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Archived Review


Anyone who has seen the movie Braveheart will recall the amazing combat scenes: English troops advancing in lines, the only sound their earth-shaking, relentless marching; A rag-tag army of Scotsmen, woad-painted and armed with long-unused weapons, making a last-ditch bid for freedom; The grim aftermath, as women search the bodies for husbands and sons who found freedom only in death. In one memorable scene of a cavalry charge, muscles ripple in the horses’ flanks, chunks of sod fly from their hooves, and steam plumes from their mouths, as the Scottish troops wait until the last possible moment to brace long spears against the attack. Yes, Braveheart is my favorite movie. So, when I heard a game based on it was in development, I had high hopes. Large-scale historical combat, the struggles of my ancestors, and the chance to kick some English arse! But, could anyone make a game that would do all that?

.....Scottish developer Red Lemon Studios was willing to try. Not just another piece of movie tie-in fluff, Braveheart was in development as Tartan Army prior to the acquisition of the movie license. Offering an ambitious mix of real-time, large-scale 3D combat and historically-based strategy, Braveheart is part Scotland sim, part all-out clan warfare chaos. It’s an unusual combination, by turns complex and remarkably straightforward, as the challenges of clan management give way to simple kill-or-be-killed on the battlefield.

.....After reading the manual, I felt a bit intimidated by the number of commands, tasks, and details to keep straight. Also, it turns out the manual is often vague, sometimes contradictory, and discusses several features that didn’t make the game. So, my first stop was the tutorial. I was greeted by the pleasantly accented voice of Angus MacFayden (Robert the Bruce in the movie) assuring me he would explain the basics of town and military management. The tutorial is a sort of Simon-says (Angus-says?) affair where you are told to click a certain thing and can’t proceed until you have. This shouldn’t be difficult, but since most buttons have graphics rather than text labels, it can take a while to hunt down the Military Screen icon while your advisor patiently repeats himself. That aside, everything went smoothly until I reached the trade portion of the tutorial. No matter what I tried, my caravan refused to budge. I restarted the tutorial thinking I must have messed up somewhere. Same problem. About the fourth time through, I realized I needed to assign my caravan to a destination not visible on the map without scrolling, which Angus hadn’t bothered to explain. Otherwise, the tutorial is nicely put together, but not that informative. It does a decent job of explaining combat and the “cameraman” concept in 3D mode, but is a bit sketchy on some details of town management.

.....Upon starting a campaign, you’ll be prompted to select a difficulty by choosing the number of AI clans and their disposition. (The number of clans selected doesn’t indicate the total number of clans you’ll encounter, just the major powers). Next, the game options screen lets you choose things like extra resources, additional territories, and simplified trade, for a harder or easier game. Moving on, you select one of fifteen playable clans, with Angus telling you about each one. Clan choice has a major effect on the game due to each clan’s traits, relationships with other clans, and location. Clan Scott, for example, starts near a large English territory, and may face conflict right away. Islanders like Clan MacDonald are protected by the sea, but may have trouble expanding. Each clan starts with two leaders whose stats (leadership, combat, stealth, etc.) can be customized. Many of these leaders, such as Robert the Bruce, Stephen Feherty (the crazy Irishman), and, of course, William Wallace, should be familiar from the movie and/or history,

.....While much was made in previews of Braveheart’s large-scale combat, the real meat of the game lies in its strategic portion. While the 3D combat is fun and sometimes quite impressive, it’s possible to play an entire game without fighting more than a handful of “live” battles, thanks to an auto-resolve option. The strategy game, however, requires thought and attention, and is certainly where you’ll be focusing most of your time. Braveheart’s learning curve can be steep. It took a good three days before I was comfortable with the interface and able to play with confidence.

.....Once you learn where everything is, the strategic interface is easy to navigate and keeps Braveheart from suffering the thousand-window syndrome of many strategy games. At the bottom of every screen are twelve buttons used for moving among the various information and management screens in the game. These are divided into seven clan screens and five town screens. The clan screens are mainly informative, offering a quick overview of your whole clan. The town screens are where actual management takes place. Whereas the clan screens cover your entire clan, the town screens apply to individual settlements.

