Total Annihilation: Kingdoms hit the market last year and met with extremely high expectations. After all, the game was a follow-up to the immensely successful Total Annihilation, and fans of the original game couldn't wait to get their hands on what they hoped would be an even better development of Total Annihilation's design. But many played Kingdoms and came away disappointed; the game lacked both the strategic flow and the tactical niceties of its predecessor, and the fantasy setting didn't fit as well as the first game's sci-fi setting. Kingdoms was decent, and offered many hours of good strategy gameplay for a lot of people, but it never lived up to its name.
Enter The Iron Plague, Cavedog's sub-$20 add-on for Kingdoms. The Iron Plague is merely an expansion pack for Kingdoms rather than a complete redesign, so you shouldn't expect it to change the game completely. But in a very real way it bears the burden of rescuing Kingdoms from its earlier problems, and rescuing Cavedog's good reputation with gamers. In the end, it's partly successful at both. It definitely improves the original game and also reflects Cavedog's commitment to fix what needs fixing.
You get quite a bit for the game's $20 price tag: You get the 2.0 game-engine upgrade patch for Kingdoms itself, along with all the new units and battle maps that Cavedog made available for Kingdoms on its site since the game was released. You also get a brand-new fifth civilization to play, which brings with it all the units, strategies, and challenges of having an entirely new playable faction in the game. Along with that civilization come 25 new battle maps, and a new campaign that has 25 single-player missions tied together with another good story. The new campaign is tougher than the original campaign, even from the start. Finally, the game CD includes the code necessary to play The Darien Crusades, a cooperative multiplayer game playable over Cavedog's online Boneyards site. This review covers only the enhancements to Kingdoms and the Iron Plague expansion itself, but do yourself a favor and give The Darien Crusades a try. You don't have to buy The Iron Plague to get the software - just head on to Boneyards and download it from there.
Actually, you don't have to buy the expansion pack for the 2.0 upgrade patch either, as it's also available on Cavedog's site. But it's worth describing since it's the engine that runs The Iron Plague, especially because the expansion requires pack the original game to be installed anyway. The game runs more smoothly in the 2.0 upgrade than in the original retail version of Kingdoms, which makes the gameplay acceptable even at 1600x1200 resolution if you have a good video card. The patch also addresses a major complaint with Kingdoms - the horrible frame rates during large battles - first by having the program automatically decrease graphic and animation detail as frame-rate problems occur, and also by including a feature called Kenny mode, which turns off unit animation completely in the interest of faster gameplay. You can also adjust the degree of shadowing in the game and the degree to which units will automatically switch to a lower resolution to maintain a decent frame rate. But to work with these options you must edit the Windows registry manually, which is a bad idea unless you know what you're doing.
Other improvements in Kingdoms version 2.0 include two additional battle maps and tweaks to the game's balance, such as knocking Veruna's dirigible down a peg by making it smaller and less powerful, and increasing the targeting and firing capabilities of the Zhon Wisp. Cavedog also claims the patch will let the game run on a P200 with as little as 32MB of RAM, though you'll want to play it on a faster system.Still, however effective the 2.0 patch might be, the real reason for buying The Iron Plague is to add the fifth civilization to the game. As it turns out, the new kid in town is a tough kid indeed: The kingdom of Creon was founded by good old Garacaius himself, the Lear-like progenitor of the four bratty kids who kept trying to wipe each other out in the original game. Seems the old king upped and headed for some barely civilized dump where he could turn the unwashed barbarians into believers of science. Over the years the dump became an industrial machine that created flying machines and lots of advanced weaponry and the like, and the nation even went so far as to harness the power of mana using refineries rather than lodestones.
As you'd expect from a well-balanced real-time strategy game, the scientific foundation of Creon doesn't necessarily make it any more powerful than the other civilizations, but it still adds a great deal of depth to the game. The industrial theme gives you a new perspective on the ongoing war, and the new units are a lot of fun to use. It would have been interesting if the civilization actually brought with it completely new strategies and tactics, but the Creon units essentially behave like the units in all the other civilizations. Then again, you want to jump right into an expansion pack without spending hours figuring out what to do, and The Iron Plague does let you get into the game right away. Besides, it's fun to watch primitive flying machines take on ancient flying critters, and to watch the other units meet their respective counterparts as well, even if they are evenly matched.
Garacaius himself can actually appear in the game, as he can be summoned by the Creon leader, the Sage, with lots of mana and lots of time. But before you get to him, you'll need a wealth of other units to stay in business. The Creonian grunt is called the automoton, which is a once-dead soldier who fights with warhammers and provides the necessary fodder for enemy weapons. Replacing the mage-builder unit type is the mechanic, who can build a wide range of weapons and fortifications. And your main unit-producing facility is the smithy. The gatling crossbow rotates and fires and picks off approaching enemy troops, while the tortoise is a primitive tank with a pretty good cannon. You can set up a bomb sprinkler to rotate like a lawn sprinkler and spray little bombs into enemy ranks, and you can build a rotating mirror that fires hot light beams and works particularly well as a flak cannon. The barnstormer is Creon's flying machine, but it's used for scouting and reconnaissance, not for fighting. Add to these some new naval units such as a submersible and what's basically an ironclad, and you have some fascinating new toys to work with.
Despite the fact that they're clearly modeled on the units from the original game, the Creon units do take some practice to use effectively. For example, a strong use of combined arms is more important for Creon than for the other sides. Managing the Creon civilization also usually means balancing naval and land forces, and in this sense it's also enjoyable to play.
The improved game engine and the new civilization are well worth the price of the Kingdoms expansion pack. It's a very good deal if you liked the original Kingdoms. If you had technical complaints with the original but liked it fairly well otherwise, you should also consider picking up The Iron Plague. But if you liked nothing about Kingdoms, then you still won't enjoy it with The Iron Plague. That's because the essence of the game hasn't changed; resource management remains overly simplified compared with other real-time strategy games, groups of units moving together still seem to act as if they're in a Keystone Cops movie, and battles still frequently turn into exercises of mutual attrition. But the new units, the new maps, and the new campaign add a lot to the original Kingdoms, which can only be a good thing.