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Chariots Of War

Platform(s): Arcade, Game Boy Advance, GameCube, Nintendo DS, PC, PSOne, PSP, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox, Xbox 360
Genre: Strategy

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PC Review - 'Chariots Of War'

by GreyOoze on July 18, 2003 @ 12:46 a.m. PDT

Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Developer: Slitherine/Paradox
Publisher: Strategy First
Release Date: June 13, 2003

Buy 'LEGION: Chariots of War': PC

About a year ago, Strategy First published a game entitled Legion, a turn-based, historical conquest type of game that featured the famed exploits of the Roman Empire. The game allowed players to develop cities, form an economy, and ultimately raise armies of diverse and powerful units and use them to conquer any that would oppose them. A major twist on the proceedings was that battles were broken down into two stages. In the planning stage, the player assembled their troops on the battlefield and issued them various orders. Once the planning was complete, the player would advance to the actual battle, and that was it. Once in battle, the player had no more control over the outcome. Their troops executed the orders they were given to the letter, and whatever happened, happened. This added a fair measure of tension and suspense to combat, something a lot of strategy games miss.

While the concept gave Legion a lot of depth and strategic complexity on paper, almost every aspect of the games execution was flawed in some way. The graphics were sparse and ineffective, the city building aspects were dumbed down to the point they were almost trivial, and the battles, for all of their scheming and nuance, tended to boil down into monotonous, frustrating affairs.

Chariots of War attempts to correct all of Legion's problems and add even more depth and complexity to the mix. The setting here takes us back 4000 years, to the Middle East, and brings such notables as the Egyptians and Assyrians to the table, along with a host of smaller, lesser known tribes that I can’t even pronounce, let alone spell out in a game review. Suffice it to say, that the game features almost 60 different nations and tribes. Just about every nation that existed in the Middle East during this period is in this game in some way, and you’re allowed to play as any of them, depending on what kind of challenge you’re looking for. Other improvements include trade, diplomacy, research and development, military upgrades, and a greater emphasis on city building. The good news is that just about every facet of the Legion engine has been refined in some way. The bad news is that even so, much of the depth is still missing.

The game features six campaigns, four of which are simpler affairs that take place on smaller maps, the main campaign which encompasses the entire region, and a quick start campaign, which is essentially the main campaign rerolled, where you start out with things a little more built up and advanced. While even the smaller campaigns tend to be long and drawn out, be advised that these six campaigns are all you get. There’s no skirmish or random map mode, and no multiplayer at all, of any kind.

Because I really didn’t get too deep into Legion, I decided to start out with the "tutorial." Take note of the quotes please. Chariots of War has hands-down captured my personal crown for the worst game tutorial I have ever seen. It is simply abysmal. It uses the game's simple message system to haphazardly tell you which button to push, and what effect to look for, and that’s about it. There’s no explanation of anything, no indication of how things tie in together, how things interact, or even where was the best place to start off. Most games of this type will at least start you off with food production, showing you how to go about that. While the tutorial shows you how to employ workers on a farm, it doesn’t explain much more than that. How much food is this one farm going to produce? Is this farm producing food for my entire empire, or just this one city? I’m sorry to say, but I had no idea then, and I still don’t. I read the manual, all 52 pages of it, and while it explains most of the various icons, screens, and unit capabilities, it doesn’t cover everything, nor does it offer any tips or suggestions to at least get you started. I would just quickly say that, at this point, with game manuals falling to the lowest possible depths, if publishers insist on cutting costs by skimping on the instructions, then we should all just give in to the .PDF manuals that some games include right on the disc. It’s nice to have a printed manual, but it’s even better to have something that gives you the necessary information to play the game. I will openly admit here and now that, because of both the lacking tutorial and had a hit-and-miss manual, some of what I experienced while reviewing this game went completely over my head. Know that there are concepts in this game that simply aren’t covered in either the tutorial or the manual.

The main jist of the game will seem simple to you. There are nine resources within the various regions, but they are scattered all over the map so that no one nation or tribe has access to all of them. The resources your various cities have access to depend on the terrain on which they are situated. Some areas can grow food in decent quantities, while others produce such things as horses, gems, copper, and tin. Depending on your resources, you can build additional buildings in your cities in towns or upgrade existing ones. There are a surprising amount of buildings and upgrades, and all of them contribute to either producing initial resources or more of them. Resources are global; that is, what is produced in one city becomes the property of your entire nation. Therefore, just because a city doesn’t produce a specific resource doesn’t mean it can't build a building requiring that resource, because they get it from the nation itself. In most cases, your nation will produce a certain amount of every resource. The issue here is of pace and quantity. Unless you have cities that specialize in a given resource, your nation is simply not going to have enough to survive. In most cases, once you build a certain building within a city, you can assign either an initial worker to that building or an additional worker, if the new building is an upgrade. I experienced some issue with this that we will be getting into a little further in the review. You can trade for these various resources, which is new to Chariots of War, but the amount you are going to need versus the price will nullifies any thoughts you might have of paying your way through the game, at least initially. Keep in mind that you can’t build cities in this game; you can only develop existing ones.

