The best thing about Android gaming is that the barriers to entry for developers are all but nonexistent, allowing just about anybody to create and publish games for the platform. The worst thing about Android gaining, on the other hand, is that the barriers to entry for developers are all but nonexistent, allowing just about anybody to create and publish games for the platform. There’s a lot to sort through, and a lot of crap lying in wait for the unwary. So, in keeping with Hardcore Droid’s core mission——bettering the human condition by compiling lists of things——here are some of the best strategy games released so far in 2014.
I generally try to favor games native to mobile platforms over ports for lists like this, but Anomaly 2 is worth making an exception for. It’s a sequel to Anomaly: Warzone Earth, which first made its mark on PCs in 2011 with its “tower offense” gameplay. Commanding a small force of military vehicles, you blasted your way through mazes of enemy fixed defenses in cities devastated by an alien invasion, plotting your route, upgrading and expanding your platoon, and deploying a limited supply of special abilities like repairs, decoys, and airstrikes. It was great fun, and got a very good Android port.
Anomaly 2 takes the basic formula of its predecessor and expands on it with completely new units, more interesting tactical choices, vehicles that can shift into alternate forms with completely different abilities for different situations, and a new multiplayer mode in addition to the single player campaign. (Sadly, your commanding officer is no longer a guy who may or may not actually be British doing a Jason Statham impression.) The gameplay make the transition from the mouse and keyboard to touchscreen controls quite well, and the Android port is one of the most graphically stunning mobile games I’ve seen.
Pacific Fleet is a game that doesn’t quite seem sure what it wants to be, mixing realistic historical detail with wildly ahistorical combat tactics and point-based ability progression in ways that don’t really fit and make the first few missions a needlessly irritating slog. Once you get past those first few missions, get a few essential ship upgrades, and put aside any expectations about this being an attempt at realistic historical strategy, however, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. You command a squadron of up to three ships in a series of battles across the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, controlling their maneuvers and aiming their weapons with an impressively detailed gunnery system to blow the enemy out of the water.
Ship damage is modeled in impressive detail——ships can catch fire, lose mobility from engine damage, suffer devastating magazine and boiler explosions, and gradually (or not so gradually) take on water based on where you hit them. Hull breaches are a system unto themselves, with ships flooding in different ways——they may ride lower in the water, list to one side, capsize, or sink—— depending on where the water is coming is coming in.
There’s plenty of content keep you busy, with American and Japanese campaigns featuring 45 missions each. Each side has its own array of ships to unlock and command, from subs and destroyers to aircraft carriers and battleships to the monstrous 70,000-ton Yamato. And for sheer visceral satisfaction, the feeling you get when an entire broadside rips into an enemy ship and tears it apart is hard to beat.
Out There is a rather neat game from Mi-Clos Studio that puts you in command of a starship lost far from Earth. You travel from star system to star system to star system exploring, finding resources to keep your ship going, encountering alien life forms, discovering new technologies that give you access to new ship systems, deciding how to respond to a variety of special events, and more.
It’s a game of tight constraints. You’re limited in the amount of stuff you can carry, and equipment and cargo go in the same slots. Every transit between stars, or between worlds in a single solar system, uses up fuel and oxygen. Landing and taking off from a planet takes fuel, and poses a risk of damage to your ship. Gas giants and stars have plenty of fuel to harvest, but their turbulent atmospheres are hard on your ship, so you’ll need iron for repairs, and meanwhile your oxygen supply is steadily diminishing and will eventually run out if you don’t find a planet with an atmosphere that can replenish it.
The resources you gather are impressively diverse——you need oxygen for life support, hydrogen and helium for fuel, iron to repair your hull damage, and other elements like silicon, tungsten, hafnium, and many others to build and repair the many additional ship systems you can build if you find the schematics. The aliens are actually alien-looking, and they don’t speak English——everything they say is gibberish when you first encounter them, and it’s only through repeated contact that you gradually understand more and more of what they say.
It’s a challenging game, and the random elements make it even more so. It’s a bit reminiscent of FTL: Faster Than Light on PCs, despite having completely different gameplay——you’re alone in a hostile and frequently arbitrary universe with limited resources, and you’re probably going to die a lot, but the experience is compelling enough to keep you coming back for more.
Amoebattle is a real-time strategy game with an unusual battlefield: the microscopic world. As a scientist researching countermeasures to a global epidemic, you deploy your growing army of single-celled combatants through a series of twelve missions. Along the way, you strengthen and diversify your host by devouring other organisms until your amoebae have enough mass to replicate themselves and collecting the DNA of defeated enemies to mutate your own amoebae into new forms with different strengths and weaknesses. It’s got well-designed, impressively diverse missions and stages with a variety of objectives, some very nice, colorful graphics, and unusually good controls for a genre that usually fares poorly on touchscreens. A fine choice for people interested in a mobile real-time strategy experience with a very appealing and unusual aesthetic, or anybody who feels turned off by the bloody price in human lives that must be paid for victory in most RTS games and would enjoy a more light-hearted game where none of the casualties has a nervous system.
Speaking of disease-spreading microorganisms, there’s Pathogen. Pathogen is a grid-based strategy game a bit reminiscent of Go (the ancient Chinese board game, not the English irregular verb) or Othello (the 19th-century English board game also known as “reversi,” not the tragic Moor.)
