Oy. Let me begin by saying that I really, really liked the first Warlords Battlecry. It very nearly perfected many pieces of the RTS puzzle, and included the concept of an integral hero to the gameplay. You played as your hero; he (or she) gained experience, improved skills, and collected items as you progressed through the game. The advancement tree for the hero was truly vast – would you become fighter, or magic user; cleric, thief, or one of more than a dozen other careers available? WB also contained multiple playable races with dozens of unique units, and taken as a package the replayability of the title was very high. In fact, I continued to play with WB all the way up until WB2 came along. So what did WB2 bring us? More races, more hero options. I was especially disappointed by this in comparison to Warcraft 3 and Ground Control, which added snazzy 3D graphics and terrain effects. I had been playing WB for more than a year and was looking for something more, and instead got more of the same. And what has WB3 brought us? More races, more hero options. I’m asking myself how many times you can release what is essentially that same game and keep calling it a new game. And while I’m not certain of the answer, I think three is pushing it.
In the quest for more wealth, merchants have taken to wiping out a lizard race known as the Ssrathi, who are technologically backwards but loaded with gold. The leader of the lizard race is however powerful in magic, and he opens a portal and unleashes something nasty. It’s your job to track it down and kill it. If the game hadn’t been fun, the plot wouldn’t have been enough by itself to keep me playing the missions.
The game board is laid out like a map, and from any given location there are a number of other locations you can travel to, and a number of different missions you can undertake there. Some are related to the plotline. Many others are not and can be used to advance your hero’s level. It’s largely non-linear, and by playing certain levels before others, and making friends and enemies along the way, you can alter how the different missions play out. Make friends with a race along the way, and you can even use them in playing some of the missions, as a result the replayability and variability of the campaign is almost endless.
While there has been a certain movement away from the grunge work of resource gathering and building construction (like in Ground Control), WB3 basks in it. There are four gatherable resources – gold, stone, iron, and crystal – and while different races use them in different ratios, all of them need some of each to some extent. All races have to produces at least two buildings (a keep and some kind of barracks) to make even the most rudimentary of ground troops. Getting to some of the more advanced troops can take 7 or 8 buildings, none of which come cheap, and the vast majority of the games consist of hiding in some corner of the map, hoarding resources, building buildings, and fending off minor scouting attacks until you have an army vast enough to go out and attack the enemy camp. To call many of the levels a little slow for the first 15 minutes or so is being charitable. Other levels give you a fixed number of units to accomplish some task, and those are speedier and more action packed.
The hero is the linchpin of the whole enchilada. There are 28 careers to choose from including warrior, thief, pyromancer, healer, runemaster, etc, and they effect the hero’s beginning stats as well as the skills that can be learned. Your hero has four base characteristics – strength, dexterity, intelligence, and charisma – and you get to improve them with each level of experience. You also choose which race your hero represents, and what basic skills they have. In a sense they’ve created a fairly extensive RPG within an RTS. Every unit on the battlefield gains experience and improves, and your hero gets to take some of these with him between missions, he develops and entourage if you will. At some point a high-level hero traveling with a high-level entourage is a formidable army all by itself indeed.
Sixteen, count’em, sixteen playable races with all manner of beasties from elephants to dinosaurs, orcs, goblins, undead, elves (dark and light), dwarves, insects, and mages. Though I did over time develop favorite races and units, I can’t easily say that one race has a great advantage over any other. In a setup that could have easily been bogged down in a quagmire of balance issues, WB3 does very well.
My largest gripe, beyond the fact that I’ve played this all before, is unit pathfinding. Squeezing an army through a narrow pass will always cause them to bunch up, the ones in the back bumping into the ones in the front and then breaking away from the group to try and find another way around. There are numerous group formations available, but as soon as the army tries to move the formation goes to hell as the units more or less travel in a shapeless pack contained by whatever terrain is around it. Apparently only an army at rest can hold a formation. Finally, unless I was careful, it was very easy to build buildings without aisles large enough between them to allow units to pass, and so sometimes stranded groups of units in the barracks, unable to reach the front lines.
And as long as I have your attention, another gripe is that the enemy AI spends the vast majority of its time dribbling tiny unit clusters against your defenses, so that even minor defenses, just a few guard towers, will prove adequate for most of the games. Literally hundreds of units, one at a time, wandering over to your camp and getting killed, without a single attempt at a flanking maneuver or overrunning me.
They’ve tweaked the WB2 game engine, which probably was the WB1 engine as well. No 3D graphics here, though there are hills in the game and some advantage is gained by holding the high ground. Spell effects are good. Unit animation is poor, and in combat all the units smashed together can be difficult to differentiate and harder still to control individually. The environments of jungle, snow, desert, and whatnot are drawn about as well as the graphics engine can make them, which by today’s standards is just OK.
I like the voice work and the music. Each unit has a couple of unique sound bites, and across the dozens of units it adds up to a significant quantity. Likewise each race has some music associated with it, and I’m impressed by the quantity of work they’ve done here.
The interface is instantly familiar to anyone who has played an RTS, the top majority of the screen dedicated to a view of the map, the bottom containing all the command buttons. Pretty much everything has been assigned a convenient hot key, and the interface is clear and easy to understand and use.
I don’t think I’m a moron, and yet I couldn’t get it to go. I couldn’t try the LAN multiplayer, having no LAN presently in my home. Internet play requires one person to set up as host, and then distribute his IP address to the other players. This can be done through a chat room run (unmoderated?) by Enlight. I never saw more than a dozen people there at any one time, and, like me, they had little idea what they were doing – the manual is almost bereft of useful information. I would start a game, give out my IP, but apparently no one else could see the game. Others would try as well, give out their IP, and I couldn’t see their games either. I’ve been reading in various forums plenty of complaints about WB3 multiplayer issues, and I guess I have to add my voice to theirs.
More races than the last game, at least three more if my memory of WB2 is accurate. Loads of spells, different careers, and bunches of non-linear missions give the single player campaign a great deal of replay. There is also a skirmish mode beyond that, and multiplayer as well provided they get that patched up eventually. Or, you could go play WB2 some more.
I’m vastly disappointed at this release, like the developers had one surge of creativity for Warlords Battlecry five years ago and have been coasting on fumes since then. It’s fun, but so was WB2. I got my reviewer’s copy for free, and if you own a copy of WB2 already I’m not sure I can recommend running out to buy this one. It feels dated, especially graphically, and with the cantankerous pathfinding and confusing multiplayer, it seems like they’ve taken a step backwards instead of forwards.