Oh no, what is wrong? A game from Maxis that does not have the word 'Sim' in the title. Whatever can they be thinking of? SimCity, SimEarth, SimAnt, SimLife and SimFish and SimFarm in the pipeline... You do not have to be a lexical genius to realise that RoboSport does not fit into the neat linguistic progression. Success must have added the old corporate brain. Dear me, is nothing sacred?
But some things never change, and you can rest assured that the latest offering from the masters of simulation still provides enough strategy and statistics to keep you up late into the night. And as with SimAnt, it tries to throw in a bit of humour to lighten the laborious load. For labour you will. Despite the seductive explosions on the game's box, and the promise of a mixture of chess and guerrilla warfare (very attractive), it is all a bit of a trial to play.
The concept is easy enough to grasp. You control a bunch of robots who have to achieve certain objectives depending on the game you have chosen to play In the simplest game you just have to wipe out the enemy, and in more advanced scenarios, you have to capture the enemy's flag, pick up treasure or rescue hostages. The game's parameters are entirely user definable, so much so that the Quick Start menu gives you a stock of pre-set scenarios to save you the bother of customising your own. You can decide which weapons you and your opponents are armed with, the type of landscape the battle is to be fought on, and the size of the playing area.
The game is turn-based, which means you give out orders, and then watch the robots carry them out. A slick point-and-click control system makes it easy to hand out commands, and because each turn is a limited length (up to 40 seconds), each robot can only be given a limited number of orders. You tell the 'bots where to move, where to look, where to fire, who to fire at, and when to duck. The computer or human opponents do the same and you sit and watch the results.
It tries to throw in a bit of humour to lighten the load
Obviously, you cannot see where the enemy robots are while you are programming your team, and that is where your brilliant strategic and tactical thinking comes in. You have to guess where the enemy 'bots will move too, and set cunning traps accordingly. One of the best tactics is to hide behind a building and wait for them to walk around the corner. Not a particularly brave or exciting strategy, but effective nevertheless.
Having made all your moves, it is time to set the wheels in motion and commit your team to action. End your turn and the computer generates its moves, and the results of the combat. To see what has happened, you switch to the movie section, where the positions at the start of the turn are shown. Hit play and you see the robots perform their manoeuvres, waste the enemy and get wasted themselves. It is a peculiarly voyeuristic feeling - good attacks are played over and over again (you can even save them to disk to show your friends if they are not around), and bad mistakes are brushed under carpet as you move swiftly on to the next round.
It is very much like Laser Squad really. The gameplay in both games is essentially the same - it is just the graphics and control system that are different. RoboSport has some neat touches, such as the sound effects that play while the moves are being generated at the end of each turn. It is all quiet, you know that nobody has come under fire, but if you start to hear crashes and screams, you know that the two teams have exchanged fire and that somebody's robots have been severely dented. This adds a bit of extra excitement when the movie starts - you know someone is going to get in the neck, you just do not know who.
It is very much like Laser Squad
But then again, if you have paid enough attention to the stats, you should know who is going to get it. Success or failure on this battleground depends on what type of armour you have, the type of gun you are using, how far from the enemy you are, and whether you are standing, ducking or crouching. Throw all those variables into the grey matter up top, shake your head around a bit and the chances are you will be totally nonplussed by the whole affair. But if you have got a head for figures you will probably love it.
The main trouble with RoboSport is that it does not hang together well. There is lots of pointing, clicking and hammering at the keyboard to program your robots, then there is a pause while the moves are generated, then you have to watch a movie of the battle, and then there is another pause while you go back to the programming section. It is all so disjointed - the game just does not seem complete. Rather than being one coherent strategy to achieve a single objective, the game is at times reduced to being a series of one-off engagements with the main aim being to avoid being hit by enemy fire.
Ultimately, it is not a particularly satisfying game to play. Sure, there are plenty of statistics and game variations, but the basic game and game structures are not smooth enough to keep you hooked - there is no real flow to the proceedings. The small attempts at humour are moderately engaging for a while, but it is not long before you are turning away to find either a more substantial challenge in the shape of something like Civilization or some real action.
RoboSport is trying to be the "thinking man's shoot-'em-up" and to a certain extent it succeeds. You have to think, and things definitely get shot. But that does not mean it is very much fun, and anyway, we have already got Laser Squad, Breach 2, Paladin 2...