Saturday, December 24, 2011

Days of Ruin's poor aging

The turn-based strategy game series Advance Wars has had a Broken Base for years, but Days of Ruin had managed to aggravate the issue. Some believe that They Changed It, Now It Sucks, others believe that it's a godsend for balance. I can see the latter being believed after the disaster that was Dual Strike. But really, DoR still has balance problems that PUNISH map creativity. My custom map, Mutiny Mountains, makes DoR's more blatant flaws crystal clear.

Before I talk about said flaws, I have to elaborate on what Mutiny Mountains is about:
*There's a lot of properties--about 35 per side, though don't think you'll have ridiculous income.
*There are 2 production areas for each player:
-One in the south, holding the player's HQ, 3 Factories, and 2 Airports
-The other on the opposite corner of the map, in the north, with 1 Factory and 1 Airport as well as some AA units that are trapped by Mountains to keep them from being free units, but ultimately serve to prevent harassment on this front.
*None of the deployment properties are preowned by the player, so they have to be captured by the predeployed Infantry--3 on the main deployment front, 1 on the back attack front.
*3 of 1P's deployment properties are controlled by 2P, which is the position FTA counter.
*The 6 center-most Cities on the center front are controlled by the player opposite the respective sides, providing an additional 3000G of income per side. The enemy side properties, as you can gather, are the main gimmick of the map, and combined with the delayed deployment makes it plausible to build value units early enough. (Free advice: be careful about what you build early on, so that you don't have to deal with hard counter shenanigans.)
*There are 4 paths: the one from the back attack build area (attack), the north path which is wide open (direct fire), the diagonal path which provides difficulty with terrain (range fire), and the south path where you can try for an HQ raid (defense); the latter 3 all from the main deployment area
*They lead to 3 areas where you can expect combat: the north, where you can see if you get to flank well (first path); the center, where strong control will earn you higher property control; and the south, where overwhelming control provides you the opponent's HQ.
*To prevent center camping with tanks--by the way, I think it happens because they have 55% mirror matchups (resulting in decent self-countering) and an easy time surviving hard counters, there are Forests in the paths from any and all Factories that slow them down regardless of which Factory they use. All of the proximity Forests merely slow down units, since they are nowhere near where any relevant combat could take place. This allows air units to fight back against center camping, and then AA units to be useful because they are primarily defensive enough to not care too much. Indirects, meanwhile, actually suffer because they're slowed down even more, but they still have their uses for defense. Infantry benefit from slower vehicles, but still have to contend with diagonal movement.

Okay, all that out of the way, you can guess that the map has its merit, and indeed with decent play (assuming no overbuilding on either side, obviously), it's not hard to have several value units while the Day counter is still within single digits. And there's decent variety, that's good. But want to know what ruins the whole thing? What ruins it is that it's incredibly unlikely to have a SINGLE value unit come out of the back attack properties, and just as unlikely to have value units hanging around the south at all. Okay, what gives?

Well, there are several things that annoy me about Days of Ruin's so-called-balance, just on their own. But individually, they turn out to be NOTHING to when you put quite a few of them (if not all of them) together. As it turns out, the game is overly reliant on the CO unit system's handling to try to balance the game.

Yes, that's right. To begin with, I have complaints about the CO unit system's handling. In a more attrition-based map, it's virtually effortless to give up one value unit to strengthen multiple units considerably, with NO other drawback in general. But here, money is so easily spent on just managing a defense that you probably will not have enough to be able to CO.

Here's why: 1500G Infantry. This does have the basis that it becomes impossible to send an Infantry out every turn. But the problem wasn't them being inexpensive enough to be spammable, it was the excessive difficulty in KOing them with impunity. Oh, but wait, you can do that more easily anyway? With what? The units that require the extra funds I have to spend on CORE UNITS? And COing itself is hard to do on the map. But when I think about it, the reason why COing would require effectively only half a value unit's price, not even spent on the building turn but the following turn so you can at least use COing as a threat (all the credit I'll give the otherwise effortless junk), is because of the 1500G Infantry junk. Which is an incredibly stupid reason for incredibly stupid execution.

