Friday, April 23, 2010

Future Wars Review

Future Wars, developed by Radon Labs and Headup Games and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Simple rules, capable AI, many skirmish maps, play by e-mail, vast customization options (AI, units, buildings, textures, and maps)
The Not So Good: Simple rules, lackluster campaign, no online multiplayer
What say you? Strong AI and customization save this stripped-down turn-based strategy game: 5/8

In the future, there will be war. That is the lesson to be learned in the title of Future Wars, a game about war in the future. The good thing is the future will never arrive, since it will always be in the future. Anyway, Future Wars is a modernized version of Advance Wars, the celebrated turn-based strategy title released for the Game Boy Advance almost ten years ago. As most turn-based games tend to be more complicated and make my brain hurt, Future Wars hopes to appeal to a more casual audience by offering straightforward rules and editing capabilities in a contemporary presentation.

Future Wars features acceptable, if basic, graphics. The game is in 3-D, presented in an isometric perspective using tiled maps and four-sided units. The animations for those units are decent enough as they traverse across the map. The weapon effects are decent enough as well, with powerful explosions highlighted by a cacophony of blue glowing boxes when a unit is killed. You can actually change the textures for each of the game’s units, buildings, and terrain squares (although you cannot alter the models), but the ones that are included are certainly decent enough. While Future Wars lacks elevation of any kind, the terrain and buildings are easily identifiable, although the units sometimes suffer from similar appearances. In all, it’s very similar in theme to the Massive Assault series of games. The sound design is basic as well, with appropriate but limited effects for each unit and background music to listen to. Nothing here is too notable. The presentation of Future Wars is the very definition of “average.”

Future Wars is all about wars…in the future (yes, I am almost tired of that joke by now…almost). The single player campaign features contests on sixteen maps of increasing difficulty, usually involving you wiping the opponent off the entire map by eventually capturing their base. There are different starting conditions for each mission, but the overall goal remains the same. The developers attempted to cram an animated story into the game, but it is not good with forced “humor” and stereotypical characters and will be quickly skipped over. Of course, it’s no worse than any medicore RTS game. Medals can be earned by efficiently disposing of the enemy in the shortest amount of time with few losses. I found the campaign to be no more interesting than regular skirmish maps, and in fact you have no choice in the order of scenarios for the linear campaign. Speaking of skirmish maps, there are a lot of them to choose from. You can enjoy them against the AI, in a hot seat mode on the same computer, through e-mail, or pit two AI foes against each other for your enjoyment (or testing purposes). Online play is not supported, but honestly I doubt enough people would be online at the same time to warrant its inclusion anyway. The varied, unbalanced starting conditions of the skirmish games do make for some different approaches, so there is some interest there. I should also note that pressing “escape” during the introductory videos flips them vertically instead of skipping past them, which is quite possibly the craziest thing ever.

One of the strong suits of Future Wars is the large suite of editors available: the user can easily alter pretty much anything in the game. First up is the map editor, where you can place terrain, buildings, and units for custom scenarios. It is easy to use: just point and paint in textures and place buildings. More complicated is the ability to create your own AI using a bunch of codes in an XML file. Easier is changing unit and building properties (also in an XML file, but more straightforward) and importing custom textures (DDS files). It’s nice that the developers used an open architecture for user modifications; this is one of the things that places PC games far ahead of static console titles.

The interface for Future Wars is fairly conventional, if a bit outdated. It provides easy access to units that have not moved during the current turn, but it needs tool-tips to explain all of the little icons listed for each unit. The units are fairly conventional for a sci-fi setting: infantry (light and medium), tanks (light, medium, heavy, ranged, missile, and laser), aircraft, and transport vehicles. Both sides have exactly the same units, although the models are slightly different. Future Wars uses the classic rock-paper-scissors form of combat percentages: each unit has a couple it receives bonuses for attacking, and a couple of units that decrease effectiveness. In fact, if you attack “improper” units, you’ll actually receive more damage than they will. Problem is, the game makes the relationships fairly inaccessible (the information is buried in a sub-menu); Future Wars really needs color indications (or some other clear method) for proper counters, because they aren’t readily obvious at all to new players. Terrain also imposes a bonus in combat if you place units in trees or rocks. Buildings in Future Wars come in three flavors: your headquarters (which must be captured to win), factories that make units, and cities that provide money. There isn’t any strategic variety to speak of here: just capture everything you can, although factories can be set to produce only a limited selection of units.

Future Wars is a turn-based game where each unit can move and perform one action each turn. What are those actions, you say? Well, units can wait (boring!), attack (not boring!), transport, occupy, and cancel. Fairly restricted to be sure, but Future Wars is going for the minimalist doctrine through and through. The game is certainly trying hard to appeal to neophytes by stripping down the unit count, buildings, and orders. This simplified approach certainly makes the game, well, simplified, but this comes at the cost of longevity and depth. There are a lot of units that can be involved in a single battle, but the complex countering system seems to fly in the face of the simplicity. One interesting thing is that Future Wars is square-based (not hex-based) and you can’t move or attack diagonally, something that was counter-intuitive initially and quite limiting from a strategic standpoint, especially on the game’s typically cramped maps. One positive resulting from the minimalism is the AI: it is quite a good opponent. The AI does some idiotic things on occasion (like moving away from objectives or retreating when unnecessary), but in general it is a very challenging opponent that will attack with the most appropriate units where you are the weakest. Still, I don’t know how entertaining the basic mechanics will be in the long term. All said, I think Future Wars will find a niche with gamers looking for a more straightforward game with robust customization options.

Future Wars has two things going for it: the AI and the wealth of customization options. These are almost enough to recommend the game. Almost. Sadly, Future Wars doesn’t really do anything else new or different, so the value of this product completely depends on the level of satisfaction you have with the features involved. The sixteen-map campaign involves a borderline annoying animated storyline and generally linear battles that aren’t terribly interesting. Thankfully, Future Wars includes a lot of skirmish maps that can be enjoyed against the AI, on the same computer with another human, or through e-mail (no real-time Internet options, though). The interface is a bit outdated: tool-tips and clear definitions of proper targets in the rock/paper/scissors combat methodology should be present. The units offer nothing innovative, and tactics involve being on good terrain against foes your units are pre-scripted to excel against. The turn-based mechanics allow for movement and one other action per turn, leading to a lot of drawn-out battles and stalemates. That said, the AI puts up a very good fight, despite the occasional hiccup, besting me early and often, and you can edit most everything in the game, from textures to maps to unit values to AI behaviors. Still, the simplistic nature of the game won’t appeal to everyone: in order to reach a larger audience, Future Wars may alienate more experienced strategy gamers looking for deeper mechanics.