I think I may have achieved a grasp of Gameloft’s concept design strategy for their iPhone (s aapl) catalog. It seems to have something to do with being “inspired” by titles and franchises that are already wildly successful. You can’t help but see the similarity between Hero of Sparta and God of War (even syntactically). Likewise, with Rise of Lost Empires ($4.99, iTunes link), their new real-time strategy game for the platform, which resembles a certain other title in which humans and orcs do battle strategically.
Don’t get me wrong, Gameloft’s “inspiration” strategy is not something I’m against. It has resulted in some very fun games to date, and Rise of Lost Empires is, hopefully, just one more opportunity for them to get iPhone gaming right with yet another lovely homage. If the original dev studios aren’t bringing the platform any love, I’d rather Gameloft did than no one at all.
RTS On a Phone?
Once upon a time, I was a devout real-time strategy fan; Warcraft, Starcraft, Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, and so on. I like that they’re generally easy to grasp, but become very challenging very quickly. I also like building and resource management, which is something very few other types of games offer.
But on a phone? A touchscreen phone, no less? I used to play Warfare, Inc. on my Palm pilot back in the day, and the iPhone port was fairly successful, but in general, good RTS games require a depth which doesn’t seem to fit with the iPhone’s casual vibe.
Surprisingly, I found Rise of Lost Empire’s controls to be very intuitive and easy to use. Whether or not depth of play is sacrificed on the portable platform is another story.
Graphics & Audio
Rise of Lost Empire doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t look amazing, either. The isometric perspective works very well for buildings and structures, but characters and sprites look a little generic and lazy, in my opinion. It all adds up to give the game sort of a retro/RTS traditionalist vibe, which is not a bad thing.
Audio is pretty good. Characters even have recorded vocal snippets for when you click on them, order them to do things, etc. I really appreciate that opposing factions have different death cries so that I can keep track of what’s going on, even if I’m not watching the action at the moment.
What surprised me about the game’s graphics was that even though I’m playing this on a 3GS, occasionally there is actual lag when the action gets intense. It only happens when there’s an inordinately large number of sprites sharing the screen at the same time, but considering how fast the game boots and loads, it still came as quite a shock.
Gameplay is where Rise really falls for me, and unfortunately it’s the most important category of all. I give credit to Gameloft for trying to find the right balance between gameplay depth and ease-of-use, given the platform, but I find that they don’t quite find the right mix. In fact, they may miss the mark on both counts.
The game takes resource gathering out of the equation, having revenue come in automatically from your home castle, and any farms you build. It takes the problem of commanding grunts or peons off your hands, but that’s an integral part of the RTS experience, and as a result Rise feels more like a shallow RPG (thanks to Hero leveling).
Finally, the difficulty seems manageable enough, but level design leads to massive gaps in how achievable a particular goal is. Castle defense against waves of enemies seems unmanageable, while simple attack-and-destroy missions require little more than a quick trigger on your hero’s “Heal” ability and a small group of tightly clustered soldiers.
Lag issues and questionable difficulty scaling mar an otherwise nicely put-together iPhone RTS in Rise of Lost Empires. In other words, unless you have a really bad RTS itch, and you need to scratch it with an iPhone offering while you wait for Starcraft II to come out, you might want to skip this particular Gameloft offering. Try out the free version (iTunes link) before you go coughing up any cash, at least.