Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hegemony: Philip of Macedon Review

Hegemony: Philip of Macedon, developed and published by Longbow Games.
The Good: Extensive game world, copious explicit objectives, seamless transition between strategic and tactical gameplay, automated supply distribution
The Not So Good: An inadequate interface and constant attacks make large empires challenging to manage efficiently, single linear campaign with mandatory objectives, lacks multiplayer and smaller scenarios, tactical battles typically devolve into mass hysteria
What say you? An ancients strategy title with taxing gameplay and a very comprehensive but restrictively historical campaign: 5/8

When you think of “famous Greeks,” one person always come to mind: Nia Vardalos. Also famous was Alexander the Great, who was so great he had his name legally changed from “Alexander the Pretty Good.” Far less renowned is his father Philip the Sequel, who set the bar for known-world domination his son eventually completed. This is certainly the type of thing that makes for quality computer gaming, letting you live vicariously through the lives of men wearing extremely tiny loincloths. How do Val Kilmer and Colin Farrell fare in the realm of grand strategy?

The graphics of Hegemony: Philip of Macedon come in two flavors: up high and down low. When you’d like to be closer to the brutality, you can zoom in to the 3-D map display, where units are displayed as individuals crossing the field of glory. The animations are repetitive but decent enough for an acceptable level of immersion. The large game map is impressive in its scope, though the individual regions retain no distinctive properties. There isn’t much detail on the landscapes: apart from the cities and various other buildings that dot the terrain, there isn’t much to look at. The textures could look better; the game’s map is reminiscent of Mount & Blade, which isn’t a bad thing as long as your expectations are properly lowered. Upon zooming out, the map transitions to a classic board game feel, complete with a neat hand-drawn map and miniature unit counters. It works as an effective and memorable large overview of your empire. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon has very basic sound effects and music: a couple of battle sounds to enjoy, event notifications, and subtle tunes to drive the mood. While Hegemony: Philip of Macedon does not impress, it does offer up an adequate package of graphics and sound for gamers used to wargame-level presentations.

When he took the throne in 359 BC, Philip II thought that Macedon was entirely too small and sought out to conquer all of his neighbors. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon covers this historical expansion by offering one scenarios with over one hundred objectives: impressive. Unfortunately, you will encounter the same objectives in the same order each time you play and you must complete them in order to advance the story. While you are usually given several objectives to complete at the same time and completing the campaign takes quite a long time, replay value is still fairly low thanks to the linear, fixed nature of the objectives. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon also lacks skirmish battles, shorter scenarios, and online contests against human competitors. The campaign offers a sort of in-game tutorial, and there is extensive in-game help, but no PDF manual for external reference. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon is played in real-time, with one hour representing a year in the game, as the seasons progress, providing different conditions. Time cannot be accelerated, but things happen quickly enough where you are rarely waiting. You can pause the action at any time, or set it up to pause when important events occur, such as a sighted enemy unit (which happens every ten seconds or so).

Considering the large size of your eventual empire, Hegemony: Philip of Macedon needs an efficient interface that allows for easy access to military units and important strongholds. Unfortunately, it comes up a bit short. While there is a comprehensive unit and building list that can be alphabetized or sorted by strength or location, there are no filters (like by region or type) and it becomes increasingly unwieldy as your empire grows. It would be much easier to have dedicated hot keys for accessing units (maybe there are, but the in-game manual doesn’t mention them specifically). The zoomed-out map is nice and garrisoned troops are indicated by circles under their city’s icon, but it is impossible to select units located behind other units. This is where the 3-D counters are a great hindrance to the gameplay: you must constantly (and slowly) rotate the map to select everyone, a true pain in a real-time game. Right-clicking on a structure usually picks an appropriate action (attack, capture, build), though you can hold it down to pick a more specific order. There is a significant amount of lag (a second or so) between when orders are issued and when the units receive them, a terrible limitation that slows you down significantly as you respond to being attacked. I also do not like how grouped units behave: they will enter a specified formation, but this usually prevents all of your units from engaging the enemy simultaneously. The net result is units will rout one at a time until you are defeated: boo. It is also impossible to disband a grouping: you must individually select every single unit and give them an individualized order: tedious. There are significant problems with the interface that make Hegemony: Philip of Macedon a pain to manage.

