It is interesting to ponder why Data Becker didn't want the theatrical license to this material. Of the four campaigns in Highland Warriors, one is totally devoted to William Wallace, the Scottish hero popularized in the film Braveheart. Other titles focusing on this milieu have come and gone, but the genre is still left with a void simply because it has never been done right. After spending some time with Highland Warriors, it still isn't right. The genre is somewhat like Star Wars and real-time strategy. There have been products before and it's a great place to host some bloody battles in but no one can produce a totally enjoyable product and at the same time, harness the synergies the backdrop has to offer.
In terms of gameplay, Highland Warriors tweaks the formulaic path of other real-time strategy titles. There is an opening cinematic sequence to every mission, powered by gameplay engine, explaining the context itself: primarily what the Scottish are doing and what Longshanks has in plan for them. These are done with a narrator recounting what had happened in the past. In its style, it reminds me a lot of Bungie's Myth, yet the vocal talent is far from the same level. While Myth easily evoked pathos for The Legion, the speaking protagonist here does little to stir up sympathies. You'll undoubtedly love it if you're interested in Scottish history (I imagine, primarily those of Scottish heritage), but the focus is so narrow that it won't easily appeal to everyone abroad, especially since the developer's meticulous care drops historical names out of a hat nearly every mission.
The positive part about this is the ability to incorporate some of these historical aspects into the game itself. If you're playing a mission set during the winter, you won't be able to build a farm and start harvesting since it's not the right season. Similarly, if a character is mentioned in the cinematic sequence, you can almost bet they'll be in the mission itself; either as a controllable hero or on the opposing side of the fence. But the name-dropping is fairly haphazard. Some heroes are only available for a single mission. Furthermore, the historical context to the missions is largely irrelevant when you examine the mission objectives sheet. They're composed of either destroy the enemy or protect the hero - not exactly the best use of the source material.
It is at this juncture we see Highland Warriors devolve into the role of the traditional real time strategy title. There are four campaigns in total. Like Starcraft, you are told the story from each side in the game and in turn, there is a variety of unique units, even amongst Scottish clans themselves. Unfortunately, they're put to very little use. Once you come up against fortifications in enemy bases, battles become a matter of numerical superiority. Collect as many resources as you can, then assemble your troops together and put them to work by sending them en masse to the enemy camp. While Highland Warriors supports features like unit formations, the pathfinding techniques are actually better when you simply send your troops as a rabble. At least then, you'll be able to control the makeup since you can't group your armada into a single formation like Ensemble's Age of Empires. Pitting archers, infantry and cavalry into combat altogether in formation isn't intuitive.
Many of your units in the game are upgradeable. For instance, the experience system is extended to villagers where a villager can perform a task until they're ready to be certified. For a one time monetary payment, you gain the synergies of increased efficiencies as your villager graduates from a peasant to a craftsman. This is all very good, but like the heroes, it's short-lived. You can't carry a troupe from your single player campaigns to your multiplayer skirmishes or even between skirmishes. Features like these get waylaid because the design promotes the expendable use of your units. Thus, you end up with a game promoting micromanaged tactical approaches but the game is seemingly designed on the "hording" battle model.
Much can be said about Highland Warriors' 3D proprietary engine. It's designed from ground up to be 3D and is competent enough that the developers felt comfortable using it to do all the cinematic sequences. Things like facial detail and animations do indeed look more than decent. I particularly liked the gallop of the cavalry units. But then there are other close-ups that look awkward, like soldiers marching and switching directions at the same time (some even gliding). Since so much horsepower is expended on destroying buildings bit by bit or making axe warriors swing 360 degree swipes, you're left with trees that look no better than they did in Bungie's Myth.
That zeitgeist encapsulates Highland Warriors as a whole. It's a product that has some things going for it: a solid 3D engine, some good authentic speech, a map editor, piecemeal structure destruction, AI players in multiplayer, etc. Yet in other ways, it executes horribly because of a lack of polish. The units definitely need more balancing to make some of the specialized ones more useful. Taking out large defensive structures may be easy, but building them from scratch is a chore, especially since the current interface doesn't promote it.
As well, there are technical problems associated with Highland Warriors out of the box. Some involve setup of the game - something the developers should have paid lots of attention since their demo. While I didn't experience any of this first hand, the reputation isn't going to get better if word of mouth is like this. What did happen was some random drops back to the Windows desktop, especially when transitioning from multiplayer games back to the menus.
Many years ago, people lamented that after so many false starts with the comic book to movie business there would be no hope for a good conversion of a comic book hero to the silver screen. It was like an in-joke when you mentioned the two together. It no longer is now. The same can really be said about Highland Warriors and the Scottish material it is dealing with. No one has done it right yet.
On a game level, however, this title is not a horrible real-time strategy game. We're definitely moving beyond the clone and conquer era of the 1990s. So have our expectations, however. Highland Warriors has some vision to it and the setting will appeal to some, regardless of gameplay quality. Slipping its release date has helped the title too, as it didn't have to contend with the ghosts of Warcraft
III and a simultaneous release with Age of Mythology during the holiday season. Now, however, it faces off with Command and Conquer: Generals. If the lukewarm reception to a very polished (but rather uninspired) title like Impossible Creatures is to be taken as the standard for 2003, more has to be done to turn this game into something stellar.