Monday, April 12, 2004

Goblin Commander (GameCube, ****)

On a whim, I rented Goblin Commander this weekend. I played many hours, which is basically a positive review for me.

Goblin Commander is a real-time strategy game that has put in a heroic effort to overcome the inherent problems of controlling an RTS with a joystick. Unlike Starcraft 64, which used a PC interface and simply used the joystick as a substitute mouse, Goblin Commander is meant to be played on a console and the gameplay was designed to minimize unit micro-management and fast clicking.

Instead of controlling individual units, you can control up to three "clans" which can contain ten units each. Clans always move together in a group, and they operate on a one button interface. You use the joystick to zoom a cursor anywhere on the map (nice fast scrolling, you can cross a typical map in a second or two) and then you press A, B, or X to move the clan of your choice. Clans automatically "attack move", so they will fight anything that gets in their way.

You can also take direct control of any clan with the Y button, which allows you to move a group of units as you would control any other console character. While in direct control, you can also order other clans to follow you, and they will automatically help fight anything you choose to attack. This is a handy feature, because it allows you to run away. A clan that is fighting will ignore movement orders unless it is under direct control or following another clan that is under direct control.

There are two kinds of resources in the game: gold and "souls". Basically, souls are used to get troops and gold is used to upgrade them. Like Warcraft III with its greatly reduced unit limits, upgrades are extremely important because you want to keeping small numbers of troops alive for a long period of time. To get souls, you capture a soul well on the map by standing next to it with no enemies nearby. Wells provide you with a steady supply of souls as long as you own them, but the rate they give you decreases over time, so you need to capture more wells to keep troop production up, but you don't need to manage them.

Gold, however, requires lots of management. You get gold by smashing rocks and machines lying around the map. This is, of course fun. (Among the most important rules in gaming: smashing stuff is cool.) It does, however, require a lot of work. Your goblins will not automatically target smashable objects, so you need to spend some time clicking on objects or attacking them while a clan is under your control. Of course, the time you spend collecting money is time you are not attacking your opponent or managing your base, so there is a constant tradeoff between searching for money to buy upgrades and just making do with what you've got.

Luckily, base management is also very minimal. There are no build times, there are no research times, and there is no tech tree to speak of. Each clan has five unit types, but only two -- generally one ranged and one melee troop -- are available at the beginning of a game. The rest are locked away, and you can only access them by making an initial gold investment. After that, you can buy up as many available units as you can afford (in souls) and they join your army instantly.

The five clans specialize in different attributes, and their units and upgrades are tailored for that attribute. For instance, the rockcrusher clan has only one weak ranged troop, but it has three types of melee troops -- basic, medium, and heavy. They also have three levels of armor upgrades (bought with gold). On the other hand, the hellfire clan has one useless melee troop and basic, medium, and heavy ranged troops. They have no armor upgrade, but they have range upgrades. So if you have both clans under your control, you'll want to make heavily armored melee troops with the rockcrushers and long ranged, high damage shooters from the hellfires, and keep the two clans together for support. One clan has speed upgrades, another has a lot of spellcasting units that get health upgrades.

In addition, each clan has one type of support unit that provides additional benefits, such as scouting vision, healing, or armor bonuses. You can only have one support unit per clan at any time, and the supporters usually last a long time, so they don't get targeted.

Finally, some levels allow you to purchase "titan" units. Titans are extremely expensive but very powerful and generally have some kind of area attack ability that decimates weaker enemy armies. The catch is that you can ONLY move your titan via direct control. In other words, if you have a titan, you must micro-manage it all the time. If you stop controlling the titan, he flops down like a discarded puppet and takes a couple of seconds to get moving again when you come back. This means that going back to your base to purchase additional upgrades and troops is quite risky unless you are not under attack, or you have lots of armies guarding the titan. It is also a pain to get the titan from one area to another. Unlike regular armies, you can't just click a spot and then go do something else; you have no choice but to very slowly walk your titan from one place to another.

On the whole, the gameplay works pretty well. Because there is no building time, you can lose your entire army and still be in the game -- as long as you have enough souls to buy more, you can pop out a full set of reinforcements in seconds. However, you need SOME troops just to protect any soul wells that might fall to the enemy, because if you lose soul income then you're really in trouble. Gameplay alternates between battling the enemy and seeking out breakable objects to get gold from. However, fighting the opponent carries additional benefits. You also get gold for smashing enemy bases, and you get a portion of the enemy's souls when you kill their troops. So if you have a strong attacking force, it's definitely a good idea to press your advantage.

A few minor gripes I have about the game mainly involve the fact that it's hard to figure out what's what on the landscape. Searching for breakables can be frustrating on an unfamiliar type of map, because some of them just blend in with the landscape. Often the best thing to do is take control of one ranged clan and wander around the map pressing "attack" until they see something they want to target.

Also, the mission objectives in the campaigns are not always clear. For instance, they'll tell you to capture four soul wells, but finding them all is arduous. Even after the fog of war is lifted, it can be hard to see where the wells are without manually inspecting every inch of the map yourself. In one level, the object is to destroy all the trees in a certain area. There are a lot of them, and they can be easy to miss.

I don't know how multiplayer looks, since none of my local friends play this sort of game. I believe there is a split screen skirmish mode, and the X-Box version likely has an online game. The computer is very friendly to you in the campaigns; it does not break objects in your area or steal powerups that you leave lying around. As is standard practice in many strategy games, the computer makes up for weak AI by getting a large head start in army power for most missions.

Goblin Commander isn't the best game I ever played, but it is on the whole a positive step in proving that you don't absolutely need a mouse to have addictive RTS action.

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