Warrior Kings: Battles

a game by Black Cactus
Platform: PC
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Bring Forththe Gibbering Horde! bleated freelance writer Steve O'Hagan for the 23rd time that minute. I looked over at him, shoulders hunched over his keyboard, tongue sticking slightly out of the comer of his mouth, a delicate thread of drool hanging from his lip like a spider's web.

A thin smile crossed his lips as he watched the massed ranks of troops on screen clash in a frenzy of steel and wood, before gleefully squealing, My Gibbering Horde are vanquishing the enemy!" in the manner of a five-year-old girl who's just beaten her over-competitive dad at tiddlywinks for the first time. And then it happened. Distant at first, but rhythmical and menacing, sending shivers through the puddles of sweat and the collection of beer cans that had amassed during our four hour multiplayer session of Warrior Kings: Battles, the skirmish-based follow up to last year's stunning 3D RTS, Warrior Kings. We watched transfixed as a hideous behemoth emerged from the fog. Anne Widdecombe! No, wait. It stepped into the light, revealing itself fully: Abaddon, a 20-foot demon of immeasurable might, heading straight for Steve O's village. The Gibbering Horde gibbered. Peasants all of a sudden didn't look so smug anymore...

Surprise, Surprise

Warrior Kings: Battles is full of moments like these. It's the kind of game that never fails to surprise you, throwing up some new challenge or nuance just when you think you've mastered it. Like when an enemy spy slinks into your base and sets your farms on fire (the bastard), or when a legion of your most experienced horsemen get turned against one another . by an enemy Succubus (the bitch). Y'see, Warrior Kings: Battles is a rare breed in the world of the RTS, in that it actually requires you to think, play and act strategically at all times, instead of just mindlessly building up a force and overwhelming the enemy's base with sheer weight of numbers. Its superb 3D engine throws out beautiful landscapes all over your monitor, like an artist crafting on a canvas. And just like the Total War series - and unlike pretty much every other recent RTS - the way the units' strengths and weaknesses interact with the landscapes are fully tactical.

Stick an archer on a hill and he'll beat one who is lower down. Flank a group of enemies with a wedged-shaped cavalry rush and you'll have enough meat to open a chain of kebab shops within seconds. Conversely, use the wrong set of units to attack the opposing ranks and it'll be you who watches as your men are packed into pittas by an angry Turk.

Keep The Peace

WKB is set 100 years after the exploits of Artos in the original Warrior Kings. Having united the world in that game, you find yourself once more in a fragmented continent of feuding warlords. But whereas Warrior Kings was a story-driven RTS where both your strategic and moral decisions dictated your route (both literally and technologically). WKB is somewhat more straightforward, and sadly far less varied and compelling as a result. Starting with just one province, you must work your way through to the domain of the evil Duke Ignis Hagens (a one-time ice cream salesman), to whom you have to give a damn good drubbing in order to restore unity to the world. Oh, and I lied about the ice cream bit. Sorry.

There are five tech trees in all Pagan (evil magic wielders and hideous creatures who are great in attack), Imperial (godly with and excellent defensively), Renaissance (masters of gunpowder), and then two hybrids of the three. The variety of units for each is massively diverse and imaginative, and there are several ingenious new units including Gold and Tree Elementals (summonable from gold deposits and forests), Gibbering Horde (a mass of insane creatures) War Elephants (walking battering rams) and Spider Demons (breath that can melt a man's skull). But WKB's greatest strength lies in a depth of strategic possibility that few other RTSs can match.

Twists In The Tale

Sadly, though, there are several problems to contend with too. The dodgy individual unit Al from the test game again shows its head here - although not nearly as regularly - with some enemies standing around gormlessly as your archers turn them into walking pincushions, while path-finding is more of a mixed bag than a sack full of pick 'n' mix. The interface also needs an overhaul, with troop management overly fiddly in the midst of larger battles (which can consist of several hundred troops), and worker units getting lost behind buildings and trees. Other basic oversights include not being able to use hotkeys to jump to groups of units, or to cycle through idle peasants to see where they all are. What's more, the absence of a storyline and cut-scenes means it lacks the polish of some of its less strategically intense counterparts (such as Warcraft III), while the lack of mission variety palls slightly towards the end of the campaign.

These problems aside, though, Warrior Kings: Battles is one of the most compelling, strategically diverse and entertaining strategy games of the year, a must-have for anyone sick of the tedium provided by the droves of virtually strategy-free RTS games currently on the market. What's more, the multiplayer battles are such good fun you'll be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining group activity this side of Amsterdam. And you can't argue with that. Well, you can, but that would just be childish.

See You In Valhalla

Forget About Building Farms, This Is Where The Action's At

Black Cactus has added a feature very similar to the one I've been screaming out for, for well over a year now. Thanks to the excellent engine, and the tactical nature of the units and terrain, the Cacti have come up with a Valhalla mode, where you assign yourself and your opponent(s) armies, and then clash head on. Things are made even more tactical by strategic points on the map, which need to be captured and held in order to clock-up your score. The first team to collect the predetermined amount of points wins. Battles can be huge, with more than 1,000 units clashing in a bloody mesh of flesh, steel and uncontrollable bodily excretions. But while the action is entertaining, this mode highlights the weaknesses of the combat interface, which is slightly too clumsy for battles this large. Perhaps unit-management is something this highly talented, up-and-coming development team will sort out for their next project, Crusaders: Battle for Outremer, a game we're already getting more than a little excited about.

Download Warrior Kings: Battles

PC

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

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