There are signs of conflict in the next major video game from FarmVille and CityVille juggernaut Zynga, signs that might look to some long-time gamers of a bit of classic strategy games like Nintendo's Advance Wars being absorbed into a game Zynga might as well have called CombatVille. Or WarVille, if you will.
Starting on June 1, you can try it. It's called Empire & Allies, a familiar-looking game with some key changes to the popular Zynga formula.
At a glance, Empires & Allies looks like any other popular Zynga game. You're looking down on some terrain that you can build up. You can buy buildings, lay down farms, harvest resources, and you can do it all on the clock, clicking away to upgrade your beautiful plot of land.
The twist is that, in this game, you're building a military base, setting yourself up not simply for happy production but for combat against both computer-controlled enemies and invading friends.
I haven't played the game yet. I'll be able to on the same day you can, June 1, on Facebook, via this official Zynga web address. I was, however, given a remote demonstration of it by the game's producer, Amer Ajami, a former producer at gaming giant EA who worked on Lord of the Rings and Command & Conquer strategy games. (Might I also direct your attention to the game's acronym, E&A? Hmmm....)
Ajami started his demonstration of the game by showing me how to build up a town and base like you see here and in the image at the top of this story. You do this in the expected CityVille-style way, with all of the planning, clicking, and waiting-unless-you-want-to-pay-to-get-ahead that you'd expect from a ZyngaVille game.
One of the twists, he said, is that social interactions will involve more than just inviting people to help you develop your town and base. You'll also be able to make what Ajami called a "moral choice"... do you go to your neighbour's town to visit... or to invade? If you invade successfully, you'll gain control of part of the other player's map. Other players can do the same to you, though you can repel them. In the map that Ajami showed me, multiple buildings had red icons over them, signifying incoming attacks from so-called friends.
An invasion is fought through a battle screen like the one you see here. Conflicts are turn-based, using a rock-paper-scissors dynamic that defines each unit as strong or weak against other types. In a battle, you'll be able to choose from engaging with land, sea or air forces and then pick specific units that work best against the enemy units (for example, some kind of boats are strong against planes; others are weak).
Players of Empires & Allies won't just compete against each other. Ajami showed me a map of islands that represents a bona fide single-player campaign. That's another Zynga rarity, a storyline campaign, complete with scripted enemy encounters and boss fights. The first 14-henchmen campaign should last players a few weeks, Ajami told me, though it sounds like some of that may be due to level requirements that must be met before progressing. He said players should assume that the initial campaign is just a first chapter of what will be a continuously expanding campaign. A player will also be able to recruit friends to help them in their effort.
Empires & Allies certainly seems like a more aggressive game than what Zynga usually makes, but Ajami said his team at Zynga LA wasn't trying to make a game stereotypically just for the macho gamer or the hardcore Kotaku audience. The art style, he noted, is "very approachable", and definitely, to my eyes, is designed to be as welcoming as Nintendo's Advance Wars. The more likely hook for that more bellicose gamer would be depth, something ZyngaVille games have been accused of lacking. I couldn't judge the game's depth from my brief demo of it, but I was both heartened and disappointed to know of one planned added feature for the game: the developers will be adding the ability to improve units by researching better tech for them, a strategy game staple that would surely be more impressive if it was in the game at launch, rather than planned as a first-wave addition.
Zynga has recently added some all-time greats of PC game development to its fold, including Civilization strategy game pioneers Brian Reynolds and Bruce Shelley. Both consulted on the game, but Zynga LA led the effort. Former Infocom writer Bob Bates wrote some of the story.
New games from Zynga get mixed responses from those who absorb video game knowledge at outlets like Kotaku's. The experiences the company promotes do get labelled as shallow. But Empires & Allies signals at least an attempt to go in the very direction many have called for in this ZyngaVille genre: more depth, more complexity. Are they moving far enough in that direction? Try Empires & Allies on June 1 and see for yourself.