I would have thought by now that more developers would be capitalizing on the Nintendo DS for RTS games. The touchscreen input method should lend itself handily to designating targets and directing troops. And the pick-up-and-play nature of the device would be perfect for short skirmishes between friends while waiting for transportation or in a line somewhere. Now that I've played LEGO Battles to considerable extent, I completely understand why.
Keep on reading to find out for yourself.
LEGO Battles is a simplification of the RTS genre. All of the basic conventions exist. You create worker-class units to gather resources and build structures. Different buildings produce different types of units, from basic infantry and ranged fighters to artillery. Hell, you even have to build farms to increase your maximum number of units and hero-class characters are there to provide a little magical oomph.
There are even a lot of the most common commands you can give to troops. Setting up rally points for emerging units is easy, and you can give commands to units to patrol between two designated points. At heart, it's a dumbed-down clone of Warcraft III. And there would be nothing wrong with that if there were not for a number of really annoying problems.
The biggest issues come from the interface. First, the touchscreen is really imprecise. You'll constantly be intending to select one troop (or, using a double-tap, troop type) and wind up selecting something totally different which is standing a little too close. And there is no convenient way to deselect troops either. Your options are to either select a different troop -- which if you selected the wrong guy the first time probably won't go much better the second -- or drag the stylus over an area where there are no units.
The latter method runs you into another problem: The small screen size makes it painfully difficult to keep track of things and, if you're moving large groups of soldiers, your units can positively dominate the screen real estate. It's even possible to lose track of units in the midst of a battle, as you pan around with the D-Pad trying to pay attention to whether you're winning or not.
LEGO Battles has both single and multiplayer. The single-player experience has a staggering amount of content, with six full campaigns of over a dozen missions each. Campaigns fall into three settings: a medieval war between a king and an evil wizard, a battle between a pirate captain and the leader of an armada and a sci-fi war twixt a space heroine and an alien hive. Apart from aesthetics and changes in combat emphasis between land, sea and air, they all feel pretty much the same.
The nice thing about the campaign is that missions tend to be brief affairs, perfect for playing a quick skirmish in five to ten minutes. But, owing to the family-friendly nature of the title, none of them are particularly challenging for even a non-veteran player of the RTS genre. As a result, the gameplay starts to feel stale two-thirds of the way through your first campaign.
And, since it's a LEGO title, the requisite amount of collectible items are present. Each campaign mission has twenty blue studs hidden on the map, as well as the trademark minikits. Finding these items will unlock various cheats and special characters but it's such a pain to do so that it hardly seems worth the effort. Many of the studs on a map are hidden beneath resources, meaning that you have to pretty much deforest the entire map just to find them all. It's very tedious and not fun at all after you've done it once, let alone dozens of times.
Multiplayer offers quite a bit more for players. There are three game modes available, which amount to destroying your enemy's hero, destroying everything they have or beating them to collecting a pre-determined quantity of resources. Up to three players can participate in the multiplayer and the games can get pretty hectic, but the troop cap of twenty units and the less clear limit on maximum buildings restrict strategies significantly.
The best feature of the multiplayer is the ability to customize your armies. Prior to the beginning of the game, you are allowed to mix and match units from all the campaigns. Every unit has unique stats, so the basic warrior in the Black Wizard's army is going to be considerably different from the one found in the science-fiction setting. The level of control over how you configure your army is great except for the fact that you'll have to have played through all of the single-player campaign to unlock all of the units.
So, the multiplayer, which should be the strongest aspect of the game, winds up crippled by its requirement that you drag your way through the less-than-enjoyable single-player component. Players who have not gone through this gauntlet of slow-moving pain will be at a distinct disadvantage to those who have, also, as there's no restriction placed on using troop types your opponent has never seen. The variety available to a completist unbalances the game and can spoil the fun for others.
I really wanted to be able to recommend this game for children who have yet to be exposed to the RTS genre of gaming, but I just can't bring myself to it. The controls frustrate, the missions bore and the multiplayer has the potential of being quite unfair. While the basic idea is sound, the failure to implement its features in a compelling way makes LEGO Battles one you can easily skip.
Score: 3 -- Poor (3s went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.)
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