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You are standing in your room, clammy fingers and palms pressed tightly against a glossy black box. Breath enters and leaves your body with uncommon urgency as you slide open the package, revealing a silver disc, inscribed with the words Warrior Kings. This glittering plate is a gateway to a mythical land of military strength, multi-faceted strategic options, economic power and clandestine-laced political intrigue, an epic penned by Jamie Thompson, co-author of legendary Choose Your Own Adventure series The Way Of The Tiger. And just as you were the hero of those books, so too now are you the hero of this review, your choices deciding whether or not Warrior Kings is for you. Survive, and you’ll know it’s your destiny to take the role of Artos, rightful heir to the realm of Cravant in the world of Orbis, forced to reclaim your homeland and unify the land after your father and people are massacred by forces led by a corrupt Bishop. Fail and you’ll miss out on the most ambitious RTS to date. Your fate is in your hands. And so it is, that with a quivering, sweat-glazed hand, you insert the CD into your drive and load up the game. If you own at least a Pill 600 with a high-end GeForce 2 or better, go to Paragraph 10 (below). If not, go to Paragraph 1B of the Alternative Choices box.
The disc grinds to a halt, and the world around you drains away like grains of sand in an egg-timer as you’re drawn into a new existence. Stunning, fully interactive 3D landscapes roll endlessly around you, while a gentle fog wafts over a distant lake. Before you, is the most visually stunning RTS you’ve ever seen. Gone are the flat fingerprint-like smudges of days gone by, graphics which looked like the scribblings of a thumbless newborn, instead replaced by sublime undulations rendered in splendorous 3D. As your PC churns out bump-mapped textures and you smoothly scroll around the map with the simple and intuitive controls, it’s instantly clear to you that Warrior Kings will be anything but simplistic or average. Barbarian settlements sully the land and will have to be dealt with if your people are to live in safety, while effective trading routes with other villages will have to be created in order to bolster your economy. If your favourite RTS is Shogun or Battle Realms, then go to Paragraph 50. If you’re purely into 2D build-and-rush type RTS games, then go to Paragraph 2B of the Alternative Choices box.
Your love of in-depth tactics has served you well. With the trained eye of an RTS veteran you scan your surroundings and assess your troops. To you, the interactive landscape is one huge battlefield, full of traps and advantageous vantage points. Placing your archers on elevated land gives them supremacy over those below, a well-disciplined and correctly formed group of heavy infantry will decimate even the most fearsome of cavalry charges, and splitting your forces in order to flank your opponents is the surest way to victory after you pound down their walls with devastating siege weaponry. You recognise the limitations of heavily armoured knights, their thick visors restricting their line of sight and movement, rendering them virtually useless against a cunningly commanded group of archers. Evincing the subtleties and effectiveness in WK of different formations, you use lines to march across land quickly and wedges to cut into densely packed defensive positions, and are immediately aware of similarities to Battle Realms as you capture wild horses and place foot-based units on them in order to turn them into cavalry. And as you delve ever further into the game’s depths, the battles escalate in size and intensity, pitting hundreds of standard, mythical and mystical creatures against each other in mortal combat.
However, your keen sense of quality also uncovers some irksome errors and glitches. Every now and then, enemy units stand around aimlessly, seemingly conversing with trees while stoically volunteering themselves as life-sized pin cushions for your archers to bury their arrows in. Units can easily become obscured by trees while others sporadically set off in random directions during combat, before inexplicably wading through a pond and stopping in the middle of an adjacent field. And ever so rarely, the gradient-based pathfinding is on the tenuous side. But regardless of these occasional hitches, Warrior Kings throws down a stern challenge, one so compulsive and enthralling you can't help but accept. But before you can embrace your destiny, you must build an army and a progressively evolving Age Of Empires-\ke economy (food, wood and gold must all be collected) which can support it. If you think Warrior Kings may not be for you after all, then go to the In Perspective box. Otherwise, proceed to Paragraph 100.
