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First Look: Zynga’s Empires And Allies

Posted by on June 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Oh great, another one. I’d been able to keep Zynga-free until the social gaming company, famous for soul-sapping games like FarmVille, announced they were going to be doing CityVille – a game that tapped straight into my desire for a new SimCity game. I stayed on for about five months longer than I expected, first experiencing the game’s frustrating gameplay limitations, then finally quitting when the game devolved into a mess of ‘bug your neighbors into giving you five of this thing so you can complete some arbitrary goal.’ Empires and Allies is the newest addition to the Zynga stable, which they tout is their largest launch ever, but how long will it hold my interest before it drives me up the wall?

You start off on an island with a ruined village. The evil “Raven” has just thrashed your poor nation and it’s your job to rebuild and repel This Dark Alliance (or just your dick-ish neighbors). If you’ve played CityVille, then this will feel very similar. If you haven’t played a game like this before, then it’s really pretty simple: you try to harvest resources that will allow you to build things. You can only build things if you have enough energy, which is the game’s way of forcing you to come back every so often to play, rather than keeping you clinging to your monitor for hours at a time. Your neighbors (read: Facebook friends) can also come into town and help you with your workload.

My attempt to invade Kelly was for naught!

The glow of building and managing a city fades after a time, but Zynga (under the clever eye of Brian Reynolds) have turned this into a war game. Sowing in barracks and airfields in place of sunglasses huts and hot dog stands, you build and manage an army to fortify your own town or go on the warpath. The game provides a campaign and a variety of opponents to face, but there’s little in the way of dynamics here. Everyone is playing the exact same game that you are.

Resources like wood and oil aren’t harvested based on your island’s inventory, but are purchased in much the same way the rail system works in CityVille. I understand this is supposed to be a Grandma-Ready(TM) game, but even if they had a pre-calculated number of players with specific resource deficiencies, forcing them to trade for the ones they didn’t have, this game would be that much more satisfying.

Battles themselves keep simple, yet interesting. While virtually all of your battles are scripted encounters, sans the quarrels with your Facebook friends, how well you perform is based on your unit load out. Each unit performs well against specific enemy types in a rock-paper-scissors fashion. For example: Infantry work well against mortars and aircraft, while Vintage Tanks work great against aircraft and battleships, but not against mortars (wait, that doesn’t make any sense…). Each ’round’ requires a unit of energy, which slowly regenerates over time. This means, in fact…

…yeah, you’ll be forced to ‘pause’ battles because you ran out of energy. This not only feels like another arbitrary hindrance to actually playing the game (not that games in the Zynga mold are short on those), but it’s just plain stupid as well. There’s not even a penalty for pausing against the AI, so why even bother stopping someone mid-battle? When some of the larger battles can sap 15-20 energy, it becomes a sharp pain to have to wait hours to regenerate enough juice to push on. Sure, you can buy as much as energy as you’d like using Facebook currency, but is that how low one must go?

Anyway. The units you build can be deployed around your city, acting as a defensive multiplier against invading forces, which will make for interesting empire against empire battles amongst friends (a World Embassy building allows you to play Switzerland and skip all that) in much the same way that random disasters can hinder a SimCity.

I’m just not sure at this point if the military wrinkles in this game are going to distance it enough from CityVille for my tastes. Empires and Allies wants so hard to come close to a real-time strategy game, but between the limitations of Adobe Flash and Zynga’s own gameplay template, it just feels like another Ville game. Despite their intentions, this game is still almost entirely micromanagement and very little strategy. With time, perhaps this game will find its feature set and allow for a nifty end game once you’ve built out your town, or maybe it’s just going to be a hoary mess where you’re up at 2AM harvesting watermelons.

Or, worse, you’re going to be mining your friends for more puppies, umbrellas, and bombshells to finish your latest quests. I don’t know, but that’s not the ride I’ve signed up for.

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