Great real-time strategy games tend to fall into one of three categories for me. Firstly, they might be a purely multiplayer focussed experience. These generally have little or no artificial intelligence, strong and efficient network code, loads of maps or levels and possibly an editor or other means for community members to share content with each other. Many indie developers try this and fail, primarily because of a lack of an established player base. Without one, the game flops soon after release (and sometimes even before that). The other two are based around the single-player experience. Thereís the AI that is so good and so unpredictable that it is almost as good as a human player. This coupled with a great story driven campaign and lots of maps for skirmish play can often yield very satisfying results. Failing that, the developer can get around the shortcomings of less than stellar AI by applying asymmetrical gameplay concepts that apply balance through other factors. Tower defence games are a good example of this.
Thunder Fleets doesnít really know where it wants to be on this scale. Itís a real-time strategy game where the player builds fleets of maritime units and sends them off into battle. The game maps are divided up into territories that can be claimed by positioning your units on them and having no enemy units in the same zone. Units are built at docks, which are found in certain territories on the map, and are capturable when the territory itself is seized. Over time an unknown amount of resources accumulate at an arbitrary rate that is dependent on the number of territories and special facilities controlled. Once all docks are controlled by one player the game is over and that player wins.
Ships fire at each other using guns and torpedoes. Guns follow a straight line to the target and shells can be shot over terrain. Cannon shots are aimed automatically by the ships crew. The crew can gain experience, and correspondingly become more skilled at marksmanship, although Iím not exactly sure what triggers them to level up. I assume itís enemies sunk, but thereís no way of telling for sure without extensive testing or a proper manual. Cannons provide moderate bang for your buck depending on the calibre of the guns onboard. Torpedoes, which are slow moving and also aimed automatically, need to lead a moving target and cannot be steered. Thus, a change in velocity of the target can lead to a miss - especially if the torpedoes have been fired from significant range.
The AI is quite limited in what it will try to do. Generally it will send ships in one by one to be decimated by the player fleet, but occasionally it has been observed to group a number of vessels together and attack. Two simple tactics can be employed to ensure that player ships can outfight AI ships by up to a ratio of up to 3 to 1. Firstly ďkitingĒ; a technique whereby a ship (or group) with high calibre cannons and a long range sails just outside the range of enemies and maintains distance for as long as possible whilst pummelling them from afar. AI ships seem to be easily distracted by small fast vessels and will even turn to engage them rather than close the distance on kiting ships. Secondly, the player can abuse the AIís dismal usage of torpedoes by holding fire until in a close position and attacking the enemy from abeam. The AI will let loose with its torpedoes from the furthest allowable range, making it a snap for the player to either change course and evade them, or turn to present the bow (or stern) of their ships and thus a much smaller target. These 2 tactics alone will allow the players fleets to do a lot more damage than the AI when the map is fair and balanced. The campaign soon sees the player having to fight their way out of seemingly hopeless starting positions but the maps are all but won once the player can get back on an even footing.
Gameplay is fairly stock standard. Iím a little disappointed that there arenít any original concepts, but what there is here is solid enough that the game feels somewhat engaging for a few hours. From what Iíve seen, units all seem to be surface vessels with differing stats that dictate speed, firepower, armour and such. Small lightly armoured torpedo boats are cheap to build and can quickly provide reconnaissance and shock attack power. Large lumbering warships are literally slow-moving death machines, yet these present the biggest and easiest to hit targets of all. The net result is that the only real strategy seems to be to concentrate a mass of firepower at the best available targets. Ultimately, in an even fight, mixed arms tactics and micromanagement are far less important than swarming, which was kind of a let down for me. Careful gameplay is only required at the start of each level when resources are scarce and assets are few.
Thereís no story to speak of. The campaign consists of various missions that slowly introduce different ships and facilities. This forms a sort of tutorial, but a manual or fact sheet would have been a nice inclusion in the install package. I want to know how much my production will be boosted when I take a certain territory. I want to know how long with my current resource income that the destroyer will take to build. I want to know just how much more powerful my cannons will be if I research that upgrade. The game presents build progress and territory ownership by the use of sliders with no time scale. It annoys me.
Thereís not much hope for a multiplayer game unless you hook up a date and time with a friend. With no central matchmaking service, the only option seems to be direct IP connection. Players who favour multiplayer games might have more fun with this title than single player gamers. Still, there are only a very few maps available, and no editor.
Thereís a certain amount of flavour to the graphical style and artwork. Zoomed right in the ships look great and even burn when heavily damaged, eventually sinking to the bottom of the sea when all is lost. Itís a real shame that 90% of my game time was spent at the furthest zoom setting, reducing the terrain and ships to a blocky montage. At close zoom levels the game looks quite pretty, but is ironically almost unplayable. No complaints with the sound effects, which are quite atmospheric and varied.
Thunder Fleets needs something more to be remarkable. Perhaps a classic WWII storyline and campaign or perhaps just a more robust and adaptive AI. As it stands it will leave RTS fans a bit underwhelmed. The only tough scenarios that the player will face is when unrealistically outnumbered and outgunned - and that gets old pretty quickly. Itís not dressed up enough to entice the casual crowd either, although to be honest itís better suited to that style of player, in my opinion.
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