Windows - 1998
Description of Rival Realms
I Do Not Like Real Time Strategy Games
I like to take the first few paragraphs of a review and let people know my frame of mind when I consider the merits of a particular game. Rival Realms from Digital Publishing (Titus will publish the game everywhere except the UK) presents a challenge because folks that know me are aware of my somewhat deep loathing of most RTS games. I often accuse these games of lowering the overall thought required to successfully defeat and master different strategy games. I laugh every time I see the word strategy associated with this genre because most are, in fact, real time tactical games. It deeply offends me that many RTS games revel in their simplicity, as if I do not have the attention span to spend the time and learn the nuances of a game system. I hate Command & Conquer, Warcraft, and Diablo for their simplicity, reliance on physical clicking speed, and the damage these games have done to the strategy genre as we have gone through years of companies wasting precious resources trying to imitate the RTS winning sales formula. Anytime a producer argues that queuing is not necessary in a game because it adds too much complexity for players simply is not making games for me. I take much glee in the many highly publicized RTS flops in recent months because I begin to hope that maybe, just maybe the game publishers and developers will consider that it's time to move on to the next great gaming innovation.
Why the tirade against RTS games in an RTS review? First, I want to caveat my comments so that we have a complete understanding about my feelings about RTS games. I generally do not like them. Secondly, I want to point out that two of my favorite games happen to be real time tactical games. Total Annihilation is one of my favorite games and I own every expansion set, often play multiplayer games against friends, and I greatly admire the complexity in this seemingly easy to grasp RTS game. Other reviews laud its graphics (which are quite good), but I am much more impressed by the tactical depth one can employ in the game. Starcraft is another RTS game that I enjoy. While not quite the same level of gameplay as Total Annihilation, Starcraft is leaps and bounds better as a single player campaign. Instead of the silly cut scenes in Command & Conquer, Starcraft introduces the campaign as a fluid part of scenarios and immersed me in an RTS game like I never thought could be possible. I do not, therefore, casually recommend RTS games to anyone. They must stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the genre because I simply do not have time to waste on the same old, same old.
The chip on my shoulder gets even larger if we consider that Rival Realms is a game based in the fantasy, swords and sorcery world that I have exclusively enjoyed as a turn based affair. I pointed out the fine lineage of turn based fantasy games in my Rival Realms preview (as that preview is now offline, the list includes Warlords, HoMM, MoM and Lords of Magic SE - Ed). Why do we need a fantasy world based RTS game? Is not the usual science fiction mumbo jumbo dressed up in rather unappealing RTS dress enough? Is nothing beyond the reach of the evil RTS empire? So it is with a harsh and very critical eye that I turn to the release copy of Rival Realms. I praised the preview copy, but now comes the time where I must give the approval or disapproval of the final product. Do I risk the wrath of my fellow turn based brethren and admit an RTS fantasy based game into the ranks with the Johnson seal of approval? Or do I break out the long knives and make things once again right in the fantasy based world. After reading Tim Chown's heretical praise of the RTS game Magic & Mayhem, my inclination is to circle the wagons and lock and load because RTS is in the wire! Alas, dear reader, GDR makes me play the game before I review it, and our turn based walls may be crumbling down in the strategy fantasy based genre.
Rival Realms or Races?
There are three races included in the game. The characteristics of each race are consistent with previous fare. The Elven race has the advantage of magic, technological innovation, and ranged combat. Elves are weak in up close combat. The Greenskin race seems to be a catchall group of Orcs, gnomes, and anything green. They are primitive and resilient in close combat. The Human race, as is the norm, lies between the two races. They have average magical skills and are adequate at both ranged and close combat. Each race has 14 different unit types and 12 base building types. Rival Realms includes three types of games where the races battle for victory. The campaign game includes a separate game for each race with 20 scenarios for each campaign for a total of 60 campaign scenarios. Custom games can be played as single player scenarios using the Scenario Editor included with the game. Multiplayer games can include a combination of up to eight human and/or computer opponents. The multiplayer and single scenario games are where realms come into play because you can have similar races battle against each other. The campaigns require that you choose a specific race.
The game manual is 53 pages long (quite big for an RTS game) and includes adequate information about different interface functions and attributes. Rival Realms ' scope required a larger manual yet the one included in the game was missing some key information that is discussed below. There are sections providing background description and story about each race. As in most RTS games, these descriptions seem to be an exercise in creativity that really do not add much to the game. Fantasy based games, in general, require a significant story to establish game atmosphere, but the manual description doesn't work for me in Rival Realms. It did not work for me in Lords of Magic either, so this is not a major criticism of the game. The manual describes the functions of each unit in typical RTS fashion, but it does spice things up a bit with added storyline rather than a simple description of what the unit can do. The types of upgrades available for each unit are also listed.
