Battle Isle: The Andosia War Review
By Pauline Clay |
How should PC strategy games be played in the twenty-first century? Will the established conventions of classics such as Alpha Centauri and Total Annihilation endure or be swept away by hybrid gaming systems that morph elements of real-time and turn-based gameplay? European software house Blue Byte is certainly leaning towards the latter. Currently teaming up with Cauldron Productions of Bratislava (a city in Slovakia we had to look it up) to produce an interesting bit of sci-fi eyecandy called Battle Isle: Andosia War.
A hallmark of tactical strategy gaming since 1991, this latest Battle Isle iteration is a mix of several gaming systems: tactical, unit-based combat comprised of land, sea and air forces; resource management consisting of raw material gathering, research and production; and finally an industrial city simulator emphasizing logistical planning, deployment and asset management. The available military arsenal numbers some 41 combat units and 22 buildings. Water, iron, steel and Aldinium (some kind of crystal) are the elements to be mined or otherwise generated in order to produce the airports, factories, academies and shipyards that ultimately facilitate the research and development of the various weapons and units. Fairly standard conventions when viewed from 30,000 feet. However, firsthand inspection reveals that each of the aforementioned systems is presented in such breadth and depth as to be fully realized games in their own rights; compelling concepts when undertaken in a phased approach. Regrettably, however, Cauldron has chosen to impart all of these activities in a concurrent, real-time setting. The end result is a strange mix of frantic resource juggling juxtaposed against long stretches of inactivity and tedium.
The underlying story of the Andosia War is told through comic book-style vignettes that set the stage for the impending conflict. Unfortunately, spare attempt is made to introduce either the central players or the backstory. Worse yet, the voice acting is downright painful and the woeful animation is early Superfriends (the lame version with Marvin and that ignorant Wonderdog). In short, the basic premise is that a society from the distant planet Chromos has survived a history of warfare as well as a recent, devastating alien invasion only to realize drastic socio-religious differences amongst its survivors. Naturally, conflict erupts dividing the race into two factions set upon mutual annihilation. Who farted, right?
The physical setting of Andosia War plays out across a series of islands within a vast ocean. Each side in the battle has a distinct home island where the resource and city simulator portions of the game are conducted. The campaign, playable from either side, is fought over a series of adjacent islands where the terrain is mountainous and tropical. If there is indeed a homeland or parent continent little evidence is provided; consequently, it is unclear what you are fighting for other than your own assets. Where are Chromos's cities and population centers? Despite that, the 3D engine is absolutely stunning. The islands are lush and overflow with rich detail: trees sway, water ebbs and recedes, birds and animals screech in the distance. A mouse-driven camera system, a la Myth II, provides panning and zooming control with total freedom. Fog-of-war obscures enemy units, though structures are readily apparent. The world exists on a 24-hour clock where day passes to night in subtle dusk and dawn transitions that are nothing short of spectacular. Dynamic light sourcing is abundant on all buildings and units; furthermore nighttime explosions are nearly worth the price of admission alone.
Game play in Battle Isle is executed via a turn-based system that the designer's are heralding as the advent of a new genre called "Conflict Simulation". Wherein, one side manages the economic elements of the game while the enemy manipulates combat units and conducts warfare. Rounds last approximately 8 minutes while an on-screen clock ticks down the minutes in real-time. Because combat occurs on one island, while unit production occurs on another, extended play can deteriorate into a mad shuttle race between landmasses. Perhaps the end goal was to induce tension but what it really results in is bad decision making as you scramble to beat the clock and shift units about haphazardly. Amazingly, the interface is so well designed that this insanity is largely manageable. For reasons unknown AI turns cannot be accelerated nor abridged, consequently there are extended periods of time where absolutely nothing happens, ample opportunity to refresh or relieve oneself. How considerate. If this is what the developers intended then someone is due a public caning.
The resource management side of the game is incredibly tenuous. By the time ten or more buildings have been constructed it is near impossible to maintain a reasonable store of every type of element. Each building, research choice and production queue hogs varying degrees of each material and uses them at inconsistent rates; it therefore becomes impossible to discern where the largest drains are occurring. However, right clicking on any building will toggle power on and off, which has immediate impact on resource utilization. Congratulations Blue Byte, you've just invented a light switch simulator. Now that's novel.
As with most strategy game these days, Andosia War introduces a host of unique innovations. All weapons and units are energy-based, which requires deploying towers across the landscape to provide means of repair and recharge, almost like a series of giant extension cords; an obvious tactic is to seek out key enemy towers, severing AI battlefield resources. Combat units gain experience over time, which increases range of movement as well as remarkably improving weapon effectiveness. Waypoints, once set, are persistent and may be reused by any number of units, which is a lifesaver for moving transport units between the islands and reduces the risk of losing scout units. In addition to standard combat units there are repair and recovery vehicles, which aid other units as well as scavenge from destroyed buildings and vehicles. All of the above are very solid mechanics and provide a wealth of strategic possibility.
Combat in Battle Isle is simple yet rewarding, due in large part to a clever interface. Select a unit by left clicking and a series of filled circles appear around the vehicle defining movement ranges and facings. Right click and a schematic pops-up revealing armor density levels and weapon details. Hold down the ALT key while moving the mouse cursor over a friendly or enemy unit and concentric circles appear representing weapon range, firing arc and lines of sight. Most impressive. Weapon effects are satisfying and the accompanying sounds are dead-on. When a vehicle is destroyed the resulting explosions are Hollywood quality. Combined arms tactics prove quite effective since each of the unit types have definitive strengths and weaknesses.
Multiplayer is offered on Blue Byte's free online gaming service. Registration is a snap and games are very easy to set up. However, considering the extreme duration of game turns finding willing opponents with several hours to spare seems dubious based on the prevailing tastes of the American audience.
Overall, Battle Isle: Andosia War gets by largely on strong visual and visceral merits. The interface is very well conceived, the combat engine is compelling and the 3D engine is damned attractive, but it is simply not a strong enough product to rise above the competition in either the real-time or turn-based space. Additionally, the inane storyline and often-excruciating pace of play make this hard game to recommend. It is certainly not the panacea of strategy gaming that Blue Byte contends. Blue Byte is making Battle Isle available exclusively through their online store at a fairly high price point, which may further hurt its chances in the US market.
-- David Kozlowski