Wednesday, January 19, 2011

APOX Review

APOX, developed and published by BlueGiant Interactive.
The Good: Detailed resource usage, units can gather and use additional weapons, vehicles can transport troops that bestow additional weaponry, capture-the-flag collection of rare metal to build powerful end-game weaponry, small army size for easier control, usually smart automation of menial tasks, supports large 32-player online matches on over 100 maps with an editor
The Not So Good: No supply trucks to transport resources for sustained attacks, units don’t automatically attack enemies in visual range, predictable "cheating" AI, narrow research options and limited strategic variety, overpowered vehicles dominate infantry units, trivial solo content, must unlock bland maps, tutorials could use work
What say you? Unique resource supply, flexible unit and vehicle weaponry, and large online battles highlight this multiplayer real-time strategy game: 6/8

The very first “proper” review (meaning a game I got for free) I did was for Trash, an innovative indie RTS that featured unique resources and large online battles. So, what’s a developer to do for a follow-up? Why, move to India and assist in starting up a new computer software company, of course! APOX (an acronym that stands for “APOX”) is a real-time strategy game that features unique resources and large online battles. Sound familiar? That’s where the similarities end, though, as APOX has a bleak-future setting, FPS-inspired features like weapon collection that produce slight customization of vehicles and units, and other innovative features. I am a sucker for innovative products, so let’s see if APOX makes for some good real-time strategy gaming.

APOX features decent graphics for a modern real-time strategy title. The game certainly cannot compare favorably with the big-budget offerings that occasionally appear on the PC, but it holds its own and the reduced quality never negatively impacts the gameplay. The post-apocalyptic future lends itself to a lot of run-down, dirty buildings, and that’s what you get in APOX: while the structures are quite detailed, the environments are bland, usually consisting of simply hills to separate areas of each map. The maps feel like balanced game worlds rather than real-life locations. The settings come in several flavors (snow, desert, green, rocky), which only tend to change the background the units are displayed over. The unit models are animated well, although most of the game is played from a distant perspective so you won’t notice. The interface is traditional for the RTS genre; APOX does add some icons when buildings are idle, but fails to highlight unused units, so you still have to hunt them down using the minimap. The sound design is very basic: combat effects, some game notifications, and generic background music. There is no voice work, which is probably a good thing since in most cases it becomes repetitive and annoying. While APOX won’t “wow” anyone with graphical prowess, it still delivers a solid enough experience.

APOX is a real-time strategy game set in a post-apocalyptic future of scarce resources, run-down buildings, and Mel Gibson (Mel Gibson not included). All of the sides fighting for dominance are identical, unlike most RTS titles that feature dissimilar races. I actually have no problem with this, as it doesn’t limit the strategies available to you, thanks to innovations in other areas. In order to learn the game mechanics, APOX features four basic training tutorials and three scripted single player missions, all of which are interactive. In addition, APOX has a number of online videos to cover more material, though I prefer the more interactive experience. While the tutorials do cover most of the game's unique mechanics, most new players I encountered online had no idea what they were doing, so I guess it didn't do a fantastic job walking players through the general early game strategy. APOX is centered around online play, and although skirmish games against a capable AI is available, a single player campaign is nowhere to be found (I usually don't pay much attention to them, but the omission must be noted). The game supports up to thirty-two players, an impressive quantity usually associated with first person shooters rather than real-time strategy games. Large games can get quite chaotic and lengthy, but game times in smaller matches are quite manageable. APOX features over one hundred maps in order to support the large number of team options involving up to thirty-two players. The map designs are uninteresting, usually featuring a very symmetrical design where each side is separated by mountains and has access to the same resources. APOX does give you a map editor to make more interesting creations, though. Only some of the maps are initially unlocked: the rest only become available by spending points earned by finishing matches. While I always dislike arbitrary limitation, at least only the host needs to have the map unlocked for all to play on it.

