Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Epic War

Epic War is a perfect case study in how just a few small features can make the difference between a successful game and an unsuccessful game. While the basic structure of Epic War is extremely similar to Age of War (review here), it gets right a few very important things which Age of War gets wrong, and as a result, while it's still clearly a flawed game, it's a game which is vastly more fun and interesting to play than Age of War.

So, if you've read my review of Age of War, you'll know the basic premise of Epic War. You have a castle at one side, your enemy has a castle at the other side. You build units, which march across the field and engage the enemy units. When you kill enemy units, you get mana which you can use to buy more units (you also gradually get more mana over time), with the ultimate goal of destroying the enemy castle. Epic War doesn't have the multiple-ages conceit of Age of War; rather, it's set in a clearly Tolkien-inspired landscape (as evidenced by the hobbits, dwarves, elves, and orcs, for instance, although it departs somewhat from the Tolkien formula in the higher-end units). At the end of the battle, you can use the XP you got during the battle for killing units to buy upgrades for your units, acquire new traps and features you can add to your castle, and unlock new, more powerful unit types.

What makes Epic War a better game than Age of War, then? Well, the first thing you notice is that it actually gives you something to do during the battle other than simply watch your troops go out and bash the enemy. Epic War places you in control of your castle's crossbow, which, if aimed properly, can be a very effective weapon against enemy troops. Unfortunately, this really only is an interesting challenge in the first couple of levels; as you progress, the enemy density rapidly becomes high enough that you can just keep it aimed at a fixed location, hold down the button(s) to fire arrows, and keep racking up the kills. Still, this is a nice feature to add interest to the first few levels, and it definitely reminds me of why I enjoyed Armor Alley so much -- it wasn't simply the strategy of sending out your troops, but the fact that you could directly influence the action yourself in your helicopter.

(As an aside, you might wonder why I'm always comparing Kong games to classic Mac games. Well, the reasons for this are twofold. First, those Mac games are the ones I remember most fondly from my childhood, so I'm naturally going to compare things tothem. The second, more worrisome, reason is that, while these Flash games undoubtedly have advanced quite a bit in graphics and sound from the Mac games I loved as a kid, the gameplay is rarely any better and is often less polished.)

The other thing that makes Epic War less of a tooth-grinding experience than Age of War is that your units aren't complete idiots. Rather than simply standing in single file and dutifully awaiting their turn to attack or be attacked, they advance sensibly. Shooter units stay behind melee units! Multiple melee units can attack in groups! It's practically a revelation! (Sadly, you can't retreat, even in cases where it would be eminently sensible, but even still, the troop intelligence in Epic War represents a quantum leap forward.)

This is not to say that Epic War is without its flaws, of course. Aside from the crossbow issue mentioned above, the most glaring is that the more advanced creatures are so much more powerful than the lower-level creatures that there's pretty much never any reason to buy the weaker creatures once you've unlocked the better creatures (except for the fact that there's a cooldown timer on buying creatures, so you might have to buy something lower level while waiting for one of your higher-level creatures to become available again). Also, the game isn't quite balanced -- the computer is always able to throw out more creatures, and higher-level creatures, than you can. However, you have the crossbow, as well as a super attack which rains a shower of arrows down on the whole field, so it's not quite as bad as I made it sound.

The graphics are pretty nice, although your units are tiny (well, at least at the beginning -- the highest-level units are pretty huge), and it's often surprisingly difficult to mouse over units on the battlefield to see their status. The sound effects are pretty uninteresting (arrows thunking, weapons clanking, etc.), and the music, while appropriately epic, gets pretty repetitive pretty fast. Overall, this is not a bad game, but I do feel that it dragged a little long -- there are 15 levels, but you've probably figured out pretty much all there is to figure out by level 9 or so. Still, it's engaging enough that you won't find it to be a waste of time to make it through to the end.

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