Tedious plot. Laborious tutorial. Terrible cutscenes. There can be no doubt that Battle Realms is cursed with some shocking presentation, which is hardly the best way to get things started. Thankfully this resilient offering developed by Liquid Entertainment also boasts some of the most enjoyable gameplay you are ever likely to come across in a fantasy RTS. So, for once we’ll forgive those initial shortcomings and refrain from mentioning them again... well, we might do, but we’ll keep it confined to captions. How’s that?
Landing On Your Feet
RTS developers are always banging on about how the cunning use of landscape is the key to victory - BR is another title with this boast hanging around its neck like a concrete necklace. Initially, it has to be said that like most other RTSs it makes no difference as to whether you’re in a forest, up to your waist in a swamp or on top of a mountain - the fact is you can get by without paying that much attention. However, as you progress through the game it becomes apparent that for the four warring clans (Dragon, Lotus, Serpent and Wolf) the landscape is truly both your ally and foe. Units attacking from high ground really do have a huge advantage over the suckers below; forests provide the extra cover they should (while also hindering archers) and rivers slow you down. Weather also plays its part with rain causing havoc among troops.
Balancing The Equation
On the plus side a good downpour makes your rice grow faster. OK, so your armies won't see the immediate benefits up on the front line, but if that same rain extinguishes burning buildings and saves your peasants from watering the rice manually, there will at least be somebody who appreciates Mother Nature’s gift.
At this point it might be worth mentioning that resource management is a large part of the game, though in a way which differs from the traditional RTS. The main resources of rice and water have multiple uses. Water, for example, is used in the construction of buildings and troops, yet it can also be used to put out fires and soak rice crops when the weather is hot.
Understanding when and where to use your resources efficiently is a major part of the strategy of BR. Horses are also considered to be resources, so when you find them (and it’s not always easy) you have to decide whether to use them in battle or around the village to collect other resources. The Wolf Clan even eat horses, but you don’t want to know about that.
The most innovative feature in Battle Realms is its unit alchemy. By this we mean the ability to cross-train units in a number of different skills. For example, if you create a swordsman, he doesn’t have to remain a mere swordsman. A visit to the target range will also endow him with long-range capability, though, of course, his original skill remains unchanged. And it doesn't have to stop there. You can add an even more explosive edge to your soldier’s tailored battle prowess by training them in something like the alchemist hut.
Buildings can also be powered up to give units improved accuracy, armour, damage and more. In fact, some of the abilities up for grabs are unfashionably eclectic by the usual PC strategy game standards. Let’s face it, when was the last time a geisha girl with a metal fan satisfied your bloodlust? This game contains more than its fair share of units, gadgets and gimmickry, and credit is due for the imagination shown in doing so.
Unfortunately, in order to create really powerful units like the Necromancer you have to be a master of lightning-quick micro-management as you move warriors from one building to another. Couple this with simultaneously trying to fight a battle and you’re in for a fairly panicky orgy of mouse clicks and curses. Admittedly, you can set a rally point for one building inside another to create a kind of chain effect, so it’s not all bad news. Still, if like myself, you rely on keyboard shortcuts to get you through most RTSs, don’t be surprised if you find yourself struggling with BR. Be wary of multiplayer games too - our online opponents showed no mercy whatsoever as we struggled to come to terms with the interface. It really does nothing for your confidence.
Respect has to go to those responsible for the unit animation. Everything from ambient and walking movements (apart from the musketeers who walk like girls) to the spellcasting and the swordplay is exquisite. Watching battles is like watching a Bruce Lee film - the amount of moves these guys come out with is staggering. You even get little frogs bouncing around near lakes, and there are birds and squirrels and... well, needless to say it generates a stunning atmosphere. This attention to detail is not just for show either. Disturbing a flock of birds as you creep through a forest can actually alert smart enemies to your presence. And vice versa. If you spot birds taking off or the telltale signs of wildlife scuttling from the undergrowth, chances are you're about to be clobbered.
