Battle Realms: Winter of the Wolf Preview

We've got first word on this expansion pack to one of last year's best real-time strategy games.

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Last year's Battle Realms from Liquid Entertainment was a fresh real-time strategy game that invigorated the genre with its stylish presentation, lush graphics, distinct units, and unique gameplay elements. The game was set in a magical land, and its four warring factions--the Dragon, Serpent, Lotus, and Wolf clans--were clearly inspired by Japanese anime and Hong Kong action films. Battle Realms had a rich plot that told a story of betrayal, corruption, and strife, and those who finished the game know that its story was well told--but it's far from over. As you read this, Liquid Entertainment is putting the finishing touches on the official expansion to Battle Realms. Called Winter of the Wolf, this add-on is a prequel that takes place seven years before the events of the original game, and as fans of the series will come to find out, it's a very different time in the world of Battle Realms. Kenji, the central character from the original game, is still in exile for the suspected murder of his father, Lord Oja, leader of the Serpent Clan. In fact, it won't be until Kenji's return from exile seven years later that the proud and noble Dragon Clan is created, and as such, only three clans currently exist in the game, though they don't exactly coexist peacefully.

The new Wolf digger unit attacks a group of peasants.
The new Wolf digger unit attacks a group of peasants.

As its title suggests, Winter of the Wolf focuses mostly on the Wolf Clan and its plight to win its freedom from its Lotus enslavers. Those who played Battle Realms know that the Wolf Clan, a proud people, were free from the outset of the game, though their enslavement by the Lotus Clan and their subsequent struggle for freedom, led by the hero Grayback, is no secret. Winter of the Wolf will chronicle the events of the Wolf Clan's fight against the Lotus Clan and the Serpent Clan through 11 brand-new single-player missions that take place in several areas completely unique to the Battle Realms world, including the shale mines where the Wolf people were forced to work and a mysterious land blanketed by snow.

You'll assume the role of Grayback when he was still a slave in the Lotus shale mines. These mines are under the direct control of the sorceress Yvaine, and she acts as Zymeth's (the Lotus leader from Battle Realms) right hand. Yvaine is a cruel mistress, often working her Wolf slaves to death, leaving them to starve, or using unspeakable methods to make examples out of those who challenge her. Winter of the Wolf will open up with Grayback's discovery of Yvaine's plot to use an ancient Wolf relic called the Skull of the White Wolf to completely destroy the Serpent Clan and forever suppress any hope the Wolf Clan has of escaping its captivity. Caught spying, Grayback is sent into the bowels of the deep mines, where he resolves to stage an uprising. Meanwhile, Yvaine unleashes the power of this ancient artifact and releases an intense winter upon the world. Spring turns to a frigid winter overnight as ice and snow grip the land.

A Wolf dryad attacks the Lotus Clan.
A Wolf dryad attacks the Lotus Clan.

The first four levels of Winter of the Wolf take place in the shale mines. As Grayback, you'll be tasked with finding your way out and helping others from your clan escape. Grayback retains his massive pickax from Battle Realms, and he'll use it to break the shackles of other Wolf slaves, who will then join him and help him fight. These first four missions will have no resource management to speak of, save for the collection of other slaves. Once you finally reach the surface, you'll be able to build towns and perform regular production and resource management tasks just like in Battle Realms--with one notable exception. While the occasional rainfall in Battle Realms helped the growth of your rice paddies--the primary resource in the game--Winter of the Wolf's snowy weather will stop the production of rice, altogether. This added handicap will make cultivating rice noticeably more challenging than in the first game, though the designers at Liquid stress that resource management isn't as important in this add-on as it was in Battle Realms.

There are other changes to Battle Realms too. Liquid is fiddling with the balance of the clans by introducing a new structure, two brand-new units, and a brand-new hero to each of the four factions. Let's take a look at some of these additions.

Now With Real Wolf Meat

Among the most important changes to Battle Realms in Winter of the Wolf is the addition of a new structure for each of the four clans in the game. In actuality, these new structures aren't new. That is, in all four cases, they're simply upgraded town squares. As in Age of Empires, once you obtain a certain amount of rice and water, you'll be given the option of upgrading your existing town square into a new training structure. Fans of the series will recall that nearly all the units in the game were produced by sending peasants to "train" in one of several training structures. Likewise, once you've transformed your town square into this new training structure, you'll be able to turn peasants into one of four more formidable fighters, depending on your clan.

The upgraded town square for the Wolf Clan is called the forest temple, and like many of the other training structures in the original Battle Realms, it has several "techniques" that can be purchased for some of your units. These techniques are basically upgrades that can be attained once you've accumulated enough yin or yang points, which are given to you when your clan behaves in accordance with its alignment and deducted from your tally when you don't behave the way you're expected to. From the forest temple, you can purchase the following techniques:
Rite of freedom: Gives maulers and diggers more stamina.
Song of morning dew: Increases the dryad's resistance to fire and explosive attacks.
Chant of tremors: Increases the attack power of diggers.

