Robocalypse is a welcome entry on the short list of DS real-time strategy games, balancing a mix of classic real-time strategy gameplay and cartoon-style graphics and humor, as well as incorporating an intuitive control system. The game opens with a mishap at the Thermidoom Factory, maker of military robots and toasters. Somehow, a group of these robots goes rogue and, led by the evil Demolisher, swears to annihilate the human race. The factory's nerdy scientist and buxom PR director quickly create a robotic army of their own and furnish them with the minds of a few World War II veterans who just happened to be taking a free tour of the facility at the time. The story that unfolds, penned by the talent behind SpongeBob SquarePants, only gets goofier and more absurdly humorous from there.
The balance between this humor and the enjoyable gameplay makes for a satisfying RTS. The story mode is composed of many missions that have a handful of varying objectives but the same basic structure. At mission start, you are given a base, a builder/collector unit, and a couple of battle grunts. The object is to use your resources, which in this case are metal scraps and batteries, to build up your army and base. The buildings available can be built only on specific "pods," which significantly limits the size of your base and forces you to manage your choices more closely. The variety of buildings is also limited.
Luckily, this lack of depth is balanced out by the assortment of units at your disposal. Besides the basic soldier units, there are many different types of robots to build. Medic units follow the soldiers around and heal them over time, even during open conflict. Heavy soldier units are slower but pack quite a punch. As the battle rages, units that survive over a certain number of encounters will attain higher ranks, which are indicated next to the unit's health bar. This ranking system increases a unit's damage threshold and attack power, and it's exciting to watch your warriors level up as the battle progresses.
Hero class characters are your most valuable units. Unlike their generic counterparts, the heroes have distinct characteristics and abilities and can be directly controlled. These units vary from Joe Commando, the dual-chaingun-wielding powerhouse, to Spyder, the scout who can turn enemies into large, immobile home appliances. The most satisfying of these heroes are the sergeant and the general. These two hero units can command a small platoon of regular units and also give the platoon special attributes. These heroes make managing your force a tad more efficient. You can have only three hero units on the map at once, which, like the limitations on building, makes choosing units more critical.
The game's controls are wonderfully attuned to the strengths of the DS. The touch screen is used exclusively, which addresses the needs of the RTS genre very well. Tapping on the various icons and buildings on the screen works much like a mouse pointer in PC strategy games, bringing up interactive menus and command options. However, where Robocalypse differs from the classic RTS control scheme is in its troop management system. It is not possible to command regular units individually, but the game intelligently offers you alternatives. Robocalypse integrates an "action flag" system for all different types of unit commands. You tap the action icon that is ever present on the battle map and then issue context-sensitive commands. For instance, if you tap a region on the map, troops will rally to that point and either search or defend it. By tapping a damaged building or unit, a healing unit will make that target a priority. As a whole, this system works well enough to create a fluid and enjoyable experience.
Nevertheless, the control system certainly has its shortcomings--mainly due to the clunky AI of the units. Frequently, only some units will respond to your rally points or targets, and others will be milling about aimlessly, often into enemy territory. It can be difficult to achieve your mission goals when half of your robo-force goes on unintentional suicide missions or stays back at base while the rest of the soldiers on the front need backup. These situations occur often enough to make them frustrating. The direct control of the hero units alleviates the AI issues to some degree, but not entirely.
There are only two multiplayer modes, which thankfully retain the intuitive controls and pleasing gameplay of the story mode. In Domination, you scramble to capture and hold more control points than your opponent. Holding points will slowly add to your total score, and victory is achieved when this total reaches 1,000. Deathmatch, on the other hand, is a bit more straightforward. The object is to amass an army large enough to overpower your enemies' army and destroy each HQ. Although your objectives sound familiar, the humor makes the experience feel fresh, completely changing the typical tone of war. Both modes support up to four players, and the AI assumes control of any armies without a human commander. The multiplayer runs very smoothly, with rare slowdown. Unfortunately, there is no option for single-card download play, but the option to play against computer opponents goes some way to making up for it.
Robocalypse looks great, with visuals that evoke memories of childhood cartoons. Characters move smoothly, and even on the small DS screens the action on the battlefield is never confusing and the information on the maps is easy to read. Equally as strong, the sound fits into the game nicely. Menacing, ominous music seems ripped right out of a cartoon score and complements the action well. It can get a bit repetitive, but games usually do not last long enough for the music to grow irritating. The sound effects are also good, mixing the gunshots and explosions with the silly screams of robots being destroyed. The hero units also occasionally yell their own personal catchphrases, which are campy, but fun.
If you're in the market for a new real-time strategy game on the DS, Robocalypse's tight controls, enjoyable gameplay, and humorous story make it a good choice. It's a shame that there aren't more multiplayer modes to keep you entertained after you've played through the story, but all good things have to come to an end at some point.