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Game Over Online ~ Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs

GameOver Game Reviews - Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs (c) Strategy First, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs (c) Strategy First
System Requirements Windows, Pentium II 233Mhz, 64MB RAM, 270MB HDD, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 76%
Date Published Monday, April 29th, 2002 at 12:25 PM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

It is popularly believed that the 14th century novel covering the Three Kingdoms period is the most widely read literary work in the world, second only to the Holy Bible. It is a pseudo-historical account of the late Han Dynasty in third century AD when imperial power in China collapsed under a popular revolt called the Yellow Scarves Rebellion; called so because of the fact that the people used yellow turbans and such to differentiate themselves. The imperial government back then could only quell this widespread rebellion with the use of warlords and generals scattered throughout the provinces, and the fact that they were the only defense against total collapse of the Han Dynasty indicated that these warlords were the ones who held the true power. Eventually all the warlords coalesced around three regimes: Cao Cao of the Wei kingdom, Sun Quan of the Wu kingdom and Liu Bei of the Shu kingdom. Of all three, the most popular has to be Liu Bei and this constitutes the primary focus of Dragon Throne; the dramatic rise of the Shu kingdom.

Dragon Throne is actually not a new title. Last year, I gave extensive coverage to Fate of the Dragon, and Dragon Throne merely runs on the same engine; its advancements akin to what the Rise of Rome expansion pack brought to the original Age of Empires. Because the Romance of the Three Kingdoms narrative is so long, the developers have focused the game not on the overarching storyline, but on a small segment right after the Battle of the Red Cliffs. This tighter focus tries to ease more mainstream players into the fiction, and the fiction is really an integral part of the campaigns portrayed. Dragon Throne chronicles the rising success of the Shu kingdom with the story of Liu Bei and his cohorts. Campaigns exist for all three but the fiction revolves around the meteoric rise of Liu Bei, and the whole game revolves around acquiring the crucial province of Jingzhou. If you imagine the map of China in your head, this province is basically at the very center of China, with one of the largest populations but also one with the largest borders. As such, most of the campaigns involve fighting for this province and the more restrictive scope of the game helps players identify with the recurring characters.

Dragon Throne still retains its ethnic Chinese influence. All of the voiceovers continue to be in Mandarin but this time around, the professionalism is better since there are no annoying pops, screeches and huge volume disparities, although some people still persist to talk much louder than others. One of the cruxes of Fate of the Dragon is also fixed: the whole game seems more polished with attention given to artwork and presentation. The translations during the briefings and in-game speech are still long. Sometimes they aren't entirely accurate either. Some telltale signs include incidents where the narrator stops speaking for minutes before the scrolling text ends. And the grammar/syntax of the translated text continues to be strained. For example, all the dates are listed as 208 AD, which would earn an anathema from one of my professors since 208 BC is the proper form before Christ and AD 208 is the proper form afterwards. This is something minor but representative of the fact that the translation still is not as smooth as it could be.

The narration also betrays the actual mission design. While the storylines are intricate, covering personal motives, vendettas, strategies and the lifespan of numerous characters, many of the missions merely task you to defeat a certain army, kill a certain hero or take over some towns. Dragon Throne maintains the precedents set out by Fate of the Dragon, to which I'll go over briefly. You still have the dualistic city and provincial view; your city is a building in the provincial map but upon entrance, it gets its own automap. Object Software continues its emphasis of realistic scaling. The buildings and city walls continue to be of proportionate size to the people and they are functional enough to let people pass through (letting people man city walls, for example). Each city works on its own economy and the only thing shared amongst a kingdom is gold. This encourages you to develop infrastructure to support things like military expeditions. Military recruitment is much more than merely clicking build on a local barracks. You have to have a certain amount of peasants and then you must enlist them into the army so a large army has detrimental effects on a city's economy. Luckily, you can offset these by establishing trade in between your cities or with allied kingdoms. You can task a peasant to transfer material from one marketplace to another. Furthermore, all civilian and military units in the game can be enhanced with a horse. Horses are bred and equipped at stables and this is quite a departure from the usual 'build me a cavalry' stable in traditional RTS titles.

Dragon Throne's battles work heavily on a morale basis. If you have a hero nearby, his (and they are all males) morale bonuses are added to the troops he is grouped with (1, 2, 3, 4 etc). The more experienced your hero is, the more effective these bonuses are. Food and supply trains are important to keeping your troops in fighting shape. Regular troops can also attain better experience levels by surviving battles and defeating enemies. Throw in some unique RPG offensive/defensive spell effects and you have a heavily RPG-influenced RTS title. Dragon Throne features an extra infantry unit as well as an extra hero type over its predecessor. The latter is particularly important because on a provincial level, you can assign certain heroes to represent the various functions of your kingdom. Assign a Sacrifice officer and you'll be able to access more religious (read: covert ways to attack your enemy) options. Assign an intelligent Science officer and your research/upgrades will move along faster. Such things were previously available in turn-based Romance of the Three Kingdom games from Koei but here, Object Software has managed to merge much of the turn-based gameplay elements into the provincial level of Dragon Throne's RTS game. The taxation system and the ability for you to annex nearby 'allied' towns on the provincial map are influences from the turn-based games.

