Developer Frogwares does good things with an old formula in World of Battles: Morningstar. This free-to-play fantasy real-time strategy game doesn't break any new ground when it comes to elf-on-orc action, but it touches all the bases in providing smart rock-paper-scissors combat. It's also an ideal training ground for genre rookies looking to get their hoofed feet wet, and possesses a huge range of units across eight races, along with a few promising massively multiplayer online attributes. The most prominent objection comes from the cost of the "free" play, as a micropayment system all but requires you to lay down a fair amount of cash over time to keep up with other players online and gain access to the most powerful goodies.
Gameplay basics offer no surprises. World of Battles is set in a traditional fantasy realm peopled by eight races from across the moral spectrum, so armies are pulled from human knights, dwarves, elves, undead, and so forth. Visuals are good, if a little behind the times, with lots of intricate detail on units. The color palette is decidedly dark, and even a bit on the grim side, being more Warhammer than Lord of the Rings. Units incorporate recognizable characteristics blended with fantasy flair.
Everything is familiar enough that you can break things down to cavalry, archers, pikemen, and so forth, though. This leads to a standard rock-paper-scissors combat recipe where you know that pikemen work well against cavalry, cavalry can charge over archers, and so forth. So while this makes the gameplay rather predictable, it also gives matches a smooth-flowing feel. Knowing what to expect is not always a bad thing.
You do get a considerable amount of content for nothing right off the bat, however. The game comes with a lot of free units, and you can cycle through the offline solo missions and take part in online battles to earn the gold coins needed to buy more goodies. Unit configuration options are plentiful. The feel is very much Warhammer-like, with a tabletop wargame atmosphere to both building armies and sending them into the field. Weapons, armor, and other gear can be bought for many parts of a soldier's body, allowing you to kit your troops out like they were party members in a role-playing game. Master units and giants are also available, dishing out area effects like hit-point boosts and superior attacks.
Battles themselves offer more than just a simplistic clash of armies. Terrain comes into play in most scenarios, unit special traits can often turn the tide of battle if employed properly, and area spells can be cast to protect your troops or lay a beating on their foes. At the same time, the tactical elements are brought forward in a way that should be appreciated by newcomers to RTS gaming. The offline battles are geared to teach basic concepts for going into battle. The arena tutorial that makes you pick the units best suited for combat against oncoming enemies, for instance, does a great job of instructing you in the basics of the RTS rock-paper-scissors formula. Many games take this knowledge for granted, so it's welcome that World of Battles places an emphasis on training players. Maps also practically shove the need for tactical thinking in your face. They all feature hills, forests, towns, and other features that can be huge advantages in battles when used correctly.
Still, you soon want or even need more. Online matching for one-off games is generally good, but you can run into foes with far more powerful units than you can afford. The game also features an MMO-styled persistent fantasy world where you can form a clan and take on rivals to lay claim to swaths of territory…but you need some powerful armies to get into the serious action. So in come gems.
Gems are extremely useful in the game as they allow you to permanently buy units for your army, whereas gold often just permits you to hire units as mercenaries who need to take rests after a set number of battles, and also acquire items like the best in-game armor and weaponry. Buying with gems can sometimes offer reasonable deals. Purchasing the Order of the Lion Heavy Infantry for the human Knights, for example, costs just 40 gems, whereas renting them is a more formidable 1,000 gold. Plate armor, shields, swords, and other standard fantasy-game accoutrements go for 50 to 150 gems, for the most part.
So if you want to become a serious player in World of Battles in short order, you need to visit your real-world bank and lay down some bucks.
Pressure to start paying extra to play starts as soon as you fire up the game for the first time, with prompts about gem sales, reminders about new units and gear, and a lot of pokes about adding XP and gold bonuses and removing caps on unit types in your army by paying for a Premium account (a monthly subscription). Things can get pricey. Gems are not particularly cheap. Packages range from 750 gems for $9.99 all the way to 7,000 gems for $69.99. You don't get a ton of buying power within the game for these outlays, either. While more basic units are affordable enough, more powerful master units ring up at 500 or 1,000 gems. Items come at what seems to be a reasonable cost at first, but things can quickly escalate when you trick out an army or even a single unit with a bunch of gear.
With that said, all of these expenses are not unduly onerous, as long as you know what you're getting into. Sales are offered regularly on units and gear, and you can get a great deal of action out of the game without spending a dime--as long as you're okay with a lot of grinding for XP and gold and renting units instead of buying them. Dedicating time to playing can save a lot of expense. Battle your way to level 15, for instance, and the cap on unit types in your army is removed, opening up more options. Still, some sort of up-front price would be more forthright than being nickeled-and-dimed for gem buys; it's easy to imagine players being scared off by the game's potential to be a money pit.
Even though World of Battles: Morningstar is already a deeply traditional fantasy RTS game, it might have been better served if it were even more traditional--at least when it comes to pricing. However, even with micropayments clouding the costs, this is a very good offering that provides old-fashioned RTS battling for both longtime fans of the genre and newcomers interested in trying something different.