So you want to be a Hero...
Real-time strategy games have been a mainstay in electronic gaming since the first sprite was weaned just after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Great military minds like Napoleon Bonaparte, Admiral Nelson, Robert E. Lee, and Cap'n Crunch have been cutting their teeth on pixilated battlefields before demonstrating their martial prowess in genuine mud and blood (I just said that out loud,didn't I?).
Today's RTS games are virtually indistinguishable from their eleventh century counterparts…that is, until the people at Strategic Studies Group and Mattel Interactive decided to borrow elements usually found in your standard RPG. The result is Warlords: Battlecry, an RTS with a hero the player can customize to suit their ideal. Whether you want to be the honorable and valiant warrior of truth and justice or a manipulative and conniving blood-thirsty priest is left entirely to your own discretion.
The game lets you choose from sixteen various profession-based specialties, each with its own abilities. Ninety spells and nine different fields of magical study (i.e., Necromancy, Pyromancy, Alchemy, Summoning, etc.) offer players more options than many RPGs. Enchanted magical items can be found, quests can be granted, and as you continue through the game your character literally gains in power and ability.
However, your hero is only one unit. The bulk of the gameplay is standard RTS fare - build buildings and units, mine for resources, and conquer the enemy.
Warlords relies on the highlight, point-and-click control. Hot keys can be assigned to particular spells to circumvent madcap clicking. Thankfully, the screen can be scrolled and orders can be issued while the game is paused, which can save you from being on the receiving end of a lot of unnecessary butt kicking.
Warlords: Battlecry is colorful and fairly rendered in the standard top-down, isometric perspective ala 2D Command & Conquer-style RTS games. While certainly adequate, at this point in game design it's a little boring. A zoom-out would have been helpful when you want to take in the scope of your operation. A small "radar map" is available, presumably to help you keep track of your army, but its small size and lack of detail render it practically useless.
Often the player is charged with not only keeping their hero alive, but several other key characters as well. If any of these special characters perish during a mission, it is considered a defeat and must be replayed in order to advance. This tends to detract from the RPG feel of the game. The RPG element would have been better facilitated if you were given the option to continue on in defeat with the story changing right along with the result of your missions.
This has been achieved in much less advanced RTS games like the Warhammer games for the PC & Playstation, Dark Omen and Shadow of the Horned Rat. Without the freedom to lose a battle and deal with the consequences of that defeat, the game lopes along in a disappointingly linear fashion. You do have the option of traveling down the path of good or that of evil, but these paths are decidedly linear as well.
Missions are varied and the objectives are sometimes deceptively simple. For example, early on in the game you will be asked merely to insure the survival of your hero and a handful of VIPs for the 30 minutes it will take for reinforcements to arrive. This can seem fairly easy as you build structures, create troops and defend your people against a few sporadic bands of orcs. But the challenge lies in withstanding the onslaught as the enemy attempts a massive final push.
The AI in Warlords: Battlecry is a bit weak, for the most part no better than the ancient forbear WarCraft II. At times you'll feel in charge of the dumbest army ever outfitted with pikes and bows. Although you are given a variety of attitudes to assign to the individuals and groups in your command, they don't make up for the general stupidity of your troops.
Say you send a unit of mercenaries to attack a group of orcs and, as they travel to their appointed target, they're ambushed by a second group of enemies. Instead of dealing with the more immediate threat, your troops will often carry on to their designated attack assignment without even defending themselves against the ambush attack. This may be expected of Gomer Pyle's squad, but probably isn't what you created a crack team of mercenaries to do. Since there is no zoom-out feature, you may need to babysit a few of your away parties simply to insure that they reach the target and aren't half-dead when they get there.
Warlords Battlecry is a better-than-average RTS with enough depth, breadth, scope and challenge to keep the average armchair warrior on active duty. However, the frustrating linearity, at times crappy AI and dated graphics keep it from snatching a place in history as a markedly innovative title.