A cursory glance at Dragon Throne often urges people to write it off as an Age of Empires clone. However, it is a sophisticated RTS title and handles its many layers much better than comparable RTS titles. As a result of this, games can often take a long time to complete even if you are on top of the resource linkages, inter-city relationships and provincial level government. True, you can launch blitzkrieg style assaults on cities with ladders and by merely defeating a town hall, you automatically capture the entire town, but that doesn't necessarily mean all resistance will go away. The AI is pretty adept at wresting control and cutting you off. Some missions took me hours to complete and in the end, I often lacked the will to really take advantage of any cities I took over. In multiplayer, scorched earth policies were rampant. I simply used my central city's well-developed economic system to feed the other ones as regional supply bases, so the city-provincial paradigm is really overblown, especially for short skirmishes.

To help you, the developers have instilled autonomy in many of the units. The peasants, for example, will go help build a nearby unit if they stand idle. They all have little thought bubbles on their head and peasant management is reduced to a minimum. Simply putting peasants into a farm with the order to plow will make them do everything on their own. This works slightly better than the Fate of the Dragon AI but it is still mired by the setbacks in controlling your military units. Despite the many postures, a group of military units on the move can easily get mired and harassed by a few archers. A defensive catapult will more often than not destroy its entire friendly escort when up against some highly manoeuvrable sniping archers. Heroes who are about to die do not take cover or yell in distress. Finally, Dragon Throne's scale may be huge but the armies often attack in a mob like fashion with no ability to maintain formations like in Age of Empires. It's quite disconcerting because many times, there are scripted sequences showing troops all lined up in formation and the cinematic movies illustrate a high reliance by the Chinese generals on tactics.

There are many scripted sequences within Dragon Throne. Scripted sequences, for example in Halo, denote attentive care to the cinematic portrayal of a game. In Dragon Throne, it means the same thing too, except the appearance of important characters like Liu Bei's top generals (Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, etc.) are completely missed by someone who isn't inundated into the fiction. Often you'll wonder: Why am I suddenly getting reinforcements? There are many names that drop in and out of the picture. Even with the tighter focus of the narrative, many heroes remain forgettable, especially when highly developed soldiers/heroes cannot be transferred from one mission to another; negating the positive effects of the RPG system altogether. That seems to be, if I may use a western Greco-Roman term, the Achilles heel of Dragon Throne. It excels in some areas but is let down by others. Fate of the Dragon inaugurated some of these exceptional advances in RTS gaming. Its successor is still mired by some of the same flaws.

Strategy First is known widely for taking chances with unconventional RTS titles. I don't think we can ever foresee the publisher churning out a Warcraft or Command and Conquer clone. Dragon Throne, like Strategy First's Kohan, brings to the RTS genre new wrinkles and wraps it around a new set of fiction altogether. Unlike Kohan though, Dragon Throne experiences some problems most probably because of the magnitude of the material it tries to cover, as well as the execution of its sophisticated depth. Gameplay wise, Fate of the Dragon players will notice nothing more than a more polished looking title. Such things like multiplayer connection dropouts that plagued the original game are now eliminated. Lack of formations and erratic pathfinding problems remain.

Although I found some attachments with the title, I'm not sure whether a North American or European audience would be able to develop ties to the characters involved. I recall reading a preview of this game whereby a press member asked why Object Software didn't focus on the Japanese feudal system instead, no doubt because of the success of EA's Shogun titles. While Object Software parried that question elegantly, citing the five millennia precedent of Chinese history, I think the fact that most people are generally ignorant of the Three Kingdoms backdrop might detract from Dragon Throne's appeal. Simply put, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is hot in Asia but it appears only exclusive to that area. The novel is inherently like Greco-Roman classics. Historians have agreed that Cao Cao was, for all intents and purposes, the practical successor of the Han dynasty, but the novel glamorizes and romanticizes Liu Bei, his followers and his agenda of restoring the Han dynasty. Many of the dramatic and mythical exaggerations in Greco-Roman epics are present in the Three Kingdoms narrative; Guan Yu is a towering seven feet and worshipped as a god later on (and to some extent even to this day), not dissimilar to the literary embellishment of Achilles, Aeneas or Hercules. Is it too much of a stretch for RTS players enamored with Starcraft's Kerrigan or Command and Conquer's Kane? Well, if the international affection for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is of any indication, perhaps Dragon Throne will be well received here as well.


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