Using rules that are fairly simple but allow complex tactical situations develop, up to four players take turns placing “cells” on the board, trying to expand the territory they control while capturing the cells of their opponents. There’s a single player campaign with a variety of increasingly challenging scenarios to play against the AI, and you can also battle battle it out with other human on a variety of different maps in local or online multiplayer.
You can even create and share your own maps with the included editor. Player-created content has long been a part of PC gaming and made some inroads on consoles during the last console generation, and it’s great to see games on mobile platforms following suit. The various possible jokes about player-created content “infecting” more and more gaming platforms in imitation of the game’s namesake are left as an exercise for the reader.
Castle Raid 2
Castle Raid 2 is a real-time strategy game of sorts. Using limited resources, you build various types of units to attack the enemy base and defend your own. I call it a real-time strategy game “of sorts” because your control of the battle itself is fairly modest, once you build units they simply advance onto the central battlefield and attack enemy units on their own, with little further input or direction from you.
(Though pedants——e.g. me——could argue that this is more appropriately called real-time strategy than most actual real-time strategy games, since directing individual troops during an ongoing engagement is a tactical rather than strategic issue. I won’t, because from there it’s only a short slide to me complaining at length about every shooter ever made calling magazines “clips”, or explaining what a chain gun actually is, and nobody wants that.)
This lack of direct control, while potentially frustrating for some, has some advantages. Eliminating real-time micromanagement during battles——something touchscreens typically aren’t great at anyway——keeps the focus on larger concerns. There are different troop types with some very diverse abilities, from knights to wizards to rogues and decisions about what to send and when can make a big difference. Meanwhile, the towers of your own base can be used to provide fire support at critical moments——siege engines, barrages of arrows, the occasional dragon.
There’s a 20-mission single player campaign offering different scenarios, and a local multiplayer mode allowing two players to command their armies simultaneously on the same device. (Probably ought to use a tablet rather than a phone, if you’re going that route. Playing with the sort of person who might respond to defeat by throwing head butts is also contraindicated.) I’m a bit surprised we haven’t seen more of the latter in games, since it’s a rather ingenious way to turn touchscreen-based controls into a strength rather than a weakness. The game in general is a nice example of working with and around the limitations of mobile devices, from gameplay that focuses on controlling the big picture rather than fumbling with individual units to the colorful, cartoony graphics that are fun and endearing without creating great technical demands.
Good real-time historical strategy games about ancient warfare are not exactly thick on the ground on Android. Technically, Autumn Dynasty isn’t one either; it’s set in the fictional Autumn Empire, a realm imperiled by peasant rebellions, corrupt officials, and foreign barbarians that is Not China.
There are five unit types with very distinctive abilities, and devising strategies that coordinate them to exploit their strengths and weaknesses to full advantage is essential. Hammer the enemy with cavalry charges, deploy pikemen in the right positions to stop the enemy from doing the same to you, rain arrows on the enemy with archers, sacrifice offense for defense against incoming arrows, lurk in the woods to lie in wait for an ambush, drive and pushers out by setting the forest ablaze… there’s a lot here, and you can’t just hurl hordes of troops at the enemy and expect to win. Factors like terrain also come into play.
You can play through a series of increasingly difficult missions and follow the game’s developing story in campaign mode, or play skirmish mode for one-off battles. The controls are reasonably good, given the limitations of the format, and the amount of tactical depth and detail means there’s a lot for historical RTS fans to sink their teeth into. It’s also got some very pretty and strikingly detailed hand-painted graphics that do a fine job of bringing the world of ancient Not China to life.
Braveland is probably the most old-school game on this list, focused on turn-based battles fought on a hex grid. As a young warrior whose home village was——as per federal regulations governing fantasy heroes——ravaged by bandits, you set out on a journey across a fantasy world doing battle in becoming a leader of an ever-mightier host as you recruit new warriors and creatures to your forces. It’s simplified compared to comparable games on PC, but with 26 different unit types, 50 battles, and various magic spells and artifacts to acquire, there’s a fair bit here for a mobile game.
Magazine Mogul is the latest English-language release from Kairosoft, creators of Game Dev Story, Ninja Village, Venture Towns, Pocket Clothier, and many other business management/construction mobile games. If you’re familiar with Kairosoft, you already have a general idea of what to expect: cute, cheerful pixel art graphics combined with fun and surprisingly deep mechanics. This time, you’re placed in charge of your own small-town magazine,, and it’s up to you to make it prosper by coming up with interesting story ideas, hiring the best talent for the job, managing finances and promotional efforts, and helping your town (and customer base) grow.
The game closest to it is probably Game Dev Story, as the process of creating games in that title is similar to the way new magazine issues are done here: You come up with different combinations of location, subject matter, and intended audience, and then assign different employees for specific tasks like writing and visual design to make the best article possible. The system for developing employee skills in designing them different roles is also similar. It’s by no means a clone, however—— there are plenty of new wrinkles to the formula, such as scouting for new story ideas and locations and the whole town development aspect.
It’s not exactly the most realistic depiction of local journalism, but as someone who actually used to be a reporter for a small paper I can assure you that this is for the best. The folks at Kairosoft are talented, but I doubt anyone could make a simulation of spending two hours listening to Trustees argue over what color the new recycling receptacles should be interesting. (They went with green, if you’re wondering.)