A persistent world map with conflicts across the globe taking place between up to 56 players, nuking each other into metal morsels as they attempt to tip the overall balance of war in their faction’s favour. End of Nations is an MMRTS, alright, but how does something like that work and, digging past the garbled mess of consonants, what kind of conflict is this and can just anybody make a difference?
It’s a question that I can answer in part, but it’s the carnage of the battlefield I can describe, having seen bases collapse as the onslaught of a team working in harmony shatters them. I’ve been there and I’ve done that, coordinating with strangers to protect strategic assets while plotting a route through the ruins and ravines to the heart of the enemy faction.
As for the impact of all this glorious destruction on the metagame that is the global map, I don't have an entirely clear picture because the battles and skirmishes I played with the experienced commanders of Petroglyph to guide me were isolated experiences. Presumably, our victory would have seized the node on the map for our faction, allowing us to push on through the rest of whichever continent we were tussling on (my notes unhelpfully say ‘another part of the world’), leading to a back and forth, and a need to identify struggling team mates that could use your support.
The beginnings were far simpler though. A one vs one match in which the combatants don’t actually interact with each other. Placed at opposite ends of a destroyed city, separated by an impassable obstacle, the two generals are given the task of protecting a point on the map for as long as possible, pitted against the game’s third faction, the computer-controlled Order of Nations.
This map plays out like a horde mode, with each wave of enemies stronger than the last and more varied as well, meaning tactics have to be adjusted accordingly. Whoever survives the most waves takes the victory. As far as I was concerned, it was a tutorial, allowing me to pick two different loadouts and test the units in each. And that, the selection of loadouts, is the reason End of Nations didn’t leave me a broken man, the consoling arm of a fellow journalist around my shoulder, my index finger reduced to a nub of bloody bone.
That was a very real possibility. Drop me into a game of Starcraft 2, against people who are even vaguely aware of what they’re doing, and I start by sketching a map of my starting area on a nearby notepad. I’ll weigh up the possible chokepoints in the surrounding foliage and then draw up plans for four or five base layouts, simulating through use of various coloured arrows and more esoteric symbols the benefits of each.
It’s a good half hour before my hand nestles around the mouse and by that point, when I look back at the screen, I can only see zergs. There are so many they’re practically spilling out of the screen and scurrying around on my desk. I’ve lost and I haven’t even begun.
Watching people who are really good at Starcraft scares and impresses me in equal measure. No, scratch that, it scares me a lot more than it impresses me. The drive that powers their mechanical clicking and the snarling of their reptilian minds intimidates me; it’s as different an approach to gaming from the one I take as I think is possible. Play as perfection.
End of Nations doesn’t encourage that style of performance, although anyone capable of it will undoubtedly have an advantage of sorts. There’s no unit construction and no real base building, beyond defensive turrets that can be essential to protect the resources that are the key to victory. The most important part of the massively multiplayer aspect of the game may not be the global conflict at all, it may be the persistence of the player character, a commander who gains special abilities for use in combat and, vitally, builds up a unique collection of forces to be deployed in each battle.
Players will have between 10 and 20 units, so if you’re like me and you’d prefer to have a support role, slow, gargantuan tanks are a good option. Give the enemy a pasting from afar if need be, but prefer the kind of role that doesn’t place you in the thick of it. Let the team mates who have speedy buggies, infantry and choppers dart about trying to find a weak spot in the enemy’s defensive line and wait patiently for it to be breached, for troops to be diverted to plug the gap, and then begin the slow march to secure another forward line.
So, yes, the 1vs1 map was a taster that allowed me to realise what I had hoped to be true. This game has a place for someone like me, someone who emphasises strategy over speed and wants to concoct victory in the fewest clicks possible rather than employing the rapid fire assault of the professional mouseketeer. On the ground, it's C&C style combat, with a chunky look that also harks back to the previous work of the Petroglyph team, who are Westwood veterans.
Individual units battle using a rock-paper-scissors template, although each one has a special ability that can upset the neatness of that structure. It could feel limiting, reducing a behemoth of a walking tank into nothing more than an anti-infantry blob that is vulnerable to assaults from above, but the apparent simplicity of these resolutions is conducive to intelligent teamwork. Take my units in the grand battle that finished the preview day, they were slow, they were weak against aerial units but they had the ability to pierce the shields of any unit or building.
Therefore, I sat back. I waited until a resource point was about to fall and then rolled in, mopping up the survivors and, knowing that once nestled in I’d be hard to shift, I waited for the response from our opponents. When it came, I could pick off the strongest units by ignoring their defences with my first response and then let them grind themselves into dust against my turrets and tanks. If they sent the helicopters in, an ally with a speedy squad of anti-air units could be summoned, zipping across the battlefield to come to my aid. Perfect.
At the end of the battle, I would have been able to upgrade my units or purchase new ones, presumably to a greater extent than the losers. There are also commander abilities to unlock, such as a devastating nuke that we ended up using every time the cooldown was done. To use these abilities, and to replace destroyed units which arrive as reinforcements at home base, resource points have to be spent. Hence the capture of production points, although on the map we played, dubbed Resource Hog, that was also an essential first step in destroying the enemy base; a certain number of areas needed to be controlled before the shields on the base would drop, allowing a frontal assault.
The maps in the full game will often have quirks of their own, differing in more ways than layout. That variety excites me but the most pleasing thing about the whole experience was that I came away knowing that, in my own plodding and thoughtful way, I’ll be able to contribute to a team’s faring of war, alongside those of the speedy trigger finger and daring mind.
Later this week, look out for an interview with producer Chris Lena in which we discuss why pay-to-win has no place in End of Nations, the metagame, pro-gaming, aesthetic choices, single player, story and the campaign.