Mar 012010

In comparison to systems like Pong or Pac-Man, modern games tend to be extremely complicated. An XBox 360 controller has 16 unique inputs, and many of the games for the system shift the meaning of those inputs contextually to multiply the possible ways a player can communicate intention to the game. But the complexity of controllers is a response to increasingly byzantine game systems, of which there are few better examples than the typical real-time strategy game, with its array of resources, buildings, and units. So it’s refreshing to play a game that provides some RTS flavor without the need for a poster-sized command summary. Pax Britannica, from my friend Matthew Gallant and the other guys at No Fun Games, offers four-player deathmatch RTS using just one button.

Obviously, an RTS based on just one button has to be highly streamlined. Pax Britannica automates resource-gathering (in fact, this process is invisible) and takes unit control out of the player’s hands. The player only controls the build order, by holding and releasing the single button (the “A” button of an attached XBox 360 controller or the A, F, H, or L keys) for a given period of time. A quick tap will produce a tiny fighter, and longer holds will generate a mid-size bomber or a large frigate. A player can only build the larger ships if he’s gathered enough resources, which only takes time. The player can also upgrade his factory, but this requires a lot of resources and can leave the factory vulnerable.

The ships seem well-balanced overall, though the bombers play out somewhat problematically. They’re very effective against the frigates and factories, but they’re practically useless against fighters. You can safely build fighters and frigates at any time, but you don’t want to make a bomber unless you have enough of the other ships to protect them. The AI that controls the fighting works quite well, though the slow-moving frigates magnify its shortcomings. A force based on those vessels can easily be hamstrung as the powerful ships drift into a bad position or decide to hang out beyond the edge of the screen.

Although the graphics are somewhat limited, they’re quite beautiful and the overall presentation is clean enough to keep the battlefield legible even when it’s crawling with ships from all four factories. The ships of the different players are just palette swaps. This has an advantage in that all players can quickly and easily interpret the screen and assess each others’ strategies. Because they are so large and obvious, however, the factories could have been given more diverse designs without compromising readability (admittedly, this would create an expectation for unique lineups of fighting vessels). The background also features the transiting outlines of what appear to be sea creatures. It’s nifty when you notice it, but the black-on-blue graphics are hard to see under normal circumstances and your attention will be on the melee anyway. The music (by my friend Ben Abraham) does a better job of creating atmosphere than the easily-missed background. The score has sounds evocative of bubbles and falling water mixed with industrial noises, and sets the stage perfectly by itself.

Pax Britannica could arguably benefit from a greater degree of elaboration in certain areas, but that would be at odds with the core of the game. Where it succeeds is in presenting a real-time strategy system that’s robust enough to be interesting, yet stripped-down enough that almost anyone can master it. So kudos to the guys at No Fun Games, who once again have failed to live down to their name.

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