When Atari announced that it was planning on reimaging and re-releasing a revamped version of Warlords this summer, we had a bit of déjà vu here at the office. "Didn't you guys already do that a few years ago?" we asked. "Yes," came the answer. "We're doing it again."
Originally developed as an arcade game, Warlords was first ported to the Atari 2600, where it was also a hit. The game was essentially a four-player deathmatch version of Pong, with each player attempting to destroy the other's castles by bouncing a fireball back and forth. Survive longer than everyone else to win.
Atari's 2008 remake offered the original arcade version alongside a graphic revamp. The castles were high-tech forts, and the fireball looked like something shot out of an energy cannon. With the polished look and neon colors, it almost felt as if the graphic designers had spent a little too much time watching "Tron." Gameplay was relatively unchanged, though, with the exception of a new camera view and the ability to speed up things.
Taking a look at the 2011 version of Warlords, it's obvious that the team has taken a hard look at the 2008 remix and asked themselves, "What went wrong?" before embarking on the new venture.
First and foremost, the high-tech look is out, and the medieval knights and castles are back. The soundtrack is vaguely rock (heavy metal would be way more appropriate here), and the gameplay has more depth to it this time around, with the addition of a campaign mode and warlord minions. Minions are always cool.
The warlord minions are the biggest change to the game because they give you the ability to directly attack your opponents' castles as well as repair your own. You can also use the minions to collect power-ups from the game board to do things like add a layer of metal plating to your castle walls. Minions are led by a single, indestructible flag bearer and will blindly follow him anywhere, regardless of danger.
Adding to the complexity is the black knight. He shows up to wreak havoc and will attack castles at random. Taking him down is a challenge, but it can be done.
Campaign mode is centered on a basic story that has you competing with others for the right to be named a warlord and take control of part of the kingdom. It's a winner-take-all sort of thing, so you'd best not slack.
After playing an early version of the game for a few hours, it is immediately obvious that the new Warlords is an improvement on the 2008 version, but it still isn't without its hiccups. When playing a team-based match, it can be difficult to determine which minion is yours and which belong to your teammates. Both were showing up with the same color in our preview build.
Another thing we'd like to see changed before release is how the power-ups are handled. Currently, power-ups must be charged by placing your minions on top of the icon. This is pretty straightforward; however, as it is right now, an opponent can capture the power-up at any time without resetting the charge meter. This means one player could charge it up to nearly full, only to have another wander in at the last second and steal the power-up. Having the recharge restart when a power-up icon changes hands would add a bit more strategy to the game.
Matches start out simple enough but can easily turn into near-confusing bundles of action. With multiple fireballs on the screen, handfuls of minions and the black knight out there taking potshots at everyone, it is easy to lose focus on the immediate task at hand. In short, if you want to do well here, you had best be a multitasking expert. Get into the groove, though, and it can be quite satisfying.
The last thing on our wish list is multiple map types. In our (admittedly limited) time with the game, we saw a one-on-one map and a two-vs.-two layout, but both were pretty much square playfields. While that is arcade authentic and works well for pick-up games, Warlords could probably add quite a bit of variety by mixing things up with the map design. Instead of a square, fill the whole rectangular viewing area on a widescreen TV. Instead of an open space in the center, change up things with some random blocks to use for bank shots.
It's difficult to call things one way or the other at this point, but the new version of Warlords is certainly looking promising. At the very least, it already exceeds the 2008 version of the game. How well the 2011 version performs is going to depend on the depth of the gameplay as well as how Atari chooses to price this one. If it's cheap enough to be an impulse buy, it will likely do well.
Be sure to check back as we get closer to Warlords' release date. The minions have been dispatched, and we'll have a full verdict once the final version of the game drops.
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