Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dawn of Fantasy Review

Dawn of Fantasy, developed by Reverie World Studios and published by 505 Games.
The Good: Three game modes, can attack others online, large battles, competent AI, editor
The Not So Good: Unnecessarily drawn-out building and resource collection, shallow city management and diplomacy, generic fantasy units, bland quests, underdeveloped online features, terrible lack of thorough in-game documentation, bugs
What say you? An arduous pace and a lack of innovative strategy and city management makes this MMO one to forget: 3/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
When the Moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets, and love with steer the stars. This is the Dawn of...Fantasy? Yes, as I await a lawsuit by the RIAA for unauthorized use of song lyrics, it's time to delve into a new real time strategy game set in a fantasy kingdom, complete with humans, ugly green humans, and pointy-eared humans with long, flowing hair. But what's this, Dawn of Fantasy has added the ever-expanding “MMO” tag to my RTS? Indeed, as you expand your kingdom online, you can engage other human-type folk in epic battles of epic epicness. Epic! Does this permutation of strategy gaming serve notice as an original product?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The 3-D graphics of Dawn of Fantasy are decidedly mixed. The environments look great, with plenty of detail in the trees, grass, water, fog, snow, rocks, and forts that adorn the countryside. The units are worse off, with a mix of detailed models (notably horses) and blocks ones (the people riding the horses) with rough animations. Battles are large and can be impressive in their scale, with plenty of bloodshed to go around. The game doesn't zoom out far enough, however, so it can be hard to manage your troops. In addition, game performance is very inconsistent: it's usually smooth, but hiccups are common and definitely noticeable. The woes don't stop there: there is significant clipping between units (with your military moving right through each other), looping sound when loading a level, and various bugs, from randomly not saving quest progress to disappearing orders to your view not moving to where you clicked on the minimap. It all adds up to a unpolished experience that needs additional massaging in the future. The sound design is average: I found the voice acting to be better than I had expected, battle sounds to be repetitive, and music to be generically fitting to the fantasy setting. While Dawn of Fantasy does hit some high points in terms of graphical design, overall it falls short of true notoriety.

ET AL.
Dawn of Fantasy is a real-time strategy game taken online for massively multiplayer online enjoyment, featuring the ever-enduring struggle between Humans, Orcs, and Elves, three races that have never been featured in any fantasy game. Being an online game, you first have to initialize your client and check a list of files for integrity, a long process when patches must be downloaded. The main portion of the game takes place in the online kingdom, where you found a city and build new structures, hire troops, go on quests, and engage both human and AI enemy armies and towns. The first step is to pick two town traits, specializations that will accentuate the production of resources or troops in your village. Despite being online, a majority of the online kingdom is played solo: none of the quests can be completed cooperatively. While you can attack other players’ towns and troops, you can’t take control of their villages even if you successfully siege them, only receiving a token bonus of resources for all of your hard work. Thus, the persistent online world of Dawn of Fantasy remains static as nothing changes hands. The quests are repetitive attack or build tasks; just accept everything and you’ll slowly build up your town using the rewards for completing each quest.

There are two other game modes in Dawn of Fantasy. The first is kingdom wars, played offline against the AI, where you start with a city or two (depending on the size of the map you have selected) and must recruit troops, move armies, and take over hostile cities. In each city, you can tweak the production of the game’s resources, trade items, and heal or upgrade troops. Once you have a large enough army, you can march out into the wilderness and attack enemy towns, setting up camp outside the city limits to build siege weapons or recruit mercenaries. For neutral villages, shallow diplomatic options are available: monetary gifts, trade agreements, and alliances. The only real strategic decisions in this mode are how many troops to bring and where to bring them. The third game option is a skirmish mode that has you attack or defend a castle, given a set of troops you can partially choose before the assault begins. These encounters become repetitive after your first battle, since most castle sieges work the same way.

Dawn of Fantasy makes it exceedingly difficult to learn how to play. There is no manual and no tutorial, and the vague in-game documentation doesn't address half of the game mechanics. Despite the relatively straightforward nature of the game, I still expect a full explanation of how things work. The game does, however, include a scenario editor with scripting abilities so you can create your own maps and missions.