.....The first thing you’ll see on the General Map is a map of Scotland with your starting territory and a few surrounding territories in various colors. The rest of the map remains blacked-out until you send scouts to “discover” new areas. An area’s color indicates its current attitude towards your clan- green for friendly, orange for hostile, etc. Beside the map is a box for general information about a selected area.. Left-clicking a settlement shows the goods that town has for sale, and, if you have a spy present, will display things like population, number of armies, and wealth. Ctrl-right-clicking on a town allows you to enter it in 3D mode and admire your buildings and happy, kilt-clad citizens. This only works for your own towns unless you have a handy spy in another clan’s settlement to look for raid targets and such. Definitely one of the most important screens in the game, the General Map is vital for planning who to attack, ally, or trade with, keeping track of troop movements, and keeping abreast of clan relationships.

.....The Settlements screen gives information on all the towns and villages you are aware of. As your scouts discover new territories, a list of known clans will appear at the bottom. Selecting a clan will list all settlements belonging to that clan. For any town where you have a spy, or one you have a close political relationship with, there will be information regarding population, tax rate, town morale, and related data. From here you can also enter “spy mode” for any town where you have assigned a spy. The general map will then be displayed with that area’s political relationships shown instead of your own. For example, if you as Clan Keith are at war with Clan Innes in an adjoining territory, spy mode might tell you that your neighbor Clan Forbes is also hostile towards them. So, attacking Innes could improve your relationship with Forbes and perhaps even lead to an alliance.

.....The remaining five clan screens aren’t as vital as these first two, and need to be consulted only rarely. The Leaders screen is simply a scrollable display of all the leaders in your employ, showing stats, wages, and location- not especially useful unless you’re looking for someone with high stealth to lead a raid, for example. The Armies screen gives a summary of all your armies including their number, rank, leader, location, and current activity. The Production and Stores screen lets you view the goods your towns are producing and their quantities. The Trade and Messenger Routes screens show your currently active trade caravans and messengers and their activities.

The five town screens, as mentioned, apply to specific towns rather than your whole clan. These screens are where most of your actual management work is done. The Main Town screen is an exception to the rule- it’s purpose is to provide an at-a-glance overview of a town. Here you can view worker allocation, construction progress, goods in your stores, and other general information. Though you can’t perform any management tasks on this screen, the auto-management feature can be turned on here. A triangle represents the three major aspects of town management: military, trade, and people. A dot within the triangle can be positioned to tell the auto-manager what priority it should give each aspect.

.....The auto-management feature is one of the first areas of Braveheart where problems arise. Certainly, humans will always be better managers than any AI. The manual even states this and suggests you manage major towns manually, while putting less important settlements on auto. Actually, it should have read “You may wish to set some of the towns you care nothing about on auto-management…” While auto-managed towns do fine for a while, they tend to self-destruct eventually. Auto mode rarely, if ever, assigns tasks to builders and armorers, who need specific instructions to begin work. Though the management AI is supposed to decide what weapons to make, it tends to have your armorers still building low-end spears and clubs long after they are skilled enough to make better items. While you can check each settlement occasionally and assign projects as needed, this can be frustrating when controlling a large number of towns. The auto-manager also seems to assign only a minimal number of workers to a task- enough to keep the townspeople fed and clothed, but with little surplus. With auto-management on, I often checked my worker screens only to discover scores of idle peasants in each town. By far the worst problem with the auto-management feature is its penchant for imposing ridiculous tax rates. In keeping with the spirit of things, I’ve decided that all the auto-managers are secretly working for the English as part of a plot to tax Scotland out of existence. Taxes in auto-managed towns are often between twenty and thirty percent, though I’ve seen as high as 43%. With these insane tax rates, you’re guaranteed to see morale drop, inevitably followed by population as angry citizens leave town.

.....The Workers screen is divided into a number of areas representing different aspects of production and resource gathering, along with an area for unassigned workers. On the right, several buttons bring up graphs predicting how aspects of production, such as livestock, food, and weapons, will behave over a period of time. The time scale can be cycled through one, three, six, or twelve months in the future.

