Celtic Kings: Rage of War, from Bulgarian-based Haemimont Games, is a real-time strategy game that offers two styles of play: adventure mode and strategic mode. Now, if that makes you think of Kingdom Under Fire, which included real-time strategy as well as role-playing missions, don’t worry. The “adventure mode” in Celtic Kings doesn’t have anything to do with adventures; it’s just how Bulgarians translate the word “campaign.” Moreover, the campaign in Celtic Kings isn’t especially different than campaigns in any other real-time strategy game, and, in fact, nothing about Celtic Kings is especially different than what you’ll find in other games.
Except maybe the theme, which puts you in Europe around 50 BC and lets you control either the Gauls or the Romans. In the single-player campaign, you guide a young Gaul hero named Larax as he seeks revenge against the Teuton raiders who killed his bride (think Braveheart). Eventually Larax goes to Rome for help against the Teutons, but I think all that happens there is he ends up fighting the Romans, too. I say “I think” because Celtic Kings has one of those campaigns that European developers seem to specialize in, where certain missions are excruciatingly difficult, and where you have to load your game or restart numerous times before you figure out what the trick to winning is. After three days of excessive loadings my enthusiasm for the game plummeted. On the fourth day I gave up on it.
But the main problem with Celtic Kings isn’t that it’s difficult. It’s that it’s fairly basic. It only takes up 300 MB on the CD it comes with, and it only installs to 400 MB on your hard drive. So there is only one terrain in the game (forest), and the terrain is basically flat, so there isn’t any strategy in positioning your units. Plus, there is absolutely no eye candy in the game. If a building isn’t required by the Gauls or Romans, it isn’t there, and so forget it if you were hoping to see fancy Roman cities. Lastly, there isn’t a lot going on with the units. They either do slashing or piercing damage, they have a defensive rating against slashing and piercing attacks, and that’s about it. Some have special abilities (like Viking lords leech back some of the damage they do), and there are druids and priests who can cast a handful of spells, but nothing about them is overly exciting, and mostly battles in Celtic Kings come down to who has the most -- and highest level -- units.
That’s right, units can have levels, and they can carry equipment, too, so Celtic Kings has some role-playing aspects to it. Plus, there are “hero” units who can lead armies. That’s important because only hero-led armies can use formations (which are nice mostly because they force the units to move at the same speed), and all units in hero-led armies gain a bonus to their level based on the level of the hero. Since a higher level unit does more damage against lower level enemies, high level units, and especially high level heroes, are important in the game.
Celtic Kings also offers a couple new wrinkles in how it handles bases. There are three kinds of bases (more or less): strongholds, which contain the unit-producing and upgrade-providing buildings, plus villages and outposts. There are two resources in the game, gold and food, and strongholds automatically produce gold while villages automatically produce food. Plus, each base has its own set of resources, and so if you want to keep troops at an outpost or stronghold, you have to continually ferry food to them so they don’t starve. That’s nice because it means you can really set siege on an enemy. If you can take away their villages, then they’ll eventually starve, making your future attacks much easier. The downside is that you have to keep your units supplied with food, and since they go through food quickly, going out on the offensive can be a pain (you have to have pack mules follow along). Also on the downside, in a way, is that what Celtic Kings is doing is similar to what Warrior Kings did, with about the same idea for villages and strongholds, and with keeping troops supplied with ammunition rather than food, except that I liked how Warrior Kings handled things better.
If that were it, then Celtic Kings might be a worthwhile game to play, but it has a variety of problems all over the place. Consider the interface. For starters, you can’t configure the hotkeys, and it drove me nuts that the spacebar was mapped to toggle the minimap rather than pause the game. Speaking of the minimap, it takes up the entire screen. Buildings in the game are (roughly) to scale, meaning they’re big and bases are bigger. So the game maps tend to be large, sprawling affairs, and apparently Haemimont Games couldn’t figure out a way to squeeze the minimap into one corner of the screen. As a result, in order to keep up with what’s going on, you have to constantly flip the minimap on and off, which isn’t a lot of fun. Lastly, when you attach units to a hero to form an army, you can only give orders to the entire army. You can’t tell the hero to stay on the sidelines or have your mounted units try to flank the enemy, and that means there isn’t a whole lot for you to do once a battle starts.
Worse, the AI has a lot of problems. I have no idea how units decide which enemy to attack. The system doesn’t seem to be consistent, and units definitely don’t seem to pick the closest enemy, and so during battles units tend to wander all over the place. That’s a problem since there isn’t a good way to get the army to gather back together. Also, units have problems targeting enemies. If the enemy is moving, the unit will go to the place where the enemy was, and then try to track it down again from there. That means units can waste a lot of time dancing around rather than attacking. There are also problems about how computer players use boats, and how catapults continually attack gates, even after the gates have been destroyed. At least the pathfinding is pretty good, although this is possibly due to how little space units take up, and how spacious the maps are.
Celtic Kings also has some technical problems. Half the time when I started it up, Windows detected an illegal operation, and the only way to get it to start up after that was to reboot. Then, about half the time when I tried to exit the game, it would do something bad to my computer that put it into a slow-down mode, and once again I had to reboot. Moreover, Celtic Kings iconifies badly, which is annoying for me because I’m always trying to do something in the background. But, luckily, once I was playing the game there weren’t any problems. Celtic Kings never crashed or stuttered, and it only slowed down once in a mission where the computer player didn’t know how to get off its island, and so it produced five million troops that just milled around waiting for a fight. (The super slow motion fight that ensued wasn’t fun at all.)
Celtic Kings is also mediocre or worse when it comes to graphics and sound, and so there just isn’t a whole lot to recommend about it. In fact, I’m completely mystified why other sites have been giving it such high marks, and there are any number of games I’d recommend ahead of it. I mean, if you like some of the concepts behind Celtic Kings, then try out Warrior Kings. If you just like real-time strategy games, then try out Warcraft III. If you want a historical real-time strategy game, then, heck, play Age of Empires II. But only play Celtic Kings as a last resort.