29-Dec-2001 Keeping it real in the realms of RTS: Keith Pullin Keeping it real in the realms of RTS: Keith Pullin
Tedious plot. Laborious tutorial. Terrible cut-scenes. There can be no doubt that Battle Realms is cursed with some shocking presentation, which is hardly the best way to get things started. Thankfully this resilient offering developed by Liquid Entertainment also boasts some of the most enjoyable gameplay you are ever likely to come across in a fantasy RTS. So, for once we'll forgive those initial shortcomings and refrain from mentioning them again... well, we might do, but we'll keep it confined to captions. How's that?
LANDING ON YOUR FEET RTS developers are always banging on about how the cunning use of landscape is the key to victory � BR is another title with this boast hanging around its neck like a concrete necklace. Initially, it has to be said that like most other RTSs it makes no difference as to whether you're in a forest, up to your waist in a swamp or on top of a mountain � the fact is you can get by without paying that much attention. However, as you progress through the game it becomes apparent that for the four warring clans (Dragon, Lotus, Serpent and Wolf) the landscape is truly both your ally and foe. Units attacking from high ground really do have a huge advantage over the suckers below; forests provide the extra cover they should (while also hindering archers) and rivers slow you down. Weather also plays its part with rain causing havoc among troops.
BALANCING THE EQUATION On the plus side a good downpour makes your rice grow faster. OK, so your armies won't see the immediate benefits up on the front line, but if that same rain extinguishes burning buildings and saves your peasants from watering the rice manually, there will at least be somebody who appreciates Mother Nature's gift.
At this point it might be worth mentioning that resource management is a large part of the game, though in a way which differs from the traditional RTS. The main resources of rice and water have multiple uses. Water, for example, is used in the construction of buildings and troops, yet it can also be used to put out fires and soak rice crops when the weather is hot. Understanding when and where to use your resources efficiently is a major part of the strategy of BR. Horses are also considered to be resources, so when you find them (and it's not always easy) you have to decide whether to use them in battle or around the village to collect other resources. The Wolf Clan even eat horses, but you don't want to know about that.
GREAT CHEMISTRY The most innovative feature in Battle Realms is its unit alchemy. By this we mean the ability to cross-train units in a number of different skills. For example, if you create a swordsman, he doesn't have to remain a mere swordsman. A visit to the target range will also endow him with long-range capability, though, of course, his original skill remains unchanged. And it doesn't have to stop there. You can add an even more explosive edge to your soldier's tailored battle prowess by training them in something like the alchemist hut.
Buildings can also be powered up to give units improved accuracy, armour, damage and more. In fact, some of the abilities up for grabs are unfashionably eclectic by the usual PC strategy game standards. Let's face it, when was the last time a geisha girl with a metal fan satisfied your bloodlust? This game contains more than its fair share of units, gadgets and gimmickry, and credit is due for the imagination shown in doing so.
Unfortunately, in order to create really powerful units like the Necromancer you have to be a master of lightning-quick micro-management as you move warriors from one building to another. Couple this with simultaneously trying to fight a battle and you're in for a fairly panicky orgy of mouse clicks and curses. Admittedly, you can set a rally point for one building inside another to create a kind of chain effect, so it's not all bad news. Still, if like myself, you rely on keyboard shortcuts to get you through most RTSs, don't be surprised if you find yourself struggling with BR. Be wary of multiplayer games too � our online opponents showed no mercy whatsoever as we struggled to come to terms with the interface. It really does nothing for your confidence.
BUSH TACTICS Respect has to go to those responsible for the unit animation. Everything from ambient and walking movements (apart from the musketeers who walk like girls) to the spell-casting and the swordplay is exquisite. Watching battles is like watching a Bruce Lee film � the amount of moves these guys come out with is staggering.
You even get little frogs bouncing around near lakes, and there are birds and squirrels and... well, needless to say it generates a stunning atmosphere. This attention to detail is not just for show either. Disturbing a flock of birds as you creep through a forest can actually alert smart enemies to your presence. And vice versa. If you spot birds taking off or the telltale signs of wildlife scuttling from the undergrowth, chances are you're about to be clobbered.
AI is another major coup for the game. The other clans always attack at your weakest point and are very capable of enticing your forces into craftily conceived ambushes. Even the pathfinding is faultless. There's no doubt about it � Battle Realms has had some serious thought put into it.
SOUNDS THOUGHTFUL Use of sound is also excellent. The echoes of clashing steel and squelchy thuds as sliced limbs drop to the floor enhance the already bloody atmosphere no end. The background music is also suitably oriental, with panpipes and drums gliding from threatening tones to blissful tranquillity with melodic ease � similar to Black & White in fact.
There are other hints of Black & White with the plot decisions you have to make. Right at the start of the game you are asked to either save a village from massacre or join in the heartless debauchery yourself. This decision sets the tone for the rest of the game. In other words, if you save the villagers you will fight for the good Dragon Clan � and if you kill them you'll lead the evil Serpent Clan.
And although Battle Realms is played in a relatively linear level-by-level fashion, you also get multiple-choice routes through the world map. Some routes will take you towards the magic-using Lotus Clan whereas others pitch you against more simple foes like the Wolf Clan. Basically no one game is ever the same.
CLASSIC RTS? When it comes down to it, you have to say Battle Realms is a ground-breaking PC strategy game. It contains original, well-thought-out ideas with beautiful use of graphics and sound. Is it a classic though? Well, no.
The unit alchemy interface needs work on its flexibility, and then of course there are those problems we mentioned at the start of the review, which we promised we wouldn't talk about. Still, these are minor irritations in what is otherwise a top-quality game. Battle Realms is good, honest entertainment and a great advert for the continuation of the RTS genre.
Compulsive, enjoyable and original
Ground-breaking Excellent gameplay Beautiful sound and graphics Brilliant unit alchemy idea Great landscape features Great open-ended feel
Tedious plot Laborious tutorial Terrible cut-scenes No keyboard shortcuts for creating units
There are loads of different warriors to create in Battle Realms. Here's an idea of how it's done...
A peasant's life is not particularly interesting. Take young Bryan here: he can collect rice and water and construct a few buildings but that's about it. What Bryan needs is some action and adventure.
Bored and in need of a skinful, Bryan wanders into a local tavern and suddenly with the help of beer and foul language his dull life is transformed. The once peaceful peasant emerges from the boozer a changed man.
Not content with swinging a rusty old blade, Bryan the Swordsman slips into the alchemist hut. Once again the change is astounding. The fidgety warrior has become a fire-hurling lunatic in a single afternoon.
But still he wants more. After a brief but intensive session on the target range Bryan exits the building with a crazed look in his eye. His journey from peasant to fighting legend is nearly complete.
And still there are options for Bryan. He can go to the stables and get himself a mare to ride, or head off to the metal shop for some special abilities. Sadly a mad barbarian beheaded Bryan later that day. Life sucks.