Reviewed on: PlayStation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
Real-Time Strategy games are pretty scarce on console platforms these days, with no heavy hitters of the genre really appearing since Halo Wars and Red Alert 3 from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 days (although the upcoming Halo Wars 2 may change this). This is primarily due to the genre relying heavily on the classic mouse-n-keyboard set up of the PC to properly and accurately manage troops and construction. So when I first encountered Siegecraft Commander at PAX Aus in 2015, I was intrigued by the mission of developers Blowfish Studios to bring the RTS genre back to console by doing away with micro-management and simplifying the building process.
Unfortunately, the methods in which Siegecraft Commander attempts to do this bring about some new flaws of their own, taking what is on the surface an innovative and unique game and turning it into an exercise in frustration.
One of Siegecraft Commander‘s core concepts is that your army is built in a veins-like structure. You begin a match with a Keep, your HQ which if destroyed spells defeat, ergo you must seek the destruction of your opponent’s Keep to win. From there you can create a variety of buildings, with each one leaving a bridge connected to the previous one. Should a building be destroyed, any other building ahead that was relying on it to be connected back to the Keep is also destroyed. It certainly provides an interesting and cool new way of thinking when it comes to spacing out your structures, forcing you to keep eye on which buildings act as weak points that, if destroyed, could bring down your entire front line.
Combat itself ranges from manually firing projectiles from specific structures, such as Outposts, Trebuchets or airships/dragons, to strategically placing automated ones, like the anti-air Ballista, anti-infantry Mortar and the infantry spawning Barracks. These structures, nor the infantry spawned, require any player input, rather they will attack any relevant targets that come within range. There’s a range of magic abilities also, like shielding or homing shots, which differ depending on which Commander character/army you are playing as, the humans or the lizards.
In order to make managing a game such as this more compatible with controllers, Siegecraft Commander utilises a slingshot mechanic as its primary way of facilitating placing structures and engaging in combat. Now on paper this is quite a novel idea, but in practice it proved to be immensely frustrating, and when your core gameplay mechanic elicits that kind of response that is a serious problem.
For a start, the slingshot’s strength is incredibly inconsistent. The only indicators available to the player when firing out a building or projectile is an arrow showing aiming direction and a bar displaying how far back you’re pulling the slingshot. So when it comes to how much pull back is appropriate, players are expected to get a feel for the ratio of drawstring to distance. However, I lost count of the amount of times something felt like it would require a full-strength shot to make but actually required only half, only then for a similar looking distance to require a third-strength. This was especially frustrating when it came to launching projectiles at enemy buildings, as it resulted in shot after shot coming up short, despite the impression instilled by a full strength shot suggesting otherwise.
That’s not to say it had no negative impact on building placement either, because it certainly did. Many situations arise where your hopes rest on placing buildings in very specific spots, which the inconsistent slingshot often caused me to miss, either going further than I wanted/not far enough or landing on a surface I could not build on. This was particularly mind numbing when placing a combat building like a Barracks since the 30 second cool-down before you can fling out another one seems to apply even if the shot isn’t successful.
These kinds of issues would be solved if the slingshot had an indicator of where the the building/projectile will land based on how far back the drawstring is pulled. Would it lower the chances of misses in situations of projectiles being thrown back and forth? Certainly, but given you still have to take the time to line up the shot in a high pressure real time situation, as well as being able to strategically place automatic anti-air defences against projectiles, the alteration would definitely make for a better experience without sacrificing the initial concept.
While the slingshot is easily the most galling issue I had in my time with Siegecraft Commander, it fell short in regards to other RTS conventions. For example, there’s no way to erase your structures should you find yourself in a position where you need to change strategies. The only way to do that, that I could figure out, was to fire upon my own buildings to destroy them and then go from there. Well, either that or start the mission over again. Erasing buildings wouldn’t break the game, especially if cool-downs on certain buildings still applied.
And while the art style of the game is quite stunning, with a very cartoony-yet-water-coloured look, the indicators on the HUD of things such as structures being under attack aren’t overly obvious amongst the chaos when stuff starts to go down. That tiny little orange square in the bottom right corner of the above picture? That’s the indicator pointing you towards the enemy’s Keep, but it’s also indicative of the size/attention grabbing ability of the “warning, one of your way back at the start buildings is under attack” indicators. When a battle gets cluttered, and it will, it very much blends in and will lead to many, many agonising retries.
Siegecraft Commander has several modes of play: two single player campaigns, real time multiplayer and turn based multiplayer (both online and local). The single player campaigns are a mixed bag, as they have a hugely steep learning curve since the AI opponents already start with fully built armies that you have to take down, rather than assembling one like you. Campaign missions often devolve into chaos as the enemy’s fully functioning army quickly swamps you, further expressing the need for on-the-fly building removal to adapt strategies and a more user friendly slingshot. Sure, there’s an element of “git gud” here, but “gitting gud” would be a more palatable and enjoyable experience with these gameplay improvements.
As for the multiplayer, it too is a mixed bag. The real time multiplayer is much the same as the campaign, suffering from the same gameplay woes, but at least this time with opponents starting on equal footing. And while it feels like the turn based version of Siegecraft Commander would be a blessing given the aforementioned gameplay issues, its restriction of a single building placement or sling of a projectile per turn, regardless of the amount of time allowed for turns, very quickly becomes incredibly tedious as it takes forever to actually achieve anything.
Overall, while I really like the core idea behind Siegecraft Commander, I can’t bring myself to recommend it in its current state. And that’s a shame, because games like this, ones that think outside the box when it comes to a problem like “let’s make an RTS that plays well on consoles”, are few and far between and they should be encouraged. But innovative ideas bring with them the risk of over shooting it, and sadly that’s the case here.