Thursday, February 7, 2008

Battle for Wesnoth

I was a little trepidatious reviewing Battle for Wesnoth because I think it has a big fanbase, and so I felt compelled to find out why they love it so. It ended up not being a chore: it's a fully featured, aesthetically and mechanically pleasing game with graphics that are essentially current-gen. In short, it's lovable. It has its drawbacks, but rather than being failures on the part of the designers/coders, they're just 'features' of the genre of play.

I've never been a big wargamer, so Civilizations is about as close as I've ever come to the turn-based hex-tiled strategy genre. Battle for Wesnoth has me thinking I should check the genre out a little more. Basically, you have a map, where there are resources (villages), spawn points (keeps), different types of terrain (which affect unit movement rates and performance), and units. Each map has goals, which must be accomplished within a limited number of turns.

The game has a great sense of aesthetics. When I said it was 'current-gen', graphically speaking, I simply mean that it's crisp and pretty and you don't immediately think 'I'm playing a Linux game', but rather 'I'm playing a nice-looking game.' I don't mean to imply that it does all kinds of crazy things with textures and bump-mapping and real-time lighting and all that jazz that people talk about in regards to FPSs (and which I have only a vague conception of). It may do some of that, but I don't think so, and I don't think it's necessary at all to this style of game, which hasn't really changed much insofar as I can tell since the late 80s. It looks pretty much as good as Europa Universalis III, which came out only last year, I think.

Why did I start out talking about the graphics? Laziness, most likely. That's the easiest thing to summarize. The rest is difficult, because unlike most of the previous games I've looked at, it's really complicated. The combat dynamics take into account a number of things that combine to make it truly a 'strategy' game, rather than a tactical game.

Besides the afore-mentioned terrain, there are attributes (certain classes perform better at night than in the day-time and vice-versa, for example), and units even gain experience. Higher levels make for more capable units, and units can be transferred from scenario to scenario within a campaign, so it's feasible to imagine performing so poorly in an earlier scenario that finishing a campaign is impossible.

Other things that can affect a unit's performance are their available forms of attack and the type of weapons they use - and I'm probably forgetting and/or ignorant of a few other things. It's a really nice system that allows for a lot of variability, and therefore allows for a lot of personality in your play-style. Your preferred tactics will affect which units you prefer, as will the terrain in which you're playing, and both of those will affect the strategies you utilize to conquer a given map.

While it's quite complex, it's not overly so, which is important. There's a really bare-bones tutorial which to be completely honest needs work. But even though it doesn't come near fully describing all of the features of gameplay, it shows you enough to get started, and a bit of experimentation in an actual campaign can get you comfortable and familiar with the basic systems in very little time.

Like many open-source games (and not a few retail games), Battle for Wesnoth is expandable via custom content, which has two sides to it. On the one hand, it makes for infinite replayability via downloaded content, which we're all aware is a wonderful thing. The downside (for me, at least) is that since it ships with a number of campaigns, which don't seem to have much relation to one another in any chronological or character sense, it's hard to develop a real connection to the things that are going on in a meta-game context.

Within the confines of a single campaign, it depends on how well the campaign is set up (skip the first one in the list; the second one has higher production values, and better writing). But after beating the first campaign or two, I don't feel any real drive to play the next one, because it doesn't have much to do with the former outside of setting. This isn't any real 'flaw' that can be faulted anywhere; it's just the nature of the beast, when your content comes from various sources with various interests.

It is, however, a difference between Battle of Wesnoth as an indie-game (amateur game, if you prefer) and what it would have been as a retail release in this day and age: that imaginary retail version would either have had one really long campaign, or it would have campaigns that went in a chronological sort of order and/or attempted some sort of meta story-arc that lent them a sense of cohesion. For me, that's an important thing, because I play to find out what happens next. Fourth down the list of campaigns that 'ship' with the game is the one where Wesnoth is founded. That just seems like a waste of time, since I've already saved Wesnoth in the present. If it were some sort of prequel that affected events in the 'present' day (there's no real sense of a consistent chronology, so I'm being loose with that term), then it would be interesting.

What I'm trying to say is that, although at least one of the campaigns I played through had a well-conceived story that was a delight to progress through, the game doesn't actually score highly on the 'story' scale of game evaluation. When I go back to it, as I'm sure I will, it will be solely for the fun of the game mechanics, not because I want to find out what happens next. Which in this case is fine, because the mechanics are fun to play with, and it's not for-profit. It doesn't have to be addictive, and it doesn't have to build relationships between the player and the storyline, in order to sell a sequel.

Outside of that, the only complaint I really have is a petty one that is probably endemic to the genre of hex-based wargaming: it's a pain in the ass moving a large number of troops from place to place. It's never game-breaking because the number of units is never so large that it takes an epic amount of time, but moving each unit individually, when I'm dealing with a dozen or more units, and I just want them all to go in a general direction, is annoying. I don't think you could eliminate that, and it's only a problem because the only wargaming I've ever done was RTS-style, and I'm used to dragging to select and then issuing commands to groups.

Because I'm not very good at strategy games, I also found myself a little annoyed by the fact that every scenario in every campaign I played had a turn-limit. I'm paranoid, and I like to stockpile units. That said, it's a good thing the game does this: it adds a sense of urgency, and it forced me to actually play the game from the beginning. While I'm more comfortable doing all I can to make a game easy for myself, I suspect I have a more engrossing experience when that option is taken away.

I forgot to say anything about the sound; it's pretty. One of the best I've heard in a Linux game, actually. It's got that epic-fantasy-film sort of thing going on, for the most part, although not always all that epic. It's never annoying, which is especially important in a game you'll be playing for hours at a time.

And make no mistake, you will be playing it for hours at a time... if you don't mind turn-based gaming (who does? Turn-based gaming r0x0rz, and anyone who claims otherwise is selling something). This is pretty much a masterpiece, and that it was developed by the open-source community is a hopeful sign for the future and provides much amusement for the present.

No comments: