Hide the women and children -- literally! Rorschach has gone broadband! Finally I get to experience the Internet in all its glory – multi-player gaming, single-player porn. Connected day and night, the wife never complaining that I’m tying up the phone line, no more AOhelL, gone is the irritating screech of the modem connecting, and no more ejaculating before the MPEG is done loading. OK, so that’s too much information. Besides, you didn’t come here to hear about my sexual dysfunction, or maybe you did and if so, you’re going to be disappointed. The subject of this review, as soon as I get around to it, is going to be the sequel to the Gamer’s Choice Award winning Warlords Battlecry, creatively entitled Warlords Battlecry 2.
Sometimes I find myself sitting down at the computer with a stack of games surrounding me to review, and I have no idea what to play next. Rough life, right? But I’m only one guy, albeit one with many superhuman abilities beyond those of mere mortal men, and clearly I can’t play and review every game. Some are going to slip through the cracks. And so it was with the first WB. It must have been on my desk for close to six months before finding its way onto my hard drive. Once there, though, it stayed. Simply put, I loved that game. The game that ultimately replaced it was in fact Conquest: Frontier Wars nearly a year later, which I didn’t like nearly as much, but by that time I had pretty much played WB to death and was looking for something new. So, when I heard WB2 was gold, I cleared the calendar and the hard drive. I even turned down doing a review of Star Trek Bridge Commander to review it, despite the fact that by and large I consider myself a Trekkie. From our recent review of Bridge Commander, it seems like I made the right choice, or at least a better choice. WB2 is whole lot more of the same fun of WB, the key words in that sentence being ‘more’, and, somewhat regrettably, ‘same’.
At heart, both WB and the sequel are standard RTS titles. You gather four resources (gold, iron, stone, crystal), construct some buildings, research some advances like better armor or sharper arrows, and create an army. Standard, schmandard. The thing that set WB apart was the inclusion of a hero, a singular unit that you would more or less role-play, carry from mission to mission, gather experience, magic items, and skills, and choose a race and career. If the hero died, the mission was lost, and units in the vicinity of the hero fight better. It gave the game almost an RPG feel to it, not unlike Diablo (if you call Diablo an RPG), and a lot of replayability. The sheer number of options in terms of races and careers to choose from made the game greater than the rather average RTS would have been otherwise, and I easily played around with a dozen different heroes over the course of a year or so.
So I came into WB2 looking for that next something, that next step that was going to make this game new and different again, the eleven, as Nigel from Spinal Tap might say. Frankly I wasn’t even certain what that something was that I was looking for. That’s what makes me a game player and not a game designer. I did know that I wasn’t looking for more hero options. If I wanted more of those, there were still some from the first WB that I hadn’t played out.
So, what does WB2 offer? Primarily more hero options, perhaps hundreds of them. Hmm. Seems like someone wasn’t listening – I got just what I wasn’t asking for. There are also new spells for spellcasters, but again, there were plenty of spells in the first game. Generally when played I would hotkey my two or three favorites and just use those. Like hero options, I didn’t need more of them either. There are likewise more units now, but if there was one serious failing of the first WB that carries over into the second it’s that that each race has a single unit that fights well against all other units, and you tend to build armies consisting of that unit type alone. Many of the new units you can well do without. There are group formations now, which I’m pretty certain were lacking in the first game, but what’s the point of a formation when your whole battlegroup consists of one unit type? Put this daemon in the front row, no no, put this daemon in the front row. Pointless. What’s worse is that going into combat the formation pretty much completely falls apart as your units scramble to attack any nearby enemy.
If my memory serves me, the first WB had a simple, serviceable plot; something about good versus evil. Halfway through there was a choice for the hero to make: to revenge the death of an elf against the man who caused it and in doing so risk the overall outcome of the battle of good versus evil, or accept the death of the elf and continue taking the orders of your superior. Otherwise the single-player game was a fixed plot train, stay on the rails or get out of Dodge, my way or the highway. Furthermore, the single-player missions, I think, forced you to play as a human (though you could choose from among careers such as cleric, wizard, fighter, etc.) But there were plenty of maps included with the game that you could play against the computer as, say, a dwarven assassin, and then go through them again as a dark elf necromancer. The different careers and skills played so differently that it was in many ways like a different game. At any rate, WB2 is much more freeform. The single-player game allows you to be any race at all, the object being to conquer the sixty-something territories of Etheria. There’s no plot, and when choosing your next mission you can try and conquer any territory adjacent to one of yours. Holding territories puts money in your coffers that can be used to buy armies at the beginning of a mission. Also each territory you hold gives you some gain in ability (stronger buildings, more hit points for the hero, limited resistance to fire attacks, yadda, yadda), and that’s new and different, if not really interesting enough to be called a true game innovation.
There are a handful of other changes they’ve made. There is now a perpetual build queue, allowing you to program a building to crank out units ad infinitum for as long as your resources hold out. Unit attitude, rather than being just aggressive or defensive, now covers a complex array of commands like use magic and find something to guard. Again interesting, but not innovative. The capability to set your units on a sort of berserk mode, causing them to scour the map killing anything they find, remains, and they have added to it the possibility of enemy resignation. Sometimes when the going gets tough the computer enemy will resign taking all his units off the board with him. It reduces to almost nothing the snipe hunt that finding the last straggler enemy units on the map these RTS games can often devolve into, and I for one hail the addition. I’d call it the best new feature of the game.
The AI seems a little more stupid in this one than the first one, and that surprised me because you’d think they would have left the AI pretty much unchanged from the first game. Heroes especially can be very stupid, repeatedly getting into situations that are certain to get them killed. I had a dinky gold mine protected by a tower, and an enemy hero would run up to it, get smacked by the tower, and run away. Run up to it, get smacked, run away. This kept up until the tower, all by itself, killed him. There is a patch on the website that is supposed to take care of some of this, but when I tried to install it, it crashed the installation and forced me to reinstall the whole game. Not my idea of a good time.
The graphics engine appears unchanged, or at least changed so slightly as to be almost imperceptible. The map is still the same 2D board with clusters of trees and water to form terrain features, though perhaps some slight 3D mountains have been added. The characters are flat 2D and well-animated as are the spell effects and whatnot, but time has passed unkindly, and the graphics lack any real zing. The sounds are also holdovers from the last game. The heroes have new catch phrases (the barbarian says “Look at my bulging muscles” and sounds like Ah-nold) – that gets old fast. The music, uh, is there music? I guess there must be, but as I can’t seem to bring it to mind it’s probably neither suspenseful nor dramatic. Now that I think of it, it might be something military. At any rate, I didn’t have to shut it off, at least not consciously, which I suppose is a plus these days when I’m frequently forced to turn off the music or shoot myself in the head.
While WB2 isn’t an award winner, it is a solid entry into the RTS genre. I think it disappoints by giving you simply more of what the first game had in plentitude, and in that sense it kind of fulfills the role of a big expansion pack, really. In part, it was the longevity of the first title that brought me to the sequel with the feeling that I’ve played it too much already. On the other hand, didn’t buy the first one? Missed it on the store shelves? Then I’d recommend buying WB2. But if you bought the first one, save yourself the $40 and just pull out the old one again – you won’t be missing anything of consequence.