"Flagrant system error"... what the hell is that? I've never seen one of those before. And how can the program named digita~1.exe possibly be in control? Do not activate my anti-virus program? But, I thought it was already... wait a minute, what's that? I might wish to counter attack with my artillery? Damn right I would!
I can't believe that I fell for it hook, line and sinker. But it sure did make my first victory at Digitanks even sweeter. While I won't give much more away that that, I did get a good long laugh at the expense of myself the first time I loaded up Digitanks, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who's heart skipped a beat at the opening sequence. A brilliant way to give the player some motivation to get right in there and start dealing out some digital payback to those invaders.
Digitanks is a turn-based strategy game. The style of the game actually is futuristic and abstract, even a little surreal. Players battle over fractally generated (actually, I'm guessing here) digital terrain, building up bases and supply networks and constructing armies. The nerve centre of each faction's base is the CPU. Troops are produced for the most part from buildings called loaders, and supply lines are regulated by structures called buffers. The most important element in the game is power, and this is harvested from the terrain in power nodes that can be discovered, scattered randomly around the terrain. A lot of features of Digitanks will be familiar to veterans of real-time strategy games; indeed the turn based facets of the gameplay and it's importance to the appeal of the game is not readily conveyed through screenshots. So, although the overall goal is to simply wipe your opponents off the map using brute force, Digitanks has some really innovative features that shine through to make it feel very unique.
The upgrade system in the game is a great example. Instead of the tried and true “research tech at this building” model, Digitanks uses a cool download system, where desired upgrades can be downloaded into your network at anytime. Each player has a bandwith limit though, so this needs to be upgraded in due course itself, in order for the larger downloads to arrive smoothly. Once downloaded, the upgrades are required to be installed into your CPU, or buffers and are then ready to use! All structures and units must be connected to your CPU in order for them to work. Buffers are the connectors that allow this functionality. You need to build them everywhere to ensure that supply is maintained in your network. Opponents can strategically target buffer networks to cut off areas from the power grid and leave them vulnerable to reclamation by other factions. This opens up a great deal of choice to players and depending on the map, might be a more viable alternative to attacking military units. Each buffer can only support 2 connections at optimum effect, each additional connection runs at reduced efficiency.
The combat at first seems a little unwieldy and micromanagement intense. Each unit has a certain amount of energy that it has at its disposal each turn. The player can use any amount of this to move the units, but only the remainder may be used to attack and defend. Further, the ratio of energy that is split between attack and defence can be specified for each individual unit in the game. It does take a few games to become competent at controlling your forces effectively, and although there are a couple of tutorials to run you through the basics, a pdf manual would have been appreciated. There are just 4 types of units present in the build that I played, but the game does still seem to be in development, judging by the website. The units that are present all have varied roles and provide for some interesting scenarios. Artillery needs to be set up prior to firing, but is devastating on enemy shields. Mechanised infantry is rather weak while mobile, but can present a solid defensive posture when fortified. Scouts might seem weak, but they are very fast and their torpedoes can knock out enemy supply lines for a turn or two, which can be invaluable.
New players might be challenged by the AI on it's most difficult level (normal) but after a couple of games, it becomes a trivial matter to beat up on it in a one on one scenario. Up to 3 AI players on the same map can provide more challenge. I guess the nature of a turn-based game makes it harder to provide a ruthless, non-cheating AI. AI routines in real time strategy games benefit from the computer being able to process information and complete tasks quickly. In a turn based game, this advantage is taken away. Although the AI is not hopeless, I have never seen it build a significant offensive force, despite its scores often eclipsing mine in the early and mid game points. For competitive games, a human player will need to seek out other human players. There is no in-game matchmaking system, so unless you buy Digitanks with a friend, your best bet to find opponents for direct IP match-ups is probably the website's forums. The AI skirmishes can still be a lot of fun though, and it will take a while to grind down 3 AI opponents.
The way that power is handled on a turn by turn basis could use a better display. A small graph, for example, might work better than a simplified numeric indicator as exists now. It's difficult to know how much building and installing updates is draining the available energy pool, although as expected, more energy is always better. When buffer updates are downloaded, unlike CPU updates, they only seem to apply to the buffers that they are installed on, or do they? Without a proper manual it's difficult to determine. It's one of those games that the player will want to know exactly how much energy can be used for various tasks before the efficiency of the operation takes a hit. This information is not readily available, and that was my main frustration while playing. Trial and error seemed to be the only way to go.
As I mentioned before the artistic style of the game is just great! Simple models and bright colours allow the player to focus on strategy, but still allow for some “Wow!” moments at the right angles and view distance. I love the way that heavy bombardment deforms the terrain, I love the little emoticons that the units flash up at intervals after landing a killer blow, or dodging a lethal barrage. Performance on low-end PC's might not be all that brilliant (my old laptop struggled a bit, for example), but definitely give the demo a whirl before shelling out. Music fits nicely with the theme and the sound effects are appropriately meaty.
The interface is a little cumbersome, and I'm not convinced that all that previously mentioned energy micromanagement is really necessary to have fun. It will take a bit of patience to become comfortable with, but there are keyboard shortcuts for many actions anyway, and learning these can streamline the gameplay significantly. The biggest challenge facing the game will be to establish a community large enough so that players of all levels will be able to find opponents for matches whenever they want to. Without a single player campaign or story mode, the skirmishes will only entertain for so long. There is also a quick play option called “Artillery Mode” that simply removes the base building and starts each player with a small number of units to blast away with. Not much fun, but a good way to learn the combat basics perhaps? In any case “Strategy Mode” is where all the goodness is. I really like Digitanks, and with a bit more love from the developers and a growing community, this one could be destined for even greater things.
Keywords: digitanks! review, lunar workshop reviews, lunar workshop games, digitanks! scores, pc game reviews, indie game reviews, independent gaming.