Al is another major coup for the game. The other clans always attack at your weakest point and are very capable of enticing your forces into craftily conceived ambushes. Even the pathfinding is faultless. There’s no doubt about it - Battle Realms has had some serious thought put into it.
Use ot sound is also excellent. The echoes of clashing steel and squelchy thuds as sliced limbs drop to the floor enhance the already bloody atmosphere no end. The background music is also suitably oriental, with panpipes and drums gliding from threatening tones to blissful tranquillity with melodic ease -similar to Black & White in fact.
There are other hints of Black & White with the plot decisions you have to make. Right at the start of the game you are asked to either save a village from If massacre or join in the heartless debauchery yourself. This decision sets the tone for the rest of the game. In other words, if you save the villagers you will fight for the good Dragon Clan - and if you kill them you’ll lead the evil Serpent Clan. And although Battle Realms is played in a relatively linear level-by-level fashion, you also get multiple-choice routes through the world map. Some routes will take you towards tile magic-using Lotus Clan whereas others pitch you against more simple foes like the Wolf Clan. Basically no one game is ever the same.
When it comes down to it, you have to say Battle Realms is a ground-breaking PC strategy i game. It contains original, well-thought-out ideas with beautiful use of graphics and sound. Is it a classic though? Well, no.
The unit alchemy interface needs work on its flexibility, and then of course there are those problems we mentioned at the start of the review, which we promised we wouldn’t talk a Still, these are minor irritations in what is otherwise a top-game. Battle Realms is good, honest entertainment and a of the RTS genre.
Download Battle Realms
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
We have to admit, with the constant flood of real-time strategy games on to the market it's becoming increasingly difficult to make one that stands out from the crowd. Developer Liquid Entertainment has nonetheless taken up the challenge and is working on a game where the gameplay may well be very familiar to fans of the genre, but the setting is very different. Forget military and fantasy units and characters, Battle Realms is taking the genre off the beaten track with the introduction of oriental settings and characters. This has been done before with varying degrees of success. Three Kingdoms had an oriental offshoot that never really took off, Throne Of Darkness has a distinctly oriental flavour but veered more towards Diablo than Age Of Empires, and Shogun had an oriental theme and was hugely successful but it relied more on strategy than resource management. Battle Realms then, appears to be working with tried and tested elements of resource management and real-time action, but Liquid is hoping its fairly unique presentation will appeal to fans of the genre who are tired of playing with the same units and buildings in umpteen RTS releases month after month. Fortunately for us, we don't have to guess at how things are developing with this title. We've played it.
The beta we played was reasonably stable, so we managed to progress a fair distance into the game. The first thing we noticed was the attention to graphic detail. Battle Realms is nothing short of stunning in visual terms.
Crisp and colourful with wonderful animations, this title will surely be turning heads everywhere upon its release. Story sequences are also beautifully presented using the ingame engine, and many key events trigger short cut-scenes that develop die story and teach the player how to play the game. A short tutorial is all that's needed to get up and running with your new village, and once you've sent your peasants off to get rice and water, you can start producing fighting units to go hunt down the enemy. In terms of gameplay, it has to be said that first impressions suggest Battle Realms does not veer wildly from the norm. Build a settlement with all the buildings and resources you need, then amass an army, which is hopefully bigger than your opponent's, and get involved in conflicts of suitably big proportions. However, the units you will be commanding, and their abilities, are far from what you will perhaps be used to in other games of this type. Dragon, Serpent, Lotus and Wolf Clans make up the opposing factions in the game, and they each have their own versions of archers, spearmen, warriors and geisha with abilities distinct to their clan.
Better Not Bigger
Where Battle Realms moves slightly away from traditional RTS strategies is in its use of horses. In Battle Realms, horses are not just units that are magically 'glued' to your units and follow them everywhere they go. Your peasants need to round them up and take them to your stables, where they can be used by your units to increase travel speed, scout enemy areas, and provide a distinct advantage in battle when used by attacking units. Liquid says there will be no huge battles, but rather smaller conflicts where players will find themselves thinking more about use of terrain, rather than just wading into battle with as many units as possible. On the evidence of what we've seen so far, it's certainly true that there are no battles involving huge armies, but that doesn't make the battles any less hectic or exciting. Real line of sight and the ability to use trees, hills, forests and even height of terrain to your advantage suggest battles will be more a test of your strategic prowess than your ability to build lots of things as quickly as possible and run off looking for trouble, although, there is a fair amount of that, too. Battle Realms is shaping up to be a real contender in the RTS genre. It's certainly the best-looking of the bunch so far. Whether it will live up to its potential in terms of gameplay is a matter for discussion in our full review next month.
How Many Have You Got?
Thily original or just another RTS?
While Battle Realms appears to offer many innovations, it can still be played in the same way as all the other RTS games out there if you choose: build as big an army as you can and rush your opponent in the hope he hasn't had the time to 'outbuild' you. We spent much of our time in the beta making spearmen and archers in great numbers, sending peasants out to round up horses, and sending our considerable mobile army into battle Later levels offer healers in the form of the geisha, and chemists can inflict area effect magical damage, so the potential for different strategies is there It's nothing we haven't seen before Read next month's review, which will be based on the later part of the game for a proper observation of how the game plays and whether or not its claims of true originality are actually realised.
Now why didn't you all buy this game? Shame on you. One of the finest RTS games of the year and most of you just turned your noses up at it. Why? Was it the fact that it was groundbreaking - an attempt to take isometric 2D RTS to a new, deeper level - that scared you off? Did you hide in the comer, bawling with fear like a two-year-old who's just seen a dead rat at the sheer depth of it? Or maybe it was the stunning attention to detail, with its superbly animated units, which actually looked like they were fighting rather than just clouting each other randomly around the head. Or the fact that you actually had to think about upgrading units, sending them off to various types of training schools to create the types of warriors you wanted, rather than the ones you're told you can by constricting game-mechanics?
Remember, the brains behind this was one of the leading lights of the first few C&C games. He wanted to take the genre to new, more interesting levels and most of you shunned his vision. He wanted you to think about your tactics, by using the terrain to your advantage and manmanage your small groups of troops so that you'd never just build and rush into an enemy base, over and over and over again like in most other games of this ilk. If you missed out when it was first released, don't make the same mistake now. You'll regret it if you do.
Although on the surface Liquid Entertainment's Battle Realms sounds like it's trying to outdo Shogun, it is only within the aims of the game that the two titles have any similarity. Where both games place you as a leader of a clan, with a view to uniting a Far Eastern country, Battle Realms takes its influence from myth rather than historical reality. The graphics are different too; where Shogun is 3D with thousands of 2D bitmapped units on-screen, Battle Realms is the opposite, with a 2D view over which small-scale battles are fought between hi-res 3D soldiers.
With the leader of the Battle Realms team and many of his underlings having worked on the Commands Conquer series, Liquid is aiming to create a real-time strategy game with a rich story, fleshing out the gameplay with new elements that attempt to realise a living and interactive world far more advanced than we've seen in other strategy games. Much like RPGs in fact, where the outcome of a battle can be affected not only by strength of numbers, but by utilising the world around you. These aspects will manifest themselves in a number of ways; including using trees for cover, which can give away your position if you run into a flock of easily ruffled birds or like with water, which covers your tracks, but can slow your movements down.
Rather than harvest crops and simply blow the cash on an ever-expanding army, the developers are trying to think of new ways to integrate resource management within the game. An example of this is with cavalry. Instead of spending money on some sort of training building, then churning out ranks of horse-mounted troops, in Battle Realms you first have to find the horses running wild in the countryside. Doing so will of course have risks, and then you have to shepherd them home and think about training your troops to ride them.
If you've become disillusioned with real-time strategy games, Battle Realms may just re-ignite your interest. A rethink about what real-time strategy should mean has been a long time coming and with a new team headed by a Westwood veteran, Battle Realms may herald the beginning of a new order.