emberconflict.jpgIn previous coverage of The Ember Conflict, I reported that developer Substantial Games was trying to create a free to play (and not pay to win) RTS that offers short yet deep matches based on building custom armies to suit different play styles. I'm happy to say that they've succeeded. The game is excellent. Unfortunately, the out of combat interface needs work, particularly the iPhone version, and no one with red-green colorblindness is going to be able to play the game as it currently stands.

Here's the general overview: matches in The Ember Conflict are capped at a length of two and a half minutes (or four minutes for 2v2). There are two possible victory conditions, killing all enemy units on the field or taking all capture points on the map. At the start of a match, players start with three of their six units out and can drag them to move them, assigning them not just a target location but an exact path to take to get there. After a certain amount of time or if a unit is killed, the player can summon one of their reserve units and add it to the fray.

Army building is a huge part of the game. Choosing which units to have out from the beginning and which to hold in reserve is just the start of army building strategy. Players start with certain basic units unlocked, but the in-game store lets them buy new units which, rather than being upgrades, play very differently. There's a lot of room to customize armies to suit different play styles.

RoadForest_Map.jpgMaps are randomly assigned to each match and have different features. Some have a lot of trees, which prevent units within from being targetted unless enemy units are also present in the tree cover to see exactly where they are. At least one map has zero capture points and can only be one by eliminating the enemy units. Water slows units down drastically if they plunge right in instead of using bridges. Experienced players will get to know the maps and how to use them well with the units they have, of course, but it still serves to prevent matches from becoming stale.

Essentially, The Ember Conflict is a blend of RTS video gaming and tabletop war gaming. It has none of the resource gathering and base building that you see in other digital games of its ilk, focusing on getting straight to combat. Tabletop war gaming is all about that, and although the armies in The Ember Conflict are smaller than your typical tabletop army game, they've done a great job of taking lessons from how tabletop army building games create depth. The final product is fast-paced and very satisfying. It doesn't feel like a dumbed-down RTS; it feels like a tight and short one.

This makes it extremely frustrating that the interface outside of combat is lacking. There are four game modes: training vs. AI, 1v1 ladder, 2v2 ladder, and special quest missions for obtaining crafting materials for equipment. That's fine. Great, even. However, these game modes do not share army lists. If you only have seven units availble and you want the same six in the same formation in all four modes, you must set up the army four times. That's just silly.

The interface is designed to be aesthetically pleasing, and it is, but if you're using an iPad Mini, some of the text is hard to read and the change game mode button hard to see the first time. Had I been playing the game in full sunlight the first time I tried it, I'd have had an even harder time doing so. Low contrast between text and background is a problem in several other places, too.

This is especially devastating on the iPhone version, which only has a scaled down version of the iPad interface. The text is tiny and lack of contrast doesn't make it easier to read. Somehow there are clipped graphics even though the screen has lots of empty space. Functionally, everything works; it's easy to press the buttons and make the interface do what you want it to, but being hard to read is sure to turn away new players.

None of those interface problems are game-breaking; they're just annoying. The only people for whom the game will be unplayable are colorblind folk who see green and red as one color, because the only difference between your units and your opponents' in the thick of battle is red and green health bars. I don't know why Substantial chose not to include a colorblind mode, but that's a thing they really need to fix.

emberconflict2.jpgRegarding the in-combat interface, there are two minor differences between the iPhone and iPad versions which seal the iPad version as straight up better for players who wish to play competitively. The first is that on the iPad version you can see the whole map the whole time, but on the iPhone version you see only part and must scroll around. I don't think there's any getting around this. If the iPhone version showed the whole map, the units would be impossible to control with precision.

This, however, leads to the second difference, which is that on the iPad version you can draw a circle around multiple units to select and direct them simultaneously. They don't stay selected, thankfully, as that would make the iPad version completely broken compared to the iPhone version, but at higher levels of play it's definitely going to make a difference. (It's worth noting, here, that I have an iPhone 5s and can't speak to how much different the experience might be on an iPhone 6 or 6+.)

The last thing I'm going to criticise here, before getting into some things Substantial Games is doing right, is that the developer has chosen to hide all of its community pages from public view. They are easy to get to from within the game on a mobile device, but if you go to the game's web site, all you see is the game's name, a trailer, their slogan ("Draw the line between victory and defeat!"), and a link to the app store. They have forums and a wiki page and news pages, and you can get to them in a PC browser, but the only way to find out the URL is to copy the link from the browser window in the game. This is especially confounding because the URL is just http://emberconflict.com/news/. The Ember Conflict seems like the kind of game that should be encouraging a community to thrive, and that's not what's happening here.

The good news is that in addition to creating a game with fantastic gameplay, Substantial Games has gone to great lengths to make sure that the free to play model is fair, the tutorial teaches the player everything they need to know in a short amount of time, and that the game supports recording and sharing replays.

Forest_POC.jpgOther competitive free to play games tend to monetize based on aesthetic changes to units and boosts to player level. That's not how The Ember Conflict does it. The units are too small on the screen, even on the iPad, for aesthetic differences to make sense. Player level just grants things like unlocks and bonus gold and can't be rushed. Where other games often don't allow ranked play until a certain level is reached, The Ember Conflict only has ladder matches unless you're challenging friends. It does allow the use of paid or free currency to buy more units for players to put in their armies.

The main monetization point, though, is an equipment crafting system. Each unit can equip one item at a time, slightly changing how the unit functions. I have two basic swordsmen, for example, one of whom has an item that makes him move faster and the other of which has an item that gives him a slight boost to defense. Materials for crafting equipment can drop at the end of matches and the special AI missions always drop materials, but some are of them rare and some equipment requires a lot of materials to craft. The only way to hasten that process is to use paid currency. All of it can be unlocked with enough time, but players can trade money for time if they wish.

Replays are recorded and shared via Unity Everyplay. Recording and uploading games requires an Everyplay account, but watching other replays does not.

All in all, I do recommend The Ember Conflict. The game is great, even if it does come in a funky package that needs some fixing. It's free to play and you should be able to get through the tutorial and get a feel for whether or not the game is something you'd want to play more within about half an hour, so there's certainly no harm in trying it.