Warlords: Battlecry II
Windows - 2002
Description of Warlords: Battlecry II
You've mined tiberium until you're blue in the face. The chop-chop sound of harvesting puts you right to sleep. And, even when powerful armies mount up a colossal resistance against your own feeble forces, you yawn and click your way to victory. Like it or not, you have become an RTS expert, accustomed to all the usual devices of the genre and maybe just a little bored by them.
If that sounds like you, you're not alone. The entire genre seems to be stuck in a rut, providing a familiar but woefully repetitive experience for veteran players who have gathered more precious metals than they ever thought possible. Recent titles have offered very few innovations other than gee-whiz graphics, an interesting unit or two, and possibly some nifty cutscenes.
The original Warlords Battlecry, solved some of that RTS tediousness by offering a persistent hero character that accumulated experience points with each battle, ultimately reaching a high enough level to wipe just about anything off the map with ease. That was just two years ago, and the sequel is equally impressive in how it varies from the traditional Warcraft premise. Unfortunately, the innovation in the game is not quite as compelling this time around, and the 2D animated graphics are seriously lacking compared to the gorgeous visuals of more "with it" competition.
Of course, none of that really matters to new players who are either just discovering RTS or the Warlords series for the first time. In some ways, the Warlords series is not for them. Changes made to the basic gameplay, such as converting gold mines before actually mining from them, were most likely intended to put a new spin on an old paradigm. New players might even be confused by the RTS and RPG mixture, wondering whether the point is to build up an army or just keep one unit intact throughout the missions. The fact that you can end a mission at any time and continue on to the next might also be confusing. There's very little story in the sequel, so new players might also be confused when they just jump right in with one of twelve races.
However, fans of the original Battlecry will recognize many of the basic gameplay mechanics. Even though the game plays out in real-time, there's a decidedly turn-based flavor, evolving as it did from the acclaimed, turn-based Warlords series.
Campaign mode is really just a series of skirmishes, each one beginning with a few selection screens similar to those in turn-based games. For example, you can select which units you want to place in a retinue where they will be given a name and then made available for future battles. Your "turn" ends when the battle is over and you've completed the rather simplistic objective, which is typically just to destroy all enemy structures. At the end of the skirmish, you're awarded with experience points. Once you gain enough experience, your character goes to the next level. Hidden behind all the nicely rendered menus and gorgeous music is a simple, accessible game system that could have been designed in 1997, which is not a bad thing because it's still a fun game.
There are no huge innovations over the first game. Can play as a hero in the Barbarian race and also the new Fey, Dark Dwarves, and Daemons. Controlling the hero is still incredibly compelling. In fact, it looks as though we will see this feature in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and probably several other RTS games. Taking a cue from first-person shooters, having a hero to control throughout the entire campaign means you care if he (or she) dies, and it gives you something else to do on the map. A typical scenario is to build up an army of higher-level characters while you take your hero on an exploratory mission, looking for quests and slaughtering foes to get experience.
The sequel adds all new quests and riddles, and the updated graphics are a little more interesting. There are some new particle effects for spells and lightning, but they serve only as a reminder that other games have much more dizzily graphics. The choppy animations for hero and titan characters look especially dated. There's plenty of detail, but most of the time it looks like you're playing with tiny figures that slide across the screen than living animated beings. The differences between the races are also negligible, not so much with the individual units, but with structures that seem to have the same underlying wireframe. For example, the towers for the orcs and humans look about the same; it's just that the orc's palette is a little more on the greenish goo side of the spectrum.
One completely new addition is the titan unit, available for all the races after upgrading your keep and building most of the structures. These characters, such as the Kargoth Elven Titan, pack a whopper: special abilities, increased speed, and heavier armor. These look cool, too, with special weapons such as dual-fisted swords, and sarcastic one-liners about going where they please (as you direct them to their next target).
Unfortunately, the premise doesn't work as well as it sounds. Having two uber-characters on the map means you can pretty easily destroy your enemies, especially once you've upgraded your hero to perform spells. More importantly, the titan isn't even worth waiting for - your forces can either destroy the enemy themselves or they will be overcome before you can build a titan, which takes a long time and uses a lot of resources. It's a nifty addition, and it's easy to see how play balance would have been upset had these characters been easy to generate, but it amounts to nothing more than a curiosity.
A tweak to the waypoint system (already present in many RTS games) is that you can hold shift down to give your character a set of commands -- including things like build and convert, not just movement -- but also have him interrupt those orders and easily resume them later once he's completed a higher priority task, like killing an enemy scout. This is done by simply holding alt down when assigning the tasks outside of the original routine.
One of the truly impressive innovations is a new attitude system. Many RTS games offer the ability to set units to defend or attack when confronted by the enemy. Some even take that a step further and add even more options. Warlords Battlecry II has several, including a much needed auto-spellcasting setting. This is one option that lessens the micromanagement, giving you the opportunity to set an overall strategy for all units produced.
What's missing from the game is further innovations with the hero characters. It would have been interesting to see more complicated quests than just "kill this creature." Heroes gain experience points and can add objects to their inventory, but in the chaotic world of RTS there's not much time to enjoy these benefits. Part of the reason has to do with the campaign - it's not really a campaign at all. There's no story to speak of, and most of the scenarios involve just hunting down the bad guys and killing them. Every so often, you engage in a "pitch battle" which is just a nice way of saying the map is smaller and you just have to defeat a handful of enemies.
And what a musical score - the soundtrack reminded me of the Lord of the Rings music with echoing voices and chants, eerie otherworldly sounds, and lush strings. Steve Fawkner did an amazing job. Other sounds are not quite as interesting, and once you've heard your hero grumble, "I'd rather burn it down" enough times, you'll get the joke. Some units do say funny lines, like the grunt barbarian who whines, "no master no," when you send him on an errand.
Multiplayer is terribly unexciting, given that it's pretty much the same as the single-player skirmish mode. Some options, including a "king of the hill" variation and the merchant mode, where the first one to gather a certain amount of resources wins, do have some appeal - but when these modes are almost exactly the same as the campaigns it's hard to brag about them too much.
Although Warlords Battlecry II offers an overall experience that's quite enjoyable compared to much of the competition, it's unfortunate that it doesn't innovate even more than it did, because veteran players would have jumped on the bandwagon in groves. As it is, by inherently alienating new players in combining two genres, and then providing too little incentive to win over RTS vets, the game becomes more of an upgrade for fans of the franchise, who want to control new races and explore some of the new features.
Review By GamesDomain
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