Elven Legacy is a 3D fantasy wargame that is easy enough for newbies to learn but challenging enough to earn the attention (and affection) of grizzled veterans. Although you probably wouldn't know it from the title, Elven Legacy is the sequel to 2007's aptly titled Fantasy Wars, and if you're still confused, think Panzer General plus elves, and you'll have the right idea. While it doesn't break any new ground, and it starts off with some embarrassing bugs, Elven Legacy is a colorful and accessible wargame that's also addictive and fun.
With the proud elven race precipitously close to annihilation, elf leader Lady Teya has charged you with a sensitive mission that will send you into foreign lands to determine the destiny of the remnants of your people. You play as Lord Sagittel, a walking diplomatic incident whose idea of negotiating with foreigners is to barge into their lands and skewer anyone who questions his credentials. You'll quickly earn the ire of your neighbors as you turn Sagittel's initially humble force into a battle-hardened army and cut a swath of devastation through the countryside. When he's not committing atrocities against the peasantry of neighboring duchies, Lord Sagittel shows his sensitive and literate side by keeping a journal, excerpts of which are recounted at the beginning of each mission. Along with the in-game dialogue, Sagittel's journal reveals both the storyline and his warped yet endearing psychology, which together provide ample justification for your increasingly brutal adventures.
However, before you can start pillaging peaceful townships and leaving mountains of orc skulls in your wake, you'll need to learn how to play, and unfortunately, the tutorial is a disaster. First, the voice-over switches schizophrenically between English and Russian, and the Russian sections are preferable, since they are stable and include English subtitles. The buggy English-language track, which is delivered in an absurd gravelly voice, on the other hand, skips over large chunks of the instructions, undermining the whole point of a tutorial. To top things off, the game dependably crashes to desktop at a certain point in the tutorial. When coupled with the opening cinematic, which has problems with skipping dialogue, the tutorial doesn't give you a great first impression. Thankfully, you won't have trouble learning the game without it, and the major stability issues end there.
While the awful tutorial feels like a bad dream, the gameplay is engaging and satisfying, with an appropriately challenging difficulty curve as you progress through the single-player campaign. Elven Legacy is a wargame, but like with Panzer General, you can jump in and enjoy it even if you've never seen a hex grid before. Your army consists of melee units, archers, cavalry, siege weapons, and more-fantastic troops like mages and dragons. Each unit gets one action (attacking, casting a spell, or using an item) plus one movement per turn, and this simple formula adds up to lots of different tactics to consider. For instance, will you move your archers into an exposed position so that they can attack an injured foe, or will you use them to attack a closer enemy so that they'll be able to retreat afterwards?
Another important factor to consider is terrain. Troops in castles and villages get a big defense bonus, hills provide a small bonus to defense but can slow movement, forests increase the attack power of certain archers, and any unit caught crossing a river is incredibly vulnerable to attack. As a result, your position at the end of your turn is just as important as the damage you inflict during it--you want your army in a defensively effective formation, on the right terrain, and at a distance from the enemy army that prevents enemies from seizing the upper hand. In addition, when a unit is badly damaged, its willpower will break, sending it fleeing into a nearby hex and ruining its effectiveness. Breaking enemy units is a joy, but the artificial intelligence excels at playing "whack-a-mole" with your broken units as well, forcing you to watch with horror as your troops retreat from one hex to the next with each enemy assault (No! Not the river!).
All units, from heroes to conscripts, gain experience and level up like in a role-playing game. With each level you get to choose one of three perks for the unit, which may be a straightforward upgrade, like additional movement points; a specialization option, like adding attack power at the expense of defense; or a new ability. Mounted units can learn to charge an incoming attacker before they strike, dragons can learn to use their massive wingspan to blot out the sun and damage the morale of nearby enemies, and mages can learn magic spells, culminating in the elven equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Such offensive spells, due to their unlimited range, can be incredibly powerful and effective against well-guarded enemies that might otherwise be tough to reach, and support spells let you heal or buff friendly units from across the map. Furthermore, any unit can carry one magical item, which often gives it a spell to cast, just like a mage. Instead of using mana pools, your magic users can cast each of their spells only a certain number of times during each mission. For instance, you can use the elf nuke only once, but lesser spells can be used multiple times.
