Saga (Hands On)

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posted 7/20/2007 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista
One Page Platforms: PC
[Editor's Note: It's important to remember that Saga is in beta, and the developers stress continuously that balancing, graphics, and server stability issues are in flux and addressed daily. Saga's forum moderators are also prompt and courteous in responding to issues dug up by the testers.]
 
Free-to-play games continue picking up steam in the massively multiplayer realm.  Free-to-play is a business model in which a reasonable portion of a game costs nothing up front, while premium services and/or in-game abilities, equipment, etc., are parsed out at a nominal fee. From small-house producers, Saga Games, we're given the aptly-titled "Saga" (not Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, not the Saga of Ryzom, or Dragon Ball Z: Sagas … just Saga) throwing its helm into the ring, providing a real-time strategy experience on the MMO tip. Tom Bitterman, Tyler Sager, and myself stepped into the now-open beta (go to playsaga.com to join), and began our own fledgling sagas.
 
Saga sets itself apart from a typical online -- or offline, for that matter -- RTS in several ways: Your persistent online domain, the management of land and resources, the five factions to choose from, and especially the battlefield's rules of engagement all indicate that there's not so much a learning curve as there is a learning cliff with the current absence of a full-fledged tutorial. That will come in time. Elements are explained and defined in relation to themselves, but it's largely left up to the beta testers to connect the dots in establishing a successful realm, building in a logical manner, and fighting according to the Saga universe's particular rule set -- there's a plethora of opportunities for stunted, debilitating mistakes to be made in the early game. 
 
After one week's time, Tom had mentally digested the short library of game definitions and operations, but still found the unconventional game mechanics tricky.  Tyler declared that having to purchase card packs for random special units was nothing short of "evil" (micro-transaction collect-a-thons are a living nightmare for the obsessive-compulsive).  And I simply stood there with a large, glowing question mark hovering over my head, still unable to decipher the game's Da Vinci Code to success.
 
The sharpest hook in the Saga tacklebox is the ability (necessity, really) to build your own unique and persistent online domain. We're talking a full-on castle ecosystem here: temples, markets, housing, universities, walls, gates, towers …. And while it's not as freeform as a SimCity, each realm is granted several floor plans to choose amongst from the get-go. Placement of infrastructure is key since buildings vary in size, and real estate is strictly limited by the particular floor plan you select.
 
If food, wood, stone, and gold serve as the national currency, it's still your happy citizens that make the world go 'round. Producer Saga Games' budgetary constraints mean that your citizens are still "invisible" for the time being, but their importance cannot be underestimated as they invisibly haul resources across the feudal landscape, plus they pull their weight on the battlefield by pillaging captured enemy resources (even human resources) on the mission maps.
 
Those enemies essentially form one of the five points found on a star. If you envision your faction as one of the star's points, the factions adjacent to you are neutral in standing, while the opposing two points will serve as non-negotiating enemies of your state. If you plan on joining Saga with a buddy, you needn't be factional twins, but there can only be one degree of separation between you and your pal if you want to be on speaking terms in-game. The five factions, with all expected stereotypes intact, are War, Machines, Light, Nature, and Magic. 
 
You give your nation its own unique name, of course, so these factional titles serve more as battlefield ideologies than anything else. They further dictate your initial troop selection, since you won't be able to field troops composed of your sworn enemies (thinking back to that five-pointed star). And aside from your core troop selection of foot soldiers, archers, knights, and the like, other fantasy-based staples such as giants, dragons, and the requisite spellcasters can populate your barracks. Whenever Saga talks about troops, weapon upgrades, and buildings, they count in the hundreds, so there's rarely any shortage of aesthetic differences between the factions. If you're looking at a fortress from the faction of Light, you won't confuse it with one built from the faction of War, Machines, Nature, or Magic.
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