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You don’t need to be Fred Allen to know that mobile Real Time Strategy games are seldom well-done. Sadly a phone or tablet doesn’t have the requisite number of easily accessible input devices to allow for standard RTS play. Not that people haven’t tried to reproduce the Command and Conquer or Starcraft experience, but the results have been less than spectacular. RTS games that have succeeded on mobile–Rymdkapsel, Autumn Dynasty, and Alien Tribe 2 come to mind–do so by either reworking the concept of an RTS or creating new control schemes to simplify what’s possible with a keyboard and mouse. While these are all good games, none manage to create the same tension that desktop RTS titles are famous for.
Ironhide is known for their Kingdom Rush line of tower defense titles which managed to bring some interesting gameplay elements and humour to what was becoming a very stale genre. So the question is can they make a good mobile RTS title?
Iron Marines is set in a far future where humanity has been attacked by an alien species called the Fell. Think of the Flood from Halo but with fewer pixels and some much larger creatures. You are tasked with leading the troops retaking the mining planet of Sagan-1 using a collection of infantry and vehicles. Sagan-1 is the first of two planets in the game’s campaign, which has a total of 8 main missions and six “Spec Ops” side-missions that are not required to complete the campaign. The first three missions are tutorials but all eight missions have a variety of goals from protecting civilian populations, re-establishing communications devices, and rescuing an alien ambassador.
A mobile RTS is an exemplar of the adage “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. The RTS genre has three major themes – resource harvesting, base building and troop tech trees. These are all problematic on mobile. Mobile screens are physically smaller than desktop monitors (not accounting for pixel density) and, while no-one actually has hotdog fingers [Zac has yet to meet me in person. -ed], the finger is much less precise than a mouse. Or, at least, my fingers are. Your digits may vary. Thus, you can’t deftly control a host of mining drones a’la Starcraft much less have them taking up precious screen real estate. Bases can’t sprawl across the game area and its likely impossible to display the entirety of an RTS build tree on a phone screen. So how does Iron Marines address these issues?
The resource allocation method of the game requires you to remove Fell structures and then use your squads or hero to acquire the site. These sites either give you a resource called Etherwatt [if only I had an eye-roll gif to put here. -ed.] that you use to build troops, turrets, upgrade facilities, or unlock more troops slots. Games typically start with one or two slots (called Command Points) and as you open up the map and take control of more areas, more troops fall under your command as well. Your main base automatically harvests Etherwatt so that removes the need for drones. Finally, Iron Marines limits you to three types of infantry or vehicles that you have access to. In later missions three alien troop types fall under your purview as well. Upgrading troops via tech tree happens between missions, leaving you with nothing but the map to look at during a scenario. Unlike Alien Tribe 2 which distills the RTS experience down to the base building and harvesting elements, Iron Marines tries to give you all three by condensing them to fit into the limitations of the mobile device.
The troops in Iron Marines are very focused on particular tasks. Engineers take out buildings, Snipers are your long-ranged firepower, and Rangers are adept at taking out Fell monsters. Being limited by Command Points, you can change the role of your squad mid-mission. Rangers can become Engineers to take out a building and then switch to Snipers to provide some precise long-range fire. The same holds true for the walkers in the game. The Flame Walker can be converted to Missile Support when needed or a hand-to-hand Brawler if the situation calls for it. That’s Iron Marines secret: few troops on the map, but you always have access to the type of troop you need.
The limited number of troops on the screen makes control and movement much simpler and, “hotdog finger” comments aside, it is usually quite simple to move individual squads or vehicles to precise locations on the map. The game also scrolls well when dragging out to movement locations. Troops will usually fire on the closest enemy troops or buildings but you can select a specific target and your troops will engage it. Your hero has two special abilities to use in game (and these have the traditional cool-down timers on them) and accessing them via two on-screen buttons is a breeze, but not breezy enough that you’ll continually hit them by accident.
As with the Kingdom Rush series, Iron Marines has a layer of IAP added the the game. Additional heroes are available for $2.99 each and you can also purchase in-game currency which is used to to buy additional power-ups like freeze missiles or mines. With the ability to replay missions to earn more currency, there’s no real reason to succumb to IAP.
The small size of the screen and the 4:9 ratio of most devices means there’s a lot of happening off-screen. Enemies come from off-screen areas and sometimes Fell emplacements are bombarding you from afar and you can’t quite see them. This sounds like a problem but, since you are never far from moving to the sides of the game area with your troops, you can quickly move to engage new threats without feeling like the game is cheating.
As is the case in their Kingdom Rush games, each map can have collapsible barriers or hidden areas which open to allow ingress to your base or a different focal point of the map without you knowing it. The game also will spawn enemies from areas of the map that you can’t access but this is an irregular occurrence. The end result is that there is almost constant pressure on your troops and bases often from multiple locations. This helps ratchet up the tension to the levels you’ll find in desktop RTS titles.
There are a few wrinkles. You can’t access enemy unit stats except for a pop-up which appears the first time that the unit appears in the game. The same limitation applies to details about your troops, turrets and their specific upgrades. Its also unclear if turret upgrades are always active once you buy them or if they need to be activated. These omissions are puzzling because Ironhide Game Studio clearly put a lot of time into Iron Marines. The achievements and even the tech upgrades are riddled with sci-fi, comic and video game references. Many of the missions have hidden achievements in them like the monolith in Mission 4. Additionally, the screen can get quite crowded and it’s easy to lose your troops in a flood of attackers.
Iron Marines is a bit cramped on an iPhone 6s but still imminently playable. Your game experience might be more enjoyable on a tablet, however. There is no multiplayer available and only 14 available missions, but Ironhide is already teasing more. The sounds and animation are wonderful, as you would expect given their past experience with the Kingdom Rush series, but ultimately what makes this title a success is the tension and drama that the game creates. I am still hesitant to replay Mission 6 as I only just won it the first time by the skin of my teeth. Iron Marines is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, and can proudly be awarded the “first real RTS on mobile” award.
Now excuse me, I need to go and see if I can finally kill the Fell Bishop.