Review: Military Madness: Nectaris (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Military Madness: Nectaris
Developer: Hudson Soft
Publisher: Hudson Soft
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Release Date: 10/30/2009

Turn based strategy (TBS) games have come a long way over the years. Most gamers got into the genre thanks to the original Final Fantasy Tactics. Some came in later with Advance Wars and Fire Emblem. Some date farther back, and came in with Shining Force. Other than a few friendly conversations – excepting the famed debates on my own staff between Fire Emblem (me) and Shining Force (about everyone) – the conversations are mostly civil; TBS players are by nature a cerebral bunch, and aren’t as prone to screaming arguments as fans of shooters or whatever mainstream genre is popular on a given day.

Then there are the Military Madness fans. These people are a small group, as indicated by the small household penetration of the game’s original system, the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16, and they feel a bit slighted that their game of choice has been more or less forgotten over the past couple decades in favour of games that either came out afterwards, or in their minds “aren’t as good”. Military Madness, for people that hadn’t played it – of which there were many – had a mythical connotation to it, as if there was this wondrous game that had been withheld from us that would show us the way to eternal bliss in a way that previous TBS games hadn’t been able to.

Almost twenty years after release, Military Madness: Nectaris is finally released on XBox Live for $10. It’s a full remake, with very few changes made, which is sure to please hardcore fans of the original; those people, if they haven’t bought it yet, should go out and grab it immediately, as this provides everything they loved about the original and then some. For the rest of us who don’t have much previous experience with Military Madness, the question is: is the game good enough to justify a purchase, not to mention the endless adulation the game has received since its release?

Story/Modes

Unlike other TBS games, Military Madness doesn’t really revolve around much of a story. You’re a general with the Allies trying to keep the Xenon force from simultaneously taking over the moon and blowing up the Earth. Unlike a game like Advance Wars, there’s no story progression as you go through the stages; you beat one stage, move onto the next, etc. This makes Military Madness closer to old school shoot ’em ups than it does most TBS games in terms of how little story there is. For what it’s worth, the story is slightly different in the specifics from what it was on the PC Engine, but nothing significant has really changed; you’re good, they’re not, kill them.

For modes, you have Normal Campaign, Advanced Campaign, and multiplayer mode. The first two modes are exactly like the ones in the original PC Engine game with the difference being that advanced mode is unlocked straight from the get-go; it’s basically the original game with more difficult troop placements. Multiplayer mode is easily the star of the game both for old and new players; it supports up to four players, both individual and team mode, and supports both offline and Live play, a huge plus. I’ll go into specifics of play mechanics in the dedicated section for it, but there are a lot of nice options for players who want whatever type of game possible, broken up into whether you want teams, how long each player gets to take turns, how many turns there are (wins are determined either by last man standing or whoever does the best over the turn limit), and how you configure the Commander unit. I like the multiplayer options, and though there are some issues (see Control and Gameplay), they make the game worthwhile for old-school MM fans.

Story/Modes Rating: Decent

Graphics

Military Madness is not a good looking game, nor does it really try to be. The terrain, while only trying to be a representation of the moon, still looks bland, and it’s hard to see around some very high peaks, which was an issue that wasn’t present in the original game. When showing fights, units that take a hit but don’t get destroyed shake as you would think a tank would that took a heavy shot, though it kinda reminds me of a Rock-’em Sock-’em Robot. There is also virtually no real presentation to speak of; I’d argue that the Turbo Graphics game had more personality to it than this one.

Graphics Rating: Poor

Sound

There’s not much sound to speak of, but what’s contained is done well enough. There’s a few themes that play in the menus, when you’re moving, and when units are fighting; if you’re in trouble, the music gets more urgent. There’s nothing that stands out in the slightest, but it’s not something that has you reaching for the mute button. Sound effects are somewhat muted and not very impressive.

Sound Rating: Below Average

Control and Gameplay

MIlitary Madness is played on a hexagonal field, with one of two objectives having to be filled: either capture the enemy base with an infantry unit, or defeat all enemies. There are various infantry, tank and air units, for both ballistic and front-line combat, some of which have specific uses, such as taking on air units. Each unit has an offensive and defensive capability ingrained in them, depending on whether they’re fighting air or land, which gets combined with bonuses or detriments based on terrain or area of control to determine a total offence and defence rating. The previously mentioned “area of control” is all of the grid spaces around a unit; if a unit is attacked while the enemy’s area of control overlaps the entirety of the defending unit’s, that unit is considered surrounded, and starts off at half stats, with additional bonuses given if any unit has a supporting unit nearby. Therefore, the main gist of succeeding is to isolate specific units and flank them in a pincer attack. Naturally, this is easier than it sounds, especially considering the fact that the story plays up the fact that your side is going against the odds in this war; most stages contain your side having a disadvantage that you have to climb out of. There are also factories, most of which have to be captured by an infantry unit, that have units inside them; capture the factory, and you capture and can use any units within them.

The first problem with gameplay, at first, is that there’s no tutorial in the slightest. The first two stages are relatively easy to figure out, but in the third stage the game throws factories at you, which catches beginners who didn’t read the long and hard to read help section off guard when they walk in to kick ass then find out they’re fighting twice the amount of units they thought. Each stage introduces something new – some new tank unit, some new air unit – and it’s always a surprise for players as to what they’re dealing with. Even the PC Engine version had a “Guide” option that showed what a unit does; in this game, you have to pause the game, look up the unit you want to learn about, and learn there what it exactly does. This dissipates as players become more experienced with the game, but the learning curve is kind of steep, especially when you consider the fact that every stage has the player in a disadvantageous situation.

