Friday, May 27, 2011

Digitanks Review

Digitanks, developed and published by Lunar Workshop.
The Good: Large variety of weapons, energy must be balanced between offensive weapons and defensive shields, strategic base building, randomly generated deformable terrain, extensive technology tree
The Not So Good: Tedious slow pace, lacks multiplayer matchmaking, no campaign mode, AI only provides a mild challenge at the highest difficulty, fixed game length and map size, don't manually aim projectiles
What say you? This lackadaisical turn-based strategy game features destructible terrain and diverse weaponry with solid tactics: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

In the future, wars will not be fought by man. Rather, they will be fought by machines inside computers. Clearly, scientific documentaries like Tron have established this to be the case, most likely involving Oscar winners and White Russians. Digitanks is the latest computer simulation of the future world conflict, adapting the clash into a turn-based strategy title with base construction, territory expansion, resource collection, and tactical battles between digital tanks (or, as they are more commonly known as, “Pok√©mon”).

Digitanks takes place in a digital world, and it looks a lot like another game that also took place in a digital world, Darwinia. And by “a lot” I mean a lot: it might be difficult to tell the two games apart at first glance. Digitanks uses the same bright neon overtones and the same squared-off terrain as that classic minimalist title. There is significant glowing in both the weapons and the networks established to collected resources as well. The overall graphical feel is nice, but it’s been done before. The sound is minimal: a few sound effects and distracting background music are a forgettable mix. Overall, there’s nothing unique or distinctive in the presentation of Digitanks, exploring territory that’s clearly been traversed before.

Digitanks is a turn-based strategy game where you construct your base, collect resources, and attack the enemy. There are two game modes to choose from: just the tactical battles (artillery mode) or the whole kit and/or kaboodle in strategic mode. There is no campaign and the game options are limited: number of players and terrain (plus number of tanks for the artillery mode). In addition, there are only two difficulty levels, easy and normal, that become less than challenging after a game or two. Also, the game fails to auto-save your progress (as I found out when I exited the game and thought my progress would be saved…time for a new game!). While Digitanks does have multiplayer, there is no in-game matchmaking to find opponents. However, I do like the randomized terrain that allows for good replay value, and the tutorials do a decent job teaching the basics of the game mechanics. Overall, Digitanks could benefit from more well-rounded features.

The strategic half of Digitanks involves base expansion to capture resource nodes so you can afford more units to take down the enemy. The game plays out like Perimeter, where all of your structures must be connected to the main base (the CPU, being inside a computer and all) using buffers with a circular radius. You then place capacitors and power supplies on top of power nodes in range of your buffers to get more power, and factories to produce new units. There is only one resource (power) used for everything, and the population cap that is increased with research. The technology tree is extensive, and each option opens up a two to three new research choices. New technologies are handled like downloads, the speed of which is determined by your bandwidth (which can be improved through research): a neat incorporation of the computerized theme. Problem is, each research option takes a couple of turns to complete, and you have to research a lot of things you might not need (higher population cap, namely) on the way to the more interesting options that you do need (additional unit types). You also get health, attack, and speed bonuses unlocked along the way up to the top of the tree.

The strategic game has a really slow, methodical pace because of arbitrary time requirements to complete in-game action. It takes at least two turns to do anything in the game: build a capacitor or factory, move a unit a significant distance, recruit a new unit, wait for research. This makes a game of Digitanks last about two to three times longer than it really needs to. You can only afford to do one thing per turn early in the game as you grow your power network (while being harassed by the AI and neutral forces), resulting in the “end turn” button getting a heavy workout. It also takes several turns to destroy an enemy unit or take down a structure, which further elongates the game time. The inability to change the map size means there is no way to shorten up the game, so you’re stuck with a strategic mode that I feel takes too long to complete. That said, there are some interesting strategies you can employ: raids against the enemy network, taking out intermediate buffers connecting the base to far-flung power sources, is a very viable tactic the AI loves to use. Units placed in friendly territory do get bonuses for easier defense, but you still have to fend off annoying attacks from the AI. The computer isn’t the best at base building: the only way they can outpace the human player is by using raids to temporarily disable your power structures, slowing production in the process. Digitanks could use a difficulty level above “normal” with smarter, more efficient AI to provide a challenge once the initial strategies are worked out by the player. Once you have fended off the computer’s attacks, you can usually steamroll the opponents.

The tactical artillery battles are interesting thanks to a large array of weapon types. The three units (defensive resistor, regular digitank, long-range artillery) have access to a number of shells: small, medium, large, fragments, shield-reducing, bouncing, diggers, shotguns, and manually guided options cover pretty much all tactical situations. These weapons must be balanced with defensive shields: since they both draw from the same energy pool, a weapon that uses 60% of your energy leaves your shields at only 40% capacity. This leads to an interesting decision: how much energy do you leave to your shields, and how much do you dedicate towards attack? These types of choices make good strategy games. You do not need to aim or decide on shot power: once you choose an enemy, Digitanks fires for you and always hits (as long as you have line of sight). Those looking for Scorched Earth-style battles will be left disappointed. The AI players perform behind a competent human player, needing a numerical advantage to be a real threat. The computer does retreat when outmatched and occasionally uses alternative weapons and team tactics to eliminate single units, but it is never a match for capable human tactics. Digitanks makes it easy to find units, displaying everything along the left side of the screen Sins of a Solar Empire-style, and news events along the right. The emoticons used by the tanks to react to in-game events are a nice touch as well. Overall, solid tactical battles and slow base building coupled with an average AI produce an interesting but ultimately limited title.

Digitanks plays out like a slightly enhanced, 3-D version of Scorched Earth with a base building mode, but without the challenge of actually aiming your weapon. All of the attacks will automatically hit if the enemy is in range and in line-of-sight, so your choices are which weapons to use and how much shield energy to use in your attacks. There are a lot of weapon types to choose from to cover most tactical situations, so there are certainly some interesting decisions here. The strategic mode features Perimeter-like expansion where you must connect all of your structures to your base; this allows for enemy raids against your economy, giving those players who are lagging behind a chance to catch up through constant annoyance. Unfortunately, the strategic mode has a needlessly slow pace as determined by slow movement, slow construction, and slow research: there is no practical reason things take two or three or four (or more) turns to complete, other than to waste my time. While Digitanks supports online play, it does not offer matchmaking of any kind. Without robust online options, Digitanks relies on the quality of its AI, which is competent but not difficult: it is slightly better at tactical battles than base building and expansion, but veteran players will rarely be tested after they get a game or two under their belt. I like the randomized maps with destructible terrain that allows for some strategies (like hiding in craters), but the fixed map size always results in the same game lengths. In the end, Digitanks is a solid foundation for a tactical and strategic game that simply needs more balancing and features to create a faster, more challenging product.