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Ancients Wars: Sparta and the problem of scale

May 15th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 3 Comments · Ancients, Gamesradar, RTS

My review of Ancient Wars: Sparta is now up at Gamesradar. It’s a run-of-the-mill RTS with not much going for it. It looks OK, but that’s all.

Some gamers accuse reviewers of going easy on major franchises so we can pound away at the marginal titles. How, after all, are the three same-but-different races of Sparta worse than the three same-but-different races of Command and Conquer 3? Stainless Steel Studios got a pass from me for Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War because of its innovations but World Forge fails in spite of unit customization?

The big difference is that marginal games often miss subtle, but important, things that distinguish a satisfactory game experience from a bad one. I think that, in some ways, bad games can be more educational than good games. Just like Left Behind was a good introduction to how important basic interface design can be, Sparta should remind developers to keep scale in mind.

I mention in the review how cramped the maps are. “Cramped” is not the same as small. In fact, the maps themselves aren’t that different in size from the Command and Conquer 3 maps. But you quickly run out of space on these reasonably sized maps because the buildings are so huge. And the terrain can be very particular about what fits where. So instead of having your economy or military production area in a compact and coherent pattern, you have to fit the buildings wherever you can find room for them, leading to a grotesque sprawl of structures.

“So what,” I can hear you thinking. “Learn the hotkeys and you can jump to your buildings.” That works fine. What doesn’t work fine is pathfinding. And if you are forced to cram your too large structures into a too tight spot, your already directionless units will get even more lost. May Ahura Mazda bless the king who decides to shepherd three elephants through a town without micromanagement. They go back and forth looking for a trail that only human eyes can spot.

Why are the buildings so large? The root, I think, is the dual insistence on detail and relative scale. The developers want every unit and building to have a detailed appearance. Forges and resource buildings have to be manned by peons, but it’s not enough to add this unnecessary level of attention. You have to see your peons at work in them. Peons have to be shown slaughtering sheep, hauling grain or hammering steel. To make this look convincing, the peons can’t be the same size as the buildings they work in. A forge should be many times larger. The gymnasium trains elite units – it should look appropriately huge. The result? Polis sprawl.

The added insistence that the units themselves look detailed from a distance is extra maddening. Elephants can be manned by archers, chariots and horses by riders (yes, you need to mount these yourself). To make sure you can tell at a glance how many men are on your beasts – and see them fire arrows – World Forge has given you a close up look at all the units. You can’t zoom out far enough to manage an army with combined arms, let alone navigate them through town. It would have been easier to have the animals come equipped with soldiers, but instead you have a properly scaled man emerging from a properly scaled barracks to climb onto a properly scaled camel. To keep the whole process from looking absurd, everything is too big compared to the land area it is forced to work with.

The scale problems go beyond mere size. The cost of units and soldiers throws the game out of whack. You always start near a mine with 50,000 gold. The barracks and archery range will cost over 1000 gold each. Each weapon more advanced than a club needs to be researched separately, sometimes with a blacksmith tech added. Say this adds up to 3000 more. Better soldier models come from the gymnasium, which costs over 1500. We’re already close to 6000 gold, and haven’t built a single soldier. Or peasants to harvest the wood and food you’ll also need. And soldiers with basic spear/shield combos will run about 500 each. And since each mine can only be harvested by one side (each nation has a unique building to get the riches) your empire will be fighting for its life – gold income is an advantage you cannot afford to lose at the beginning. And there is only one way to get the gold.

Every two player map has four mines, one close to each player and two others that have to be sought out. Because of the high cost of units, grabbing another mine early becomes required. If you can grab both, you can economically strangle the other guy. There’s nothing wrong with this on its face. All the best RTSes force the player to push for resources, and combat results from the struggles to control resource nodes. The problem is when there is only one place to go, and Ancient Wars: Sparta gives you only one option – move on to the nearest mine as soon as you can. There aren’t multiple mining options like in Age of Empires, or stable coexistence like in Battle for Middle Earth II.

Add on the time scale – how long it takes to build or research – and you have a game that is completely disjointed. The time and resource issues could work in a different genre (Children of the Nile, for example) but are out of place in a real time strategy game.


3 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    Isn’t it amusing that developers try to create a realistic looking world, such as all the shiny graphic bits you mentioned, when the basic premise of any resource based RTS is wholly unrealistic to begin with! Imagine if Civilization took the approach of scaling everything proportionally instead of the iconic approach. Yikes! But gamers have never complained about the fact that your units are bigger than Godzilla, and likewise in a RTS no one is going to complain that your foot soldier is just as big as the barracks, especially since your focus is primarily on your units, not the buildings they come from. You can still offer some “flash” by basic building animations (i.e. when the forge is working have the windows lit up) and sound effects.

    Let me also guess that the developer is Eastern European? They seem to be the ones obsessed over 1:1 scale. Remember the Cossacks series? 10,000 units on screen at once! Joy.

  • Troy

    Russian developer, which explains a lot of the Babelfish English in places.

    Their next game is called “The Golden Horde”, btw, so they have original settings going for them.

  • Troy

    Oh, and a 1:1 scale is not necessarily a bad thing. It becomes problematic when your base scale is huge and not every goes up with it. Cossacks had a lot of problems, but the unit/building scale worked just fine. If GSC had insisted on making the soldiers’ uniforms look realistic, then we would have been in serious trouble.