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’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’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’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’ll have a few cards in your hand, but they’ll be an icky mish-mash of orcs and dwarves and whatever, only a fraction of which you can actually use. Even then, there’s a long road to travel: for instance, you wouldn’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’ll soon be short on cards. This is because Saga’s economy is really one of cash. While they’re not strictly necessary, to truly get anywhere you’ll need to buy booster packs at $3 a pop. It’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’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.
On top of which, for all its online persistence, Saga is more a solo game than a competitive one. PvP is largely optional, and even then you can choose to stick to no-consequence friendly matches. Most players will just carve through the single-player quests. These don’t have much variety, despite token attempts at chaining some of them together with vague plotting. Worse, there are two leveling systems - one for your squads, and a faster one for your nebulous ‘nation’, ie, you. If you’re level ten, you can tackle level ten quests - but you’ll find them bastard-hard because most of your troops are still level two or three. So, you end up repeating early quests time and again to get your army’s level up. In other words, you grind.
And that’s the big problem with Saga - you’re in it to find the right cards and to grow the right numbers, not because of the battles themselves. Visually these are somewhere around 2004, and so rudimentary that delight hinges on whether you win, rarely on how you win. Plus, it’s unacceptably buggy. Crashes are miserably common, and even the website - essential to buying new cards - throws up regular error messages. Messy MMO launches are hardly uncommon, but Saga really should have done a few more beta warm-up exercises.
Yet there’s something here. Saga successfully transplants MMO ideals into an RTS framework, and as it (hopefully) develops into something more stable and a little glossier, the high-end PvP stuff, fielding an army you’ve invested so much time and love and money into against someone else’s treasured troops, could become incredible. Saga is a work in progress - and one we’ll come back to.
May 2, 2008