“On my signal, unleash Hell.” – Maximus, Gladiator
Unleash hell, indeed. Was there ever a more dominant military force than the ancient Roman Empire? Granted, they didn’t have the military might that the U.S. currently possesses, but consider the conditions they were under. Under the legions, the borders of the empire stretched as far as England in the West and the Caspian Sea in the East. Aside from establishing territories, the armies had to deal with invading armies and continual uprisings by conquered peoples. What’s more, they engaged in this activity constantly over numerous centuries. This would seem to be a veritable gold mine of gaming possibilities for companies to exploit, especially because of the martial significance of each battle. Thankfully, Pyro Studios and Eidos have delivered Praetorians, a military sim/real-time strategy game about the massive territorial wars of the ancient Roman legions.
“People should know when they are conquered.” – Quintus, Gladiator
I’m sure that Julius Caesar felt the exact same way when he started his conquest of the ancient world. Considering the setting for Praetorians, this seems apropos. Tracing the charge from the start of the Gallic Wars to the Caesar’s trouble with the Senate, players become field generals in the fearsome army. Your quest for the empire’s greater glory starts on the northern front in Gaul, as your troops face down the barbarian hordes, later expanding to Rome’s Southern borders as you fight the Egyptians. However, unlike other historical strategy titles, Praetorians places a higher premium on unit strategy than on resource management or overwhelming force.
Nothing illustrates this point more than the limited supply of troops in the game. There are no gatherers, harvesters or miners in Praetorians to concern yourself with, nor are there resources scattered around the battlefield waiting to be claimed. Instead, troops are culled from small towns strewn throughout each level. While these peons can be whipped into fighting shape, bolstering diminished ranks or supplementing healthy ones, the citizens of each village slowly (and I do mean slowly) repopulate the town. An interesting side effect of this limit on the game is that players start forming personal attachments to each unit under your command. You’ll also find yourself taking each squad’s individual strengths and weaknesses into consideration before each skirmish to limit your casualties as best as you can.
There are essentially three types of military units presented in Praetorians: Footmen, Ranged and Mounted troops, all of whom fight in a rock/paper/scissors dynamic. Footmen are strong, but very slow, ranged units can pepper opponents from afar, but are weak, and mounted troops are fast but easily get skewered on spears. While the solution may seem to be sending out the stronger, counter unit to the enemy force, this isn’t the best solution at all. The A.I. in Praetorians knows how to counter simple and even some complex forms of attacks, smashing witless armies to pieces. Utilizing flanking and feinting tactics as well as formations available to each unit serves to increase a squad’s power while leaving minimal casualties.
Your hawk and wolf scouts also play an integral role in your attacks, relaying information on battlefields, enemy strongholds, and potentially dangerous roads. These animals can also alert you to bandits and other groups preparing ambushes in the numerous forests and landscapes of each level, helping you avoid surprise attacks. Such early detection is often necessary as your weary troops slog towards their objectives. With a number of weapons, including catapults, flaming arrows and hastily constructed ladders, you can siege forts, protected bases or other outposts. However, the game isn’t always offensive in nature. There are some levels where you’ll have to hold off aggressors for a predetermined period of time before reinforcements arrive, or save allies under attack.
One of the trickiest parts about Praetorians is that the graphics for the game are somewhat hampered. The first part of this is restrained to the camera, which is locked in the top down isometric perspective above the battle at all times. While slightly zooming in at times feels like it brings you a little closer to the battle, the lack of full control over the camera can complicate matters, especially in a huge battle sequence where it can get hard to discern which troops are yours. This especially becomes problematic when, for example, you’re trying to stop a large cavalry charge by clicking on one unit, thinking they’re a squad of spearmen, only to realize later that they were a group of infantrymen who were easily cut down. However, cutscenes are decently animated, and the most impressive feature of the game has to be the environments, such as the dense forest and rippling streams that can be disturbed as columns of soldiers move through it. Even the destruction of these environmental features, such as an archer sending a flaming arrow into a stretch of trees, looks nice. The audio should’ve been better as well. The voice acting is just poor, with forgettable performances, and the clashing metal on metal sounds doesn’t cover this up during battle, or the canned yelling for a charge. While the music was decent, and definitely signaled the start of a battle, after a few battles you’ve essentially exhausted the entire soundtrack.
Aside from the audio/visual issues, there are a few areas of concern that do arise during gameplay. The first is the somewhat sticky control scheme that units can suffer from, specifically in the heat of battle. While you can direct and point groups of soldiers towards a particular threat before a skirmish begins, these troops have an annoying way of ignoring your commands once they’ve gotten engaged with the enemy. This may seem fine, until you realize that they’re being slaughtered and need to retreat, only to watch them fight to the death because they felt they needed to. Another one is the fact that the game forces a ton of micromanagement, even with units assigned to groups, because of their varying rate of speed. Quickly rushing reinforcements just isn’t possible with the equipment and the terrain these soldiers have to cross. With such a heavy reliance on unit strength and weaknesses, safe troop movement can only come from slowly moving your entire army step by step. One of the other major ones is the limited effectiveness of commanders. While there is a slight area bonus to each unit’s stats when a legion commander is amongst his troops in battle, they’re not the best when it comes to self-defense. If you consider that producing a replacement for the fallen leader takes way too many civilians away from your other squads (resources that regenerate way too slowly), they’re really only useful for capturing villages.
Creating a real-time strategy game is tricky, primarily because of the number of elements that you have to balance. Too much of a reliance on units and the game becomes wildly unplayable. Too much reliance on tactics and it becomes a niche title for the hardcore. Praetorians presents a good test of skill for RTS veterans even as it intrigues novices with its setting. The ancient Roman Empire is rife with good story ideas for games. While there are a few elements that could’ve been implemented in a much better way, this game should appeal to history fans and strategy gamers alike.