Thursday, January 05, 2012

Time of Fury Review

Time of Fury, developed by Wastelands Interactive and published by Slitherine and Matrix Games.
The Good: Streamlined approach better for novices, interesting events, can control multiple countries of your choosing, some alternative scenarios, central play by e-mail server
The Not So Good: Excruciating slow pace with long turn resolutions, tedious unit movement and combat, inefficient interface, oversimplified diplomatic and research options
What say you? This World War II turn-based grand strategy game is simplified, sluggish, and sometimes unwieldy: 5/8

World War II, it seems, is still hot property. While the first person shooter has turned its attention towards Modern Battlefield Warfare, strategy games still cling to the 70-year-old global conflict. Whether it is familiarity, or the fact that there simply hasn’t been an interesting-enough war since then, World War II is here to stay, at least until World War III. Whereas some strategy games lets you control individual units in small battles, the grand strategy featured in Time of Fury focuses on the larger picture: guiding your country towards ultimate victory. By maneuvering units, researching technologies, and conducting diplomacy, each nation hopes to be on top at the end. Does Time of Fury stand out in the grand strategy class?

Time of Fury features one of the better looking maps for a grand strategy game. The hex tiles are nicely varied in appearance, with forested locations blending well into the rest of the landscape. Even the more barren tiles are still textured, instead of being painted with a single color. Although you can tell the map is hex-based (especially around the coast), it's not as obvious as in some other hex-based titles that consist of flat edges and single painted-on icons for terrain. The unit sprites also look good; although they are not in 3-D, they are easily identified based on appearance. There are subtle differences between divisions and corps and units of different experience levels. There are no combat animations, however, as defeated units simply disappear, which is a bit disappointing. The interface isn't the slickest thing on the market (icons seem to be haphazardly placed along the side and top of the screen, sometimes overlapping), but it gives instant access to all of the pertinent game screens. Finding units is a bit tough: you are given a large list of all your military units, which is nice but basically unusable; I'd like to have a “next unit” button to cycle as well. Also, most of the screen displays unnecessarily obscure the game map, especially because most of them have a lot of empty space that could have reduced the size of the windowed overlay. Still, Time of Fury keeps most information only one click away. The sound design is pretty basic stuff: some generic battle effects and orchestral background music to accompany your domination of Europe. Overall, Time of Fury gives an above average presentation for the genre.

The grand campaign of Time of Fury starts at the onset of World War II, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The game is turn-based, featuring week-long turns that are resolved one country at a time. Victory points are earned for holding strategic cities, and the game ends when time runs out or only one alliance is left standing. Not only does Time of Fury feature a historical grand campaign, but a number of variants and smaller (but still huge, 300-turn adventures) scenarios are available. For example, one setup places Germany's forces next to France instead of Poland, or you can join the action later in the war in 1940, 1942, 1944, or during Operation Barbarossa, with a choice of placing Germany's plan in northern or southern Russia. There are also two small scenarios that just concern the invasion of Poland or Operation Overlord in Normandy. All of the campaigns are inherently unbalanced: the German units are much more powerful at the start of each front (thanks to extreme bonuses in efficiency), so the strategy for the Allies and the Comintern is the same: delay. While it might not be historically accurate, I think a more evenly-matched game would be more interesting (and certainly more fair online). What is interesting, however, is the ability to control one or several of the thirty nations in the game. This means you can control, say, Finland and Sweden, or Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary, giving you more to do as minor nations helping the major powers. While Time of Fury is fairly basic in terms of mechanics, the tutorials only offer a very brief glimpse into the game and could have been more comprehensive. Multiplayer uses the same system as Battlefield Academy: play by e-mail hosted on a central server. It works quite well for a turn-based game such as Time of Fury, and makes it so that the players don't have to worry about e-mails saved turn files, as it's all handled internally. Overall, Time of Fury offers generally well-rounded features for a grand strategy game.

