The PC isn't exactly lacking in real-time strategy games. A cursory glance at the shelves of any game shop will reveal countless variations on the RTS theme, each trying to outdo the other. More units, bigger campaigns, spectacular CGI and live action cut scenes, deformable terrain, completely destructible environments - the RTS arms race isn't slowing down one bit. The upcoming titans of the genre, Starcraft II and Dawn of War II, will only add further fuel to the fire.
What, then, is a small indie developer to do? If you're Introversion, you sensibly decide to sidestep all the cacophony and bluster of a typical RTS game and instead serve up the small, shining gem that is Multiwinia. While it has little to do with the game's quality, it is interesting to note that once it's installed, Multiwinia only takes up about 55MB of hard drive space. In an age of multi-gigabyte game footprints, it's as good an indication as any of the lean, mean intentions that Introversion have brought to the table.
Multiwinia is, on the surface, one of the most basic RTS titles you'll play. You'll spend the vast majority of the time guiding only one type of unit, the Multiwinian, through battle. Multiwinians are little stickmen who like to travel in hordes and mow down any other Multiwinians who aren't on their side. Any Multiwinian can be converted into a Commander, which allows them to automatically direct your forces to any point on the battlefield, or muster up a more cohesive formation of Multiwinians. These formations move more slowly than normal but pack a greater punch and are ideal for closing down choke points or spearheading an assault.
Crates drop periodically from the sky and swarming your army over them will reward you with a variety of lethal toys or power-ups, such as gun emplacements, temporary troop shields and magic forests. Yes, magic forests - drop them on the enemy, set them alight and cackle like a maniac. Every now and again a crate will turn out to be bursting with a deadly virus, or something equally unhelpful, so there is always an element of risk involved in crate collection.
Battles unfold on stylized, Tron-style landscapes and the brilliantly low-key interface facilitates everything you need to do without getting in the way. If you want to direct your troops from A to B, simply right click on any Multiwinian to create a Commander, then left click where you want everyone to go. From then on, all nearby troops will loyally make their way to your desired destination, until you decide otherwise. The mouse wheel lets you zoom right up close or far enough out to take in a whole map.
A game involves two to four sides, and rarely lasts longer than fifteen minutes. There are six different game types available, ranging from King of the Hill take-and-hold matches, to slightly more involved, objective-oriented games. Rocket Riot pitches players against each other in a race to refuel a waiting rocket by capturing specific fuel pump locations, while Assault divides teams into attackers and defenders and sets a time limit for the attackers to destroy the defender's WMDs. Each game type provides its own unique challenges and keeps things fresh and interesting.
Multiwinia effectively lets you skip past much of the drudgery involved in RTS games - climbing tech trees, resource gathering, production queues - and aims you straight at the jugular. The kind of action you get in a fifteen minute Multiwinia match is pretty much the equivalent of the last fifteen minutes of a standard RTS battle, only you haven't had to spend an hour getting there. It's very much a game of feints and probes, with each side weighing up the opposition, scrambling for a good position and then launching a final, decisive, game-winning assault as the last few seconds tick away.
Every game type and map can be played in single player mode but, as the title suggests, Multiwinia has been designed from the ground up as a multiplayer, online experience. The abbreviated playing time lends itself beautifully to impromptu matches, and it's difficult to resist an immediate post-game rematch when revenge is only fifteen minutes away. The game servers weren't as populated as expected, though we were almost always able to hop into a game within a few minutes.
Oddly enough, there's no real opportunity to interact with other players before a game begins. The lack of a multiplayer lobby makes proceedings before and after a game feel a little clinical, and in-game player chat is limited to a small box in the bottom left of the screen. Admittedly there's not much time for nattering once a game gets going, but the opportunity for post-game gloating is always welcome. It's also a little disappointing that the game doesn't keep track of wins or losses, or statistics of any kind, in either single player or multiplayer modes. Short of taking a screenshot, heroic victories and shameful routs simply vanish into the ether the moment a game is over.
The game's frame rate has a tendency to chug when things get really busy on the larger maps, particularly if a few 'Ant's Nest' power-ups have been fired off. We also had a few online matches slow to a crawl, but whether this was due to networking gremlins or a game engine that still needs fine tuning, we don't know. As frenetic as the game gets, it still doesn't seem like it should particularly bother a modern, mid-range PC.
Not that any of these quibbles really matter in light of the solid, addictive gameplay that Multiwinia serves up by the bucket load. It's a stripped down game with some serious muscle - if you're looking for some bare-knuckle RTS action, don't let Multiwinia pass you by.