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Empire of the Ants

Score: 70%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Strategy First
Developer: Microids
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 8
Genre: Real-Time Strategy

Graphics & Sound:

The graphics in Empire of the Ants, unfortunately, aren't all that impressive. Sure, the outside world is rendered in full 3D. That is, until you look at your ants, which are ugly little sprite-based things running around on the screen. That sort of logical disparity really hurts the graphical feel of the game; with everything else using polygons, why shouldn't your units? I understand that there can be a large number of ants on the screen at once, but it's still disconcerting. The anthills are a shade of brown with lots of ants running inside and outside as the game progresses; while the ability to rotate your view is nice, they certainly don't look all that 'sharp'. And the fact that just about every creature clips through various parts of the ground and the anthill makes for an even more bothersome graphical feel to the game.

Sound definitely fares better. While the 'spooky wind sounds' in the anthills drive me up the wall, the actual music in the game is solid, with a proper orchestral theme that sounds straight out of an epic. Considering the rather 'epic' setting of the game--for ants, at least--it fits very well, and I found myself humming along with a few of the themes. Sound effects, on the other hand, are passable to annoying. The high-pitched whinechirp that the ants make when you select them is grating on the ears, and most of the rest aren't much better. Urgh.


Gameplay:

And, unfortunately, the gameplay doesn't live up to the concept any more than the graphics and sound effects do. While it's got some novel ideas, Empire of the Ants never quite gets off the ground in terms of gameplay, with bland environments and a control scheme that leaves a lot to be desired. It's a shame, too, because there was a lot of potential with this decidedly non-standard take on real time strategy games.

The concept of the game is intriguing. You head a group of russet ants, part of an empire that has spanned millenia. It's up to you to make sure that your group survives and prospers, venturing out into uncharted territories and fighting the foes within. The core concepts of the game come from Bernard Werber's book of the same title. Think of it as a chitinous version of Watership Down and you'll get the idea.

At first blush the game looks like a fairly standard real-time strategy game, although the view is zoomed in a great deal for obvious reasons. A little tinkering, however, will reveal a number of differences in the way the game controls and plays from your standard game.

For example, there are 'zones' of resources throughout any given map. These zones have to be discovered; once they've been found, a little icon appears in them that's crossed through. Clicking on the icon 'activates' the zone, and your worker ants will now go there to get some of the stuff they need. There are two basic types of resources--food and construction materials--but any given zone may have a different type of resource. Better resources mean that you don't have to waste time and space getting lesser materials.

One thing that you have to get used to is that you don't command around anyone other than your combat ants. The rest are fully automated. This smacks of Settlers and the more recent The Nations, but both of those games concentrate on an economic structure, whereas this game has a more traditional RTS flavour despite the setting.

Unfortunately, that ends up being Empire of the Ants' downfall. Despite the innovative features that the game has--setting priorities by moving around tiles on a big list, the egg-laying cycle of the queen for gaining new workers and units, and the coming of winter where you have to hole up in the anthill before you freeze to death--the game ends up playing like a rather standard RTS once you get around its various differences. There's the shock troop ants, the ranged-fire ants, and the burly tank ants, just like you'd expect in any other RTS. You build your anthill like you build most game's bases, although there are a lot less options for structures in the game (and the interface is more clumsy than most). In the end, you're going to amass large numbers of units and charge your enemies, marching them across the map in an attempt to swarm their hill and become victor. It's the same thing as most older RTS games, only on a different scale.

Adding insult to injury is the absolutely atrocious tutorial. It's slow, long, inconsistent, and the inside-the-hill one locked up on me after I sat around for a while waiting for stuff to happen. Whee. There are a number of weird spellings and typos in the game; it seems like it could have used a little more spit and polish before the final release. There's multiplayer support, which is nice, and three single-player campaigns, although you have to unlock the second and third before you can play them.


Difficulty:

This game is pretty hard. A lot of the difficulty comes from fighting with the controls and the way the game's set up. Getting the queen to produce what you need when you need it is usually futile; it's better to keep units in reserve so you'll have them when you need them. Hatch cycles simply take too long. The scenario objectives are usually fairly standard, although sometimes they can be a bit confusing. Combat consists of attempting to click on the enemy as it dodges around; thankfully you can draw a 'combat box' that will have your selected units attack any enemies within it. With the completely random weaving that both your units and the enemy's units, the game would be impossible otherwise.

Game Mechanics:

Empire of the Ants uses standard mouse controls, like most RTS games, although you can use stuff like the arrow keys to make your life a little simpler. The interface is minimal, but it's also very confusing; the various buttons' purposes aren't intuitively obvious, and you'll spend a lot of time looking at the tooltips while you try to figure out just what you need to do. Add to that a rather flaky camera, especially on the outside, and just moving your view around can be frustrating. Once you get the hang of it, though, the buttons and menus are easy enough to use. Just don't rely on the tutorial teaching you anything of use. Load times are minimal, and the game seemed stable enough.

I looked forward to Empire of the Ants when I heard about it. I loved SimAnt back in the day, and I figured that a real-time strategy game using some of the same premises would be fantastic. Unfortunately, the end result is definitely something less. While it's not a horrible game, there's very little in Empire of the Ants that would have me recommend it over other better examples of the genre. If you're really hankering for war on the small scale, and you don't mind fighting with a cumbersome interface and dealing with overblown mechanics, Empire of the Ants may be the game for you. If not, though, you'd be better off picking up a copy of Kohan or the like. Despite its intriguing premise, the game feels like so many other mediocre real-time strategy games that you'll probably find yourself rooting around for something better before long.


-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

Minimum System Requirements:



Win9x/2K, P2 233, 32 accelerator, 32MB RAM, 200MB HD space, 8x CD-ROM, sound card
 

Test System:



Athlon 1.1GHz running Win98 SE, 512MB RAM, GeForce 2 GTS w/ 32MB RAM, SoundBlaster Live!, 8x DVD-ROM

Windows Empire Earth Windows Europa Universalis II

 
Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated