Warrior Kings: Battles is Black Cactus' follow-up to its 2001 real-time strategy game, Warrior Kings. The developer has addressed a number of criticisms about the first game, most notably by adding in a robust skirmish mode. But despite this new addition, and the interesting dynamic tech tree that was a hallmark of the original game, Warrior Kings: Battles fails to measure up, primarily because of maddening technical issues that impair user control.
The game is set in the fantasy world of Orbis, which bears a resemblance to feudal Europe. You'll even face numerous warlords in the campaign, which requires you to conquer 22 different territories. The similarities to history end there, as the game's three factions each have their own unique units ranging from the fantasy-style monsters of the Pagans, to the religious Imperials and their clergy, and finally to the technology-minded Renaissance who can bring guns and cannons to bear in battle.
Warrior Kings: Battles sets itself apart from other games in that you do not explicitly choose a faction at the start of the campaign. Instead, the choices you make in advancing up the tech tree ultimately decide which faction's units are available to you. For example, creating a church at the outset of a game starts you down the Imperial path. This precludes you from building the Pagan equivalent, which is the maypole. Depending on your choices, you may end up with one of two different hybrids of the three factions: Imperial Renaissance or Pagan Renaissance. These hybrids open up more strategic choices for you in terms of what type of army you can field. The variability between the factions, and the flexibility you're given from game to game, is one of the greatest strengths of Warrior Kings: Battles.
Unfortunately the game's tutorial doesn't do a good job of explaining the dynamic tech tree, nor does it tell you much about the strengths and weaknesses of the various factions. You'll need to spend a good deal of time perusing the manual and documentation on the CD to learn the advanced functions of the game and the abilities of the various units, instead of learning about these within the context of the game's early missions.
The economy in Warrior Kings: Battles offers more complexity than your standard RTS game. Whether or not this complexity is a good thing, however, is open to interpretation. There are three basic resources in the game: food, materials (harvested from wood or stone), and gold. Peasants out in the field gather the resources and bring them back to a village, situated outside the walls surrounding your manor, which is the center of your base. From the village, a cart transports the stockpiled resources to the manor or to a warehouse where it is finally added to your coffers, ready for spending. It is a rather convoluted way of doing things, but it does allow the possibility (and marginal utility) of raiding and capturing a cart in transit.
Most of the buildings you create, especially the ones that create combat units, must be built within close proximity to your manor. The walls surrounding your manor are automatically torn down to create space where necessary, and new wall foundations are set up automatically for your peasants to rebuild. This means any expansion you make leaves your walls temporarily open to attack.
Another interesting twist is that each farm you build generates food and opens up food support slots for your military. As you create military units, they not only take up food support units, but also reduce the actual amount of food your farms collectively generate. The larger your standing army, the slower your rate of food production will be, which mimics the artificial upkeep of Warcraft III. However, Warrior Kings: Battles' system lets you create an army that exceeds the number of food support units you have. The oversized army will then start draining your stockpile of food until it reaches zero--at that point your units start taking damage.
What it all adds up to is that the economic buildup in Warrior Kings: Battles feels rather slow compared to other RTS games these days. Creating a large army or getting up the tech tree requires a tremendous amount of time and resources invested into your economy at the outset. Also, the vastness of the maps and the travel time required to get from one end to the other make rushing tactics rather ineffective if you have more than one opponent to worry about, so you're pretty much forced to advance to the later stages instead of attacking early. Pathfinding is also poor, to the point that units will even ignore waypoints you set. Add to this the fact that only siege weapons can do significant damage to structures, and it's almost pointless to build an early strike force to trek across a map. If you decide to build one anyway, or just some troops for base defense, that slows your economy down even further. The game seems heavily slanted in favor of the defense, particularly in the early and mid game.
Warrior Kings: Battles' 3D engine has some good points, but in other ways it isn't nearly as impressive. While it offers huge maps and varied terrain with support for hundreds of units in battle, much like the Total War games, the individual units, buildings, and terrain features don't look all that great, particularly if you're zoomed in. The game's sound effects aren't dazzling either; while the music tracks are passable enough, the voice acting is amateurish, particularly the battle yells and death cries.
The vastness of Warrior Kings: Battles' maps also makes it pretty easy to lose track of the position of your units as you send them all over the battlefield. For some reason, the game doesn't allow you to snap the point of view to the position of a specific control group, as you can in most other RTS games. The camera allows a large degree of zoom, full rotation, and adjustable angles, but it can be a little difficult to control at times. Jumping from one part of the map to another also feels clunky and awkward, as the camera slides rather slowly, instead of snapping your view quickly.
On the plus side, the game does take terrain heavily into account in the battles. Archers and other missile units located on hills fire farther and hit harder than they would on level terrain. Cavalry and other troops attempting to charge up a slope are slowed down. You're also able to form groups of like units into different formations, including column, which allows them to march faster; wedge, for offensive charges; orb, for defense; and line, which is a general formation.
That brings us to Warrior Kings: Battles' greatest failing, which is poor unit AI and control--always a huge flaw for an RTS game. There are too many times when you order a group to attack and they simply do not move. Sometimes they do follow orders, and sometimes a small percentage of the group decides to move out and attack the target while the rest sit still and ignore orders. Once you get caught in a pitched battle, you'll lose all semblance of control. Cavalry will break formation, scattering to chase after far-flung targets when other, more-significant threats remain unharmed, standing close by. Archers and other ranged units will often stop firing once their initial targets are dead or have moved out of range, even as plenty of other targets move in and out of range. Attempting to gather and rally scattered units for a more concerted effort doesn't always work either; for some bizarre reason, individual units often become unbound from their control groups somehow as they scatter. To sum up, the poor unit AI requires you to heavily micromanage your battles, but the lack of responsiveness to your orders makes doing so an exercise in futility.
Warrior Kings: Battles fares a little better in its skirmish mode, which includes a special "Valhalla" setting. This mode is similar to king of the hill, where you must control several areas on the map to earn points. Before the battle, you pick different units to make up your army and start the game out with a ready group of hundreds of units, skipping the frustratingly slow economic buildup of the standard game entirely. As your troops die off, new ones respawn at your starting point, making for some fairly bloody mayhem. You can choose from dozens of different AI generals, each with a different skill level and tendencies in different areas including aggression level, predilection for infantry over cavalry, and more. However, all the frustration with unit control and AI still applies here.
Warrior Kings: Battles supports up to eight players in multiplayer; the online aspects, however, seem a bit shaky at this point. A couple of games we tried crashed to desktop, and a couple of others lost connection from the server. Reports from European players (the game was released overseas several months ago) on the official game forums confirm stability problems while playing multiplayer matches.
Despite its being a follow-up product, Warrior Kings: Battles is a game of unrealized potential. The underlying design is solid, but the execution, particularly the lack of control given to the player, makes the game frustrating to play. The lack of an adequate tutorial and the slow buildup of action also make the game difficult to recommend in light of so many better alternatives in the highly competitive RTS genre. The inclusion of a lengthy campaign and dozens of AI generals to skirmish against certainly gives Warrior Kings: Battles a lot of value out of the box, but whether you'll feel compelled to slog through all of it is another question.