Reviewed: July 31, 2004
Released: May 25, 2004
Turn based strategy games are definitely a niche market in the world of computer games. For many, building entire empires, armies, and controlling everything in the game from battle formations to the amount of food villagers get the luxury of eating, is one big migraine. Politics in real life are frustrating enough, right? For others however, gaming couldn’t get more fascinating than this.
There is something intriguing, after all, about having the ability to create your very own world and take careful steps in ensuring its prosperity in your very own way. Or irreversibly screwing it up, and watching your peasants revolt and your army overthrow you. Either way is kind of fun, really.
In Spartan, developed by independent developer Slitherine Software, you run an empire in Greece, around 450 B.C., controlling one of no less than ten different ethnic groups, each with their own specialties on and off the battlefield. But who needs “off the battlefield”? Not Spartan!
You will be able to train your beefy, bearded men into giant armies that will divide and conquer, over and over and over…and over…and over again. Yes, the emphasis in Spartan is military might. So, if you love building armies, love arranging battle formations, and love watching miniature men hurtle javelins through the chests of their enemies, then Spartan just might interest you.
As some of you may have picked up, plenty of battle takes place in Spartan. If you enjoy diplomacy, exploring, managing cities, and maintaining a stable empire, I’m afraid you might want to look elsewhere. There are elements of all of those standard strategy ingredients here; however, they are quite secondary in comparison to how important your focus on the military will be.
You have diplomats, but they aren’t exactly exciting in terms of how they better/worsen your ties with surrounding cities (they‘re only slightly more useful in the extremely long campaigns than the short ones). What annoyed me about the diplomats the most, is that when other cities send their diplomats to you, they don’t do much. They don’t insult you, flatter you, offer gifts, steal your secrets - or if they do, I never hear about it. They just…sit there. You can boil them alive and gouge out their eyeballs for no good reason, which I did just because I was tired of seeing this old, grizzled man looking smug on my diplomacy page. Still, I felt hollow afterwards. It just wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be. In fact, this game didn’t live up to my hopes at all. I found myself wanting to just play Civilization, just to restore my faith in the genre a bit.
In fact, the main problem with Spartan, is that it tries to be a small-scale version of games with grander scope such as Civilization - and lacks the necessary depth to do so. On the plus side, the Mediterranean setting uses authentic maps and mostly authentic scenarios, which is a plus for history war gamers.
The GUI is well thought out and easy to get the hang of. It also emulates the RTS genre in visual style, with battles fought out in real time 3D. However, these battles are planned beforehand on a tabletop-like board and end up mostly uncontrollable by players during the actual fight, which leaves the system feeling kind of flat.
Aside from formation (i.e., cavalry should flank, infantry should charge through the center) and army size, there's no "strategy" involved in the battle system. This would be fine if the strategy, as in Civilization, were in the empire-building, but it isn't. There is a copycat city maintenance window, but since it's not possible to found new cities (where’s the fun in that?!), what the existing cities should be building is fairly obvious - anything that gives you access to new units should generally take first priority.
Other improvements affect various production levels of everything from iron to horses. To the game’s credit, the resources a city can produce vary depending on its location, but that being the case, why can’t we found our own cities?! There seems to have been a huge lack of forethought on Slitherine’s part when designing elements of the game.
There's no blank slate, either: every scenario is pre-scripted, meaning that once all of them are conquered, there's not a whole lot else the game has to offer. Difficulty variations don't add much either, especially for casual gamers. The game does offer a 'Sandbox Mode' in which the entire screen is filled to the brim with huge armies for gamers to clash together should they not desire the depth of strategy involved in, say, capturing X cities (which is what basically all of the scenarios boil down to).
And there’s always online mode (through GameSpy), which pits you against one (that’s right, just one) other player. To make up for having to fight an online campaign in which six of the eight opponents don’t have a primary human controller, Spartan offers net gamers the chance to control any armies that their opponents may decide to fight, whether it’s their nation of choice or just a computer opponent’s. The instruction manual touts this as a way to try out units you wouldn’t normally get to, but it comes off feeling sort of lame.
On the good side, the tutorials are easy to grasp. Thankfully, they are not too long either, so you don’t have to worry about finding yourself going crazy with boredom before you’ve even built one He-Man troop of beefy, bearded warriors (I love the beefy bearded dudes.). On the other hand (and it’s a personal pet peeve), the same tutorials (and the instruction manual) were littered with glaring grammatical errors that could have been fixed quite easily. It just shows a level of sloppiness, even for an independently developed game, that shouldn’t be happening.
There is nothing much to write about here at all. The graphics are a ways below average, actually. The opening movie is way too grainy to be forgiven, and the 3-D battles, while clear, don't look nearly as good as games like Myth II, which came out years ago.
It's obvious from the lack of animations and effects outside of the battle screen that the graphics were slighted in Spartan. I mean, they aren’t embarrassingly awful or anything, just kind of… there. Hmm. This seems to be a recurring theme, doesn’t it?
The sound in Spartan, at first, amused me. Not a good thing however, as this was not the intention of the game. You see, nearly every time you move your troops on the map, they mumble something unintelligible, in a language that is, supposed to sound vaguely Greek, and they sound quite satisfied with themselves when they do. This made me laugh, especially when I would accidentally move them in the wrong direction, usually into harm’s way. It got quite annoying rather quickly though, and it wasn’t long before I was accusing the game of mocking me whenever they would happily march towards an army three times their size.
As for the music, I think I found a new bedtime song to help me fall asleep. Really, due to the coma inducing simplistic monotony of it, I actually found myself turning it off at one point to take a nap. If you have trouble sleeping, keep this game running on the world map, and you will be sleeping like a baby in no time.
As for the sound effects, they are pretty typical, and again are on a level with games that came out six or seven years ago.
Of course, online capabilities and the fact that Spartan is a strategy game have to count for something.. It can be played through more than once and offers a few different scenarios, which is a plus. However, once you’ve conquered all of the rather sparse modes of play (that is, if you aren’t yawning and considering taking care of your chores first), there is nothing else that Spartan leaves you with - no open, write-your-own history play, no worldwide empire building, no compelling storyline to speak of.
You cannot really attempt to spice things up by, say, changing your style of government and seeing how to rule the land by different means, as in a more sweeping TBS. You can’t redirect a phalanx of spearmen in the heat of battle to take the high ground, or switch formations on the fly as in a true RTS. All you can really do in moments of such frustration is watch - or attempt to incite a revolution amongst your people by playing as the ruthless, primitive, backstabbing weasel of a warlord that you are. Yay.
Spartan is an under whelming game. It is not what it could have been, which is a good first experience for gamers new to the genre. As for veteran gamers, it is a disappointingly sparse package that will probably end up collecting dust on the shelf. Underdone graphics and sound that does everything except what it should dampen the already uninspired, copycat gameplay.
As for the ever important replay factor, Spartan does not hold up as well as so many other games of its type do (though the fact remains that it is an inherently replayable genre of game). I know I’m being pretty harsh here, but the final verdict is that Spartan is not a totally awful game in and of its self. It’s real problem is that it simply cannot hold its own with the rest of the other games in its genre. Just take my advice, and save your money on this one.