Warlords Battlecry is predictable mayhem

Warlords Battlecry
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The Warlords name has always meant a solid turn-based strategy experience. So it was with some expectation that I delved into the world of Warlords Battlecry, which is the newest real-time addition to this wonderful series.

The move from turn-based to real-time is a tricky one. Some game series do it well, while others end up mere shadows of their former greatness. Battlecry sort of comes up between the two extremes. The real-time game is slightly better than the average RTS, but it does not even approach the top of the genre heap, something the other Warlords games did for turn-based strategy.

I admire what SSI tried to do, but it seems they tried to do a bit too much. Reinventing a game from turn-based to RTS is hard enough, but SSI also tried to add role-playing elements into the mix. And in trying to be all things to all people, I think Battlecry ends up not really pushing into any one area. The game is a jack-of-all-trades and really a master of none.

In Battlecry you start by designing a hero that will lead your armies into battle. This is where the role-playing element comes into play. As your hero wins battles they will be awarded experience points that can go into character development. Eventually you can create a character that has access to very powerful spells, is good in combat and gives substantial bonuses to nearby armies.

This is pretty interesting because when you play online you are going to go up against other enemy heroes as well as their armies. While you can become an expert at knowing what type of armies you will face if you play the game enough, you never really know how an enemy hero will be configured. You might be facing an archmage with a bevy of spells that can fry you at long distance but who can be killed easily if you get close enough, or you might be up against a barbarian that can wade through your ranks unscathed and is better fought with flying armies or archers.

The only game-intensive negative aspect to hero development is that online I have found a lot of players that play based on the strength of their hero. They have no doubt spent countless hours racking up experience points in single player mode, and now have hugely powerful heroes. When you play these people, they simply rush you with their hero, destroying your land before you have a chance to do anything. At these levels, it becomes more of a celebrity deathmatch than a RTS wargame.

I also have a bit of a problem with the unfinished feel of the hero interface. There is very little art available to accompany your hero creation. You get at most three or four pictures to choose from when building your hero, depending on race, and they all seem gender specific. If you are playing a human you have to pick a male picture; if you are an elf you need to be female. One race, that of the barbarians, is not even represented in the hero creation phase and you can’t choose it as a hero type, even though one of the specialties under the warrior path is barbarian. A few races have only one or two pictures to choose from.

How can SSI expect people to really distinguish their heroes online if they all look the same? It would not have taken much effort to add about five or ten more pictures for each race, and mix up the genders a bit. If you are going to tout your game as a partial RPG, the role-players are going to expect more than one or two choices.

The strategy game element of the title is pretty good, though it does nothing to distinguish itself from the myriad of other RTS titles. The graphics are two dimensional, though the game sill looks quite good. It looks a lot like another 2D game I recently reviewed, Majesty, by Hasbro. But is it not even playing in the same ballpark graphically with games like Cavedog’s Total Annihilation: Kingdoms.

In Battlecry you have your basic building element, be it peasants or wisps or thralls, which construct your town. Different buildings cost different resources to build, and give you access to all the fighting forces of the game. Build a barracks to produce basic troops and build other buildings to enhance your troops’ performance or create higher-level troops. Your troops also get a bonus if they are within the command radius of your hero.

Here is where the game introduces an interesting element of strategy that helps elevate the program above the average. Since your troops fight better when your hero is around, you really want to have your hero close to the frontlines. However, doing this puts your hero in danger, and if they are killed your side will be at a serious disadvantage, not to mention you will get very few experience points even if you win. You hero will be able to come back in later games (heroes are never permanently killed) but will have to sit on the sidelines for the rest of the current battle.

You also don’t have to lead an army of the same race as your hero, though some races will have more trouble taking orders from you if they generally don’t like your hero’s race. This is represented by different disadvantages imposed when the game begins.

Resources are given in the "if you own it you get an advantage" method, meaning if you control a gold mine then you get a trickle of gold from it until it runs out or is captured by an opponent. There are four resources: gold, wood, crystals and stone. Each race uses one or two resources more than others. You capture resources by converting them, meaning your hero or a convert-capable unit needs to pray near the site for about a minute. You can convert sites owned by others as easily as neutral sites. You can also destroy a site by attacking it, which will give you a small one-time bonus of resources and make the site defunct for a few minutes, after which it returns as a neutral resource.

The game is fun to play and looks good, although other than a few new elements it does not really do much for the real-time genre. The RPG element is really more of an afterthought and the game should not be considered an RPG. I’m disappointed to say it did not hold my interest half as long as the old turn-based Warlords games, which I still play from time to time on my laptop when traveling.

If you are totally burnt on the current RTS offerings, then Warlords Battlecry might be a good diversion. It’s fun and entertaining and has a few elements that will challenge they way you think about real-time combat. It earns an above average 3 and 1/2 GiN Gems for marrying RTS and RPG elements, even if the arranged ceremony is a little shaky.

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