Platforms: iOS (Reviewed), Android

Zynga, the mobile gaming behemoth behind popular casual games like Words with Friends, Farmville, and Draw Something, is using its latest title, Empires & Allies, to hopefully ensnare a new gamer demographic: military strategy fans. Empires & Allies takes the base-building and unit-based battles found in real-time-strategy franchises like Starcraft or Command & Conquer and separates them into two distinct gameplay systems that actually synergize quite nicely. Sadly, Empires & Allies also has plenty of the familiar F2P flytraps that Zynga and many other mobile developers are infamous for which is a shame since the game has plenty to love for a casual RTS fan.

A Distilled, Accessible Experience

One of the things that Empires & Allies manages to do very well is take the familiar trappings of the RTS genre and strip them down to the bare essentials, making it into an experience that even those who are completely unfamiliar with the RTS genre can get into. You are put into the role of a nameless commander in charge of leading a rebellion force against the evil GRA, a terrorist organization that has managed to constrict the entire globe in its iron grip. This loose story isn’t really meant to be anything else other than a justification for why you’re slowly conquering different regions of the globe (it paints you as a liberator instead of as a conqueror) and in that regard it does its job admirably enough.

In order to help you take the fight to the GRA, the game allows you to establish and build up your own base of operations and customize your base’s layout as you see fit. Your base is also where you recruit various types of units such as squads of soldiers, tanks, APC’s, jets, and other combat-ready personnel and vehicles. You then use these units along with commander powers such as air raids and unit healing to launch offensive strikes against the GRA’s bases in different regions of the world and use the resources you gain both over time and by completing missions to upgrade your base and recruit newer, stronger units. It’s a feedback loop that many mobile/F2P gamers are likely familiar with already but it’s made more compelling thanks to a few wrinkles Zynga also added in.

Playing (And Competing) Your Way

Along with Empires & Allies’ player vs. GRA campaign, the game also has an asynchronous multiplayer mode in which players can assault each other’s bases and earn resources (as well as a spot on the game’s global leaderboards) for doing so. Again, a more casual approach is taken since players only invade a copy of your base and not your actual base (meaning you don’t actually lose any buildings or units that are destroyed). In an interesting twist, PvP matches are also worked into the PvE campaign at certain intervals (there’s a ‘Quick Match’ option as well), a move that is likely meant to get players more involved in the game’s social Alliances (basically groups of players that can band together and support each other by performing well in both PvE and PvP matches).

While PvP missions allow you to see all the different ways in which other players have laid out their bases, PvE missions have you deploying your units against GRA bases that fall into a sizable (yet still finite) list of pre-set layouts. These layouts range from basic groupings of buildings to interesting environmental puzzles such as a very small, seemingly defenseless base that’s surrounded by a field of mines. If a mission’s layout proves to be too challenging (or if it’s one you’ve already played through multiple times) you can change the layout in exchange for a small amount of resources. This in turn means you’ll never reach a point in the campaign where you can get permanently stuck which is good since, like many other F2P games, Empires & Allies forces you to choose from two different precious commodities: time or money.

Tick-Tock or Ka-Ching

Considering how genuinely fun Empires & Allies can be to play, it’s a shame how often things are brought to a screeching halt due to the implementation of irritatingly infamous resource timers. The timers don’t really affect the active base assault portions of the game but, when it comes to building and upgrading your base, they quickly become a major headache. You can only build one building in your base at a time (unless you pay real cash for the ability to construct multiple buildings at once) which means you have to either wait out the building’s construction timer or “rush” the construction using the game’s microtransaction currency; Gold.

While Gold can technically be acquired via in-game means such as harvesting trees near your base or completing in-game achievements, the amounts of Gold earned via such methods is so paltry that it’s hardly worth the effort. This means that, unless you’re willing to plunk down some cash in order to buy a larger reserve of Gold, your base-building efforts soon slow down to a snail’s pace. This problem is further compounded for PvP fans since those with deep pockets can simply buy their way to a bigger, better, and more heavily fortified base. This isn’t such a big deal for more casual players since the game’s matchmaking system pairs you with players whose bases are a good match for your forces’ strength but if you’re hoping to get seriously invested in Empires & Allies’ PvP component, be ready to make an equally serious financial investment.

Casual Conquest

The timer gates and not-so-subtle pressure to invest in microtransactions may be a bit frustrating to deal with, but that doesn’t stop Empires & Allies from being a serviceable and often quite fun mobile RTS experience. Your opinion of Zynga may not be very positive but with Empires & Allies, the company is at least willing to let players decide how they want to invest in the game, either with their wallets or with their free hours. Empires & Allies likely won’t immerse you the way more established RTS series’ can, but if you want a sold RTS game you can play in short bursts and enjoy on the go, you could do a lot worse than Zynga’s latest endeavor.