Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Conquest of Elysium 3: Review

Version Reviewed: 3.0
What I like: Imaginative back story for classes and game mechanics, wide variety of monsters to battle and classes to play, lots of replayability.
Not So Much: Not a lot of choices to make, creature sprites too small, stalemates can drag on for too long, stacks of doom.
Other stuff you may like: Multiplayer (did not use).
The Verdict:  C+ (better than average )
Fans of multiplayer will probably get more mileage.

About my reviews

Official site:
Conquest of Elysium 3
Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Illwinter Game Design.

Conquest of Elysium 3 (CoE3) is a turn-based strategy game in a fantasy setting. It is a game of exploration and war. There are no peaceful victories, as the only goal is to eliminate all other sides that stand in your way. Unlike many other strategy games of conquest, there isn’t any base-building, research to manage, or a complex economy. A wide variety of neutral creatures roam the land that will make you think twice before sending out a small scouting party as encountering a hungry Chimaera will make necromancer food out of even well-staffed armies. Whether by might or magic, your expansion will be violently opposed. Since I have only tinkered with the Dominions 3 demo (another game created by Illwinter) I cannot compare these two games, other than state CoE3 is much more streamlined and less complex. Whether you are a solo player (like me) or enjoy multiplayer games, this game has options for you.

Getting Started
Even though CoE3 is a streamlined strategy game, Illwinter provides very good documentation describing the game mechanics in detail. After reading the manual I felt very comfortable jumping in and starting a game. Unfortunately there are not any tutorials, interactive or otherwise, which are always welcome. Tutorials usually teach the basics of a game a bit faster than reading a manual, but the lack of tutorial didn’t slow me down too much.

CoE3 is a game of randomly generated skirmishes, without any form of story-based campaign or hand-crafted scenarios. I do enjoy a well-done story-based campaign, but the randomly generated skirmishes do provide a great deal of replayability. My guess is that Illwinter would do a wonderful job at creating a story-based campaign as they seem to put a lot of effort into creating an interesting back story for their character classes.

I suspect using the random map generator is the most common way to play CoE3. There are 5 map sizes, ranging from tiny (30 x 20) to enormous (70 x 52). Most of my games were played on a large map (50 x 36) and I estimate they typically lasted several hours. Custom maps can be created with the included map editor, but none are included with the game. There are also 6 different societies to choose from, representing the time period the game occurs in and effects many aspects of the game world – size of settlements, number of bandits roaming the land, and other map features. This can have a noticeable effect on the game as resource availability is affected.

There are 17 different classes to select from, each tweaking game play enough to provide at least a moderately different experience. The main distinguishing features between the classes are what kinds of troops are available and are how they are acquired, which resources are of primary importance and any special rituals available. For example, the Necromancer can raise the dead from battle sites and settlements at the risk of losing their sanity, while the Baron receives yearly conscripts from controlled farms, hamlets and villages. Demonologists can summon politicians (I mean demons), but had better offer enough campaign contributions (I mean sacrifices) or risk losing control of said demon.  Enchanters can create portals for faster travel through the lands. This is only a small sample and the manual does an excellent job at describing the details of each class. For some class descriptions brimming with atmosphere and personality, check out Tom Chick’s game diaries.

A total of 8 different players can be added to the game and can be set to a specific class or randomly assigned one. The player can individually change the difficulty level of each AI player from a set of 10 choices. More advanced levels provide resource bonuses and access to more powerful troops to the AI players.  

Game Play
Winning is achieved by crushing all enemies. A player is eliminated from CoE3 when all of their commanders or all of their citadels are lost. Commanders are special troops who have the ability to move about the map without the aid of any other troops. Typically, they are also leaders – they can be grouped with other troops, allowing non-commanders to travel the lands. While commanders are typically stronger than grunt units, they will quickly be eliminated without an escort. Citadels are the structures where troop recruitment can take place and vary depending on the class.

