Yesterday, I wrote for about how EA is on the verge of buying PopCap games for a billion dollars. You should know them as they’ve found huge success in the casual market with titles like Plants vs. Zombies, Bejeweled and Peggle for browsers and mobile phones.
EA wants a piece of that meaty casual pie, and they’ll buy their way to it if they have to. Over the past week I’ve been playing one of their attempts at a casual title, a free RTS/MMO running entirely out of Google Chrome called Lord of Ultima. The game’s been in beta since last year, but I only stumbled across it on the Google app store recently, so I thought I’d give it a go.
After a week, I’m ranked 2,700th out of 12,000 in my realm. Not too bad for a few days of playing, and I can share my findings with the game so far. As Duke Nukem Forever has yet to arrive in the mail from Plurent, I figured this could sub in during the interim.
Essentially this game is what Evony was supposed to be. You know, the game that had banner ads coating the entire internet with half naked chicks who never appeared in the game? “Come play, my lord”? Yeah, that one. That title was a piece of shit that stole most of its designs from Age of Empires and gave a HUGE advantage to players who decided to shell out real cash for virtual items, making the game borderline unplayable for everyone else.
EA is smarter than that, and generally not scam artists, so they’ve handled the whole concept much better here. You build buildings, you mine resources, you build an army, and repeat. You can also raid dungeons and attack other cities. The most eventful thing I’ve done is throw my entire army at a local dragon which I managed to slay, and I haven’t attacked anyone yet as the game gives you a safety period of a week to establish yourself. Seeing that I’m the highest ranking city I can see for miles, I’m looking forward to raping and pillaging, errrr, I mean sieging and pillaging the tiny towns that cower in my shadow.
This all sounds rather epic, but I have to offer the disclaimer that it’s not. Though the graphics are quite sharp for a browser game, there are very distinct limits, like that you’ll never actually see any of your army units anywhere onscreen. Combat and dungeon raiding takes place all via text and timers, as does unit training and well, anything.
The game is essentially an exercise in making numbers go up. You mine resources so you can upgrade your buildings so they can mine more resources, or create units who can go pillage more resources. It’s extremely cyclical and got me thinking….shit, am I playing Farmvillle?
In a way, you are, and this game is helping me to better understand the psychologically addictive properties of that title. I spent a week playing Farmville a while back and found it fairly lame. I’ve now spent a week playing Lord of Ultima, and I’m probably going to keep playing it after I write this. Why?
Well Farmville does a few annoying things that don’t show up here for the most part. For example it FORCED you to keep playing, because if you didn’t harvest your crops, they would die, and your time spent growing them would be lost. Not so with Ultima, as resources accumulate until you can’t hold any more. You never LOSE anything for being absent. This might change if you leave for an extended time, and you’re invaded, but still, it’s a hard lot harder to actually be punished for playing the game at your leisure.
Farmville also forced you to invite friends via email or Facebook in order to receive exclusive stuff, and much of the game was built around having enough “neighbors.” Here you can pretty easily form clans, and I’ve found as I’m a high level, it’s fairly simple to recruit. There might be a prize for inviting a friend or two, but it’s not a big focus of the game.
And lastly, I like this game because the subject matter interests me. I’m fresh off Game of Thrones season one and in a medieval mood, so building a castle and raising an army is just my cup of tea. Farming? I still don’t quite understand how that appeals to anyone, but 75 million people can’t be wrong.
The game is not without flaws, as really, there isn’t a terribly large amount of substance to it. One rather annoying aspect is the construction and travel time, which can often make the game move at a snail’s pace. Early on, buildings take a minute or two to construct, but to upgrade them at higher levels? It can take hours and days, and you can only do one thing at a time. The game tries to compensate for this by giving you a building that makes your construction time faster, but you have to invest huge amounts of resources to do this, and every time you level up, building times double again.
Travel time is perhaps an even bigger issue. It takes me two hours of real time to get to a dungeon about four squares away from me with infantry, and another two to get back. Traveling to members of my alliance’s cities to provide supplies or troops is often an insane journey, and by the time I’d get there, they wouldn’t even need help any more.
Additionally it’s frustrating to invite a real life friend to play. I showed my new roommate the game, which is right up his alley as he likes browser RTS titles like this, but when he created his city, he spawned so far across the continent it is literally physically impossible for my units to ever reach him. We can offer each other no benefit as far as I can tell.
One last bit of annoyance is the microtransactions model that had to exist for this game to function as free-to-play. You can purchase diamonds that you can spend on typical things like resources, but you can also use them to hire “ministers” for a certain time period. These are incredibly useful NPCs that allow you to build and recruit and play far more easily. They gave me one for free for sticking around for four days, and he really does make the game a lot better.
Unfortunately, after a week of play, I own exactly zero diamonds. There is no way to EVER actually earn diamonds in the game, no matter how much time you put in or how powerful you grow. I understand allowing people to pay for a certain amount of shortcuts, but it just seems mean-spirited to make the most useful features of the game completely off limits. But EA isn’t the first to do this, and they won’t be the last.
All in all, this is a decent casual title for someone like me. Not being about farming is a big plus, and the extended build times actually make it so you don’t have to play that often. Though my OCD has fully taken over and I must check on my various progress bars every ten minutes.
Some people will like this game, others will find it too confusing, others too boring. I like the fact that I seem to be doing fairly well at it relative to the players surrounding me, so I’m going to hold onto that feeling and see where that takes me.
Ah goddamnit, I’ve been Farmvilled.