Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Star-Twine Review

Star-Twine, developed and published by Eric Billingsley.
The Good: Straightforward position-based strategy with unique mechanics, very capable AI opponent, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: Low income cap frequently leads to stalemates, randomized maps insignificantly vary strategy, only two-person battles with a single objective, no campaign mode, insufficient documentation
What say you? This simplified real-time strategy game offers decent depth and varied positional tactics with mid-game gridlock on random maps: 5/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Who’s tired of World War II real-time strategy games? Anyone? Anyone? Oh, well, I guess that’s why they still make them. Sometimes, though, you are in the mood for something different, and that’s where indie games can deliver. Sadly, it’s up to them to develop interesting titles that push the boundaries of computer gaming in new, exciting directions. Enter Star-Twine, a real-time strategy game where you place orbs on ribbons in space and hopefully destroy the enemy. Despite a disturbing lack of Uranus, this game’s unique gameplay makes it a perfect fit for the odd title positioned between 37,000 World War II games (just kidding, there are actually 45,000 World War II games). Do these distinctive mechanics produce a memorable strategy entry?

Star-Twine features simple but effective graphics and sound design. The game is set in space, and each level consists of a maze of ribbons of varied colors set against a dark background with the occasional star and/or nebula. Glowing orbs are used for units and bullets (easily identified when viewed up close), which is good contrast against the background. The sound design is relaxed, with plain effects for firing that are distinctive and subtle explosions when units are destroyed. The background music serves to round out the package, a satisfying collecting of doing a lot with a little.

Star-Twine is a real-time strategy game where you place items on ribbons in order to eliminate the enemy orbs. The game only features one-on-one battles and lacks a campaign, so all of the matches are skirmishes. You can choose an AI difficulty level (increasing the reaction time of the computer opponent) and pick a specific random level (or just have the game do it for you) before each match begins. Having randomized levels is certainly a good feature, but it rarely impacts the gameplay in any significant manner: the concentration of ribbons on which to build is so high that you can venture pretty much anywhere on every map. Star-Twine only features one victory condition: destroy all. The games are fast-paced and usually quick (fifteen minutes at the most) if one side gains an early advantage. Online multiplayer is available for engaging other humans in epic conflict, and while the game will actively search for other players, it does not indicate how many (if any) people are online. Star-Twine features a brief tutorial and lacks a manual, a detriment for a game with such unique rules.

As with most real-time strategy games, your time in Star-Twine is spent placing units on the battlefield. This is done in first person, using the mouse to control the camera and the “W” key to move around each level; unlike Sanctum, first person placement of units is intuitive and efficient here, as you can place multiples of the same object quickly (by simply left-clicking) and the zoomed-out view accessed with the right-mouse button is helpful. Holding the left-mouse button accesses your build menu with five choices. You’ll need to start with energy nodes: each gives increased income up to a cap of twelve, a restriction which will have negative game ramifications I will discuss shortly. Turrets will automatically target the closest enemy unit and have infinite range, rules that truly emphasize smart placement of structures around the map. Missile launchers can destroy closely-spaced enemies, but will only attack the nearest cluster and require time to power their attack. Defenders will destroy nearby enemy structures once powered up (preventing you from simply parking them next to multiple enemy turrets, as they will be destroyed before they can do the destruction). And finally, black holes will absorb any incoming fire (both friendly and enemy) from up to four turrets. While I would like to have a range indication for defensive structures (so you know how far black holes and defenders affect), these options are unique and varied despite the limited roster of components.

So, how do you win? Yeah, destroy the enemy, but how do you win? Star-Twine offers little direction so it takes some trial and error (mostly error) to figure out the myriad of strategies at your disposal. You need two turrets to destroy an enemy object (four for a black hole), so the basic strategy of Star-Twine is placing turrets so that important enemy structures (energy nodes, mainly) are the closest object, while keeping your key structures away from the enemy. You can place things anywhere on the map, and since defenders have short range, you will commonly see turrets and other units scattered all over the map, looking for a way of engaging the enemy while shielding yourself from damage. Defense is mainly accomplished using cheap defenders and more expensive black holes, using these to prevent fire from reaching resource-producing units and turrets. It seems best to place multiple objects simultaneously in order to spread out the enemy turret fire: putting two turrets on one side and two on the other would split up the enemy fire in separate directions, allowing you to survive as long as only one turret is targeting each of your units. The game gives no feedback on which enemy units will be targeted and which turrets will target you before placing an item, something that would be quite beneficial. Since there is a time delay when switching targets, turrets placed in forward positions are more effective at destroying the enemy.

Despite the strategic variety I attempted to describe in the previous paragraph, Star-Twine is not without its faults. The biggest problem with the game is the income cap: since you need twelve energy nodes, both sides quickly reach the cap and then there is no production difference between the two. The result is a mid-game impasse, where both sides can afford the exact same replacement structures. It then becomes a game of who makes a mistake first and who fails to counter a cunning strategy. Missile launchers are good end-of-game weapons that destroy closely-spaced items, but are only effective if you’ve cleared a path to the enemy base. Star-Twine is a tenuous balance of offensive turrets and defensive black holes and defenders, and choosing the wrong one or failing to defend your energy nodes from enemy fire can spell defeat. The AI is almost frustratingly efficient and good, distressingly effective at quickly placing turrets where they will attack energy nodes and spreading out your turret fire to render it ineffective. The computer knows how to flank. Every strategy I’ve used has been successfully countered at some point by the AI, so it appears the game is balanced overall (or I am simply terrible at it (or both)). Still, Star-Twine is an intriguing game if you can forgive its various shortcomings.

Star-Twine is unique to be sure, as the game’s game of out-positioning the enemy is definitely different from your typical real-time strategy traditions of resource collection and constructing tanks. Two turrets are needed to destroy an enemy structure and they have infinite range, so careful placement of these structures and the more defensive options (black holes and defenders) is paramount for success. There are lots of strategic options available in Star-Twine to keep your units protected while engaging the enemy; a delicate balance of offense and defense is necessary. Unfortunately, stalemates are common as income is capped at twelve energy nodes, a low number that is quickly reached by other sides. Then, the game becomes a battle of attrition, with either side losing and rebuilding turrets and hoping to flank the enemy. Star-Twine is really difficult, thanks to insufficient help (a brief tutorial and no manual) and a challenging AI opponent that excels at quick construction of turrets at the most inconvenient locations for you. The maps are randomly generated but don’t impact overall strategy at all, since there are normally lots of places to build. Star-Twine features online multiplayer (one-on-one only, though) but lacks a campaign, and a game this unique really needs a manual or in-game help. While I certainly applaud Star-Twine for its unique take on the real-time strategy formula, mid-game tedium and inadequate assistance to new players decreases its appeal to a wide audience.