Reviewed: July 16, 2003
Released: June 11, 2003
Playing Chariots of War was an unusual experience for me. I wasn’t immediately taken by this turn based strategy title; instead, Chariots grew on me as I came to appreciate design elements that I wasn’t comfortable with when I first played it.
Chariots is the direct descendent of Legion, also developed by Slitherine (will Gryffindor be developing games as well?) and is based on a next generation Legion engine. Set 4,000 years ago at the dawn of civilization, the game allows you to take the ancient Egyptians, or any of fifty-eight budding societies, and make them the dominant nation of their time. While Chariots has most of the usual Civ’ building elements; resource management, diplomacy and the like, real time battles played out on a tactical level give Chariots a heavier emphasis on war than the typical 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) title.
As with most 4X titles (such as the turn-based Civilization, or real-time Age of Empires), the player guides a small nation to supremacy through economic and technological development, trade and diplomacy, and of course expansion through conquest. On a world map depicting the Middle East, the player issues orders to each of his armies to move or attack, and directives to his cities to train military units and build improvements that will increase future productivity, such as a homestead for food or a horse paddock for breeding. Limited resources and lengthy building times force the player to weigh his options carefully, considering the proper balance between technology and resource development for the future, building up defenses for the present, and the use of resources to keep the citizens happy and avoid a revolt.
My only complaint regarding the civ’ building aspect of Chariots is that while cities can be upgraded, there is no provision to build new ones; they can only be acquired through capture. Perhaps this was meant to place a greater emphasis on combat, but it just feels wrong.
On the other hand, nice touches include the ability to play as any of the fifty-eight represented peoples, and the inclusion of nine different resources to manage, resources which are specific to certain areas of the map, making trade and diplomacy important considerations. While there are only 10 different ethnic groups with their own unique units (not fifty-eight), choosing to play from alternative nations within an ethnicity affects the player’s starting point on the map (who his neighbors are and what resources he has direct access to), and starting strength (the number of cities he has).
What sets Chariots apart from other strategy titles is its war game within the game. When opposing armies meet, real-time battles take place on a tactical level, and this is where players will decide they either love or hate the game.
Before a battle begins, the player has a series of choices to make concerning each of the squads (up to 8) in his army regarding its starting position on the battlefield, formation, and marching orders. Formations may be loose or tight, and orders might include a direct charge, a slow march, or an envelopment or flanking maneuver, among others. When making these decisions, the player must give thought to the type of unit and its abilities, its experience level, and the terrain involved, as well as its to its role and position relative to the other squads, as these are all factors that will affect how the battle plays out. Also a factor during the battle is morale; troops who see their comrades routed or slaughtered become more likely to turn tail and run themselves.
The game engine employs a nice fog of war variant in which the quality of advance scouting determines how much of the enemy’s strength and position are seen before the battle begins, so one or more squads with superior scouting abilities should be included in each army. In fact, the variety of melee and ranged units available, including race specific units, should lead the player to think when building squads and combining them into armies; strategy begins long before the beginning of a battle.
Once the battle begins, it plays out with no further participation by the player. All one can do is watch as tiny soldiers move and fight on the screen, following their orders with varying degrees of success as their experience and battle conditions allow.
Apparently, this was a design decision meant to give realism to fighting of that period. Ancient commanders did not benefit from instantaneous communications and the level of command and control that military leaders enjoy today. They would not be able to issue specific orders in the heat of battle. But the result is a reduction in the “fun factor” for the many gamers who don’t want to simply click on a formation, click on a command, then sit back and watch what amounts to a movie of the battle. In all honesty, that’s how I felt at first, and I should know better. I have more than a casual interest in war games, and for me, it’s the strategizing that provides the fun. For a click fest I can always load my copy of Age of Empires or even Warcraft, but when I want a “thinking game” I prefer to pull out one of SSG’s Battleground titles.
Chariots of War is positioned as a strategy title, not a die-hard war game. To balance realism with fun, a good compromise by the developers might have been the ability for the player to issue limited orders during battle, or to be able to change orders to troops held in reserve up until the point where they actually entered battle themselves. On the flip side, it would have been nice to be able to turn off the real time battles and have the AI compute the outcome.
Another irritation I felt with the fighting model was that losses were total; you couldn’t retreat to save your men. Many are the times I wanted to yell, “Run away!” like King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Of course, routed troops needed no encouragement to “Run away!” never to return. There was no provision for rallying them during battle or conscripting them afterward. I also couldn’t understand why troops garrisoned in a city would not defend it unless a friendly “visiting” army was present as well.
These annoyances aside, I felt great satisfaction when I won some of the larger, more difficult battles. Although the choices seem simple, it takes a while to appreciate the nuances of how your orders are going to be acted on by the various units. Like chess, it’s easy to learn the moves, but difficult to master the game. Some type of battle tutorial or simulator would have made for a nice addition.
The world map is nicely rendered and depicts the geographic obstacles to your armies’ progress. Rivers and mountains can force an invader to detour for several turns before it can reach its target. Information screens are clean and simple if a bit bland. During battles, dozens of tiny, beautifully detailed troops a la Age of Empires dance around the screen, but this no biggie, Age is an old title.
What impresses me most is that the game runs on a Pentium II 300mhz machine. The graphics are just fine, thank you very much.
The background music in Chariots can almost humorously be described as “new age meets tribal”. Percussion is mellow and unobtrusive, unlike the heavy drumbeat employed by other titles set in the ancient era. Rather than battle music, which can grate in the long run, I guess they were going for a majestic “dawn of civilization” theme. Chickens, cows, and other ambient sounds heard in the city screens almost seemed to blend in with the music for a pleasant effect. I enjoyed it, completely ignoring the fact that there were no synthesizers in ancient Egypt.
Unfortunately, Chariots of War does not have the level of replayability one might expect. Other games use the term campaign to refer to a series of levels with various objectives (wipe out an enemy, establish an outpost, build a wonder, etc.) played in succession. Each of the six “campaigns” in Chariots (which includes the tutorial) is simply a single game played in a different area of the Middle East map, highlighting a different ancient conflict, with two of those maps (“campaigns”) covering all fifty-eight nations but starting at different levels of economic advancement. The ability to play as any nation (remember, only ten unique peoples) does not really change the experience all that much.
Furthermore, a game like this cries out for multiplayer, but alas, its cries were not heard. There are no multiplayer options whatsoever; Internet, LAN, hot seat, email, nada.
Ultimately, Chariots will remain interesting only for as long its simple, “conquer all your neighbors”, single player game does.
While some gamers will be turned off by a “watch helplessly” battle mode, many others will enjoy the intriguing and thoughtful combat design elements incorporated into Chariots of War. Multiplayer options, and linked mission-based campaigns (even if they were simply to conquer ever larger territories) would have enhanced the title’s value. These and other complaints notwithstanding, most fans of strategy games, especially those who enjoy Legion or other games set in ancient times, will find what to like here. The more I played Chariots, the more I enjoyed it.
While there are many solid strategy titles on the market catering to a variety of tastes, Chariots of War has a lot to offer for a specific audience that knows what it wants, and understands what it’s getting.