Developer: Stainless Games
Release Date: May 28, 2008
Warlords is one of those little classic games that a lot of people remember, but it isn't one that a lot of people remember exceptionally fondly. This arcade classic pitted as many as four players against each other in what could only be called a manic mishmash of Pong and Breakout, competing solely to be the last man standing. The problem was that its mechanics simply were not that strong, and many clones — such as the secret Lords of Lunar minigame that came with the PlayStation 1 Lunar: The Silver Star Story Complete — managed to improve upon the gameplay to create significantly more entertaining offerings. However, it seems no classic game cannot go without a revival nowadays, and Atari decided to give Warlords a go, letting Stainless Games produce a very interesting, albeit average, attempt to improve on the classic.
In short, Warlords is fought on a square stage, where four walls are set along each corner. Each player controls a shield in front of one of these walls, and a little fireball rolls around the stage. Block the fireball with the shield, and it doesn't damage your wall. If your wall does sustain damage, you must keep the ball from getting through the holes that have been worn into it, and you don't lose. Make everyone else lose, and you win. That's really all there is to it; it basically slams together Breakout and Pong, and twists it to be a four-player battle. The only factor that made this game unique during its time was its speed and difficulty. The ball starts off moving quite quickly, and the AI is competent (but not perfect), forcing players to block for a long time, carefully adjust their blocks to try and get past the opponent's blocks — and that is just to survive one wave.
Admirably, Stainless Games decided to improve the mechanics while leaving the original game untouched, via the addition of an Evolved mode. With an industrial theme, music, and fancy new graphics, this mode curves the walls (significantly reducing the strength of the corner to balance play), adds more fireballs over time, slows down play a bit, and introduces a "charged shot" mechanic. Charged shots hold a ball on your paddle at the cost of damaging the wall behind it, but a fully charged fireball will break most of the way through a successfully hit wall in one shot. The results are very risky, but when played correctly, it can be a worthwhile tactic that adds some wrinkles to the gameplay.
It's just unfortunate, then, that Stainless Games couldn't get the most critical part of Warlords correct: the control scheme. Pong is played with a rotating dial, as is Breakout and, by extension, Warlords. There is a very good reason that this is the case. Xbox 360 controllers typically lack dials (though Mad Catz has an arcade stick that features one), thus limiting players to the control pad or analog stick. I'm sure a more effective solution could have been devised than the slow-moving motions that are invoked by the control pad in this 360 port, such as using the analog stick to fake a dial, just having one-to-one positioning, or, well, anything. Instead, we get a poorly suited control scheme that pretty much kills the game. (And no, the aforementioned Mad Catz arcade stick doesn't make the controls work, either.) As if to mock the player who tries to make this control scheme work, Atari also has the Throttle Monkey mode, which maximizes the difficulty and speed. If you had a dial or other appropriate control scheme, this would be a maniacal test of reflexes. As the controls currently stand, it is essentially unplayable. Only the most obsessed gamers will ever see the achievement for beating just one wave of the game, and they will probably feel like they wasted their time.
While the Classic mode is a pretty faithful re-creation of the original game, with a little dragon to launch the ball and everything, the new Evolved mode carries an overly polished industrial theme that makes no sense when matched with the gameplay. The glitzy special effects are entirely unnecessary, the music is annoying, and the sound effects aren't very impressive.
If classic titles are going to be updated for the current slate of gamers, some sort of effort should be spent on making sure that the game controls well. This is precisely what we did not get with Warlords, where the entire budget seems to have been spent on "evolving" the game and not making possibly the most important part of a game — its controls — actually work. The result is that Warlords looks nice in demo form, but is a soul-sucking, horrific experience when you're actually playing it. It's not even worth the meager asking price of 400 Microsoft points ($5).