There are four main resources in Dawn of Fantasy: food, wood, gold, and stone. These are gathered by sending peasants to specific points on the map, and they will (very slowly) gather them up. Resource collection can be influenced by the weather: for example, crops aren’t gathered during the winter, so you must rely on hunting animals instead. While this might have been interesting in theory, in practice it just means more micromanagement. The buildings are generic and lack innovation: resource structures, unit producers, trade posts, and research facilities that are found in pretty much every strategy game. There are only superficial decisions to make regarding which building or upgrade to invest in next. The biggest problem with Dawn of Fantasy is time: it takes entirely too long to gather resources and build things. What is too long, you say? I’m gathering gold at the rate of 0.6 per minute, and it costs 412 gold to build a barracks. So, it will take around ten real hours to afford to build it, and then another eight real hours to actually construct it. That’s how long I’m waiting to get troops (not to mention the additional resource cost and build time for each squad of units). Who is going to tolerate that? Not me: I actually would like to play, instead of waiting almost an entire day for no reason. Does waiting make the game more strategic? No. Does waiting make the game more fun? No. Does waiting make the game more immersive? No. What it does is make me hit the “exit game” button more quickly, and play something else (or go on a vacation) while I wait for my workers to collect gold and build things. I doubt a lot of people will choose to go back. Dawn of Fantasy practically begs you to log in for a couple of minutes, queue up a building, go on one quest, and then leave for the rest of the day. You really need to have more than one kingdom running at a time to cut down on the boredom. There’s been many times I simply can’t do anything because I have to wait hours for resources and/or buildings that I need to make the armies to finish the quests. There’s a reason that we’ve never seen a strategy game where it takes half a week of real time to build a military unit.

Speaking of military units, Dawn of Fantasy does feature some massive battles thanks to the use of squad-based groups: a single goblin raider, for example, actually consists of 30 units on the screen, amplifying the amount of carnage seen during battle. There is hardly any difference between the three races, as everyone has access to the basic unit types: melee, cavalry, ranged, and siege. Dawn of Fantasy uses the classic melee-beats-cavalry-beats-ranged-beats-melee balancing (I hope I have that right), so it’s pretty easy to figure out whom to attack with what. Units gain experience over time, and their health or attack can be upgraded. You are given some basic options for formations, mainly spacing for your infantry units to lessen the impact of ranged fire. Combat has some issues, of course. It can take a couple of seconds to units to notice nearby enemy units before engaging them, a problem when so many units are in a gigantic group and it’s difficult to give specific attack instructions. Also, pathfinding is very inconsistent: you can have two units leave from the same location going to the same destination and take completely different routes. While the game does provide a handy listing of all your military groups along the left-hand side of the screen, peasants disappear occasionally for some reason and they cannot find resource locations that are out of their field of view (so you must move them near a gold mine before ordering them to mine gold). The AI seems to be OK, although it’s hard to tell when most of the land battles involve a huge mass of units clipping into each other and the sieges are equally as messy. Still, I found the AI to be competent in storming a castle and engaging my troops with appropriate counters, so there are no obvious shortcomings here.

IN CLOSING
Dawn of Fantasy plays like a poor-man’s version of Stronghold. The addition of online components is only mildly interesting: you can attack other armies and towns, but you can’t keep the towns and the game clearly focuses on single-player quests and town expansion. I can’t emphasize enough how slow the game is, with resource collection and building construction literally taking hours, if not days, of real time; I suppose you are meant to undertake quests (or sleep) while the house takes fifteen minutes, the blacksmith takes six hours, and wood is gathered at the rate of one log per minute. When it takes several real-world days to be able to afford your first units, people are certain to lose interest. Sure, this makes the game technically have more longevity, but that doesn’t make it better. The three races (Humans, Orcs, and Elves) are indistinct and vary little in their overall strategy: each side has access to the usual types of units (melee, ranged, cavalry, and siege) that gain experience over time. The AI seems decent enough and the battles are quite large, but lack complex strategy. The military-driven kingdom wars mode and siege-heavy skirmish games are both forgettable alternatives to the online kingdoms. Dawn of Fantasy is also hard on new players, as there is no tutorial, no manual, and poor in-game documentation that barely covers the game’s mechanics. The graphics are impressive when zoomed out, but the textures and model animations fall short when viewing the battle up close. In addition, Dawn of Fantasy suffers from an unpolished presentation, with performance issues and other assorted bugs. Dawn of Fantasy also lacks a unique feature to grab your attention: there is frankly no reason to join the war in Generic Fantasy World #322. The exceeding slow pace, common units and buildings, and superfluous online features hinder Dawn of Fantasy’s appeal in the strategy market.