Hegemonia: Legions of Iron Review

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Publisher: DreamCatcher
Developer: Digital Reality

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 600 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 16 MB 3D video card, 550 MB HD space

Although humans have colonized their own solar system, not all is well. Mars is restless under the rule of Earth, and a civil war ensues. The civil war resolves itself (one way or the other) with your help. And just in the nick of time, too, for along come the aliens. The heroes of the civil war, the Legions of Iron, must head back into action to face the threat. Hegemonia: Legions of Iron seeks to combine fully 3D space combat in a real-time strategy framework with 4X management elements. Seek and destroy your enemies, but don't forget to set your tax rate back home. Hegemonia offers two single-player campaigns and a variety of multiplayer modes, both cooperative and competitive. Saddle up space buckaroo.

Rob de los Reyes

The first thing to note about Hegemonia: Legions of Iron is the first thing you'll probably notice when you load it up. Hegemonia is an aesthetic triumph. The visual artwork is inspired. Dusty asteroid fields, rich patterns of light and shadow around planets, multi-tiered explosions, nerdy attention to the details of ship and base design – the visuals simply never become tiresome, never lose their power to impress. In addition, the music is extraordinary. The combat music in particular possesses that same sort of desperate nobility that characterizes the magnificent score to Branaugh's Henry V. Forget about winning or losing. You'll look for fights just to trigger the music and watch the exquisite explosions. Fortunately, you'll have plenty of opportunity to do so. The single player portion is relatively lengthy, and multiplayer modes (versus humans or in skirmishes against the AI) give Hegemonia some legs well after you've beaten the campaigns. Although the gameplay on its own might not merit quite the same order of superlatives as the aesthetics, it is generally satisfying and entertaining. If nothing else, Hegemonia's curious blend of real-time strategy gaming with a splash of 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) management is just-different-enough for those looking for a change of pace without the need to learn a whole new set of gaming conventions.

During gameplay, you'll be working from either a tactical overview map or the star map. The latter is where you'll find most of the stunning visuals, though certainly not all of them. Decorative touches abound even in the 2D/3D strategic map, giving the feel not just of some kind of command post display, but of a super-fancy, distant-future alienish command post display. If that seems like a small touch, it is. But it's also the kind of small thing that elevates the usually necessary, but dull, strategic overview-type screen into a positive contributor to the overall design package.

Still, there's no denying that the show is in the starmap. Each solar system is rendered in full 3D and is in constant motion. None of the screenshots below adequately captures the exquisite effect of the light provided by the star at the center of each solar system as it washes over planets, ships, asteroid fields and so on. Once a world is colonized, the portion facing away from the star will be cloaked in shadow, but display "city" lights in an amount proportional to the size of the world population. Hegemonia's rendition of outer space is both dark and colorful as well as empty yet active. A splendid trick to pull off. Ship designs are appealing, but really come to life through glowing engine trails and, most spectacularly, through the differences between the displays of different types of weaponry. Missiles are barely visible torpedoes in the darkness, while beam weapons light up impossibly long and straight. The quality of the explosions bear another mention. You need not be the kind of gamer who comments without irony that "shotguns roxorz" to be captivated by the multi-pulse explosions and dispersal patterns of ship fragments. What makes it all the more impressive is that it stays impressive no matter how far you zoom in. Although you know they aren't there, it's hard not to believe that if you just zoom in close enough, you'll actually see the pilots in the fighters. And once zoomed in, you'll also get the sound effects associated with the proximate area (engines roaring, weapons blazing, etc.).

It seems churlish to nitpick amidst such splendor, but such aesthetic failings as there are stick out precisely because of the abundant beauty everywhere else. The talking heads of the campaign story are a bit listless. The artistic style is interesting enough, but the characters come off woodenly, perhaps in part because they are only displayed from the shoulders up. And the lip synching isn't even close. The voice actors do yeoman's work infusing life into these puppets, but they are inhibited by some extraordinarily stiff writing (perhaps a victim of the translation process). Also, with the Civilization and Master of Orion series in mind, it's difficult not to wish for some kind of planet or city view, even if it's purely decorative. In addition, although the fighter units swirl around their target during combat, larger ships tend to park at firing range and just sit there blasting away. It's a bit like a World War II game where you're only allowed to watch the artillery fire. Even slowish motions would be preferable to none. Yet none of these issues is fatal even to the aesthetic package, much less the Hegemonia experience as a whole. The images, sound and music are just that grand.

