Reviewed: March 1, 2004
Released: February 10, 2004
Do you remember the historic chess match that took place in 1997? The one that pitted world champion Gary Kasparov against the IBM computer Deep Blue? Perhaps you remember the swirling controversy surrounding Kasparov’s defeat after several matches, the rematch that took place between them and all the fuss made over the eternal debate of man vs. machine asked in between.
No? Me neither.
Don’t feel bad. The concept of chess has always been a hard sell in the minds of many gamers. What for many is a workplace distraction, competing for procrastination time alongside solitaire and pinball isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about an exciting video game experience. Leave it to Lucasarts to buck the trend however with the release of Wrath Unleashed for PlayStation 2, a grand saga of a game combining both the strategic elements of chess and the knock ‘em down fighting action of Street Fighter into one epic experience.
Wrath Unleashed takes place amongst a shattered cosmos where factious and warring deities – representing the elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire – rival amongst each other for total supremacy of the heavens. As the hero of this saga you’ll take control of each elemental faction, guiding their armies to victory as you use magic, terrain, strategy and brute force to accomplish your goals.
Wrath Unleashed takes place upon a playing board divided up into hexagons. At the beginning of the game your playing pieces – a creative and imaginative mix of mythological and fantastical creatures – are scattered throughout different areas of the board. Taking turns, you’ll move your fighters to different parts of the board, claiming special resources like temples and citadels and challenging enemy fighters for control of their hexagon. Once you’ve decided to challenge another fighter for control of a space, the game switches to combat mode, a one on one smack down confrontation in which you’ll have to button-mash, whip out combos and use magic spells to defeat your opponent in real time combat.
Though many might find it difficult to warm up to the concept of chess and the deep degree to which thought and planning are required, gamers have no need to fear Wrath Unleashed’s gameplay mechanics. In fact, Wrath Unleashed doesn’t even follow the chess model in a strict linear fashion. Some of your units can fly, others can teleport and those that are foot-bound can still move several spaces in any direction. Essentially, half the time you’ll be studying the hexagonal board to plan your moves, and the other half you’ll be locked in ferocious combat, alleviating any worries of a simple “move-wait-move-wait” experience.
I found the learning curve to be devilishly simple with the console controls laid out in simple and intuitive fashion. After a quick tutorial familiarizing me with the basic components of the game I was able to begin "adventuring" right away. Blending genres, in this case turn based moves with real time combat, can always be a tricky act to pull off, but Lucasarts achieves it here with an excellent mix of wits and flurry using both elements to balance one another.
On the hexagonal map, I found myself thinking before each move, wondering whether or not to use my demigoddess (a graceful magical unit, akin to an overall unit-commander on the field with the power to heal, teleport, resurrect units and more) to cast a “wrath” spell in order to wreak havoc on my enemy from afar, or perhaps to advance my ogre mages (very strong melee units) in a group to reinforce my centaurs.
In the combat arena I found myself blocking, parrying, lunging and using magical attacks to counter my enemy’s attacks, and more than once I was surprised to have beaten an enemy who was superior in health and strength. The “hybrid” experience provided by Wrath Unleashed kept the action fresh throughout the game.
Describing the Playstation 2’s graphics as “rapidly aging” has become an overused cliché amongst writers in the game industry, and is not only far from accurate but also serves to highlight the Playstation’s success in spite of its younger, sleeker looking brethren from Microsoft and Nintendo. While Wrath Unleashed’s graphical palette may not be as awe-inspiring as it may have been, say, five years ago, there is still plenty to recommend it as pleasing to the eye, not least of which are the practically naked figures of Aeena and Helamis, two of the divine Overlords struggling for supremacy (apparently in the struggle for hegemony over the universe, clothing is optional).
After you’ve taken your eyes of the latter two (which may be a while) you’ll notice that each one of the Overlord’s minion’s are unique entities, nicely detailed and carefully rendered to highlight their own particular brand of viciousness and battle prowess. Each entity – whether it be a centaur, unicorn, ogre-mage or wind elemental – wears the colors of its own elemental camp in Warcraft III fashion, making it easy to identify friendly pieces during arena combat, but ironically enough not on the playing board. I had to zoom in much of time to in order to identify my units. The faces, bodies and weaponry of each creature are wonderfully detailed and the environments they do battle in are equally as beautiful, ranging from murky swamps to frozen tundra, to barren desert wastelands.
Lucasarts has always had a good reputation for delivering epic music along with their epic adventures, and Wrath Unleashed is no exception. Each elemental faction has its own unique music during movement on the hexagonal board, and during combat the tempo churns out fanfare suitable to arena combat. It would have been even better to have each unit taunt one another or yell something during board movement, and after a while the victory and defeat anthems tend to call out for some variety, but for the type of action if offers Wrath’s soundtrack does a more than adequate job.
The voice acting during cutscenes is actually quite good, but the lines are rather cheesy, invoking memories of Olympian babble from movies like Clash of the Titans or a television episode of Hercules. It sets the mood though, and not once did the voices seem out of place or context.
Wrath Unleashed offers a whole lot of bang for your buck. In addition to the standard single player campaign players can choose from War Games, an individual battle generator for quick matches and practice, Army Builder, an option that gives players the chance to customize their own elemental army or Versus, one on one matches between AI or a friend.
There is also a bonus gallery where players can unlock concept art of creatures from the game. The only thing that would have made the experience better is if players could combine traits from different elemental fighters and share these online with friends in a Pokemon-esque fashion.
In many ways Wrath Unleashed represents a significant step forward for the future of gaming diversity. Given enough time, individual genres can become stale and as consumer tastes refine themselves a greater emphasis is going to be placed on those titles that can not only transcend genres, but those games that can supersede standard expectations by presenting old and new concepts in a fresh light.
By combining turn based strategy, real-time combat and a rich fantasy world into a package that exhibits both quality and replay value, Wrath Unleashed has helped pave the way for future efforts on all platforms that embrace newer, unique styles of gameplay.