Monday, June 28, 2010

Land Air Sea Warfare Review

Land Air Sea Warfare, developed and published by Isotope 244.
The Good: Huge battles involving lots of varied units, almost great interface, numerous game options, random maps, challengingly efficient AI, multiplatform, $20
The Not So Good: Defensive structures are too powerful mid-game, pointless low-tech levels, skirmish-only games and no multiplayer
What say you? An action-packed real time strategy game with enough options for a budget price: 6/8

With the usual PC emphasis on accurately modeling armor penetration depths in the strategy genre, the concentration of quality simpler takes on the RTS game are few and far between (though there are plenty of terrible simpler RTS games). Taking the baton is Land Air Sea Warfare, basically an enhanced version of Machines at War available for Windows, Macintosh, and some mobile devices (I think they are called “phones”). This game features lots of units on random 2-D battlefields blowing the crap out of each other. How does it stack up in the discerning strategy genre?

Land Air Sea Warfare is in 2-D, and if that bothers you, then you clearly aren’t a hardcore PC strategy gamer and should stop reading immediately (just kidding, you can keep reading (no, seriously, get out)). Luckily, it’s a good looking 2-D, with well-animated units and satisfying explosions and fire when the rounds start flying. Bullets and missiles are nice to watch, and each of the game’s units has a distinctive detailed design that makes them easily identifiable on the battlefield. The terrain is bland (although the water is animated nicely), partially a product of the randomized maps. The sound design is simply acceptable: some voice acknowledgments that aren’t terribly good, appropriate battle sounds, and background techno music that seems to be a requirement in any fast-paced arcade strategy game. Overall, I got exactly what I expected in terms of graphics and sound: just enough.

Land Air Sea Warfare has a good set of features for the $20 price tag. Games can be contested between two and four players, divided into teams or against each other in a dramatic battle for dominance...and cookies. Precious, precious cookies. All of the game's maps are randomly generated on the spot, using eleven different landscapes in four climates. You can also set the map size and whether the geography is known from the start. Additional interesting game settings include varied victory conditions, from standard “kill all” to the assassination of a leader unit to the first to research a powerful weapon or unit to a destroy-the-headquarters mode humorously called “all your base”. You can choose a different country to play as, but all nations get exactly the same units and they appear identically on the map. You can also introduce mutators to adjust the game rules, such as allowing only high-tech units, or disabling nukes or “mega” units. Land Air Sea Warfare also lets you adjust the AI difficulty level before a game, using the normal choices or selecting “adaptive” for a more tailored experience. Like its predecessor, Land Air Sea Warfare lacks both online (or same computer, for that matter) multiplayer and does not have a campaign mode. As a consolation prize, you can edit the XML files to make new units or adjust existing buildings.

The interface for Land Air Sea Warfare is nearly excellent. The main reason is the building and unit list that is displayed in the bottom right of the screen when a unit is not selected: it provides easy, one-click access to most of your units. I say “most” because it has a fixed number of display lines; once you have “too many” units, things start to combine or drop off the list. I’d like to see Land Air Sea Warfare take better advantage of higher resolution displays to show more information simultaneously. Once units are chosen (either through the list or keyboard shortcuts; “T” selects all units), you can issue one of six orders: hold, defend, attack, engage, patrol, and (very useful) explore. Transport units will automatically ferry also-selected units to a given destination: quite practical. The interface also provides a specific estimated time of arrival (more commonly abbreviated as “LOL”) for all queued units and buildings. Land Air Sea Warfare uses left-click for both unit selection and orders, with right-click reserved for deselection; this convention was initially confusing and I made many erroneous clicks while learning the local customs. The game also doesn’t allow you to zoom, requiring heavy use of the minimap in order to be efficient. Still, there are some very nice aspects to the interface that I appreciate.

