Version tested: Xbox 360
Moaning about the weather might well be a national pastime for the British, but there's one Very Good thing about being cold for much of the year: insects hate it. Unable to knit themselves little cardies and woolly hats, those big, bearded bugs would rather hang out a little nearer the equator. That's absolutely fine by me. I'll just put on an extra layer. It gives me the perfect opportunity to spend (even more) time indoors playing videogames in summer. Games like this rather spiffy turn-based strategy effort from NinjaBee - the developer behind Outpost Kaloki X and Cloning Clyde.
Given the worryingly low sales of the Advance Wars and Fire Emblem games in Europe, perhaps it's a genre with an image problem. "Turn-based strategy" hardly helps its cause; it's too literal a definition, and one that manages to make it sound like a nerdy boardgame with an arcane rule-set played at a deathly slow pace. The truth is more exciting, and far more addictive than most people imagine, and some time spent playing games in this overlooked category might surprise even the most hardened cynic.
Band of Bugs is as gentle an introduction to the genre as you'll ever see. It still features all the long-established play mechanics that every turn-based strategy game sports, but keeps them wonderfully accessible, and doesn't swamp you with too much information too soon. Warm of humour and dressed up in an art style half-inched from A Bug's Life, it's a simplified isometric take on the familiar premise where one army must defeat another, or achieve a set of specified objectives.
Anyone familiar with the Intelligent Systems classics down the years might find it a leeeetle lightweight for their tastes, but don't let its 'casual gamer' stamp put you off if you're thirsting for more of a Good Thing. As you'd expect, the game revolves around the fate of your gallant units as they're set against a similar number of enemies. It's kill or be killed. Or rather, kill, kill, kill again, and most likely reach an objective point on the other side of the map.
How you get there, and where you choose to position them is left up to you, but the general idea is you take it in turns to move any one of your units within a range of squares, and then mount your attack based on your unit's attack range. A typical grunt might be able to strike only adjacent units or travel only over land, but as you progress you gain access to a greater selection of units with abilities to fire projectiles from a safe distance, fly over water, tangle up an opponent, or heal other units. Each bug unit has its own set of basic stats, and these give you an idea of their offensive and defensive capabilities, likelihood of delivering 'critical' strikes and so on. It's all elementary stuff, and as such the gameplay is easy to slip straight into regardless of whether you're an old hand, or playing your very first turn-based title. And that's kind of the point.
There's plenty of value for your 800 Microsoft points, though, with 20 main story missions supplemented by a trio of utterly fiendish standalone missions, and configurable Skirmish missions where you can play variations on a theme (Capture, Elimination and Escape) to your heart's content. With 14 maps available for Elimination, seven for Capture and two for Escape, there's no shortage of challenges to try out once you've ploughed through the rest of the content.
And that's just the single-player portion. Online or local multiplayer offers everything the Skirmish mode offers plus an additional two 'missions' - Tag Team Stealth, and Tag Team Egg, where the idea is to work together to get to the other side of the map without losing units (Stealth), or retrieve the eggs (um, Egg). In addition, with all the Skirmish/Multiplayer modes you can play around with the amount of time you're allowed to take your turn, decide on the maximum number of players and even choose user-created maps if you so wish. Talking of which, the Level Editor couldn't be much easier either, with a wonderfully simple interface that allows you to quickly create maps with minimal effort. Raising or lowering terrain is little more than a case of pressing LB or RB, while adding the types of terrain or unit is a case of cycling through the d-pad in the appropriate direction and pressing A to place or B to erase. For the creative among you, it's a lovely addition.
As usual there's all manner of Leaderboards to compete on, Achievements to mine, medals to earn, and a price point that you can't really moan about. There's also the promise of downloadable content at a later date, too, so it could be a game you'll be coming back to for a long time to come. Then again, they all say that.
The only fly in the ointment, if you will, is the graphical style is all a bit unsubtle and cheap-looking. Coupled with the often unhelpful isometric view, you start to hanker after the style that Intelligent Systems has stuck to for all these years - simply because it works. Sure, you can zoom and rotate with ease, but when units are clustered together, it can be a little tough to discern between scenery and a unit - a factor that tripped me up more than once. The other thing that can get on your nerves a little is the game's reliance on random factors in battles. Sometimes the line between success and failure is so thin, that to lose a game based on chance at a crucial point can be a frustration. It'd be like deciding whether a Queen was capable of taking a Rook based on a roll of a dice. Either I should have a powerful unit or I don't - being damned with a 'weak hit' followed by a counter attack that kills your unit is a real bind.
Niggles aside, Band of Bugs is another solid addition to the increasingly well-stocked Live Arcade line-up, and although it's not the most astounding or original title, it's got the sort of charming pick-up-and-play feel that you want from a cheap, casual game. Definitely one to check out for fans of Advance Wars - and a great introduction for those who've so far avoided the turn-based scene.
7 / 10