The first area of innovation deals with resources, and there are five to deal with. The first is salvage, used to produce buildings and units and collected automatically at salvage yards. The player sets a slider balancing the production of salvage and ammo (the second resource) at their salvage yard; capturing ammo depots scattered around the map allows you to produce more salvage at your base, which in turn allows you to afford better units and structures. Ammo is carried in limited quantities by all units and needs to be constantly replenished during heavy combat. Gas is used by vehicles (and flame thrower units) and is collected at gas stations and refineries. Metal is interesting: it is collected capture-the-flag style and used for powerful turrets and vehicles that can quickly dispose of enemy forces and bases. You can shoot the units that are transporting metal back to base and keep it for yourself, creating a unique tug-of-war situation, especially as the construction of the end-game weapons near completion. Finally, a slow trickle of survivors (required to construct units and vehicles, as they act as drivers) occurs at your shelter; the survivors appear more quickly if you are below the soft population cap (which can be exceeded, albeit very slowly). While transporting resources between their respective collection points and your base is completely automated (assuming you have built pipes and garrisoned enough people in the ammo depots and metal sites), you must worry about taking those resources on offensive missions where units routinely run out of gas and ammunition. APOX lacks a supply truck that could provide your units with additional provisions; as it stands, most base assaults stall about halfway through simply because units run out of ammo. While this convention does make defending easier (since you are based near resources) and requires a superior attacking force, it does become annoying if you are clearly going to win and have to resupply part of the way through an offensive.

APOX has a number of buildings, all of which (including those that produce resources) must be manned. This is a really interesting feature: instead of having to completely destroy a building in order to disable it, all you need to do is kill the worker inside the building (a job most appropriate for flame thrower units) and it stops producing. Some buildings provide cover for the units inside, while others do not. In addition, some buildings have increased production when more units are garrisoned inside. Other than the resource-producing structures, options are typical: barracks and auto factories produce infantry and vehicles, and clinics and mechanics heal infantry and vehicles. You are also given a suite of stationary turrets for defensive purposes, and metal can be used to build powerful super guns that can level an entire base.

In a nod to first person shooters, the infantry units in APOX can carry up to two weapons (starting with one) that can be collected from fallen units. In fact, all units are the same except for their weapons: everyone can build and transport resources, so you can ask that rifleman to lug some extra ammo if you choose. You start by producing a soldier equipped with one weapon (rifle, flame thrower, heavy machine gun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, or mortar), but you can add an extra weapon by producing it at a barracks or picking one up on the ground next to a dead unit. Vehicles (machine gun cars, flame cars, anti-tank guns, armored vehicles, artillery, and tanks) are handled in much the same way: you can put any unit in the passenger’s seat and they will use their gun in concert with the main weapon. A sniping flame car is a sight to behold. It’s certainly a good idea to equip each unit with two weapons in order to maximize tactical possibilities. Weapons also break during use, making multiple options in weaponry a good choice. You can queue up new units at any time, and once the resources are available for them, they will be produced; less micromanagement is always appreciated. APOX features some very limited resource options: units gain experience during combat, making them slightly more effective, and small upgrades like mines and grenades can be researched. Incapacitated units can also be carried back to your base and used to provide intelligence on the enemy by removing the fog of war for a period of time. I certainly approve of the high amount of unit customization present in APOX.

Units can be issued specific orders, similar to Men of War, like crawl and prone. The "flee" button is especially useful for saving resources spent reproducing dead units. Since APOX features a low population cap, this amount of micromanagement isn’t annoying, and most units will automatically do these things anyway during combat. While cover can be used in the game, APOX isn’t as verbose about whether units are behind cover as, say, Company of Heroes (and, by proxy, Dawn of War II), and units don’t seem to search for cover on their own. Units will choose the most appropriate weapon when engaging and enemy, but they will not actively seek out (or even attack) enemy units within their visual range that are attacking them; this is a huge problem when fighting mortar infantry (which the AI loves to use) and snipers. Units that are selected together will not stay as a cohesive assemblage: cars will always speed out ahead of infantry units, even if they are in the same group. Controlling your troops in APOX is a mixed bag.

