You spin me right round
Historically, wars have been fought over mere inches of land, all the while other nations have had fluid, undefined borders due to them not being contested or monitored. In Circle Empires Rivals, it is incredibly easy to tell where your borders are, and it is also incredibly easy to see where enemies will attack from… and this makes it one of the purest RTS experiences to date.
Classic, base-building RTS games like Command and Conquer and Total Annihilation had wild and wonderful maps, but even at their most peculiar the map could be divided into four simple sections: Your Base, Enemy Base, Things You Want That Nobody Has, and No Man’s Land. Circle Empires, and its multiplayer-focused sequel Circle Empires Rivals, makes everything friendly or aggressive, reducing the battlefield to a series of circular areas which are – or are not – connected to adjacent circles through bridges.
It’s a battle for circular landmasses in the clouds over endless oceans. I have no idea why the world has been perfectly shattered into flat-topped vertical columns, but stranger things have happened in games and, frankly, the reduction of the battlefield into a series of circles adds a variety of welcome new changes to a 30-year old formula. Circle Empires, and as such Circle Empires Rivals, is all about bottlenecks, turtling and overwhelming.
If you’ve played the 2018 release, or the popular 2016 demo, which laid the foundation for it, then you’ll already understand the basics here. Each circle is one of a variety of biomes; you can harvest the resources (gold, wood, food) which you can then use to build buildings or spawn troops. Buildings can be defensive (towers, walls), productive (forestry hut, creating trees), or resource generative (like banks, or markets). Most of your economy work will be based around placing buildings in the more secure areas, although there’s definitely room for flexibility depending on your pace of play.
Spawning troops, however, is probably what you’ll spend most of your time doing. That’s because even in the solo modes — but especially in the online modes — you’re either strong or losing. There’s even a stat for that, Strength. It’s a number generated by adding up numbers assigned to each unit and, for humans, it appears as a massive, glaring indicator of how you will do. However, there’s a lot more at play in the game, something that Circle Empires veterans might understand, but new players won’t.
Strength ignores effectiveness; as a matter of fact, it’s almost arbitrary. If you have 300 horse archers, then you’ll be given a statistic. However, spearmen are extremely effective against mounted troops, and ‘strength’ doesn’t take any of this into consideration. As historians will tell you, pre and early rifle-based war is a messy cesspit. Circle Empires Rivals has acid towers, and there are also snakey boys who can breathe out a big ol’ jet of fire that can light up everybody in sight. And those units will burn right up unless there’s a water mage (or the troops are in water) nearby.
And that’s the mastery of Circle Empires Rivals. You can’t compose an army for strength; you need to build them based on the opponents you are fighting. If you were simply reading off stats, then you could try to bulldoze the network of islands. However, things would get very tricky when you bumble your troops through a poisoned pool, or straight into a den of vipers. It means that army composition is important, as well as your economy and defence composition. This is doubly-so in online multiplayer, where humans are prone to have developed their own techniques beyond building a big’ army.
Intent is another keyword when it comes to talking about the differences between multiplayer and solo play. In solo play – which is extensive, and worth the price of entry alone – you get a warning before a rival circle is going to attack you. There’s literally a ticking timer. In multiplayer, however, you’ll be negotiating via text with other humans, and alliances are only kept as long as they serve both parties.
And then strike
Solo is a great place to get to grips with the dozens of different units that you start out with. There’s no technology tree to speak of, simply boosters and modifiers under the guise of technology, so there’s a vast variety of units listed from the get-go. In order to learn about these units, you’ll have to hover over them in the build menu and read the tooltip. This is, as the strength statistic, not very beginner-friendly, which is probably the biggest negative. All of that said, there are so many heroes to play as and AI enemies to unlock that there is plenty of room to warm up and familiarise yourself with the different troops before dipping your toes into online play.
Everything in Circle Empires Rivals’ combat and circle-capture loop fits perfectly, it feels like a streamlined base-building RTS, although the absence of a campaign and staggered unit unlocks means that there is definitely some learning to be done before braving online play beyond co-op. While there’s only a finite amount of biomes and CPU enemy types, the procedural generation means that maps can feel fresh after dozens of matches.
[Reviewed on PC]