After four years of waiting, have my RTS dreams finally come true? Almost.
In March of 2009, I wrote a humble article offering five reasons why Real-Time Strategy games would be awesome on iOS devices. While there were doubters, I always thought that multi-touch interfaces were a perfect fit for the strategy genre. Since then there have been very few true RTS games on the App Store. The most memorable thus far is Command & Conquer: Red Alert. While remaining one of my favorite childhood game franchises, it failed to really take advantage of everything touchscreen devices had to offer, and ended up with a modest 3.5 out of 5 score. Other RTS games have come and gone without much fanfare, innovation, or interest, but nothing has quite caught my eye like BulkyPix’s new strategy offering, Autumn Dynasty.
Autumn Dynasty is not another defense title. It’s not a DOTA clone. It’s not a turn-based board game. It’s not tower defense. It is 100% in-your-face real-time strategy ACTION. Also, it’s beautiful. I’ll start with that; the graphics in AD are gorgeous. The entire game takes place on scrolls that are drawn with a Japanese style that really shines. The story in the game is told via still images, which under other circumstances might seem cheap. However, when the rest of the game looks like paint on a scroll, it only makes sense for the “cutscenes” to look the same. Seeing the same character images over and over did get a bit old though. The real beauty comes from the battlefields. Rather than individual units, you produce platoons of various soldiers to fight for you. Each individual man in each platoon is animated independently. You may go into a battle with a full group of soldiers, only to limp back with just a couple left. Lead that group back to your base “fort” and you’ll see little soldiers running out to join their brothers in battle. Thus, you are “healing” your units by replenishing their ranks. Sure, Dynasty isn’t the first game to do this, but it works incredibly well to both challenge you in the game and dazzle you with the detailed, “painted on” visuals.
Perhaps the most impressive visual gesture in Autumn Dynasty comes from your… erm, gestures. As you drag your finger on the battlefield, you see black brush strokes breeze around mountains and over rivers. You can select multiple units by drawing a circle around them, or select multiple platoons of the same unit by double tapping. There’s nothing quite like selecting five or more groups of soldiers and dragging them into battle. You’ll see five beautiful black brushstrokes paint onto the map as your army marches ahead. I can’t describe it, but painting paths on a painted scroll battlefield just feels awesome. During more complex battles, as you frantically draw various paths to attack and retreat, you’ll really start to feel like you’re creating art – the art of war perhaps? I really wish that I could zoom in a bit more into various battles, but ultimately I found myself zooming out for most of the game to maximize my area of control.
What would an RTS be without the ability to build up your base? While you can’t just build anywhere, the various maps in AD are designed with specific points that allow you to construct any of the various buildings in the game. You can only spawn units from your “fort”, but you can build farms to increase you income, camps to increase you unit count, and arrow towers to help defend. Building structures and moving and attacking with your armies is about as basic as the genre can get. Luckily Autumn Dynasty mixes things up by adding in various “Doctrines” that are learned as you progress through the campaign. There are four doctrines, with three different tiers of abilities in each. Each new tier unlocks new special abilities for different types of units. For instance, unlocking the first doctrine for archers will give them a powerful ability that slows down your opponent by raining arrows down upon them. The second tier allows your archers to dig themselves into a single spot, almost doubling their range while limiting their attack view to the front. These abilities use “acumen”, which is simply another resource that can be gathered faster by constructing specific buildings, much like gold.
These unit abilities really set Autumn Dynasty apart from run-of-the-mill RTS games, and allow for some awesome strategies to be used. Enemies hiding in a forest? Use your horsemen to burn the forest down. Getting pwned by archers? Use your swordsmen’s smoke ability to run away with little damage. I’ll be honest, the missions that rely heavily on these abilities can get incredibly difficult, but finally gaining victory is extremely satisfying when you find the strategy that works. I played one mission around 25 times before I found a winning strategy. While certainly frustrating (all good RTS games should be frustrating at some point!), it forced me to re-evaluate my strategies and come up with something new. Again, this is what RTS games are all about; finding the most efficient/effective strategy to gain the upper hand. AD provides many scenarios that make you really think about what you’re doing. Repeating one strategy over and over will not be sufficient to gain the upper hand in every mission, and especially not in multiplayer.
