Based on the book of the same name by Bernard Werber, this unusual game from Microids challenges players to feed their workers, expand their colony, and protect the queen at all costs. Though perhaps borrowing slightly from Maxis' 1991 SimAnt in theme and setting, Empire of the Ants offers state-of-the-art real-time strategy gaming in a whole new arena. Players battle for control of 3D-rendered landscapes featuring enormous mushrooms and towering blades of grass. While seasoned real-time strategy gamers should recognize the conventional themes of resource management and military expansion, Empire of the Ants interprets these concepts on its own terms.
As the ants struggle to find new sources of food and expand the colony, they must remain always wary of threatening dangers, such as hungry predators like the praying mantis and the advances of rival ant and termite colonies. The game offers two main views on the action: one above ground for exploration and battle, the other below ground in the twisting passages of the ever-expanding colony. Another distinct feature of this real-time strategy game is its use of priority settings, which allows the assignment of levels of importance to different projects, thus freeing the player from some of the tedious micro-management otherwise necessary to encourage the success of the growing colony of countless worker insects.
I really didn't know exactly what to expect from a game based off of a Bernard Werber's best selling book about the violent fight for dominance and survival of different empires of insects. Would they take it to a level of personification like there was in Antz and A Bug's Life? Or would they go for the more natural and animalistic side that make ants so damn annoying when they get on your food? Well the answer is a little bit of both (not enough of the first), which could be just like the book for all that I know. Unfortunately, none of us here has read the Empire of the Ants book and I wasn't about to sit down to read... I play video games. I don't know how to read.
The concept is actually pretty cool. I've always been pretty interested in insects, especially those of the social persuasion such as our friendly little Formicidae. They have a rather complicated social structure, which is rather rigidly controlled by the hive queen. This fiction takes the structure a step further into the realm of human social structures with the development of empires based on species of insects. For example, you get to take control of the Russet ants, which are also known as the Federation. This Federation is composed of many different cities (nests) and comes in contact with other ant empires such as Harvesters and Dwarves along with other social insect empires like Termites, Bees, and Wasps. All of these creatures are fighting for control over the sections of the forest along with the food and material resources that come along with it.
First off, there's mention of tutorials in the manual. There's even some suggestions that it would be wise to play them so that you learn the game. So... where are they in the game. I went through every menu and was unable to find them. It took a little reading in the manual to figure things out along with trial and error in the game. As long as we're on the subject I should tell you that trying to play skirmish just crashed the game to my desktop or crashed my computer altogether. That's two strikes already...
Progressing through the campaign level will put you in charge of several expeditions and objectives that will challenge you to keep your colony alive through battles with rival empires, predator attacks, and the fight for food. The game is divided into a couple of zones that you'll have to keep track of in order to be successful. One of these is the hive building level. This is where your queen is housed and where all of your new workers and warriors are born. This is also where you're going to have to store building materials and food, raise beetles, grow fungus, collect honeydew... you get the picture, it's your base. There is one entrance into the base from which all traffic will flow. The rest of the rooms in your hive will all connect via tunnels that your ants have to dig out. For some reason, in order to dig these out, you have to have building materials instead of just being able to tunnel. Unfortunately, when checking out your hive under the ground, the developers decided to stick the camera to the entrance so that you can only rotate the camera around that point. You can zoom in and out and move back and forth, but the view will always be facing the entrance. Let me say this plainly. I didn't like that. It annoyed me. It caused me some frustrations. I got used to it a bit, but I still didn't like it. That and they just made the tunnel connectors just too damn long so that it takes the workers forever to walk anywhere. I originally thought that it would be fun to see your city grow and expand, but it turned out to be more of a hassle than a joy. Everything looks pretty much the same (yes I know that they're ants, but still...) and grows rather boring after the first couple of levels.
