Friday, July 16, 2010

Legio Review

Legio, developed by ICE Game Studios and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Multiple unit types promote different strategies (in theory), challenging AI, online multiplayer, skill-based combat results
The Not So Good: Ranged units have an overpowering advantage, stalemates common because aggressive play is discouraged, no campaign, impossible to come back after a first round loss
What say you? Chess meets wargame with unbalanced results: 4/8

Since the 1400’s, people around the world have enjoyed moving their queens into checkmate. That statement is not just a subtle sexual innuendo, as I am also talking about chess. The classic strategy game has remained unchanged for however long Wikipedia says it has, because that is a totally reliable source of information. There have been multiple adaptations on the PC, but we sophisticated gamers require something beyond the simple black and white. Enter Legio, a game that hopes to combine the mechanics of chess with a tabletop wargame (think Warhammer). Is it check, or checkmate, for Legio? I forget which one of those is bad…

Legio features decent graphics for the $10 price tag. The games take place in dark castle locations with occasional lighting that adds to the medieval air the game exudes. There’s nothing that separates one locale from another, though, and you’ll never do battle in a magical forest of magic. Each of the units has distinctive models that allow for quick visual identification. The animations could use a lot more variety, though. Still, it’s better than staring at a chessboard. The sound design consists of repetitive sound effects for combat coupled with music that changes based on gameplay events. Most would not expect much for $10, and Legio delivers on that expectation: functional but certainly not awe-inspiring.

Similar to Zatikon, Legio is a turn-based strategy game where you select a roster of troops and set out to destroy the enemy on a chess-like battlefield. The game features single-player action against the AI at three difficulty levels. There is no structured campaign to speak of, however. Multiplayer is available on the same computer or over a LAN or the Internet using the in-game matchmaking: a nice feature. To reduce the amount of time spent waiting for the AI to move, a speed mode (accessed in the pause menu) can quicken the pace of the game. Each game consists of several rounds: you always start out on a standard map and then choose one of twelve maps for your castle that you will defend in case you lose the first round. The game keeps all the troops that survived the first round, so it's impossible to come back unless the first round was really close. One wonders the point of having multiple rounds if you are guaranteed victory/defeat. Wonder indeed.

Before combat starts, you can spend points to purchase units. Each of the eight units has a specific role and special abilities, so the strategic considerations are many. Archers excel at long range, assassins are invisible, captains inspire nearby troops, giants attack multiple units at once, magicians have ranged magic, priests heal, warrabbits leap over chasms, and warriors stand there and get shot at. Each unit has several attributes (health, speed, melee damage, magic resistance) that determine their effectiveness. Overall, Legio offers a nice selection of units to choose from.

Each unit can be issued one order during their turn: attack, move, or defend. Commands are given by using the mouse, and you must be very precise in your pointing and pay attention to the displayed icon before clicking, as there is little room for error. I enjoy the use of a skill-based determination of enemy damage: you click when a circle is inside another circle to maximize your destruction. The game decides who goes next in a seemingly random order, though recently moved units will wait the longest to go next. This induction of luck makes Legio seems unfair, especially when you consider how terribly unbalanced the game is as a whole. Here’s why: ranged units can attack most of the map without threat. The attacker always causes damage while the defender never does, which encourages very defensive (boring) play. Whoever gets in range of the enemy first loses, so it’s a constant game of staying just outside the movement range of the enemy, since units can move and attack in the same turn. Melee units are at such a disadvantage and move slowly enough that they will never survive the trip across the map to take out their ranged counterparts. The victor is mostly decided immediately after you choose your starting forces: if you have a good counter for the enemy’s ranged attack (like flooding the map with too many melee targets), then you win no matter what strategy you employ during actual combat. Quite unfortunate, since the AI is actually very good: they will engage proper targets and use their units’ specific abilities well. The poorly balanced gameplay and propensity for stalemates, though, makes Legio a tough sell.

Legio is a good idea, sprucing up wargaming with inspiration from chess, but it doesn’t work. This is due to a complete lack of game balance: ranged units (archers and magicians) are so overpowered since they can attack almost every unit on the map. Melee units don’t have enough health to traverse the map without getting picked off by ranged units first. You also lose if you enter the enemy’s engagement range. Legio quickly becomes a contest of avoiding enemy contact: if they can move to your location, they win because the attacker always delivers damage with no repercussions. Because of this, the best strategy is to stay far away from the enemy and wait for them to foolishly come within striking distance. There is nothing preventing both sides from never moving at all. As you can imagine, this results in very uninteresting combat. That’s too bad, because the game has a couple of nice features, like varied units, skill-based combat damage, a very competent AI, and online multiplayer to compensate for the lack of a single player campaign. Sadly, Legio shows what happens when game balance goes bad.