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Publisher: Ambrosia Software    Genre: Arcade
Min OS X: Not Supported    CPU: 68040    Graphics: 640x480 @ 256 Colors

February 14, 2000 | William Lemmon

Ares, in one form or another, has been around for quite some time. The game first appeared on the Macintosh gaming scene when it was shown at Macworld Boston in 1995. Then, in October, 1996, a preview of Ares appeared in IMG, along with a self-playing demo.

From then on, news regarding Ares was scarce until a full demo, including a sample net level, was released almost a year later in September, 1997. Ares shipped to pre-orders during the spring of 1998, but due to alleged mismanagement on the part of its publisher, Changeling Inc., it was almost impossible to find in stores or via mail order. Consequently, the game failed to meet the sales requirements specified in Changeling's contract with developer Nathan Lamont. At this point Ares disappeared from the radar, only to resurface a couple of months ago when word came that it was to be released as shareware by Ambrosia Software, publisher of the Escape Velocity series and, more recently, the fantasy RPG Cythera.

While Ares' story is not, shall we say, "novel caliber," or even up to the standards of games such as Starcraft or the Myth series, it does provide a good background for the action. Here's the gist: sometime in the future, Earth, administered by the United Nations, receives an indecipherable signal from the Ishima system half a galaxy away. An interstellar vessel, the UNS Apollo, is constructed and begins its 150 year journey to the source of the signal. Thanks to relativity, only five years pass aboard the Apollo. Upon arriving at Ishima the crew of the Apollo makes contact with a friendly enlightened race known, strangely enough, as the Ishiman, who deliver the news that Earth has been conquered by the crusading Cantharan Order. The brave human spacemen, understandably dissatisfied with this situation, persuade the Ishiman to provide them with the technology necessary to carry the war back to the Cantharans and their allies. The humans rechristen their vessel the Ares, after the ancient Greek deity of battle.

The game teaches you the art of commanding your little space armada with a set of three excellent tutorials interspersed with simple combat missions in which you exercise the skills you learned in the preceding tutorial. Nevertheless, the learning curve is a bit steep due to the number of controls to be mastered. Ares features gameplay that is an interesting mix of action and real-time strategy. You pilot one hardy spacecraft around a top-down map filled with hostiles ranging from enemy vessels to explosive asteroids. Of course, you aren't exactly alone in the void of space in most missions you'll have variety of friendly warships at your disposal and bases capable of building more. Through a single menu controlled with the arrow keys these allies can be ordered to follow another vessel (friend or foe), move to a base or space station, hold position or transfer to your control. This last command is helpful for taking personal command of danger zones, or for getting yourself back into action if your craft is destroyed. Learning to utilize your fleet properly, and to manage battles in multiple sectors while engaging in combat yourself are necessary skills. In one mission, you will be required to secure a jumpgate and escort a convoy of supply vessels to a shipyard, while at the same time fending off enemy assaults on both your base and a couple of neutral bunker stations. This complexity of play, combined with the fast pace of the game's action, is Ares' greatest strength and weakness. Piloting your ship, keeping an eye on the big picture and issuing orders to the rest of your fleet simultaneously is both exhilarating and frustrating, often requiring some serious speed clicking.

Planetary bases and space stations are scattered across most maps, and can be captured with transports and assault transports, respectively. Resource management is quite basic, with each planet and station you hold constantly generating a set amount of resources which you can spend on extra hardware - Cruisers, Carriers, Assault Transports and several other types of craft. These reinforcements are constructed on the planets and, after very short build times, spring into being above the base that produced them. A set of displays in the upper right corner of your display tracks resource totals and progress of ships being built.

A dynamic scaling system allows you to zoom between several top-down views, ranging from a solar system-wide scan with ships, planets, and space stations represented by geometric shapes to a more traditional close-in range featuring sharp, well drawn sprites. The most useful setting, however, is "Zoom to Hostile" which smoothly adjusts your scale with respect to the nearest enemy vessel or base, giving you a good strategic view during planning time, and bringing you close to the action when the anti-matter pulses start to fly.

Missions in Ares run the gamut from simple (and sometimes not so simple) convoy raids and escort missions to full scale battles involving numerous planetary bases and more than one hostile faction. Missions are not static expect objectives to change mid-mission, reinforcements to be received by both sides and circumstances to change with alacrity. One level begins as a reconnaissance mission, turns into a search and destroy and later into a pitched battle when carrier battle groups belonging to both sides arrive in-system.


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