Come Fly with Me

Actual gameplay doesn't quite keep pace with the exceptional aesthetic achievements, but manages to be engaging nevertheless. As advertised, real-time strategy elements are blended fairly seamlessly with 4X-type elements. Combat is clearly the central enterprise, but you'll also be tasked with colonizing planets, building structures and ships, researching technology and engaging in trade and diplomacy. With respect to the latter, you'll need only modify your Master of Orion II strategies very slightly to apply them here. But let there be no illusions. The 4X elements in Hegemonia were always meant to add a bit of spice, not serve as the meat of the stew. In that limited role, they work more or less as intended, successfully giving you enough to work on to keep the overall pace lively. Even so, you'll miss a few elements you've come to take for granted in 4X gaming. You cannot queue research projects the way you can queue building projects. Also, you won't find any tables that summarize all of your colonies on a single page. You'll have to click on each one to find out what's going on. Neither of these missing features is horribly burdensome since you'll be managing nowhere near as many colonies or research projects as you would in a true 4X, but you'll miss them all the same.

The real-time strategy elements come off about the same – generally appealing, but bearing a few non-trivial problems. Combat takes place in true 3D space, not on a 2D plane. Hegemonia is not alone in the genre when it consequently suffers control problems. It's just plain hard to correctly locate 3D movement on a 2D map. A couple of quick keystrokes deliver a grid and an opportunity to manipulate a destination point on the Z-axis, but it's a rough and ready compromise. This problem certainly isn't unique to Hegemonia, and, to its credit, such control problems don't interfere too much with actual gameplay. Occasionally, mission objectives will require you to move in proximity to a target object. Sometimes, however, the standard "guard distance" you get just by clicking on the object as a destination point doesn't seem close enough. You'll reach a target and nothing will happen. Because mission objectives are frequently described in only the vaguest of terms, you won't always be sure whether you're just having trouble getting close enough or whether you misunderstand the mission. As with everything else, such troubles certainly aren't a deal-breaker but betray a certain lack of polish.

Notwithstanding such control problems, Hegemonia makes for an attractive entry-level game for those looking to dip in a toe in the RTS waters for the first time. Other than hitting a particular mark in 3D space, getting around the cosmos is easy. You can drag-click groups of ships, assign groups to hotkeys, and navigate between solar systems through destination-labeled wormholes. In single-player mode, all commands may be issued while the game is paused. Also, a cap on the number of units you can build during each mission (and their easy accessibility from a menu) means that you'll never be too caught up trying to keep track of masses of wandering squads. The campaign itself is constructed as something of an extended tutorial, introducing a handful of new elements with each passing mission. Yet the tutorial only introduces concepts. For the nuts and bolts, you still need the manual, but at least all the information is somewhere. Combat is mostly a point-and-shoot affair, although you are able to control the relative offensive/defensive tactics of each squad as well as set firing targets for engines/weapons/hull. Such controls are easily accessed through a single right-click on the squad, and the settings seem to make a genuine difference. As a result, the problems of moving in 3D space are rarely of consequence during actual combat.

It Takes Two to Make a Thing Go Right

The single-player campaigns stick you with the role of the humans, but each of the three game races is available in multiplayer mode. Multiplayer modes come in several flavors – skirmish against AI opponents, competition with live players, and a cooperative campaign mode (which is the single player campaign, but played with a friend). It is in the competitive modes that Hegemonia's real-time strategy emphasis comes into full bloom. As was intended, these modes are not played out like a turn-based 4X game such as Master of Orion. There is no diplomatic, monetary or territorial victory. Rather, you pick a scenario and have at it. Scenarios are designed for anywhere from 2 to 8 players, and all have the same ultimate goal – wipe out your opponent. The difference between them is largely a matter of pacing. Some scenarios are designed to give you some empty planets or even a whole system in which to grow before the plasma starts flying. Others put the competing empires in the same solar system. Some are partially cooperative, others a total free-for-all. Unlike the single-player mode, here you'll be able to play any of the three game races, each with different colonization preferences and favored weaponry. Connecting to a game is easy. Winning one is hard. Unlike the single-player game, research is never an end in itself. It is always a route to a military conquest, requiring you to think through what you'll need to do to win a particular scenario. The scenarios are different enough that the answers vary, which means, happily, that you're not constantly stuck building the same 10 technologies in the same order every game.

In brief, you should be able to get your money's worth out of either single-player or multi-player play in Hegemonia. If you fancy both styles, you should have quite a lot of happy gaming in front of you. Hegemonia's real-time strategy play with a 4X flavoring works well overall. Although there are elements of both types of game play that feel a touch underdone, such elements detract very little from the overall freshness and seamlessness of play. Some of the tactical intricacies available in other RTSes are missing in this mostly point-and-shoot affair, but the simplifications do serve to minimize the difficulties of moving in 3D space. Such simplifications also make Hegemonia attractive in many ways for those shy about RTS titles. More attractive still is Hegemonia's stunning beauty, gripping from start to finish. The music is epic, the animations smooth and interesting, and the total visual design is something that just has to be seen. The cold deep of space has rarely been as inviting.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on January 27, 2003 11:27 AM.

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