During a generation in which First-Person Shooter (FPS) titles dominate the market, a genre like the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game can become lost on PS3 amongst a barrage of FPS frags, melees and rat-a-tat-tat firefights. Despite this the system has received some standout RTS games: Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 portrayed a parallel universe where Allied Forces battled the Soviet Union, and Tom Clancy’s End War depicted a futuristic World War III. It could be argued that PlayStation Move's pointer controls are a perfect fit for the RTS genre. However, with the exception of Ubisoft’s fantastic R.U.S.E., developers have not yet fully embraced the logical combination of RTS dynamics and Move controls. Enter Seed Studios, who said in last year’s Under Siege interview that RTS games are a natural fit for Move. The team set out to fill a PSN gap with a fantastic fantasy setting and a smorgasbord of content. The question is not if you should buy this game, it is whether your RTS skills are tough enough to be taken Under Siege.
The story starts with a civil war amongst humans between rebels and their tyrannical Citadel rulers and follows three protagonists: Eirik leader of the resistance, Kari a hot-headed rebel and the mysterious Asgeir, who is either a fortune-teller or hiding a secret. However, the plot expands upon its early concept by taking inspiration from Tolkien and unleashing a malevolent dark force, including monstrous Grunts, acid-spitting Stingers and creepy spider-like Crawlers, that senselessly spring unprovoked attacks upon all races in the game’s universe. The human civil war takes a backseat as the three heroes amass forces to head South through Mekitu swamps, Wari forests and deserts to uncover the origins of the mindless beast epidemic and stop its leaders before a worldwide genocide occurs. The majority of the story is told by 2D cutscenes, as well as tiny in-game speech bubbles providing story embellishment for eagle-eyed gamers, and it has a glorious cinematic introduction sequence created by Axis Animation that introduces each of the game’s unique races. The plot becomes more compelling the deeper you travel into the campaign’s 21 levels, split over five chapters, as you realise that traitors are everywhere and wonder which of the allied races can be trusted.
Initial impressions of Under Siege’s Move controls are that they have been fussily implemented, particularly as you inexplicably have to assign your Navigation controller to port one to even be allowed to proceed and at first your Move cursor seems to wander aimlessly around the landscape. With adjustment the Move controls feel solid: your initially wayward cursor needs to be pointed at the screen at all times, but it grows to be a precise control system, faster and more efficient at selecting and directing squads than the DualShock 3’s left stick. Twisting the Move controller left and right rotates the map and pressing L3 on the Navi combines your army into one tight formation. There is an option to change Move’s set-up from a ‘Pointer’ to a ‘Position’ cursor, but you will miss the speediness of the pointer controls. The DualShock 3 control is still highly capable and adept, but after spending time with Move we found that the flow of the pointer, and its fluid movement during moments of panic, feels more nimble and satisfying.
The first thing to note about the single-player campaign is that it maintains a traditional rock-paper-scissors dynamic in its RTS gameplay, but manages to make it accessible and simple for less experienced RTS gamers. Whereas R.U.S.E. pushes a variety of resources and mind-boggling inter-connecting parameters of units that you unlock as you progress, Under Siege succeeds in having depth that does not feel overwhelming or overly complicated. You start with a ‘Preparation Phase’, in which you position squads on selected spawn point sections of the map and scan the environment for tactical battle placements, presuming that the level is not blanketed in the dreaded, black ‘Fog of War’. You start the game with two Allied Human Units (Soldiers and Archers), but through progress you unlock a choice of nine. The preparation phase is a brief moment of calm, as you decide which squads to recruit, spend accumulated coinage to train for vital experience points and buy back fallen members of a squad, before the pressure of real-time combat begins. Once you enter the ‘Battle Phase’ you are able to group your units based upon which fight well together and set each group to one of four quick selection points on the D-Pad, which works brilliantly in most levels, but is cumbersome on stages like level 11’s ‘Brother Protection’ because enemies attack so quickly you are not given any time to assign your D-Pad groups.
