The first thing you’ll see when you load up Ionside’s new game is a brief introductory movie setting the story and establishing mood: it’s the distant future, and two races battling over an all-important substance known as argentum. War has been declared after the disappearance of several ambassadors, who apparently were the victim of an ambush. Although the story is not ground breaking or worthy of a novel, it’s adequate enough to create a sense of urgency and overall purpose, something fairly important in the single player Real Time Strategy (RTS) genre. Games like Strategic Assault and Battlefield lacked this element, and while they were commendable efforts, their lack of a storyline often meant that missions were just repetitive exercises in destroying an unknown enemy.
Argentum is probably the most highly-anticipated Pocket PC game to date, and the amount of hype generated in the niche Pocket PC gaming community has been considerable. There have been the obligatory screenshots, contentious debates on message boards, anticipation (“Looks good, but I’m waiting for Argentum!”), interviews, status updates, and the like. Hype can be a double-edged sword: while it’s often helpful in creating general awareness of a title and generating sales, it can also inflate expectations to unrealistic levels. PC games like Daikatana and Command and Conquer 2 suffered from this fate, especially since they weren’t able to deliver on their promises. Since this is Ionside’s first title, there was even more uncertainty as to whether this game was going to be as good as everyone had hoped.
Building a Foundation
From the ground up, Argentum (or “Ag” as it’s often called on the message boards) was designed to push the limits of the Pocket PC platform and deliver a commercial-quality RTS experience. That’s a tall order; RTS games have existed on PCs for close to a decade now. There’s an (apparently viable) effort underway to convert Warcraft (the first desktop RTS to enjoy widespread commercial success) to Pocket PC, but today’s RTS games are far more sophisticated.That being said, everything in Ag strives to be on par with what you’d experience on a desktop PC running a modern RTS. The maps, for example, are as detailed as they are varied. The levels exist on a variety of worlds, and each level of the game I’ve played has had a unique map. The maps themselves are not the simple tile-based constructions found in many RTS games; each map has unique topographical features. This means you’ll find plenty of valleys, hills, canyons, and ridges. Not only do these features make the game look good, they also have strategic implications, of course, and part of the challenge you’ll face in many levels involves taking advantage of terrain.
A graphical technique known as “alpha blending” is used extensively throughout the game. This graphics trick, among other things, allows for translucent objects. In addition to transparent windows (of which there are plenty in the game), this technique allows for the smoothing of rough edges on objects and animations. This means that volleys of bullets and explosions look very smooth, colorful, and lifelike. When you destroy an enemy building, for example, you’ll be treated to a brilliant flash of light which just makes the destruction that much more satisfying. You’ll also find smoke effects on units and structures once they’ve taken a significant amount of damage. Structures themselves are extremely well drawn and have a 3D look. They also cast shadows on the ground, enhancing the visual appeal of the game. Some structures, such as the radar tower, are even animated. So much effort went in to the graphics, in fact, that there were times I felt like I was playing a 3D-accelerated game.
The game’s interface, which takes up about a third of the screen, makes game play easy while still giving the player the necessary amount of control. The top of the screen indicates those two all-important factors in any RTS game—amount of resources and power. Select units by tapping and dragging a semitransparent box over them. To move them, simply double-tap on the desired location. The game also contains an option which allows you to single-tap on a desired location. On the bottom right of the screen you’ll find a radar display, which manages to clearly indicate everything that’s going on, despite its small size. Although the icons for creating structures and units are extremely small, tapping on them once will invoke a slide-up window with a brief description of what the selected item does, include cost and power requirements. Two small buttons on the bottom left of the screen bring up the menu and the current mission’s objectives.
Auditory output, sometimes overlooked in Pocket PC games, is similarly
ambitious. You’ll find
plenty of mood-setting music, which goes a long way in maintaining the
overall tone of the game. Although
the background music varies depending on mission, some may find it a bit
repetitive. Fortunately, both
the sound and music can be toggled on or off.
Gunfire and explosions are resonant and deep without being
overdone. Those who like
hearing verbal acknowledgement after giving units orders will find plenty
of it here, although there’s no auditory cue given when a structure has
finished construction. The
death cries of your foot soldiers are also very audible and can be a good
indication of how a particular skirmish is going if you happen to be
elsewhere while it’s occurring.
In the Trenches
One frustrating thing about many games is that they look and sound great but fall short in the game play department. After playing the game rather heavily, I’m willing to bet that you won’t find many people complaining about Ag’s game play. Ag is resource-based, which means you’ll have to mine resources (argentum) in order to build structures and units. Many gamers dislike RTS games with this feature, and I tend to be in that group, but the harvesting aspect of the game is fairly easy, and each level provides you with plenty of resources to get the job done.
