Military Madness: Nectaris is the latest remake of an old TurboGrafx game that has seen a fair number of iterations over the years. Why do I bring this up? Because if you haven’t played one of those previous versions, this one is not for you. This game does everything that it can to scare away whatever new audience it might have found on XBLA, WiiWare, or PSN.
Military Madness: Nectaris is a turn-based strategy game played on a hex-based grid. To win, you either have to destroy all the enemy units or capture the enemy base. Factories are spread across each map and will give you additional units if captured, but the enemy can recapture them at any time, and any units currently inside will turn against you. It’s standard turn-based strategy for the most part, that is until you start to understand how the “zone of control” works.
The zone of control is the area immediately surrounding any friendly unit that no enemy unit can move through. What this means is that you can control the enemy’s movement by creating these “walls.” Of course, since these “walls” are made up of your own units, they can be destroyed, but sometimes it’s worth sending a small, fast unit to its death if it can prevent your opponent from entering a factory on his next turn. This is where much of the strategy lies in Military Madness: Nectaris. It’s not just about destroying units, but corralling them, cutting them off from potential backup and then destroying them. It’s common for both armies to meet at a factory in the middle of the map yet never capture it, even as units fall on both sides, because no ground troops (the only unit that can capture factories) are able to get through the zone of control.
This feature gives the game a great strategic depth, but a quick save option in the single player campaign encourages trial and error. You can save, make a move, and if it doesn’t work out like you wanted, then you load and try something else. On one hand, it saves you from the mind numbing frustration of having to play every level over from the beginning, but it also feels like a crutch put in to make up for poorly balanced teams and maps. There are some levels where the enemy starts out with an advantage either in unit strength or positions close to factories, and you’ll fall back on trial and error to pick at the defenses until you find a weak spot or get lucky. The zone of control still matters as it’s one of your major tactical tools, but it feels shortchanged here.
However, the first thing that you’ll notice when starting a new campaign is the utter lack of anything even resembling a tutorial. You’re just thrown into the game and expected to know how to play. There’s a help option in the pause menu, but that brings you to a list of 11 topics you have to read through to understand what’s going on. Even then you won’t learn everything. I still spent an annoying few minutes just trying to figure out how to move the cursor one hex at a time (you use the D-pad by the way). Unit information is in a whole other menu as well, and since it’s organized by unit type, looking up information on a unit that you know nothing about means slogging through sub-menu after sub-menu until you stumble upon the information you need.
In the beginning, you’ll get a new unit each level, but they all look so alike that you probably won’t even realize that it’s new until a few moves into the game when you select it and see its name. And thus begins yet another slog through the menus to see what this new thing does and what makes it different. It’s even worse it when the new unit is in a factory where you can’t see its range of movement. At one point I saw an Atlas in a factory and decided to deploy it so that I could play around with it. Turns out that it was a turret that can’t move on its own, it must be deployed into a transport vehicle to move, so upon deployment, it was stuck next to my base out of range of every enemy, a unit completely wasted. A quick load rectified the mistake, but it was annoying nonetheless. It would ease so much frustration if the game just flashed a notice when giving you new units. It could even display the same info already in the help menus. Just show it to me beforehand instead of making me look for it.
The multiplayer suffers from a similar flaw. It introduces a Commander unit and upgrades that change how the game is played, so all your time in the campaign won’t properly prepare you for multiplayer. Again you learn the facts from a menu that tells you want to do but not how to do it, so you’ll have to prepare to lose your first few online games while figuring out how to actually play. That is, if you can actually connect to a game, which is a rarity.
Military Madness: Nectaris constantly undermines itself. There’s a good strategy game hidden behind the quick save crutch and awful learning curve, but unless you’re dedicated to digging it out, you’ll probably get bored and angry long before you feel rewarded.