We played this game already. We called it Starcraft. We called it Warcraft 3. We called it Empire Earth. Not that any of those titles were particularly bad; in fact, far from it. Armies of Exigo continues in a long tradition of basic strategy formulas and attempts to infuse some originality into it by letting players battle below and above ground simultaneously. The mechanic does add some spice, but ultimately, some poor unit AI and the resulting difficulty make playing it an exercise in frustration. Black Hole’s title isn’t terrible, and it certainly looks great, but ultimately, is neither very fulfilling, nor all that interesting. The humans and elves of Noran have been battling the beastmen ever since a colossal war known as The Rage. Now, another race, the Fallen, has descended upon the world, set to fulfill the ancient harbingers of the past and ready to destroy any who would stand in their way. It isn’t anything new, although the amazing cutscenes that tell the story between missions are a wonder. In-game, your leaders will help move your missions along by speaking in the lower left corner of your screen, making you wonder from time to time if you aren’t playing Warcraft 3. For better or for worse, this isn’t Warcraft 3, and the characters have little personality – and give you little reason to really care about any of the proceedings. Trying to get involved with Exigo’s narrative is akin to getting into the recent Star Wars movies: cool to watch as it happens, and completely forgettable when it’s over. All in all, Armies of Exigo features 3 races, with 12 missions each, giving a goodly amount of playtime to those patient enough to keep up. In fact, patience is what the game is all about: the three factions are balanced nicely enough, but not only are the units standard RTS fare, but many of them are blatant rip-offs from Blizzard titles. The fallen look, sound, and act like zerg from Starcraft, and the Empire races actually move with the same jaunty animations as those in WC3. Maneuvering them around is as simple as any other RTS: select and give orders. Exigo tries to innovate the standard grouping procedures by limiting standard groups to 15 units, and letting you create four super groups. It sounds great in practice, but fails miserably due to the game’s most frustrating aspect: artificial intelligence. Apparently, even Black Hole realized the limitations of the game's AI, since your enemies will build up and begin the offensive quickly – rather too quickly. The problem here is that Exigo's super group and mild formation options look grand on paper, but fall apart ridiculously in practice. Your groups fall apart as soon as they are engaged, because each individual unit will traipse off after their enemies, disregarding their place within the group. Suddenly, your ranged foes that were comfortably hunkered behind your melee units go running off in their own direction, making the concept of formations almost useless. Considering the game's already daunting difficulty, babysitting your units is a hassle, since they can't be depended on to attack the obvious foes, running off like foxhounds after elephants. Leave a group to fend for itself a while and you should assume to restart the mission: there is no room for error, and you will be easily overrun if you aren't paying close attention to every unit. Of course, you can always try your skills against other players online, and bypass the campaigns altogether. However, finding another player isn't just difficult: it's impossible. The few multiplayer matches we found were fun, and lasted for a few hours, but finding human competitors is uncommon, so if you wish to avoid babysitting your units against the computer AI, the only other choice is to babysit the mutiplayer component until someone actually comes online. The economy is standard for the genre – and the same for each race. You collect gold, gems, and wood to build your various units and buildings, and to upgrade them on your tech trees. This doesn't happen quickly: your base building and resource collection takes time, and it's unwise to venture out with weak units, as you will be crushed quickly. Churn out peasants, collect your resources, build and upgrade units – rinse and repeat. There is never a reward for an early surprise attack, so your pre-battle preparation tends to be droll. Of course, you could always admire the units you churn out, for while they may not play any differently from their RTS cousins, they look fairly inventive. The gargantuan beasts are awesome to behold, and can carry other units on their backs for easy transport. The fallen's buzzing drones amass quickly and their sheer numbers can look formidable, even if they are rather weak. Even the most-touted feature, the dual-layered maps that let you attack above and below the surface, contributes to an ultimately frustrating experience. You can tab easily from one level to the other, but micromanaging your minions in Exigo is enough of a challenge without having to worry about two maps at once. There are some nifty features that make it work more than two simultaneously-played maps, however; certain spells can affect adversaries on the other level, and sneaking underground certainly makes for an engaging surprise attack when executed well. Armies of Exigo looks surprisingly good for a game so reliant on old-school pretensions. The standout feature here is the cutscenes, which are downright gorgeous, and easily amongst the best ever seen in a game. Units themselves look great, and many of the larger units are rich and detail. Environments lend some character to the mostly flat gameplay, and they are nicely textured and colored brightly. Underground maps provide some good contrast: they are dark and creepy, and make the game visually arresting. Particle effects in spells and other nice touches round out some truly attractive graphics, even if the engine isn’t really pushing a lot of polygons. While Exigo may look terrific, the sound just cannot keep up – and in fact, our enjoyment was limited by some very annoying bugs that we could not overcome on two separate test systems. The voice acting is not all that great, particularly given the obvious Warcraft 3 comparisons regarding character speeches (and the semi-inaccurate lip-synching.) Sometimes, dialogue would drop several levels until it was almost impossible to hear when we scrolled across the map as the character was speaking. Other times, it would sound as if the lines were recorded in an empty bathroom, with a distant, echoing reverb. The in-game music can’t quite make up for the lack of voice acting prowess, either: the standard fantasy fare is both uninspired and repetitive – and just like the dialogue, would occasionally either disappear, or simply drop a few levels in volume for no apparent reason. Sound effects manage better, but there is nothing that really stands out: spells whoosh, swords clash, ogres grunt, but none of it happens in any way that makes the game seem more exciting than it really is. In the end, there isn’t much to hate about Armies of Exigo, but there isn’t much to really love, either. The gameplay is standard, if sometimes uneven and difficult, and the units aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. While there are many hours of play to be found within, there’s nothing to really keep you coming back after the first few failed missions. If you are an old-school fan of Blizzard's and Westwood’s earliest efforts, you might get some nostalgic enjoyment from Exigo; otherwise, there are better choices on store shelves – and bargain bins.
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