A botched execution is always messy, but still an execution
In the olden days, executions didn’t involve lethal injection, or even electricity. Nope, the headsman would come along with an axe, and, to the amusement of the crowd, lop off a condemned head. Of course, such a stroke can be tricky business, and sometimes that big ol’ axe didn’t make it all the way through the spine and muscle in one shot, which was pretty exciting for the crowd as they got to see the headsman make a few extra strokes before finishing his work.
We’ve come a long way in entertainment since then, but the point is the same: even a botched execution can be fun. SAGA is the first massively multiplayer collective real time strategy game. Is the world ready for a MMCRTS? Perhaps it is, although the developers, in choosing such an insanely ambitious project, certainly made their share of poor executions when it came to implementing their designs.
Let’s overlook the ghastly launch, with its legion of bugs, and try to overlook the patches, currently on build 137.5, and that about half the units and spells in the game have been balanced and changed somewhat since launch. Let’s try to focus on the current game, as it is. I must use this caveat, as, weeks after launch, the game is still evolving rapidly. Perhaps it’s best to focus on each aspect of this colossal undertaking.
As real time strategy (RTS) goes, the game is passable. A player must quickly choose his nation. The armies of the nation can be mostly composed of units from a given faction, either light (humans/giants), magic (dark elves), machines (dwarves), nature (elves), or war (orcs). There is also a good number of neutral units, and the player will be mostly using these until he’s purchased enough collectible armies (but more on that later). One thing seriously lacking in the game is a manual; a draft version is available online —understandable considering how the rules are yet changing daily — but a player has little choice but to go blind, taking guesses as to what units are good for and how best to use them. Whatever he picks, a player is well advised to go with archery/ranged units. Opposing AI is crude at best, and archers can move and shoot very quickly, allowing them to “kite” (that is, retreat and shoot) enemy melee units at no risk to themselves.
Unlike typical RTS games, a player’s central base is constant, he need only build the farms, houses, etc. just one time, at least for his central base (he can establish other bases, but I’ll discuss the MMO aspect later). It’s rather nice, and dramatically changes the flow of the actual battles. Construction of buildings is rather slow, however; it may take a day or more to build a farm, as opposed to the handful of seconds in a normal RTS. It’s good enough, although it’s yet another case where some sort of manual would’ve been nice, to give some hint that one needs to assign peasants to construction before anything actually gets built.
A player can build a large standing army but may only have a certain number of CPs (combat points) in the field at any given time. As a unit takes damage or casualties, the CPs don’t reduce, so skilled players withdraw their wounded troops and quickly replace them with fresh units. This aspect of the game works fairly well, as it both allows for a greater focus on the actual fighting and allows a player to lose, without necessarily losing anything that isn’t quickly replaced (units are expensive to replace, but individual casualties can be resurrected relatively cheaply).
A good part of a player’s early experience with the game will be in solo quests, and this part of the game is handled very nicely, with many dozens of quests. As the player gains levels, he gets access to more quests and is able to field ever larger armies. Not only are the quests usually fun, or at least not dull (except for filling out the “how did you like this quest?” form after every battle), they’re also a tremendously exploitable resource. By carefully losing, a player can replay the quests, giving his units bonus experience, as well as quite possibly gaining additional resources.
In short, the RTS aspect of the game is fine, even considering a player can start playing for free… there are hours of fun here, and new content (so far) is being added constantly.
"As an MMO, things get shaky."
As an MMO, things get shaky. While RTS games usually have fairly balanced forces and building, it’s fairly easy to get into a game and be completely beaten before the fight even starts. The available CP to each player isn’t much of a balancing factor — melee units are essentially hopeless against archers and ranged units, and well leveled units have a distinct advantage against lower level equivalents.
Even worse than head-to-head PvP (player-vs.-player) is when one player is not in game. Much as in the early days of role-playing MMOs, griefers and scammers abound. Already players have found expanding to be problematic. The game world plays even when the player is offline, gathering resources and such. Unfortunately, any territory taken beyond the initial free zone is fair game for raids. Because the AI is bad, a relatively small player-controlled raider can easily wipe out an offline player’s defensive force, even if outnumbered 10 to 1. Again, there have been some hasty fixes to this problem, but AI is unlikely to be dramatically improved anytime soon. So, right now, players don’t so much build up a country as a core army. There are also guilds, which can be comprised of armies of up to two different factions and yield plunder and resource bonuses to all member nations in the guild. Players can also cooperate with each other on quests (and it’s even necessary on some of the harder quests), but there’s very little of the “adventurer party” style gaming one associates with other MMOs; just a couple of guys farming a quest for bonus resources and experience, with nothing lasting or significant to the players’ nations beyond a few extra hundred food units or whatever.
As a collectible game, again, there are issues. There have been wild balance problems, causing traders to scramble for the extra-powerful pieces, only to be disappointed when a patch nerfs (i.e., weakens) the special creatures to a less dominating status. It’s also rather regrettable that even something as basic as orc archers requires orc-by-orc assembly of the unit. Gathering even a measly twenty-man unit requires either considerable booster-buying or trading, although at least the latter is facilitated somewhat by the inclusion of a special auction/trade house. Still, it takes perhaps a bit too much dedication (or a purchase of a large number of boosters) to put together a particular army, even if there was some way to know what all the various units and spells were capable of.
In short, the designers are to be saluted for taking up such a difficult task and should not be faulted if so much is still in flux. The game merits a very qualified recommendation, at least for those gamers that have the patience to deal with the growing pains one often sees with an MMO. These pains are exponentially worse here, due to it being an MMO in two relatively new genres, RTS and collectible. The game may have more than its share of warts, but this is still a groundbreaking effort that should be respected for the effort, if nothing else.
*Update - A few clarifications (4-19-08):
- There are quests very suitable for farming extra resources, and no need or ability to deliberately lose quests to gain them.
- The rules reinforcing/replacing units have changed, so now bringing units back up to full strength depends on several factors.
- Players actually can hold up to 5 territories before they are subject to attack by other players.
--Fun solo RTS.
--Base building is permanent.
--Totally new experience.
--No decent manual.
--Collectible concept doesn’t mesh well.