Time of Defiance Preview
We take a look at this massively-multiplayer real-time strategy game, which is due for release in a matter of weeks.
Real-time strategy games today are known for their fast-paced action and harried base building. The gameplay is usually a rush to complete a building or a unit, and you have to watch the game constantly to assure victory. This has been part of the reason why massively multiplayer RTS games haven't exactly flooded the market yet. Of course you can play quick 30- or 60-minute games of Warcraft III or Age of Kings online, because the games have a limited scope and a limited number of players. But the prospect of simultaneously handling hundreds of players online at the pace of real-time strategy gameplay presents a number of problems that developers have yet to solve. However, Nicely Crafted Games may have found a way around those problems in its upcoming massively multiplayer RTS Time of Defiance.
The key issue that seems to cast the viability of massively multiplayer RTS games in doubt is maintaining the fast pace of the game for hundreds of players over the course of the typical weeks or months that persistent games can exist. Time of Defiance's way of handling this is to slow down the pace considerably and then build in lots of in-game and out-of-game notifications. Time of Defiance will have its moments of fast-paced battle, but from our experience with the game, playing it could be likened to programming your empire. You'll log on, issue various orders to explore areas, queue up unit and building production, and then log off to get on with your life. Then, you'll log on repeatedly after that at your own pace to check up on your empire and issue new orders and queues. Only when you've received e-mail notification that your enemies are at your doorstep will you be forced to play Time of Defiance at someone else's behest. Otherwise, the designers have built the game so you can play at your own pace.
In Time of Defiance, you are a leader who has set up shop on one of the thousands of islands floating in space that used to be a continent on the planet Nespanona. Some sort of calamity destroyed the planet, literally blowing it into pieces. Now, the survivors of Nespanona are desperately trying to rebuild their lives on these floating islands. Each island is incredibly small and yields such a small quantity of resources and real estate that you will be forced to strike out into the unknown void immediately and look for other islands to colonize and mine. The back story isn't exactly unique, but the implementation of this island-hopping gameplay is actually refreshing and intriguing. Rather than create a giant metropolis of buildings and units, you'll have to create an empire of scattered islands thinly connected by trade routes and patrolling scouts and warships. The execution really does convey the game's setting beautifully.
Time of Defiance has a core foundation that is reminiscent of other RTS games. You have six resources to harvest: wood, stone, coal, metal, water, and crystal moss. Wood, stone, and metal are used to build structures and ships, while coal is used as fuel for all your vessels. Water and crystal moss are two special resources linked together and used for trading with the mysterious entity known as the Eighth House, who are merchants who claim they own the fragmented continent you and hundreds of other explorers live on. They are battling another mysterious agency called the Shadoo Alliance. You can travel through quantum gates situated at every player's home base to the Eighth House trading post to trade water and crystal moss for special items and information. Presumably, the House wants these items and will pay handsomely for them because the Shadoo use them to power their ships and shields. You'll find that water and moss are special resources that can get you some very nice ships and items from both the Eighth House and the Shadoo Alliance.
You start out on a small island with a shipyard and a building yard, as well as a few scouts and warships. Nothing around you is explored, so you'll need to send off ships to reveal the void around you, while simultaneously building up the means to colonize and exploit any islands you find. Each island only has a few building plots to build on. Some might support only one resource mining plant and storage silo, while some might support several buildings and half a dozen defensive turrets. Also, all islands aren't created equal when it comes to resources. Some yield hundreds of tons of resources, while others hold barely a dozen. Moreover, distribution of resources per island can be very uneven, with one island having 10 wood and 200 stone, for instance. Clearly, you'll need to control a vast network of islands to harvest the resources you need and have the real estate to build things.
It's as you start building things that you'll begin to realize just how slowly paced this game is. Play it like Homeworld and you'll be pulling your hair out in frustration. A tiny scout takes half a dozen minutes to build. A giant transport port takes under an hour. When exploring space, you might sit in front of your computer for an hour and see the scout cover just one of the hundreds of grids in the game's empire view, which shows the entire continent in space. So, you have to slow your game down and be very patient. Things don't happen immediately in Time of Defiance.