After constructing a prosperous farming community filled with trading posts, taverns, storehouses and some barracks, you set about liberating your people from their oppressors, casting aside the usurpers and scattering their flayed bodies around the land like skin confetti. Your perspicacious archers fall back to safer ground when threatened by more powerful units, chasing after retreating foes to cut them down as they flee. As the final village falls, an enemy baron begs for his life, an example of the game's branching storyline and tech tree, whereby your actions and choices define what units you can build in future missions, and the direction the plot adopts. You must choose carefully. If you wish to make an alignment choice now by reading up on the three sides on offer, then go to the Choosing Sides panel. If you're worried the game might still be lacking something important, go to the Missed Opportunity box. Otherwise proceed to Paragraph 420.
Your journey of discovery is at an end. You have uncovered a stunning RTS, one with a near unparalleled diversity of units and tactics, varied mission goals including heroic prison breaks, sieges and last-stand defences, as well as an intricate economic system and a sublime multiplayer game. But the road is yet long and perilous, full of unexpected and challenging obstacles. If you choose to play on, you’ll need tactical cunning, patience and a forgiving nature towards its occasional shortcomings and glitches. Master these, and you’ll enjoy one of the deepest, most beautiful, ground-breaking and comprehensive RTS experiences of our time, one with three conclusions to its superbly constructed plot. Fear it, and you’ll be running like a coward back to something simpler and far less satisfying.
Your pathetic machine wheezes in defeat, spitting out the disc in feeble resignation. You must confront your bank manager for a loan. A scrawny man in his late thirties with a suspiciously wild and slightly askew shock of hair, he regards you with a hateful sneer as you speak, before gleefully explaining he can’t help you and threatening to have security remove you if you try to object. His gnarled finger is poised to dial. Will you jump up and deliver an arching slap to the top of his head (go to Paragraph 4B) or throw yourself down and beg (go to Paragraph 3B)?
Your love of simplistic patronising strategy games is your undoing. Try as you may, you cannot deal with WK's need for militaristic cunning and detailed strategy, a foreign concept to the isometric mundanity you hold so dear. As you slouch to the floor, you curse your lack of RTS ambition. Your adventure is over...
You realise too late your catastrophic error. Cackling like a crazed hyena, your bank manager kicks you off and mocks you hideously as two suited men drag you round the back to tenderise your skull. Your last thought as you lose consciousness is the knowledge you’ll never be able to appreciate this beautiful RTS until you can afford an upgrade. Your adventure is over before it even begins.
Your blow connects with a satisfying thud, and a clump of hair arcs through the air, revealing a flaky pate. The slapped-up banker prostrates himself at your feet in abject humiliation, sporadically thrusting wads of $20 notes into your pocket while begging you not to tell anyone about his shameful secret. Within an hour, you’re loading Warrior Kings on your brand new PC. Now go to Paragraph 10.
Download Warrior Kings
We see a lot of potential in this one. In fact we have done for about the last 18 months, during which time, Black Cactus' RTS Warrior Kings has been passed from one publisher to another like an unwanted child with a special, but potentially unrecognised gift. For a while, WK disappeared from the scene, ditched by Vivendi and left floating on the brink of the gaming gutter, before Microids came along and picked it up, wiped the grime from its folds and tried desperately to revive it. A couple of months ago we were led to believe the game would be reviewable, only for the code to be snatched from beneath our noses like a mucus strand by a probing tongue. However, things appear to be well on track for a February release, so I toddled off to Black Cactus to have an exclusive playtest of the latest code. And this is what I saw...
Playing For Money
Warrior Kings is Black Cactus' first project, and as first attempts go, they've set themselves a gargantuan task, seeking to meld epic battles and siege warfare with an extensive research tree and a deep-running economic vein. Nick Ricks, who has previously worked on Dungeon Keeper, talked me through the game, and wasn't in the least surprised when I instantly drew comparisons to Shogun. On closer inspection, the gameplay also bears many similarities to Battle Realms, with resource management playing an integral role in the strategic aspects of the game.
