Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Release Date: November 17, 2008
The Nintendo DS is a handheld that just begs for real-time strategy games. No matter how hard developers try, there just isn't console on the market that can match PC games for the movement and ease of control that they offer for real-time strategy titles. Games like Endwar have used clever ideas to get around it, but in all honestly, nothing matches the speed and precision of a mouse — except perhaps a touch-screen. Yet the number of RTS games on the DS have been pretty few and far between, with the only really notable one being Final Fantasy XIII: Revenant Wings, which had interesting ideas, if sometimes flawed execution. Slipping in under the radar is another attempt at the RTS genre: Robocalypse.
Don't go into Robocalypse expecting a particularly deep or thought-provoking story. You're thrust into the shoes of Myron, a rather down-on-his-luck supergeek working at Thermidoom Labs, a military contractor. As luck would have it, Myron's attempts to create a new generation of AI-controlled military robots cause them to backfire and go on a rampage. It's up to him to stop them with the help of his trusty manually controlled robot pals, a buxom blonde scientist, and the scanned brainwave patterns of some over-the-hill World War II vets. It's overall a pretty cartoonish and silly endeavor, but one with an amusing sense of humor about itself, making constant fourth-wall-breaking self-aware jokes that give it a rather charming atmosphere.
At its heart, Robocalypse is a pretty standard RTS game. Like Warcraft or any of the modern RTS titles, you begin by collecting and mining resources and building structures to create new units. The major difference from a regular RTS is that Robocalypse has been made a little more "friendly" for on-the-go gaming, and a lot of features that are rather standard in RTS titles have been automated. The mining material is Scrap and Energy, which function basically like money and material do in other RTSes. Fortunately, you don't really have to worry about mining them manually because each mining location has a nearby waypoint for you to capture by moving any of your units nearby. Once a waypoint is captured, your builder units will automatically mine any nearby resources until they run out, so there's no muss and no fuss.
Likewise, buildings in Robocalypse can't be built just anywhere. Instead, you have to find construction platforms scattered throughout the level, on which you can create a single building, thus giving you a more limited set of choices as to what you do with your base camp. It's not a bad idea, especially for on-the-go gaming, but it feels awfully restricting. This goes double for turrets, which likewise, can only be built on special turret platforms, so you can't really do much with them. You build a turret on any turret platform you control, and it'll blow the robotic crud out of any enemy who gets near you — but only if that enemy wanders by your turret platform. Sure, the platforms tend to be located in sensible places, but that doesn't really change the fact that you feel obligated to build where the game tells you, instead of coming up with your own tactics.
Once you've got a robot factory built, you can start building an army, which is really quite easy. Pick a unit, press the build button, and you'll be on your way to building up a pretty hefty army. You've got a fairly good selection of units, including grunts, medics, and heavy weapon soldiers. There are no particularly unique or special units, but Robocalypse is simplistic enough that the RTS standbys work just fine. One neat feature is that each robot you build can actually gain experience by doing what it does best. Medics gain experience for healing, builders for building and mining, and soldiers for killing. If the units gain enough experience, they level up and earn bonus attributes, which last until that particular unit is killed or the stage ends. It's a nice little feature that encourages you to keep your robots alive and healthy instead of sending swarm after swarm of disposable robot cannon fodder at the enemy.
Much like Warcraft III, the centerpieces of your army in Robocalypse are the Hero units. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a Hero unit, it functions as a unique character instead of a generic soldier and is substantially more powerful than your regular soldiers. Hero units have a wide range of special abilities, ranging from stealth cloaking to the ability to form "squads" with nearby soldiers and boost their attack power. They even level up as you play the game, earning more powerful equipment and abilities by slaughtering their foes. Perhaps their most important feature is that you can directly control them by clicking on a Hero unit or on its icon on the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and then clicking on the map to get them to go somewhere. Their special abilities are activated by small icons on the lower level of the screen.
This is where Robocalypse's really big flaw comes into play. Unlike Hero units, the rest of your army doesn't listen to you directly. You can't give orders to individual units, except for those bound to a Hero's squad. Instead, what you do is plant context-sensitive action flags around the map, up to five at once, and depending on where you plant a flag, it can have different effects. Plant one on a blank space, and it will tell units to move there. Plant one on friendly unit or building, and it will be a repair flag. Of course, planting it on an enemy is an attack flag, which tells your units to crush the target robot. You can even place defense flags, which simply order your units to hang around an area and shoot anything that tries to get by.
Action flags are an interesting idea, but they just don't work in execution. There are too many occasions where your troops won't respond to your action flags, or some will go on completely bizarre paths, hang around the base, or do anything but what you've ordered them to do. You feel unfortunately hamstrung by the fact that you have such indirect control over your units, and simply being able to point at one unit and order it to a location would be so much more effective than trying to convince a small army to move where you need it to.
The Sergeant and General Hero units are incredibly useful because they give you direct control over a small platoon of soldiers, and actually being able to order your troops around makes all the difference. The end result is that when you're in danger in Robocalypse, it doesn't feel like it is the fault of your tactics or strategy, but because the AI refuses to listen to you. When the most important ability of your Hero units isn't their massive firepower or their ability to level up, but the fact that they listen to you, you can't help but be a little frustrated.
Once you've finished Robocalypse, you'll find that the game doesn't really offer much else to do. You can alter the difficulty level, and some of the levels offer bonus objectives to complete, but the computer can only provide so much of a challenge before you get tired of crushing it, even on the game's hardest difficulty mode. The most important part of any good RTS is the multiplayer, and unfortunately, Robocalypse doesn't offer much here. You can only play wireless multiplayer with someone else with a Robocalypse cart, which severely limits your options for such an obscure game. Single-cart multiplayer or even better Wi-Fi multiplayer would have done wonders for Robocalypse, and unfortunately, without multiplayer, Robocalypse just doesn't have enough to keep even young gamers interested.
Robocalypse is oddly adorable for a game about murderous robots controlled by the brains of World War II vets. The sprites are all large and well animated, and the game is surprisingly charming. There were a few issues with slowdown, but only when there were a large number of units on-screen, and nothing that really detracted from the gameplay. Unfortunately, while it looks good, Robocalypse is pretty weak audio-wise. The music that is there sounds bland and unmemorable, and there were many occasions when I noticed that no music was playing at all. The sounds effects are boring, with the amusing exception of your heroes, who yell out their attack cries in a hilariously over-the-top fashion.
Robocalypse is shockingly close to being a fantastic game. Everything it needs to be a solid handheld Warcraft clone is there, from the solid and well-balanced gameplay to the reasonable adaptations of gameplay limitations for use on a Nintendo DS. If it weren't for the terribly awkward action flag system, it would have been a must-buy for handheld RTS fans. Unfortunately, the action flags don't work, and despite the rest of the gameplay being solid, you have to struggle against the awkward flag system to accomplish basic RTS tasks. If you're willing to overlook or fight past this problem, you'll have a surprisingly fun time with Robocalypse, but the frustration involved means that it isn't a game for everyone. Furthermore, the lack of online play really limits the amount of fun you can have with the game because finding someone else with Robocalypse is going to be a chore, and the major selling point of any RTS is its multiplayer portion. Still, if you can overlook these flaws, Robocalypse is a shockingly solid RTS, and it's worth a shot if you're hungry for an RTS fix on your DS.
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