There are two resources in Land Air Sea Warfare: ore, which is mined automatically by your headquarters, and power, which is produced a buildings and required for other structures. Ore is collected at a constant rate, improved only as your tech level increases. This puts all sides on essentially equal ground, and you cannot get a leg up on the competition through resource production. However, extra ore can be stored for later use, so there can be a very small amount of strategy involved I suppose. Other than your HQ and power-producing structures, you will construct land, air, and sea factories that construct land, air, and sea units in Land Air Sea Warfare. Weird, right? The game has an infinite queue (press “X,” as there is no on-screen icon for it) and you can queue up the same menu at different factories by selecting them all first. Defensive structures can also be built, although there is no air defense at tech level 1. You can build anywhere you can see; a common strategy is to send scout air units (since there are no defenses against them early in the game) to explore the map and pick a nice location near your opponent to produce more powerful land units without having to transport them. This also means that cleaning up at the end of a game can be very tedious, as an enemy’s base could potentially be anywhere.

Units in Land Air Sea Warfare (which come in land, air, and sea varieties…weird, right?) can usually attack one or two of the other types at different ranges. This is really how sophisticated non-historical strategy games get, so Land Air Sea Warfare provides enough options and variety to make the military aspect of the game interesting. The tech 3 “mega” units require a special resource, leading to skirmishes for controlling specific areas of the map. There is a population cap in the game, but it was high enough where it never became too much of a limitation.

Research can be used to upgrade your units, in terms of firepower, armor, speed, detection range, and more. Humorously (to me, anyway), the research labs are named after DHARMA research station on Lost (Looking Glass, Orchid, and Tempest). Research points are earned by reaching a new tech level, or by constructing a special mine or “mega” unit or ICBM. The options at tech level 2 are dramatically better than at tech level 1, so there is no reason to stay there: just build a couple of land defensive structures and you should repel any potential rush strategy.

Air units are most adept at scouting, while land units are best at attacking. Most limited seems to be naval units, who are only effective (obviously) on mostly-water maps. The defenses in Land Air Sea Warfare are very effective, I feel too effective. Until you have developed the third tier units, most attacks can be successfully repelled with a handful of units and static defenses. This means the mid-game suffers from a lot of standoffs with no winners, waiting until the more powerful units become available. The fast pace of Land Air Sea Warfare means a lot of destruction, and the relatively low health of units contributes to quick elimination of most of your troops. Land Air Sea Warfare lacks a deeper level of strategy: just build enough factories and crank out units and win. The AI is capable, and it does not cheat but obviously does things a lot faster than a human ever could. Nevertheless, you feel like there’s something missing beyond the mass hysteria of having tons of units blow up.

Land Air Sea Warfare is as advertised, featuring land, air, and sea warfare. The game goes beyond a simple RTS game by having a couple notable features. First, the decent interface that offers easy access to varied units and buildings. Pumping out tons of units is straightforward, and Land Air Sea Warfare does emphasize producing a large army, thanks in part to the high effectiveness of static defensive emplacements. The game has a number of game options that can adjust the map design, and specific rules and victory conditions for your contest of wills, although Land Air Sea Warfare lacks a campaign mode for a more structured and objective-based experience. While the massive battles can be quite entertaining, the game’s mechanics start to show rough areas upon further inspection. The uselessness of level 1 units means upgrading to tech 2 as quickly as possible is the only viable strategy. The fact that buildings can be placed anywhere sighted by a friendly unit makes for messier end-game cleanup. That said, the top-level units and more powerful weapons can make this chore less tedious. Units are quite balanced and each are appropriate for engaging specific enemies at varied ranges. Research also allows you to concentrate on a particular strategy. I do like automated resource collection, although it means most players will be on too much of an even playing field (since everyone on the same tech level will accumulate funds at the same rate), which contributes to more stalemates. The AI provides fair competition, although the lack of multiplayer for true challenge is distressing. Still, those looking for a more straightforward strategy gaming experience will find a number of nice features in Land Air Sea Warfare.