The biggest issue with gameplay, however, is that even with the mathematics going into offence and defence, the act of doing or receiving damage is still a crapshoot; too many times, the results have not lined up with the stats. I’ve had times where Charlie units (small soldiers, the weakest units in the game) have gone up against small tank units with no modifiers and held their own, each unit losing the same amount of health. Sometimes, I’ll put a unit against a similar unit with similar stats, and ended up having my butt handed to me. While there’s a rank system – the more your units fight, the stronger they get – this seems to be misleading as well, as I’ve had high rank units get decimated by lesser units, which of course get stronger and harder to beat. It’s very hard, therefore, to plan any kind of serious strategy considering I won most of my stages by the skin of my teeth, and one move that didn’t turn out as intended would have forced me to restart. Mechanics such as preemptively seeing the results of an action before you move that were initiated in games such as Advance Wars and Fire Emblem are just some of the reasons why Military Madness is by nature outdated.

The A.I. is somewhat sketchy as well; it tries too hard to get flank attacks, and will pick curious times to attack and not attack. It also retreats at the drop of a hat to factories to replenish its health, and much prefers distant ballistic attacks to up-front fighting. This often leads to a lot of stalemates, and can be frustrating to play against.

Multiplayer play is somewhat different due to the fact that Commander units are brought in. These are walking tanks that allow you to add on modifiers for either combat or support that make them stronger, adding a different strategic element to the game. However, multiplayer play is somewhat broken due to the fact that most maps are so close together that having the first turn is usually enough to win; it’s hard to set up a proper strategy when you’re forced to go on defence almost immediately, lest you go out too far and have your units picked off in flank attacks on the second turn. Online mode is not much different than multiplayer mode except for the fact that you gain better Commander modifiers based on your level; you gain levels as you do things online. This puts beginning players at a huge disadvantage if they get matched against someone more experienced (more on that in a bit).

Overall, Military Madness will feel familiar to people who played it twenty years ago, but antiquated and unbalanced to anyone that didn’t.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Poor

Replayability

For people that really want to play Military Madness, there’s a lot of game here for $10. There’s two modes to play, and though they all have the same maps, the later maps are very large and take a lot of turns to complete. The single player campaign will be played for a long time, even by veterans. Online mode is endlessly replayable… so long as you can find someone online, something I had an issue with.

Replayability Rating: Enjoyable

Balance

Balance is completely screwed in Military Madness. Most single player stages are skewed toward the computer, and the difficulty curve spikes upward too soon for newer players. There’s also way too much priority on air units, as they have way too much maneuverability and way too much power, with too few ways to take them out. Online play is even worse, as you have to play for awhile or get lucky against a new player in order to advance levels which gets you better upgrades to make yourself competitive against better players. However, most of the players that you find online are veterans who have played this game for a long time; I was only able to find two matches since receiving this game, and got my ass handed to me on a silver platter both times by Lv. 7 opponents. Newer players trying to play online is somewhat self-defeating, as the community is too insular and experienced to break into.

Balance Rating: Very Bad

Originality

What is there to say about a game that is functionally no different than a twenty year old game, and only adds a multiplayer mode that is not much different from that found in similar games such as Advance Wars? Nectaris was cutting edge back in the late ’80s/early ’90s, but in 2009, there’s not an original idea to be found.

Originality Rating: Bad

Addictiveness

Military Madness can be addictive, especially in the later parts of stages when the fighting is hot and one wrong move can bring defeat and force a restart. However, I found that this game was addictive in small bites; I found it hard to play more than one stage at a time, and by the time I was able to string together two stages, I just didn’t care to play a second stage, especially in the later parts of the game where stages were taking a half hour apiece. Gameplay here just isn’t as absorbing as it is in other TBS games.

Addictiveness Rating: Poor

Appeal Factor

Military Madness obviously aims squarely at the hearts of TBS fans with it’s old-school mechanics and online play, but the unfortunate thing is that TBS is, and always will be, a niche genre; the cerebral type of gameplay, mixed with a lack of story, isn’t going to endear itself to the mainstream game player. Even with that under consideration, the fact that the gameplay mechanics in this game are so outdated and gameplay drags so much that even TBS fans that weren’t familiar with the source material are going to either ignore it or put it down quickly.

Appeal Factor: Pretty Poor

Miscellaneous

I was excited to find out that I was receiving this review; I like TBS games, and had played a bit of Military Madness in the old days, so I was stoked to see if the game measured up to the positive words and good memories that gamers had for the past twenty years. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that I just didn’t enjoy the game. Playing this game was a chore for me, and that’s never a good thing when you’re trying to determine if you can recommend it to anyone. The high difficulty curve and the fact that I *had* to keep playing for the purposes of this review made things all the less enjoyable. It’s not the worst game I’ve ever played – not even close – but the group of people I can recommend this game to are small.

Miscellaneous Rating: Poor

The Scores
Story/Modes: Decent
Graphics: Poor
Sound: Below Average
Control and Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Enjoyable
Balance: Very Bad
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Poor
Appeal Factor: Pretty Poor
Miscellaeous: Poor
FINAL SCORE: POOR GAME


Short Attention Span Summary
Military Madness: Nectaris is a good game for fans of the original; they will forgive the game’s flaws, and jump into the new multiplayer options head first. Anyone else would be advised to look elsewhere unless they are absolutely desperate for a TBS game on Live Arcade; though it’s only $10, there’s too many issues for most gamers to ignore.

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