When is a real-time strategy game not a real-time strategy game? When it's Under Siege, a PSN exclusive that provides enough of the genre's flavor to draw in fans, but not enough of the unit variety and tactical depth that usually come with these sorts of games. Portuguese developer Seed Studios has done some very good things with this freshman effort when it comes to dishing out some quick, tough battles and providing a great control scheme, but the result isn't all that it could be because it's light on strategizing and heavy on difficulty.
Veterans of RTS games will find Under Siege a little light when it comes to story, feature set, and tactical demands. The story behind the campaign is a poorly told saga about a steampunk-ish fantasy land in the midst of a civil war and a monster invasion. You take the side of rebels battling the nasty totalitarians running the Citadel, but everything gets mashed up when mysterious creatures enter the picture and start killing both factions. Most of this potboiler is told comic style with a bit of a kid-friendly anime vibe in the brief cutscenes between levels. There's a girl who yells a lot, some baby-faced guys who talk about the upcoming fight, and that's about it. This cliched approach makes the story a bit annoying, although you can skip the dialogue sequences and get right into battles (well, after waiting through some fairly lengthy load times).
Battles are mostly short and brutal. In general, the campaign plays out a bit more like a hack-and-slash role-playing game with a few tactical elements than a hardcore RTS. The focus is on straightforward trudges from start to finish with a limited number units, killing everything you encounter. There is no resource management or base building. Each level starts off with you filling up a handful of deployment points with units. Some, such as basic human soldiers and archers, come in squads of three, while more powerful units like the gunner step into scraps solo. Everything depends on the gold in your coffers. If you're coming off a big victory, you have plenty of loot to use for recruiting new units and bolstering the strength of combat veterans. If not, you might have to struggle through with few reinforcements. This can lead to real problems as you go through the chapters in the campaign, because early unit losses and the high cost of replacements can combine to send you into levels with too few troops to have a chance of winning.
There are just nine unit types available in Under Siege. These range from basic archers and sword-wielding soldiers to those aforementioned weird giant frog things and mages who can project giant shields. Each unit comes with a special ability, such as mass healing. Unit balance is great, however. Nothing here is overpowered, and an impressive rock-paper-scissors formula is in full effect. There are just enough different units present to give the game a sliver of tactical depth, although this usually means that you need to do something relatively rudimentary, such as kill an enemy gunner who is tearing up your troops from a distance with his mortar-like cannon. Troops stay with you until they die, gaining experience all the while, so you have a sense of building a real army over the course of the campaign. Specific unit progression is not emphasized, however, aside from "Level Up" notices during battle.
Extreme challenge even on the easiest difficulty setting is probably the most noteworthy aspect of the campaign. You can, and probably will, lose each level numerous times before finally emerging victorious. Generally, you get overwhelmed by the sheer number of enemies that you have to face, or you are surprised later in a level by a foe or group of foes that you can't defeat without deploying units of a specific type. In the last moments of the last level of the first chapter, for instance, you have to suddenly take on a giant robot boss that makes mincemeat of the usual unit mix you've deployed to this point in the game.
With that said, the difficulty isn't so extreme that you'll give up. If anything, it pushes you to keep trying and serves as a fairly effective way of drawing you into the campaign. The lack of a proper save-anywhere feature adds frustration, though. The game doesn't save at checkpoints, even in lengthy levels with multiple troop deployment stages. If you lose, you go right back to the very start of the level to do everything all over again. Because you generally don't get killed until the last stages of a level, this leads to a lot of unnecessary repetition. A midlevel save option would definitely have been welcome.
Fortunately, the sting of repetition is lessened by the superb controls. Seed does a great job with both gamepad and Move control schemes. With the gamepad, you can do just about everything with three buttons, the D pad, and the left stick. Units can be grouped, assigned to the directional arrows of the D pad, and hurled into battle with ease. You have to fuss around a bit with individual units, although you are dealing with such limited numbers that this never seems like any sort of onerous micromanagement. The Move controller can be used in the much the same way as a mouse, and lets you control the game much like you would a PC RTS. It works very well but is a bit more tiring and involved to use than the gamepad because you have to wave it in the air. It isn't in any way necessary to get the most out of the game. You aren't missing anything by sticking with a good old DualShock 3.
Visuals are good for the most part. The campaign runs through most of the usual earthly terrain features, from snowy mountains to swampy lowlands to empty deserts. Most come with nifty little tricks and secrets, such as ways to do heavy damage to baddies before tackling them head-on. Even though you can beat levels by simply going from point A to point B, a little exploration is usually rewarded with some sort of goodie. The main drawbacks of the presentation are the presence of regular frame-rate hitches that last just long enough to be noticeable (and annoying), and a far-away default camera position that makes it tough to see details, especially on units. Audio is unremarkable. The music is composed of generic martial gaming tunes that you won't remember a minute after shutting down your PlayStation 3, and there are no voice samples to speak of.
Multiplayer (online and on the same system via split-screen play) comes with a range of game types, such as deathmatch, arena, and co-op. As in the campaign, battles are quick and explosive, with limited numbers of troops in clashes that really ramp up the rock-paper-scissors formula. Units smash into one another almost immediately, making it vital to go into the fray with a smart selection of troops. Field the wrong guys, or just fail to anticipate what your enemy will be using, and the fight will be over quickly. And the game comes with a level editor that wouldn't be out of place as part of the package in a PC RTS. It is a bit cumbersome to use, but it's an impressive piece of tech with more than enough features to make the community stand up and take notice. Under Siege is a good game that provides a few quick battles and some very tough challenges. It has some off-putting quirks, but Under Siege can still be a captivating game.