.....The profession areas let you turn idle peasants into productive citizens by assigning them to useful tasks. These are split between land workers, who produce raw materials, and goods makers, who create useful products from the raw materials. Land workers are responsible for farming, forestry, mining, and quarrying, while goods makers produce food, clothing, weapons, armor, and jewelry. Builders don’t really fit into either category. Each task can be assigned a limited number of workers, indicated by blue shading. Clicking or dragging in this area or assigns workers to that task who are indicated by tan shading. If you don’t have the required land or resource type needed for a skill, that entire area will be greyed-out, preventing allocation of workers to that task. Supposedly, adding workers to a profession draws first from the idle population, and only then begins taking workers away from other tasks. However, in actuality, increasing the number of workers in one area will draw workers from all other areas proportionally.

.....Each profession had a detail box which tells you what the workers are making and in what quantity, their skill level, and, in some cases, lets you to make more specific assignments. A few examples: The Builders detail box allows you to order the construction barracks, watchtowers, and later even castles. The Farming box has a slider bar for balancing production priority between livestock and grain. A slaughterhouse section where you can butcher livestock produces an amusing cacophony of barnyard sounds when the bloody knife button is clicked. In fact, it’s hard to resist killing off your herds just for the fun of hearing those pained moo’s and baa’s! Bakers make farm produce into foods like bread, cheese, and, of course, haggis, which is made from meat and grain. (Meat and grain? Well, I guess that’s technically true, but it’s more delicately than I would have put it!)

.....Braveheart’s worker allocation system is certainly unique, and was probably intended to simplify life by allowing adjustments to your entire workforce at once. It also seems to have been designed to deal more in general proportions than specific numbers. While this may sound good in theory, in practice it’s one of the most confusing and frustrating systems I’ve seen to date. It is possible to place a lock on any profession, preventing unwanted reallocation of workers by the auto-manager or due to manual adjustments. However, I’ve found I often have to lock down all but one profession, make adjustments, then repeat the process for each profession to get the results I want. The ultra-touchy controls add to the frustration and make moving specific numbers of workers quite difficult. If I wish to take fifteen miners, for example, and return them to the idle worker pool, it can take a good half-minute of dragging back and forth to get the right number moved. The Town Trade screen controls the sending of trade caravans, as well as letting you designate items for sale. Caravans can be drawn by horses, oxen, or even peasants, and may be assigned a guard if raiders are a concern.

.....The trade auto-manager does a much better job than the production AI and makes dealing with dozens of trade routes much easier. It does have a tendency to buy goods that aren’t really needed, though. Since most of my towns are inland, I don’t bother having my bakers make fish pies, and am content even if I haven’t a single fish in my stores. The trade manager, however, seems to worry my people aren’t getting a balanced diet and insists upon buying fish by the wagon-load . An option to take items off the auto function’s “shopping list” would have been nice. Also, while the AI usually does a fine job and only sells goods you have an excess of, I would have liked an option to change goods for sale while still letting the manager handle other aspects of trade. Whenever I was trying to build a keep, the auto-manager decided I didn’t really need all the stone I’d saved up and sold it, delaying construction until I could restock.

.....Discussing the Military screen, the manual states: “Manipulation of items on the military screen generally involves picking things up and dropping them on or in things.” Despite the fact this reads like a sentence intentionally composed to say absolutely nothing, it’s actually quite accurate. Picking up some peasants allows you to form a new army or add them to an existing army. Armies can contain up to 150 soldiers arrayed in ten units of up to fifteen identical troops. Peasants start armed with pitchforks, and though they’ll fight in a pinch, they aren’t very good at it and don’t gain experience. To turn them into a real fighting force, you’ll need to give them equipment by, you guessed it, picking up things (weapons, armor, and shields) and dropping them onto the peasants. Your peasants are now transformed into spearmen, longbowmen, even cavalry, and can gain experience from combat. They are also now ready to be assigned missions.

.....Leaderless armies can take only a limited number of actions other than movement. Guard and garrison duties are similar- guards defend a town or caravan, while garrisons are posted in watchtowers, stockades, and keeps. Placing troops in training takes them out of active service for an extended period and allows them to gain experience by practicing their skills.

.....To be effective at most missions, an army needs a leader to rally around. Unfortunately, though leaders from other clans will sometimes join you, good leaders are hard to find. Many have really poor stats, and are not worth holding onto, especially at seventy or eighty pounds a month. Combat missions, obviously, send your army to attack a city or stronghold, with the fight played out in 3D mode or auto-resolved if you prefer. Diplomatic missions send an army to present a gift, demand surrender, offer peace, etc., depending on your relationship with the clan you’re approaching. Patrols can either spot and intercept troops entering your own lands, or be sent to ambush trade caravans in non-owned territory. Finally, covert missions are night operations where ten or fewer men enter an enemy city to raid storehouses, rescue prisoners, assassinate leaders, or destroy goods and structures.

.....Messengers, spies, and scouts are also assigned missions from the Military screen. Messengers function much like diplomats, but carry less influence and have less chance of success. In addition to ransoming leaders, asking for loans, and seeking information, messengers are the only ones able to propose alliances, (rather than diplomats, as you might expect). I’ve already discussed spies quite a bit, so here I’ll simply warn that spies remaining in enemy territory too long can be discovered and killed, while spies found in friendly territory can worsen clan relations. Finally, scouts travel to unexplored areas and return with information on new territories and towns, which are added to your map.

.....The military interface has some nice features, like color-coding for instant recognition of an army’s status. Creating and equipping armies, assigning missions, interrogating prisoners- basically all military tasks- are handled on a single screen, nicely laid out and not nearly as cluttered as it sounds. There are, however, some rather clunky aspects to the interface. Left-clicking a soldier or item picks it up, while click-and-holding will continue picking up more. A double-click grabs an entire stack. Thus, picking up a single item is easy, but trying to pick up two or three often results in an accidental double-click picking up the whole stack. Trying to pick up soldiers by click-and-holding is also challenging, as you tend to zoom right past the number you want. It’s also easy to unintentionally disband armies, turning your entire force of elite soldiers back into unarmed peasants without so much as an “Are you sure?” Messengers capable of taking orders to an army in the field would be nice so that diplomats, for example, wouldn’t have to march all the way home after a mission. Speaking of diplomats and messengers, many diplomatic functions don’t seem to work very well, meaning it’s usually easier to just kill everyone you encounter- not my idea of grand strategy.

.....Braveheart’s large-scale, 3D combat is an great idea, but loses much due to poor execution. Certainly, it has moments of brilliance, but overall is disappointing. The idea is to let players control large forces in a 3D environment with accurately mapped terrain, weather effects, and realistic troop formations. This succeeds up to a point, but doesn’t come close to what I’d hoped for or what the developers originally promised. The predicted maximum of 800 men per battle has been reduced to 150, with soldiers in excess of this number representing multiple units. Even with this reduction, the sight of that many “life-sized” troops running around is impressive, at least the first few times. Sieges are especially exciting, as you move your war machines into position and assault huge castles. However, standard face-offs quickly become tedious due to lack of variety and control problems.

.It’s possible to view the battlefield from almost any angle and a number of different points-of-view by assigning a soldier as your “cameraman.” The Battle camera gives an almost infinitely variable view of the battlefield, allowing both scrolling and changes in elevation. The Soldier’s view is basically a first-person look at the field through the eyes of your cameraman. The Follow camera also gives a first-person perspective, but from slightly behind and above the cameraman. Finally, the cameraman can drop the camera at a point on the ground. Each of these perspectives has its good points, but it tends to take a great deal of switching camera modes to move around, especially in hilly or heavily forested areas.

.....The biggest problem with Braveheart’s 3D combat is the dismal enemy AI, which presents no challenge whatsoever. In addition to often attacking with too few troops, the computer doesn’t use terrain features, formations, or strategy to its advantage. Since no army can have more than 150 members, the computer can’t even overwhelm you with superior numbers. So, basically every battle consists of the AI troops lining up in a neat row and waiting for your troops to swarm them. In fact, you can often decimate a unit completely before the next one will bother joining in. Since battles can get so repetitive, it’s tempting to use the auto-resolve option, but doing so results in many more casualties than actually fighting it out.

.....The multiplayer game, which should be featured on Mplayer soon, promises a bit more of a challenge, allowing up to four humans to compete with custom armies. All types of weapons and armor are available, but must be purchased with a limited number of points. Time of day, weather, and battleground can also be customized. Also available from the multiplayer menu is the option to pit your army against up to 3 AI opponents at once, selected from a huge number of clans or the English. Unfortunately, all my attempts to play a TCP/IP game online were unsuccessful. Numerous attempts resulted in time-outs before the game was joined, lock-ups, or failure to see the hosted game. Of the two games we got all the way into, the first froze completely, requiring a reboot, and the second crashed to the desktop immediately. Also worth mentioning, the chat interface is terrible, allowing only short phrases to be typed, and skipping half the letters unless you press each one carefully and sometimes repeatedly. Hopefully any networking issues will be corrected by the time the game appears on Mplayer.

