If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Armies of Exigo is a real-time strategy game that should have Blizzard blushing. This debut offering from developer Black Hole Games borrows quite a bit from Blizzard's classic real-time strategy releases. In making its Blizzard clone, the developer has emulated everything from the 3D look of the units and buildings of Warcraft III to the three-pronged storyline of Starcraft and the Hollywood-quality cutscene movies that Blizzard is known for. The only problem is that while Black Hole has all the ingredients of a great real-time strategy game, the formula in Armies of Exigo comes off as, well, far too formulaic. Armies of Exigo is in many ways a 1999-era real-time strategy game with 2004 production values. It's a beautiful strategy offering that's technically on par with the best games on the market, and you can appreciate the graphical detail on display as armies clash, magical effects rain down, and units are hurled into the air by mighty blows. However, it's disappointing that the gameplay is very much like that of the earliest real-time strategy games. This is a traditional RTS that seemingly ignores all the advances that the genre has experienced over the past several years.
The story is set in the fantastical world of Noran, which is plunged into a catastrophic war after the beast hordes launch a sudden attack on the human and elven empire. As the two races battle it out, a third race, the fallen, plots to conquer the world so it can unleash a 500-year-old prophecy. The story, which is told over 36 missions that are split evenly among the three races, is a familiar tale of fantasy warfare that's been presented before in other strategy games, with all the predictable plot developments that we've come to expect. And in many ways, this also describes the overall Armies of Exigo experience, because it feels like we've played the game a dozen times before.
Understandably, all games borrow and build upon concepts from earlier ones; this is how the evolutionary process works. However, Armies of Exigo almost shamelessly copies features and ideas from other games...wholesale. The most glaring example is the fallen, the alien race that employs insect units that look and sound a bit like Starcraft's zerg. As if that weren't enough, the fallen can only build structures on purplish goo that must be laid down beforehand, exactly like the zerg. At this point, the resemblance is beyond uncanny. The other two races aren't clones of existing races in other games, but they remain familiar nonetheless. The empire consists of all the staple fantasy races, including, aside from humans, elves, gnomes, and dryads. Meanwhile, the beasts feature demons, goblins, ogres, harpies, and more. Each race features different units and tech trees, but ultimately, they're all similar in a lot of ways to balance play. The empire features a nice equilibrium between conventional and magical forces; the fallen can build rapidly and unleash hordes of insectoid units; and the beasts have some of the fiercest units available.
Armies of Exigo employs a three-resource economic system that's universal across all three races, so you'll dispatch dozens of worker units to constantly harvest gold, gems, and wood to build the myriad different buildings and unit types, as well as research all the technologies on the tech tree. This build-up phase can take quite a while, so there's not much sense in sending out small groups of lightly armed and lightly armored units much of the time, because they'll usually get chewed up easily. Battles in Armies of Exigo take a long time because they usually come down to a lengthy grind as you wear the other side down through sheer attrition. The problem is that the game lets defenders build formidable defenses, such as life-sapping totem towers that drain hit points from attacking units. Meanwhile, the unit limit usually restricts the attacker to roughly the same number of units as the defender, which means that the attacker is at a disadvantage already. Consequently, most offensives require you to build up consecutive waves of units to slowly wear down the enemy defenses and defenders, and this takes a fair amount of time. You can easily spend a couple of hours on most of the game's missions.
Your job would also be a lot easier if the game featured better default unit behavior. Alas, you have to constantly hold your units' hands in battle, because groups will have the tendency to split apart as each man chases down an enemy. So during base attacks, you'll watch your precious armies, which include your prized veteran units, as they're shredded before your very eyes. To prevent this, you have to constantly issue the "hold" command to make them stand still and not chase anything that catches their eyes. Now, try juggling this with multiple groups at the same time and the game can quickly become an exercise in frustration. There are also no formation controls, and units will not automatically arrange themselves so that melee units are in the front while support units are in the back. Accordingly, you'll see your healer unit dash into the middle of a huge fracas only to be cut down seconds later. Eventually you'll discover that the easiest way to progress through a mission is to constantly save the game when everything is going well while reloading when everything is going badly.
One of the game's most touted features is the dual-layer map system that lets you battle it out above and below ground at the same time. This certainly comes into play during some missions, where it's all but impossible to win unless you use the underground. You can, for instance, place spellcasters beneath an enemy base so they can cast spells "upward" to affect units there. On the flip side, if you're directly over an enemy base, you can return the favor. However, in a lot of missions, the dual-layer system is a management hassle because you'll have to constantly toggle between the two to hand-hold your units. Try juggling base-building, resource-gathering, and base-defending with exploring an entirely different map at the same time.
The artificial intelligence is very predictable, and it will build up and dispatch the same units at you over and over again. Once you figure out the pattern, it's easy to build a defensive layer to repel it while you're off handling other things. The only advantage the AI has is the standard RTS one that makes it much better at handling multiple tasks at once than you. Thus, in skirmish games, the AI's better at exploiting the different resource areas on the map and at directing armies at you while you're still building up your base. Armies of Exigo features the standard multiplayer modes, including melee, team melee, king of the hill, skirmish, and capture the flag. The game supports up to eight players, though we wish you good luck in trying to find an opponent. The built-in server browser makes it easy to go online, but the matchmaking lobby is largely empty throughout the day, even though the game has been widely available for more than a week.
From a technical standpoint, Armies of Exigo does put on a great show. The graphics are beautiful, while the prerendered cutscenes are downright gorgeous. You can admire the detail on the elaborate units, such as the gnome steambird, during the quiet moments of the game. Meanwhile, the action looks good, especially if you have magic users who are able to cast wide-area spells over the battlefield. The sound effects are about average for the genre, and they feature all the typical sounds that you'd expect, such as swords clashing. The music is good, but it's hardly noticeable throughout most of the game. Finally, the quality of the voice acting is uneven. As a result, there are some solid performances in there, but there are also some lame-sounding ones as well. The script could also use some variety, because not only do units utter the same two phrases over and over again, but also lines of dialogue are practically taken verbatim from The Lord of the Rings movies.
Developer Black Hole certainly has displayed technical prowess with Armies of Exigo, but in the end, the game comes off as a familiar clone in a genre that was overwhelmed by clones several years ago. If Black Hole could mate its modern production values with better gameplay, then it could have a very interesting offering on its hands. That said, if you're looking for an old-school real-time strategy game, then you'll most likely enjoy Armies of Exigo, especially since it features a lot of gameplay in its single-player campaign. Just be prepared for some frustration along the way. However, if you're looking for innovation or streamlined or modern gameplay, you won't find it here.