Friday, August 10, 2012

Online Game Review (#1): Uprising Empires

Uprising Empires (by Targa Limited)

So, this is a free-to-play (though if you noticed the "VIP Features" button on the sign-in screen above, you may have already realized that not everything is quite so free) online strategy game. It's set in roughly medieval times in the Middle East, so playable "races" - which feels pretty uncomfortable to say when everyone you're referring to is human, even though it's the terminology the game uses - are the Turks, the Byzantine Empire, the Mongols, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (which for the historically impaired was the most prominent of the states set up by the crusaders). In play terms, race - you know what, I'm just going to say "faction" instead - faction differentiation is pretty minor. The units have somewhat different base stats across the different factions, but every faction still has basically the same set of units. The only obvious difference is in the unit artwork.

The game objectives are to gain control of more cities - either by building or conquering them - to upgrade their resource-producing, unit-producing, and research buildings, to advance through various "Ages" (shades of Age of Empires, anyone?), and of course ultimately to gain UTTER DOMINION OVER ALL THERE IS MWAHAHAHA. Evil laughter optional. There's also a light RPG element in that you can recruit XP-gaining heroes (who can also be equipped with various items in the usual way) to lead your armies and cities to enhance their attributes in battle or resource production, respectively.

Combat is only lightly strategic. You have no direct control over your units or what they do - once the attack is launched, all that's left for you is to cross your fingers and wait to see the damage. So how is it strategic at all then? Here's a shot of the army organization screen for reference:

As you can see, your armies are arranged into an "order of battle" - first line, second line, etc. Your enemies' armies are arranged the same way, and your first line will fight their first line, and so on. Since some types of units will do better against other types of units than others, the strategy comes in arranging your order of battle to optimally match the weaknesses in your opponents'. That's why it's vitally important to get information on enemy players by sending Spy units to their cities before you attack them. You can also attack NPC sites for materials to create or enhance hero equipment (and gain resources), but no reconnaissance is required there - they give their order of battle away for free if you just click on them and look. Didn't want to make it too complicated for the newbies, I guess.

Resource gathering isn't much to write home about. You build resource buildings (capped at four per type of resource per city) that generate resources at a set average rate per hour, with the rate increasing if you spend resources to upgrade the resource buildings. God, I said "resources" a lot in that sentence. You can also attack NPC sites for the resources held there, but good luck getting enough to even cover the costs of replacing the units you'll lose doing it. More interesting is the option to rob other players' cities - sending your armies to raid their storehouses of stockpiled resources and carry them home, making their loss your gain.

Perhaps the main twist the game has to offer is the alliance system. See, the absolute maximum number of cities any player can control is no more than six. So if you want a shot at ultimate victory, you'd better form or join an alliance. Once you're in one of those, you'll be able to help accumulate "Alliance Gold" (distinct from regular boring normal gold), that the alliance can use to put items (not hero items - more "boost wood production in given city by 25% for a day" type items) into the alliance store, where members can buy them using Fame, a currency they accumulate based on the amount of work they've done to benefit the alliance. After you've advanced far enough, you can also participate in a type of battle where the point is to steal Alliance Gold from other alliances for your own - a lot like the Rob battle option mentioned above, except for alliances. Alliance Gold can also be used to increase the level of the alliance, thereby improving the types of items that can be purchased for the alliance shop. Oh, and also increasing the member cap of the alliance. Yeah, there's a member cap. Meaning that most likely it'll be necessary for your alliance to make alliances with other alliances. God, I just said "alliances" a lot. This review is making me repeat myself too much (yes it's the review! no it's not a sign of poor writing! shut up!).

Anyway. The endgame is also (conceptually) interesting. Though I've yet to see it in action, the idea is that the game world starts out separated into four regions. In each region there's a Capitol City surrounded by four spread out Major Cities - all of these are heavily defended NPC cities that, assuming players are able to conquer them, will come under regular attacks by powerful NPC armies, not to mention attacks from other players who'd rather that city was theirs, thanks. But if you (or more likely, your alliance) can get all of them, then this initiates a process of regional "consolidation", the barriers between regions dissolve, and the regions can duke it out with each other and fight for possession of the previously totally-locked center region - control of which gives victory in the whole game. At which point another game starts up on another server or whatever, but nevermind.

