Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: World Forge
Release Date: April 24, 2007
If there is one aspect of real-time strategy games that has prevailed throughout the years that really needs to be put to bed, it is, ironically, the player's limited ability to truly use strategy and tactics. Granted, many RTS games of the past have had the ability to put units in formations, and nearly every title that bears mentioning features some form of "x beats y, but y is beaten by z" mechanic, but those are really the only tools the player has in his or her tactical toolbox. Sparta: Ancient Wars incorporates some new ideas into what is generally expected in an RTS, and even though the preview build we received wasn't complete, it's pretty obvious that the title is a little more thought-provoking than your standard RTS experience.
There are three campaigns in Sparta: Ancient Wars chronicling not only the Spartans but also their enemies, the Persians and the Egyptians. The storylines of the Spartan and Persian campaigns intertwine a great deal, covering not only the battle of Thermopylae but also many events before and after that particular conflict. The Egyptian campaign is much more its own beast, involving the Persians to some extent but is mainly the story of a man following his heart to free the woman he loves.
At its most basic level, the gameplay is not unlike many other RTS games. In Sparta: Ancient Wars, you must first construct the functional equivalent of a headquarters to start your "base," construct farms to feed your populace, workers to build and sometimes operate your buildings, and various facilities to train your troops. To wage a battle, you can select groups of units and click on the enemy to attack them, put them into formations to better adapt them to specific situations of battle, and other more mainstay aspects of the RTS genre.
Just when you think you've got the gameplay pinned down, though, you find quite a few aspects that are fairly unique and definitely entertaining. For instance, take the Spartan infantry. At a glance, there are only two types of infantry available to the Spartans in the preview build: light infantry and heavy infantry. However, before the cries of injustice begin, one must realize that to actually create a unit you must first give it a melee weapon (clubs, short- and longswords, spears, etc.) and optionally a ranged weapon (slings, javelins) and/or one of the many types of shields. Stables produce horses, which any of your infantry can then be commanded to ride so as to increase their combat effectiveness.
This is where some serious tactics come into play, as properly equipping your units for the intended situation is just as important as using them effectively in battle. Spears have a longer reach and are great for taking people down from chariots or from horseback, but using a sword might be a better choice for your frontline fighters. Giving javelins to a bunch of light infantry and putting them on horseback can be used for quite deadly hit-and-run tactics, or you could put a heavy infantry on that same horse with a longsword for a pretty deadly cavalry unit.
On the other hand, that heavy infantry with the shiny longsword and the gigantic carved shield costs much, much more than if you were to make a dozen light infantry armed with clubs. However, balancing research of the latest and greatest weaponry while equipping your infantry with only the resources you have on hand is one of the core elements of the title. Although two awesome units and a baker's dozen of worthless units cost the same, the best course of action is often somewhere between the two.
To offset the cost of creating new units, you can send your worker units to clean up after a battle has taken place, collecting the armor and weapons off the fallen friendly and enemy units and bringing them back to your base. Even if you haven't yet researched how to create a short sword, if you've picked them up from the enemy, you can create that many units to use one or simply sell them to finance your research. The same thing applies to horses and chariots; if you kill the rider without killing/destroying his ride, you can then make an infantry unit commandeer it, and there are few things cooler than using a javelin to pick off a chariot rider, and then using that same unit to hop onto the now-vacant chariot and prepare for combat.
Sparta: Ancient Wars features a decent physics engine which serves a dual purpose; on one hand, it is used for mere eye candy in the form of ragdoll death animations and the realistic movement of debris from collapsing buildings, but on the other, it actually serves a distinct gameplay purpose. The projectiles of ranged weapons, such as slings and javelins, heed the laws of physics, giving a clear advantage to using those units on a relative higher ground than their enemies and a clear disadvantage if the positions are swapped. Traps such as mounds of rocks can be constructed at the tops of hills and then clicked on to send an avalanche of death upon any advancing armies coming up the hill. The funniest aspect, though? Watching a silly Persian infantry unit beat on your headquarters only to see a piece of it break off, fall down, and crush him instantly.
The physics engine isn't the only thing on the screen that can catch one's attention. The environments in general have a great amount of detail to them, from the way the maps look to how you can look at individual buildings, such as farms or your forge, and actually see your worker units toiling in them. Combat is both frenzied and bloody, and when units die, their weapons, helmets, shields, and sometimes the horse are all equally affected by the physics engine. Though bodies and bloodstains on the ground disappear fairly quickly, the weapons and armor remain, and after a large-scale battle, the victor will often see a battlefield covered in items used by either side (and of course squirrel them away for their own future use via a small army of obedient workers).
The audio palette of Sparta: Ancient Wars has a good amount going for it. The overall musical score tends to fit the mood and is varied enough to not become repetitive, and the pieces themselves are both memorable and numerous. The sounds of battle are fairly representative of an actual battle taking place rather than just sounding like a series of canned effects going off in unison. Swords clang, people cry out in pain, and the impact of siege weapons sounds like they actually have some force behind them, ultimately leading to the silence that follows the end of every battle.
In a nutshell, Sparta: Ancient Wars is an RTS title but not in the strictly traditional sense. The title carries enough of the expected genre gameplay elements to make it generally accessible, but it also spices things up by either revamping or completely replacing other aspects, such as the unit creation process. Between the two, Sparta: Ancient Wars is an RTS title that not only has some features that don't appear very often in the genre, but also work well with what is essentially shaping up to be a well-done RTS title. Keep your eyes open for more information on Sparta: Ancient Wars after it hits its release date later this month.
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