Every Monday, we put Brendan in charge of a horde of early access games and force them to do battle. This week, the single-lane strategy of Art of War: Red Tides.
The evolutionary tree of the MOBA is a sprawling, mutated mess. While Warcraft got Dota, somewhere on some oozing far-off branch, Starcraft II got Desert Strike, a ‘tug of war’ custom game mode that pits commanders against one another on a single lane and automates nearly all troop movements and attacks. The only thing you do is control the flow of cash and decide what troops to send in the next wave. Imagine being in charge of the creep spawner in a normal MOBA and deciding that you don’t want these useless green lizards anymore, but some giant, furious mechs instead. You’ve got the basic idea. Art of War: Red Tides is the next slimey bud on that same evolutionary branch. It’s quite relaxing.
It’s also free-to-play and filled to bursting point with Chinese players, suggesting that much of its sudden popularity is coming from the East. But it isn’t a terrifying actions-per-minute gauntlet. The aim remains to march down the road and destroy your opponents headquarters, taking out defending turrets along the way. But there are no bases to plan, no buildings to manage. The only resource building you have is an off-screen, slowly replenishing mine of energy. You can upgrade this twice in the course of a match, after a certain number of waves has set off. But apart from that, all your decisions take place on a single bar at the bottom of the screen, where you decide what troops to buy and sell.
The thought process of a match usually works like this: These wolves look nice and cheap, let’s build 10 of those. Oh, the enemy has flamethrower troops, so let’s build some of these magical deer-people. Oh, the scumbag has some invisible commando troops now, I guess I’ll build some of these weird floating eyes that can detect them, then some of these aerial-to-ground bat units. And so on, countering and re-countering until the map is filled with forty walking battle tanks versus twenty-something bone dragons. If neither side can reach their opponents base and destroy it, the timer will tick down and invoke a final battle – last creep standing wins.
It sounds like it should be quick-paced and stressful. But it's far less troublesome than your average click-heavy RTS. The troops move in waves, crashing against each other wherever they happen to meet, so speed is less important than thoughtful composition and the timely use of special skills. These skills are a trio of powerful abilities you can use on the map whenever you have enough gold, a second resource gathered via judicial murder of your enemy’s troops. Skills include levelling sections of the field with a bombing run, calling in a siege engine unit, or controlling the minds of enemy soldiers for a few seconds, causing them to turn on their former pals.
These skills will change according to your own species. You can be a crowd of mechanistic humans, a clan of shield-happy aliens, or the combined animal forces of mother earth herself. I’m a fan of the motorcycles and marauders of the Terran crowd but it's the anthropomorphic hordes that I find most happily ludicrous. There’s a trollish joy in spamming the enemy with 50 explosive kamikaze beetles, then immediately selling them all and putting the resources into some skeleton dragons. You can also invest in pandas.
There’s a trinity of modes right now, including one called Desert Storm which is supposed to be more faithful to the game’s roots. I haven’t played the original Desert Strike, so I’m unable to say exactly how loyal it is to the source mod. Sorry. Instead, I spent most of my time playing the unranked 3v3 mode, which at first feels counter-intuitive in a game of HQ versus HQ. Here, the members of each team take turns with their waves. You might watch your two allies send out their first small pack of wolves, their first tiny squad of alien ninjas, before finally getting the chance to pump out your own strike force of riflemen and pyromaniacs. The downtime between these waves is well-balanced, I never felt rushed and I never felt like I had idle time. A timer appears on-screen shortly before you’re due for the next volley of troops – the computer's way of saying: “all right, you’re up!” This can lead to a few panicked clicks as you add a couple of additional medics last-second. But that’s only if you can afford it. Art of War often feels more like a race against money than a race against time, a trade-off I’m happy to accept, being a sluggish commander and a poor multi-tasker.
You can get more cash by raiding the crates in the centre of the map. This is what the first few skirmishes are all about. After that, it becomes a game of pushing and pushing back, countering and countering again. Sometimes a giant fat dragon comes onto the field who has absolutely nothing to do with anyone. You can kill him for money.
From just a few matches like this, you can see what Red Tides wants to be. It’s an RTS without the hassle of base-building or any deep geographical concerns. There’s still depth to be found in the unit-on-unit match ups, as each alliance in this war has 40 types of unit (although most are locked behind level gates and gold coin price tags – they’ve got to get the free-to-play gubbins in there somewhere). Likewise, new tide-turning skills unlock as you go. But generally, the feeling here is of a pared-back strategy game, less interested in micro-managing troop movement than it is with battlefield presence.
To some, I realise that may sound sacrilegious. When Battlerite got rid of the lanes and jungles of its parent genre, pitting heroes against heroes in a more simple arena, I spat at the ground in disgust. I imagine some players might feel similarly here about the removal of direct troop control and large, resource-strewn maps. But for me, its a refreshing and relaxing remix. Your Starcrafts and your Planetary Annihilations are good, but they have a hectic, feverish pace. If you can’t keep up, you’re cannon fodder. Here, you can recover from a lapse, especially in 3v3, where your team mates will often call in a devastating missile strike at a critical moment or take the heat off you with a sudden battalion of robot sentinels. It feels like it will appeal to both a casual crowd - those who always wanted to play an online RTS but who reel in fear at the inevitable godlike speed of their prospective foes - but also to the strategic purists, folks who like to “build a deck” and see what happens.
Of course, its free-to-play nature is there for all to see. The basic units of each alliance aren’t long in coming - I’ve only put five hours in total into the game and I’ve got the entire basic tier of human units, as well as half the units for both alien and animal. But the increase in price for the subsequent tiers is noticeable. There are gold coins, gem stones, runes, daily challenges, achievement rewards, loot crates – all the infrastructure of a game that could, at any moment, start bombarding you with in-game advertisements composed of brightly-coloured exchange rates, like some sort of gaudy bank. If you can ignore this grubby atmosphere, then there’s still a good time to be had, and it's by no means the worst offender in this market. For instance, I’ve found the opening 12 levels to be generous enough with new troop types. But I can feel it in my journo-gut, The Plateau is somewhere out there, maybe in the next few hours, maybe in the next ten.
If that is the case, fifteen hours of silly troop-spamming still isn’t bad for the price tag. More than anything, it has the exact pace I want from a strategy game, a kind of Goldilocks Zone RTS. I’m not sure I’ll be going back in after this review, which is normally a teller for how much I really dig an ongoing ladder-ascent like this. But I did find myself idly reorganising beetles and wolves on a lazy Sunday, listening to music as wave after wave of kamikaze insect took out my foe’s well-oiled mechs. It gave me a nice break from the internet. I think that’s a solid enough win.
Art of War: Red Tides is on Steam as free-to-play