The Average Gamer

Hands-On Preview – Under Siege (PS3/PSN)

We were invited last week to check out upcoming console RTS game Under Siege (no relation to the Steven Seagal film). I’m not normally a fan of real-time strategy. I played Dune 2 and Command and Conquer way back in the day, learned to zerg rush in Earth 2150, and played through one of the factions on Battle for Middle Earth. Never actually got into StarCraft. But no matter, because it seems that Seed Studios have built a truly casual console RTS.

It’s a nice change of pace, actually. For the most part, I associate the RTS genre with frustrating missions that start out slow and build up into complex nightmares through long drawn-out tactics.

Under Siege dispenses with all that resource defending, base building and troop management. You start out each mission with a bunch of units and some money. Spend the money to upgrade existing units or buy new ones. Pick the units you want for the next mission and bang, you’re ready to go.

Throughout the missions your units will gain experience and skills that are carried through the campaign, so it pays to preserve your Rather than farming resources to replace cannon-fodder, Seed Studios have taken the approach that you control more elite units facing almost overwhelming odds. I like it. Far from dumbing down the strategic elements, Portugal-based Seed Studios have placed the emphasis squarely on battle tactics. Difficulty ramps up quickly and by the third mission, you’re already beyond the point of just blindly charging around the map killing everything that moves. You HAVE to think about where your units will be on every encounter, whether you use your archers to draw mobs in or keep them at the back where they can shoot and heal. Given that 80% of the levels are between 5 and 15 minutes long, that’s a pretty steep tactical curve.

Units are kept simple as well – archers obviously have ranged attacks and they also have a secondary heal for your infantry troops. Heavy artillery units have a rocket jump to quickly escape if they get surrounded by overwhelming odds. Infantry troops have a taunt to draw mobs away from your squishy archers but all secondary powers have a noticeable cooldown period. Use them wisely.

One of the things that most impressed me with the Under Siege design was the care they’ve taken on user experience. I played Battle for Middle Earth on both PC and Xbox 360 and I had major issues with selecting my battle groups on the console. Lack of a mouse was frustrating and IIRC, the game didn’t offer much to address this. In Under Siege, as well as providing key combos to select all troops on the map AND all of a single unit type, you can assign the four D-pad directions to your own custom battle groups. They’re marketing it as the first console RTS to feature the Move controller but it’s basically used as a mouse cursor. IMO, the detail Seed Studios have put into optimising the gamepad experience (it will release with the fifth iteration of the user interface) renders the need for a cursor pretty much obsolete.

[Edit: Okay, it’s not JUST a mouse cursor. You can twist the controller to rotate the camera and do some other stuff. But IMO, not enough to justify the extra strain of pointing compared to, say, lying on the sofa with a DualShock.]

Beyond the Campaign

Not only will Under Siege ship with a 21-level single-player campaign, PvP and (unlockable) PvE multiplayer, it also comes with the full level editor. You can terraform your own custom maps, build missions, set up sophisticated logic for your mobs and write your very own static, text-driven cut-scenes. Seed Studios were very much influenced by the success of Little Big Planet’s community levels, so the in-game logic engine flexible enough to build your own dungeon crawler hack-and-slash, if that’s your sort of thing.

The entire game was actually built using dual shock controllers with this editor, so you’ll find the same care taken with this interface as with the in-game. Options are available to quickly copy core settings like lighting from one map to the next, making it very easy to preserve continuity. There’s also an in-game interface and rating system to publicise your levels and find other community levels. The game engine itself has an in-built profanity filter so ensure that community content is kept at a 12+ level and the studio will be moderating any levels that get flagged as offensive by the users.

As is becoming the fashion these days, you also have the ability to record battles as they happen. We tried this out on the system and recording makes very little different to the responsiveness of you controls. Upload straight to YouTube using the PS3’s built-in function or move them to your PC for later editing.

In practice

Well, I had fun. Didn’t really have a chance to try out any advanced tactics but I’d definitely recommend giving it a go if you like wartime strategy and and are looking for something casual. I did run into a few frustrating pathfinding bugs with mobs being unreachable by my ground troops. Since the levels are quite short, it’s not the sort of thing that could cost an hour’s worth of game investment – hopefully they will be sorted by the final build.

On a slightly different note, I was very happy to see that they’ve tried to make the game fairly gender-inclusive. One of the three heroes is female and in a refreshing break from form, she actually wraps up in a heavy fur-lined jacket that’s perfectly suited to the snow-bound setting. Not a chainmail bikini in sight. Your archer units are female as well – it’s a nice touch for us ladies.

Under Siege will be out on the PlayStation Network later this month for £11.99. Check back in a few days for my interview with Seed Studios producer, Felipe Pina.