Monday, March 12, 2012

Tropical Stormfront Review

Tropical Stormfront, developed and published by Noble Master Games.
The Good: Simple mechanics, robust skirmish mode with multiple options, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Terrible interface, inconsistent AI, completely unfair campaign missions, arbitrarily slow default resource collection, no online play
What say you? This real time strategy game is held back by a wholly tedious, limited interface and extremely unbalanced mission design: 4/8

Just what are you supposed to do with hundreds of billions of dollars and 1.5 million active personnel? Fight a war, of course! Computer games allow aspiring military generals to blow things up, without all that inconvenient death and destruction. Tropical Stormfront is such a game, recalling the simpler times of Command & Conquer with basic units clashing on the field of battle. Offering a single player campaign that tells the tale of international leaders fighting over tropical islands (and possibly a storm front), does Tropical Stormfront successfully revive lost feelings of nostalgia?

The graphics of Tropical Stormfront are bright and colorful, something different in the usual gloom and gritty realism of real-time strategy games. Some might not like the visuals used for the game, but I enjoyed them, finding them strongly reminiscent of Empires of Steel. The maps consist of bright blue oceans and bright green land with bright yellow beaches. The trees and rocks are less bright, but you get the idea. The units are detailed enough to be visually identified and exhibit some detail, but you can tell they are 2-D sprites erratically rotated as they traverse the map. Explosions are repetitive but effective, and units exhibit smoke when damaged. Overall, I didn’t find much fault with the graphics of Tropical Stormfront. The sound design is another matter. While the battle effects are OK (though as repetitive as the graphics), the repetitive voice commands and overly dramatic music do annoy after extended periods of play. Still, the overall presentation of Tropical Stormfront is good enough for its $10 price tag.

The real-time strategy of Tropical Stormfront starts with a twenty-five mission campaign presented in a linear order. In it, you’ll find extremely difficult, unbalanced scenarios that commonly place you against two or three AI opponents with significantly better resources. The lopsided mission structure gets old quickly, although there is some mission variety with capture the flag or defend scenarios with the usual “kill everything” tasks. Still, a challenging game is fine, but challenge should stem from a competent AI opponent, not trying (and failing) to fend off superior numbers of equal units. On the flip side, the skirmish mode is very well done and feature-filled. You can choose from several game rules, from deathmatch-oriented supremacy mode to capture the flag to a timed defense, each of which generates a random island-based map. You can also choose to play any of the campaign missions (even if you haven’t unlocked them), allowing you to effectively skip past the tougher scenarios and customize the options somewhat. Those options include your nation, the number of players, players per team, fog of war, the presence of a commander unit (which, if destroyed, instantly eliminates that player), starting money, income rate, and time limit. You can also press the “randomize” button to come up with really crazy combinations. The only limitation in the skirmish mode is the lack of online play, which is always disappointing in a strategy game. Tropical Stormfront comes with a very brief tutorial, with text at the end explaining things they forgot to make you do during the introductory mission. Finally, Tropical Stormfront is available for several computing devices: Windows, Macintosh, Linux, and mobile operating systems. Despite the annoying nature of the campaign missions and lack of online play, the skirmish flexibility and multiplatform compatibility of Tropical Stormfront are great.

The interface is a huge area of concern, which is a significant problem in a strategy game where all you do is interact with the interface. Allow me to elaborate. First, you can’t change anything, a problem if you prefer alternative control schemes in your strategy game. Second, selecting units that are near each other can be impossible. Double-clicking a unit, normally used to select all units of a certain type, doesn't do anything, which is initially confusing for gamers raised on PC strategy games. Even worse, there are no keyboard shortcuts whatsoever (you can’t even press escape to bring up the game menu). This means you cannot shift-select or control-select specific units and place them in a group, as Tropical Stormfront only allows for imprecise box selection. This becomes an even bigger issue when you attempt to tediously load and unload units from bases and transports. Each base can hold up to eight units (a transport can hold four), and all units are spawned within the base that produces them. Since you can’t select specific, multiple units with the shift or control keys (or unload all units at once), getting those units out is truly time consuming: click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, and click the destination. As you can imagine, this is a huge problem when you are under attack or trying to coordinate an assault. Tropical Stormfront also lacks tool tips (so you just have to guess what each unit type is based on its icon). I suspect that Tropical Stormfront was most likely designed for touch-screen mobile devices first, and then barely ported to the PC. I detest the interface and it almost renders the entire game unplayable.

Tropical Stormfront is an approachable real-time strategy game thanks to its relatively simple roster of units and buildings. Units are produced at bases (for land units), shipyards (for naval units), and airfields (for air units), each of which provide a small amount of income every so often when under your control. Units are generic representations of typical military hardware: tanks, anti-air units, artillery, planes, helicopters, destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers, and transport units. The units behave as you would expect, producing predictable counter-strategies. Slow unit movement reduces the game’s pace to manageable levels, and units will attack enemies automatically (most of the time) while moving. Planes can be placed on automated patrol and attack, which is a nice feature. Coupled with the sluggish unit movement speed is really slow resource collection. I had to wait around for money too often; I would have rather seen a more gradual introduction of income rather than the large, infrequent amount the game provides. This is part of the reason why I suggest playing the campaign missions through the skirmish mode, where you can customize the initial cash cache and the rate at which income is earned. The AI is a mixed bag: sometimes the AI will actively achieve the objectives and attack you with a massed force, and other times it will just sit there in a defensive position and put the game in a stalemate. I did find the AI to be aggressive, but I wish it was more consistently aggressive in taking the player down.

I think there’s a decent real-time strategy game buried somewhere within Tropical Stormfront, but it’s obscured by the lackluster interface and unfair difficulty. First, the interface simply falls short in pretty much every area of usability. Absent customization, a lack of keyboard support, the inability to select multiple units using the shift or control keys (or double-clicking), and the tedious nature of unloading units ruin the game. The interface simply should not be something that gets in the way of playing a strategy game, but it is a huge shortcoming in Tropical Stormfront. The campaign is very difficult and lazily designed, pitting several AI opponents against you that will simply outmuscle your production instead of using advanced strategies. The slow default resource collection speed during the campaign also means a lot of waiting around to construct new units; I just played most of the scripted missions in skirmish mode where I could customize the resource rates. Speaking of, the skirmish mode is a bright spot, allowing several tweaks (or a random assortment) to the game rules to create a custom situation. The lack of multiplayer is sad, however. The relatively straightforward nature of Tropical Stormfront means it is an approachable strategy title, with sensible combat using standard units. Finally, while the AI can be aggressive, it also can stay put and fail to mount a successful attack. Overall, I found the usability issues of Tropical Stormfront to be too much to overcome, requiring more polish for the PC version of the game to become a notable entry in the genre.