Empire of the Ants
Windows - 2000
Description of Empire of the Ants Windows
A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, where the Amiga still thrived, there was a software house known as Cinemaware. Cinemaware produced, amongst other things, a game called It Came From The Desert. This title was based loosely upon the black and white B movie 'Them' and, like the film in question, revolved around a horde of radioactive giant ants which had taken upon themselves to attack the local populace. You had to see the ants off and ensure the world was safe again for good old apple-pie eating Americans. And despite the fact that it was little more than a basic adventure game with a variety of mini shoot-the-ant type games mixed in, it was rather addictive. So it was with some measure of excitement that I greeted Microids' new release Empire of the Ants. After all, with a title like that it surely had to be set in some future world, perhaps after a nuclear holocaust, where Giant Ants ruled the world and man had to struggle to survive against the antennaed peril. And was it? Er, no.
Because there's nary a giant ant to be seen in Empire of the Ants. In actual fact, Empire of the Ants is a rather playable if slightly flawed strategy game set not in a post-apocalyptic landscape populated with super-sized ants but in the 'real' world, featuring normal sized ants going about their everyday business. You play an up and coming ant commander has been given the task of overseeing the welfare and expansion of a colony of russet ants. Through the game you have to build up your ant forces to the level where they can take on whatever foe awaits them outside the nest, or whatever objective has been set for that level.
You have two views of the miniature world of your ants - the first is the anthill view where you can dig out new tunnels and set up new rooms for your ants to use. And the second is the astral projection/disembodied spirit type view that most strategy fans will be familiar with, where you float eerily above the battlefield directing your troops. Now, the more astute of you might at this point be thinking.. 'Hang on.. an ant game with an anthill and above ground view? Didn't Maxis do that a few years back?' And you'd be right - Empire of the Ants does bear more than a passing resemblance to Maxis's Sim Ant. But whereas Sim Ant was a simulation of life in and above an anthill Empire of the Ants is more of a RTS strategy game with ants in it - which is where it falls down a bit, but more on that later.
As you'd expect, your ants need to food to survive so your first priority when starting one of the twenty or so single player levels is to track down a food source. These food sources can be found by taking control of a group of your warrior ants and getting them to scout around till they find a small apple icon, usually in the midst of some unappetitizing fungi. Clicking on this icon activates that food source and signals your worker ants to come out of the nest and start taking the food back into the anthill, and the same procedure applies to the building materials that your ants need to build and maintain rooms. You don't actually have any direct control over where your workers go - they'll automatically busy themselves, fetching food or resources, maintaining the nest, carrying ant eggs around the nest. Instead, by using the priority window you can tell what kind of tasks you want your ants to get up to - ranking some jobs higher than others or telling them to ignore certain tasks. This is mostly a boon to the game - it means you don't have to spend the game micromanaging your ants and telling them individually to go out and get food. But there is a minor downside to this in that it means you have to use your warrior ants to explore the landscape looking for more food (unexplored land being shrouded in black) when they could be defending the nest. Oddly you also can't send out an individual warrior ant to explore - they can only be selected and controlled in groups which is slightly mystifying.
Maintenance of your work force is important - if you run out of food, which your ants use up at a regular rate, they'll start expiring. So while you can order your ant queen to produce more eggs, which in turn hatch into different ant types, you have to make sure you have enough food to sustain them beforehand. It's also up to you to make sure you have enough warriors around to defend your workforce as there are plenty of predators around who take great pleasure in munching on any ants they come across. On the first level you only have to deal with a preying mantis - the aim of the level being to gather enough resources and food to defeat it - but as the game progresses things get tougher.
Not only do you have to deal with roving predators but there are also enemy ants (the object of many levels being to defeat them) who will happily lay into your ants as well. And while the roving predators stay around, the enemy ants have enough general gumption to actually get into your hive and start laying into your Queen. Lose your Queen, without a princess ant to colonise elsewhere , and the game is over. The enemy AI is fairly average so you don't have to worry about attacks coming in from several directions above ground, and there's only one way in and out of each ant hill (there are usually two or more empty anthill spaces you can occupy on each level) if you keep a good contingent of warriors around you should be able to keep your anthill safe. But then you have to somehow protect your workers from foes while they work - you can press the 'D' key to signal danger and have your workers and ants rush back to the safety of the anthill but they have to come out again to get food some time. Even if you build a mushroom within the anthill, it's still more efficent to nip out and get food, and knowing that your ants may starve adds a certain edge to each game.
I mentioned earlier that Empire of the Ants falls down in one respect, and that's the number of the units the game features. But I'm not referring to a lack of units, rather the fact that there are too many alternate ant units in the game. For the first couple of levels in the game, you may find yourself enjoying things, controlling your own ant colony and leading them to victory, especially if you're the kind of person who pores over nature programs and the like. However, from then on, you may find yourself becoming suspicious that what you're playing is little more than a bog standard strategy game with ants chucked in. This feeling creeps in as you find yourself presented with more and more units, such as ants that spit acid and even giant tank style ants. It may indeed be true that there are real-life ants that look like these units in the game, but I seriously doubt they all occur within a single ant species. And then you're likely to start looking at Empire of the Ants a not an ant game but as a strategy game and realise that it's rather standard fare indeed. Indeed, it offers the usual mix of units, resource collecting, 2D terrain, search and destroy or defend missions, and while it's set at a far smaller scale than most other games its appeal is a little bit limited.
As a whole Empire of the Ants is a bit of a curiosity. It does have a certain appeal initially but as mentioned above it becomes rather boring after a while. Granted, it's got ants in it which are the second best creatures ever (second only to bats and far better than dolphins or pandas), but serious ant fans, those who played Sim Ant are likely to be find themselves disappointed when the game starts throwing new ant units in. There's no denying the game does look good, looking pretty much as you'd expect someone's back garden to look, but that isn't enough for Empire of the Ants to become king of the strategy (ant)hill. It's also a bit behind in the multiplayer stakes in that there's no included matchmaking system so finding a multiplayer game is going to be a bit hard - there is a skirmish mode, but you still don't get the sinister satisifaction of trouncing a real person. It's a bit like Star Wars Monopoly - on first appearances it's Star Wars but then you realise it's just boring old Monopoly. If you are looking for a playable, original strategy game then you're best off looking elsewhere. And if you want ants, well, just buy an Ant Farm.
Review By GamesDomain
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