After a handful of major hits, there are an awful lot of games vying for your attention in the mobile MMO strategy genre. Clash of Clans is one, Game of War another, and now Gameloft hope to join those ranks with March of Empires, despite already having a few other horses in the race.
The rough underlying ideas are the same, as you build a settlement in and around your castle, raise an army and use this to attack and defend from other players online. However, they have tried to put several twists on the usual formula.
To start off with, you pick from three rulers, to determine what style of castle you inhabit. This is more than cosmetic though, as the Highland King, Northern Tsar and Desert Sultan all have different perks. The King has a slightly faster marching speed, for example, which might come in handy if the game’s title is anything to go by – it kind of is.
This leads into a rather long and drawn out tutorial period, as you’re shown the ropes of creating the various different buildings, training up a few troops and getting the first research under way. It borders on the excessive, with regular prompts to upgrade one building after another, and giving you the ability to simply skip many of the build timers that pop up as a consequence. On the other hand, it also ensured that I got a grip of all the various aspects of managing my castle and gave me a modest starting point.
The real game starts once you’ve built up a large enough army that you can attack and defend from other people. The world map is quite unimaginably vast, with a shifting cycle of seasons which affect various parts of your castle’s production. It’s also littered with other players and their castles and a number of points of interest, whether it’s a lumber yard to occupy for some resources, trading posts where you can exchange those resources or bandit camps to attack.
Battles don’t see your troops marching into another player’s castle, but rather have your armies line up in the fields before charging at one another. If you scout out an enemy before you attack, you can get a look at their formation and troops, which in turn allows you to pick a formation to try and exploit the various mismatches between troop types. The odd thing here is that you only ever get to see a replay of a battle, and never watch it occur in real time, which is a poor reward for having sent them marching across the map.
A further problem is that actually having enough troops to successfully wage war is impossible to achieve early on in the game, and you’re likely to be surrounded by more powerful players – don’t worry, you’re immune from attack for a good length of time. That’s where the alliance system really comes into play, as you pull your world view out even further to see land held by various alliances, and the potential border wars that can ensue.
Joining an alliance gives you other people to pool your forces with and, while you might be a small fish in a big pond to start with, every little bit can help in a fight, as you send your troops to a rallying cry and launch an attack. Once in an alliance, you’ll likely want to use one of the limited number of teleport points you start off with to move to common ground and hold territory together.
Finding an active alliance is key though, and the global and alliance chats inject a little bit of added fun and another layer of activity to the game. While I remained a silent party, it was a pleasure to join in and see revenge exacted upon a player who had attacked a couple of alliance members just prior. Of course, it will take a truly ambitious alliance to start a full blown war.
By and large, Gameloft seem to have a decent job of balancing the need to make money from the free-to-play game and not being overly zealous in their efforts. Yes, there are timers and restrictions that you can speed up or reduce with the use of gold that is purchased with real money, but the several levels of gameplay mean that there’s almost always something else to do while you wait for some building or other to upgrade. Admittedly, some of that would have been skewed by the tutorial period and the generous ability to hurry queues along.
However, I’d like to see the game pushed further. Often I’d see alliance members complain that the chat had stopped working for them – seemingly an Android bug – and I generally felt that the interface was far too busy and cramped. Playing it on an iPad, that could certainly be alleviated somewhat with a landscape view and less chunky menus that fit the form a little better.
Though it all too often falls into the trap of feeling like you’re managing an endless series of timers – and to be honest, you are – March of Empires does do a few interesting things. There are nice touches with the battle formations and the shifting seasons, for example, but really the game hinges on the alliances and the potential to work together to build an empire.