So in order to build all of these various rooms and supply your hive with food, you're going to have to send your workers out to gather the various resources found around the map. Which brings me up to the top level of operation that you'll need to worry about. This is where most of the game will take place as you can control pretty much everything that happens in the hive (with the exception of building orders) while looking at the above ground map. Once you find a food or material resource zone, you can click on it to tell your workers that it's open for business. Depending on where you set your work priorities (you do this with re-arrangeable plates showing order of importance), numbers of your worker caste will set out to gather those things.
Once you have enough materials, you can start building more rooms that allow for a more efficient hive. You'll also have to be careful because you'll need some of those materials for maintenance of your various rooms, which I thought was a hassle that really didn't need to be put in the game. It didn't add anything but a little factor of annoyance to a game that was already kind of annoying in other ways. You're going to have to pay careful attention to how you balance your work priorities as well because the difference in number of ants working on the number one slot to the number two slot is huge. Unfortunately there is no way to tell your workers to split the job of gathering food and gathering building materials up evenly.
Anyway, once you get your little supply lines running and you've scouted out some future foraging sites, you should have some eggs in the hatching chamber and ready to hatch. Hopefully you'll have some combat groups ready to go because you're going to be attacked quickly and without mercy. Even on the slowest and dumbest setting, this game can be a bit of a challenge. You have to know what units to start building in what order right off the bat, you're going to have to know where the resource zones are so that you can get your workers out there right away, and then you're going to have to pray that you get lucky in some of your battles. You'll almost definitely going to have to run some delay tactics until you actually get some more combat units out onto the field. And then you're going to have to hope that the enemy hasn't eliminated a large number of your worker units so that you have enough food to feed your warriors because otherwise they'll start to die pretty quickly. And that can spell disaster for your colony. If you don't have enough defenses, you'll have a ton of enemies running around in your base killing your queen.
Each of the different species in the game will have different types of units fighting for them as well. There are the regular melee units along with some ranged units and then there are the big old honkin' units that can splatter large numbers of troops in one whack. I had about 30 of some of my more powerful units killed at once by a big Harvester ant... there are some small balancing issues here if that can happen. Anyway, in order to eliminate your competitors, you'll have to rouse an army big enough to walk into the enemy's hive and kill their queen along with any other princess ants that can still become a productive queen.
The biggest problem I had with combat is that the your groups of ants will just sit there if more of your units are being attacked only a foot away without swarming the offending creatures as well. And as almost everyone knows, ants swarm like a bunch of little Tals on a shot of tequila when they're disturbed. You also receive no warning that enemies are in the area. So if you're planning out your city below, you won't hear anything until your workers are getting slaughtered or a lone group of warriors are being eaten. A simple warning would allow you to move more combat units to intercept once an enemy appears on radar. All of this being said, there is still something kind of satisfying about seeing a nice sized group of your ants swarm over the enemy like those crazy army ants you never want to run across in the jungle.
If the little things weren't enough, the game is just ugly. When zoomed out as far as you can possibly go, the ants look okay. But when you zoom in on the action at all, things get really ugly. Look for some huge pixels and some of the ugliest ants that you have ever seen. Their abdomens are modeled with the cross poly system of resource saving creating ants that look like darts with yarn for legs and antennae. Environments aren't all that much better. Some of the ground textures are actually fairly decent, but plants and resources are just as pixilated and ugly as the ants. What I really have a problem with is that there is close to no character in the game. You would think with the slight personification the ants undergo in the story, you would get something to that effect. Unfortunate.
On a good note, I enjoyed the music in the game quite a bit. It was well crafted and gave you the feeling that the game should have been more than it was. Sound effects had their moments and at least these tried to give the ants some bit of personality... too bad it just made the ants sound silly.
When all is said and done, I still think this kind of game holds a bit of potential. The idea is really great and the gameplay holds glimmers of what could have been. Sadly, it falls a quite a bit short of perfect. The lack of character and sorry graphics slap the game down at the surface and some interface and gameplay ideas wound the title a little deeper. It still may be of interest to some gamers that have read the book or really have a thing for insects.
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