As the BBC's "Robot Wars" TV series has proven, there's something strangely entertaining about watching bizarre home-made robotic contraptions reducing each other to their constituent parts. Now Liquid Edge Games are bringing this form of mechanical carnage to the PC, with an unusual online game called RoboForge.
Boys With Toys
As the name suggests, RoboForge is all about designing and building robots. A bewildering range of different components are available for you to bolt on to one of the basic chassis types, allowing you to create a virtually limitless array of unique and outlandish robotic gladiators.
Top on your shopping list should be a controller, the computer which governs your robot's behaviour; without one of these you won't get far! Next add one or more power sources to keep the machine moving, and a selection of sensors to detect the presence of your opponent. Shielding can be placed to protect delicate components, and various bits of bodywork bolted together to extend your robot's hull and provide more hard points for additional equipment to be attached to.
Although you can win a battle by just repeatedly ramming your opponent with a heavily shielded bot, it generally pays to have some form of offensive weaponry. Limbs can be attached to your hull, while joints and rotators allow them to smash your target with whatever weapon you put on the end of the arm. These vary from hammers and circular saws to pistons and spikes, all of which produce satisfying clanging noises and a shower of sparks and explosions as they rip through an enemy's armour.
Standard Operating Procedure
Once the robot gets into the arena you will have no direct control over its actions, so you need to program and train the machine before sending it into battle for the first time. This is all done in the workshop area, where you can set attack zones and moves using a simple mouse-driven interface.
Basic moves are programmed by simply moving any joints and pistons and then hitting the snapshot button to tell the computer to remember that position. Two or more positions form a simple attack, with the computer swinging or extending its arms according to the movements you selected, and hopefully making contact with the enemy in the process. By setting up multiple attack zones you can make the robot behave differently depending on which one your opponent enters, allowing you to program front and side attacks, or seperate high and low strikes depending on the size of the enemy.
Using an AI node system you can also combine several simple boolean functions to create more complex behaviour, taking into account factors such as range, direction, health, speed, weapons reach and time. For example, you could program your robot to circle around an enemy and attack it from the rear, to keep a certain distance away from the enemy if your weapons reach is greater than his, or to run away if there is only ten seconds left to fight and you are winning on points.
If this is all sounding rather complicated, you will be glad to hear that the game also comes with a selection of ready-to-use AI routines for attacking, retreating, locating the enemy and avoiding the walls of the arena. In fact, if you use the bot wizard function to create your robot rather than building it entirely from scratch, much of the hard work is done for you, including simple attack routines. All you need to do to get into battle is to choose which chassis, controller, power source, weapons and armour you want to use and then drag and drop a few preset AI routines into your machine's memory. It takes just a couple of minutes to build a robot this way, and you can be fairly certain that it will at least work.
Before you send a robot into battle you should first put it through its paces offline. There are several test bots available to spar against, ranging from passive crash test dummies to heavily armoured rams and aggressive long-armed machines that will try to pick you apart from a distance. You can also make your own robots fight against each other if you have more than one in your garage, allowing you to compare their strengths and weaknesses and spot any obvious flaws in your design or AI.
Once you have checked everything is in order it's time to go online, and this is where the real fun begins. Obviously you can chat with other players and challenge their robots for bragging rights, but the game will also feature regular pre-arranged tournaments which you can enter your bots into. As in boxing, these competitions are split into different classes to keep things fair, although in RoboForge it is the cost of your robot rather than its weight which is used to seperate the armour-plated juggernauts from the cheap-and-cheerful bodge jobs.
With the game undergoing final beta testing at the moment, there are already upwards of a hundred people entering some of the tournaments, with new events kicking off every couple of days. And because the bouts are all controlled by the AI, all you have to do is pick a robot from your garage and check that it meets the entry requirements then click on the appropriate button to enter it into the tournament. When the event ends battles are calculated by the game's central server, and you can watch not only your own robot's performance but also the final and semi-final matches of the tournament. Even on an analogue modem it shouldn't take more than a few seconds to download and process the necessary data to watch one of these battles, making it ideal for spectators.
Points Mean Prizes!
To give you an extra incentive, some of these free tournaments should feature sponsored prizes such as consoles or hardware, while others will offer pieces of unique RoboForge equipment which winners can then add to their robots and use in future battles.
Liquid Edge are also planning to introduce frequent pay-to-play tournaments, which would cost around $5 to enter. Depending on the number of people taking part, these could offer cash prizes adding up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Of course, how this works out in practice will largely depend on how popular the game proves to be - if only a handful of people are entering pay-to-play tournaments the prizes won't be too impressive, but if the game takes off in a big way the top players could conceivably make a living from training virtual robots. There is even talk of invitational tournaments for the top players featuring even bigger prizes.
RoboForge is certainly an interesting idea, and the tournament structure that Liquid Edge has planned could prove a draw for casual gamers and the hardcore alike. The graphics are hardly stunning, but the robots themselves are quite nicely detailed, and the more interesting battles can be highly entertaining to watch, as a pair of metal monstrosities go at each other with chainsaws, rotating knives and giant spikes flailing around on the ends of telescoping arms.
Unfortunately sign-ups for the beta test are now closed, but if you think it sounds like your cup of tea you can currently pre-order the game for $14.95. Check the RoboForge website for more details.