That leaves conquest: using your armies to conquer rival cities and towns, finding what you need, and taking it. Before we delve into combat specifically, understand that when I say conquest, I mean continuous, nonstop conquest. From the very first turn of the game, you need to be looking for an ass to kick, basing that decision solely on who has the most of whicever resources you need. Keep in mind that one city producing one resource, isn’t going to be enough, even if they are peaking out on that resource as far as they can go. You need tons and tons of these various resources, and you generally need to set things up for yourself so that when you need a certain amount of a given resource, you either have it, can trade for it, or are in a position where you can take it from someone else. The game simply can’t be played with a "wait and see" approach common in this genre. You need to be moving forward at all times. There are many reasons for this, but suffice it to say that your computerized opponents don’t wait for anything and are quite adept at assembling armies and attacking you over and over again.

Armies are expensive and start out really small in terms of ability. Your initial units won’t be much more than peasants and auxiliary personnel. Armies require a fair amount of forward thinking in terms of the resources they require to build and maintain. Yet you need them, so there is really no decision. As you acquire resources and play into the game, you will be allowed to build additional buildings that produce more capable units and upgrade existing buildings to do the same. As you build the various military installations, you must recruit citizens from your cities to be trained in them, and this is where your armies come from.

You also have the obligatory empire screen, which allows you to view basic information on your cities and resources. You can also alter taxes, food per citizen, and work rate. The game does model citizen morale, so the higher these sliders go, the less your people are going to like you.

Based on all of that, you would think that Chariots of War has a lot to offer, and in some ways, it does. But it’s during gameplay that you realize everything is somehow broken down in a way that you’re almost told what your next move is going to be, and then you realize it doesn’t matter, because unless you’re attacking someone or getting ready to, you’re wrong anyway. Because the game is so vague, it is going to be very hard for me to explain this, but I can at least establish the main issue here and now. Everything you do in Chariots of War is based around combat. Everything you build, every unit you create, every resource you harvest, everything ties into building units and attacking another nation. This is so firmly rooted in the game's core that nothing else really matters. Everything else is an afterthought. During my first few attempts at playing this game, I approached it much like a game of Civilization II, where I would try to establish some food resources, get taxes going, and maybe build some military buildings. Those games were short-lived however, because within the first game year I was attacked by a force at least as great as my own, and sufficiently better soon after. It wasn’t until I developed a totally tyrannical, Hell-bent attitude and simply attacked, that I finally started seeing some results. Find some rivals and attack them now. Worry about food and taxes later. While there are those of you who might like this, the game left me feeling like much of it was pointless, particularly the city-building aspects. None of it seems to matter unless you have several massive armies comprised of the best troops available.

What’s more, time and again, I noticed that one resource or the other was severely lacking. In my experience, this was often the case with food. It seemed the more farms and food producing buildings I built, the worse off I was. I also noticed that by placing an additional worker at an upgraded food site oftentimes decreased my food output rather than increasing it. Why this happens is anybody's guess. Apparently the game models some kind of worker/food concept, but I found no mention of it in the games manual. Additionally, I noticed that one minute I have massive quantities of food with decent monthly accumulation, and the next, I am down to nothing. I did eventually discover that building or upgrading anything that increases your population is usually the culprit behind this, as it creates more mouths to feed, but it’s also a great example of the game dictating to you what you will do and when.

Combat is still handled pretty much the same way as Legion, but with more options. You are first taken to a strategy screen that allows you to set up your armies by squads, set formations, and pick one of maybe a dozen strategies for them to execute. Each unit generally has more weaknesses then strengths, and many of those weaknesses involve the type of terrain they are fighting in, so that’s going to have a lot of impact on your decisions. The basic idea at this screen is to try and create the best possible tactical environment for your various units to be effective, like situating your ranged weapons away from infantry, and keeping your infantry away from the enemies cavalry. This screen is where all of your bread is baked, and thoughtless attacks will be routed immediately. You really need to study the situation and put some thought into what you want your units to do, especially early on, when your troops really don’t have any major abilities to speak of. Once you’re done the planning stage, you click a button and the battle gets underway.