There are 18 campaign missions, including bonus missions, but you won't get to play all of them in a single campaign because you have to choose your route to the final objective, and naturally, the desire to play the levels you missed may spur you to play through the campaign a second time. The bonus missions, which you can unlock by beating regular missions within a given turn limit, let you play with other factions, like the dwarves or the humans, and will sometimes reveal background to the main story. Also, within each campaign level there are secrets to discover and side quests to take, which will reward your exploration with experience, new units, spells, and items, so you'll still have something to celebrate if you don't win the "gold victory" needed to unlock a bonus stage. In addition to the campaign, the game offers seven stand-alone missions, which help make the single-player experience a long and satisfying one.
While the AI is impressive and will quickly take advantage of your mistakes, nothing compares to fighting against another human. Although we never had any luck finding a game on the Internet, there are others ways to find a multiplayer match. You can arrange a game on the official forum and connect by IP address, or you can play either hotseat or LAN games, which include the added bonus of hearing your friends' lamentations as you tear their armies apart. These multiplayer games are often pitched battles, where each player sits on the brink of destruction and prays that his opponent will be the first to show weakness, and the tension often starts from the first turn, since many of the 17 multiplayer maps put you right next to the enemy. Other maps are large and provide a stream of additional gold each turn, allowing for truly epic battles that can last for hours. Thankfully, multiplayer games can be saved and loaded later, if your previous commitments force an early armistice. The biggest problem with the multiplayer is that you have nothing to do during your opponents' turns, but you can minimize this by setting a time limit for turns, which is almost a necessity for four-player maps.
Elven Legacy's controls and interface don't break any new ground, but they get the job done. The one annoying control issue we had--accidentally moving one unit when intending to select another--can be avoided by doing all unit selection through the army panel at the bottom of the screen. Moreover, you can undo unwanted movements, provided the offending unit didn't discover any enemies or make an attack. Aside from controlling the camera, the right mouse button displays information about a spell, item, or unit in a pop-up window, which works just fine but makes you wonder whether some of this data, like attack range or melee damage, could have been displayed in the unit selection panel, where there is plenty of extra space. One thing the selection panel is invaluable for is identifying which units can act, with each unit sporting red and green orbs next to its portrait that indicate the ability to attack and move, respectively. As well, some other interface features that make gameplay easier include highlighting all the hexes that a selected unit can move to and displaying tooltips that reveal how well your unit might do if he attacked a given target.
Visuals aren't the selling point for wargames, and people who enjoy moving simple counters across a hex grid will find no reason to complain about Elven Legacy's graphics. It looks great for its genre, with distinct three-dimensional units and environments, good unit animations, and charming spell effects. On the other hand, non-grognards will be unimpressed, especially considering that the game specifically warns you against turning on the antialiasing. True to the warning, the game did crash a couple of times with the antialiasing turned on and was quite stable without it, but the visual improvements may be worth sacrificing some stability for. One additional bug showed up at the end of the campaign when the two different ending cutscenes played back-to-back in a seemingly endless loop. On the plus side, though, the system requirements are low, so you can play the game on an older computer. As for the sound, it holds up well by any standard, with sufficiently varied music, detailed sound effects, and excellent English-language voice acting.
Elven Legacy is a sure bet for fans of the fantasy wargame subgenre, but they're not the only ones who will appreciate its charms. Fans of more traditional wargames can appreciate it as a fun fantasy diversion, and new players will find it simple to learn and enjoy. If you are new to the genre, Elven Legacy is a great choice for an entry-level wargame. With its simple yet tactically robust combat options, its antihero protagonist, and its cutthroat multiplayer, Elven Legacy could easily become your "gateway game" to more sophisticated wargames.