Reviewed: November 23, 2002
Released: November 5, 2002
In a genre that is starting to seem a little over done itís always nice to get a breath of fresh air over the stale, moldering tomb. Unfortunately this falls just short of the mark, because like most games that try to innovate, they try to change what works and hope to come up with something just as good. Battle Realms and the Winter of the Wolf expansion set take some drastic steps away from the usual RTS title. Troop production, resource management, even the different clans show marked departures from what you expect in these titles. So we have all the markers of a sleeper hit here, but as in all things execution remains key.
Truth to tell, youíd think this game was made for me. Itís built around a heavily oriental storyline, with fantastic character designs, excellent voices, and just enough brutality to make you enjoy drenching the battlefield in your enemiesí blood. So whereís it fail? Strap on your katana and your best yoroi (thatís armor folks) and letís take a look.
Hereís where the designers were the most creative and they should be applauded for at least being original, but they need quality control at some point because there are aspects of this game that just make it less than fun.
Iíll start with troop production. You have a set population limit. There is no changing it. Period. Build what you like, and hope for the best, but there is no way to increase your population beyond the thirty or forty they set you at. This alone is a radical change from other RTS titles that Iíve played, and while this does require you to be a lot more aware of what you have on hand and use your resources more wisely, I mostly found it frustrating because it was so limiting. It also made it really difficult for you to crush you opponents underneath your boot heel. The next unique but ultimately frustrating thing is that you have no control over your peasant production. Itís either on or off, and since your peasants are what you train to make troops this can be very frustrating, especially as you approach your population limit, because units are produced more slowly the closer you get to the limit (as opposed to the real world, and theyíre the ones emphasizing realism here).
The actual troop training is the most original approach Iíve seen to these kinds of games, but again it is ultimately frustrating because it is so time consuming. You build buildings to train your peasants into combat units. If you have a dojo you can make spearmen, or an archery range you can make archers, so what happens if you send an archer through the dojo, or vice versa? You get a dragon warrior who functions as both a ranged and a melee unit. Get a third building and then you can train a unit in all three and get your ultimate units trained up. In single player however your buildings are unlocked as you progress through the story so youíre very limited at the beginning. There are also buildings where you can augment your troops, but you have to send troops there to train, and while this is a shorter time than other buildings the effects differ from unit to unit and the really annoying thing is that they are usually limited use upgrades that only effect that single unit.
Units as a class are upgraded in an entirely different manner. This is accomplished in researches much like any other game, but they donít use resources. Instead they use points that are accrued by killing enemies; the bad part about this is that it isnít a one for one ratio. It can be anywhere between a one to two and a one to five ratio. So letís hope you live long enough to get troop upgrades that you need. Oh and if you do happen to do one of those researches then that building canít train any units while itís in progress, and you can only train one unit at a time anyway so what are you in such a rush for anyway?
Resource management is one of the few aspects of the game that isnít inordinately frustrating. Battle Realms has only two resources to be concerned with: rice and water (hey, we are in Asia after all these are what makes the world go round). Peasant harvest rice, peasant carry water, if your rice patch is getting mowed into a dirt patch then grab some peasants and have them water the rice. Itís all very nice and cyclical so thereís no problems here, and truth to tell I like the originality of it.
Now we come to my big complaint though. There is no way to look at your troops statistically. Yeah youíve got three spearmen and three archers, but are they better than six dragon warriors? How do they match up? Thatís only your troops. How does that samurai match the Lotus Warlock? There should be a way for me to evaluate if Iím in the deep end when enemies are at the gates or if I just have a minor disturbance on my hands. Yeah attack force size does help that out some, but what am I facing? Is that upgrade substantial or should I be looking into another one. There is no way of evaluating many of your choices aside from obvious ones and I think that cuts out a lot of game play depth.
Finally Iíll wrap this up with the fact that itís not easy, even if youíre used to walking through RTS games there are a few other differences that may trip you up, and just the fact the computer is not nearly so limited as you are. So donít expect a cakewalk through any of the game, and in some instances be prepared to be under whelmed by your variety of troops and their application. You may be just a little tired of those ronin by your third or fourth mission.
Welcome to a more than passable rendition of Warcraft III graphics. You have the same isometric view and somewhat polygonal rendering that was so distinctive to that title, but there are a few niceties here. There are a lot of background animations and random creatures that bound, run, or fly across the screen. It immerses you into the world and gives you a real impression that thereís more going on than just your personal conquest (though really is anything else important?).