Unlike other persistent world games, a Time of Defiance game actually does end. When you first log on you are told when the game ends. For now, it looks like every game lasts for roughly 30 days, and so you have that amount of time to build up your empire to be as grand as it can be. But what happens if you haven't wiped out your opposition before the end of the game? Well, Time of Defiance is a points-based game. The object actually isn't to destroy all your opponents, but to amass the most points of all the players. You gain points for nearly all actions in the game, for building ships and buildings, for exploring, for mining, for colonizing, and so on. And you also gain points for success in battle. Many players will rightly realize that by destroying or crippling their rivals they'll make it hard for others to gain points, so military conflict is inevitable. Also, the number of floating islands is finite, so battles will ensue as rival claims are made on the hunks of rock.
When we first logged on to Time of Defiance, we weren't overly impressed with the graphics, and the interface was pretty overwhelming. But players who stick with it will find a good game at the core. You'll spend most of your time in the empire and detail views of the game. The empire view shows the entire area of space around the continent as a collection of grids. Your island shows up first on it as a green blip, but as you explore you'll reveal other blips on the map. Any ships, whether friend or foe, also show up, but only when you have your own ship in the grid to reveal what lies inside. The empire view is where you keep tabs on your empire as it grows. However, it seems a bit hard to navigate at times, and the online help available wasn't that useful for explaining how to zoom in on islands that we found. You can go to your own island and ships by right-clicking, but you can't do that for unclaimed islands. Instead, you have to go to the detail view first to interact with them. Of course, minor interface problems like these will be avoided if you read the manual, but the interface isn't particularly intuitive.
To get more informative views of your island or ships, you go into the detail view, which shows your land or vessels in 3D. Here, you can click on your shipyard (the cog vehicle constructor) to queue up ships and on your cog headquarters to queue up buildings. The variety of buildings and ships is actually pretty limited, and you'll end up building the same things over and over again as you claim more and more land. But once you enter the quantum gate to begin trading with the Eighth House, you'll find things you can't normally build on your own.
The basic buildings in the game are built at the headquarters and include storage silos to hold resources, resource mining buildings, vehicle construction yards, long-range artillery, and defensive turrets, among others. The cog vehicle constructor is where you can build scout ships, one-shot scouts, warships, transports for moving resources, mining and water transports, one-shot bombs, colonizers, repair ships, salvage ships, and a few others. Mining transports are especially important because they can mine resources from an island that is otherwise too small or insignificant to warrant a full colony. Also, because you might at best be able to build two resource extractors on an island, you can park several mining transports around a fully built-up island to speed up resource gathering where real estate otherwise would only permit one or two gathering sites.
Moving around with ships is a little confusing at first. To go directly to an island or intercept a ship, you have to first click on the radar to center your main screen on the object and then click on its name (since at great distances you can't actually see it). It would have been far easier to just click on these objects on the radar. Even better would have been a way to access the menu options for ships while in the empire view so you wouldn't have to go back and forth between views when simply trying to move ships around. Apparently, however, Nicely Crafted Games is listening to feedback, and ship movement will be made easier in the next patch for the current game.
When moving your ships, it is important to keep an eye on their fuel supplies. Coal is used to power ships, and if you run out, your ship will be stranded in space until you can get another ship out there to refuel it. You can't simply click on a coordinate and send a ship there and expect it to come back. Careful note will have to be taken of how much fuel your ships have and how much it will take for them to explore and safely return home.
During your explorations, you might meet other players and ships. In such situations, you can either exercise diplomacy and chat with them or let your guns do the talking. You can also decide to go the military route by marching your ships to an enemy island and taking it over, but such endeavors can be long and arduous, thanks to the fact that a number of defensive turrets can be placed around an island and the fact that you will be in the enemy's home territory, where they don't have to wait hours for reinforcements to arrive at the battle.
As noted before, many of the actions you take in Time of Defiance can take a while. Building and exploration can be very slow-paced, so you'll likely log on to put in orders and then log off. But while you are gone, you can set the game up to e-mail you alerts when you're being attacked or certain conditions (such as finishing a building) are met.
Time of Defiance, as an online-only game, is in that shady realm of being done but not done. At the moment, the game looks solid and has been played by hundreds of the beta testers. The gameplay appears final, but as with these types of games, constant tweaks and balance adjustments are just par for the course. What we played was good and will doubtless provide incredible amounts of fun for those who don't have time to sit in front of their computers all day but still want an engrossing and deep strategy experience. Right now, you can download a demo version of the game to try out, and in the very near future, the full game will be available for purchase.
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