The economy in Hegemony: Philip of Macedon is largely automated. The main resource is food, produced at farms and then transported automatically along supply lines you create between cities that need them. The ox carts that transport the goods can be raided by enemy troops. There are an impressive 312 cities located in 132 regions, with twenty-six native factions to deal with as you expand your empire. You don’t construct any new buildings as you encounter new territory: rather, you capture existing cities, farms, forts, mines, villas, and watchtowers to enlarge your influence. Gold earned from population and mines is spent on maintaining new troops; it works as a constant maximum monthly budget, like a population cap (there’s one of those as well), rather than a replenished source of funds. The economy of Hegemony: Philip of Macedon works well, providing just enough depth without being overly complicated.

Hegemony: Philip of Macedon includes pretty much every historical unit you’d ever want to meet on the Greek battlefield: basic infantry, hoplites, javelineers (I hope I spelled that correctly), spearmen, archers, cavalry, plus catapults and boats. There are more generic selections and regional-specific specialists that are rated in health and attack value. Units can gain experience over time that will offer improvements in view distance, food usage, morale, and speed. Generals, recruited from captured villas, can be assigned to a unit to provide increased effectiveness and killing power. Your units can be organized into a number of formations (line, V, circle) and grouped into groups (imagine that!), although the latter option doesn’t work well as I described above. Still, Hegemony: Philip of Macedon gives you plenty of options for fielding the army of your Greek (geek?) dreams.

Hegemony: Philip of Macedon lets you command your forces from a tactical perspective, choosing appropriate unit positions and facing before they engage in combat. The best strategy seems to be flanking the enemy: the feedback is not as explicit as in Scourge of War: Gettysburg, but attacking from multiple sides appears to be beneficial. The use of mixed forces, especially coupling heavy hoplites with fast-moving cavalry, is advantageous as well. While all of this is great in theory, the battles usually devolve into a gigantic mass of humanity anyway. This chaos is further promoted by the poor use of groups, where units may or may not engage the enemy. Defeated troops retreat all the way back to their home city, which is quite annoying. Additionally, generals who were assigned to those troops are unattached, requiring you to combine units all over again. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon tries its best to keep your forces disorganized.

As it probably was in real life, managing a sprawling empire is very difficult. The lack of any type of automation makes controlling troops spread out over a large area essentially impossible, especially in a real-time game. True, you can pause the action at any time, but constant notices of incoming enemies slow the pace to a crawl. In addition, the enemy AI will attack you on multiple fronts simultaneously, requiring you to split your forces to defend all of your holdings. Unfortunately, the population and economic caps imposed by the game prevent you from having enough troops to cover all of your territory, resulting in towns constantly switching allegiances. This, as you can imagine, is very annoying. You simply cannot be in multiple places at once to micromanage each of the battles, and leaving the tactical decisions to the AI is less than ideal. I have a feeling the difficulty and continuous harassment is intentional (and probably historically accurate), but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Hegemony: Philip of Macedon has a number of good ideas that don’t successfully pan out. Most impressive is the massive scale of the game: a huge accurate map dotted with historical cities and real topographic boundaries. The game also includes lots of historic units and generals to lead your troops. While the campaign features hundreds of objectives, they are both linear and mandatory, seriously depleting replay value. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon would benefit from smaller scenarios, more choices with objectives, and the addition of multiplayer or skirmish battles. The interface makes controlling a lot of troops, especially when they are in close proximity to each other, troublesome. The comprehensive list of units and buildings is nice, but it doesn’t offer instant access to important troops. The economy is largely automated (quite similar to Distant Worlds), where food is transported where it’s needed and protection of supply lines is your only form of intervention. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon is highlighted by a feeling of overwhelming odds against you as you attempt to unite the Greek isles by force. This obviously isn’t fair, and I wouldn’t mind it as much if the game gave you enough resources to take on all challengers. As it stands, the population cap and economy limits imposed on you simply don’t allow defense of all of your cities simultaneously, which results in some frustrating gameplay. You are constantly attacked by enemy units on all of your borders, requiring you to repeatedly shuffle forces around. The fact that defeated forces retreat to their home province (losing their generals in the process) introduces an amount of micromanagement I do not enjoy. All of this is taking place in real time, which is simply too much constant chaos to deal with. Those who can handle wars on multiple fronts will find a lot to like in Hegemony: Philip of Macedon, but the rest of us will quickly realize why the empire fell.