Sparta: Ancient Wars had the fortune and misfortune to come in the wake of the worldwide box office phenomenon known as 300. Fortunately, thanks to 300, popular awareness of Sparta and its ancient warriors has never been higher. However, the downside is that the over-the-top movie also raised expectations for anything Sparta-related to come after it, even a real-time strategy game that has absolutely no ties to the movie. Unfortunately, Sparta: Ancient Wars isn't up to the task, as it delivers a fairly standard real-time strategy experience that's indistinguishable from the rest of the genre.
There are three campaigns in Sparta that let you play from the perspective of the Spartans, the Egyptians, or the Persians. Basically, the aggressive Persians under Xerxes want to conquer the world, while the brave Spartans stand in their way. Meanwhile, the Egyptians try to throw off the yoke of Persian oppression. Now-famous figures from history make an appearance, such as the Spartan king, Leonidas. Each faction has its own unique units, such as the Persian immortals, and a slightly different way of doing things. The Spartans, for example, mine gold, while the Egyptians sift it, though all the factions are roughly comparable to one another.
If you've played a real-time strategy game in the past 10 years, then you'll likely feel at home in Sparta very quickly. You have workers who collect three basic resources--food, wood, and gold--which are used from everything to building construction to technology research. The most limiting resource is gold, since it's the most valuable resource and generally you can harvest it only at a certain rate, no matter how many workers you have. This ensures that most missions in Sparta have a lengthy buildup phase as you sit around and wait to gather enough gold to research all the technologies you need and build and the advanced structures. To buy enough time to do these things, you can build defenses such as walls and traps, though the latter seem fairly useless as the artificial intelligence always seems to know the location of traps and destroys them with ranged weapons.
To its credit, Sparta does try to introduce twists to the familiar RTS formula. Ship combat is a lot more intricate than in most real-time strategy games, as you can determine the makeup of the crew, which affects the ship's performance in battle. For instance, you can order a galley to try to board an enemy vessel, at which point the soldiers that you crewed the ship with will battle the opposing crew for control of their ship. Another twist is that you design the units that you build, so instead of simply building barracks and ordering up a bunch of regular spearmen, you can create custom unit types depending on the weapons that you've researched to that point. You can give most units a primary and secondary weapon, as well as a shield, and the more powerful or effective that weapon or shield is, the more expensive that unit is to build. Both of these are interesting tweaks, but they don't radically change the otherwise familiar formula of gathering lots of resources, building lots of units, and swamping the enemy with them.
There's just not a lot of depth to the gameplay, as you can't really experiment with different units or tactics. That's because there's only a finite amount of gold on each map, and gold determines everything. So if you waste your units or lose a battle, it'll be difficult to recover from it if you're out of gold, which means that you must restart the battle. The game's bigger problem is that it's very unforgiving if you make a mistake, even on the easiest difficulty setting. Your units can get wiped out so easily that it's prudent to save the game often so that when you do need to reload, you don't have to restart the mission from scratch. We also encountered a nasty bug that wouldn't let us progress through one campaign, even when we were told we had achieved victory in the mission.
The multiplayer mode can also be used for single-player skirmish, as you can set up a match on up to nine maps against the AI. There's only one competitive mode, though you can play it in an all-against-all or set up different team combinations. Otherwise, Sparta's multiplayer options are pretty limited.
Sparta's 3D graphics allow for a pretty-looking ancient world, though one that looks not unlike most other 3D RTS games. There are nice little touches, such as snakes that slither across the landscape, and the larger units, such as elephants and galleys, look great. Naval combat also looks nice, with all the reflections on the water. We previously noted the quiet nature of Leonidas, and the rest of the voice acting is fairly soft-spoken. The same could be said of the rest of the audio, as the sounds of battle often sound like two or three swords clanging together.
Ultimately, Sparta comes off as a very generic real-time strategy game, and there's not a lot here to make the game stand out from a relatively crowded field. There's nothing particularly epic or grand about the gameplay or the story, and considering the rich treatment that Spartan history has recently had, Sparta: Ancient Wars comes off as wanting.