Look and Ye Shall Find
Like any game about exploration, the initial view is limited to your starting point. As your troops go forth in search of resources and the enemy, more land is revealed. Once exposed, the terrain is always visible, but you must have an adjacent army or controlled map structure to see enemy or neutral troops. This fog of war is represented by a light grey shroud on the map. Some structures extend the line of sight to 2 squares when they are manned, such as the crystal tower in the screen shot below. Unfortunately, not all enemies are honorable and may employ stealthy units. The unlucky commander will locate them by stumbling into the same location. A well-prepared commander includes a scout in his army to uncover adjacent stealthy units. Surprises are better suited for birthday parties, not the battlefield. It is a pretty simple system that rewards scouting and holding structures that provide line of sight. I’m not sure the reward is enough though. Having certain structures provide even more line of sight would make them more valuable and worth fighting over. I am inclined to think that the AI isn’t savvy enough to try and avoid detection by avoiding these structures and try to find an approach to remain undetected.

The Lay of the Land
The terrain determines the travel cost into the location. Seasons also affect movement as winter’s snows make movement more costly. Formally impassable waterways can be crossed when frozen, but don’t be caught in a spring thaw as most unit types will drown. Some units are more adapt at travel through certain terrain. Everyone knows if you have to travel through the mountains there is nothing better than being a dwarf. Mountains and certain structures also provide a defensive bonus to troops residing at that location and can be the deciding factor in a close battle.

A Simple Economy
Terrain also dictates where certain resources are found (forests have herbs and fungi, hills and mountains may have mines, etc…) and the season makes some resources more or less plentiful. There are no structures to build or techs to research. The economic side of CoE3 is very simple. Move one of your troops into a square with a resource to claim it and the resource is collected until an enemy or neutral unit takes control away from you. Important resources should probably be protected with troops, or at the very least an army stationed not too far away. There can be a lot of neutral units about and can be quite aggravating to have them steal unprotected resources. 

Units and Armies
Typically troops are acquired by recruiting them at a citadel at the cost of resources. Acquiring additional citadels is important to increase your capacity to recruit more troops per turn, as each citadel can only recruit one group of ‘standard’ troops per turn. At times, special mercenaries become available and can be purchased in addition to standard troops. Some classes have additional methods of acquiring troops, such as summoning, charming, and reanimating the bodies of fallen troops.

Action points (AP) dictate how much a unit can get done in a single turn. There are slow (2AP), medium (3AP), and fast (4 AP) units. APs are spent on movement or special actions while entering battle uses up any remaining points. One interesting twist is that you can complete an action, such as move into a mountain square, even if you only have some of the required AP. In this situation remaining APs are deducted the next turn, so you may get caught with your pants down and unable to react to an approaching enemy.

There is a great variety in the types of creatures encountered in Elysium. Each unit has some basic statistics determining how much damage they can take before death, susceptibility to fear and magic, and the amount of damage they can shrug off from successful attacks. There are many special abilities on top of these base attributes, such as causing fear to the enemy, taking less damage from certain types of attacks, regenerate during combat, and exploding upon death. The combination of all of these characteristics gives each unit its own distinctiveness. This is perhaps one of CoE3’s greatest strengths.

Units gain experience over time and through battle, with four levels of experience providing moderate benefits. In my opinion, gaining experience over time should be capped. To me, this represents a units training. A unit that doesn’t see battle for 100 months shouldn’t be as experienced as a more battle tested one. Also experience through combat is the same whether one weak enemy or a dozen powerful creatures are defeated. This system is too streamlined for my tastes. After providing such varied units it seems a shame that some systems are rather limited.

While the combat model has many factors, it is a hands-off affair. The player’s primary influence is deciding the unit makeup of his army as some units are much better suited to do battle against some creatures. In one game I was fortunate to summon an invulnerable (can’t be harmed by normal weapons) creature while one of my enemies didn’t seem to have any other method of causing damage. Promptly taking advantage of these match ups unquestionably brings victory much faster.