What they should have done is increase the general damage of 1HK units. But as is, above-105% base matchups are overly conditional. In fact, you can organize the above-105% base matchups into only 4 categories, one of which is extremely stupid. (Submarine's 110% against the Aircraft Carrier.) Only 2 of those categories even affect non-naval battles. In them, it's either the Bomber against infantry, which is NOT cost-effective at all, not even close; or attacking a helicopter, which ANYBODY, even Ubel, being shocked or confused by would show stupidity that would amaze Kaiser Vlad, who was Dangerously Genre Savvy enough to expect Ubel failing, not to mention having attempted at least 24 of the 36 Strategems.

Anyway, limited above-105% base matchups is a problem because it's easy to gimp them. There isn't a single factor that provides offense and never provides defense. And with just Plains defense, 105% falls to sub-100%. That's right: offense has to avoid being outpaced by more than an immensely marginal amount to be able to manage 1HKs with 105%, but this is simply impossible to do in general if the enemy units are off of Roads, not exactly a common scenario. This is a problem because the one unit that deals above-105% base damage to infantry units at all is tied for the most expensive non-sea unit.

Also, the damage formula change sucks. It may result in weaker unit defenses, but last I checked, Geo Effects is supposed to keep you safe from hyper accurate enemy units. Terrain being even weaker than it was in previous AWs only serves to bolster them, and Artillery weren't exactly friendly to deal with in earlier AWs.

Of course, Artillery do have problems on the map, because they still do have mobility and net range problems. They're lucky if they're around without position sacrifice by the time the value unit forces collide, which happens by Day 10. This isn't a bad thing, except for one thing: the tech units.

Let me clarify what had happened in the past: infantry swarming was so rampant in the old games, because tech units couldn't even do anything useful in general. They were still only one unit each, which means that even if they could 1HK, which doing so itself was questionable because the AWs think it's a bright idea to have base damage values exceeding 105% be overly conditional, they still had to deal with the nasty swarm storm due to their high costs. You couldn't use them effectively at all until too late unless there was blatant front imbalance. Don't get the memo? Here's the short version: KOing units had been balanced around Roads, not more important terrain like Cities.

But alas, IS's solution was not stronger tech units, but overly efficient semi-tech units. Actually, they're not even balanced with each other, AA Missile Launchers and Anti-Tanks having obscene problems. But the Medium Tank (the actual one, which costs only 12000G) and the Duster are the no contest ones.

Let's elaborate on why the Medium Tank is too strong: to start with, it's a tank, so it shares the Light Tank's problem that it is a primary unit that self-counters decently. But that's not the only problem, oh no. It has 5 Movement Power, but that's more than enough to make it a pain to deal with. Because it's stronger, it deals with value units better, but what really is aggravating is that the one below-15K unit that works well at countering it, the Battle Helicopter, deals only 45%. The way the map is, it is not hard to make sure any Battle Helicopter that tries this gets butchered by an AA Tank. That's right: the Medium Tank abuses support like nothing else. I don't mind if it can throw off bazooka toting soldiers, but when it throws off value units too, that's a problem.

But it's nothing compared to the Duster. The Duster is simply ridiculous. Sure it can't hurt armored units very well, but it's not going to care. It's a below-15K unit that has 8 Movement Power unhindered by terrain. What's worse is that only two units below its cost can even HIT it, and in comparison, BOTH of them have enough problems with the terrain, and the cheaper one is still above half the Duster's cost. And while you're busy getting the funds needed to fend off the bloody thing, it's definitely hitting everything it can itself. Either that or it center camps, which is certainly efficient enough. And seeing as it can be built to respond to a Battle Helicopter, this means that tanks are even more nasty to deal with, because you can't build air units or you will just get countered.

At this point, you're probably begging to be able to 1HK the bloody thing or potshot it with other units. Nope, not happening. AA Tank deals only 75% base, meaning 120 Net Attack requires INSANE luck to 1HK it. And only a few units can attack planes to begin with. The Fighter itself has problems that has it underpowered, but the Duster would deserve to have more defense problems, seeing as it's not even hard for what amounts to a ~70% ATK Fighter, when Fighters don't care enough about attack multiplier, to use other traits to make up for that problem. And they have the added advantage of being able to harass the back attack front before they can reasonably set up because the 1500G Infantry make it implausible to set up a halfway reasonable defense there without compromising center front position.

