Saturday, August 9, 2008

Game(s) Review: World Domination

I've recently become fond of "world domination" RTS games, where you're given a large map and must, through tactics or brute force, conquer territories in traditional RTS battles while your opponent does the same. This mode places a greater emphasis on micromanagement and strategic planning, because the game can literally turn on a victory or a defeat at a specific location.

Over the past six months, I've had the opportunity to play three such games, though in each case the "world domination" mode was just a side-game attached to a traditional, mission-oriented RTS: there was the War of the Ring mode for "Battle For Middle-Earth 2", Global Conquest in the "Kane's Wrath" expansion of "Tiberium Wars", and finally, Galactic Conquest in "Star Wars: Empire at War". It's worth noting that in each case, I found the world/galactic conquest mode infinitely more engaging than the campaigns.

So how do they rate?

Let's start with "Battle For Middle-Earth 2", specifically with its expansion pack "Rise of the Witch-King" which made significant improvements to gameplay. This game draws heavily on the film trilogy as its source material, and I think that's a big part of the appeal: it's generally held that the various wars were the most memorable scenes in Peter Jackson's movies, so being able to recreate (or rewrite) those conflicts is a lot of fun. The War of the Ring is essentially a free-style mode that allows you to set your own objectives (ie: conquer all the strongholds of Middle-Earth, capture the South, destroy your enemy's capital, etc.) and you can choose starting points both for yourself and for your opponent. During gameplay, you receive bonuses for consolidating control over a particular "nation" (ie: conquering all the lands of Gondor).

Each faction starts with four generals, the only units capable of free movement throughout Middle-Earth: armies can either attach themselves to a general or move through friendly territories. You have to make a choice right at the start whether you're playing offensively or defenseively: you can either rush neighboring territories to build yourself a large power base, at the expense of having an army capable of defending it if your enemies come calling. Every map corresponds to a specific area in Middle-Earth, so you can find yourself assaulting Isengard or storming the Shire.

The Pros: Setting aside the aforementioned thrill of playing a game so closely tied to the most exciting aspect of Peter Jackson's trilogy, there's a lot to enjoy about the dynamic gameplay in "Rise of the Witch-King". Every land you conquer provides a certain number of build plots, allowing you to customize the composition of each territory: you can build farms to raise your income, barracks to produce soldiers and fortresses to provide automatic defense for otherwise vacant territories - if you leave a land vacant, without either a fortress or a standing army, you will automatically lose the territory to your opponent. Fortunately, even your most powerful units will only require one turn to build, so if you have a few barracks working together, you can pull together a decent force quickly enough. There's also some real challenge in terms of tactics: defeating a fortified enemy will be near-impossible if you're not ready.

The Cons: Auto-Resolve can be outrageously biased in favor of the computer. Even against a Brutal AI, there's no way a single band of garrisoned archers could repel eight Mordor Attack Trolls accompanied by the Witch-King. It's usually best to fight each battle "live", since Auto-Resolve will rarely calculate the potential of each unit when sizing up the different armies. Of course, this can lead to incredibly long campaigns - I usually clock about six consecutive hours or so. There's also an income/population cap that limits the size and composition of your armies: these can be expanded with fortresses and farms, but once you hit 1000, that's it.


Moving on, we have the "Global Conquest" mode of "Tiberium Wars: Kane's Wrath", the latest addition to the "Command and Conquer" series. On the whole, it's much less restrictive than "War of the Ring", though this can be as much a disadvantage as an advantage...

The Pros: Well, for starters, Auto-Resolve is much more balanced. You actually stand a fair-to-decent shot of defeating your enemy through the Tactical AI, provided you have the right units. Free movement allows you to deploy bases and move strike forces pretty much anywhere you want, in any direction: it's tricky, but you get used to it after a while. There's an interesting array of support powers available for use against enemy forces and bases, and of course each faction has their own superweapon. "Realistic" geography is also an interesting addition: Australia, for example, is an excellent staging ground because it's isolated and you can deploy strike forces all over the map from there. Likewise, the high concentrations of cities around England provide massive boosts to income.

The Cons: The biggest flaw in Global Conquest is that you have very, very few customization options. You can't pick your starting locations (resulting in awkward situations like having a starting base surrounded by three enemy bases) or determine your base layouts (and 9 times out of 10, vital buildings will be placed outside your defensive perimeter). You can't play around with faction alignment - it's always GDI vs. Nod vs. Scrin, and sometimes they'll double-team you. There's also no way to bypass the secondary victory conditions, a ludicrously imbalanced set of goals that will grant you automatic victory if you achieve them. For example, Nod has to corrupt 24 cities around the world - a ridiculously easy task. GDI has to control at least 33% of world territory - again, very simple and much less challenging than military victory. Unfortunately, the Scrin get short shrift here: not only is it practically impossible to get any momentum due to the extremely high cost production of virtually any unit, but their secondary victory condition is building 9 Threshold Towers, which means a minimum of 9 bases if you're not going for any other strategic structure. It's just not a fun way to play... and yet you don't really have a choice, because if you don't aggressively pursue your objectives, one of your enemies will get there first. And even if you outnumber then ten to one, you'll lose.


And finally, we have "Star Wars: Empire at War" and its expansion pack, "Forces of Corruption". It's rather different than the other two games by virtue of having two strategic arenas: after conducting a round of space combat to control the orbit of a planet, you must then land ground troops on the surface to eliminate the enemy base. Some units, like Darth Vader or Boba Fett, can function in both arenas, albeit in different fashions. Also, there's no real-time production as such: you start each battle, whether space- or land-based, with a specific number of units; if your force is too large, the remainder will be available as reinforcements during the course of the battle. This forces the player to adopt a completely different tactical style, because you can't simply set up a base and overwhelm your enemies; they can make more units, you can't. So you either build a "victory fleet" that can overcome any opposition, or scout the enemy and bring units that can specifically counter those defenses.

The Pros: "Empire at War" is interesting because it's so atypical of RTS games. Unlike BFME2 or C&C, where every faction is more or less equal in terms of raw power, the three factions of "Empire at War" require three different methods of play. The Empire, for example, mostly depends on steamrolling over its enemies with brute force. The Rebellion can't go head-to-head with that kind of power, but they can make lightning strikes on ground forces, snatching planets out from under the Empire's feet. The Zann Consortium (representing the criminal underworld of the Star Wars universe) can bypass the need to conquer planets altogether, corrupting them from afar and allowing all sorts of interesting bonuses to come through. Every world has specific tactical value, and what's more, the game makes defensive play very difficult: the only way you can increase the population cap is to build space stations over newly-conquered worlds, so on the one hand you have to expand your territory, but if you're spread too thinly your enemy will punch a hole right through your defenses. Moreover, your income is based in part on mining facilities built on conquered worlds, so you can't just build a Death Star and blow up planet after planet - if your opponent stages a successful counterattack, you won't have the resources to rebuild.

The Cons: There are some odd limitations to the Galactic Conquest mode - heroes such as Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade, and units like the Imperial Royal Guards, are available in certain campaign missions but not in GC (fortunately, this can be fixed by modding the game). Also, like Global Conquest, the "Forces of Corruption" expansion doesn't allow you to streamline the battle, forcing you to fight the two other factions simultaneously. Auto-Resolve harkens back to the weirdness of "Battle For Middle-Earth" - a perfectly well-defended base can be annihilated by some underpowered units and a hero or two.