Saturday, December 18, 2010

Swords and Soldiers Review

Swords and Soldiers, developed and published by Ronimo Games.
The Good: Really distinctive gameplay with unparalleled strategies, online multiplayer searches for games in the background, constant action, occasional multiple objectives during campaign missions
The Not So Good: Keyboard controls needed, limited map selection with no editor, somewhat brief campaigns
What say you? This one-dimensional strategy game transitions to the PC with its unique linear mechanics intact: 6/8

While the PC is the clear home for strategy gaming (one reason why it is my preferred platform), the occasional title does slip through the cracks to the evil consoles. Most of the time, it's a port of a computer game that fails miserably because of inept gamepad controllers. Keyboard and mouse for the win! Anyway, the heathens at Ronimo Games actually designed a strategy game for the Ninentdo Wii (or, as I like to call it, “the Kinect four years ago”) that takes advantage of the console's mouse-like pointing. I know, right? A year and a half later, it's finally the PC's turn to revel in the unique nature of the game's HIGH DEFINITION.

Swords and Soldiers retains the original game's graphical style while supporting the higher resolutions desired by today's discerning PC gamer. The game does transition nicely to HD, with detailed animations for the character models and nice effects like day/night cycles, rain, and poison. The levels have a good attention to detail as well. The 2-D presentation obviously fits the gameplay here and doesn't opt for a 3-D upgrade, which I think works in favor of Swords and Soldiers as the developers are able to add more detail and retain a great theme overall. The game also features appropriate battle sounds (though a bit repetitive) and good music that I didn't mind at all. Overall, I felt the graphics and sound of Swords and Soldiers to be quite solid.

Swords and Soldiers is a strategy game where you deploy units along a linear path and use spells to make attacks more effective. The game includes three campaigns highlighting each of the factions: the Vikings that can heal units, the Aztecs that can raise dead units, and the Chinese that can clone troops. Each side is given ten missions that clock in under ten minutes each (and usually around five), so completeing the entire campaign won’t take more than a couple of hours. This seems kind of short, although considering some $60 games, maybe that's not too short after all. A tutorial is included with the campaign, and some missions include multiple victory conditions, like gold collection or timed survival, or offering different paths. After you are done with the campaign, you can try out skirmish battles against the AI, where you can set difficulty, a player handicap, and starting levels for gold, mana, and workers. There are only nine maps to play on, though (three of each size small, medium, and large), and Swords and Soldiers does not include a map editor. Swords and Soldiers also includes three challenge modes where you try to hold on against specialized conditions for as long as possible. Finally, Swords and Soldiers features nice online options: the game will find an opponent for you while you are enjoying the single-player content. This is a very nice feature that eliminates the boring monotony of waiting for an adversary. While it would be extra nice to have a browser listing all potential rivals, the matchmaking in Swords and Soldiers is done well.

Swords and Soldiers retains the user interface implemented in the Wii version, which is very mouse-heavy. Units are selected for construction by clicking on their icon across the top of the screen; the icons have clear countdown timers indicating when you may queue up another order. There is also a minimap of sorts (it’s a line, since all of the units travel in a linear path) along the bottom of the screen, showing the location of all your troops; you may zoom in on another portion of the map by right-clicking, which erases any spell you might have selected beforehand. There are some limitations: you can’t queue up future production (although this is probably by design), there are no keyboard hotkeys to use (in fact, you have to input your name using the mouse), and there are no tool-tips explaining what the unit and spell icons are for. So while the transition to the PC isn’t totally awesome, the simple interface makes Swords and Soldiers easy to play.

There are two resources in Swords and Soldiers: gold and mana. Both are slowly added to your coffers over time, but you can gather them at a faster rate by sending workers to mines (for gold) and through research (for mana). Gold is used to purchase units of varying abilities: workers, melee fighters, ranged fighters, stunners, and support. Melee is used to place spells using your mouse, which can heal, hurry, attack, poison, or freeze units (among other things).

Swords and Soldiers is a balance between resource collection and unit production, specifically producing the best units at the best times. You cannot control the units once they are produced: they simply travel down the linear path at their own pace, and automatically attack any enemies along the way. However, this does not mean that Swords and Soldiers is devoid of strategy, as you can plan when to queue units so that they arrive at the enemy encampment simultaneously. Still, it can be difficulty to time things correctly, and some of the time you’ll just be producing every type of unit as fast as you can (which may not be the most sound strategy). There are a multitude of strategies to employ: you can go unit-heavy, focus on gold production first, concentrate on spells, or decide on a mixture of everything. You are always clicking on new troops or issuing spells, so Swords and Soldiers is never boring; the fast pace of the game ensures that much. There are some difficult levels where there are moments of equality mid-game, and the difficulty to forming a concentrated attack means games last a bit longer than they should. The AI provides competent competition and a challenging foe several times during the campaign, although the best opposition is always found online, where the simple mechanics and fast pace of Swords and Soldiers work best.

Swords and Soldiers boils down strategy gaming to its very core, producing a very straightforward title that good for novices and veterans alike. Some players will bemoan the relative simplicity of Swords and Soldiers as your troops simply travel in a line with no direct interaction, but therein lies its appeal: the game is about ordering troops and casting spells. Successfully grouping your troops (since you can't control them after they are produced) and using spells at the right moment will result in ultimate victory. Even though Swords and Soldiers is predominantly hands-off, you are never just sitting there: there are always spells to click and units to make, and the pace is fast enough to keep you busy. The game also allows for multifaceted strategy and variety using the three unique factions. The interface could benefit from some keyboard hotkeys for more efficient gameplay, but the mouse does well enough. The campaign offers three different factions and multiple victory conditions during most missions. In addition, you can take the game online for real human competition, and the game will even search for games in the background while you play the campaign: brilliant. While I would like to see more maps (or an editor) included, Swords and Soldiers provides some unique strategy gaming.