APOX moves at a quick pace (small four-player games usually clock in under twenty minutes) and the victor is usually determined by control of the resource sites. Controlling ammo depots allows you to make more salvage to produce more impressive units, more gas means more vehicles, and more metal results in devastating end-game superweapons. Because of these superweapons, APOX lacks the usual end-game tedium and clean-up: the game reveals the map when you are dominating, and there is an elimination countdown when your base is destroyed. While taking out the garrisoned units that allow a building to function is usually an easy task, actually destroying a building (and an entire base) takes a while if you don’t have a supergun at your disposal. Because of this, small maps where metal is not present can produce more frequent stalemates and drawn-out matches, so I always look for at least one metal deposit when choosing an arena for battle. Even with the super weapons, there are many times mid-game where, while you might be ahead in terms of units and resources, you simply can't overrun the enemy base without losing all of your units in the process. The strength of defensive structures (namely the flame tower) assures that, until you can defeat the person manning the turrets, your assaults will be constantly repelled. The small variety in units also makes for limited general strategies when playing: the main decision involves which annoying unit to field first (heavy machine guns, snipers, or mortars) after riflemen take all of the surrounding resource positions, then it's a sprint to the flame vehicles, and finally, if the game is close, a race for metal to build those powerful weapons. Having a more varied technology tree would go a long ways towards making each match feel different. The cars are very difficult for infantry units to defeat (even with RPGs, which either deal an insignificant amount of damage or miss their target completely), so once they enter the game, watch out. The AI is challenging, especially on “hard” difficulty (the required setting for ranked matches), mostly because it is very efficient at the game mechanics and they are given extra resources. The AI almost always does the same base build (one flame defensive tower, but no gun turrets) and favors the same units (flame cars, snipers, and especially mortars), so it's very predictable and subsequently boring to play against. Playing against the "hard" AI is really annoying since they will have access to mortars and cars before you can possibly research or counter them; I guess that's why it's called "hard". On the other hand, the AI does some really dumb things on occasion, like sending a single unit into your base on occasion and not retreating when being overwhelmed. The AI holds no comparison to online matches featuring human opponents.

APOX combines a couple of neat ideas to create a distinctive, if mixed, real-time strategy game. It starts with the resources, which are realistically tracked on a per-unit basis. Resources are transported automatically by pipe or garrisoned units and shared between adjacent units so there usually isn’t much tedium involved there, except when you are fighting away from home. Since you must mind your ammunition on offensive missions, a supply truck would be quite beneficial to carry the excess supplies required to complete an assault. Metal collection involves an interesting capture-the-flag mechanic; it is used to construct powerful end-game units that bring stalemates to an abrupt end. The population cap for APOX is quite low in order to allow for more precise control of unit stance and movement, although they will mostly do intelligent actions when engaging the enemy on their own. Conversely, your units will ignore spotted mortar and sniper units that are attacking and destroying your base. Interestingly, the units are only defined by their weapons: each unit can carry two weapons (they start with one) and you can gather weapons (and resources) from fallen units, increasing your tactical options without spending the resources. You can also capture rival units to reveal enemy positions. Vehicles also allow for a range of flexibility: you can place any unit along with the driver, adding their firepower to the vehicle’s capabilities. While buildings are typical for a real-time strategy game, all buildings must be manned to operate, making flamethrower units especially effective at neutralizing enemy bases. There are disappointingly limited research options to choose from, so most distance between competing sides results from choosing the right (or wrong) units and holding the handful of resource-producing structures scattered around the map. The small unit variety makes for quick matches, but most games feature the same selection of repetitive strategies with everyone scrambling to get cars first. While the AI is quite challenging on “hard” difficulty (thanks in part to its additional resources), the computer players usually field the same units and identical base designs while exhibiting some questionable tactics. It is highly recommended you take APOX online and engage in huge battles featuring up to thirty-two players. Ultimately, APOX offers some intriguing ideas regarding resources and weapons but lacks the strategic variety required for ultimate long-term enjoyment.