Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs is a real time strategy (RTS) game set during the three kingdoms era of china, and believe it or not, my diverse background does actually include studying ancient china while in college. You are probably thinking "why man why?" Well, to be perfectly honest, my advisor recommended the class during an early morning appointment, and I was stupid enough to say ok. Seriously, I joke about it now, but in all honesty I found the history of Asia to be quite fascinating and I continue to expand my knowledge when the time and opportunity arise.
To that end, I keep my ear out for games with an Asian theme, and when this one popped up at GiN I was quick to snag it. Also for those of you that don’t pay attention to the developer, this time it is a company out of China called Object Software.
As I mentioned before, this game is set during the Three Kingdoms period (180 AD to 280 AD) in Chinese History. I am not going to bore you with all the details of history. History information may also be found on the game CD. Most of the information that is known from that time is based on the book Romance of the Three Kingdoms (An online version of the book can be found at – http://www.threekingdoms.com/) written in 1350 by Luo Guangzhong. To sum up for the purposes of this game, the period covers the time when three rival kingdoms ruled by generals Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan each vie for complete domination over china. Naturally in this game you get to play one of these men.
At first glance, this game reminds me a great deal of Age of Empires and if you have played AOE then you will be able to hop right into this game. As a bonus, they have factored in a lot of the improvements of AOE2 along with some unique improvements / hindrances of their own.
Let’s get to the good stuff first. First off the bat, the best thing ever, peasants don’t just stand around. If there is an empty field nearby, they will walk over and work on it. Also just like AOE2, they will automatically replant fields. Another bonus, you can convert your soldiers into laborers and your laborers into soldiers. And they even take the bonuses they have earned to their new occupation, so a good soldier can become a good farmer. All this can be done with a simple trip to the barracks. What was surprising is that soldiers can earn rank and other special abilities, including casting magic. So much for realism, but who cares, it makes the game fun. Earning rank and getting improvements is all done using experience points. You can even watch them level up.
It is pretty easy to get used to that stuff. The multi-map system on the other hand is a little bit more difficult. to be perfectly honest, I am not sure I have ever gotten used to it. Now you are probably thinking, "what they heck does this guy mean by multi-map system?" Well, imagine playing AOE2 and each player starts on a different map that just covers a city’s area. To get to the different city maps, you have to walk off the edge of the map and then you appear on a regional map that has buildings that you walk through to get to the different city maps, but you have to find the buildings first. Basically, if you have a map that has four players, it will have five maps. One map will be for each player and then there will be one regional map with colored buildings that you have to explore to find your way between cities.
Ok now on to the challenging stuff. I reviewed a game called Knights and Merchants a few years ago and you had to ship food and drink around to all your soldiers or they would starve and die. I thought it was a pain then, and I think it is a pain in this game. You have to manage not only the growing of food, but also the conversion of the raw materials into food and wine and then manage the shipping of it in a supply cart around to all your troops. Already this sounds like a pain, but also factor in that the rations of raw materials vary for the finished products and it just gets too complex. I know I am being cranky and I should "wow" the realism, but I don’t like too much reality in my games.
On the plus side, you don’t have to mine gold in this game, you just manipulate the tax rate for money. You still have to mine metals and chop down trees for wood just like with most RTS games. Also, pretty much standard in a good RTS are setting up your diplomacy and research, and Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs is no exception. I will admit some of the things you research are a bit odd sounding, but they basically come out to the same advancements that you find anywhere.
When you first encounter combat in this game it will be the usual hack and slash common to most RTS games. That kind of combat happens on the regional map. The surprise comes when you realize that you can’t storm a city wall like you can in most games. You need to have scaling ladders and the defender has the ability to cover his wall in archers who will chew you up. And these don’t even count archers in towers, who are the real deal.
The defender can also shift his forces to concentrate fire where you are breaking through. He can also have roving catapults behind his walls waiting for your attacking force to try and get in. The trick is that cities already have walls when the game starts, so forget about rush attacks. Least I forget, if you don’t have scaling ladders, you can try to hack your way through the gate. This is the kind of realism in a game that I really like to see. Frustrating as it may be when you’re the attacker, it’s pretty fun.
One other thing that I have never seen before is the ability for your mounted troops to hop off their horse and attack, or they will also get off when their mount gets killed.
The single player game is a lot of fun. But it gets a lot better when you and seven of your closest friends and Internet buddies challenge each other to the death. That’s right, eight people can play over LAN, serial or the Internet.
The graphics are very good. The buildings fit right in really well, and look impressive. The soldiers look very good; the downfall here is that only the color of their clothing changes depending on which army they represent. They have animated attack moves, though it is a little bit odd to see a guy swing at 90 degrees and have a guy die at 45 degrees, but nothing is perfect. Over all, the graphics really fit in well with the theme of the game. They tried to do the same thing with the dialogue, and I found that to be frustrating. Basically what I am saying is that everyone speaks Chinese and you have to read the subtitles. I know I am picky, but I really would prefer a guy talking in English with a Chinese accent. On the other hand, the music has a nice traditional Chinese sound while being unobtrusive to the game.
While I did not find Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs to be a revolutionary title, I did really enjoy a number of the innovative features that I encountered. Within that comment I am including the real world setting of the game and switching between laborers and soldiers, character experience and the whole city combat concept.
Even though I am still out on the multi-map thing, though I am leaning towards the positive side the more I play, its an interesting way to think of an RTS. On the negative side, there is way too much resource management. I really like setting up my cities and getting them running and then forgetting about them to some extent, so that I can go out and concentrate on combat. I found the constant tweaking required to be just too much for me in a real-time game. That and everyone speaking Chinese just frustrated me more and more as I played this game. In the end it detracted from my satisfaction.
Factoring all that in, I rate Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs to be a better than average game, and really good when compared to a lot of the humdrum RTS titles out there. With a 3.5 GiN Gems score, it’s a game that any RTS fan should consider.
Developers: Object Software