Genre: Real Time Strategy (RTS)
Developer: GSC Game World
Release Date: November 23, 2004
Alexander is, before I go any further, not a memorable game by any stretch of the imagination. I hadn’t watched Oliver Stones movie of the same name prior to beginning this review, so I jumped into the game with no expectations (other than already existing historical knowledge). After playing it for several days, I came to the conclusion that I would need to watch the movie, since I just wasn’t getting it.
After watching the movie, I still don’t get it.
The game developer, GSC Game World, has produced some pretty decent strategy titles in the past, namely the Cossacks line that is the basis for the game engine in Alexander. Units build very quickly and relatively cheaply, allowing you to mass up huge armies in mere minutes – which was one of my first issues in playing the game. When you click on a building to produce troops, you don’t just queue-up a certain number of units and move on to another task while they build; instead, you click on the unit button just once and it continues to build until you tell it to stop. My first time playing through (without reading the manual, of course) gave me a shock, as I turned back expecting to see a handful of troops… and instead saw a huge mob milling about and staring at their weapons. I read the manual at this point, shame on me.
After I finally got used to the way units were built, I was pleased to see my other mob of peasants had a very nice feature: when they finish with a task, they will start working on their own to help their buddies with whatever task is ongoing, such as farming or chopping down the forests. No more rounding up that same peasant that would hide behind a rock or building and twiddle its thumbs after building a hut (you know who you are, peasant!).
The heart of this game is, of course, combat. Historical inaccuracies aside (there are dozens), if the warfare plays out satisfactorily then we have at least something to work with. Unfortunately, after playing through dozens of battles, even scripted battles, I have to admit that the depth of strategy is severely lacking. In every single encounter I was able to simply lasso-select all of my units and move them into the enemy territory – and win, provided I had enough units. While you can say that such a method is possible in anything, overpowering the enemy with sheer numbers, what I mean here is that it is the only functional method to achieve victory – there just are no working strategic options in any true sense. RTS gamers who enjoy the “rush” philosophy will love this aspect of Alexander, but those of us that were hoping for something a little more realistic or deep will have to look elsewhere.
You can set up your mob of troops into nice, neat lines, brigades with individual aggressiveness postures, and can create great looking formations that keep pace with each other. Cavalry will ride along slowly enough that your infantry won’t get left way behind, if you choose to use them in formation. However, strangely enough, the siege weapons will not keep pace with the rest of your troops, regardless of the formation you put them in. Instead, your huge, heavy weapons will rush right by everyone else that is in formation with them. I am still trying to understand how it is that these behemoths can race past my infantry in the first place, but it’s not impossible to micromanage. With all of the different formations and postures available, why do I say the strategy is so shallow?
These nice, neat formations become simple mobs when you engage the enemy. They do not maintain military discipline at all, they simply charge about in abandon, getting cut to pieces by their own idiocy. In fact, trying to get them to retreat is a mini-game in itself. You’ll need to select all of your foolish troops and set them to “defensive” posture, then pull them back, else they will simply ignore you. Hero units (such as Alexander himself) have the habit of wading into battle when you aren’t looking, dying quietly, and losing the mission / game for you. In most strategy games, you have units with definite weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Infantry lines getting flanked, for example, or cavalry getting ripped apart by spearmen… but in Alexander, it just seems to not matter. Spearmen didn’t fare any better at killing cavalry (of any type) than they did killing armored swordsmen, which was disappointing. Flanking and carefully planned feints (assuming you can get your idiot troops to get the idea) have no effect, and attacking a line of bad guys from behind, normally a huge tactical advantage, confers no advantage at all. In fact, attacking a neat line of archers that the enemy had from behind with my cavalry should have been an easy victory, but instead of smashing the archers down with ease, the fools galloped right through them in the center, turned, then charged (again) from the front… all the while taking casualties the moment they passed through the line the first time. Why on earth didn’t they mow them down from behind? The situation repeated itself several times on several maps, although not always to my disadvantage. In one instance, a head-on-clash of infantry was what I was looking for; what I found instead was that my guys ran between the enemy troops, then turned on them from behind and slaughtered them with ease.
There was just no satisfying strategy in this title whatsoever. All of the grand, epic planning and strategizing in the world will get you nowhere fast, while simply building a mass of units and sending them all in at once seems to get great results. Beautiful lines of troops instantly become small mobs of individuals running around and looking like drunkards with swords, swinging at anything with a different color on its armor. Trying to pull them back into effective formations is not worth the effort, for as soon as they start fighting again the formations disintegrate.
Some of the writing and unit-descriptions in the game are simply horrendous. The description for my archer was “Just like other archers.” The typos and poor grammar evident in so many areas of the game are truly unforgivable, and hint that the title was rushed out far sooner than it should have been. Clearly it was meant to come out alongside the movie that bears its name, but I have to say that I, as a gamer, don’t appreciate cheap marketing tactics in place of a quality game.
The video cut scenes in the game borrow heavily from the movie, make sense and are generally effective in setting the mood. The special movie features are honestly not noteworthy. The rest of the game has effective, yet not stellar, graphics. Seeing several thousand units on screen at once is always impressive, but not impressive enough to make the game stand on that merit alone. The units moved smoothly on my machine at all detail levels, although loading times for new missions could sometimes be longer than expected at highest detail. The graphics in the interface are not entirely confusing, but reading the manual is a must-do if you want to get very far. In general it’s standard RTS fare.
As sounds go, there is nothing special here. The voices of the units are not really convincing, and none of the characters from the movie add their voice-acting charm to the game. The soundtrack is not wonderful, but neither is it aggravating, which is often all we gamers can expect. The various fighting noises, clashes of steel, twang of bows, galloping horses and so on are all similar to other titles in the genre, with nothing to complain about.
In conclusion, Alexander is really only going to appeal to fans of the movie, and even then the appeal is likely to be short-lived. The lack of true strategic possibilities is a vast shortcoming when such high quality alternatives are on the shelves. The lack of polish is clear all the way through the 15 campaign missions of the first campaign as well as the unit descriptions, spelling and grammatical flaws, unit behavior and honest lack of decent replay value. Some RTS games have a charm that keeps you sucked in hour after hour, be it the plot or the gameplay; Alexander is not one of them.
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