Digger


Send a Wolf peasant into the forest temple, and he'll emerge as a digger. This once scrappy slave speaks only gibberish, wears a wolf mask, and sports sharp digging claws on each hand. Once used for digging in the shale mines, these clawed gloves are now his primary weapons, and he uses them to slash at any nearby foes. Like all other units in Battle Realms, the digger can get two battle gear upgrades from specific "shop" structures in the game. In this case, the digger receives powerful shale armor that'll increase his threshold for damage from the shalery. A druidess' blessing will grant the digger the ability to burrow through the ground. This maneuver acts as a short-range teleport and reconnaissance ability. You'll be able to click on anywhere on the map, even areas shrouded by fog of war, and he'll dig his way to that location, where he'll pop his head out to investigate his surrounding area. In this state, he remains invisible to others, though his stamina will drain until he pops out of the hole.

Dryad


This female unit can be attained by sending a Wolf druidess into the forest temple. Since a druidess is produced by training a Wolf peasant in the vitality garden, the dryad--like all the female units in Winter of the Wolf--is a second-tier unit and is therefore more valuable than a digger. These elite protectors of the forest temple are clad in an armor of living wood. They're tough fighters, and they have magical energy blades that they cast out of their hands, though they lack any kind of ranged attack. From the shalery, the dryad receives shale armor that's even tougher than her living wood armor. From the druidess' blessing, she'll receive a battle gear called sapping ritual. All the new female units in Winter of the Wolf will be able to counter the special effects of tower structures like the Dragon's daze or the Lotus' lightning. In the case of the dryad, her sapping ritual will drain energy from a targeted tower, and this energy will give any nearby allies bonuses to their defense. While performing a sapping ritual, the dryad won't be able to move.

Wildeye


Wildeye is the new hero unit for the Wolf Clan, and he resembles the original pack master from Battle Realms. He's even more barbaric than a typical Wolf clansman, and he carries a big drum and has an equally large moustache. His primary attack is a sweeping blow with his drum, which inflicts blunt damage on enemies, and his special ability is the ancestral call. With this, Wildeye can summon up to three spirit wolves, which he can then give to his allies. Unlike the wild wolves in the original game, these spirit wolves are more powerful, and every time they attack, they heal their owners slightly. Wildeye also has the innate ability to attract wild wolves, like the werewolf in Battle Realms, and he can redistribute them to others, though he's still limited to a maximum of three wolves--spirit or otherwise--at any given time.

The Dragon Clan Returns

While it won't technically exist until Kenji forms it after his exile, the Dragon Clan is still represented in Winter of the Wolf's multiplayer component, but to maintain the continuity of the game's storyline, its two units are under the allegiance of the Serpent Clan in the single-player campaign. Like the other town squares in Winter of the Wolf, the Dragon Clan's town square can be upgraded. The Dragon Clan's square become the royal academy, and it will allow you to purchase the following techniques:
Indomitable will: Increases the health capacity of the guardian.
Dance of knives: Increases the battle maidens' attack power.
Trial of endurance: Increases the stamina capacity of guardian and battle maiden.

Guardian


This walking tank carries a big hexagonal metal club, and he's created by training a peasant in the royal academy. The burly guardian inflicts a lot of blunt damage, and he can sustain a lot of damage, though he lacks a ranged attack. From the fireworks factory he gets the concussion-smash battle gear, which covers his club with contact explosives for one attack. With this equipped, he can execute a powerful overhead smash that detonates all the explosives upon impact, doing significantly more damage than normal and stunning any nearby enemy unit. In fact, this move is so powerful that the guardian himself will sustain a little bit of damage when performing it. From the shrine he gets last-stand battle gear. When the guardian nears death, he'll go into a rage and become completely invincible for about five to 10 seconds. During this time, he will blindly attack others with increased strength and speed. When the time expires, he'll collapse and die.

Battle maiden


By sending a Dragon Clan geisha into the royal academy, you'll get a battle maiden. She attacks with two big ax blades that do a devastating amount of cutting damage. Primarily a ranged unit, the buxom battle maiden will project several magical spinning blades every time she takes a swing, and these attacks also do a good deal of cutting damage. From the fireworks factory, she'll receive a tower-draining ability called power transfer, which upgrades the attack power of all nearby units while sapping the strength of a targeted tower. From the shrine, she gets a battle gear called double image, which causes her to become two separate units, though at half the strength and hit points of her original self. When one of these transparent entities dies, the other one will revert back to the battle maiden, which opens up a number of interesting tactics, like forcing one apparition to stay and fight an approaching enemy force, while the other one retreats.

Teppo


Teppo is the only Dragon Clan unit that won't be available in the single-player campaign of Winter of the Wolf. He's actually the creation of gamer James Malcolmson of Phoenix, who won Liquid Entertainment's "Create a Zen Master" contest last year. While the designers ultimately used their own name for this Dragon Clan hero, the rest of his characteristics remain true to Malcolmson's vision. Teppo is a prototypical chemist, and he has a giant rocket-firing wheel on his back. Called the dragon wheel, this weapon of his own design is like a Gatling gun that shoots three rockets per attack. Teppo is also a skilled melee fighter, and he carries a flaming staff that he uses to beat down unsuspecting enemies with. His special ability is magic negation, which makes him immune to negative magic effects like stunning. The designers at Liquid are considering making this an area-of-effect ability that would give bonuses to nearby allies, though more unit balancing is required.

