Game Review - by James Allen
It seems that PC gamers just can't get enough real time strategy games. Even though they rarely appear on the best selling games list (with the exception of the venerable Starcraft), gaming companies seem to produce this kind of game much more often than other genres. Another entrant into the RTS arena is Warlords Battlecry II, a sequel to (not surprisingly) Warlords Battlecry, which was released several years ago. Since I never played the original, you won't see any comparisons between the two, and I will be reviewing Warlords Battlecry II on its own merits. Anyways, Warlords Battlecry II infuses some RPG elements into the RTS genre, which may prove to add some freshness into the genre. Will Warlords Battlecry II stand out from the RTS crowd, or become yet another poor imitation thrown by the wayside?
Warlords Battlecry II features the gaming options that you would expect in a RTS title released today. It has thrown aside the story driven campaign, and gravitated towards the increasingly popular campaign model of linked skirmishes; depending on your likes and dislikes, you may think this is a step in the right direction or not. The campaign is basically an all-out assault on the land in question, where you move from province to province, defeating enemy armies. Each new land provides a bonus (like increased armor, for instance), a tribute, and an income to your kingdom. There are usually several sides going for the same piece of the pie, which is strange considering that the player can only invade adjacent provinces, but other sides can go clear across the map to fight you. Seems unfair, doesn't it? After each game, you can select more units to join your squad, and move on to the next territory.
Although you can't set up the map and victory options for campaign games, they are all derived from the choices given for skirmish/multiplayer games, which I will describe here. First, you create your hero, which in skirmish/multiplayer games does not have to be of the same race as your side. Speaking of races, there are twelve to choose from, and each have different ratings in four categories (strength, dexterity, intelligence, and charisma) for their heroes' attributes, and different building and unit types, which are actually all the same on a basic level. You can change the map options, including size, terrain type, and amount of resources. Probably the most interesting aspect of setting up a game is the sheer amount of different victory conditions there are. There are standard (kill everything), raze all buildings, kill all units, assassination (kill the heroes), raze fest (destroy as many enemy buildings in 30 minutes), slug fest (same as raze fest, except with enemy units), fortress (destroy the keeps), king of the castle (build a level 5 keep first), merchants (collect 2,500 of all resources), against the horde (massive side against everyone else), battle of the titans (level 50 hero and a titan to boot), pitched battle (50 unit points but no building), and capture the flag (capture the flag). Most of these are variation on the same themes, but it's still nice to have so many choices. After you choose your options, you create your starting army: you get a number of points to use, and more powerful units cost more. This is a pretty neat idea, and I liked it a lot. On top of all this, there is an editor to use as well, where you can make your own maps. The features in Warlords Battlecry II are among the most impressive in the RTS genre.
The sound is fairly basic in Warlords Battlecry II. The background music is quite good, and fits the atmosphere of the game well. But, beyond that, it is a lost cause. Each unit has approximately one acknowledgement saying, and all of them become quite annoying the fiftieth time you hear them. You would think that the heroes would have some varied phrases to say, but they do not as well. The battle sounds are also very unimpressive, as they rarely convey the gravity of war. It seems that less and less attention is being paid to sound these days, as it's hard to show off good sound in screenshots. Good graphics will sell a game more than good sound, and that approach is seen in spades with Warlords Battlecry II.
There are a number of things that I truly like about the gameplay in Warlords Battlecry II that are both good ideas and fun, but the game still deteriorates into the a tiresome RTS formula. Each race has their own different units, but they are all the same on some level: infantry, flyers, and ranged attacks. The units like to get out of formation, with the fast units separating from the slow ones; it would be nice if a single group would stick together. The units are pretty good at prioritizing enemy units, and not attacking buildings you can convert (more on that in a bit). Pressing a group's hotkey zooms in on them instead of just selecting them, which is irritating. In a nod to RPG games, units gain experience points for killing enemy units, which in turn upgrades them to become more powerful. It's nice that this leveling up is not just restricted to the heroes in the game. My favorite thing in the whole game is the continuous production queue. You can set it up so that, once it completes a unit, it sends that unit type to the back of the line, and moves on to the next. This means that you can alternate creating two unit types at the same location, instead of creating 4 of one then 4 of another. You can also insert upgrades to the building itself without canceling the unit creation, as they will resume automatically once the upgrade is completed. This is absolutely great, and the developers should get a cookie.
