Saga (Hands On)


posted 7/20/2007 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista
One Page Platforms: PC
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.

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