The Serpent Clan

Loathe them though you might, the Lotus and Serpent Clans are a force to be reckoned with in the world of Battle Realms. These two nefarious clans have received their own set of new abilities and units. Specifically, the Serpent town square can be upgraded to become the assassins' den, which can be used to train a pair of new units and purchase a trio of new techniques for Serpent units. These are:
Murderous intent: Increases damages dealt by the enforcer.
Lethal drive: Increases the stamina of the ronin.
Ironskin potion: Increases the witches' resistance to piercing attacks.

Enforcer


Send a Serpent peasant into the assassins' den, and you'll have the new enforcer. This skilled fighter uses a crude chain whip to inflict damage on his enemies. He lacks any kind of ranged attack and is generally slow, but up close, he is quite formidable. One of his battle gears can be had from the thieves' guild, and it's called the low blow. Like it sounds, this is a gut punch that does a significant amount of blunt damage, drains its victim's stamina, and slows that unit down temporarily. His second battle gear can be had from the metal shop, and it's called hob-nailed boots. When turned on, these boots double the movement and attack speed of the enforcer.

Witch


This shamaness is a Serpent fan geisha who has been sent to train in the assassins' den. Her three pony tails, veiled eyes, and skimpy outfit might be alluring, but she's one of the deadliest units in the game. She carries explosive bottles of potion that ignite in a brilliant blue flame and damage anyone foolish enough to stand within their range. Up close, she uses a magical incantation on her fists to make them glow with fire, and her melee attacks cause explosive damage with every punch. From the thieves' guild she gets vampiric gaze, which like all other Winter of the Wolf female units, drains the power of targeted towers. The witch can use this power to distribute health to nearby Serpent units. Her second battle gear is the demon's amulet, which she receives from the metal shop. This piece of jewelry is actually a crude imitation of a very powerful relic, and it turns her into a wicked demoness, complete with sharp claws, leathery wings, and writhing hair. As the demoness, the witch is primarily a melee unit, but she's extremely powerful. Once she's drained all of her stamina, she'll revert back to the witch.

Taro


The Serpent hero in Winter of the Wolf is actually Kenji's older brother and heir to the Serpent throne. Taro carries a sharp magical blade, and he is a decent fighter, but like all Serpent warriors, he's ultimately cowardly and dishonorable. Because he can't rely on his own fighting skills, he depends on his special abilities to carry him in battle. This ability is called insidious hex, and it causes all nearby enemies to be more susceptible to his blade attacks.

The most vile of the four clans is next. Read on to learn more on the new units of the Lotus.

The Lotus Clan

The Lotus Clan, too, can transform its town square into a more sinister structure capable of training more nefarious warriors. Called the flesh crucible, this massive cauldron of abomination was created by the Lotus mage Soban, and it will grant you the following techniques:
Field of souls: Increases the reapers stamina.
Domination: Increases the overseers attack power.
Lythis' boon: Speeds the movements of warlocks and master warlocks.

Reaper


Reapers emerge from the flesh crucible after you send in a peasant to train in that structure. This zombielike creature carries a fragment of a soul and isn't quite a whole person--he's cobbled together using parts from different bodies. He carries a large scythe that's devastating at close range, though he lacks any means to attack enemies from far away. The reaper has a unique special ability of resurrection. He can restore the life of any nearby corpse, which becomes a shambler--a golem of flesh. The shamblers are powerful, but they're very slow, and their health is constantly degenerating. They have the ability to target other corpses and use them to maintain their energy, though they will eventually die.

Overseer


By sending a channeler into the flesh crucible, you'll receive these leather-clad overseers. These dominatrix warriors are Yvaine's personal helpers, and they were created by Soban himself. The overseer uses a whip to attack nearby foes, and she lacks any kind of ranged attack. Her draining ability is called tower corruption, which she uses to channel against enemy units to drain their power.

Yvaine


Yvaine is the primary antagonist in Winter of the Wolf. She's a hissing old broad with a heart as cold as ice. In fact, ice is her specialty. She attacks by magically creating big shards of ice and hurling them at enemies. Up close, she has a cold magic attack, and she can also cast prison of ice that freezes all the units around her, stuns them, and slowly damages them.

Even with all the new units, structures, and gameplay tweaks mentioned above, there are more changes that Winter of the Wolf will bring to the Battle Realms universe. Adventurers who take up the challenge can expect to find some new unaligned units, such as the giant shale spiders that inhabit the arteries of the shale mines, as well as a variety of new ambient life like snow owls and snow rabbits. The game will come with more than 30 different multiplayer maps to boot. It's clear that Winter of the Wolf is an expansion that every fan of Battle Realms needs to keep an eye out for.

Winter of the Wolf is scheduled for completion in late August. It will actually be bundled with a full copy of Battle Realms, which will retail for around $29 (publisher Ubi Soft will offer a $10 rebate to current Battle Realms owners who submit a proof of purchase). If you missed out on this stylish real-time strategy game last year, you now have a compelling reason to try it out.

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