United, but too familiar and mundane
In terms of admirable goals, bringing people from all over the world together is right up near the top. Machine Zone is trying to do that with Game of War: Fire Age, a mobile strategy MMO that really is global in scope. It succeeds in that regard, but it forgot something else that is kind of important: giving all those united people something new and exciting to do.
See, Game of War is built on a framework that is very similar to multiplayer mobile strategy games that have come before it. That’s games as in plural, because companies like Kabam have made multiple titles that thrive on the very same formula. You play the part of a king, attempting to build the most powerful kingdom possible in a game world full of other players with the exact same aim.
On the home front, your focus is building and upgrading structures. Some are for gathering the resources you need to make even more stuff (stone, wood, ore, food and silver), while others are needed to produce troops, research new technologies, and the like. Every task in your city requires resources and time, and most of the power-ups in the game help you finish something faster.
Naturally, there’s also a military aspect to the game as well. You’ll need defensive structures and traps to hold onto what’s yours, plus troops to attack other cities for renown and plunder. Leading the charge is a hero unit who can be leveled up to buff up the rest of your army, and can even have weapons and armor crafted for him (or her, we’re all about equality here).
If any of this sounds familiar to you, there’s a good reason for it. Game of War sticks very close to the script used by Kingdoms of Camelot and The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-Earth, to name just a few. Even the fact that you can team up with other players to form Alliances isn’t original by any stretch of the imagination.
What is new is how Machine Zone ensured players from different countries can all play together without that pesky language barrier thing getting in the way. While other multiplayer strategy games place people on different servers by language, this game actually translates chat so everyone understands one another. If that sounds like an impossible task given the way text speak and shorthand dominate chat boards in online games, the answer lies in crowd-sourcing: you can actually earn in-game rewards by correcting words the game doesn’t understand.
While that’s undeniably cool, and this is probably the nicest looking game of its type so far – seriously, just zoom in and look at the little people carrying out your orders in your city – the fact remains that unless your Alliance is in the middle of an intriguing inter-faction war, the core gameplay revolves around waiting for your task timers to finish and then queuing up new ones. Even the daily and Alliance quests just ask you to tap something and come back later to collect your reward.
The screen is so jammed full of icons and information that it’s a chore just to select what you want in your city at times. And behind it all is the very real specter who goes by the name “Pay to Win.” The items you can buy for the game’s hard currency (and thus, with real money) absolutely can put you a leg up on the competition. “Regular” MMOs, even the free-to-play kind, try hard not to work like that, so shouldn’t mobile MMOs do the same?
We can do better. Game of War: Fire Age takes some important steps toward something truly revolutionary, but it lacks the gameplay advances to make it all the way there. It’s likely to appeal to the same players who enjoyed the games that preceded it, yet it feels like a missed opportunity for everyone else.