There has been a slew of impressive, new 3D real-time strategy games recently, but if you've ever enjoyed the great 2D strategy games of years past - or enjoy high-fantasy-themed games in general - then you'll like Warlords Battlecry, the latest game in developer SSG's long-running Warlords series. Die-hard fans of previous Warlords games and their signature turn-based gameplay may initially find Battlecry's real-time combat system unappealing. But after playing for a while, and developing a hero character, you'll find that it's hard to tear yourself away from the game, even if you're used to turn-based games. That's because Warlords Battlecry is a solid real-time strategy game that borrows heavily from games like Warcraft II and the Heroes of Might and Magic series. If you enjoyed those games, then Warlords Battlecry definitely has something to offer you.
As in most real-time strategy games, Warlords is played from an overhead, isometric perspective. The game features nine races: humans, orcs, minotaurs, barbarians, dwarves, undead, and three varieties of elves. After creating a hero character, you begin the campaign and set up shop by building a base, barracks, and a blacksmith. You can then proceed to buy units and unit upgrades to weapons and armor and so forth. It's standard real-time strategy at first; every upgrade and unit has a price, and there are four resources to mine, which are used in various combinations as payment. Fortunately, once you take control of a mine, any gold, stone, metal, or crystal is automatically accumulated over time. Adding a peasant to a mine speeds up the mining process. This automatic resource collection lets you concentrate on bigger issues, like vanquishing a horde of minotaurs. Each race's dependency on resources differs, which adds another element to the strategy, especially in missions where it becomes necessary to set up a garrison by a critical mine or destroy a mine that's vital to your enemy's development.
However, the most noticeable feature that sets Warlords Battlecry apart from other real-time strategy games are the hero characters. Your hero character is the focus of the game. Heroes have a command radius, and any armies within range automatically get bonuses, such as increased speed, power, and armor. The catch is that you also need to protect your hero at all costs, especially during the single-player game where you suffer automatic defeat if your hero falls. As such, it's not always wise to have your hero accompany your troops, especially if he's not quick on his feet. Your hero is also indispensable because of his ability to convert neutral or enemy mines and buildings. Generals are the only other troops that have this conversion power, but they are very high in the technology tree, and hence take a while to produce. Having a single character that you must protect, and who can also make your troops more powerful, adds an interesting new dimension to the gameplay.
Fortunately, Battlecry's interface is easy to use, and has all the features of a good real-time strategy interface. You can queue up just about any number of units or tasks, including waypoints, building production, unit production, and upgrades. You can easily group units into specific preset formations. The game can also be paused at any time, at which point you can queue up as many orders as you like. You can also set hotkeys to select specific groups of units or to activate spells. This makes complicated orders a little easier to execute, especially when you're under fire. Finally, you can fine-tune your troops' attitudes, which range from cowardly to berserk. This last feature comes in handy, mostly when you want your hero to stay put or when you want to lure enemy troops within range of your defensive towers.
Your hero advances in level with each victory. Between battles you can spend accumulated experience points on myriad abilities that give your units even more bonuses. The sheer number of options for customizing the hero is impressive, and it certainly adds to the game's replay value. You'll probably be inclined to create a few different heroes and alternate between them as you experiment with the various abilities and witness their effects in practice. The game's manual is chock-full of tables that tell you exactly what effect your upgrades will have on your armies. In addition, heroes developed in skirmish battles can be carried over to an Internet game to compete with other heroes.
Up to four players can play over the Internet, either in co-op mode or against each other. To spice up the multiplayer experience, you can choose one of thirteen different victory conditions. These include capture the flag, assassination, in which your hero must survive, and "against the horde," where one player commands a huge army and two others join forces to bring down his huge force.
In fact, there are many more ways to play Warlords Battlecry. The single-player campaign leads you on a quest for a powerful talisman called the Tears of Dawn. The campaign follows six chapters, which are divided into 36 episodes. At the end of the second chapter, the campaign takes a decisive turn, as you must choose between a path of good and a path of evil. Overall, the branching single-player campaign is fairly engaging and challenging. As each mission begins, your key characters will discuss how they will tackle the opposition, which helps you get into the story and also helps you to start planning a strategy. After completing a mission, the story continues through video cutscenes.
Warlords Battlecry also features a good skirmish mode. Before you begin a skirmish game against the computer, you can also customize many settings, from how many opponents you'll face and who your allies are, to the victory conditions. The flexible skirmish mode, together with the relatively open-ended campaign, greatly enhances Battlecry's single-player replay value.
The graphics in Warlords Battlecry are mostly good. Many of the units, especially the orcs and humans, immediately recall Warcraft II, while others may appear similar to those in other fantasy-themed games. The unit animations are fluid, and they lend a lot of personality to each character - for instance, when standing idle, undead skeletons will flip their swords up in the air; orcs lumber around with oversized spiked clubs; and mages peer into spellbooks as if to brush up before a battle. There are also unique animations for more than 80 spells that your hero and mage units can cast. In general, the game's artwork, from the hero portraits to unit animations, has just the right balance of humor and high-fantasy style.
Warlords Battlecry sounds much like it looks. As in most real-time strategy games, each unit has its own response when you select it. Some of the speech is really great: The powerful, winged archon's decree of "For the light!" echoes as if he were much more imposing than the rest of the party. And the orc shaman is something of a prima donna, as he says things like "Shaman coming through!" and "I'm dangerous, you know?" When troops engage in battle, you'll even hear them shouting various taunts. Otherwise, the music in Battlecry is nothing terribly special, but it suitably adds to the fantasy setting.
Warlords Battlecry does have a few small problems, such as the game's sometimes-predictable artificial intelligence. During skirmishes on smaller maps, the computer-controlled enemy hero sometimes seeks out resources too aggressively and will charge into your camp far too early, thus making him easy prey. You may also find that Battlecry crashes every now and again on your system for no apparent reason.
In a market that's presently saturated with 3D real-time strategy games, many of which have science-fiction themes, it's great to see a 2D fantasy game that actually brings something new to the table. While Warlords Battlecry is evidently derivative of other fantasy-themed strategy games, its combination of elements taken from its predecessors makes the game unique in its own right. The focus on heroes particularly adds an interesting angle to the gameplay, and along with the de-emphasis on resource gathering, it makes the game seem substantially different from its predecessors. Also, the sheer variety of units and play options ought to keep you occupied for a long time. So if you're interested in real-time strategy games and don't mind getting a little nostalgic, then you ought to give Warlords Battlecry a shot.