||E3 2003 Game Previews Part I
May 19, 2003 Tom Chick
Summary: In our part 1 of the continuing E3 game preview articles, Tom takes us into Strategy First's demo rooms to preview these titles:
•Supreme Ruler 2010
Read on to see if these are games worth waiting for!
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Supreme Ruler 2010
Supreme Ruler 2010 is a massively detailed strategy game from Battlegoat Studios, to be published by Strategy First, who can't be blamed for not taking chances. This is the sort of complex strategy game that would have most publishers clucking their tongue because it's too complicated and too 2D.
The game itself has the potential to be either the next Master of Orion 3 or what Master of Orion 3 should have been. It is a game with a stupendous amount of detail running under a map crowded with city icons and base icons and tank icons and artillery icons and jet icons. It's the sort of game that will unabashedly use phrases like 'gross national product' or 'domestic budget deficit' on a crowded graph or above a long list of six and seven digit numbers. There's so much detail in here that you can turn it over to your ministers, letting them run things while you give them broad mandates and maybe tweak a slider bar or two.
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The subject matter is a progression of conquests in which one state, say California in the US or Queensland in Australia, fights at increasingly epic scales to take over a country and then the entire world. The cast of characters is a serious list of modern military units with a dozen or so stats, eleven different resources, hungry consumers, diplomacy, build queues that have to retool, fuel and ammo, and supply lines. The game runs in the sort of pausable real time that shouldn't scare off people averse to turn-based games. But then again, anyone averse to turn-based games probably isn't going to touch something this detailed with a ten-foot slide rule.
At worst, Supreme Ruler will be like a less streamlined version of Dreamcatcher's strategic monstrosity, Superpower. At best, it will be like...well, there hasn't really been anything like this that's worked very well. So at best, it will be proof that a really complex game crammed with thinly veiled numbers can work after all.
(By the way, in case you're wondering, Battlegoat Studios' name is derived from a stuffed toy ram with a camo helmet that they developers got as a promotional item for Worms; the little ram was perched atop the monitor while the developers demoed their game.)
SIDEBAR: Pongky located 2 Tommy Burger locations within 4 miles of home. So near, yet so bad for you.
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Frontline Command is an almost nondescript World War II RTS that feels like another attempt to cash in on the Saving Private Ryan/Battlefield 1942 trend. The perpetrator this time is Bitmap Brothers, the London based developers of Z. Or "Zed", as they call it over there.
The campaign consists of a series of missions ranging from the Allied move into Normandy to their assault on the Eagle's Nest at the end of the war. You can play as the Axis in multiplayer games; there are no plans for a skirmish mode against the computer, so single player games are Allies only. An updated version of the Z2 engine is being used to render the tiny little units in 3D, but you can zoom in for a closer look. Infantry is arranged into squads that scurry around as a group of men, but they're controlled as a single unit. And then you got your tanks and your gun emplacements and your trucks, all of which pretty much have to be controlled individually. This is a game about tactically placing your units rather than drag selecting groups.
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Units have health bars and morale dots floating over their heads. A little pie chart counts down the time before a gun is reloaded. The morale dots are important because when a unit's morale breaks, it will cower and ignore your orders. Conversely, if a unit's morale is really high, a medal floats above it to indicate that it might commit heroic deeds, like charging a machine gun nest. In other words, extreme morale states might make the player superfluous as units act on their own.
There's no base building, probably because you'll need to be so hands-on with your men and vehicles. For instance, there's a detailed line of sight model that works kind of like the lighting in Diablo: you can see it radiating out and pouring around corners and obstacles. One feature of this is that you're supposed to be able to position your units in blind spots and give them ambush orders. Your commander has the special ability to look farther with his binoculars, but you have to manually activate this ability to sweep away the fog of war as if you were using a broom. Guns have to be limbered and towed to be moved. Men have to be put in the back of trucks. You tell your little dudes when to go prone and when to stand up. This is all in real time, without the ability to pause or change the speed. Westwood would love this game.
SIDEBAR: Kiwi fruits are named after the Kiwi birds.
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Etherlords II is the next iteration of Nival Interactive's collectible card game in a turn-based strategy game shell. However, this time the strategy shell is being replaced by streamlined RPG shell, which will make it more like Sid Meier's adventure mode from Microprose's 1996 Magic: the Gathering adaptation and less like the clunky Heroes of Might & Magic knockoff feeling of the first Etherlords.