.....While hard-core strategy games aren’t always known for their graphics, Braveheart’s interface graphics are very nice and show a lot of care. Most everything is visually represented, with even the tiny goods graphics well-detailed and clear. Soldiers equipped with various types of weapons each have their own unique graphic and are easily distinguishable even though they are less than an inch high. A number of movie clips from Braveheart are included, (though due to the movie-player the game uses, I was unable to get sound with them). Other details like the Celtic knotwork trimming, weapons pictures, and leader portraits add appeal to a visually pleasing strategic interface.

.....Unfortunately, the 3D graphics don’t stand out nearly as much. While the terrain is nicely rendered, there isn’t much variety or detail other occasional snow fields or hills. Though there are “A staggering 650,000,000,000 polygons in the landscape alone!” there is still noticeable pixelation up close, especially on the ground. Satellite data of Scotland was used in creating the terrain for perfect geographical accuracy. However, since most players of the game probably haven’t memorized the layout of Scotland, this ends up seeming a little unnecessary. Buildings, both in town view and on the battlefield, lack detail and tend to be quite blocky. Soldiers on the battlefield are…well…ugly- hatchet-faced, block-headed, and generally not appealing. Otherwise they are reasonably well drawn, with kilts, armor, and weapons all represented. There are even a number of different hairstyles noticeable on close inspection, but overall, Braveheart’s Scotsmen look pretty much alike. The graphics in general are passable, and serve their purpose, but won’t win any awards. Red Lemon had originally planned Braveheart as a 3D accelerator-only game, but upon hearing from their sales team that “3D accelerators have yet to fully saturate the market,” they changed their minds and included a software engine as well. Ironically, the software engine is, in my experience, so terrible that only those with accelerators will really be able to enjoy the 3D portion of the game, anyway.

.....As far as sound goes, there’s not much to discuss. Music consists of a single piece of Celtic-flavored music, which is lovely, but gets old since it’s the only thing you hear. Sound effects for the Workers screen are nicely done, with hammering sounds for the armorers, animal sounds for the farming section, etc. As far as battle sounds, soldiers acknowledge commands with a belch-like “Okay,” and say “I cannae!” if a target’s invalid. (Apparently that’s supposed to be Scottish-sounding, but it really isn’t) During combat, a generic metallic noise represents weapons clashing, and injured men groan occasionally. Where are the sounds of marching armies, thundering hooves, warcries, and lilting Scottish accents? Your guess is as good as mine.

.....In addition to these issues and the interface problems I’ve covered, Braveheart has its fair share of bugs. One particularly annoying feature in the release version started your enemies far across the battlefield, forcing you to spend literally ten minutes hunting them down. In the process, it was possible to hit the “edge” of the field, causing your entire army to abandon you and forfeit the battle. While the version 3.22 patch addresses this and a number of other concerns, there are still a few creepies lurking in the code. All the multiplayer issues I mentioned were post-patch, and I’ve had a number of random crashes, though they are especially common when attacking strongholds- in fact about every other attempt at a siege results in a crash..

.....Braveheart the movie was an emotional roller-coaster that had me crying one minute, cheering the next, and snarling at Longshanks repeatedly. Braveheart the game is similar. At times, I hated the silly thing and was kicking myself for volunteering to review it. (Currently, I’m cursing because this article is around 800 words too long!) Other times, I’d fire up the game to check a detail and find myself absorbed for the next six hours. This game can definitely test one’s patience, but when you form your very first alliance, or siege your first castle, it all seems worth it.

.....The general concept of Braveheart is excellent, and offers a refreshing new combination of genres and some truly innovative features. Unfortunately, poor execution in several areas keeps this from being the game it should have. Perhaps the game was released just a bit too early. Or, perhaps, the game simply tried to do too much and please too many different types of gamers. Making such a broad game is an admirable ambition, but the result is a game where no one aspect is quite perfect. Still, if you can get past the bugs and problems, Braveheart is definitely worth a look. Alba gu brath!

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