[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.
Player vs. player is still in the works -- as forming player alliances and waging kingdom-wide war against others is the reason for being in Saga -- but several player vs. environment missions are there if you're feeling more or less masochistic one day compared to the next.
I say "masochistic" because these missions are seemingly where Saga prides itself on its belittling level of difficulty. The enemy AI is relentless, drops 50% to 75% more units on the field than you are able drop at the start of any given skirmish, and the AI doesn't generally adhere to the same Art of War that you must abide by. The current "working" strategy in PvE combat is to field a single unit (or "card," as Saga refers to them) of your troops at a time, allow your unit to get pummeled by the enemy, and then immediately throw out another one of your units to chip away at the bad guys, until it also dies and you eventually run out of reserves. Ordering your troops into a tight formation to combat foot soldiers, or a loose formation to better defend against missile units, quickly becomes a non-point, since the enemy will field a good variety of ground and missile troops together to castrate such strategies.
Despite the fact that units earn experience even when they lose battles, odds are that you will lose far more than you will ever win -- something like 5:1 -- at least at the introductory levels. And while your soldiers take a sound beating, whom you must resurrect in the temple with "God Favor" and reinstate into the units they once belonged to (a repetitious chore), your "experience" on the field of battle still levels you up. All the while the enemy levels up exponentially higher to keep the odds consistently out of your favor.
While producer Saga Games insists that balancing issues are being addressed, it still appears as though that their general gameplay mechanic is in place, and this one-unit-at-a-time vs. multiple-enemy-units will apparently serve as the bread and butter of Saga combat. It's painfully counter-intuitive: It's akin to sending 300 Spartans against 10,000 Persians … except that your Spartans totally suck and invariably die, over and over again. Roll credits.
Again, this may change at higher levels (several players have posted on the forums ways to "farm" certain missions, and they also share a couple cheap tactics to utilize against the enemy AI) but the opening levels of Saga are indeed brutal and demoralizing. No, I doubt that any Saga player wants an experience where you can just burn through your first 12 levels by killing rats and rabbits like any standard MMO. But there's some hidden trick to doing well in Saga that isn't readily apparent -- nor is it apparent after reading through the official website's game encyclopedia. Giving Saga Games the benefit of the doubt, I turned again to GamingNexus' resident strategy experts, Tyler and Tom, and they're both near the point of tipping over their king pieces and admitting defeat.
Perhaps the secret is in purchasing superior units and equipment (cards) with real-world money, as this is how the free-to-play model actually earns capital for the producers. But unless Saga Games can create a level playing field for just-starting players, they won't ensnare enough of them to stick around for the long haul. If the free portion of the game is baffling and nonsensical, then it's doubtful a player will shell out cash for more of the same.
The city-building level of Saga is thoughtful and deliberate -- I can't express enough excitement at the thought of raising my own walled city. And even though it takes 5 or 6 hours of real-world time to open a lumber mill, it constructs itself and carries on business even when you're offline (think EVE Online's skill-building system). But until the developers go back to the drawing board on their misaligned hard-knocks combat model, it'll be tough going for a novice looking to start their own saga.