The Free Nations Union once again wages war against the nefarious Phantom League in this deceivingly complex strategy game. Originally announced as Massive Assault: Phantom Resistance, Domination is the DreamCatcher-published sequel to Wargamming.net's Massive Assault. As in the original, turn-based battle is fought between a diverse assortment of troops and vehicles, across colorful, effects-laden, three-dimensional maps. Domination offers two separate single-player campaigns, as well as 20 additional stand-alone scenarios. Of course, online multiplayer competition is also fully supported.
In a world where real-time strategy titles have relegated classic turn-based games to a hard-core niche, fans of the latter genre (like me) should celebrate any publisher who dares put out a throwback to the halcyon days of Avalon Hill. That's what makes Domination, a re-named sequel to 2002's hidden gem, Massive Assault, both a joy and a profound disappointment. The joy comes from the realization that Domination is an excellent hex-map turn-based strategy title. The disappointment hits when you realize that a really fun strategy core is riddled with bugs and is wrapped in a simply awful presentation.
One of the best elements about Domination is how easy it is to pick up and learn, even for people who don't have a strategy background. Each side has 36 different military units to play with, each with their own number of movement points and attack and defense strengths. Each turn players produce new units with money generated by land they hold, move their units, give attack orders to destroy the enemy, and attempt to capture enemy cities. Then their opponent does the same.
That simplicity, however, belies the incredibly fun strategic challenge that Domination offers. Since both sides have the same basic units and each piece of military equipment has a specific function, pure tactical genius is the order of the day. Like chess or any other seemingly "simple" board game, the great fun of Domination is the back-and-forth move and countermove engaged in by the players as they try to read their opponent's tactics and respond. The surface simplicity masks a remarkably complex game underneath.
In fact, when the pure gameplay value of Domination is considered, the price on the box seems like a bargain. The game comes with several different single-player modes, although three of them ("Scenarios", "Campaign", and "Career") are in reality the same thing -- a series of short strategic challenges. The last mode, "World War" is the full turn-based game played against a computer AI. All told, playing through the single player modes can easily take 200+ hours, and all of it can be fun. I had a blast in some of the early single-player challenges trying to figure out how to do things like defend a harbor for 10 turns with a badly underpowered force, or hold a research lab long enough to get a group of 'Mechs behind enemy lines. Even better, because each individual scenario is so short, they can be loaded up and completed in a lunch hour -- making it a perfect game for those without a lot of time who are looking for something meatier than Solitaire or Minesweeper.
The bad news is that Domination's gameplay doesn't stand alone. First, there's the problem with the game's presentation. It's awful. The game's campaign has the notable distinction of possessing one of the worst storylines I have ever seen in a videogame. The game's story is presented via a series of still portraits with text next to them, and to call the game's text amateurish would be an insult to amateurs. It can't be chalked up to a bad translation into English, either (although that's a factor). Worse than the storyline and the bad writing, though, is the quality of the game's voice-acting, music, and sound effects. I certainly wouldn't envy any voice actors facing the challenge of reading this game's dialogue with a straight face, much less give it any kind of dramatic heft. The people who did the voice work for Massive Assault, on the other hand, didn't even try. Explosions and weapon effects are generic-sounding and small. The game's music is superior to the rest of the sound effects only by virtue of not being completely offensive.
When one considers that Domination doesn't seem that far removed from Massive Assault, the level of bugs present in Domination is simply unacceptable. They range from mild, like stuttering and a weird blue line across the screen in the opening movies, to the deadly. I've had the game crash to the desktop at least a dozen times while playing the game, and there seems to be strange bug that occasionally renders all the text invisible in the multiplayer interface. The worst bug has to be a sort of memory leak that gradually retards the game's performance while playing, until the game's animations eventually move forward in a series of fits and starts.
The bottom line on Domination, then, depends on how much tolerance you have for bugs, bad presentation, and forking over a lot of money for the sake of excellent gameplay fundamentals. There's a chunk of good gameplay here, but is it worth the massive bugs and playing the game with the sound off? For a very small niche audience, the answer may be yes. For the rest of us, though, Domination just doesn't justify parting with that kind of coin.
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