Originating on Nintendoís WiiWare service, Ant Nation is a strategy title requiring would-be ant gods to train a horde of minions to send out in defense and support of the colony. Sugar cubes must be mined, Roly Polies slaughtered, and gift boxes unwrapped to expand your army of formicidae. Unlike the WiiWare version, however, this is a more structured affair that requires the training of element-specific units to tackle nearly 100 missions. It is also unbelievably dull.
The idea of commanding an army of ants isnít new, Maxis Softwareís SimAnt: The Electronic Ant Colony being the most prominent example, but it is surprisingly underutilized. Few people havenít experienced the sudden terror of realizing that their shoe is covered in ants, only to then do the frantic slap-one-foot-while-hopping-on-the-other move. Who doesnít want to unleash those little devils on something Ė anything? Despite the magnified cartoon ant on the cover, cute as it may be, I was more than prepared to raise an army of bloodthirsty soldiers and march them to and over all opposition for the glory of the colony. Instead, what I got was a very slow and frustrating way to spend a few hours.
As the apprentice to a mad scientist with a newly created handful of genetically engineered ants, you are tasked with taking them out into the world and conquering enemy insects, ants, and nature itself. After picking a location, you then start off with a rather modest colony with enough housing for a group of workers and a group of soldiers. Using a convoluted series of menus, you will maintain and expand your colony by adding additional housing and brushing away waste while defending its entrance and resources. To expand your army, you will need the sweet, sweet riches of the outside world Ė gum and sugar Ė along with the security of your soldiers to fend off hungry insects and rival ants. Soldiers can be hardened and altered by attacking them, which sounds odd but is exactly what you do: light them on fire, pour water on them, or just pound them enough to where they can scurry back to the colony and mend themselves. Once healed, after consuming some food, they will return experienced and more resilient to the chosen method of attack. All the workers can do is run when danger appears. Well, you hope they run; unlike most strategy games, Ant Nation utilizes an indirect control scheme.
Flags are used to influence the antsí movement. There are two primary flag types, one for worker ants and another for the soldiers. In a very strange design decision, you have to actually unlock the selection tool for element-specific units. As you torture your ants to acclimate them to the elements, they don certain colors associated with their specialized role, such as red bands for fire and purple for poison, which are only visible when zoomed in on; otherwise, a filter system using the shoulder buttons is used to change the black specks to the chosen elemental color. You might be able to see what ants are fire or poison, but you cannot specifically choose them for quite some time, and that is why the entire set of selection tools is necessary: you donít want to send the entire horde to a situation requiring only fire-resistant units. Being able to select and direct unit types is a basic facet of controls, and it can be extremely frustrating to lose a mission because you couldnít properly split up your troops to tackle multiple objectives. The flag system also has some problems, one of which crops up whenever flag types are too close, causing the wrong one to be moved. The flags are also prone to lagging behind the stylus, which can make scrolling past the current borders a tedious process. And sometimes, the ants just donít move. You might want them to start harvesting that fresh sugar cube you found after sliding a leaf to the side, but the ants might decide to mosey about for a bit around the entrance, or get sidetracked by one of the numerous gift boxes lying around.
The gift boxes are important, though, because they contain either additional resources or access to one of the timed missions. Despite the hefty mission count, you will find yourself doing the same handful of tasks over and over: take on larger enemies, fend off invading rival ants (you know theyíre bad because they are the red specks), and destroy encroaching anthills. You can only do the same things for so long before you begin to nod off. Not only that, but the wait between missions is too long in the beginning; itís only after youíve amassed a significant number of workers and selection tools that you can divvy up them up into crews to work on gift boxes separately. Once youíve completed one areaís allotment of missions, the professor then sends you off into another themed area Ė dry plain, wetlands, volcano, etc. After about a dozen missions in the first area, though, youíve had your fill.
There really isnít that much strategy to speak of. I found that the most I had to worry about was managing the gameís two resources: energy and food. Food, what allows the colony to sustain itself and grow, is easy enough to come by. Energy, on the other hand, is earned through completing missions and is used in upgrading both castes. They not only build up resistance to the elements, but they can also endure sudden obstacles when attacked; this is particularly useful during combat, when the enemy makes a mad dash over a waterway to escape. It isnít uncommon to find yourself with a few thousand points of food and only a dozen or so of energy. The lack of energy is made worse by the fact that the game will let you complete an area before unlocking all of the missions, which means you will continue without all of that areaís unlockable selection tools and will be at a serious disadvantage during combat. This irked me more than a little as the game eventually introduces bugs prone to flying away as time runs low, which are much faster than your troops, and laser-shooting insects. Yep. A few losses will completely drain your energy reserves, which will force you to cannibalize a few units to harvest their energy for the colony, thereby reducing the workforce or the already depleted army.
The joy of an ant farm is watching hundreds of ants burrow, feed, clamor, and go about their chaotic business. It doesnít really matter what they are doing, just seeing them do it is interesting. Ant Nation doesnít have that appeal; the little black specs on the world map do a great job of portraying a horde, and it can be pretty cool to see them overcome a large foe (death to spiders!), but watching them mill about in the colony is tantamount to watching paint dry. After directing the workers to build a new chamber, they just blob together and slowly make their way through the dirt to dig out a new tunnel and enclave. The hypnotic nature of seeing hundreds of little creatures thunder about is lost, and you donít even get the crude, though cute, 3D models unless you have the magnifying glass equipped. The only hint at personality is the little icons that appear over them whenever theyíre in the world and exciting to find a resource (a smiley face), curious (a question mark), or excited (exclamation point). Either up close in the colony or from afar on the battlefield, thereís just not a whole lot going on.
Thatís really Ant Nationís main problem: itís boring. Regardless of whether youíre talking about the graphics, audio, insects, or mission types, there isnít a lot of variety. By the time youíre halfway done with the first set of missions, save for a new obstacle or two, youíve played all that the game has to offer. Even though there isnít a lot to it, there are a few times when the game either doesnít give information or isnít entirely clear as to what is going on. For example, after some missions you are awarded an item, whether itís a bomb to blow obstacles away or a stronger training tool, and one item is a laser that sets ants on fire but also requires a full drain once selected, without access to any other menus, which is something that isnít stated in its description. The menu system could also do with a hefty amount of streamlining, as youíll spend a significant amount of time just wading through the things. For a game with so little to do, the developers found the longest way possible to go about doing them. There is also a two-player mode, with one of your soldiers duking it out against a friendís, but itís about as engaging as the single-player campaign.
Ant Nation isnít necessarily a bad game, but it is, unfortunately, very boring and often frustrating. The handful of mission types and enemies arenít nearly interesting enough to keep you entertained for very long, nor is the design strong enough to warrant you sitting through hours of little black dots milling about, not doing much of anything. It isnít even appropriate as an introduction to the strategy genre, because the lack of anything to do in the beginning is both boring and confusing (is this really it?) while the later levels pile on frustrating challenges that the design often leaves you unequipped to handle without grinding. Donít be fooled by the gameís unassuming nature, itís a tedious and unsatisfying experience.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)