I’ve generally avoided playing ‘freemium’ games – those that are ostensibly free to play but in practice require micro-transactions of real money in order to progress at a reasonable speed. However it’s impossible to argue that they’re not immensely popular, with integration in social media platforms and high-budget TV advertising campaigns – as evidenced with the animated exploits of the Clash of Clans characters or Kate Upton’s breasts promoting Game of War. So I’ve kept an open mind as I’ve made my first foray into freemium games with Sparta: War of Empires.
Developer Plarium have a good deal of experience in crafting MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games and it instantly showed as I got started. Bypassing the option to play through my Facebook account I instead opted to play through my browser on the Plarium site which was as simple as setting a username and password, and almost instantly the game was set and ready to play with no installation or loading time required.
My first reaction once presented with my city screen were that for what seemed like quite a casual game there were a lot of menus – the top, left and right of the screen were all littered with menu buttons while even the bottom was cluttered with further icons. However any confusion is short-lived as the tutorial kicked in straight away and King Leonidas of Sparta himself (who non-history experts will be aware of from the 300 graphic novel and film) begins dictating his instructions. At this early stage there wasn’t a great deal to be interested in as the gameplay just seemed to consist of following instructions, checking notifications and clicking where the big flashing arrows tell you to.
During this early barrage of instructions you are also able to take the time to gaze upon your city and explore the various options yourself, and it’s clear early on with all the greyed out units and options there’s a great deal to unlock. And despite the initial hand-holding it is alarmingly compelling chiefly due to to the constant rewards, upgrades, unlocks, leveling up and new features to keep you occupied.
The enthusiastic voice work for King Leonidas certainly helps as well and generates a suitably authentic atmosphere for what could otherwise be a fairly dry experience. In his quest to defeat the invading Persian armies of Xerxes, Leonidas has come up with a plan to teach the various small cities of Greece (including your own) the warrior ways of Sparta and – in a slightly more unorthodox move – encourages you to attack your neighbouring cities to hone your combat skills. The voiceover work from Leonidas becomes more sparse the further you get into the game, replaced with more standard text notifications, but there are a few other characters that make an appearance as well.
The graphics also due a suitable job, with your city displayed from a zoomed-out isometric perspective and the various menu screens filled with bright, iconic imagery. Unfortunately your city isn’t as interactive as it is initially appears as your involvement is limited to choosing where to place buildings and when to upgrade, but city-planning itself can be compelling – Sim City is proof of that.
As the tutorial faded away I found I was enjoying myself quite a bit. There was a constant series of goals to aim for, rewards were constant and there’s a thriving community going with a large map of AI-controlled Persian forces and fellow Greek cities controlled by human players – crucially your new city is always placed amongst players of a comparable level. There is also a bewildering array of units, buildings and unlocks to achieve which keeps you motivated to keep playing – complemented by the bonuses that you receive for logging in daily and regularly checking your city for extra resources that regularly appear.
A far less satisfactory aspect of the game is the warfare itself though which essentially consists of selecting all your attacking units and sending them to raid, besiege or protect other cities and hoping that their attacking statistics outweigh your opponent’s defensive statistics – there seems to be very little strategy involved. In a strange design decision units are classed as either offensive (used for raiding enemy cities) or defensive (for protecting your own) and are completely useless at anything beyond that – to the extent that attacking units have to be safely locked away in the a specific building when not out raiding as they’re unable to defend themselves! Even more disappointing is the drab written statements of the battles that report the results to you, chiefly the casualties and what you managed to loot from your rivals – in the spirit of friendly competition you never completely destroy the cities of other Greek players (which is important as your city is likely to be raided while you’re offline).
Despite this I did find myself enjoying Sparta: War of Empires immensely – until I reached about level 20. It’s around this stage that the game starts to bombard you with requests to invite your friends to play for rewards, or to purchase additional unlocks with your own money. The three main resources of the game (bronze, timber, grain) are never in short supply but the in-game currency of drachmas become increasingly harder to come by but more and more essential, especially if you want to speed up the upgrade and build times which start to become ever more ridiculous.
It’s still possible to continue playing Sparta without paying a penny if you’re just logging in daily for a quick play and don’t mind the slow progress beyond a certain point, and the political machinations with other players and coalitions greatly enhance the experience (especially if you can get convince some real-life friends to join you) but you can’t escape the fact that you’ll want to start investing real money if you want to make significant progress. For some players this won’t be an issue as the game is fun to play when it lets you, but for me this prevents Sparta: War of Empires from becoming anything more than a brief time-waster.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.