America is a real-time strategy game set in the American West during the expansion period of the 1800’s. Most of the games take place following the Civil War, so that is the technology level you can expect from the various opponents.
The world is divided into four factions vying for control of the land, which is mostly high-plains desert, but is also punctuated by natural resources like trees, gold, horses and wild animals. Each faction is historically accurate in the damage it does and relative power against other units – except for one faction, which for the most part is completely fabricated.
The different armies include the Union Army, the Mexican Army, the Indians and outlaws. Outlaws for the most part are fictitious. Sure there were outlaws in the old West, but other than a few highly-publicized incidents (The Cowboy Gang) they did not ban together in large numbers, and never set up townships. But I will describe each faction in detail a bit later.
Gameplay for America will seem very familiar to people who played Age of Empires and Age of Empires II. The interface is nearly identical, right down to the "Next idle villager button" that you can use to find townspeople who have completed their assignment and are sitting around without orders.
In most America games you start with a chief or general, a headquarters, and a few workers. You need to construct housing to support greater populations, and need to gather resources to support the construction. You can hunt animals for food, or cultivate fields if no wild game is present. Sound pretty familiar? It should, because this is exactly the way AOE works.
There are some differences from AOE however, and that is what makes America unique. For starters, the various factions (except Indians) can make guns. Guns, in case you don’t know it, give a huge benefit in combat. Besides extending the range of the unit’s effectiveness, units with guns do more damage than units without. Historically, this is probably the main reason the native American population was beaten in the territory wars. Indians in the America game can obtain guns by raiding enemy warehouses or trading for them, but even when equipped with guns they are not as effective as most Union or Mexican infantry, a tribute to their lack of formal training and drills with the weapon.
The buildings look realistic. Headquarters of the various factions have flags or other unique mementos to identify them. Forts and outposts have that rugged just-cut-from-pine quality about them and teepees are decorated in various designs. When a building is attacked it catches fire, and will eventually fall to rubble.
Ok, onto the different factions. I will rank each faction in order of their overall power in the game, since unlike most RTS titles, the different factions are not equal. This is not a problem in the single-player campaign because the missions are challenging-yet-winnable. However, in multiplayer it is good to know that not all sides are equal. Indians for example, are powerful initially because they can produce cheap units with limited resources. However, if Indians let the other groups build up, they will have little chance of winning.
The Union Army is the most powerful of the different groups out in the West. In this, the game is historically accurate. There is not much that can defeat a band of mounted cavalry on the warpath. Also, the Union can build forts, which are basically large walls that troops can go inside. The troops can shoot out of the walls, but attacking units need to destroy the fort before they can hurt the men inside.
The Union also can make cannons that do area of effect damage. Cannons don’t do well against moving troops because they are difficult to target. However, in a siege situation where many enemy troops are attacking a Union fort, they can decimate static formations. Although slow, you can move them to enemy locations and blow walls down.
The Union’s biggest disadvantage is that you have to mine a lot of gold and other resources to create your powerful units. Horses require food, and making guns is not cheap. So to get the aforementioned nearly unstoppable force, you have do a lot of buildup. Early on, protecting yourself with well-armed outposts is a smart move.
The Mexican army is nearly identical in strength to the Union Army. However, to show historical accuracy, they are slightly weaker. The main disadvantage is that Mexican cavalry do more damage when dismounted than they do when mounted. So you have to run your speedy force into battle, then have everyone dismount to attack. If your horses wander too far away during the battle you could lose them. And getting everyone back onto their horse is a pain anyway.
The outlaws are my least favorite faction, although they are powerful. They survive on distilled liquor, which means you don’t have to farm anything. They are pretty much medium strength in all areas, and their emphasis is on offensive operations. You can rob certain enemy locations to get resources if you don’t feel like working for them, but expect a pitched defense if you are playing a competent commander.
Indians are the weakest faction in the game. It is difficult to win with the Indians in multiplayer, and their single-player campaigns are no picnic. A group of three Union infantry men once snuck into my camp and killed most of my people before I was finally able to repulse them. The lack of guns is a real downer for the Indians.
You can trade for guns or steal them, but the game does not let you pick up guns from enemies you kill in the field. This is yet another disadvantage. You ambush a Union patrol and actually are able to kill some people, yet your braves can’t pick up the weapons. At least you can steal horses once the rider has been killed.
My biggest complaint however with this game is not in the multiplayer version, but in the single player missions. The single missions are directed, so that you have to solve the problem the game presents in the way they want. You can’t innovate. For example, in one Indian mission I was supposed to deliver 20 horses to a friendly tribe in return for some guns they had captured. The guns were then supposed to be used to attack a Union fort.
So the first thing I did was to build a corral to make horses. But guess what? They had disabled the button to make new horses. You had to go out and capture 20 wild horses, and many of the horses were inside the fort’s perimeter. The instructions for the mission failed to mention that the coral was worthless to me. I wasted resources building it, and I had to attack the fort early, which resulted in a lot of dead Indian braves.
In another mission, also in the Indian campaign, I built a camouflage school so I could cloak my warriors. But guess what? That option was disabled. Then I get attacked by camouflaged Indians because the computer opponent was able to use that technology. If you are going to be unfair to me, at least make the computer play by the same rules. Otherwise, you are artificially making the game harder than it actually is, and killing innovation on the part of the player at the same time.
Taken as a whole, this is a really fun title. Especially if you like the Old West setting, it’s a real treat. If you have played one too many games of AOE, America is a similar title that will keep you guessing as you learn the nuances of each faction. The game earns a respectable 4 out of 5 GiN Gems.