It may be stating the obvious, but once a battle begins, Under Siege punishes any gamer that does not strategically plan every movement. The game introduces massive difficulty spikes throughout the campaign, with a technique of forcing the player to adopt a variety of strategies and perfect the defence or attack possibilities of every new unit acquired, by presenting overwhelming numbers of opposing forces. For example, in level 3’s ‘Rescue an Old Friend’ you must master Gunner’s blast ability and in level 11 progression is largely accomplished by learning the Wari Shaman’s heal and protect powers. Just as you build confidence in one tactical approach, such as funnelling enemies into a bottleneck trap or trapping them with archer attacks from high-up cliffs, the game introduces levels that render this ineffective by unveiling open-plan areas without hidey-holes or new enemies that can crawl up steep surfaces. There are power-ups littered amongst stages (Rage, Defence and Heal), but frustratingly there are no checkpoints or mid-level saves, so if all of your units perish you must begin the level from scratch. This issue is worsened as the player has an obligation to desperately sustain their squads, experience and money carries over from level to level, so it's frustrating losing units after facing a bewildering number of monsters. For example, deep in the Wari forest casualties of war are inevitable, but it is hard to face losses after you have spent 12 levels building up their experience, the only alternative is to repeatedly replay the level until you beat it without any casualties. Under Siege’s difficulty curve is not steep, it is borderline vertical, and its challenge is based upon trial-and-error as well as dying constantly to learn from your mistakes. It walks a fine line between being fun and frustrating: its boss battles against the likes of a Giant Golem, Wyvern Queen or Dragon are great additions, but as a mass of enemies repeatedly pummel or poison your squad you may question if the challenge is fair. This game is still hard if you drop down to the ironically titled ‘Casual’ difficulty.
However, the plus points of persevering with the campaign are two-fold. Firstly, there is a massive sense of accomplishment when you finally conquer a level with all your squads intact, and secondly the skills you acquire in the single-player game empower you to be a ruthlessly competitive player, both locally and especially in online multiplayer. There are a number of Capture Point, Arena and Death Match games available and although the lobbies are currently quiet, multiplayer is a rewarding experience.
The only negative aspect comes from your online adversaries: it was particularly disappointing to face an opponent for 30 minutes, jostling back-and-forth with each other to capture three bases, to find that they disconnected the very second the match was won to deny us our victory. From our experience, more gamers dropped out of online battles than stayed the course, especially when they were losing. Conversely, we found that online co-operative Under Siege players were far better mannered and taking down waves of enemies as well as a huge Giant Golem boss with an online comrade is a joyous slice of RTS gaming.
To complement Sony’s ‘Play, Create, Share’ ethos, Seed Studios have also included an Editor option to build your own levels, allowing creativity such as painting a stage’s snow textures or lighting effects, adding spawn points, setting up crates and logs as props and even creating cutscenes. It seems complicated at first, but it is approachable with experimentation, and there is a 50 page online editor manual to assist with your constructions.
Alongside a wealth of content, Under Siege presents an audio and visual package that takes pride in its attention to detail to enrich and add atmosphere to its fantasy world. The graphics may not include an abundance of special-effects, and there is noticeable slowdown when armies of monsters fill the screen, but the intricate design of characters and environments are pleasing to the eye. The combination of snowy mountains, mossy swamps and autumnal golden forests add variety as you travel through the different race settlements and the well-textured visuals are boosted by a wonderful use of shadows, cast by windmills and overhead bridges. Music is equally well implemented, especially as it becomes more intense as danger lurks, but special mention must go to the audio effects, as howling wolves, crackling thunder, bird songs and the creaking of crickets helps to make Under Siege’s world feel alive with activity.
Be warned: Under Siege will stomp on your RTS gaming skills like a Wari Warrior crushing your feeble archers. Its 21 level single-player campaign is relentlessly challenging, as you desperately attempt to carry over your squad's experience and money from level-to-level. A fantasy story filled with intrigue holds your attention, and swift pointer controls are further proof that Move is a natural-fit for the RTS genre, but with no mid-level checkpoints you will need patience to master the strategies necessary to progress against an overwhelming throng of monstrosities. However, Under Siege is also a content-rich package, with an accessible RTS system, fun multiplayer and the option of creating your own levels, there is a generous amount of game here for RTS fans with the skills to make it through.