Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review: Flotilla, or Ender’s Game: The Game

165577-flotillascreen02 Every gamer who’s read Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game has thought at least twice: This needs to be a game. They think it first during the Battle School chapters, where child-soldier Ender Wiggin leads a platoon of children in zero-gravity war games; they think it again when Ender enters Command School and he gives orders to squadrons of starships in massive fleet battles.

Blendo Games’ Flotilla is the closest you’ll ever come to Command School.

With, of course, a few important distinctions: Flotilla limits you to six ships and success is achieved by tactical shrewdness, not numbers. And in Flotilla’s universe, you can give shelter to Rastafarian cats, buy ship components from a crippled flamingo and do battle with arrogant, imperialistic deer.

As if the screenshot didn’t give it away, Flotilla is an indie game – small, smirking, and surprising. But under its eccentricities, Flotilla is a rock-solid strategy game, as complex as it is off-kilter.

You can play Flotilla in one of two ways: you can embark on an adventure, which sometimes feels more like an afterthought, or you can skip the cute stuff and get to the gunfight.

Everything in Flotilla’s turn-based strategy system is boiled down to its essence. Battles begin with red and blue teams squared off against each other in a big fish tank of space. The objective is to strike from the bottom or from behind, where the enemy’s armor is always the weakest.

Players move their ships along the x, y and z axis, jockeying for an optimal firing position. There are several ways to get there; the slow way, covering little ground but opening up with maximum firepower; the fast way, shooting across the map but firing nary a shot; and the compromise, moving whilst shooting. Orientation is critical; face away from the bad guys and they’ll tear you apart in seconds.

This isn’t a game where the battleship rules. Yeah, it’s big. And bristling with torpedoes, autocannons and missiles. That doesn’t save it from having a nice, flat underbelly the size of Nebraska, the perfect target for a sly commander. More than once I’ve killed a battleship using only a destroyer, staying a few seconds inside the beast’s turn radius, pumping rockets into its gut. Because Flotilla values the smart stick over the big stick, improbable victories are commonplace.

Flotilla’s rules are few and simple: never face away; attack from below or behind; always move. Anyone familiar with strategy games – and any veterans of Homeworld, a fleet-based RTS missed dearly by genre stalwarts – will ease into Flotilla with minimal instruction, but newcomers won’t be hassled or intimidated. In fact, this might be the best introduction to the genre they could ask for. Flotilla is strategy reduced to its best and most important components. Nothing feels extraneous.

With the exception, perhaps, of the single-player campaign (this is where the above-mentioned menagerie comes in). The planet-hopping adventure game boils down to a series of embroidered if-then statements. While Rasta cats might never get old (or possible to credibly explain), they’re just a chance to snag an upgrade; then again, harboring fugitives might bring on the pissed-off deer I mentioned before. And here’s the problem: that deer rolls deep, and if your fleet isn’t adequately developed, there’s a good chance you’ll get atomized, bringing an abrupt end to your adventure. Once confronted with a superior fleet, there’s no option to turn tail and beat it to the nearest nebula. You’re obligated to stay and get your ass kicked.

This means campaigns often seem brief and repetitive. Around Adventure 10, when you snag the Rasta cats for the 10th time, you start wishing for the toucans advertised on the game’s website, or the panda promised in the tutorial video. Something so simple as a quick-save feature would go a long way, here – as Blendo has been diligent with patches and updates, we may see one yet.

Still, the real reason you’ll drop $10 on Flotilla are the skirmishes. The AI is excellent, with a few notable exceptions (more than once, the computer has managed to crash its battleships into asteroids, space wreckage and each other), and you’ll find yourself rewinding battles to critique your strategy.

But Flotilla suffers for lack of adequate multiplayer. Hear me, Blendo: I should not need a gaming peripheral to play single-screen, hotseat multiplayer on my PC. As it stands, Flotilla has no matchmaking system. If you’re going to match wits with another commander, that commander needs to be in the same room. And they’ll also need to bring a controller.

With a release promised via Xbox Live Indie Games, date TBA, my multiplayer gripes may soon be soothed (and lo, more gripes – I’ll need to shell out for that version, too). But enough bitching. Flotilla is everything a tactical strategy gamer could want in a $10 package. And it’s enough to finally sate that years-long itch to become Ender Wiggin.

Remember: The enemy’s gate is down.