Review: Slay / SecWars (PS3)
It was just over a year ago that CCP released the Incarna expansion for Eve Online, which most will recall was a period in the game’s existence that was pretty much a disaster. We won’t dwell on what did and didn’t happen here, but there was one minor disappointment of last summer’s Eve release that hasn’t been mentioned – the fact that SecWars wasn’t included in it.
SecWars was intended to be Eve’s first mini-game, a strategy boardgame that pilots would play in bars while others around them watched and perhaps would place bets on the outcome. Had it made Incarna’s feature list (as was the plan just a few months before), things could well have been different and the expansion might have been hailed as a magnificent gameplay success to mirror it’s often clouded technical achievements. Sadly neither happened and while SecWars remains off limits to Eve players, it is at last accessible to New Eden visitors in the form of Slay, currently available to play via the Dust 514 “War Barge” within Sony’s avatar playground known as PlayStation Home.
The game is largely unchanged conceptually from SecWars, which itself was basically an officially endorsed re-skin of the original Slay, created way back in the era of Windows 3.1 and a game that has evolved a cult status ever since.
How it works is that tiles bring in income and in order to bring home the biggest pile of proverbial bacon, you have to work to link as many of your tiles together by attacking those of your neighbour, while of course other players attempt the same. The greater your area of linked tiles, the larger or more deadly the army you can afford.
The trick to the game is that each unit has an upkeep cost, and if you fall behind – most disastrously when a territory is cleaved in two – your entire force will fall apart.
It is a consistently brilliant game, thanks to absurdly simple rules, the need the carefully manage resources and time your attacks. Underestimate the deep pockets of your opponent, or miss a pivotal weak spot in your defence that allows the enemy to cut your off from your capital city and it’s game over. It’s a game that can be won or lost in a single turn, which puts it among the best strategy games ever to be displayed on a screen.
This New Eden edition has many things going for it. One is that it’s natively sci-fi (giving us the opportunity to extol its virtues here). Two is that it’s free (the original game on PC is $20), but above all things it can be played in multiplayer mode. We should also mention that for a limited period completing a successful game will net you beta access to Dust 514, which is a pleasant bonus, although something of a distraction for our purposes.
As a freebie meant to promote CCP’s “free-to-play” FPS, the Slay experienced feels a little cheapened and hastily put together. The AI isn’t nearly as challenging as previous versions, there are only a handful of levels and the graphics are dark and drab. Bizarrely there’s also a rather major rule change that arguably lessens the game: If you lose your capital you don’t lose the resources stored there as you would in other versions of Slay. This makes the capital more of a fortress piece rather than a key objective. Another issue is that there’s no facility to surrender the game. It’s been years since I played the original, but on the iPhone version the AI will know when its cause is lost and will offer to surrender, handing you victory without you having to ponderously take every hex on the board. On the iPhone it’s sometimes a pleasant means of enacting revenge to take the board, but on the PS3 with it’s needlessly over-sensitive analogue controls that don’t allow you to move outside of the play area (meaning you can spend frustrating seconds moving a single piece from one side of the map to the other), the last thing you want to be doing is fighting battles in every nook and cranny in a war that is impossible to lose.
Yet for all these issues and the fact you have to trudge through PlayStation Home just to play it, it’s wonderful to have a version of the game on a console, and one that offers the delights of multiplayer in a game that only really comes alive when the AI is necessarily absent. Hopefully it won’t be too long now until the game appears in station services across Eve, at which point the sins of Incarna will finally be absolved.
Although hampered by poor controls and missing key options, the essence of what makes Slay one of the greatest indie strategy games ever made remains intact. Richie Shoemaker
Released: June 2012 · Also: PC, iOS · Developer: CCP Games · Publisher: Sony · Site: dust514.com