System: Windows 95/98/2000/XP
Publisher: Microsoft Games
Developer: Microsoft Research Games
Release Date: April 1, 2000
ESRB rating: Everyone (animated violence)
Locations found: http://www.freeallegiance.org
Have you ever played a real-time strategy game and wondered why the heck your soldiers are completely incapable of doing anything more than basic self-defense without your direct assistance? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be one of those little cannon fodder recruits who gets tossed into the front line of battle in a vain attempt to take out the enemy's fortifications? Do we ever have a game for you.
Allegiance was created by Microsoft in the emergent days of massively networked games. Ultima Online was fighting tooth-and-nail with the 3D newcomer, Everquest, for domination of the MMORPG market. Counter-Strike was taking the gaming world by storm. Starcraft was proving to strategy gamers that Blizzard knew their stuff.
Then, with the usual hype, Microsoft released a genre-busting game that was destined to redefine team-based internet games in its own image. At least, that's what they hoped. Instead, it was soon discovered that the game was unbalanced, buggy, had an incredibly steep learning curve, and cost $10 a month for the privelege of providing you with a stunning view of the Blue Screen of Death. Even with these glaring issues, it gathered a rabid - if small - collection of die-hard fans.
Microsoft was making next to no money on its game. Initial sales were too poor to justify continued support of the aging software. The community, members of which had even gone so far as to create new factions and custom balance fixes, was still too small to make much of a dent in the market. But the fans that did exist were obviously very loyal to the game. Microsoft was faced with a dilemma - they could either drop support of the game, meaning complete obliteration of it since they owned the server software, or surrender control of it to the community. In September of 2004, in a rare show of intelligence and consideration, they released the source code, now publicly downloadable.
The game can now be downloaded for free from http://www.freeallegiance.org. There is a small but faithful community surrounding the game and bickering about whose custom faction mods are the best. The source code, though downloadable, is - from what I hear - horribly difficult to make sense of, and hardly anyone has ever succeeded in compiling it since its release. However, there have been upgrades to the game of sorts, in the form of the aforementioned custom mods and also a frontend that connects the user to the current game server. The main reason for the frontend is not only the server location function, but also stats tracking, clan administration features, and hack detection. There is a precedent for hacking, unfortunately, with the frontend creator constantly having to find ways to foil the cheaters. For a time, there was a remote-crash bug that allowed a single user to wipe out an entire server's worth of players by sending a malformed chat message from within the game. As you may imagine, this did not help the community grow.
Despite the code wars, Allegiance lives on. I believe this can be attributed to the sheer depth of the game, and the fact that it's still possible to find a game going nearly any time of the day.
The sheer glamour factor of a managed first-person space combat simulator and strategy game soon gives way to a deep understanding of the intricate tactics involved, and if you are willing to put up with a good couple weeks of getting mercilessly exposed to vacuum, the game is very fulfilling. Each person's contributions make a distinct difference in the game. I recall one session where there was a frantic call for a scout to drop probes in neighboring sectors to keep the base from being attacked without warning. No one else seemed interested in the task, and as I was still rather green, I decided that would be the best use of my skills. We won the match, and the commander thanked me personally for the work I did, attributing much of the team's success to me. Similarly, there are many intense dogfight situations where a single person's efforts and quick thinking can turn the tide; the concept of Rock-Paper-Scissors is alive and well. Most types of craft have specific strengths and weaknesses, which can be exploited to the advantage or disadvantage of either side if the pilot is clever or lucky. Strategy exists both on the large scale - the commander deciding which branch of research to sink money into - and on the small scale, such as deciding what supplies to equip your scout with: mines, to slow down future attackers, an extra probe to allow further spying on enemy territory, or more ammo to chase off enemy scouts?
Though Allegiance is not everyone's cup of tea, anyone who is a fan of strategy games and space combat simulators should try it out. Yes, the learning curve is steep, but in my opinion, the rewards are great.
my own meager experience