As in Legion, once you’re at this point, you have no control over your troops, the battle, or anything else, for that matter. You simply watch, observe what the various units are doing, try and learn from it for the future, and hope you’re victorious. Generally, while many will die, most battles end with one side or the other being routed, or running away. This is based around a morale scheme that takes place within the battle, although because you have no control over it, and can’t directly influence it, it makes little difference. While this system has definitely been improved upon since Legion, the new options and abilities only tend to confuse you even more. I wish this game had a skirmish mode or something similar where we could practice and learn what the various options do. As it stands, these baptisms under fire can get quite frustrating. I did find a way to use the game's autosaves to study the battles, and experiment a little bit. One thing I can tell you from these recreated battles is that the combat engine in this game is robust enough so that, given the right tactics, a fairly inferior army can defeat a fairly superior one, and that says something about this game. Only in the most of obvious cases will you know whose going to win a battle before it starts. It is obvious the developers went the extra mile with this portion of the game, and it is an aspect that saves the game in a lot of ways. This game would have probably suffered its killing blow if the battles were predictable affairs. As it stands, the battles do have their faults, the biggest of which is that, where they occur so often, none of them really mean anything. On paper, this game sets the stage for doing something that’s missing in a lot of strategy games, and that’s conquest with a purpose. I can’t help but think that, had the developer fleshed out some of the games other concepts a little more and focused a little less on combat, the battles in Chariots of War could have been exciting, memorable, and meaningful. In its current state, you will see so much of it that they will all look the same, with the only difference being the units involved.

Sadly, the game includes a feature that could have done just that. Chariots of War also brings a diplomacy option into the mix. This consists largely of simply sending a diplomat to a rival city, whereby he will give you general information about that city. According to the manual, the various nations associated with this time period trusted no one, and therefore had no use for peace treaties and the like. So to get to the point, diplomacy in Chariots of War is really quite useless. You're going to attack everybody sooner or later anyway. Why bother with the details if they don’t mean anything?

Both the graphics and sounds in this game are sparse, to say the least. While the concepts behind this game don’t require a 3D development studio to get the point across, the graphics in this game leave a lot to be desired. The main map screen has bland, lifeless look to it, and as I mentioned before, the landscapes the battles are fought on, where many units can be depicted at one time, all tend to look lifeless and not worth fighting over. These territories the battles are fought in are all pretty much the same, and are based off the same handful of tiles, with the various terrain features being the only difference. The sound is comprised of the same rehashed sounds every other strategy games uses and won't inspire you much. The music is decent, if tacked on, consisting of little ambient melodies that do get catchy after a while.

Aside from the issues I have already mentioned, my only other concern with Chariots of War is, frankly, the price. As was the case with Legion, this game would be a great choice for the budding young strategists of the world who want a good introduction to the genre, but the game's price range forces it into a much broader category. The average $40 sticker on this game puts it in a tough situation, as there are several other turn-based games on the market that at least equal this game in terms of strategy, yet in some cases are only half the price. That doesn't even take into account a certain RTS just recently released that is comprised of several concepts common to turn based games. I can totally accept that, to the average turn-based fan, Rise of Nations and Chariots of War are two completely different games, so please consider my mention of the game only in terms of value for your gaming dollar. Rise of Nations does pack a lot of punch for the money, and the price is currently right on par with Chariots of War.

I came at this game from the standpoint that it was turn-based, and that the combat system is on the alternative side of things. I tried to focus on those aspects, factoring in the game's other concepts and how they applied to the overall picture. I really have to admit once again that the vague nature of the game at times hampered my ability to get an accurate picture of what was going on, and that’s going to be a point for potential players to consider. Chariots of War is going to require some involvement beyond the game to get the most out of it. You're going to have to read through some forums, look around for a FAQ, and study some tests in order to determine what works and what doesn’t, and some of that time is going to be spent actually learning the technical aspects of the game. It’s not going to be something you can jump right into and dominate from the beginning. The upside to this is that, for those who manage to stick with it, the rewards will be great. Once you get your economy going and get some armies comprised of the games tougher units, things get much more interesting. Keeping in mind that the game is turn-based, with an alternative method of combat, I would recommend the game to anyone who can live with those concepts. There is a game here, and it has the potential to be a good one, but it’s going to require some initial give and take on the players part before the rewards begin to show up.

Score : 7.4/10


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