Braveheart is a perfect example of how an ambitious game design can end up being something of a double-edged sword. It combines strategic empire building with real-time 3D combat and takes place in late 13th-century Scotland, the same setting as the Mel Gibson movie. However, despite its intriguing premise, Braveheart's assorted play mechanics coexist about as peacefully as the Scottish clans depicted in the game.
Your goal is relatively simple: As the leader of one of 16 major clans, you must unite the others in order to stave off the invading English army. However, accomplishing that goal is rather difficult, even on the easiest setting. You do most of your work within the game's turn-based clan-management interface. Here you can monitor every aspect of your clan, including your territories, towns, armies, caravans, and spies. You begin the game with a single territory, a pair of armies, and a pair of leaders. From these humble beginnings, you must extend your influence through diplomacy and warfare (but mostly warfare, as you might expect from a game boasting a 3D combat engine).
Leader units can not only lead an army into battle, but also take on a variety of special missions. Without a leader, armies are limited to guard duty, ambushes, patrols, or training. With a leader, an army can engage in full-fledged battles and undertake an array of diplomatic missions and covert operations, most of which can help make your campaign run a lot more smoothly. For example, you can kill an enemy leader to weaken opposing armies, or march into an enemy clan's territory and demand its unconditional surrender.
Missions of this sort are assigned from the turn-based interface. From here, you can also micromanage each of your towns: how much food each should produce, what type of weapons to craft, and what extra buildings and fortifications to construct. The people in your towns also have a happiness rating, which is easy to manage as long as you keep everyone fed. Trade caravans are important to your clan's economic prosperity, though controlling them tends to be a painful exercise in micromanagement. In fact, the process is so clunky, and the automatic control of caravans is so effective, that you'll wonder why manual control is even an option.
Micromanagement is the crux of the turn-based game. You must keep an eye on your clan's daily routine every turn. You have to continually send scouts to explore neighboring territories since you can't automate the process, and apparently know next to nothing about the surrounding lands. You have to keep sending spies to rival towns and then recall them a few days before they get captured - and then send them out again so your information remains fresh.
If you use the game's continuous time mode, the strategy interface updates itself in pseudo-real-time fashion. Unfortunately, this mode doesn't deactivate as described. Instead of simply hitting the continuous time key again, you have to keep clicking on a button to stop the process and regain manual control of your little empire. Since Braveheart moves along at an otherwise slow pace, continuous time mode should have been a good feature; but the awkward on/off process makes it more annoying than helpful.
Army management is also difficult, since your troops will grow restless and desert you after extended periods of inactivity or boring duty, such as guard detail. This is no big deal early on, but as you move further into the game and have dozens of armies and towns to manage, weeding out the discontent becomes problematic. Of course, you can simply disband your army and return all the troops to the nearby town's peasant pool. Then, you can take those peasants right back out of the pool, arm them with the same weapons, and create a new army that's pleased as punch to be on duty. The new army might not be the seasoned veterans they once were, but at least they won't desert. Of course, the other way to liven up your armies is to send them into battle. This won't always make them happy campers, but you'll at least get some use out of them while they're around. Battles occur whenever you enter an enemy town or are on a diplomatic mission and opt to attack.
At this point, the game halts and loads up its 3D combat engine. This usually takes about a full minute on fast machines, so you can forget about smooth transitions. Once in the 3D view, you can control your troops much like you would in Myth or any other real-time strategy game. You can control a lot of troops at once in Braveheart, as well as some pretty cool siege engines, but be warned that even on a fast system the game will slow to a crawl when the real action starts.
Although Braveheart lets you set your troops in various formations, most of these mean nothing in battle, since your troops won't stay in formation when they move anyway. In fact, one of the game's most disappointing aspects is the fact that battles usually end in a massive free-for-all. In most cases, he who has the most troops wins. Of course, archers help, but since you can't see the enemy until they're very close, they rarely have enough time to deal serious damage before they also begin hitting your own melee troops. There are times when a small group of veterans can hold its ground against a larger enemy force, but these are few and far between.
Another problem is the fact that you must typically seek out your foe, with absolutely no clue as to which direction you should travel over the rolling 3D terrain. Some might call this fog of war, but when you march into an enemy town with the express purpose of conquering it, you might at least know where that town is. In most cases, you can avoid this problem by standing still and waiting for your enemy to come find you, but this is yet another work-around that detracts from the overall experience.
The 3D combat sequences also suffer from poor camera controls, which are much less intuitive and far more disorienting than Myth's. At least the graphics themselves are nice; units are neatly rendered, fight valiantly, and even die dramatically. The weather effects and terrain look good as well, though the trees look terrible.
Braveheart's multiplayer is pretty solid, though it only supports the 3D combat portion of the game. So even though you can play the game with four players over IPX, TCP/IP, and Mplayer, you still have to deal with all the limitations and flaws of a 3D combat engine.
Essentially, Braveheart is a game that tried to do too many things at once. While the turn-based component is very deep, it tends to degenerate into a morass of micromanagement. And while the 3D combat sequences are interesting to look at, they run slowly and suffer from poor controls, slow loading times, bizarre hide-and-seek engagements, and an absence of real tactics. Put the two together and you have a game with lots of potential but not enough chemistry.