Empires & Allies – Review

Title   Empires & Allies
Developer  Zynga
Publisher  Zynga
Platform  iOS, Android
Genre  Real-time strategy
Release Date  May 5th, 2015
Official Site  https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.zynga.empires2&hl=en

When you think of the name Zynga, your mind will undoubtedly hark back to a time when Facebook was nothing but a series of random notifications informing you that one of your friends had just dealt with their crop of cabbages, or bought a new sheep.  What you may not be aware of, however, was that they also tried their hands at a base-management strategy game back in 2011 – Empires & Allies. It showed promise, especially for those of us who would much rather delve into strategy management with trained units rather than cows, but was eventually shut down only two years later.  It took, as was the norm for Zynga, a very light-hearted approach and was very cartoony in nature – an odd mix of styles, which likely aided in its failure.

Now, two years after its closure, Empires & Allies has been given an entirely new lease of life.  The cartoony graphics have gone – there’s no smiling faces of wide-eyed idiots adorning the screen, no Sim City-esque layouts, and no cute redhead giving you a thumbs-up every two minutes from behind her eye-patch.  Instead, we have a fairly straight-forward delivery of well-rendered 3D structures and a strong sense of population within whatever base you decide to build for yourself.  And if you think that the screenshots are reminiscent of something else, it’s because they’ve practically re-badged Command & Conquer: Generals, which is no bad thing, right down to naming their terrorist organisation the GRA, rather than C&C‘s GLA.

The greatest difference between any C&C game and Empires & Allies is that it follows Zynga’s tried-and-tested formula of being a freemium game, which means that it’s free to download and play but you have a choice as to whether you pay real-world money for upgrades, or wait a considerable amount of time for natural progression.  Thankfully, unlike other free-to-play games, Empires & Allies is actually very playable to those who would prefer not to shell out for shells.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve been playing it with considerable gusto for the past few days and haven’t even been tempted by their £3.99 gold starter pack.  Sure, it would help to speed things up, but it hasn’t hindered my gameplay to wait fifteen minutes here or an hour there for certain builds.

If you want to progress through the story mode, you will absolutely need to keep building up the strength and resilience of your troops, otherwise you’re going to be slaughtered by the time you reach the second occupied area.  Attempting an attack on an area isn’t an automatic thing either, so you can use a satellite feed to scout out the area beforehand, assess the situation, spot all of the base defences, and weigh up whether you think your army could survive the mission.  If you think you can handle it, then you have the option to attack, but if the cons outweigh the pros then you have that choice to walk away with no penalties.

Attacking has a much-needed hands-on approach, as opposed to Rival Kingdoms‘ method of placing your troops and letting them get on with it.  Once you’ve deployed your troops they will continue to trudge through the enemy base and take on whichever structures get in their way, but using the on-screen flare icon will have a scout plane perform a flyover and mark your chosen area so that all surviving troops will immediately stop what they’re doing and focus their attention there.  It’s a great way to avoid heavy artillery or those seriously nasty dome defences, which will tear through infantry quicker than Augustus Gloop through a chocolate curtain.

Unlike traditional C&C games, you don’t actually get to see your opponent and deal with them in a real-time situation.  It is an RTS, but the only real-time aspect is that you deal with them in a single fluid attack rather than a turn-based situation, and when you’re out and about doing other things they can also attack your base in the same way that you would attack theirs.  The only thing missing is the actual face-to-face combat, but there’s not really anything negative about this approach.  If you’ve played your cards right, all of your base’s defensive structures and rally points will take care of you in your absence.

During combat, you have whichever troops you brought with you from the base – displayed as a row of icons along the bottom left of the battle screen – and whichever command modules are available to you, depending on how you spent your research resources, which you’ll find on the bottom right.  Your troops can be deployed as soon as you arrive at the enemy base, along with enough points to deploy your first aerial attack, but additional bonus attacks have to be unlocked by collecting points as you destroy enemy structures.  A Hellfire missile, for example, may require fifteen points for the first launch and twenty for any subsequent attacks, so you must spend your points wisely.  Even an area-of-effect healing bonus will sap enough points that it could make it impossible to call for an additional aerial attack, so that infantry squad you just healed with your valuable points could easily be wiped out because you neglected to take out a defensive structure first.