Taking place at such a large scale, Time of Fury features only divisions and corps of units, divided into infantry, motorized, and armored types. Air fighters, strategic bombers, and tactical bombers, along with a host of naval craft (carriers, battleships, cruisers, subs, transports, and landing craft) are also included. Even with things kept at this level, you still have a lot of units to deal with spread out over a large area. Each unit is rated in overall strength, derived from experience and efficiency. A commander can be placed in charge of important corps, although their affect is very minimal and only make a difference in really close battles. Production points earned by holding cities are used to purchase new units (deployed at any friendly city after a lengthy construction time), repair existing units, or upgrade the type (from basic infantry to a motorized division, for example) or level (increasing the strength) of a unit. While Time of Fury does not allow you to customize or mix unit types (you cannot stack units, either), the simplified approach makes it easier to get a handle on your army's capabilities.

Time of Fury features fog of war, preventing you from scouting units beyond a couple of hexes from your borders. You might see gigantic question marks marching around the map, but you won't know what they are until an attack is made. Weather and supply can also affect your troops. Supply isn't anything to normally worry about: just keep an open path from each unit to a city and things will hum along nicely. Things are more complicated for nations that rely on goods from overseas (namely Great Britain), as convoys can be raided by naval units. The three alliances will be vying for additional international friends, and the crux of the diplomatic game is spending points persuading nations to join your cause. This, sadly, is the limit of diplomacy in Time of Fury: you can delay or hasten your own entry into an alliance, and the same for other countries, but that's about it. Research is equally limited: you can invest production points to accelerate research in a specific area (infantry, tanks, aircraft, subs, navy, and nuclear), but gaining levels to unlock better units is all automatic and ultimately not that interesting. Countering these limited features are events, which are great. Usually every turn, one or several decisions will happen, and you must decide on a choice. The nice thing is that most choices have tradeoffs (more defenses in exchange for less production points, for example), so events aren't always “you get an extra unit”-type outcomes. This is a solid and enjoyable part of the game.

Because of the limited nature of the diplomacy and technology, most of your time in Time of Fury is spent moving units and ordering new ones. Each unit has a number of action points that can be spent on movement and attacks; units can only attack after moving if they traverse a short distance. The copious amounts of rail lines can be used to move units instantly to any other rail-connected location, limited by the number of transport points available. Transport is also available over the ocean, but it takes an extra turn to load and unload units. In land combat, units in surrounding hexes can engage a single foe, and since you need an overwhelming force for a successful attack (at least 5:1 odds), you have to surround enemy units on multiple sides to execute a successful attack. This means you have to plan out your attacks, even if you have a vastly superior force. Sea battles are not automated, allowing you to move, attack, or withdraw with any of the ships in your fleet on a set of ocean hexes. The AI in Time of Fury is good at picking appropriate places to attack and going after important cities, using the game rules to go after victory. I did not observe any questionable behavior during my time in Europe.

Time of Fury tries to take a somewhat more simplified approach to the grand strategy game and the result is a mixed bag. The huge game map features large-scale division- and corps-sized units, but you still have a lot to keep track of in larger countries. Adding in air and naval combat and things get even more complex. This is simply the nature of the beast, as a game at this scale must feature lots of units to recreate the historical battle lines. It's not on the same mammoth scale as, say, War in the East, but it is still a lot to absorb and the interface does no favors in locating units in peril. The units themselves are rated in strength, experience, and efficiency, and production points earned from key cities can be used to order new units, call in reinforcements, or upgrade existing ones. Success in combat needs almost overwhelming (5:1) odds, reducing the effectiveness of non-Axis nations until the German war machine simply gets ground down by constant battles and marching. Turns take a while to resolve, several minutes per in-game week, as the AI attacks vulnerable flanks of your army with decent efficiency. Diplomatic and research options are quite underwhelming, exchanging depth for simple alliance-based coercion and money-based technology acceleration. Time of Fury gives you a number of starting dates and alternative setups for the war, from Germany invading France first to a more northerly attack on Russia. Interestingly, you can choose more than one nation to command (even from opposing alliances), allowing you to control several minor nations and influence the war in more subtle ways without being completely bored. Events are, I think, the most intriguing part of Time of Fury, giving you important decisions with no “right” choice, so the game can develop ahistorically if you so choose. While the tutorials are too brief, play by e-mail is hosted on a central server to eliminate any manual file swapping, a continuation of the brilliant feature seen in other Slitherine titles. While Time of Fury is approachable, the user-friendly nature of the game is offset by the large scale, slow pace, and some oversimplified features.