Streamlining seems to be the operative word on any part of Etherlords that got in the way of the card duels. Instead of shuffling around the map to gather resources, recharge runes (i.e. ammo) for your cards, and tweak your deck in towns, you simply move a single hero around a map and explore. You can build and rebuild your deck of cards at any time, runes have been cut from the game, and you can even swap out special abilities on the fly to adapt to different enemies or to just vary your tactics. Days only tick by when you move, so it's a sort of transparent turn-based system. A journal tracks locations, conversations, and battles. The whole point of the shell seems to be a way to quickly move you between battles.
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The battles are essentially unchanged. You draw a hand of cards representing spells. Based on your accumulated mana, you can summon creatures and cast spells that have various effects, from attacks to boosting your creatures, to changing the playing field. The actual combat consists of trading whacks from turn to turn. You hit his creatures, he hits your creatures, creatures die, and someone eventually wipes out the enemy wizard.
The first game's four races, each represented by a color, are still present along with most of the cards and creatures. There are also a spread of new 'colorless' cards, representing spells and creatures drawn from historical cultures like the Native Americans, Hindus, Egyptians, Medieval Europeans, and Japanese Samurai. The first four campaigns will each allow the player to use each color in turn, with a fifth campaign unlocking all the colors to be combined at will (an often-requested feature after the first game). There are two new multiplayer modes, one which allows team based tournament games, and another in which each player builds a deck from the same pool of cards. The server will track your ratings and Nival is hoping to implement a system of Warcraft III style blind matches based on your rating.
The graphics engine features some updated effects and creature models to punch it up a little. For what is essentially a staid strategy game, Etherlords II looks great; it's one of those rare examples that turn-based games don't have to pass on the eye candy. But more importantly, it'll be nice to get collectible card gameplay without having to pay through the nose for Magic Online or without having to suffer through the kiddie sensibilities of a Yu Gi Oh game.
SIDEBAR: If you spin an uncooked egg, stop it briefly, and then let go, it will keep on spinning.
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Nexagon is just different enough to run the risk that no one will want to play it (anyone for a game of Shiny's all-but-forgotten Sacrifice?). It's an interesting blend of genres and conventions: base building, capture the flag, squad development, sports, war, real time, turn-based, action, planning, tactics, fantasy, sci-fi.
There are four races to choose from -- alien, android, fantasy, and WWII-era industrial -- each with a few classes of units, a distinctive architecture, and unique base assets. Once you've chosen a race, you recruit a squad, build a base around your glowing respawn orb, and then enter competitions. During a competition, each player's base moors at either end of an arena. In pausable real time, you direct your squad of six characters out of your base and across the arena to try and smash the other guy's orb. If no one's orb is smashed after 3 timed rounds, the match is decided by a score based on knockouts and the most time spent holding the billboards in the arena. These billboards are good for TV exposure, which goes along with the announcer to give Nexagon a sort of Smash TV gladiatorial vibe.
You can pause at any time, although your pauses are timed a la Space Hulk. When a unit is 'killed', it respawns at its base's orb with minimal hit points. You can either send it directly back into battle or let it rest and recover hit points in the orb's healing radius. Wounded units get into battle quicker but run the risk of being killed.
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The different units include frail spell casters, nimble runners, and heavy tank-type characters, with each race having a unique set of creatures. Bases can be fitted with traps and mounted guns. Some units can equip themselves from dispensers in the field to give them special abilities like healing. Everything on the map is destructible, so characters who can't jump over obstacles will have to smash through them.
There's a campaign game in which you build up your squad's experience and skills, earning money to buy more elaborate defenses for you base as you win matches. You can use your team in multiplayer games and you can log your stats after a game for league ratings. Strategy First is bucking the Gamespy trend by using All Seeing Eye for player matching.
The gameplay, particularly online, is a bit reminiscent of Activision's failed experiment, Netstorm, in which players built floating bases and pitted them against each other in multiplayer games. Hopefully Nexagon will find a bigger audience. This is the game's third showing at E3 and the developers swear that it's almost done, really. And it's about time, since this is one of Strategy First's more intriguing titles.
SIDEBAR: Excited about these games Tom previewed? Let us know in the news comments.