09 February 2012

Review: Fail-deadly (PC)

Fail-deadly is one of those as-simple-as-it-gets, distilled-to-the-core “RTS” games: The screen is a lane, at each end are bases, you build troop factories and they automatically produce troops which automatically attack the enemy.

While the above may come across as scoffing, it’s probably worth noting: These games really are pure strategy, if you think about it. Most RTSes are really real-time tactics- they’re about micromanaging your small forces of troops to get more bang for the buck you spend on them than your enemies. Even sophisticated RTSes tend to give rise to a few optimal build orders, and there’s comparatively little long term planning involved. Whereas, when all you can do is decide what units will be available, and tactical success is at the AIs mercy, you are forced to make long-term decisions, and to have a strategy, because the short term is so damn chaotic and uncontrollable.

Really, it’s unfortunate that these “base building” games have ended up being confined to custom maps and flash games... But anyway, let’s get back to Fail-Deadly, our main topic.

Fail-Deadly is, as I said, one of these base building games. With a TWEEEST: You control both bases. Your aim is to make neither win, so that they get fed up with the conflict and launch nuclear missiles.

Woah. I know, right? It’s cool. Now, if you haven’t played it yet, go play it first. It’s free, it’s small, it’s short. Just play it and experience it for yourself.

Done? No, I mean it! Really, go play it.

Ok. Now, time to whine! First off, the twist is very clever, but doesn’t really work. Or rather, they did take a crazy idea (“Woah man, what if you were like, trying to lose, man?”) and actually got it to work. But it doesn’t work very well. Essentially you get a “make side stronger” card to play every now and then, so all you do is play the card on the left, then right, then left... Occasionally chance causes the sequence to end up favoring one side, so you play two cards for the weak side. It’s hard to really fail this game unless you want to.

One problem is that, right from the start, all building is done by you. The game claims you have secret agents planted on either side who “influence” building decisions. This is, of course, “tutorial sass”: It’s blatant lies. You have total control over each side, and this makes it very easy to do what you want. How would one fix it? Have each side build their own stuff. For this to really work, they should of course have a budget, and build accordingly. You could act outside this budget, or for a harder mode, be able to only precipitate decisions that are within a side’s budget. Brute forcing things to your will isn’t a fun challenge, it’s a trifle. Steering enormous entities by a small, cleverly placed nudge, on the other hand, feels clever.

A second problem is that the game forces you to play your card quickly, “to avoid being discovered”. Firstly, this is illogical- agents being passive should make them less suspicious, not more. More importantly, it stifles strategic freedom- you can’t withhold your helicopters from red up until the point the green tank horde has almost overwhelmed them.

Especially if the AI becomes active, there should be lots of “cheese”. There must be viable massing strategies and hard counters. Perhaps the AIs can adapt to each other, and you can trick one into provoking the other into massing a unit, and then give the other one the hard counter for that unit.

Which brings me to yet another possibility: More than influencing decisions, which the AI would adequately make anyhow (and your influence is best exerted through gambits the AI is too limited to see or understand), granting tech to them would be an even more interesting way of turning the tide. It would also make sense for the AI to mass something that can be hard-countered: Perhaps it’s hoping the other AI hasn’t researched hard counters yet, and just at that point, you come in, and…
Of course, if you can give the game that amount of depth, another natural direction to go in is multiplayer: How about having either side be controlled by a player, and a third one be the “invisible influence”? Now that would make for some crazy mind games.

Furthermore, I at first expected that each side has its own panic score, and launch their own nukes accordingly, so that you have to time them. In truth, it’s just a global kill count. While that makes sense in a mutually assured destruction way, it would be more interesting if you had to balance sentiments of either side and synchronize their breakdowns. Perhaps each side’s liability to launch is increased so long as troops are on its own soil?

Lastly, why restrict yourself to nuclear doomsday? You can frame the game as a 3rd world proxy war fought between non-nuclear powers, either of which buys weapons from you, and you can offer things such as discounts to weaker sides, to extend the gameplay and boost your profits. For even more complexity, a mechanic could penalize you for switching sides too often, so that once you start helping one guy, you better make sure not to help him too much, because if you have to switch favorites again soon after, your shenanigans will be exposed to the international community. This would be another reason why doing the “one card for red, one card for green” thing is not feasible- you would become “exposed” very quickly, because you essentially flip-flop at every card.

And that’s that for the whining. Once again, I may complain, but I actually liked the game. As I said, the idea is very clever. The realization is smooth and playable. The graphics, sound and interface are quite polished, especially for an apparent hobby project made by one programmer. So, Josh Sutphin: I love your game, but it’s too short, and there’s not enough depth, and it seems so damn easy to add depth- please do so!

Score: 5/5

Bias: I was on the fence between 4 and 5 (if you don’t think I’m serious: I decided to score games on this blog based on whether I think my audience will regret playing them, and I’m perfectly confident at least 80% of you won’t wish your handful of minutes back), but it’s a free indy game with a fresh idea, so it gets a +1.

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