Desert Operations reviewed
On 8 Feb, 2011
Pros: Simple interface, unusual concept, free
Cons: Dowdy graphics, glacially slow gameplay
Free-to-play MMOs vary from being truly free to being only a tiny sample to get new customers hooked. Desert Operations, a real-time strategy browser game, is one of the latter. The trouble with the free taste in this case is that it’s so unappealing, it won’t bring many players back for more.
You start as the ruler of a city-state on an island. Despite the “Desert” part of Desert Operations, your island is surprisingly woodsy. The name refers less to actual territory and more to the types of weaponry used during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
It’s appropriate that the game technology is decades old because the interface also looks like a relic of the nineties. You get a top-down view of your city that never rotates and only changes as you add ugly, blocky buildings to your realm. As dowdy as the user interface is, at least it’s simple to use. Graphics aren’t everything, especially in free-to-play games.
As with other city-builder and resource management games, you add buildings to improve your territory. At first you can only build what the game allows you to build, but eventually you’re able to raise military, production, and action buildings like universities. Universities allow access to the tech tree, so they’re a high priority.
Here’s where frustration sets in: you can only build one building at a time and each building takes hours to construct. In the case of a university, it’s a six-hour process. Waiting six hours just to see a major game element is unacceptable even in a free game. If you remember playing chess by mail and enjoy months-long games, this might be fine with you. But for most gamers, it’s hard to see the appeal in a game that denies you access to many of its features for days of gameplay.
The only way to shorten this construction time is to spend diamonds on it, and diamonds cost (you guessed it) real money. Trading cash for a bonus might be worth it in a more addictive game, but in Desert Operations, you’re just paying money not to be annoyed. The game designers apparently forgot that there’s a cheaper alternative to paying them not to annoy you, and that’s not to play the game.
Eventually you’ll fight a war. However, you won’t get attacked until you’ve earned at least 20,000 points. You can also initiate an attack, but as you have no army with which to attack, you’ll be waiting a few days to build your requisite barracks to train troops. If you fight and lose, you’ll find some or all of your headquarter city destroyed; that means more time or cash spent rebuilding.
There is a good game in Desert Operations somewhere, but only premium members get to enjoy it. A simple interface, helpful chat moderators, and appopriately martial music might be enough to make you stick out the long building times. There aren’t many browser based war games, let alone free-to-play RTS MMO war games, so the sheer novelty of Desert Ops makes it more appealing.
If you love real-time strategy gaming and don’t mind spending a fair chunk of time or money on an ostensibly free game, Desert Operations may be worth a try. If you’re patient enough to leave Desert Ops running in the background and just check in on it every day or so like watering a houseplant, you might also like this game. Otherwise, skip Desert Operations until it meets this century’s gaming standards.