Often, an unremarkable game can inspire the most conversation. Though a score of 8 was the height of our passion for Dawn of War: Soulstorm, we spent drunken, ranting hours discussing it. How, we asked, can an RTS come up with a truly satisfying metagame to link its single-player skirmishes together?
Even if it%26rsquo;s got a bucket load of its own problems, MMORTS Saga is a fascinating answer to that question. While faintly shoddy real-time ground combat is its bread and butter, what you%26rsquo;re really playing it for is to make your mark in the world, to conquer territory and build the perfect army. For this, Saga goes straight for the compulsive-play jugular: MMORPG leveling plus Civ-like base master-planning. Plus, most notably, collectable card trading.
Owing a heavy debt to Warhammer, Saga has five broad fantasy factions - orcs, elves, dwarves, giants and dark elves - roughly analogous, but with a few key specialties. The combat is a stripped-down take on Total War%26rsquo;s skirmishes, with the rock, paper, scissors hierarchy of bowmen vs melee vs horse vs pikemen. The crux/gimmick/highlight/lowlight is that your army consists of cards - one for each unit. When you start playing, you%26rsquo;ll have a few cards in your hand, but they%26rsquo;ll be an icky mish-mash of orcs and dwarves and whatever, only a fraction of which you can actually use. Even then, there%26rsquo;s a long road to travel: for instance, you wouldn%26rsquo;t field just a single Ogre Hammerfiend, but rather a group of ten or so, each of which requires his own card.
So you trade with other players, using a crude in-game auction system, but you%26rsquo;ll soon be short on cards. This is because Saga%26rsquo;s economy is really one of cash. While they%26rsquo;re not strictly necessary, to truly get anywhere you%26rsquo;ll need to buy booster packs at $3 a pop. It%26rsquo;s simultaneously an exploitative money-sink, an intriguing alternative to paying a subscription fee, and incredibly compelling, as CCGs tend to be. Those prepared to spend the most money will have something of an advantage, but the game isn%26rsquo;t totally skewed in favour of the rich as most cards in a booster will be of diddly-squat use until traded for something else.