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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

 



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by SSI

Snapshot

Ups: First-rate RTS, loads of variety, heroes

Downs: Weak AI, average graphics

System Reqs: P233, 64 MB RAM, 8x CD-ROM

Fans of SSG’s great turn-based Warlords fantasy series were taken a bit aback when it was announced the next game in the series would be real-time.  Great, the hardcore muttered, just what we need—another Warcraft clickfest clone. Well, Warlords: Battlecry is here, and frankly the turn-based crowd had it at least partly right. Though there are some surface similarities to the old Warlords games, Warlords: Battlecry has much more in common with Warcraft or even Starcraft than it does with Darklords Rising. It doesn’t wander far at all from the established gather/build/battle RTS conventions, and while the game’s emphasis on heroes lends a certain RPGish patina to the proceedings, nobody’s gonna mistake this for Vampire: The Masquerade.

But while Warlords: Battlecry doesn’t do much new with the RTS genre, what it does do is very good indeed. The interface is elegant, RTS amenities like queuing and setting waypoints are easy to use, and it has a long and tough (though linear) campaign and a deep skirmish mode. And while many have made a big deal about the game’s emphasis on heroes, what blows me away about Warlords: Battlecry is its variety. With nine very distinct races, 80-some spells, and loads of skills, abilities, and magic items to choose from, Warlords Battlecry brings the sort of variety usually associated with turn-based fantasy games (Warlords, HoMM) to the realtime genre. 

Warlords:Battlecry offers a veritable Middle Earth’s worth of armies to command. Included in the nine races are humans, barbarians, elves of three stripes (wood, high, and dark), dwarves, orcs, minotaurs and the ubiquitous undead. Each race has specific strengths and weaknesses, unique buildings and units, and special characteristics. For example, Wood Elves (currently my favorite race) are very fast, have awesome missile troops, and heal up quickly, but are hopeless in hand-to-hand combat (except for their massive but slow Treants, who hit like a truck). Minotaurs have few unit types, but are tough and upgrade quickly and are for that reason the popular “tank rush” online race. Orcs breed like rabbits and carry disease. Each army thus requires a different strategy, and it’s to SSG’s credit that they’re all fairly well balanced.

When you begin a game, you’ll create a hero whom you’ll develop throughout scenarios. Heroes are powerful leaders, whose influence on other troops can be a deciding factor in battles. They’re also amongst the only units who can convert enemy or neutral resource centers to your side, and they are of course hell on wheels in combat. But again, what impresses me most about the game’s heroes is the tremendous amount of choice you have in constructing one. When you begin with your hero, you’ll merely choose his or her race. When you reach level two, you’ll have to choose one of four professions—Warrior, Priest, Wizard or Rogue. Of course, some of these might be closed to you, depending upon your race. At level three, you get to choose one of sixteen specialties—for example, a priest can specialize as a druid, healer, paladin or runemaster.  While you’re choosing a career path, you'll also have to select which of the game’s many abilities, spells, skills, and statistics you’d like to add to your hero’s repertoire. Magic items will also pop up. Heroes also get to choose a retinue, a sort of personal bodyguard of crack units and characters (often from other races) that accompany the hero from scenario to scenario. Thus only rarely will two heroes--even of the same race and profession—ever play the same.

The game’s graphics will probably disappoint some. Don’t expect the 3D fireworks of recent RTS games like Ground Control or Dark Reign 2. This is a classic view 2D non-accelerated RTS game. Frankly, I find the graphics a bit dated--much closer to Warcraft II than AoE II--but still attractive and functional. Granted, they won’t make your jaw drop or eyes pop, but they’re way beyond merely adequate.

Gameplay, as I stated, is pretty standard RTS fare. You gather resources from mines (gem, stone, gold and metal) strewn across the map. This is done by “converting” them with your hero or general unit. Of course, enemy heroes can convert these mines back to their own side, and much of the game’s action is centered on fights for these resources, which allow you to build buildings and units. As you upgrade your main building, you can build other structures that produce new units or upgrade abilities as you scramble up the tech tree. Again, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. Combat is a mixed bag; though the differing abilities of different armies lends a tactical depth missing from many RTS's, too often the best strategy is the good old-fashioned rush. And heroes, especially once they gain a few levels, are a perhaps a little too powerful in combat.

AI can be a little spotty; while you can control your friendly units' "aggression level," too often they'll wander off into trouble.   Enemy AI is even more problematic. The preferred AI strategy is the early-game rush, even when it's commanding armies that aren't particularly suited to that approach. Enemy armies are very slow to react to missile fire, for example, and I have destroyed powerful enemy strongpoints by bombarding them with catapaults. The enemy troops would scurry about in a panic, never once attempting to find and attack the catapaults, and I'd move on to the next enemy. Not a very gratifying victory, to be sure. 

Warlords' interface is excellent; both intuitive and easy-to-use, and it comes with a first-rate manual. The game's a snap to learn and plays effortlessly, especially if you're familiar with RTS conventions.

Overall, Warlords: Battlecry is a very good RTS with enough new twists to keep you interested. It's not the most beautiful game in the world, and the weak AI makes multiplayer gaming the most interesting gaming option, but even with these failings the game is strangely addictive, and has a high fun factor. If you're looking for a solid and engaging RTS with just a dash of RPG, Warlords: Battlecry will do you right.   

--Rick Fehrenbacher