What’s in a name? For Zynga, enough perceived value that it wanted to call its new, free-to-play strategy game Empires & Allies even though it’s something more akin to a mobile version of Command & Conquer than their Facebook hit from a bygone era of four whole years ago. The moniker might be the same, but everything else is different – in a good way — and the result is a bit of real-time strategy that manages to be both accessible and deep, a balance that is no easy feat.
That’s not to say that you won’t recognize some hints of games that have come before it, because Empires & Allies is definitely coloring within the broader outlines of other titles, one of which might rhyme with the phrase “smash of pans.” There’s a base to build up, several resources to manage, and different troop types to muster. Think evolutionary instead of revolutionary.
Yet there are multiple ways in which this game stands out from the pack. The first is in its single-player campaign, which is a vital part of the gameplay rather than something you do to kill time in-between attacks or defenses against other players. As head of your own paramilitary outfit, you’re tasked with freeing different parts of the globe from the clutches of the GRA, a generic but dangerous terrorist organization.
Success on the solo map helps with your development efforts, and it’s a challenge due to the bosses Zynga created to lord over certain countries. Those fights help keep the single-player aspect from getting stale thanks to unique enemy units and restrictions on your angles of attack. It’s almost like combining a puzzle game with RTS, and it definitely works.
The feeling of control during combat is another star on Empires & Aliies’ shoulder board. Only the simplest battles early in the game can be won by being a passive observer, and you can influence the battles by marking targets, summoning airstrikes and dropping in the right units at the right times. The number of tools at your disposal grows nicely as you progress as a commander, something that even PC strategy games have struggled with in the past. Perhaps the best part is that troops who survive a battle live to fight another day, meaning you only have to replace your losses instead of training units all over again.
Defense is even fun to play since there are some surprises you can throw at invaders in the form of multiple choice turrets and rally points for patrolling infantry and spider droids (thanks, near future setting!). There are even real benefits to joining an Alliance with other players other than merely having people to keep you from getting picked on, as you can selectively power up units with gifts you get from your friends.
All of this looks great too, as Empires & Allies is one of the more attractive build and battle games on the market. If you lived through the Facebook gaming era, you might remember the exaggerated, almost caricature-style graphics of its predecessor, but Zynga went with a more realistic style here to match its more serious ambitions. An update that arrived right before global launch added voice acting in eight different languages, so you can even hear your men talk in a tongue that’s pleasing to your ear while they do your bidding.
The only thing holding me back from an unabashed, breathless endorsement is that the curve for building upgrades and overall advancement feels like it gets real steep after only a short period of play. The time needed for important building upgrades is measured in hours pretty quickly, and buying a second team of engineers — something you need hard currency to do — looms as a necessity rather than something that is merely nice to have. I could see some players getting frustrated before the full array of features and options truly opens up to them.
If you can power through that portion of the game, though, Empires & Allies has a lot to like. Its combination of engaging gameplay and good looks should be a winner, and even if it gets lumped in with other strategy titles in the minds of mobile gamers, at least it should emerge as the first thing people think of when they hear its name. I think Zynga would like that.