Spells can be the deciding factor in battle and the player can adjust his spell caster’s memorized spells before the confrontation starts. In practice I have found that the default selections are almost always good choices, but there may be enemies where it is worthwhile to change the memorized spells. It could just be coincidence with the spells my forces acquired, but perhaps not. Once the battle begins, the spell caster will randomly select memorized spells to cast. I definitely prefer a more hands on approach as there aren’t a lot of decisions to make. Creatures also have slots to equip magic items, further augmenting their abilities.

Combat is at its best when there are less than 40 units or so involved. Stacks of doom (huge armies) detracted from game play in Civilization 4 and the same applies to CoE3. Once the stacks contain too many units it becomes rather tedious to evaluate enemy armies. This is exacerbated by the small unit icons and having to either remember all of the attributes of each unit or right-click on each one to view the statistics, abilities, spells, etc…. CoE3 would benefit from enforcing a command limit on leader units to limit the army size. Perhaps this limit could increase slightly with battle experience. In any case, evaluating a battle with 500 units wasn’t my idea of fun. A unit summary line for each side allowing the player to see how many units of each type there are at a glance would also help. After some experience it certainly gets easier predicting the outcome of a battle.

One of the characteristics of a unit is what battle rank it occupies during combat. Melee fighters typically are in the front rank, ranged units in the middle, and spell casters in the rear. The defenders always attack first. Each unit performs their attack in turn, starting with the rear rank and working up to the front rank. Then the attackers take their turn. Once one side is eliminated the other is declared the victor. Since ranged units and spell casters are usually weak in melee combat, you have to make sure they are protected by enough melee units. Some spells and attacks are not limited to attacking the front ranks, so don’t let your strong front line lull you into a false sense of security. I think it is a mistake for the game to always have the defender attack first. The defender already receives a defensive bonus if they occupy favorable terrain and a strong defensive force can significantly damage the attacker before they get a chance to act. The current system promotes turtling a little too much. A balanced initiative system that allows a mixture of units from each side to attack in turn would be more enjoyable in my opinion. Perhaps the defender could get a bonus to initiative to model the difficulties for an attacker to overcome a prepared defender.

Decisions, Decisions
Practically all meaningful decisions revolve around the management of your troops and the spending of your resources. Since one never knows what type of mercenary will show up, a player has to decide if they will spend their resources on standard troops or wait for the much-needed scout or commander. Also, certain classes can use resources to ‘level up’, so the choice of saving the resources for a permanent upgrade or spending them now on troops becomes important.

How many troops should be left to protect acquired assets vs. how many to take on the offensive? Should I create a stack of doom or spread out to cover multiple areas? These are questions you will ask yourself. Some neutral wondering monsters are pretty tough and can easily defeat a weak detachment guarding one of your mines or performing scouting duties.

Some of the systems could benefit from being made a little deeper. For example, if a demonologist performs too many sacrifices at a town, why not reduce the income generated from it?

Difficulty and AI
My games were all played on the default difficulty level where the AI doesn’t receive any bonus and I had a mixture of results. The AI will take advantage of unprotected resources or weak armies wandering about. When I took care to protect my commanders and citadel I usually didn’t have a large problem obtaining victory. The AI did battle me to a stalemate in game where I gave up, so I would chalk that up as an AI victory. In another game the AI barely expanded, even though it took me a long time to find his position. I have no idea what he was doing.

The AI did seem to know when to avoid initiating a fight, but would sometimes venture too close to one of my stacks and get caught. I also baited the AI to return to a location by repeatedly taking one of his resources until I could get a stronger force in the area to eliminate him.

Much of the difficulty comes from the random starting location, along with what neutral creatures are roaming through your area. A strong neutral stack can put a damper on your resource grab and expansion. Luckily for the player the neutral stacks seem to wander about in a random fashion, passing by resources more frequently than claiming them. For some creatures this probably makes sense, but for intelligent ones (or bandits) they should probably go for the resources a bit more. If they do this I never noticed.

