Is Free-To-Play Strategy Worthy of Your Time? – 10 “Empire” Games Try to Make the Case.

You’re desperate to plough through hour-upon-hour into a free-to-play mobile strategy game. How on Earth do you choose between the frankly bewildering array of incredibly similar looking titles? And are any of them really worth the time and effort required to succeed? The answers to these questions are elusive and befuddling, so just read on for some reviews of games with the word “Empire” in the title, seemingly the go-to term in mobile strategy.

Underworld Empires

(Phoenix Age)

A neat graphic novel-esque aesthetic, coupled with some atmospheric background music, combine to create an instant impression in this stylish crime-dynasty builder. Delve deeper, though, and you’ll find … well actually not a lot at all, really. Tap through menus to carry out jobs, spend the in-game resource, energy, to take over territory, earn cash, and unlock upgrades, all to earn the opportunity to, basically, tap through more menus. And this, the full extent of the “gameplay” on offer, is further bolstered by one of the more intrusive in-app purchase models you’re likely to see.

But for those who’ve always longed to pay £2.99 for a picture of a man with huge pecs holding a six-foot hammer, this is the game you’ve been waiting for. Everyone else should maybe take a pass.

In-app purchase bother-o-meter:

You need to buy those pictures of buff men and suggestively-posed women to put alongside the pictures of other stuff you have! Then upgrade them!

It’s kinda like…

Buying car insurance online. Also, the early Fast and Furious movies: tanned-skin, testosterone, and total lack of awareness of how utterly cheesy it all is.

Forge of Empires

(InnoGames)

Now firmly in standard strategy territory, everything about Forge of Empires is really quite familiar, and that’s largely a good thing. Build a city, collect taxes, research technologies, and advance through the ages, all the while keeping your citizens happy and being charmed by the attractive, detailed visuals. So it’s like a best-bits mix of stone-cold genre classics Age of Empires and Civilization.

Zoomout from your little square of town space, and a segmented map straight out of the Total War series is revealed, showing your troops as game-counters to move into and conquer new territories. Pick a fight, and you’re treated to hex-based combat reminiscent of a Heroes of Might and Magic game. Of course, it’s far more simplistic, and far less accomplished than any of the games from which it draws its inspiration, and the least said about the limited PvP the better, but this feels like a real game, at least. It borrows from the best, and is mostly successful in cobbling together the results into a package you wouldn’t feel too bad about spending time with.

In-app purchase bother-o-meter:

Diamonds, the in-game currency that can be bought with real-word cash, are used to speed up building and research, but they’re not requiredto play the game. Attempting the late-game PvP without extra spending is not so fun, though.

It’s kinda like…

Some of the best strategy games ever made. The hard part for tactical die-hards will be resisting the urge to fire up a PC and stick one of those on instead.

Cradle of Empires

(AWEM Games)

All the elements are there — a world map, resources, buildings, upgrades. Anyone giving Cradle of Empires a brief glance could be forgiven for pegging it as simply another civilization building strategy game. But it soon becomes clear that the strategy elements are merely a framework for the actual gameplay on offer here, because CoE is a puzzler. Slide around various coloured flowers/tomatoes/coins around, link them together and make them disappear; you earn points, you complete the level, you move on to the next. The strategy angle is there to give a purpose to your puzzling, but it’s all just decoration. In-game advisors can yammer at you all they want (with terribly written dialogue) to build more farms and grow more food, but what it really all comes down to isrepetitive completion of sequential puzzle stages. It’s your only real way of affecting the game world, which would be fine if there was anything particularly original about the puzzle gameplay itself, but its core is too similar to any and every colour-match style puzzle game you’ve ever played. And ultimately, it’s been done better by the likes of King’s ubiquitous time-sink Candy Crush Saga and its ilk. And if you’re really into your puzzling, you’ll likely find the extra bit of faux-strategy merely gets in the way of the real meat of the gameplay anyway.

In-app purchase bother-o-meter:

Crystals this time, but there never seems much incentive for why you’d really want to buy any with your hard-earned.

It’s kinda like…

Ancient Egyptian-themed fruit machines. Which always seem the most numerous of all fruit machines, for some reason.

King’s Empire – Undying Loyalty

(Tap 4 Fun)

Opening on a familiar patch of city, it’s obvious that constructing and upgrading buildings will once again be the order of the day. Only now you’re cruelly restricted to pre-allotted plots for each structure type.