If you’re lucky, your opponent won’t have thought far enough ahead and will have spent their resources on building up an offensive force and forgotten entirely about defending their base.  As ridiculous as it may sound, it does happen, and I’ve been able to take down an entire base by deploying only one infantry squad.  While that’s great for you, it’s not going to be ideal when they return to their game and discover that their resources have been taken and they have to wait a few moments for their base to be rebuilt.  Another bonus for you is that you won’t need to replace any of your fallen troops once you return to base.

The ever-present prerequisite build method is strong in Empires & Allies, so if you find that you’re pulling in more resources than your stores can handle, you may not be able to build additional storage until your command structure reaches a certain level.  You could still upgrade existing storage facilities, provided you have enough resources to spend, but you will eventually reach a point where your HQ needs to shift up another level to progress.  Oil, sourced by derricks, is used to recruit and train infantry and vehicles; supplies, which are periodically dropped from overhead, are necessary when it comes to building new structures and upgrading existing ones; and gold is only really necessary for speeding up the whole build process.

In order to progress your base at a decent rate, you’d do worse than to bring in an additional engineer, but those guys will cost you 750 gold.  To put into perspective how much gold that is, if you were to dig up trees around your base in order to pick up any of the gold found beneath them, you’d be lucky to pull in any more than ten or twelve bars in a 24-hour period.  A quick call to Carol Vorderman shows that it would therefore be around two months worth of playing every day before you achieved the necessary gold to obtain a second engineer.  Or you could pay £7.99 for 1200 gold bars and have almost 500 left over for those occasions where you don’t want to wait for additional structures to be built.

As someone who would usually have ten or fifteen construction dozers in a typical C&C: Generals battle scenario, constantly building new defensive structures to reinforce my own base as well as supply drops to maintain a healthy revenue stream, it can be frustrating watching one single dozer have to grind its way through each build when I’d much rather see a cluster of them busying around like excited sparrows.  There’s never a point where you have to sit and twiddle your thumbs, however, as there will always be other players’ bases to attack by touching the ‘Quick Match’ icon on the lower left of your screen.  Within moments, you’re shown a satellite feed of the first randomly chosen opponent where you can either attack, retreat to your own base, or spend a 150 of your oil units to ignore this particular base and skip to another.

With an impressive selection of infantry types, vehicles, structures, and aircraft, Zynga have broken clear of their Mafia Wars and FarmVille browser-based stigma and have an IP that can be taken seriously even by veterans of the Command & Conquer genre, even if it does plagiarise on an aesthetic level more than it perhaps should.  The fact that it’s not as reliant on real-world purchases as much as other tablet-based freemium games is certainly a bonus, even if it does mean you can’t build your base as quickly as you’d perhaps like.

Overall, if you’re happy to keep attacking other bases while you wait for structures to complete the build process, there’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had from Empires & Allies, even though it would still be much better as a full-price game with no excessive waiting times.

  • Looks great, especially if you liked C&C: Generals
  • Practically no learning curve as it's very easy to play
  • Good variety of units, vehicles, and structures
  • Very solid mobile variant of the RTS genre
  • Possible to play without spending real-world cash
  • Some of the upgrades are pretty in-depth
  • Having one engineer really does hold back production
  • Unless you're lucky with gold pickups, a second engineer could cost you £7.99
  • Having a limit on the number of wall blocks you can place was a bit excessive as you should be able to defend your base without reaching the point where the command centre needed upgraded. It's bricks, ffs.

While the 'freemium' tag may put a lot of people off, there's no reason why Empires & Allies can't be enoyed by even the most seasoned RTS gamer. The number of unit types available is varied enough that you can mix up tactics as you go, and there's a great deal of satisfaction to be had from going up against a higher-level base (albeit after a number of failed attempts) and watching it crumble to the ground while your little guys jump around and cheer.

Considering it's essentially free to download and free to play, and it only takes up 122mb of storage, there's a lot of enjoyment on offer with practically no outlay. All is forgiven, Zynga.

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