Massive Assault Network 2 Review

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Graphics: 0
Sound : 0
Gameplay : 0
Multiplayer : N/A
Overall : 8.5
Review by Wes Sonnenreich
Published by: Wargaming.net
Created by: Wargaming.net
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Game Slogan: Are you smart enough?
Rating: Conditional 8.5/10 (this game is NOT for everyone)

Summary

Do you like 1-on-1 competitive board games like Chess, Go and Backgammon? How about Avalon Hill type-games like Panzerblitz, Axis and Allies and Risk? What about play-by-(e)mail games like those of Flying Buffalo ilk? If you're getting excited, then you owe it to yourself to try Massive Assault Network 2. If you're in the niche market that this game is targeting (turn-based strategy enthusiast), you're going to love it.

Review

Turn-based strategy games on a computer are like chimpanzees. In the evolution of gaming, they're just one step more advanced than the classic strategy board games that are their predecessors (Avalon Hill games, Risk, Chess). In many cases, thanks to uninspired implementation, the advantages of having these games on the computer are often debatable. Real Time Strategy (RTS) games, however, are inconceivable without the use of computers. The evolutionary gap between today's RTS games and the typical turn-based game is so wide that some might think there's a missing link, just like some perceive a missing link between chimps and man.

That game that fills in the gap is called Massive Assault Network 2 (MAN 2.0). Of course, if turn based games are chimps and RTS games are modern man, then strictly following my analogy would require this game to be called MAN 0.5 or MAN alpha, but hey, lets leave those sort of details to the “intelligent (game) design” curriculum writers. In the meanwhile, I promise no more horrible attempts at making light of the game's acronym for the rest of this review.

So an orangutan, an ape and Massive Assault Network 2 walk into a bar... oh, wait... sorry.

The Game

Massive Assault Network 2 is a war game that is set in a sci-fi/futuristic world. Two factions battle for control over cities scattered across one or more islands. Guerrillas are ready to defend any invaded city, and you never know whether a captured city is secretly an ally of your opponent, ready to launch its own forces against you when you are least prepared.

The underlying game rules are simple enough to rapidly learn, yet lead to many different viable strategies. Each turn is broken into four phases:

  1. Recruit guerrilla units if a territory has been invaded

  2. Move units and engage in combat

  3. Earn revenue and recruit new units in territories you control

  4. Disclose secret allies (optional except for the first turn)



The game map is broken up into territories, the number of which scales based on the size of the map. Each territory contains a single city. When all the enemy units have been cleared from a territory and you have moved one of your units into the city, the territory falls under your control. If you capture a city before destroying all the enemy units, you can use the city's airport as a base for your air units but you won't gain control over the territory until all the enemies within it are eliminated.

Units, whether they be land, sea or air, are governed by five-six variables: hit points, movement range, weapon strength, weapon range, special ability and cost. Special abilities include transporting other units and secondary weapons (most units don't have special abilities). There's no technology tree – all units are available from the beginning.

Each faction has unique-looking units, but of the 18 possible units, only three are truly unique to each side. The other units have functional equivalents in the opposing faction. The unique units, however, are very powerful and can greatly impact the strategy used. From a practical point of view, this makes the game extremely well-balanced, but not over-balanced. The two factions are evenly, but not identically matched, and the units within a faction are well conceived. You're likely to employ almost every type of unit available during your game. Even the weakest, cheapest units have strategic value in the right situation.

Some people will prefer to play matches where both sides have identical units, making the game perfectly balanced. To allow this, Wargaming.net included an option to start games using an “extended” set of units. This gives each side access to the other side's unique units, raising number of playable units to 21. Similarly, you can also play with the reduced set of units provided in the demo (but only on maps that don't have water).
There's no resource collection, other than the revenue generated by cities under the control of the player. Revenue is used to purchase units. Revenue can be saved up; you don't get a lot per turn so saving for a few turns is often necessary if you want to buy some of the more powerful units. You can't transfer revenue between cities, which creates interesting strategic consequences. Furthermore, cities only generate revenue for a limited number of turns, which is set at the start of the game. This is one of the mechanisms that prevents games from stalemating.

Each player starts with a number of undisclosed (secret) allied territories. At the end of each turn, a player can choose whether or not to disclose one of their secret allies. Disclosing an ally generates revenue, which can be used to immediately purchase units to protect that territory. The secret ally/army concept leads to interesting potential strategies; for example one might wait to disclose an ally until after its city has been captured, then deploy the secret army to mount an “insurrection” when the opponent's guard is down. Rush strategies become very risky propositions, as an early conquered city could suddenly turn into a serious threat while the main attack force is too far away to help.

One other interesting concept is called “balance”. Basically, the game is smart enough to know when one player is dominating enough that victory is inevitable. When this happens, the dominating player is instantly declared the winner. There's no need to spend an extra 10+ turns chasing down every last unit on the map.

Graphically, the game's 3D engine is more than adequate for the game's needs and also enables the game to run well on a wide range of hardware. It even plays on my Fujitsu Lifebook 5000 laptop, which uses the old and relatively weak Intel 852/855 GME integrated chipset.

