You've got to hand it to Accolade this time. Despite the fact that "real-time" strategy is the hottest marketing buzz word since "Myst-like," Accolade has decided to stay true to its Deadlock license and release its upcoming sequel, Deadlock II: Shrine Wars, as a good old-fashioned, no-apologies turn-based strategy game. The question now is, does Deadlock II have the playability and user draw to bring back a rapidly disappearing genre on its own?
The original Deadlock, for those of you who missed it, was a turn-based strategy game that pitted several alien species against each other in a race to colonize a single planet. Although blasted by critics for being somewhat simple in its presentation and combat pairings, the game's solid play design and strong replay value made it a strong-enough seller to encourage Accolade to continue the series. Building off its existing engine, the design team added every new play feature that it could think of, vastly improved the graphics and sound with loads of new alien animations, and even included a new scenario mode that delivers a great deal more emotional value during play than the original. The end result, although far from complete, doesn't seem to fall into either one of the most common sequel traps. The game neither alienates those who enjoyed the original (a la X-COM III) nor does it make you feel as if you're playing a slightly tweaked version of the same game (a la X-COM II). With that said, let's take a look at the game.
As in Deadlock, Shrine Wars lets you select one of seven different races to represent you in the conflict, each with its own special abilities (some are better fighters, some better traders, some are better thinkers you get the idea). Flipping back and forth from a planetwide view that enables you to scope out territories that are ripe for conquest, to a city-level view that lets you take charge of the resource management functions of individual cities, you must help your race to win the planet, either by building a set amount of city centers, capturing and holding a shrine for a predetermined amount of time, or by killing off every enemy soldier on the map. Along the way, you'll use your research buildings to move down an extensive research tree in search of more efficient colony development tools and deadlier weaponry, while at the same time gathering lumber, energy, food, and minerals from the planet in order to build new structures and arms. Those who played the first title already know that none of this is as simple as it sounds. Your people have a bad tendency to get cranky and revolt, your enemies are clever and without remorse, and it seems that you're always short of at least one resource. Fortunately, Accolade's made a few changes to the system that make all of this a LOT easier to keep up with, without altering the challenge of the game at all.
So where's the big difference between the two games? The most immediately noticeable change is the addition of an extended storyline that is delivered in the game's new campaign mode. In this single-player mode, each of the races can watch a different story unfold over 16 missions. Although it's not a branching story (if you lose a mission you have to play it again to move ahead in the tale), the fact that each of the races has a different set of moves implies a great deal of replay value. Also new is the addition of diplomacy. Instead of being forced to "take on all comers," you can now bargain with, threaten, and placate any or all of your opponents. This seemingly small addition can change the entire dynamic of the game, transforming it from a "how fast can I kill everyone" battle to a more moderately paced attempt to place yourself at the top of the heap through a combination of military force and political savvy. Ken Humpheries, the game's producer, told us a little bit about some of the other changes that you can expect to see: "We tried to take the good things about the original game and to fix all of the bad things that had been mentioned by players. We added new buildings, units, and research items. In counterbalancing the game we wanted to give a little more flexibility to the air and sea units and to make them a lot more important in the game. A scenario editor enables players to design and populate their own maps, and perhaps most importantly we overhauled the multiplayer system. We spent a LOT of time making sure that out multi-player system was rock solid."
Due out in February, Deadlock II will be one of the first strategy games in quite a while to jump off of the real-time bandwagon. Let's hope that the Accolade team's efforts can give new life to a genre that has been conspicuously absent from store shelves over the last couple of years.