily encounter a superior force. Upgrades and additional ships gathered along the way can ease the difficulty associated with bigger numbers of enemies. Skirmish games can involve up to six ships in hot two-on-two action; the lack of multiplayer is distressing here, as the tactical battles would be perfect for play by e-mail or online action. Sure, you can have two players on the same computer, but what PC gamers have friends? The tactical battles are interesting, turn-based affairs where you can plan your movement and orientation every thirty seconds. The time intervals are short enough where issuing only one waypoint per turn isn’t an issue. With randomized maps populated with space debris and the overall strategy of getting behind and below your enemies, the tactical battles involve a lot of maneuvering that play out like dramatic naval battles, except in three dimensions instead of two. What seems like really superficial gameplay actually turns out to be quite deep. The AI is OK, doing some smart moves like rotating their ships on occasion, but the computer rarely flanks your ships and they can be easily bested regularly with practice. Battles are tense affairs where your plans may or may not work out, and the turn-based nature gives you time to plan and places emphasis on strategy instead of quick reflexes and button mashing. The random elements really increase the replay value of Flotilla, and the graphics and sound are excellent for the $10 price tag. The AI provides acceptable competition for short bursts of enjoyment without online competition, but the thirst for human opponents remains unquenched. The game is fun, but I’m left wondering how much better the battles would be with humans scripting the on-screen action. The addition of play by e-mail and online battles would create a complete gaming experience and provide challenge that the AI simply cannot provide.