We've seen it countless times before, and we're sure to see it again: a game that sounds great on paper, but doesn't come close to delivering the experience we were expecting. Call it the G.O.P. syndrome, and welcome Invictus as the newest victim. It's got a great premise, but unfortunately its gameplay is wholly uninspired and singularly uninventive, especially considering the cloth from which this game was cut.
The premise of Invictus is rich with potential: It uses the heroes, characters, monsters, and gods of Greek and Roman mythology as the basis for a real-time strategy game, and includes some role-playing elements for good measure. It's a concept sure to intrigue anyone who has thrilled to the excitement of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and all the wonderful tales in Edith Hamilton's legendary book Mythology. Even if you've never delved into Greco-Roman myths, it's easy to see that they'd make a good premise for a game.
In Invictus, you're cast as a human who's basically a pawn in a heated argument between Athena and Poseidon. Miffed that Athena constantly aided Odysseus after he killed Poseidon's son, Poseidon says that not only should the gods stay out of human affairs but that Odysseus was just plain lucky. No other human could ever pull off something like that again. Athena responds that any old mortal could do it provided he listens to her sage advice, and she backs up her big talk by proposing a friendly little wager - the mortal of her choice must earn Poseidon's respect by passing a series of trials, or else all of humanity will be drowned. Of course, you are that mortal.
To aid you with your task, you can choose two famous heroes from the annals of mythology to accompany you, and up to two more will join you as you progress. There are ten heroes in the game - Achilles, Arachne, Atalanta, Cadmus, Electra, Hercules, Hippolyta, Icarus, Orion, and Perseus - and though the designers took some creative liberties to make the characters into suitable hero types, the extensive list reveals their passion for the subject matter. You'll also get to hire all sorts of standard units, including cavalry, spearmen, swordsmen, and archers, as well as more exotic warriors like gorgons, minotaurs, amazons, and even animals like black bears.
Invictus relies on many real-time strategy conventions, making it simple for anyone who's ever played one before to jump right into the fray. But newcomers would truly appreciate the game's excellent tutorial, which not only teaches you just about all you need to know but also has a pretty good sense of humor. Unfortunately, the jocularity is taken too far once you start playing the game, as the characters spout tired (and anachronistic) cliches like, "Let's get ready to rock 'n' roll!"
You have a lot of control over your units and can have up to 20 units in your army. You can group them, order them to assume prearranged formations, create new formations for them on the fly, set waypoints for them to follow, and adjust their bravery and aggressiveness levels. But at the core of your fighting force are the heroes you pick to assist you. Each one has an "appeal," a special power bestowed on the hero by the gods, which he can use provided he has enough "god points" to make the request. The appeals are varied and powerful, and run the gamut from elemental attacks like lightning, fireballs, earthquakes, and tornadoes to the ability to summon skeletal warriors, transform into a venomous spider, and increase movement speed. You'll be sorely tempted to use appeals early on during each mission, but unless you've stockpiled plenty of god points, you should hold off on using these lifesavers until the situation is dire. Unfortunately, appeals don't discriminate; if you have Icarus call down a tornado, it can wreck your own war party just as it can wreck the enemy. Not exactly what you'd call divine intervention.
The lands where you do your adventuring are peopled with all sorts of characters with whom you can interact. Some offer advice, some sell goods, some just gripe, and so on. These nonplayer characters must have been tossed into the mix to give Invictus the atmosphere of a role-playing game, but most of the time the characters just act like windup robots as they repeatedly bark the same lines and move stiffly about the prefab village they supposedly inhabit. You might appreciate the services these puppets provide - being able to buy armor, healing potions, and upgrade units in the middle of a quest can make the difference between victory and defeat - but when all's said and done, they're little more than talking vending machines.But bad NPCs are hardly unique to Invictus, since they're oftentimes just as stupid even in full-blown role-playing game. Unfortunately, Invictus also falls short in just about every other category you can think of. What's even worse is that the whole premise of the game, which has you playing the role of hero, is shot all to hell by the fact that you never even see your character.
Combat is plentiful in Invictus as in most real-time strategy games, but it's laced through and through with problems that will annoy you from the very first mission. For example, there's the game's adjustable perspective: While it's nice to be able to tweak the viewing angle, using the rather imprecise keyboard inputs makes it tricky to find the best angle. For instance, when you hit the insert key, the screen whirls round so fast that you really can't stop where you'd like to. Fumbling about on the right-hand side of the keyboard is a real nuisance, and the inability to remap the keyboard controls means you'll just have to live with the bad controls. Because several of your quests take place inside closed environs or cramped villages that can't be viewed from a good angle, you simply can't make optimal use of your forces during battle.
Then again maybe you can, since combat in Invictus drags on for what seems like an eternity. A thousand years may be but a blink of an eye for a god, but a gamer will probably find his patience being pushed to the brink countless times during the battle sequences in the game. You might send three axemen, two swordsmen, and a couple of cavalry riders to polish off a single enemy axeman. It should take all of about five seconds for your overwhelming force to send this guy to the Elysian Fields, but instead your men will pound away over and over again, with mightily mediocre sound effects adding even more miasma to the affair. Before long, every single encounter feels just like the one before it: an endurance test rather than a strategic or tactical challenge. If the Trojan War had been fought like this, the moniker "The Hundred Years War" would have been snatched up centuries ahead of time.
At first, the unit-formation options seem useful, as your minions will line up just as they should, be it in a line, wedge, or even a box. Unfortunately, the formations are practically useless in the areas where you're often forced to fight: They'd be great on a big open plain, but they're no use inside a city or inside a maze. What's more, how your units form a wedge depends on the order the characters appear in the selected units box - and if you've group-selected them by clicking and dragging, that order is automatically set and can't be changed.
The voxel graphics in Invictus neither inspire nor offend. Battle animations are limited to about eight frames per character, which adds an even more turgid aspect to the already tedious battles. What's more troubling is that standard units can't grab important objects and icons - apparently only heroes have opposable thumbs - and that the unit pathfinding and artificial intelligence are simply atrocious. Try to guide your heroes out of danger, even after setting their bravery and aggressiveness levels to the point where they should be fleeing from a water nymph, and the moment you switch control to someone else they head into battle like angel-dust Aegeans. Sometimes. You really never know what they might or might not do: A centaur might stand around pawing the dirt while his friends take a major hurting from their enemies, while at other times your heroes plunge headlong into destruction. And trying to get someone to simply round a corner and head into battle can be a major undertaking; a couple of times I had to set waypoints just to get a unit to go around a wall.
There are other problems with Invictus, but the true death knell is that the missions aren't fun, inspired, or particularly challenging. They might be timed, or they might hinge on locating an object or person - but whatever the goal is, it feels contrived. The one area where Invictus could have shined is in its multiplayer game - at least Interplay lined up some type of matchmaking support using Mplayer - but the game's poor AI, lousy pathfinding, and tedious combat means there really isn't much point. So no matter how much you're into mythology, it's very likely that you won't enjoy Invictus - and that means you're best off not spending money at your local software outlet in hopes that you'll actually like it.