Once the hoop-jumping rigidity of the tutorial phase is over (one of the quests is actually called Connect a Facebook Account) things become a little more ambitious, and the game’s MMO tendencies are revealed. Alliances can be formed with other players, and large scale combat is possible, if not exactlyadvisable. ‘Failureto connect to server’ messages seem common (even over stable WiFi) which makes multiplayer gameplay far more hassle than it’s worth, especially as KE requires a constant connection to run whatever you’re doing in-game. This, coupled with a uneven standard of finish (poor translation, cluttered, confusing menus, and unreliable in-game chat) mean there’s little reason to stick with the slow-burn gameplay.

Also, who wants their city to look identical to every single other player on the server? Remove the potential for individuality and freedom to create, and the feeling of ownership is greatlyeroded. Youmay stick around long enough to see your city rise, but will you be back again later to see how your little guys are doing? Doubtful. Because they’re not really your little guys, are they?

In-app purchase bother-o-meter:

There’s plenty of opportunity to give yourself a helping hand by buying gems, spending them, and even gambling with them using the in-game Wishing Well (pre-built in your city, naturally). And it’s made to seem all the more necessary by the deviously-paced gameplay, which is swift at the start. Before long, it is intentionally bottlenecked to encourage gem purchases.

It’s kinda like…

Buying that awesome Lego playset and only ever building the thing on the box. You’ve built something that lookscool. Andyou’ve completely missed the point.

KLM Aviation Empire

(KLM)

Simulation of a rarer kind comes in the shape of KLM Aviation Empire. The aim is to built the Dutch national airline from its inception in 1919, to the successful beast it is today. And, at what it attempts to do, the game largely succeeds. The interface is attractive and unobtrusive, based around a fun spinning globe, and the gameplay, to the game’s credit, feels quite comprehensive and less cartoonish that might be expected of a mobile game. You’ll be building airports, buying planes, and establishing profitable connections between countries to make fat stacks of cash.

Of course, the fact that this is a branded game means there’s a tendency to shower the player in KLM propaganda. And the feature that allows you to be able to “check-in” using GPS at airports featured in the game feels a little, well, sinister, actually.

In-app purchase bother-o-meter:

Buy one plane for 1000 credits, or buy 10 planes for real world cash (no gemstones, silver dollars or platinum jellybeans here). The asking prices are pretty tiny, but unless you’re super-impatient, there’s not much reason to front dough.

It’s kinda like…

A corporate induction seminar. Only without the awkward icebreaker.

Galaxy Empire

(Tap 4 Fun)

Another MMO offering from Tap 4 Fun, this time with a sci-fi theme. And, once you look past the future setting, and the admittedly awesome conceit of building a fleet for an ass-kicking tour of the galaxy, this is very much a skinned King’s Empire, with the sameconsidered pace of building, and the same hackneyed resource gathering. Also making the unwelcome jump from King’s Empire are the cluttered menus, the nonsense writing, and the myriad stability problems that plagued that game. Also, more noticeably than in KE, the sound effects are largely absent, and the music is terribly repetitive.

And ultimately, what hinders the game above all else, as in its fraternal twin, is a resource bottleneck that both impedes development and seriously handicaps players in the PvP phase, so much so that that the game practically begs to be bolstered by real-world purchases — or eventurned off.

In-app purchase bother-o-meter:

Just like King’s Empire, there’s barely a reason to stump-up real life cash in the early stages. Then all of a sudden, it’s pay to win, plain and simple.

It’s kinda like…

One of the big 4X space games. Something like Alpha Centauri or Galactic Civilizations, although don’t expect anywhere near the depth or quality.

GoodGame Empire – Four Kingdoms

(Goodgame Studios)

Another Fantasy MMO, another lengthy hand-holding tutorial. Barracks, quarries, dwellings, workshops; Goodgame Empire does a great job of ticking every box you’d expect from this sort of game. Presentation, this time, is top-notch, with tidy, well ordered menus and a quaint, cartoonish aesthetic. And even though you’ll be performing familiar tasks, it’s all made more bearable by the production values, and obvious effort to make the experience feel slick and professional.

Bearable, that is, until that dreaded moment of choice which now seems inevitable within this genre, between continuing on at a pace which becomes criminally, painfully slow, and run the risk of being battered by fellow players who are much more adequately equipped, or hand over some cash for the in-game uber-currency (rubies, this time) and bring your kingdom to a level in line with competitors. For a little while, at least.

In-app purchase bother-o-meter:

Don’t pay anything, if you want to be beaten, and beaten well. It would be naïve to think free-to-play means free-for-good. Developers have to earn a living somehow. But it seems an increasingly prevalent trend that the cash needed to compete is exorbitant, and the more you pay, the better chance you have to win

It’s kinda like…

That other one. From before. Something Empire. You know the one.

