As the real-time strategy genre has evolved, players have found themselves able to command armies of more and more varied units with the click of a mouse button. While these games offer plenty of different unit types for players to experiment with, many of them often aren't strictly necessary for succeeding in the single-player missions and rarely see action on the field in multiplayer skirmishes, as players tend to amass huge armies consisting of only their favorite units. With Praetorians, Pyro Studios is trying to design a game in which no one unit is really stronger than another, and in which the strength of an army might best be measured by the number of different unit types it's made up of rather than the sheer number of units. Players will inevitably have favorites in the game, but since most of the units have rock-scissors-paper relationships with each other, an army made up predominantly of a single unit type will inevitably have weaknesses that can be quickly exploited.
Being aware of an enemy's movements is, like controlling villages, key to succeeding in Praetorians. But since you can only see enemies that are in your own troops' lines of sight, this isn't always easy. There are two different kinds of scout unit in the game to help out, and if used correctly and in numbers, they can prove extremely effective at locating and keeping an eye on potential threats and targets. Both of the scout units are able to move on foot and enjoy a range of vision that's better than that of a military unit. What makes the two units different, though, are the pets they employ. The hawk scout, for example, is able to send his bird up into the air, where it will afford you a great view of the ground below. The disadvantages of the hawk are that it can only stay airborne for a limited amount of time before it needs to return to its owner to recuperate, and that it is unable to spot any units that are hiding in forests. Sending a wolf out to look around is an entirely different matter. Like the hawk, it can only stay on the move for a limited amount of time, but, unlike the hawk, the wolf is able to take up a stationary position anywhere you see fit to send it. Since you're able to see anything that the wolf sees, the effect of positioning multiple wolves across the map is not unlike lifting the fog of war mechanic found in many RTS games. Wolves can also be sent into forests to locate any enemies that are hiding there, although if they get too close (they normally won't), they are vulnerable to attack.
Hiding in forests is just one example of the many ways in which terrain features play a big part in Praetorians. Not all units are able to hide amongst the trees, but those that are can't be seen unless an opposing unit is in the same area. Moving through wooded areas can be a good way to get around a map safely, but a neat touch is that doing so will occasionally send flocks of birds up into the air, or deer and squirrels fleeing out into the open. In addition to wooded areas, many of the maps in the game feature patches of long grass in which foot soldiers can remain completely hidden even when on the move. The downside of the long grass though, particularly on the dry, desert-themed maps, is that a few well-placed flaming arrows can quickly set entire fields--and any soldiers hiding in them--ablaze.
Taking the High Ground
Unsurprisingly, areas of high ground also play a large part in the game, and, if our experiences with the four-level preview build we've been playing and some time spent playing multiplayer at a recent press event are anything to go by, it's not uncommon for players to defend these just as vehemently as villages or important characters. Units with projectile attacks such as catapults and archers are extremely effective when positioned on high ground, but since they're vulnerable to close-range attacks, they need to be defended by both legionnaires and pikemen. The legionnaires are very good at close combat against other infantry, while pikemen can prove invaluable against mounted units, particularly when down on one knee in their stationary position. Again, grouping different types of units together is the key to success, whether you're formulating an attack or, in this case, defending a position.
One very effective way to defend any position on the map is to have your light infantry build a defense tower there. These wooden structures can be used to house units with projectile attacks and afford them a commanding view of the surrounding area. In the version of the game we've been playing, the towers are quick to build, easy to defend, and awfully difficult to burn to the ground. Pyro has pointed out that the towers will likely be a little easier to combat in the final version of the game, and since their original purpose was for village defense, it'll probably be a good idea to restrict them to the areas immediately surrounding a village under your control--particularly since building them (or anything, for that matter) doesn't cost anything other than a few moments of your light infantry's time.
Although we've only played as the Romans so far, Praetorians will actually feature playable barbarian and Egyptian armies as well. While the Romans are incredibly well organized and march in a very regimented manner, the barbarians are the complete opposite, and while they're fewer in number, they are stronger and faster. Falling somewhere between the other two, the Egyptians are the only faction that we've not actually seen in action. They will purportedly utilize a combination of religious fanaticism and science to complement their military units, although we're not yet sure in what form.
Praetorians has a somewhat stylized look that really is very easy on the eyes. The environments all look quite realistic, but they're not so detailed that the various textures make it difficult to spot units on the screen. The units themselves have a less realistic appearance, and they are brightly colored to make it easy to distinguish between the different armies. The animation of the units in the game is impressive, and there's definitely something satisfying about seeing your legion of archers drop to one knee and get ready to fire, or seeing your cavalry charging across the map to engage an enemy.
Praetorians was originally scheduled for release earlier this year, but it's currently expected to arrive in stores around February 2003. While the game doesn't offer a great deal in the way of new additions to the genre, everything that Praetorians does it does well, and allowing the player to concentrate on tactics rather than base construction and resource management is definitely a nice change. Perhaps our only criticism at this point would be that the AI of the enemies in the single-player campaign is occasionally suspect--particularly when they come under fire from well-placed archers or catapults--but there's a good chance this will be improved for the final release. Besides, with 15 different multiplayer maps and support for up to eight players simultaneously, the skirmish mode is sure to be where you'll be spending most of your time once you've mastered the art of war in the 20-plus campaign missions.