Ah yes, multiplayer. I was really looking forward to this aspect of Autumn Dynasty, especially so after hearing about the inclusion of Bluetooth support and… wait for it… voice chat. That’s right, AD includes a built in voice chat service for it’s games. Sadly, it is glitchy at best, confusing/non-functional at worst. For some games I spent half the time continually asking if the other player could hear me. About every 5 minutes I would hear a response, but then I would hear nothing, or would be unable to tell if I was being heard. The speech indicator appears to blink blue whenever you or your opponent is speaking, rather than, say, blinking blue when they talk, and green when your voice is detected. I assumed the game would work with my Apple earbuds + microphone. I had no luck using them, which was disappointing considering that without headphones game sound can be heard through the built-in iPad mic.
Sadly, much like voice chat, the multiplayer itself is quite confusing, and seems to work about half the time. Essentially, when you decide to join a random matched game, you will sit there for upwards of 5 minutes while the game tells you it’s searching. From what I can tell, you can keep playing the campaign or skirmish mode while this is happening, but there’s no way to see the search queue from any in-game menu (you have to be in the main menu to see your current wait time). When a game is found, you will randomly get a pop-out that states someone has challenged you. Sometimes you will have to accept it multiple times in order to join a game. When I wanted to decline an invite, I had to do so 5-10 times for it to “stick”. There was one time where I declined the same game challenge around 25 times before just closing the game to get rid of it. To make matters worse, around half the games I played ended up lagging out after around 10 minutes. I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to do multiplayer well on the iOS platform, but almost all games with multiplayer at launch tend to have similar issues with Game Center’s matchmaking system. Whether it’s Apple’s fault Touch Dimension’s (the developer), it’s still a disappointment. Bluetooth? Yeah that works well, if you can find someone else who has an iPad and enjoys strategy games.
I wish that multiplayer was the only bug-infested part of the game, but I also ran into several crashes that took me back to my home screen. Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any system for saving your progress during a mission, so I had to completely restart each time the game quit. I was surprised at this, as RTS games often require a lot of planning and building, which can take a long time. Whether or not the game had crashing issues, I find the lack of in-game
saves to be a pretty big oversight. The inability to save your game in the middle of a mission certainly adds to the intensity of the gameplay, but it also can add to the frustration when you have to completely replay a mission (which includes skipping through cutscenes and in-mission story prompts) every single time you are defeated. Perhaps a checkpoint every 5 or 10 minutes would work if save slots aren’t workable?
Despite all the negative aspects of AD multiplayer, the few complete games I did play were quite fun. In multiplayer, you have to research the individual unit abilities before you can use them. While researching the the various doctrine trees is free, it takes time to complete, meaning the longer you’re in a game, the more abilities you and your opponent will have at your disposal. I was able to play 4 multiplayer matches, and I won three out of the four. The one I lost was too someone from Japan. That said, I don’t feel too bad about that one. The gameplay in each game was varied, and while I didn’t notice any “cheese” strategies being attempted, I’m sure they will pop up once more people start playing online (and when the multiplayer actually works properly). For the moment, the game feels very balanced, and the unit abilities can really make or break your strategy.
I haven’t spent much time speaking about the single player campaign in AD, not because it’s bad. The story is mostly forgetable, but isn’t without some great moments of dialogue. The high point of the campaign is it’s intricately assembled battlefields and interesting missions. Whether you’re defending a giant wall from a doomsday weapon or chasing down an army hundreds with a few squads of soldiers, the campaign keeps you on the edge by constantly throwing new challenges and abilities in your direction. Even on normal, there were missions that put my skills as an almost 20-year RTS gamer to the test. In addition to two different difficulties and a fantastic campaign mode, Autumn Dynasty comes with a variety of skirmish maps (also used in multiplayer) to test your skills before jumping into multiplayer. There are three difficulty modes, with the second one around four times harder than the first. This is not an easy game when you play on hard difficulties, and frankly that is a welcome challenge to hardcore RTS fans like yours truly!
The sketchy multiplayer is a black blot on an otherwise beautifully crafted real-time strategy game for iOS devices. This is the game I have been waiting for since the App Store launched; a real-time strategy game that innovates where it needs to, but otherwise sticks to absolutely solid gameplay that makes the most of the iPad large screen and accurate touch input. The story is solid, the campaign is fun and challenging, and despite the buggy and confusing multiplayer system at launch, Autumn Dynasty easily offers enough content to keep RTS fans entertained until everything is fixed down the road. If you, like me, have been waiting to play an excellent real-time strategy game on your iPad, the wait is over.
Autumn Dynasty is available on the app store for $4.99 (iPad Only)