Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: Advanced Tactics: Gold (PC)

Consider this: Advanced Tactics: Gold is the work of a handful of people. In that context, and for all its unwieldiness, it’s a brilliant, complex, nuanced game that grognards (wargamers) can easily lap up.

It’s going to be impossible to explain how Advanced Tactics: Gold plays. It’s a game that comes with a 130-page .pdf rules manual in the download! But, in an attempt to draw comparisons; imagine if the basic idea of Civilization was turned into a board game, and you’ll be more-or-less there. The goal to the game is to occupy cities, which provide both supplies and victory points, and capture enough of those victory points and you’ll win the game.

The scope of this game is massive

Unlike Civilisation, you’re not going to building up those cities, but you will need to dedicate the resources each city generates between military, supplies, transport and political resources. The first three are important for building a strong military force and having it kept fed and mobile, while political resources can be used to commission new military units (represented as square ‘tiles’ on the map) and research better technologies which allow you to build better weapons in the endlessly scalable nature of war.

There’s a lot to digest in there, with a lot of military units each with their pros and cons, and more technologies to research than you can possibly cover in a single game.

On the map itself, the game plays much like any other wargame. Units move around a hexagonal environment, and each unit features a huge number of statistics to track – represented as an approximate total value on the unit tile face. You’ll need to make sure the construction of a unit is well balanced to handle multiple different threats, because it’s entirely possible to lose to a better balanced unit with a smaller total value on its card.

Some very big numbers involved in the battles. It's abstract, but it works

You’ll need to make sure supply lines stay open, to save your units from the demoralising effect of lacking necessities, and position your units to take advantage of terrain. Roads and rail has a pronounced effect on the game too, so it might get difficult for the units if they venture too far away from those.

There’s also special units to take into account, such as engineers to build and destroy bridges and paratroopers to do drops behind enemy lines. So yes, this is a complex wargame, and will take practice to get the hang of if you’re new to this kind of strategy game.

Unfortunately it’s not a game that is friendly to newcomers. The tutorial is archaic (even going as far as to ask you to print out, from a Webpage, instructions on how to get through the tutorial), and there is no ‘beginner’ level AI. Unless you are a wargame veteran, prepare to be routinely slaughtered as you learn the ropes.

But on the other side of the coin, the AI proves inadequate for experienced wargamers. It’s incapable of more complex strategies, so ends up acting like a brute, even on the highest difficulty setting. 

Managing the armies through menu systems such as this really makes you feel like an armchair general

For this reason the developers recommend the game is played in multiplayer – where there’s hotseat and play by e-mail options. Play by e-mail is entirely appropriate for this kind of game, because the bigger battles can take days to complete, even against the AI, but the same caution applies to newcomers – it’s not going to be easy going if you run up against and experienced opponent, even moreso than other strategy games. (A good place to start looking for a game is Matrix Games’ forums: http://www.matrixgames.com/forums/)

Of the gameplay modes, there are a small handful of pre-made scenarios, and a random map. The former is padded out by the ability to create your own scenarios and share them online. It’s a fiddly system that people who have played other user-generated content games such as Little Big Planet will find difficult to stomach in practice, which is unfortunate, because there’s scope there to create and share literally any kind of wargame you’d like – from fantasy right through to sci-fi.

Meanwhile, the scale of the random map options is staggering – it’s possible to fight for world domination over a mammoth map with 13 other opponents, though to do that against the AI will be a painful experience each time you need to wait for your turn to roll around again. I found playing on a ‘large’ map with three other opponents a comfortable balance between having room to manoeuvre and facing off against enough opponents to keep things interesting.

Visually, Advanced Tactics: Gold surprised me. It looks simple in the screenshots, and it is, but it’s also clean and attractive. Hex environments are sharply drawn and colourful (especially when zoomed to the closest setting), and the unit tiles are big, stand out well, and the accompanying military artwork is nicely detailed. Comparing to some of Matrix Games’ other grognard games, such as Combat Command, this is a much more visually pleasing experience, without sacrificing the board game heritage.

Zoom in, and the game makes for a very attractive board game

It’s always hard to review, and then rate these games. They are as hardcore as strategy games come, and as such, they will only appeal to a niche audience – more casual gamers will look once before going back to something like Civilization or Total War. It’s unfortunate, because as a strategy game, Advanced Tactics: Gold is more fulfilling than the Civilization series could ever hope to be – it requires genuine thought and the application of military strategy.

All I can recommend is that, if you are a fan of strategy games, prepare to have a bit of patience, and take a weekend to read the rules, work through the tutorials, and lose a few initial battles. Once you get the hang of this game, you’ll be hooked.

And for existing wargamers, I highly recommend this game. It’s had me as hooked as any other wargame I’ve played to date.

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