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Graphics: I felt that the graphics in EOTA were presented in a unique and pleasing manner. The title supports resolutions up to 1600×1200 using 16-bit color, incorporating full Direct3D in a believable environment. Frame rates at 1024×768 are good, and there are many nuances to the animations that show Microids’ attention to detail: giant flowers and blades of grass rustle in the wind; leaves fall from trees with the shadow circling in a spiraling pattern before a leaf hits the ground; and the animated insects move quite realistically. While I noticed some instances of anti-aliased pixelization, this only happened when zooming extremely close up, and was not noticeable in the regular view. Bonus points also go for the great looking insect cutscenes, which appear like they could be taken from the movie Antz. There are also neat weather and lighting effects: huge raindrops fall, lightning crashes, and day turns to night and back with convincing precision. I was sort of wishing for more of a human element to the environment, however, such as discarded cans, stomping boots, or evil kids with magnifying glasses. The closest the environments come to that is one level that crosses an asphalt highway, but I never got run over by cars or even saw one.
Interface: EOTA‘s interface is decent, but the game definitely has its quirks. The program has a fairly small install size of 250 MB, and plays with a combination of keyboard and mouse control. Unfortunately, the second tutorial is unplayable out of the box, requiring a small patch from Microids’ web site to work properly. Even without the tutorial, however, EOTA comes with a hefty manual covering all aspects of gameplay, many of which are left untouched in the tutorial. This RTS employs an overhead 3D map navigated by an in-game camera, which enables players to pan from side to side, zoom in and out, and even rotate clockwise and counterclockwise. In that sense, the controls resemble that of Black and White, though I never found it necessary to rotate the camera — enough was visible when the camera is facing North. There are several in-game options that allow you to change music and sound volume, but any graphical changes must be made on a setup screen prior to launch.
The layout of EOTA is quite a bear to grasp, but once you figure it out, you can move throughout the virtual environment rather quickly. There are quite a few icons scattered across the screen, but hovering your mouse over any of them reveals their name or function. There is no way to remember selected units with a hot key, but all units can be quickly accessed even when off screen by right-clicking on their icon which hovers near one of the screen edges corresponding to their direction. I felt the mini-map screen in the lower-right was too small to be useful, but to compensate for this, there is a map overlay you can access . This large map overlaps your main screen, and holding the shift-key and clicking on the overlay section will send units to that portion of the level. It’s not the most elegant interface, and things seem somewhat jumbled at times, but it works.
Gameplay: There is a steep learning curve in EOTA, to be sure, but once mastered the experience is just as much fun as any RTS game, with the added novelty of controlling small insects in battles that likely go on every day without our knowledge. The in-game tutorials don’t really give EOTA justice; much of the interface and strategies must be read in the manual or experimented with firsthand. Veterans of real-time strategy offerings will recognize the interface, and notice how certain units fill the same role as their human military counterparts.
Most of the missions involve eradicating the enemy side, controlling a series of resource zones, or both. Accomplishing these goals are not as easy as you think, however. In the third mission, the object is to revitalize a stagnant ant colony in the south, which has no Queen and has workers trapped inside the anthill due to two ravenous praying mantises nearby. You only control a single ant princess, and must ensure she gets inside the anthill safely to transform into a new Queen. To do this, you have to cause a distraction for the mantises for the princess to dash inside the hill. Here’s where your expendable worker ants come into play. After sending your princess exploring to the east, you discover several food and material resource zones to exploit. Activating the northern food zone signals the workers in the anthill to begin collecting food there, and they pour out in a single file line, sending the mantises into a feeding frenzy. In the chaos, I was able to slip my princess inside, but another problem arose: no Queen’s chamber for her to begin the metamorphosis in. Building a chamber requires a large number of materials, of which my ants had none. I had to find a way to send my surviving ants to collect building materials while not being mantis-food. This is just one of the challenges players will face during a typical game, which can last up to an hour. Luckily, there is a save option available at any time, so players can try different strategies when first attempts fail.