What sets Rival Realms apart from most RTS games is unit innovation. Each unit has a set of troop attributes that rank speed, damage, latency (weapon reload time), accuracy, and armor. Ground troops have an individual inventory with four pockets that can be filled with items. Friendly troops can also exchange these items. There are 21 different artifact items that troops can acquire that are divided into armor, damage, life, magic, and speed general classifications. Troops gain experience through combat and training. They can advance up to five levels (or five stars) and each level increases the damage and durability of the unit. They also receive a special item when they reach the first, third, of fifth level of experience. Spellcasters, for example, will receive a magic scroll with a new spell. Upgrades can be purchased at buildings or sometimes the upgrades will be provided for no charge. These upgrades consist of special items or new abilities.
Two units that deserve special mention are Spies and Spellcasters. Spies (thieves, rogues, and scouts) can steal enemy gold, pickpocket a variety of items, infiltrate enemy castles for strategic information, and use stealth to avoid enemies. These units reminded me of the spies in Seven Kingdoms and could be quite effective. Spellcasters (many different units) use different spells depending on their race. Each spell is mana based and there are attack, defense, and life spells. Other special units can manipulate fire, water, and earth using mana based spells. Unfortunately, it is not clear how much mana is needed to use which spells nor how long it takes to regenerate mana. The manual contains no information about this, nor is it precise on the effects of the spell on the target. I am showing my role playing game bias here, but saying that a Frozen Breath spell temporarily stuns most enemies is not enough information. This lack of information, however, is consistent with the RTS genre. It also troubled me that I had no idea how long it would take for my Spellcaster to regenerate mana except through trial and error. It is also not clear which spells use less or more mana except through gameplay experience. Rival Realms could have really set itself apart from the typical RTS game by providing more detailed info about the spell casting system.
I must admit to being shocked and surprised at how much I enjoyed Rival Realms. This game does not neatly fit into any particular category. On the surface, it appears to be merely a Command & Conquer or Warcraft with fantasy elements and twists. Playing the game reveals a much more satisfying game than I could have imagined. The early scenarios really have a Heroes of Might and Magic feel to them. You stumble upon chests that contain various upgrade items and can increase your character's abilities at various buildings. I really felt as if I was playing a real time Heroes of Might and Magic, and this was not the reaction that I expected given the nature of the game.
The graphics are OK, but not up to the Total Annihilation standard. There is no elevation on the maps (except for obstacles) and it is very hard to make out your units if they are in a clump of trees. There were a number of times where I mistakenly stopped units under trees and spent a few seconds randomly clicking until I found them. Later, I found that skillful use of the group commands eased this problem. The trees sway in the breeze and there are good flying unit graphics, but the graphics seem a bit too grainy compared to other games in this genre. They are functional and do not take away from game play (except where mentioned), but do not expect state of the art eye candy. There are some nice visual effects when Spellcasters use magic and I especially liked the magic shield spell that automatically is cast when the Spellcaster is attacked. As I stated in my preview of the game, I still don't like the aspect ratio used in the game because the buildings are much smaller than the units.
The game sound was good but certainly did not strain my Soundblaster Live! Card. The theme music is good techno stuff and the in game sound effects are typical RTS. A unit is created and has a standard quip (as they do in every other RTS game) and the same is true when you click on the unit. There is an attack notification sound which gets old hearing every two or three second when engaged, but it does appear as a text message. As I stated in the preview, the sounds can get annoying after a while and I eventually turned them off because everything is available as a text message. Some folks may like the constant aural barrage, but most RTS games are so repetitive sounding that I usually cut off the sound.
The interface is quite good and functional. When you click on a unit, a wealth of information is displayed. You see the unit's ratings, special abilities, items carried, and empty slots. Managing the empty slots becomes important in the game because you have to think about what items that troops should carry. They can freely exchange items so you want to have those items where they can do the most good. There are buttons that allow you to select troops, but I found that I used the ctrl key much more in selecting and grouping units. There are a number of nifty keys that can be used to group units or to select all of the units of a similar type. The minimap is functional, but it is extremely blocky and sometimes hard to gauge distances to items on small maps. Units will attack on their own or you can use keys to have them use a certain weapon in battle (when you have selected them). What I liked to do was to fire manually a big spell (like a fireball) and let the Spellcaster automatically fire a lesser mana spell without my supervision.
Dive Right In!
I had fun playing Rival Realms and I am not ashamed to admit it. If all RTS games were this deep, I would not have such critical things to say about the genre. Each new scenario that I played revealed a new interesting twist that I found quite enjoyable. The tutorial system is excellent. This is a major improvement from the preview copy. The preview tutorial system consisted off a number of recorded games that sometimes described the action on the screen (with your interaction) or simply showed a recorded battle so that you could see how different units functioned (with no interaction from you). The playback system does deserve special mention because you can record games and watch them either from your original view or in "God mode" where you have a bird's eye view of the action. The new tutorial system includes one tutorial and five introductory levels. The tutorial level is leftover from the preview and is good at describing the basic interface actions. The introductory levels are scenarios that are fairly simple but teach you different aspects of the game. There are blue rotating globes that if you click them will tell you what you should do next in the scenario. I discovered this by accident because this function isn't mentioned anywhere in the manual.