Special effects are fairly low key in this game. There arenít a lot of spells to toss off and disintegrate your enemies with, though some missile units do get done up nicely from cannon balls that roll on through the line of enemies to fireworks that explode on contact and leeches that fly youíve got a lot of things over a battle field. Also there are a few units and attacks that get platinum treatment, the Necromancer and Dark Warlock to name a few.
The buildings are what rock in this game. Not only does each clan get completely different looking structures, but also the only commonalities between them are four buildings, and even those have variations, so thereís a wide variety of options available. Weíll start with a comparison of shared buildings and the watchtower is a good place to look. One clan has a simple wooden platform atop a ladder and supports, whereas another has a floating disk atop a column of energy and the unit to man the tower is teleported to the top. Not only are the appearances for these structures different, but each tower has a special ability that is specific to that clan, so donít think you know all the ins and outs of this game just because youíve noodled around with one clan.
Variety comes in different forms as well, because depending on how you play the single player mode you get different buildings as well as different units for the same clan, admittedly you can only play one clan in single player, but good or evil is more than just a choice of actions in this game. There isnít that much variation in plot until the end, but man, are you one mean SOB when youíre evil.
Iíll leave this off with just a few of my favorite character designs, because they are all outstanding, and someone has to mention that the zombies actually look dangerous in this game because when was the last time you thought that in a fantasy game. Mostly the design is good just because all of the clans are so radically different. You have the Wolf clan which are Scottish to the core- down to kilts and crushing you like a worm, while the Lotus are warlocks with a definite greasy tech edge to them, the Serpent are more straight up Japanese and the Dragon are at least leaning more toward the Chinese end of the spectrum. All the units are very cohesive looking, even down to prevalent color schemes (outside of team colors) and builds and motion. All the Lotus units look evil and septic and really like youíd like to not find out where they live because good lord the disease- and what is that on your boots?
One of my favorite things about RTS games is the phrases they build into each unit when you select them or give them commands. This title is no different and they really go the extra mile with some of them. Female units are especially nice and sexy (they are geisha after all) with low throaty voices in some instances that I could personally listen to for hours. Others just sound itching for a fight and the Wolf clan peasant gets points for style alone because they yell ďTheyíll never take our freedom,Ē in a passable accent no less.
Effects are also well done. Swords ring splendidly off of one another and swish and thunk into wood, arrows do the same, and cannon, musket, and rocket fire all explode all over your eardrums. This is where I have to gripe for just a moment though because I canít tell you how many times I thought I was being attacked just because my peasants were harvesting rice. The swish and cut of their kama were really close to combat sounds, and meanwhile my southern flank is left undefended and ripe for the pillaging.
The other kind of let down is the ďmoodĒ music. There really isnít enough of it there to suit my tastes and it does generally get ignored and upstaged by shouts and sounds of combat, which I suppose is realistic, but if I wanted realism I wouldnít be engaged in a game set in feudal times with magic, would I?
Having just leveled my major problems against this title I will say that if youíre interested there is a lot to keep you here. Not only are there single player missions from both the original and the expansion (the expansion lets you play the Wolf clan singly, while the original you are the Serpent, with different characters to boot), but there is also the by now traditional multiplayer mode and a skirmish mode to practice on by your own lonesome.
One of the real selling points though is the map builder. This is one of the most user-friendly interfaces Iíve seen in any map building software. You can put a rough, but essentially functional map in about 15 minutes to a half an hour. There are of course other bangs and whistles you can delve into and this will take you more time to hone skills on, but the basics are easy to pick up and everything else from there is how much time youíd like to spend on it.
The difficulty is another point. If youíre up to the challenge this game will certainly test your mettle, or maybe I just suck, but either way there is definitely an opponent in here (even if he is cheating in my opinion). All of this action can be had for the low price of $29 and owners of the original can qualify for a $10 rebate making this one of the better bargains of the holiday season.
I have been fairly harsh on this game, but it is a nice respite from the usual RTS title. The only problem is that the innovations are usually a hindrance to my enjoyment of the game, so instead of appreciating the originality in it, I end up just frustrated by everything from my limited options and lack of wiggle room to the slowness of troop production and the overwhelming power of buildings and peasants to stand up to punishment and the computerís annoying habit of having to be chased down and nailed to the floor. With a sledgehammer and railroad spikes. Anyway know what youíre getting into and you should enjoy this title, otherwise stick to Warcraft or something youíll save money on keyboards and aspirin bottles.