Sparta: Ancient Wars has been in development for two years now, but very little of the game has been seen so far. WorldForge skipped an appearance at the recent Leipzig Games Convention in order to focus on the finishing touches for its real-time strategy game, and while it still hopes to make the Q4 2006 release date, the developer admits that polishing the game may push it back to Q1 2007. Still, the game looks to be shaping up nicely, and thanks to a recent visit from publisher PlayLogic, we were lucky enough to see the game in action firsthand.
Set in the years 500 to 300 BC, Sparta lets you play as three different races, each with diverse abilities and strengths. The Persians are able to use animals such as war elephants, camels, and horses on the battlefield. Spartans are particularly strong warriors and are excellent in hand-to-hand combat. And the Egyptians have a cast of exotic characters, such as a priest that can train panthers to attack the enemy and women who can spray venom clouds over the battlefield.
The development team took inspiration from Blizzard's iconic strategy game StarCraft when balancing out these three races. While you'll have to play as all three to complete the game, their individual strengths mean that different races will suit different playing styles. For example, Persians are able to heal their warriors very early on in the game, whereas Spartans have to wait until their research has progressed sufficiently in order to nurse people. On the other hand, the Spartans have access to better combat facilities and are able to utilise horses much earlier than the Persians.
As the game is set in ancient times, warriors have primitive weaponry. Sparta takes an interesting approach to character classes, allowing players to select from three levels of armoured warriors. These soldiers can then be equipped with a mix of short- and long-range weapons. While it's expensive to create a warrior with both a sword for short-range and a bow for long-range, it will allow them to be more efficient on the battlefield. These warriors are not completely automated, as you will need to tell them to change weapons as needed, but they are more likely to survive than those with only one weapon. If you choose to create a separate set of archers and a set of swordsmen, it will work out to be cheaper, but they may be caught by the enemy.
Thanks to the physics of the custom-built Ancient War engine, soldiers are pretty fragile creatures against the environmental damage they might incur. You have the ability to build traps such as falling rocks at the top of a hill, and if you try destroying your enemy's forts, the debris that drops will hurt any nearby soldiers. There's also interplay between wind and fire. If two farms are built in close proximity and one catches fire, the blaze will spread from building to building. Likewise, tailwind and backwind will really affect the way you can use your ships, and if you are able to sail a ship alongside an enemy vessel, your warriors can jump across and fight man-to-man. The Ancient War engine is also used to produce cutscenes between missions that will drive the story forward.
While some of the mild magic powers are obviously fictional, Sparta is fairly true to its historical origins. A constant supply of soldiers existed at the time of the Spartans, so the game opts to place tactical restrictions based on food, gold, and building materials instead. While you can easily increase the amount of warriors in your army, you have to make sure that you have farms to feed them and gold to buy them equipment. If your food rations become depleted, your men will slowly starve and lose energy. And if you don't have the weapons to put up a strong fight in battle, enemies will soon overthrow you, advance to your buildings, and start tearing them down.
In Sparta, workers and warriors are split into two distinct teams. Warriors will go out and fight enemies, but it's the worker's job to keep them fed by tending the farms. The workers are also able to collect armour and weapons from fallen enemies, so that they can be used to equip your own army at a later stage. Your workers can be used to move catapults and other projectile weapons when your army is fighting hand-to-hand, but their weakness is that they are incredibly vulnerable to enemy attacks.
While the 10 to 12 missions for each of the three tribes should result in a 20- to 30-hour game, Sparta also includes a multiplayer element. The game supports LAN and Internet play through GameSpy's online service, so you will be able to find international online games with other players. Currently, there are 10 multiplayer skirmish maps for up to eight different players, although the developer hopes to have more maps in the game in time for release. There will also be an online ladder system to help players match up with people with similar abilities and fighting styles.
Clearly, the focus behind Sparta was to create a game that would improve on the best parts of the RTS genre, rather than creating anything revolutionary. At this stage, it seems to be a refined and balanced strategy game that will appeal to Age of Empires fans and those with a penchant for old-fashioned, hand-to-hand combat. The game looks polished, and with a few more months of refinement, it will be an interesting proposition for strategy enthusiasts. We'll bring you more information on the game in the run-up to its release.