Time of Defiance gives a new look to an old genre and provides for some very challenging moments.
Offbeat and awfully familiar, Time of Defiance is one of those odd games that seems simultaneously like a stranger and an old friend. The massively multiplayer real-time strategy game from UK developer Nicely Crafted Entertainment blends antique base-building and combat conventions with innovations, like a persistent world that never sleeps and buildings that are constructed in real time. This gives a new look to an old genre and provides for some very challenging moments, both in the way you play the game and in the way you approach playing it.
However, Time of Defiance certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea. For starters, the gameworld of Nespanona isn't the usual planet or nation that can be conquered one region at a time. Instead, you compete for the remains of the northern province of Nespanona after a cataclysm has reduced the country to islands that are held in place above the former planetary core by energy beams. Each of these fragments represents a standard RTS territory that contains various amounts of resources, like coal, wood, metal, stone, water, and crystal moss. So aside from the rather eerie, almost Cloud City-esque appearance of the environment, everything here is what you would expect in such a game.
And like any traditional RTS, the goal here is conquest. As a result, you start with one island and a small fleet of ships. You must then spread out to other islands by gathering resources and building more bases and ships. The process of doing so is entirely ordinary. You construct headquarters, mines, weapons platforms, and other facilities that are all pretty much centered on resource production. You also explore with scout ships and send out colonization vessels and warships to add new lands to your growing empire.
There isn't much complexity in the game's core RTS elements. Buildings are limited to essential types, and resource-gathering is streamlined by the use of single types of mines and storage silos. Almost everything can be automated, so there is no micromanagement. All you have to do is build the necessary structures and tweak a few settings. Then your resource system runs like clockwork, right down to the automatic fueling of vessels at bases. Combat is equally straightforward in that you rarely need to do more than band-select a fleet and hurl it at an enemy system. There is no tech tree, since all advanced Shadoo vessels are purchased from the Eighth House (the computer-controlled overlord of Nespanona) with water and crystal moss. About the only real concern is transporting resources to different islands, because the amounts found on each rock vary tremendously. Even this can be set on autopilot, though, by building a quantum net system that beams goods from one island to another.
That's it for the derivative stuff, though. Time of Defiance pulls away from the standard RTS conventions by offering a massive world that operates in real time. Constructing even a basic building like a mine takes around 10 minutes. Islands are thousands of kilometers apart, so ships routinely have to travel for 20 to 45 minutes to reach their various destinations. Fully scouting even one sector requires well more than an hour of your time. And to top everything off, the gameworld keeps going even when you log off. Consequently, whether you're online or not, your empire is fair game to any predator.
All of the above adds a level of commitment not seen in the usual massively multiplayer game, where you're taken out of harm's way as soon as you log off. It enhances the tension of every move. You have to think long and hard about building a salvage vessel, launching a fleet against an enemy, or even just sending a scout ship out for a look around the neighborhood, because carrying out every single order takes up a lot of time. In some ways, the tension is similar to that of playing a shooter without saving in that you know that any mistake you make will be very costly.
Having the gameworld persist around the clock is a more dubious design decision. Still, it's hard to see what else Nicely Crafted Entertainment could have done with a massively multiplayer RTS, because there wouldn't be much to do if empires were locked in place every time a user went offline. Also, the absence of a safety net really ups the importance of strategic defenses. If you hope to give your empire even the slightest chance of repelling enemies while you're offline, you have to build gun turrets and artillery pieces, and you have to anticipate invasions by placing fleets in just the right positions. This absence of a safety net also emphasizes the importance of diplomacy, since making deals with other emperors may be the best way to ensure that your islands remain intact while you're not playing the game.