Ultimately, Rival Realms is a game that involves resource gathering, building, and conquering with a twist. The main resources are gold nuggets that lay on the ground and trees and are transported to the appropriate building by peasants or other similar types for the other races. Each is used to build various buildings and units that are sent out to accomplish a mission. Unlike other RTS games, Rival Realms has no way point setting so you essentially click in the direction you want to send the units and off they go. What is different is that you can arrange your units into formations through keys which organize the units into a tight line, loose line, or to tell the units to fan out or gather together. These commands are very nice when using groups in the attack, although when the action starts I used much more direct intervention to order troops to attack certain targets. I did not notice any extremely odd path finding, although there were occasions when I had to steer units through areas that contained a number of obstacles. The buildings have queues, so production micromanagement is at a minimum.
The scenario editor is a very nice part of the game and you can create very large custom maps (up to 210 x 134 tiles). You can manually build your scenarios or use random generated landscapes based on your pre-selections. There is very little information about the editor in the manual, however, there is extensive online help. The editor is a Windows 95/98 program so it runs on your desktop just like any other program and can be minimized, etc. I do not have a lot of experience with scenario editors, but this editor was easy to setup and use. The scenarios created by the editor have one interesting gameplay twist. You can use alliances between human or computer players that will allow you to see everything your ally sees, transfer resources or peasants, can have units healed or repaired in allied buildings, and can transport units in allied transports.
I did not test the multiplayer aspects of the game. Since it appears that I am the only person in North America playing the game, I thought my chances of linking up with another player were quite small. Plus, I don't normally play multiplayer games so I am probably not very qualified to comment on the good or bad qualities. One thing I did notice was the manual's relatively inadequate discussion of multiplayer functions. There are exactly two sentences devoted to multiplayer discussion where they describe that one must create a custom scenario to play a multiplayer game and that everyone in the game must have over 32 MB RAM to run the game above 640 x 480. Otherwise, you're on your own.
There were a couple of problems that I encountered running Rival Realms. The only glitch I found playing the game on my home computer occurred when I ran Rival Realms while being online. If I was online and started Rival Realms the game would sometimes freeze when changing the screen resolution. Another interesting problem occurred when I tried to load the game on my Pentium II 266 laptop. I got exception errors when Rival Realms tried to load and never got it to run on that machine. Both of these problems could be caused by the presence of Microsoft Office 2000 on my computers, but I am not sure why these problems occurred. The game ran fine on my home PC when not connected to the internet.
Real Time Heroes of Might and Magic?
The really fascinating thing about Rival Realms is that it truly plays like a real time Heroes of Might and Magic with resource gathering. The fifth introductory level plays like HoMM so much that it is scary. You have a knight that moves along, finding chests defended by creatures, units that can be rescued and join your cause, and traps that will spring and damage your characters. The monsters you meet along the way will only attack you within a certain radius of the object they are defending. This calls for some interesting hit and run strategies and skillful use of ranged weapons. In my opinion, Rival Realms would be a very good game with just a campaign system based on that fifth introductory level type of scenario.
What gets this game my enthusiastic recommendation is the campaign set. There are an unbelievable number of scenarios for one game. Rival Realms could have been packaged with one racial campaign and the scenario editor and been a pretty complete package. Yes, there are some problems controlling the troop masses and sometimes units wander off in the wrong direction, but I can overlook these problems because the game is so much fun to play. One of the difficulties with reviewing Rival Realms was the simple vastness and diversity of the scenarios. I wanted to make sure that I got a complete picture of what's available in the game, but it has so many parts that it would take me a month (and nearly did) to play enough scenarios to feel that I had a somewhat complete picture.
I was really torn when trying to decide whether or not to recommend Rival Realms for one of our coveted GDR medals. A couple of things kept me from recommending a silver medal. The unit pathfinding is good, but isn't great. The number of narrow passes you need to go through in the game made this somewhat frustrating at times. The graphics are functional, but not near the standard of other games in this genre. The sound can be annoying at times and the manual, while one of the largest real time strategy game manuals around, still lacks a lot of important information. These problems, in sum, caused me to ultimately not recommend an award. But the game is so close to being a medal contender that it took me a while to come to my decision.
I cannot overemphasize enough that if you are a fan of the HoMM series, this game should be on your purchase list. If you remove the units showing up at the end of the week and add real time combat and resource gathering, then HoMM becomes Rival Realms. Some may not be willing to overlook the resource gathering aspects as too real time strategy game-like, but I enjoyed every minute playing Rival Realms. It has HoMM 's rule simplicity coupled with HoMM 's strategy complexity. No, you cannot summon creatures, nor does the spell system have HoMM 's depth, but it has enough to keep you entertained. If I were starting a wish list for Rival Realms 2, the first thing on it would be a more detailed magic system. All in all, this is a great first effort by Activ-Pub.
Review By GamesDomain
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