User Interface
Once you get accustomed to some of the non-standard behavior it isn’t bad. Terrain information displays at the bottom of the screen when your mouse hovers over a map location. Many items display information when the user right clicks on it. Unfortunately the use of hint / info messages was a little inconsistent. During game setup the difficulty levels didn’t have any in-game explanation. The same was true for the demonologist rituals and sacrifice level, along with the rune smith rituals. I didn’t go back to check everything so there may be more.

During the initial game setup the player can’t back track to a prior step if they decide to change a setting. Nor can they quit all together. They must finish setting up the game, then fully exit the program, start it back up and start anew. This isn’t as bad as it sounds since the game starts up quickly and there are only a handful of settings, but it was annoying in a couple situations. On a related note, the player can save the game anytime he wants, but can only load the game from the main menu. This means you must save, quit the program, start it back up and then load the save from the main menu. Illwinter’s wanted to dissuade people from cheating by reloading a save when things go bad. In many games it is too tempting to become lazy and abuse the save system, but in the end I think it should be the user’s choice. After all, it is the player who should decide how they have the most fun. I can understand limits in a multiplayer game, but not when playing solo. At least the game starts up very fast.

Resource balance and income is displayed on the primary screen and right clicking displays the sources and any income calculation. It is valuable to have this information at your fingertips to plan your actions.

Troop management is made simple with a variety of features. This is good since troop management is where a player spends the most time. The unit management screen displays all troops grouped by their commander. Clicking on a unit jumps to its location on the map. The player can also iterate through commanders with remaining action points at the press of a key. If a commander is going to stay put for an extended period of time, give him the sentry command so they are skipped when iterating through the commanders. One aspect of troop management that is weak is the only way to view which units are injured is via a hotkey on the unit transfer screen. The only way to view how injured they are is to right click on each one to view their hit points and to see if they received any permanent battle wounds.

I also wish the combat screen had a button for stepping through a single attack. Watching a single attack would get tedious in the long run, but would help to understand the combat mechanics when starting out.

There are lots of hotkeys for those inclined to learn them.

Online / Multiplayer Features
CoE3 can be played with multiple human players via either hotseat or network play. One player starts a game as the host and players join by typing in the hosts IP address. Play by email or match making services are not available. I am strictly a solo player, so I am unsure how the multiplayer experience is.
There are no online features aimed at the solo player, such as a scoring or leaderboard system.

Graphics and Sound
The graphics are primitive, even by turn-based strategy game standards, but doesn’t interfere with the game play for the most part. I found the terrain to be clear, but smaller elements are sometimes difficult to spot. I had the most trouble spotting one of the camps, even after I knew its general area. One nice graphical feature is the ability to seamlessly zoom out to view a large portion of the map. The mouse wheel zoomed slower than I would like and there wasn’t an in-game option to configure its responsiveness. The units on the main map are easy to distinguish when zoomed in fairly close, but during the battle view the units are so small it is difficult to tell similar units apart.

Combat sound effects are even more basic than the visuals, but truthfully it doesn’t matter so much in a game like this. Where the sound shines is the musical score. I have yet to see a comment about the music that didn’t praise it and I have to agree. I’m sure I have heard each song many times over and it never becomes grating. A big step up from the Tropico 4 soundtrack.

Technical Performance
The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups.
My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
My first inclination was to dislike CoE3 for its lack of choices. I enjoy the city building and research aspects of games like Civilization, so the lack of equivalent features seems like a hole in need of filling. This is compounded by the lack of tactical control during the battles. After playing the different classes I began to enjoy the game more. While the basic focus remains the same for each class, there are enough differences to make each class feel fresh. Combine the variety of classes with the random map generator and you have a lot of replayability. The variety of units and their abilities makes evaluating enemy armies challenging. The opposing forces of expansion vs. protecting what you have creates a welcome tension in the game, as does deciding whether to spend your resources now or save them for a greater benefit later. Players who enjoy role-playing or have an active imagination can probably create some interesting stories for their games. Conquest of Elysium 3 is not a game that will keep me hooked for a week at a time, but will be a pleasant distraction in between other games. I hope future iterations in this series make improvements to take it to the next level.

C+   (better than average )

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