Praetorians impressions

Pyro's real-time strategy game is nearly complete. Hands-on impressions inside.

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Pyro Studios is best known for its popular World War II games of stealth and tactics, 1999's Commandos and 2001's Commandos 2, but has nearly completed work on a real-time strategy game set during Julius Caesar's campaigns of conquest and political ambition. We've spent some time with a near-final version of Praetorians, and there seems to be plenty of depth to its tactical combat system.

Praetorians features a simplified resource system, and the only base structures to build are defensive towers--as a result, you can focus more attention on battle tactics. Each human or computer player has just one commander unit, which can be used to support troops in the field with its special abilities or can be garrisoned in a village you control in order to produce units. Production just takes up some of the village's population--which regenerates over time--and a certain amount of time, from 5 to 90 seconds depending on the type of unit. Perhaps to reflect the fact that marching Roman soldiers were responsible for building a new camp every night, Pyro decided to make basic infantry the game's building unit.

While it might sound like the resource system doesn't reward aggressive play, that's not the case, because a village's population can be depleted after producing a dozen units, so it's important to expand and secure other villages to keep fielding new military units. An aggressive player might try to set up in strategic locations to deny an opponent access to more than one or two villages, and it's also possible to sneak foot or horse archers to enemy villages and use fire arrows to burn them down or at least reduce their population. On the other hand, it is feasible to play defensively and wear an opponent down through attrition before moving in for the kill. In any case, it's important to pay careful attention to your troops since battles often end in one-sided routs--in good part since troops can't easily retreat once they're engaged in battle--and it can take quite some time to rebuild an army.

Stealth, ambushes, and scouting play an unusually important role in Praetorians' battles. Depending on the map, there are several kinds of terrain that can hide melee or ranged infantry, including tall grass and dense woods, which also happen to be impassible to cavalry. It's not infrequent that a hail of arrows will appear from one of these hiding places, or from elevated 3D terrain, and archers do cut down lightly armored troops quite quickly. There are two types of scouts--one with a hawk scout and one with a wolf--to use to spot enemies lying in ambush, and it's easy enough to send a hawk or wolf quite a ways across the map to check the path ahead.

There are also a few ways to get an advantage in the open. Most infantry have multiple formations--for example, the legionaries have the famous shields-up turtle formation to render them practically immune to archers, and archers can take higher ground to shoot and see farther. There are just a couple of support units, a healer and the commander, but it can be a tough decision to pull the latter off of his production duties to lead troops. And finally, it's possible to use the auxiliary infantry to build not only defensive towers, but also siege weapons--catapults, ballistae, and battering rams--to take down towers and village garrisons extremely quickly.

The three factions in the game--the Romans, the Germans, and the Egyptians--have distinct looks to their units and buildings, but many units are functionally similar, if not equal in strength. Each side seems to have different strengths: the Romans naturally have the best infantry, the Germans have strong cavalry, and the Egyptians have tough chariots and better special abilities, particularly the commander, which can summon a mirage to create decoy units. The differences become most noticeable when you produce the elite units, such as the German cavalry, the Egyptian chariots, and the Roman gladiators, which can throw nets on troops before closing in with tridents.

Praetorians includes a lengthy campaign that starts out shortly before Julius Caesar rose to power, and there are four tutorial missions to get you accustomed to the game's unconventional mechanics. While the campaign missions often start you out with a number of troops and take place on maps populated with plenty of troops lying in ambush, the skirmish and multiplayer modes start you out with the barest of forces. Although there are a few objectives to rush for at the start of a match, the fact that one player's economy can't be more efficient than another's does keep the focus squarely on military action. There are plenty of distinct gameplay elements that promise to make this an interesting historical RTS.

Praetorians is expected to go gold soon and is scheduled to ship in mid-March. For more details, check out our previous coverage of the game.

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