Genre crossing has always been a cool idea in game design. Rather than sticking with tried and true genres (ie. C&C clones, Doom clones, Tetris clones, etc..), some designers go out on a limb and try to synthesize different gaming styles into a recognizable and playable whole. We saw one half-assed attempt at this with Shadows of the Empire (Is it Doom? Is it Tomb Raider? Is it fun?). Perhaps in an effort to complete the proverbial ass, Sierra serves up Birthright, a game whose lofty aspirations can't hide its serious misgivings.
For those of you unfamiliar with current Dungeons and Dragons, Birthright is based on the award winning role playing game of the same name. Set in the realm of Anuire (in the land of Cerilia), the plot is classic and typical: The royal bloodline has been all but squashed by evil minions called Awnsheghlien, the strongest of whom is known simply as the Gorgon. The land is divided into various warring factions, and as the bonds that tie provinces together weaken, the Gorgon and his allies are poised to conquer the world. The only hope is for some brave young warrior/king/traveler/gamer to come along and unite the lands by any means necessary, to reaffirm the regal bloodline, and to methodically open up a can of whup-ass on the Gorgon himself. Sounds like the makings of an epic title, no?
This is essentially three games in one: Expansion, Adventuring, and Battlefield.
The Expansion game is a turn based strategy thing. A mix between RISK and Civilization, this aspect of the game involves troop and resource management on a map of the world. You can choose how much control you have and how much the CPU does for you, though at the very least you must deal with diplomacy (trading for truces), mustering troops, and movements. You can also hire Lieutenants to help you in your quest; these characters also act as members of your Adventuring party (see below). This part of the game is handled well and is actually the only one that matters. You can beat the game just by succeeding on the large map with no concern for the other two types of gameplay. The graphics here are sufficient, and while the actual gameplay is kind of boring, it proves to be an adequate diversion. The real fun starts when you declare war on an adjoining province (or vice versa) and you move troops into Battle.
The Battle segments are where you control whether or not your forces will occupy an enemy territory or defend your own. You act as general, moving your forces around in either real-time or turn based combat. I should note here that the only difference between the real time and tactical options is the speed of gameplay. Real time simply means more mouse clicking.
Your units are placed in a grid depicting the battlefield in the lower right portion of the screen, while a more dynamic graphical window takes up much of the rest. The idea is simple: move your forces around and attack the enemy ruthlessly. You have to make certain strategic decisions (ie. unit placement and movements) and must pay attention to unit advantages/disadvantages. For instance, your Archers can attack from two squares away, while Knights get a bonus when they charge. Unfortunately, none of this is handled well by the seemingly random dice roll that determines who wins. I managed to take out a huge enemy force with one Archer unit simply by moving them around a lot and getting lucky, I guess. All in all, this is a fairly weak combat system that could have been done better.
Getting bored? Well, at any time during play, you can choose to go on an adventure. The Adventuring part of play involves you and a small band of companions roaming around a specific locale in search of a specific artifact. Unfortunately, Birthright incorporates one of the worst first-person engines around. Everything is a flat, 2D sprite made up of big, blocky pixels. The color palette seems biased to those thrilling shades of brown you might find underneath a potted plant. We're talking some cheap-o looking graphics.
And the combat here just sucks. For some inexplicable reason, the guys in your party play 'follow the leader' - they have this incredible urge to stand in front of one another, particularly during pre-combat missile and spell deployment. My poor cleric kept getting smacked on the back of his head by my wizard's magic missiles. The only way to alleviate this is to move the missile thrower to the front of the party, which any RPG fan will agree is the first sign of bad party arrangement.
While the game claims to take on an epic scope, I found that there was little continuity between the three facets of play. You can choose to play a game of all Battles, or go on random Adventures. There is just too little that binds the different mechanisms together. The unfortunate part is that the strategy element is worse than most strategy games, the first-person element is worse than most first-person games...and so on down the line.
Birthright is an intriguing title, one that attempts to do what few games dare. The future of gaming may well lie in the ability of game designers to combine proven genres in new and exciting ways, but it looks like we'll have to wait for another contender. Though providing a glimpse of what could be, this game ends up being just another watered down RPG that draws itself too thin. I guess water is thicker than blood after all...