The more games I review, the longer I do it, the more I come to realize that really original games are very few and far between. This is especially true in the RTS genre, where a single good idea will spawn copycats for years to come. Some of these copycats, either by exhibiting a gripping plotline or superior graphics or perhaps an advanced AI manage to claw their way above the general noise of the pack. Ancient Wars: Sparta is not one of those. It vociferously (good SAT word, for those studying!) and firmly announces its desire to be just like every other hero-based swarm-mentality RTS out there with OK graphics, average AI, and mediocre voice acting supporting a very middling plot and presentation.
Given the positive response to the recent movie “The 300” you would perhaps, at first blush, believe the makers of AW:S to be some type of grand visionaries. It is a marketing coup to have the spot of default movie tie-in (given that the makers of the movie didn’t see fit to release a game of their own). At least this would be the case if the game didn’t suffer so poorly in comparison. It absolutely captures the storyline of the movie – Xerxes of the Persians attempting to roll a massive army over the stalwart but vastly outnumbered Spartans lead by King Leonidas – without any of the drama or action or intrigue, or anything for that matter. The plot is advanced through a combination of game engine animations and dialog spoken by talking heads. The mouths simply flap open and closed periodically, having nothing whatsoever to do with the dialog being spoken, similar to the way Mr. Ed looked when they packed his lips with peanut butter. Oh, and take it from a guy who studied Latin for seven years: it is definitely pronounced Lee-oh-ni-das, not Lee-oh-nee-das as the game uses. Call me quibbling if you like, but it annoyed the crap out of me. And while the in-game movies do capture the sense of the plot of “The 300,” the gameplay completely misses it. Where’s the vast Persian army? I don’t know; your dinky go here and defeat this small camp of Persians’ and ‘go there and attack that little Persian base’ lacks the feeling that there is any massive Persian army anywhere.
Game mechanics revolve around a standard three-element resource model: gold, food, and wood. Collector units (slaves, helots, whatever) must be assigned to gather them. In what is a sort of interesting wrinkle, the availability of food is not a hard limit on the number of troops you can have. Troops without food lose hit points, but you are completely welcome to create an enormous starving army if that is the way you want to play things. Given that farms are relatively cheap in the perspective of the game economy (MUCH cheaper than units, at any rate) I couldn’t see a reason why you would want to, but you can.
The majority of the game involves turtling up while you slowly build your economy and army and then swarming in a completely un-strategic way over the enemy with overwhelming forces, and the key word there is SLOWLY. With guys collecting gold at about 30gp per round trip, a barracks costing 1500gp, an archery range costing 1700gp, a gymnasium (which gives you access to advanced soldiers) costing 2000gp (plus another couple thousand in research costs to actually get the advanced solders), and a soldier costing about 200gp, I can easily spend half an hour just putting my base together. The single player campaign feels very sluggish as a consequence as time and again you have to wait for your units to collect enough gold and wood to build a barracks (workshop, archery range, smithy, etc), and then more gold and food to raise an army. Multiplayer is also very listless, as quickly mounting any sort of surprise assault force is just about impossible. Playing through the campaign you get to try out the Spartans, the Persians, and the Egyptians. Despite each faction having several of their own unique units, I can’t in recent memory think of a game that felt so similar regardless of which side you played on. In skirmish, it really didn’t matter to me which faction I was playing, which makes the game feel very flat.
I mentioned that this is a hero-based RTS and so it is. The Spartans have Leonidas, the Persians have Xerxes, and the Egyptians have some guy I never heard of, and there are some secondary heroes floating around in the campaign as well. The hero units gain experience and levels in combat, and with them you get to select special abilities. Some of these are combat related, like some special attack, and some are economic, like the ability to build some unit cheaper or faster. This is all very Warcraft 3 and is nothing we haven’t seen in many other games as well. With experience the hero also gains hit points and the ability to do more damage, which makes the efficient use of your hero sort of critical to your victory. Throughout the single player campaign of course, if the hero dies you have to restart the mission. In this paragraph I might as well add the individual units gain experience as well, increasing their hit points and combat abilities. This is all stuff we’ve seen before, please move along.
One truly original concept that the game does implement, and one that I like even though it doesn’t seem to impact play all that much, is that enemy equipment can be gathered for your use. Units can be sent onto the battlefield to pick up dropped armor and weapons, and your units can mount leftover animals, chariots, or claim ballista and the like. Units that are trained using recovered enemy weapons are cheaper to create than units that you also have to buy weapons for. As I said, for some reason it never seemed to be so dramatically cheaper that it really affected my strategy, and animals that are recovered after a battle tend to be pretty much near death anyway and so don’t last very long, but maybe with some tweaks they could make this more a part of the game and less an interesting sub facet. Especially considering that it is set in ancient times, you would think the vast majority of the cost involved in training a soldier would be in outfitting him with weapons and armor (and maybe to a lesser extent feeding him). They could make it essentially free to create a soldier with recovered equipment and see how that plays. There would be a whole sub-strategy with the realization that weapons you spend money to create might be turned back on you. That might actually be interesting! Just my $.02.
Unit animations are OK. You can easily tell the soldier types apart by looking at their weapons and armor. Rocks look like rocks, trees look like trees, and some of the base buildings have clever little animations go on as they train units or smelt gold or whatever. Beyond the uninspired voice work that really lacks the epic punch you would hope, combat sounds are acceptable.
The computer AI is nothing special. It will throw units against your defenses ineffectually for long periods of time, but it does tend to use a good mix of units effectively in combat. Units told to stay put will do so for the most part, though I would sometimes find that units under long range attack, like a ballista, won’t do anything to attack or run out of range. Unit clusters tend to string themselves out in the face of geography, formations be damned, with some units pathfinding themselves clear to oblivion if you don’t herd them carefully. The AI has even more trouble with the larger units as they get caught on trees and rocks and otherwise hampered in odd geographic corners.
If I had to pick one word to describe AW:S it would be lacking. It lacks original gameplay. It lacks excitement. It lacks anything that might set it apart from any number of entirely uninspiring RTS games that have come out in the last 2 years. And most of all, it lacks the level of interest required to have me write another word about it.