As I alluded to earlier, you can upgrade building in several levels, which open up new units or new buildings to construct. They can also increase your army limit, which restricts the size of your clan depending on how many structures you have. Resources are handled in a great way, too (my second favorite thing about the game). Instead of mining or collecting resources, you send your hero over and convert them over to your side. This means that the resource locations can serve as choke points on the map: it's neat to have your hero converting over several mines while your other units duke it out with opposing forces. In multiplayer games, you can exchange resources between allies, which is a nice touch to complete the resource management aspect of the game. Your heroes can also complete mini-quests during the game, which is another nod to RPG games. Animals that wonder around the map can be used as cannon fodder (catapulting cows, for instance). In addtion to the heroes, there are uber-powerful titan units that dominate the landscape; they are very strong but also very expensive. The heroes themselves can cast spells, and also level up with experience. Once they achieve level 2, they pick a profession (warrior, wizard, rogue, or priest), and level 3 supplies them with a specialty. Once they get to level 4, they start to accumulate ability points, which can be used on skills, spells, and the like. In something that I can't understand, if your hero dies during a game, it magically comes back to life, intact for the next mission. Huh? This is actually good, since heroes die very easily in the beginning, which leads me into the reason why Warlords Battlecry II gets a 3.
Even with all of the innovation and great things of the game, Warlords Battlecry II gets held back by its combat model. To put it directly, units die way too easily. So, the game deteriorates into an exercise of producing mass amounts of units, sending them into battle, watching them get slaughtered, and producing more units. This gets so tiresome, and I mistakenly thought that this approach to a RTS game was long gone. This problem is amplified by the restriction on army size, but it's slightly offset by the fact that units die with one or two hits, so you're always free to produce more. I personally despise the RTS gameplay of producing hordes of units to send into war; it's been done so many times before that I want something new. A game such as Kohan (my favorite RTS of all time) puts the emphasis on careful army creation and balancing, rather than who can create the most units in the shortest amount of time. With so much going for it, it's sad to see that Warlords Battlecry II has decided to go with a tired battle formula that all but ruins the game.
The graphics are given in the classic isometric perspective, derived from some of the first 2-D strategy games. While most strategy games have made the leap to full 3-D, Warlords Battlecry II still rests comfortably in two dimensions. The graphics, in general, don't look bad, just outdated. Although I haven't played the original, I suspect that the graphics in Warlords Battlecry II are much like those found in Warlords Battlecry I, as they look like they are from 3-4 years ago. The battle effect are fine, however, as you can see blood (both in shades of green and red) and electricity flying between units. I do have a hard time telling whether something is in flight or on the ground, as shadows for small units are, well, too small. Also, there are a couple of problems with how the graphics are handled. First, there is no zooming, and some of the units are quite small and hard to see, and often get lost in the fray. The level of detail that has gone into the units is lost because they are just too darn small. Secondly, the information panel at the bottom of the screen cuts off the end of the game map, and the top is also sliced from existence. This is completely inexcusable, as those last enemy units tend to hide close to the edges of the maps. Why are we still having this problem in this day and age? It's not too hard to just add some back borders around the map so that we can see the whole thing: Kohan did it, why can't Warlords Battlecry II? Grr.
So, what's the verdict on Warlords Battlecry II? Well, despite all the things that the game does right (options, heroes, resources, production queue, RPG elements), it's hard to get past the fact that, once you peel away all of the pretty layers, Warlords Battlecry II is just another RTS game where you send as many units as possible away to die. As I have stated, there are many different things that Warlords Battlecry II should be commended on, but the deal just hasn't been sealed effectively. Warlords Battlecry II sums up to be yet another average attempt at a RTS game in an overcrowded et. You might want to check it out if you enjoy or can forgive the combat, but I sure can't.