The General, sighing, threw himself into his pilot chair and rested his feet on the console of the flying sub. He cursed under his breath. What had made him accept the UC mission this hellhole of a continent? A moribund empire in its last throes, its nationalities on the brink of war. Strikes and social unrest in so many of the 40 provinces - and only a fortnight left to pacify the region. If he failed, nuclear missiles would be let loose setting the earth on fire. Suppressing a shudder, the General pointed his craft towards Liman, were supporters would be waiting...
Have you solved all the puzzles? Saved dozens of worlds? Done it all? Try Ashes of Empire! Mike Singleton's latest strategy-cum-3D-action piece asks no less of you than to single-handedly managed the resources and defuse the explosive ethnic mixture of a vast empire torn apart by social strife.
You have to work your way from a border province to the heartland, visiting strategically important places to gather a band of supporters. With sufficient stocks and resources, and the backing of five nationalities and a strong team of engineers, administrators, the military and medics, your goal is to try to pacify a continent. A handful of weeks stand between you and the spark that will ignite nuclear holocaust. Are you up to the challenge?
Do not be daunted by the prospect of deploying endless streams of troops. You operate in a meticulously-designed scenario (aptly underlined by different movements of Stravinsky's dramatic Firebird Suite). You are welcomed to the region by a fine layout of icons on a set of fractal maps, which are divided into six stages. Location backdrops provide specific information and hundreds of individual character portraits. Once you are familiar with the choices, the interface might be too straightforward for some players.
For convenience use the mouse to click your way through decisions via icons (each action takes a certain amount of time) and steer vehicles with your keyboard or joystick. The 3D movement and battle scenes, refined since their appearance in the two Midwinters (Midwinter I and II), add an element of immediacy to the predominantly static-screened game - a fine alternation. Movements are fluid, with that uncanny realism typical of Mike and his team (by all means, do some diving just for the fun of it!).
Woo, trick or pacify people into helping you. Each character you wish to recruit needs specific treatment; these are represented by a choice of eight behavior icons. People come and go as they follow their daily routine, so be prepared to have missed the constructor general at the works by just an hour.
The Confederation of Syndicalist Republics (CSR) comprises five republics with about eight provinces each. Overlying this geopolitical grid is a finely-structured social one. Geographically scattered all over the empire, five nations with a president each vie for supremacy. Every nation is split into four ethnic factions, and has an acknowledged leader, the governor. Four professional classes with various internal ranks belong to each faction. As a General and special envoy of the world organization the United Community, plan your steps well to juggle with the delicate situations within a narrow time limit.
You must liaise with representatives of the groups on as high a level as possible. You can befriend them by supplying vital resources specific to their situation and locations; they will eventually pledge support and gain you votes. They will help you with transport, ammunition, information on various locations (which will be displayed on your maps in increasing detail) or even help you sabotage military installations to force peace, if necessary. Occasionally, you will even gain yourself an extra day or two.
United Nations of Singleton
Ashes impresses with the sheer multitude of individual characters, landscapes and possible encounters. Unlike action orientated predecessor Flames of Freedom, cross-country chases and 3D battle scenes can be reduced to less than a third of the entire game - if the player so wishes. Of course, a large number of vehicles are available, ranging from a flying sub to a cargo plane. The General can romp around to his heart's content above or below sea, on the ground or in the air in a host or craft.
However, the attractive presentation and comfortable interface cannot disguise the lack of depth in the gameplay itself. While the background is vastly expanded on the excellent manual, the actual in-game options seem to remain limited to talking to the right people in the right places at the right time and (al)locating resources upon demand. Encounters remain abstract and somewhat superficial. The subtleties of higher diplomacy will be missed by veteran strategists spoiled by the Koei range or by Balance of Power.
It is a challenging mix nevertheless, and it comes highly recommended to all those deterred by dry tables and endless menus, but with the mettle to solve problems under pressure. For players with a keen political interest, it is a must!
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