Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Drone Wars

(Sorry I missed yesterday -- I was traveling to Fermilab. To make up for it, two reviews today!)

Drone Wars is, ultimately, a cautionary tale -- an illustration of what can happen when medium and game don't blend well at all. So far, most of the games I've reviewed here have been well-suited to being Flash games. Puzzle games, which typically have lesser graphics demands and can be broken up into small level-sized chunks, are of course a perfect fit for the medium. Third-person shooters or dodgers are also extremely popular, as you can make an interesting game with a relatively simple control set and a relatively small battlefield which also lends itself to quick, casual play. Turn-based strategy and RPGs, while they're not quite as conducive to five minutes of play, are still a good fit for Flash, since they don't require graphics and the player can take his time making his decision, making a good interface comparatively easier to design. Drone Wars, on the other hand, is a real-time strategy game, and an engaging RTS requires a relatively large battlefield and a way for a player to quickly carry out complex instructions, and it is here that Drone Wars falls flat on its face.

Since Drone Wars is a space-based RTS, it's natural to compare it to the granddaddy of all RTSes in space, Starcraft. To say that it suffers from the comparison would be an understatement. Drone Wars completely lacks any strategic element -- you have your base (a "mothership"), one asteroid for resources, and no way of ever expanding. There's no different races; each and every player in the game is exactly the same. You can't build any buildings, either, only ships (excuse me, "drones"). There's no tech tree to speak of -- while you can research some limited vehicle upgrades at your mothership, you can't create any new units. Units have absolutely no personality beyond the occasional beep, much less the sophisticated voice acting in Starcraft. So what do you have? You have four noncombat drones: resource drones, repair drones, scout drones (which behave like an Observer), and control drones (which behave like an Overlord), and four combat drones with varying degrees of toughness and damage ability. That's about it.

There are two main modes: in the somewhat-misnamed Arcade mode, you go through eight missions which walk you through the various aspects of the game, ending in a 1-on-1 battle and a 2-on-2 battle. Since the AI is not particularly competent (it doesn't, for instance, appreciate that if one attack wave fails, perhaps you should build a bigger attack wave the next time), these are pretty much a breeze. But the near-total lack of any strategic component means that even a competent AI wouldn't help things much -- there's no kind of large-scale economic battle to be fought, and for the question of "what units should I build?", there's no rock-paper-scissors element requiring different build strategies when confronted with different opponent strategies; it's just rock versus more rock. The Survival mode totally dispenses with even the small amount of resource management in the Arcade mode -- enemies come at you from all directions and you get a fixed quantity of ore for each wave you survive. This makes it simply an exercise in tactics and micromanagement, which Drone Wars is even more ill-suited for, thanks to its extremely frustrating interface.

Really, the interface was the thing that really left a bad taste in my mouth about this game. As I said earlier, an RTS demands that you be able to move quickly, and Drone Wars' interface does not do a good job at all of bringing this about. The map doesn't scroll, so the only way to move to other parts of the battlefield is by using the minimap, which makes it impossible to move along the battlefield in a convenient way (especially since the standard Starcraft technique of tapping the button assigned to a group twice doesn't bring up that group). Since you're limited to a single mouse button (thanks to the limitations of Flash), a lot of times you'll find out that clicking doesn't do exactly what you want it to do. (When you've got a repair drone selected, will clicking on another unit select that unit, or cause the repair drone to repair that unit? Be prepared to be frustrated multiple times by this!) This simply does not work for a fast-paced RTS.

The presentation is pretty mediocre. The music is OK, but it's far too short a loop; the sound effects are pretty bland; and the robotic computer voice which announces various happenings to you is a robotic computer voice.

I played through the whole game to get the badges and the challenge card, and I revisited it briefly to write this review, but I have no desire to play this game again. It's just an exercise in frustration.

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