But there's a major, major flaw with this game. See, there's only a few ways for an online game to make money. There's selling subscriptions (works great for World of Warcraft, but not realistic for a browser game), there's advertising (annoying)... and then there's the method Uprising Empires uses. Which is not just annoying, but elementally unfair. It's unfair because the game lets you purchase in-game advantages using your real-world money. Well, technically, it lets you purchase in-game currency using real-world currency, which you can then spend on in-game advantages, in a design choice that seems to accomplish nothing other than to add a layer of utter pointlessness into the whole sordid affair. And then there's their "VIP" subscription system, which is another level of exploitative crap I won't even get into. Why is this unfair? Because it means players with enough money (or little enough lives) to blow their cash on an online game will always have a disproportionate advantage over people who just want to play the game and can't afford to spend on things like that. Personally, I like to play games to get away from the ways the real world is shitty, not to be reminded of them by having them replicated in the game. And then rubbed in my face. Because, see, when I said Uprising Empires didn't use advertising, I just meant advertising from third parties. Advertising for their - to put it bluntly - cheat-for-cash services is constant and inescapable.

So, given such a significant flaw, how is a game supposed to lure in players from the internet? Hmm.... hmm... wait! By God, I've got it! They can just use sluts!

See, here's the recruiting screen for Uprising Empires:

Skimming over how "100% Free" actually means "100% Free Except For the Stuff That You Have to Pay For", that's a totally representative female Mongol on the right there. Let's analyze this a bit shall we? Judging just by her outfit and its utter impracticality for essentially any other line of work, it seems fair to conclude that she's probably a prostitute of some kind. But... she's carrying a weapon. So... some kind of warrior prostitute? Somewhere, Frank Miller just got an erection and he doesn't know why.

And yes, this is completely representative of the depiction of females in this game. For one more example, players are given a player avatar when they select a faction (yeah, still sticking with that word choice). Here's what you get if you pick "Byzantine Empire" and "Male":

And here's what you get if you select "Byzantine Empire" and "Female":

...Yeah. Leaving aside the not just biologically but gravitationally improbable breasts, does that outfit and utterly unnatural pose say more "yeah, I'm a serious would-be conqueror of the world" or "please, allow me to bear your children, mighty one! oh God, how did I wander out of the kitchen?!" to you? Oh but wait, she's got a weapon! Strapped to her totally-exposed supermodel-caliber thigh because why not, but still. Definitely a weapon. Danger averted! Gender equity achieved!

I mean, sure, I don't really know how she's supposed to be actually effective with it in a fight given that she's wearing what I think may actually be the opposite of armor. Not to mention that it seems likely she'd be all but paralyzed from crippling lower back pain resulting from her physics-defying (no, physics-mocking) rack, since as far as I can tell the one part of their historical setting that game-maker Targa Limited adheres to with absolute dedication is that bras hadn't been invented yet. But still! It's a weapon and dammit just stop thinking about it already.

And oh yeah - one last little thing. Remember when I said that that was a totally representative female Mongol earlier? Well, I didn't just mean representative of how women are portrayed. I also meant representative of how, apparently, basically everyone in the Middle East was essentially white. I'll bet you didn't know that, did you? Here's the female Turk avatar:

Since I said we're not focusing on the depiction of women anymore, we'll just skim right over the come-hither pose and harem girl outfit (sans even token weapon this time, but no nevermind dammit). Instead, I'll just not even note the essentially white skin and features (hey, there are some Turks who actually do look mostly like that - although there are also many who don't, who just coincidentally don't seem to show up here quite so much), and instead only point out that she's got freakin' red hair. I mean, come on. Is the idea supposed to be that this is a representative of a Turkish-Irish crossbreed, that common Middle Ages phenomenon? Honestly. Are they even really bothering to pretend not to be open about what they're doing at this point?

So. Given all this, why have I played this game enough to be able to review it for you all? All literally several of you at this point, but nevermind that. Because, to my secret shame - well, I guess it's not so secret anymore - I've actually gotten a bit hooked on it. What can I say? I like empire building, and I'm a big fan of this historical era, even if it's not exactly treated with reverent respect here. So, uh. In case this review has (somehow) convinced you that this is a game you would in fact like to start playing, here's my recruitment link! And if you'd like to join my alliance, it's called Holy League, it's in the SW region of the Saga 2 server, and it's for Jerusalem and Byzantine players only because I started as a Jerusalem player and it bugged me that Turks and crusaders (or Mongols and freakin' anyone, for that matter) would be in the same alliance the way they are in all the others. Because as has been clearly shown, this is a game where historical accuracy should be considered as having paramount importance.


P.S.: Some of you might be wondering how exactly I'm not a hypocrite for picking on Uprising Empires for its female characters when I was just singing the praises of Empowered, which if anything positively delights in its own pinuperrific imagery. Short answer? There's a difference between putting sexy girls in your work in a way where they're still people, or even in doing it in a deliberately over-the-top pulp fiction sort of way, and doing it in a way where you've clearly just decided that slapping in some ambulatory f*ckmeat is just the way to pander to the emotionally stunted man-children who are your target demographic. One of these things is on the right side of that line. One of them isn't.

And being on the wrong side of that line, by the way? It's not just anti-feminist (or whatever - most who know me in real life could assure you political correctness isn't exactly one of my main concerns in life). It's just fricking insulting.

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