Think you know how to win the West better than the historical figures who actually did it? Here's your chance to prove yourself. America is a game that is very reminiscent of Microsoft's Age of Empires, but set in a frontier time frame between 1820 and 1890. You control one of four groups of people struggling for domination of the West: Native Americans, Mexicans, Outlaws, and American Settlers. Want to fight the battle of Little Big Horn? What about remembering the Alamo? You can with America.
Sounds like a fun premise, right? Well, don't get your sights set too high.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
America is a real-time strategy or RTS. When we think of this genre of games, we think of Age of Empires and its sequel, Age of Kings. These two games have become yardsticks by which all others are measured. Technologically speaking, America falls somewhere between the two. The controls are typical for RTS -- right-click to move, attack or work -- but we were annoyed with the clicking and dragging to select groups. If you click and drag your mouse, you want the game to highlight the units to be affected, not just select a nearby building or tree instead. Curtis soon started double-clicking units and moving them away from everything else just to select them. The pathing AI seemed pretty good as our little guys could walk around walls, rivers and canyons without getting stuck. We liked being able to walk through forests, but it seemed that large groups would get stuck in them easily. We had to resort to pulling them out one by one until the AI decided it could get the rest out by itself. We also noticed that our stupid woodcutters tended to favor chopping trees above or below them rather than closer trees to their left or right.
We liked being able to queue up both the production of more units and a technology upgrade at the same time. In one campaign Curtis had his saloon begin production of two whip crackers and added a pistol upgrade to the queue. This way he had the whip crackers ready to head out with his gunslingers, and by the time they had reached the Mexican camp, their guns were better.
The four groups have their own tech trees with different technologies and units for each. While we liked the variety, we had to keep revisiting the manual to review the tech tree for each group. We also found it somewhat annoying that the four groups handled the basic workers differently. Players have sometimes wondered how the all-male villagers in Age of Empires reproduced. Well, in this game there are women who behave differently from their male counterparts, and their roles also differ based on their groups. Native American women do all the building, repairing and farming. Mexican and Settler women both chop wood and farm. Liquor-swilling Outlaws didn't have any women -- guess that's the price you pay for being an outlaw. While it was nice to have some variety, it was also annoying trying to keep track of which group we were using and whether we needed to use a man or woman to complete any given task. We appreciated the attempt at something different, but sometimes there's a fine line between interest and tedium.
The installation background music had a lovely, subdued urgency about it. The melody was flowing and elegant, yet the martial tattoo of the snare drum underlying the theme seemed to speak to us, spurring us onward into action. Why are we waxing poetic about the install music? Because we heard so much of it! Every time we inserted the game CD, America would try to go through the installation procedure all over again. Not only that, but the theme music would not shut off, even after canceling out of setup. Just out of curiosity, Curtis once gave the music 30 minutes to realize he'd stopped the installation, but it marched on determinedly. He was finally forced to shut off the music with Windows Task Manager; even then, it took over four minutes for the Task Manager to convince the music that while he enjoyed its company, it was high time for it to pack up and go home. This happened with every Windows 2000 machine we tried, so consider yourself warned!
The visuals in this game are a mix of the stunning and the disappointing. Most of the menu screens have beautiful 3D-rendered backgrounds, but the cut scenes tend to be blurry. The graphics of actual gameplay are very similar in style to Age of Empires, with a few of the buildings reminiscent of Age of Kings. The line of sight for each unit actually lags behind Age of Empires technology, with a square field of view. Overall, the graphics were fairly ho-hum.
The music in America is enjoyable. Successful background music should enhance the game without really stepping forward and demanding that you take notice of it; this it does reasonably well. What did grab Curtis' notice were the sounds that played whenever he clicked on a building or unit. This started out fun, and he spent some time creating as many different units as he could, just to listen to each of them. But it swiftly became annoying. "What's up?" "Okay, Boss." "Si, Senor!" Ugh. After a while he just wanted to slap them. Hard. Okay, Curtis did get a perverse pleasure out of having his band of Mexican gunslingers raid a Settler camp. Each time he told them to kill the women in the fields, they would respond with a sinister "Hasta la vista, baby!"
Multiplayer support is integral to games of this nature, and we'd love to say this is America's redemption, but we can't. Instead we're forced to consider it one of the worst things about the game. Just to set up a game over the internet, you MUST edit the INI file in the game's directory, change a setting, and add the IP address of the other computer. Don't run the BlackICE firewall program on either computer because in half of its protection settings, America can't connect. Instead of giving an error message to that effect, it crashes to the desktop.
Okay, so getting a game running is difficult, but that's not enough to kill it, right? No, but once you get into the game, if your latency ever rises above 100ms, you start getting a dialog pop-up about how bad the network is. It actually defaults to under 50ms! Mike had to wonder if the developers were using the same Internet he did. Considering that many first-person shooters accept latency of 300ms or more, we can't see why anyone would put a limitation in place that effectively makes this strategy game unplayable over the Internet. Granted, we might have been able to adjust the latency, but our 50ms worth of patience had expired at that point and we were both ready to crash to the desktop. Our cable modem and DSL connection couldn't play more than 30 seconds before crapping out.
Required: Pentium 266, Windows 2000/98/95, 64 MB RAM, DirectX 7 compatible hardware, 350 MB drive space free
Recommended: Pentium 300, Windows 2000/98/95, 128 MB RAM, DirectX 7 compatible hardware, 350 MB drive space free
Reviewed on: Pentium 550, Windows 2000, 128 MB RAM
What do you expect from an RTS game manual? You need a straightforward explanation of gameplay and controls, and the 100-page manual delivered. But while it had a clear breakdown of the tech trees with all the units and buildings nicely described, we would have liked a fold-out with the four tech trees and hotkeys on it. The two-page synopsis in the back of the manual just didn't cut it. While we understand the drive to hold down costs, this seemed needlessly cheesy. In addition to the game manual, there are four in-game tutorials that step you smartly through the basics of gameplay.
We've played Age of Empires, and America, you are no Age of Empires. Did we say "don't set your sights too high" at the beginning of this review? Well, you might consider ratcheting your sights down several notches. If you want to play against the computer in a historical setting like this, and you don't mind easily annoying sounds, you might want to give it a shot. Personally, though, we're deleting this game from our hard drives as soon as the review hits GameFabrique. The basic idea behind America is a good one, but too many bugs and a serious lack of multiplayer functionality just turned us off. America registers a 58 on the Fun-o-Meter. We'd like to give it more, but it just doesn't merit a higher score. Unless you see this game in the bargain bin, just say "Hasta la vista, baby!"
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP