Hooray! Free internet games! Free internet games in your browser! Free-to-play massively multiplayer strategy games in your browser right now! Persistent worlds! Level up! Real-time strategy elements! Lots and lots of buzz words!!!!
Like a lot of people a year or two ago, I started playing Evony for a while. Born from the primordial foam of games that cluttered the beaches of places like Facebook, it drew me in with its supple young breasts and promising eyes. My kingdom awaits, you say, attractive woman? Very well. It would be rude to make it await long. All the friends I spoke to who’d fallen for this classic advertising trick (boobs = rubes) agreed with me, seldom have the contents of a game been so belied by their cover. Evony was a barren, nubile-woman-free wasteland, a timesink riddled with suction devices for your cash. Why they didn’t just call it an online casino, in fact, was beyond me – you come in, lured by the prospect of riches and excitement, and then spend your hours chained to a slot machine, watching the coins you feed in vanish with cold, defeated eyes.
Terra Militaris expands on this successful formula. It has a great looking interface, one that knocks spots off the Evony. Rule one of four classical empires. Build your own town, ally with or crush those around you, and then raise a mighty army to bring the world beneath your sandalled feet. Send spies, merchants and priests to carry your name to the corners of the globe. Let your hero’s name become a byword for slaughter and might, either a cunning general or a great slayer in the arena, adored by the multitude and feared by those who’ve fought and lost.
That’s the truth of it. You want to level up your hero? You stab the wildlife. I cannot for an instant believe that anteaters, even those big-ass bear-sized ones, can so threaten my villages I need to ride out and quash them in battle. “My liege! The destroyers have come again! Our precious black herds lie scattered in the dust and their larvae squeal for vengeance.” “Fear not, humble Formicarian peasant. I shall ride forth with my legions and avenge your loss with the blood of those long-nosed pillagers!” I mean, honestly. It’s hardly the Horn of Roland, is it?
Yes, the village building is pleasant, up to a point. It’s well realised, and no less resource-based or grindy than really any other RPG or RTS when you get down to the brass tacks of setting up your economy. Slap a building down, wait for the resources to build up, upgrade. Repeat and repeat. It’s a formula and it works. It’s just so bald here, with so little to stop you noticing that you’re just watching progress bars gently fill, that it gets pretty threadbare fast. A lot of effort has clearly gone into making it look appealing, which it certainly succeeds at, and with trying to draw your attention from the progress bars, like the aforementioned arenas and priests and badger-bashing. But even they degenerate into more bar-filling exercises fairly quickly. Or maybe it’s just me, and I secretly like watching bars fill, and everything else is just fluff.
No, I don’t believe that. And I certainly don’t believe that extra fluff makes for a better game, as the newly-arrived expansion, Conquest, seems to. Before this unleashed itself, I could almost say Terra Militaris was brother to an early Total War Game, original Shogun, say, in terms of graphics and gameplay. I’d mostly say it to make the dev team weep tears of proud joy, setting them up before going on to point out that it’s a younger, country-bred, cousin-marrying-cousin-spawned deformity of a brother. The basic genes are there, though. I could honestly say that before because I was pleasantly surprised at how well hidden the Free-to-Play darkside of the game was.
Free-to-Play has one letter too many in it. What it means is that it’s free to start playing, and then for all the good bits that you want, you’re Free-to-Pay. Evony was full of short-cuts and advice that steered you towards paying real gold to rename your fake town, or make it build faster. So is Terra M, but it didn’t drip drool from its thirsting maw into my face quite as blatantly. Cue the expansion, which is full of badly translated English, bizarre lotto machines and wandering mobs who can only be beaten by purchasing content. I should have expected it. I’ve read Lovecraft and Poe, I know that behind every pale mask of loveliness lurks a threshing mass of worms. Boys, you taught me well.
Look, at the end of the day, this is not a bad game. It’s well executed, very detailed, and (prior to the ‘expansion’) gently entertaining. But it’s also an endless time sink that secretly wants to rob you. That’s not always a bad thing, look at Team Fortress, the pounding red heart of the Free-to-Play model. This didn’t have the good bits to keep me enthralled or remotely interested in paying.
Given a few more years of graphics advances and computer upgrades, these free-to-play browser games could easily be one of the main faces of gaming. Quick, easy, omnipresent cash sinks, like arcades once were, with all the whistles and bells loud and flashy, the way we like them. For now, they’re ramshackle ruins for the desperate, I’m afraid. I know that there’s an army of furious fans who’ll disagree, and to be more fair than I need to be, I’m not a social gamer, I’ve only ever wandered lonely through MMORPGS wondering what the fuss was about. Single Players won’t get as much out of this as a pack of pals will. But honestly, free or not, this is a bare bones game only really good for wasting time at work with. Unless, like me, your boss likes to sneak up behind you with a sharpened pencil, just to see what you’re up to, then it’s just a ruptured kidney waiting to happen.