Review: Military Madness: Nectaris (WiiWare)

Tactical Mutually Assured Destruction

They say the moon is a harsh mistress — especially when it's home to prisoners building a super weapon to destroy Earth! This is the setting of Military Madness: Nectaris, a tactical strategy game which originally appeared on the Turbo-Graphx-16 as Military Madness (and in its native Japan as Nectaris). This revamped WiiWare version proves to be faithful to the gameplay of the original, only adding graphical and multiplayer enhancements to what was a solid strategy game in the 8/16-bit era.

As with the original, you'll find 32 single-player maps available for play in the main Campaign, which is split into Normal and Advanced difficulties. These maps place you in the role of a lunar Union army attempting to quell the Axis prison uprising before they construct a weapon that threatens Earth. Each map presents different terrain and force complements provisioned to each side. The goal is simple: either destroy all enemy forces or seize control of the enemy base within 50 turns. Gameplay is similar to tactical RPG's like Fire Emblem, but without the RPG aspect: players take turns moving their units across the hex-gridded battlefield and attacking enemy forces where applicable.

Though your units are displayed singly on the map for play purposes, each is conceptually a squad composed of up to eight members. Different units have different movement rates over varying terrain types and offensive and defensive abilities which are enhanced when they work in concert. There's strategic use of terrain (attackers at superior elevation will do more damage to defenders below them) and the concept of "zones of control," whereby enemy movement can be restricted by proximity to hostile forces. Attack and return-fire are simultaneous, meaning it's possible for two units to destroy each other, but any unit that does damage to an enemy and survives will see its rank increase, providing an additional damage bonus in future battles. In addition to the strategic elements indicated already are the presence of factories to occupy in later maps, which allow the controlling player to repair damaged units and often contain extra forces to deploy against your foe; and transport units that can quickly move slower units over difficult terrain.

Enemy AI in the single player campaign isn't going to rival that of a good chess program, but it's capable of some decent strategy: racing for unoccupied factories, sending damaged units back for repair or attacking weakened targets that pose the greatest threat — such as those capable of shooting down "aircraft" or capturing bases/factories. Nevertheless it won't be as tough as a good human opponent, sometimes failing to take advantage of player mistakes or going on the offensive prematurely. In fact, much of the challenge posed by the AI in the early maps comes from having an advantage in the form of exclusive use of powerful aircraft or starting out controlling a factory whilst you're left scrambling for one.

The biggest complaint we have is the lack of basic unit information. The Operations Guide is a must-read due to the lack of any in-game tutorial, but despite the fact that there are literally dozens of different kinds of units, nowhere will you find them listed as you did in the instruction manual of the original game on the TG-16. There's a description of the different types of units with a couple examples indicated by image only: those that can move and then attack; those that can move, attack and then move again; those that can either attack or move; and those units that are fixed to one spot. Whilst each unit has a set of stats displayed when selected allowing you to see at a glance if it can attack enemies on the ground, in the "air" or both, you won't know about any restrictions on attacking until you actually try it out. The "info" button will display the currently-selected unit's movement range and available targets so you can get to grips with it pretty quickly. It also helps that many of the units are different varieties of tank, infantry or aircraft with different movement ranges and attack strength.

The original Military Madness/Nectaris offered the ability to play a game against a friend, but this new WiiWare release ups the ante by offering four-way multiplayer. The Remote-only control scheme works well enough, but requires a bit of button chording, so prepare to buy a bunch of Classic Controllers for you and your mates if they like some strategic combat. Forces are differentiated by use of different colours, but those individuals suffering from colourblindness can take heart that there is an option to display labels over different players' units to address that issue.

The map choices are rather restricted and differ from those of the single player campaigns: choice of three maps (or random selection of same) for two players and one map each for the three- or four-player games with the option of team-play. You select the number of rounds of play from 10 to 30 with a total time limit of 10 to 30 minutes. Each player has a clock that's ticking whilst they make their moves and if they run out of time they don't get any more turns, so it pays to plan your next move in your head whilst your opponents are taking their turns. Unfortunately there's no choice of units available — that's all pre-determined. The closest you get to choosing units is the presence of a new multiplayer-only unit, the Commander, which can be customised to enhance various capabilities in combat or provide support features to allied units within three hexes of it.

A further multiplayer offering is online play via Wi-Fi Connection, which will work great for friends who've exchanged codes, but for people looking for a random match-up is less than ideal. You either can host a match or join one; the problem is that there's no lobby area as such, so if you want to host you'll be sitting there waiting for someone else looking to join a match; if you're wanting a three- or four-player match that could prove a long time indeed — depending on how active the online community becomes. We were able to participate in a two-player match on a map that seemed a bit on the small side with a factory in the centre to fight over. Whilst we did pretty poorly it wasn't down to any networking problems, so we hope that strategy fans will be playing each other actively online once they've gotten familiar with the different units from the single-player campaign.

A helpful addition exclusive to online play is the ability to plot out your moves during other players' turns. Ordinarily your opponents will see you moving your cursor around as you inspect enemy units and move your own, but by using the pre-play option your strategy can remain hidden until it's your turn, at which time you can simply move your units along the paths you've already laid out. It's a nice feature that takes advantage of the fact that players aren't in the same room and can add to the challenge inherent in going up against a human foe.

Graphically there's no question that this is superior to the TG-16 game on the Virtual Console: everything is rendered nicely in 3D with good use of shadows to illustrate hill mounds and craters; units have sufficient detail to be easily told apart from each other. The hex grid is only revealed when units are selected or information displayed on all the units on the map. You can also pan and zoom the camera to get a full view of the proceedings (which is easier using the analogue sticks on the Classic Controller than holding buttons and using (DPAD) on the Remote). During combat sequences you can watch a full-screen display of the opposing sides in squad formation firing at each other. This can be skipped with a press of (B), but it's cool to see what the units look like up-close in the absence of any kind of in-game guide or "bestiary."

Conclusion

Military Madness: Nectaris is a nice update to a classic strategy game. Players who've been waiting to see if this is a worthy replacement for the game currently available on the Virtual Console can rest assured that this is the case and the enhanced multiplayer options should provide an incentive to purchase for those who have it already. A level editor and ability to choose units would have been appreciated for long-term replay value, but you'll get a lot of mileage out of the single-player campaign as-is. Newcomers would certainly have benefited from some kind of tutorial, but a read of the Ops Guide and some time with the single player campaign will have you up to speed and ready to do battle online with friends in Vietnam in no time.