With 21 campaign missions and six skirmish maps, there is quite a lot of ant action to satisfy most strategy players. Beating a map will sometimes show a nifty cutscene, and the missions are linked storywise. I found the warrior ants quite responsive to my commands, and their pathfinding skills were adequate. The only gameplay control issues I noticed involved your control of the worker’s priorities. There appeared to be a sizable delay from the time you changed your orders to the time the workers altered their tasks. This became problematic during a food shortage, when I really needed my workers to switch from gathering materials to food. The change happened slowly, and meanwhile my warrior ants began to drop from starvation. Despite all this, I feel that for those with patience, the gameplay holds merit.
Multiplayer: EOTA supports multiplayer deathmatch battles across a LAN, modem, or over the Internet via TCP/IP. The program includes six multiplayer maps, and lets players choose not just the different factions of ants, but also wasps, termites, and bees. There are several host options to set, such as toggling battle-blindness, hunger, and reinforcements, potentially offering compelling matches. Unfortunately, without an integrated play matching service, finding opponents can only be achieved through coordination or searching message boards, and I was hard pressed to find any.
What do fighting ants sound like? That’s a good question, and one the Microids team doubtless tackled during their sound development sessions. My best guess is a bunch of very soft scratches and crunches inaudible to human ears that could have been amplified for the purposes of the game. Strangely, that was not the route taken. Instead, fights audibly take on an epic human quality, complete with clanging swords, yells, and screams. Such an arrangement would be perfect for the next Warcraft game, but it was unexpected and somewhat inappropriate amongst forest ambiance in a product about ants. Aside from the battle sounds, there are decent-sounding voiceovers played during the tutorials, mission briefings, and the game itself. A female voice warns players when food is scarce or the anthill is under attack, which is to be expected for an RTS.
Musical Score: The fifteen minutes of music in EOTA takes both a military and nature-documentary turn. It is appropriate at times, yet subtle enough not to become repetitive too quickly. That said, three orchestral redbook audio tracks for a 21 mission game feels inadequate, even though there are ambient sounds of nature that fill in the gaps. Seeing how other RTS offerings are more substantial musically, I would have liked to have heard more here.
Intelligence & Difficulty: As I went through EOTA, I noticed how difficult playing could be both facing the enemy and facing the micromanagement of running an ant colony successfully. I felt the enemy AI demonstrated by attacking forces was decent, as I noticed how my Queen would suddenly fall under attack when my defenders were conveniently away from the anthill. I can’t really vouch on how much learning the enemy AI has, though the manual suggests that during single-player skirmish mode, the enemy will launch attacks it calculates it can win, and if it fails, it will take that into account for its next attack. You can’t really customize your units, though they do gain experience and special bonuses over time. One thing that did annoy me was the fact that none of the micromanagement duties are automated. Unless you tell the Queen to start laying eggs, she does nothing. Similarly, if your Queen is being attacked by enemy forces, the worker ants continue on their tasks nearby, oblivious. Perhaps this is true to form, but I didn’t like having to stop my plans of conquest to focus on buttons and sliders to keep every aspect of ant life smooth. There are three difficulty levels in the game, and each level constitutes a separate take on the three main campaigns. The only thing I noticed that was harder or easier about the different difficulty levels were the resiliency of the enemy units versus the fragility of your own. Some of the levels are tougher than others, but most of them prove more than enough challenge for most RTS players.
Overall: Empire of the Ants offers real-time strategy players a unique take on the genre, but its presentation does not elevate it above the competition. It is indeed fun to control unusual units in battle, but the focus on micromanagement can become a bit more demanding than most players want for their entertainment dollars. This is another one of those programs that demands patience to go with tactics — and it certainly has its audience — but players hoping for the next StarCraft Zerg campaign or an updated SimAnt may be disappointed with this offering.
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