Verdict on Tecmo's curious RTS for the DS.
Robocalypse is to a "proper" RTS like, say, Dawn of War what Jimbo the Jet is to a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II (yes, we've been playing Tom Clancy's HAWX recently): there's a lot of fun to be had with the former (providing you're an eight-year-old child, or at least a child of the eighties), but it's never going to keep you company across the Atlantic. Except it might, being a handheld release and all. Um.
OK, forget that analogy. In less confusing terms, Robocalypse is a real-time strategy title of the gather-build-annihilate school with the sort of cheekily retrograde, back-to-basics appeal which gets a lot of love from jaded indie bloggers. The story, chopped into sparsely animated 2D cutscenes and part-penned by Spongebob Squarepants writer Jay Lender, is an immediate strong point. You play Myron, an everyday nerdling sweeping floors at the local robotic toaster factory - a factory which just happens to also manufacture semi-sentient killing machines. In the course of cartoon inevitability a batch of the latter are accidentally endowed with "polite appliance" AI routines, sending them off on a world-annihilating rampage, and Myron, together with his statuesque love interest, a battalion of friendly 'bots and a chap reminiscent of Futurama's Captain Zap Brannigan, must cut these warlike calculators down to size.
There are a scant four kinds of generic unit: peons who sniff out the game's two resource types and repair buildings, cheap, serviceable Soldiers, fragile but essential Medics and powerful but slow Heavy Soldiers. The building roster, likewise, is as lean as a greyhound: a HQ for resource storage, a Factory for generic troop production, Hero Factory for special units (of which more shortly), Workshop to upgrade your troops, Resource Banks for extra storage space, a Radar to uncover areas you haven't explored and, finally, turrets for base defence. Each building or unit can be upgraded a couple of times for added firepower or endurance, and units can also gain a rank or two by performing tasks.
It's no Warzone 2100, and even fellow DS strategy titles like The Age of Kings leave Robocalypse looking poorly nourished, but there's at least the functional skeleton of a Command and Conquer-style experience here. Moreover, developer Vogster's plump 2D sprites have a personality the soldiers of fully-fledged keyboard strategy titles often lack. Each grunt has a few giggles-worthy text catchphrases and animations: Medics, for instance, shriek things like "Don't hurt me, I'm wearing glasses!" when they come under fire. The orchestral soundtrack, meanwhile, will have you stamping your feet in time whenever it dynamically fades into being.
The control scheme keeps things interesting, too. You never have direct command of basic units: instead, players direct their forces as a mass by placing "Action Flags" over objectives with the stylus. It feels irksome, at first, not to be able to drag-select a few goons and pack them off to the frontline, but this passive specimen of generalship suits the handheld's limited input options, and the mission objectives and enemy AI rarely require much precision. AI pathfinding, mercifully, is solid (thanks in part, we suspect, to the fact that you can only site buildings on a few predetermined spots) and 'bots will patrol friendly territories when left to their own devices, ensuring a reasonable level of defensive coverage.
Robocalypse's six Hero units, on the other hand, can be clicked on and ordered around at whim; importantly, they can also be used to fine-tune your control of non-Heroic units. Sergeant Payne and Warlord General can recruit nearby combat troops and Medics into four-strong squads, who then move and fight in unison; on the flipside, Spyder Scout can place fake Action Flags to misdirect the enemy, drawing units away from a well-defended objectives or misdirecting them mid-attack.
Pyro Assault is a heavy support Hero, able to transform himself into a flamethrower turret, Joe Commando's dual miniguns make him a good choice for assault, and Viper the Sniper is your surgical striker, zipping into enemy bases under cover of his cloaking device to drop WMDs (manifest in this instance as cartoon anvils). Given that you can only field one of each kind of Hero at once, and that they can be upgraded multiple times between missions, Robocalypse is perhaps closer to squad-based tactics than classic RTS.
Vogster just about holds the attention by introducing new Heroes as the campaign wears on, but it's hard to shake the feeling that you've seen everything the game has to offer in the first ten minutes (if not the first thirty seconds - an engagement between generic units plays out on the top screen when you fire up the start menu). Then again, the campaign is over so quickly that you don't have time to get bored, and while there's local wireless multiplayer for up to four human or AI players, the modes are limited to deathmatch or a spot of capture-the-control-point.
That very superficiality makes Robocalypse perfect, however, for RTS initiates or the aforementioned eight-year-olds, and the marriage of direct and indirect unit control schemes is something I'd love to see taken up by other devs, both on the DS and beyond. It's hard to recommend Robocalypse over the surprising number of alternatives on the handheld - Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings has it beat, for one - but Vogster is plainly a talented outfit. Keep an eye on these guys.