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Armageddon Empires, Heavy Duty

Two more interesting games have crept onto my radar. One is an already released independent turn-based strategic game. The other, an incredible looking quasi-action strategy sandbox that has been in development for so long I suspect it may never emerge from its Russian-borne womb.

First, the game that is already released. Armageddon Empires is a post apocalyptic war game developed by Cryptic Comet. Sifting through their official website alone, I'm not sure if this company is anything more than a single man operation, but it does mention that there's just not enough good turn-based strategy games out these days and it's their goal to rectify this problem. If Armageddon Empires is any kind of indicator, then they may just have what it takes to reach this admirable destination. (Click here for a 30-turn demo link.)

Armageddon Empires feels very much it originated from a cardboard wargamer pastime. There is your hexagonal grid of tiles, your units are cards placed down on those tiles, and metal clips hold any special abilities you've attached to them. Out of sight but ever-present are scores of dice, rolled for conflict resolution, but the real love of the thing is just in being there with your post-apocalyptic cardboard montage. I can smell the ancient dustbunnies of your basement from here.

You can have up to four factions vying for domination. These run the gamut of the remains of the human empire, twisted mutants, slimy aliens, and killer machines. Each faction seems to be richly portrayed with well drawn unit cards that each seem to carry a bit of a story with them. However, this game otherwise is entirely lacking in high tech frills or even simple animations, and maybe for the better. What the game leaves out, the imagination is compelled to fill, and the euphoric result may be something better than technology alone can provide.

But not all is well in nerd paradise.

It's even more awkward than it looks.

First, the game interface could use refinement. Right now, there's annoying things like tooltips not closing properly and blocking vital functions on the windows behind them. Giving your heroes special orders (such as to attempt to assassinate another hero) is a very painful process. Sometimes, the game will lock up entirely. The developer knows this, and is currently working on refining the GUI issues in this game, but time will tell if the final solution satisfies.

Second, the core gameplay is a bit too random for my tastes. All conflict is resolved through an opposing attack and defense roll. The tougher the unit, the more dice you get to throw and count, and with 10 dice you'll score between 0 and 10 with 5 or 6 being the most common result. In theory, it's an interesting balance that always keeps you on your toes, because even in very uneven fights there's a minute chance the underdog will defend itself. In practice, this can make combat very frustrating: a poor rolling streak can cause you (through no fault of your own) to lose the battle that loses the game. You're not completely without recourse in the face of randomness, as "fate points", tactics cards, and good ol' fashioned maneuvering can help sway the odds in your favor. Still, there's absolutely no sure thing here, and (while some players might find that exciting) it annoys me when my best efforts are ignored.

Still, despite all my harping on this game, I have to confess that Armageddon Empires definitely has my attention. For every complaint I can level, there's probably a half dozen of things they did right about this game. For example, the AI puts up a pretty good fight, and programming smart AIs is hard. Overall, Armageddon Empires is yet another example as to why the gaming business is going back to the independents.

Full Entry: Heavy Duty

The other new blip on my gaming radar has been deep in development for awhile by a Russian studio.

Heavy Duty takes the basic X-Com-like command of an entire planet's defenses and, instead of catapulting you into squad-based tactical combat, it presents you with a hybrid real time strategy and action game. The soldiers are no longer on foot but rather in a vehicle, such as a combat robot or a jet plane, and all combat takes place on the same map: no loading, just zoom in on the planet.

You can pause and give orders to your soldiers to attack and also, if you so choose, take control of one of them directly and play the action game. Apparently, there's also support for base-building, which looks not unlike the base building of the original X-Com but also definitively different. As the video above shows, the planet is well simulated: the ground deforms, you can roll boulders, knock over trees, ect.

In other words, this game is one giant well-modeled sandbox with significant context. To even barely touch the level of achievement needed to do this fueled the success of the Grand Theft Auto series. Heavy Duty could be big... unfortunately, it's been in development for so long, I suspect that it may never be released.
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