Transport Empire

(Game Insight)

Trains! Yes, Transport Empire has you building up your business hauling coal, stone and other boring stuff from one place to another. You pick a contract, assign a train, and wait. That’s it. Yes, there are some largely superfluous elements of infrastructure development and upgrading (isn’t there always?) but the game’s true heart is a perpetual cycle of committingresources, awaiting your reward, and then starting over.

And it’s slow. Painfully so, a design decision the developers will hope will have your reaching for your credit card and putting cash down on the in-game currency (gold, if you’re still at all interested in these) which is used to speed up the proceedings.

The steampunk-ish graphical style is unexpected and pleasingly leafy — really, this probably is the nicest looking of all the games here — and also there’s some brilliantly innocent writing (“We need wood as quickly as possible”) but it’s just not enough to counter the drab gameplay. Some paintings are pretty too.

In-app purchase bother-ometer:

Ass you’re not trying to compete with any other players here, there’s just no great incentive to spend. The biggest threat here is the danger of nodding-off.

It’s kinda like…

Watching grass grow. Or paint dry. Alternatively, it’s like watching trains trundle backwards and forwards along the same path over and over again. Yep, it’s exactly like that.

Empire Z

(Ember Entertainment)

Lower your expectations. Any ideas about what might make a great post-apocalyptic zombie strategy game have been ignored in the scramble to fit the “Empire” template in this offering from Ember Entertainment. Instead of a cobbled-together base with a mismatched band of survivors venturing out into the zombie-infested wilderness to forage for vital supplies, you’re given a soul-sucking identikit strategy game. Seems that, although zombies have devastated the planet and destroyed our way of life, the only way to fight back is to construct buildings in pre-ordained plots, and upgrade them where possible, all the while waiting ages for stuff to happen. There’s no fear of your city being overrun by zombies, your troops trying desperately to repel the oncoming horde like you might have expected, because that doesn’t happen. Obviously the developers figured this sort of excitement would get in the way of the grind.

There’s the obligatory large scale multiplayer component including alliances, but it’s seldom more than nonsense fluff. Battles are purely a numbers game, resolved instantly in a dice roll. No tactics or strategy to speak of here.

In-app purchase bother-ometer:

Don’t spend a single penny if you never want to see your name on one of those leaderboards.

It’s kinda like…

The Walking Dead, if you squint all of your senses, including your sense of fun.

Pawn Empire

(App Happy Games)

A customers arrives at your ramshackle pawn shop with a view to flogging you a specimen of their random crap. You make the smallest offer you can get away with, they give you the thing in question, you put it up for sale, and then you wait an arbitrary amount of time before the item sells. You use the money earned to upgrade your shop (both interior and exterior!) for no other reason than because it’s the only thing you can spend it on. Also you get a free gift every 24 hours. There’s no in-game reason given for this. It just happens.

If this sounds like the familiar mechanics of free-to-play, only with the game removed, you’dbe spot on, a feeling reinforced by the lack of any animated graphics to speak of. At all.

As school project, this would be a passable idea, poorly executed. As a functional app that people might want to play, and are expected to spend money on, it’s not just laughable. It’s insulting.

In-app purchase bother-o-meter:

Unbelievably, you can spend your actual money on both Pawn Chips AND Pawn Bucks. Really. On a game that looks like it was made entirely from ’90s clip-art.

It’s kinda like…

The worst thing you can think of, times ten. And Microsoft Paint.

This is merely a thin slice of the full range of mobile strategy games available in your chosen app ecosystem. There’s certainly no shortage of choice for the discerning, or not so discerning, gamer.

But what really hits home, on this Journey of Empires, and what a strategy fan will detect almost instantly, is how little actual freedom to create these games allow. Most players will produce absolutely identical buildings in identical locations, the individuality of their experiences starting and ending at the size of their army and the vastness of their resource pile. Any capacity for the player to put their stamp on the game — for many, the point of choosing a strategy game in the first place — is sacrificed in favour of tried and tested, cookie-cutter game mechanics designed, and re-used again and again with one goal in mind, to hook in the player and part them with their real-word cash.

Not that there’s no hope. There’s clearly a measure of talent behind these games (mostly), and enjoyable elements present in each. But there’s a balance to be reached when monetizing a free-to-play game, and, to varying degrees, every game here misses that mark.

And until that balance is reached, these games will remain money spinners first, and enjoyable pastimes second. How far back that second place is will depend on the player, and their capacity to endure — and extract pleasure from — the infinite grind.

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