So because you're spending God knows how much money to even survive, you can't build units on the back attack front, which leaves your already fewer infantry there vulnerable. Now you can argue to make sure attack is delayed, but this brings up another problem: Bikes. They do exist to make sure you can capture properties faster. But here's what happens: Bikes do their job too well. Sure they practically need the open path Factory, but if they save even one turn of movement compared to an Infantry, they make up for their additional cost, only now you have a better version of an Infantry unit. Why can't they have less defense? It would stop them from being able to meatshield, and overzealous usage of them would end up actually being punished. Instead, what we get is front properties getting contested TOO quickly, resulting in having to attack the center mercilessly.

TLDR version: COing only requires effort because of 1500G Infantry, 1500G Infantry's problems add up quickly, Bikes are more OP than Infantry ever were, semi-tech units need to be not so efficient at holding ground, and Geo Effects should affect hyper-accurate units more.

Granted, as it turns out, the map ends up overcentralizing Transport Helicopters. Here's what happens: the Transport Helicopter uses an Airport instead of a Factory, meaning that its 5000G cost is painfully low because 2 of them are effectively only a little more than a single combat value unit, and it can be used not only to rush Infantry more easily, but it works as a meatshield because you can't even 2HK it without an AA unit or an overly expensive unit for the job, and as to options involving the former, you don't want to expose your AA units or you end up with considerably reduced air cover from them getting killed back. They don't see use on "standard" maps because 5000G for a unit that can't attack is rather much in the early game on them, and by midgame, infantry are around the center anyway. On Mutiny Mountains, properties aren't easy to obtain quickly but the center ones are preowned by the opponent. Of course, placing more than 30% blame on the map itself is questionable at best because the Transport Helicopters can also deliver Mechs to the frontlines without trouble.

Since I'm complaining about helicopters, I ought to make another complaint: the Battle Helicopter, believed to be the sought after hard-counter to Light Tank spam and Medium Tank abuse. Now don't get me wrong, I do agree that the damage buff toward Light Tanks was useful, if because Battle Helicopters themselves are more expensive and ought to deal decent damage before AA Tanks can zip in and ground them. Although it's overrated, but first, I also need to mention that they take more damage from potshots, which is actually a good idea to prevent the same sort of flak that its Battalion Wars' equivalent, the Gunship, deserves, but problems occur when you consider that means it's supposed to be a Glass Cannon as a result. A Glass Cannon that deals only 65% base to Mechs and Artillery? If you're even hitting Mechs in the first place, even a 1HK isn't cost effective. And in the cases where it would help, 65% requires ~140 Net Attack for 1HKing, WITH incredible luck--otherwise, it would be ~155. Good luck with that. 65% to Artillery, meanwhile, is inconsistent with the 70% to Light Tanks, but that's not the only problem. Oh no, Artillery cost only 6000G in the expectancy that indirects being unable to move and fire on the same turn (except the Battleship) would really hurt them, much to the game programmers underestimating them. Of course, it's most likely in a defended position to begin with, so you would need to make sure you're capable of a mass attack or the AA Tank that is guarding it WILL massacre your Battle Helicopter.

Another complaint I have is relating to the fact that in a sense it IS a Glass Cannon: it deals 35% base to the War Tank. In the older AWs, the MD Tank took 25% base, which makes the MD Tank good at punishing front imbalance because you can't hard counter it without a tech unit or indirect. Here's the problem, though: the War Tank has only 4 Movement Power hindered by terrain, which means it can't center camp very well to begin with. Keep in mind that 7/10 of 35% is barely even above 25%--and I'm using the math of the old formula and City defense, not the math involved with the changes. Though the damage increase is not necessarily a bad idea, just plagued with the bad execution that is the formula's problem that lower damage values are almost unaffected. The very reason why I think Artillery dealing 35% to the War Tank is an insufficient nerf when 72 Net Attack, such an achievement in this game, thank you again weaker terrain defense, still lets it 4HK it, never mind that it doesn't even need to KO the War Tank, which doesn't even have any damage values above 105%, which means no partial HP 1HKing without attack boosts outpacing defense boosts.

I'll continue about NW in another post. I might have had more complaints about DoR's problems, but the chief ones should be covered here.

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