Enemy AI is pretty decent. The enemy will defend its base and send reinforcements if you attack part of it, and at the beginning of a mission, the enemy won’t waste any time in building up forces to send your way. In general, the enemy seems smart enough to recognize “soft spots” and exploit them, while recognizing the futility in attacking heavily fortified areas. There are quirks, of course. In one mission, for example, the enemy kept sending resource-gathering units (ITBAs) to an argentum patch I had taken over and fortified heavily. Although I kept blowing the unarmed ITBAs to oblivion, the enemy kept sending them. Tenacity is the enemy’s primary characteristic—it will try to defend itself and rebuild lost assets until you either obliterate it or decapitate it by destroying the command center. One word of caution: when you destroy an outpost of part of an enemy base, leave at least one unit to guard it, or the enemy will rebuild rather quickly.
The mission briefings are short yet detailed and do a good job of advancing the story. They’re also well written and contain few grammatical errors, allowing the player to suspend disbelief and actually care about what’s going on in the game. The missions themselves are challenging and also varied—while plenty of them involve you building up your forces and destroying the enemy, others involve you going after a specific target. You’ll also find missions where you need to perform actions in a sequence (disabling power reactors to get past turrets, for example), and those who like missions involving a small strike team will be pleased to know that Ag contains such missions. And in keeping with the nature of warfare, sometimes orders can change—one early mission, for example, has an abrupt shift requiring you to simply hold off the enemy for several minutes. Whenever a status update is warranted in a particular mission, a text message appears above the control panel. These updates are both credible to the mission and storyline as a whole. Post-mission briefings give you perspective of how you’re doing in the war overall.
It’s the little
touches that make a good game great, and Ag is no exception.
When you give a unit or group of units orders to move, a
continuously-updated trajectory line will appear indicating the path.
This trajectory can be helpful in determining how your units will
get where they’re going. You’re
also allowed to creating “rallying points,” assigned locations for
units to appear after they’re created.
This can be helpful in cases where you need to fortify a particular
location quickly. The game
has full save capability, including an auto save feature.
A screen shot is taken each time you save, making it easy to
determine where you are in any saved game.
There’s also a hibernate feature, which quickly saves the game
and exits, automatically reloading your position the next time you reload
As good as Ag is, it’s not Nirvana. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the biggest complaint I have with the game is speed. Ag’s performance is inversely proportional to how much activity is going on in the game at any given moment. To put it more clearly, the game runs very smoothly when you have very few structures and/or units, but it begins to slow down as you begin building up your forces. And the more you build, the slower the game will be. On my iPaq 3835, the game slows to a crawl on missions involving multiple structures and large amounts of units. The game includes a speed-adaptive feature which reduces detail level in order to preserve frame rate, but the game was still painfully slow on my device at times. Once faster xScale devices start shipping this summer, Ag will be a good benchmark to see how they hold up as gaming machines.
My device had another problem with the game. Although this problem is related to the iPaq hardware and not the game itself, it was still annoying. The game is simply too dark on my 3835. This is due to the fact that the newer iPaqs look dark when displaying images with dark, rich colors, and there are plenty of such colors in Ag. The developers were thoughtful enough to include a gamma adjustment feature in the game, and this helps some, but even with this setting cranked, the game is a little hard on the eyes even under ideal lighting conditions. If anyone is listening at Compaq (I guess I should say HP now), please make your next device better at displaying darker colors. I think this could probably be done with some sort of contrast adjustment. Gamers like myself will be grateful.
The final problem I found with the game is directly software related—the
path searching AI. This is
often the Achilles Heel of RTS games and is very difficult to implement.
Although the AI works fairly well most of the time, sometimes units
slide sideways or even glide through buildings. This makes the game look a little less realistic.
The good news, of course, is that units almost always arrive at
their destination. Although
it’s not aesthetically pleasing, this phenomenon is more desirable than
having units get lost or trapped. Still, I hope that Ionside is able to create better path
searching AI in the future.
A Worthwhile Victory
You’ve probably already heard a lot about Argentum, and you’ll continue to hear more about it as the game is finally released and spreads throughout the gaming community. For the most part, Ag delivers on its promise of providing a commercial-quality RTS on the Pocket PC. The game’s one major flaw—performance—is probably more related to current hardware limitations than to the software itself. Some games set a new standard for a particular genre, and others advance an entire platform. Warts and all, Ag is one of those games—it’s simply the best looking, best sounding, and best playing game available on the Pocket PC right now. The only thing I can think to add would be the ability to replay individual missions and perhaps an option to play a random skirmish. Those features might not be just an empty wish; Ionside is aggressively improving the game, and my review copy is version 1.09—not bad for a game that hasn’t officially been released yet. In any case, Argentum bodes well for the future of gaming on the Pocket PC and proves that software really does matter.
Argentum is available for all Pocket PCs at a very reasonable price of $20.00. A downloadable demo is also available at the game’s Web site, http://www.ionside.com/argentum/.
Allen Gall is a freelance game reviewer and the games editor for CEWindows.NET. If you have a game you'd like Allen to review, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org