Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Release Date: January 27, 2009
Strategy games often end up working very heavily in the abstract, with a game representing a single battle in detail as a scenario, such as Warcraft and every game in the umbrella that's formed around it. Less frequently, a work goes out and handles battles only abstractly, instead emphasizing the building and maintenance of an entire society, such as Sid Meier's classic Civilization series. Only rarely do we see a game that tries to handle both scales effectively together, and most frequently, when it's done well, it's done by Koei. The company's staff seems to consist of black belts in the art of sequels, with their seminal Romance of the Three Kingdoms series now going on 11 games that cover the same era of Chinese history and Dynasty Warriors reaching insane counts with its Samurai Warriors and Gundam spin-offs, Warriors Orochi crossover and ludicrous number of ports.
It's from this tradition that the Nobunaga's Ambition series arose, although it represents much more than just a straight port from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms to Japan's Sengoku period, even while doing the exact same things in the exact same overall style. (I'm pretty sure that's the same Nobunaga Oda model on the package that was used in-game for Warriors Orochi 2.) With an overall similar style, Nobunaga's Ambition is based more firmly in history, favoring accuracy to what is generally agreed to have happened during the era over being accurate to a literary epic based on what happened during the era.
The series, and especially its latest entry, Nobunaga's Ambition: Iron Triangle, further differentiates itself from the pack by broadening the scale and changing major elements of play to be based on real time, copying the tradition of Baldur's Gate by having you pause to issue commands. The results are a level of epic that manages to bring Warcraft, Civilization and real-world history together while losing only bits and pieces of each — all while actually working very well indeed on the PlayStation 2.
For most players, gameplay will begin with the tutorial, and trust me, you will need it, for the manual is both comprehensive and incomprehensible, and just starting play is tantamount to insanity, since there are so many details to grasp before you understand the basics. Even understanding previous iterations may not be enough with the introduction of several new complexities to the series. Using two officers in a fourth-wall-ignoring fashion, Iron Triangle explains the overall reach of the tactics in a series of seven succinct tutorials, showing how the game combines abstract and precise gameplay to let you handle detailed combat and wide-scale civilization building. With a unified world map (that is, you use the same map for both combat and general civilization working), the game switches back and forth between planning and active gameplay. When you start issuing orders, regardless of their nature, time effectively stops so you can determine what you are going to be doing quickly and without difficulty. Using your officer's special tactics is the only major play element that lets you take direct control when game time is moving — more on this later.
As usual for a Koei affair, all of your gameplay in Iron Triangle centers on your officers. Whether they're commanding the building of construction for your lands or castles, or gathering troops by the thousands to form active combat units, it's hard to think of a piece of gameplay that doesn't center on them. Fortunately, you're also provided with a solid number of them; 1,000 officers from the era are carefully represented by their skills and weaknesses. In case that isn't enough, you can make your own with a creation utility that is robust enough to create authentic officers who fit well into the gameplay. Simple pictures for each unit are sufficient to give just a hint of personality to each officer, though not enough that you are likely to become emotionally invested in them, which is a good thing, since officers die at historically accurate dates.
From there, whenever you're not fighting, the basics are much like Civilization on a smaller scale: build up your farms, research academies and shops to keep the citizens working and happy, and prepare your armies for when people invade you — or you decide to invade them. Communicate with your neighbors to set up alliances, demand surrender, or otherwise seek to gain advantages over the region so that you can rise to become the true lord of Japan, as was actually attained by Nobunaga Oda. The switching between menu-based planning and patient active gameplay ends up producing a distinct feel; you can sit back and simply watch as things unfold and step in at your own pace in a distinctly relaxing style.
Combat ends up working very similarly. You take officers and troops, set up a group as one of a variety of types (infantry, musket, etc.), choose the tactics the officer should carry with him, and have them march on an opponent. At this point, one unit (or army) per assigned officer shows up on-screen, clashing reasonably automatically and building up a Will gauge based on troop morale. When the Will gauge for a unit is full, you can use one of your prepared tactics to cause a nasty effect to clinch your victory. The results reminded me heavily Warcraft III and its focus on small groups of units around one hero, whose special moves tended to define the battle more than the units around him. The neat part of this is that, all the while, your civilization goes on; you can still work on buildings in one territory while in the heat of war in another, and the ability to freeze time holds true even in combat to make such choices go unpunished, or even encouraged. Segueing back and forth feels natural, unlike many other games that handle this switch.
The one issue with the phase-switching system of Iron Triangle is that while it brings real-time strategy to a level of thinking on par with turn-based traditions of old, it also slows down gameplay immensely. A single scenario of the wide-scale Unification mode — and there are nine of them, plus many variations since you can play each as any of the daimyo active in that period — can take tens of hours to complete. My review session, which ran on the game's Local mode and was limited to one-sixth of the game area for faster play, lasted longer than my father's Civilization IV session in the next room and clocked in at 20 hours of play. The results may be a rich and rewarding experience, but they can just as easily become exceptionally plodding to all but the most obsessive of players.
The graphics and sound end up feeling very basic, especially in comparison to the showcases for which Koei is famous with their Warriors series. Battles end up as roaming batches of pixels with an officer name and troop count over them, while the map shows its tile basis perhaps a hint too obviously, resulting in neat, clean ridges and shapes that don't resemble reality nearly as well as the depth of options that make the game. With that said, there is a fair bit of detail, and the new map control functions (this is the first time Nobunaga has been in full 3-D) show the details fairly decently. There are no voices (probably because there would be too many different lines to record, with the 1,000 officers and all), and sound effects and music are kept very basic and ambient in nature, designed more to stay out of the way than to pull in the player.
Ultimately, Nobunaga's Ambition: Iron Triangle is going to attract a very specific audience — specific enough that it's no surprise that not every game in the series has received a translation (unlike Koei's more action-based franchises or quirky works). The loving attention to historical detail comes at a cost of a truly arcane complexity level and rather plodding pace. However, in the right mindset, both quirks can be wonderful things, especially when the complexity also reveals just how deep and varied the mechanics can be. For sure, no game released in the early phases of this year has come anywhere close to the gameplay length of Nobunaga's Ambition: Iron Triangle — and especially not at the $30 price point.