Competitive Play

Massive Assault Network 2 is one of the few turn-based strategy games I've played on a computer that feels like it actually belongs on one. Yes, it could be played on a hexgrid board with miniatures, but it wouldn't be nearly as fun or practical. The excellent graphics, animation and level design and all pull you into the game and greatly enhance the playing experience. But it's the game's matchmaking system that really justifies the transition to computer.

MAN 2 is an online-only game. There's no single player campaign, there's no LAN play, there's not even hotseat play. From a marketing point of view, that's an interesting call, but I'll get to that later. What is there is an excellent matchmaking system for finding and challenging opponents based on their rank and availability. There are five ways to start a game:

  • Create a public challenge: You can specify the map, game conditions and the maximum and minimum rank required to accept. You can also choose how many “responses” to the challenge you're willing to accept. This is a neat feature – a single challenge might result in three or four simultaneous games with different players but all on the same map with the same game conditions. There appears to be no limit to the number of public challenges you can create.

  • Respond to a public challenge: There's an interface tab that displays all of the active challenges that you're qualified to play. Selecting one will start the game, allowing you to immediately take your first turn.

  • Create a personal challenge: you can look through the list of “available” players and directly challenge a specific player. This is particularly useful if you want to challenge someone who is above you on the game ladder.

  • Respond to a personal challenge: as you move up the ranks, you'll get challenges from people of similar rank who are looking climb the ladder by crushing you in battle. These matches will often be even, so you're just as likely to come out the victor. You can always get info on any challenger to see how many games they've won and lost.

  • Challenge the AI: at any time, you can start a match against an AI opponent. The game AI is only moderately challenging; apparently it was toned down because it was too hard. Other than acting as an extended tutorial or a way to learn the different units/maps, the AI has minimal long-term replay value. Which is as it should be: this game is about playing against real opponents.



Any public or personal challenge can be played in real-time online or in offline mode. Both are really the same. Whenever a move is completed, the game client sends the result to the server. The server then sends the result to the opponent's account. If that opponent is online and connected to your game, they'll see the moves happening. If they're offline or playing another game, they'll see the moves the next time they connect into the game. If both players are online at the same time and one player resumes their game, the other will be given the option to instantly join the game in real-time. The system is pretty robust and intuitive.

Online “real-time” play is still turn-based, but if the turn time is set low enough (5 minutes a turn) or the chess timer is used, the online play can move at a rather fast pace. Furthermore, instead of making you wait the whole time idly, you'll see the actions taken by your opponent after each move is complete. The 3D engine automatically pans and zooms the camera to show all the action in a clear and visually appealing manner. Sometime the camera will zoom in for a close-up of a particularly important battle. Watching the opponent's moves in near-real-time also gives you extra time to think before it's your turn. The result is a constant sense of activity and interaction, even when you're really just waiting around.

State of the Game

Wargaming.net has decided to focus this game on ranked, 1-on-1 competitive play. As a result, hotseat and LAN play have been removed – surprising particularly since they were present in all the other Massive Assault games. When asked about this, the developers replied: “...we intentionally removed Hot Seat And LAN games as they would harm [the] Internet-only concept. We’re aiming to make Man2 a perfect online PvP game and keep improving the version [by] adding new features.” To their credit, Wargaming.net deserves kudos for having the courage to experiment with the price/value model. That said, I am personally a fan of hotseat and LAN play and hope they eventually add this back in (rumor has it they might). I'd like to play this game in situations that an Internet connection is unavailable or impractical, e.g. on an airplane with the person sitting next to me.
This game's active player base is extremely skilled. Winning a game against the average active player can be challenging for newbies. Training against the AI helps, but only to a point. Wargaming.net hopes to solve this skill gap by introducing the concept of Mentor-Student games. I'm not entirely sure how this will work, but it sounds like some sort of unranked playmode where highly ranked players can challenge newbies and even let them win without hurting their standing. There may even be some sort of incentive for the mentor.

The developers actively listen to their community in an intelligent way. I was particularly impressed by their forum comments in regard to the game's rating system. Wargaming.net had originally implemented the Glicko chess rating system into the game's ladder ranking. This was appealing to the hardcore gamers, but was turning off the newer and less skilled players. Recently, they came up with an alternate system that would be more straightforward and rewarding to new players. Naturally, the hardcore players got on the forums and denounced the new system. After a few pages of posts opposing the new system, and none in favor, the community started to wonder why the developers felt the system needed changing. The answer given by a developer was insightful. They had been monitoring games and chat logs and frequently saw frustrated comments from new players about the rankings. Most of these players never made it onto the forums and trial players were getting frustrated. For this reason, they knew the system needed changing. But, after considering the comments from the hardcore players, they chose to revise their ranking system to support both new and old methods of ranking. The new system will enable new players to progress up the ladder in an intuitive way, but hardcore players will be able to sort the ladder by the more challenging Glicko ranking.

Conclusion

Massive Assault Network 2 is a game that deserves attention. Wargaming.net is now focusing its efforts on getting the game more exposure, which it greatly needs. I couldn't think of a game better suited for distribution through Steam, Xbox Live, etc. and I wouldn't be surprised if one or both of these channels were employed in the not-too-distant future. The player base is relatively small today, yet the game is still very fun and playable. As more players discover the game things can only get better. But you don't need to wait – just get online, download the free demo and see for yourself:
http://www.massiveassaultnetwork.com