"Warrior Kings has very strong economic elements," says Nick. "We've tried to create a sense of rural and civic buildings, so when you collect your resources from rural areas, they're delivered by cart to the city. It's only when they reach the city that they actually enter your stocks. So you need to carefully guard your wagons and position your rural structures intelligently, because it takes peasants time to transfer resources from the farms to the villages." He promptly helped me build a prosperous economy, dotting various buildings around a stunning 3D landscape with rolling hills and dense forests. Farms needed to be placed with care, by first identifying the most fertile areas of the landscape to allow for maximum production. Different areas of the land proved to be more plentiful than others, a factor which will hugely influence the positioning of any city, as well as the speed with which resources can be gathered.
I Want To Be A Tree
It wasn't long before carts were transporting resources from the rural areas to the urban settings. It was time to start building up an army. Unlike most RTSs where you have a choice between two or maybe three different tech trees, Warrior Kings offers you a highly flexible route to customise your unit choices to your style of play. "Rather than having two separate tech trees like C&C, we've decided to let the player start as an unaligned starting group," explained Nick. From those you can develop in three different ways. If your style of play is aggressive, then your best bet is to pick the Pagan race, because they have a lot of upgrades very early on in the game. Their units are cheap to produce and do a lot of damage, although they can't take that much damage themselves. There are certain stages of upgrade. If you go down a pure alignment path, then you're very concentrated in what you can do. However, you can build the most powerful units your alignment allows. On the flipside, your choices will be far more limited. If you mix alignments, you get much more choice, but less access to the more powerful units."
As I played through several different levels, I tried these varying options. Of the three sides, the Pagans are by far the most aggressive, while playing as Celestial throws up a plethora of defensive possibilities. If you're of a more economically driven disposition, then the Renaissance side will be the one for you. This last group also has the added advantage of possessing gunpowder, and I watched smugly as my huge wheel-mounted cannons annihilated a group of enemy Abadon demons (the Pagan's most powerful unit), later trouncing a bunch of Arch Angels (the top Celestial unit) with a far smaller group of the very same creatures I'd just given a kicking to. Needless to say, Warrior Kings is still in need of some balancing.
Look At The Bumps On That
WK'S most notable feature is its hugely exaggerated landscapes, which although beautiful, can look slightly odd, with the type of undulations which would make a silicon-stuffed beauty queen feel positively inadequate. However, it soon becomes apparent that the landscapes are a weapon in themselves, making tactical troop deployment essential if you're to get the upper hand in a battle. A substantial height advantage can prove deadly, especially if you have a collection of experienced archers on it. I asked Nick if there were any other ways of gamering a tactical advantage, and how this impacted on the game generally.
"We wanted a way of representing the game other than through simple bonuses. So we gave different attributes to certain units, which come into play depending on circumstances. For example, if a group of archers is approached by a group of slower-moving, but more powerful units, 7 then they'll automatically fire, then back off, then fire again. You'll then need cavalry to outrace the archers."
Game For A Challenge
Unfortunately it's not all positive. WK has several glaring issues which need addressing if it's going to fulfil its promise. While the 3D engine is for the most part excellent, all too often units become camouflaged by the terrain around them or obscured by buildings. This makes them hard to see, let alone distinguishable from a distance, which causes particular problems in the heat of battle. The rotating map also needs work, as it's so disorientating you often end up heading in the wrong direction. Nick assures me that these issues are being resolved. Lets hope they are.
Only time will tell if Warrior Kings ends up growing into the highly successful, all-encompassing and well-respected RTS that it threatens to be, or whether it will end up back in a ditch, smelling of its own piss and smattered with cider-laced vomit, rejected by its community for its failings and forced to eke out a meagre existence by hiring itself out to travelling businessmen for a palmful of loose change. We'll let you know how it all turns out next month. Maybe.
Way Of The Warrior King
Choose your own career path
When a bestselling author turns into a games developer you know you're in for a good story, and that's exactly what Jamie Thompson (founder of Black Cactus) has gone and done. Having written the brilliant Choose Your Own Adventure series, as well as The Way Of The Tiger with Mark Smith (for details of his new project turn to page 24 or keep reading to find out more about this one), Jamie has turned his attention to penning the storyline for Warrior Kings. And it goes a little bit like this.
You're a king in a fantastical medieval world, where ruthless warlords fight for control of the land. It's your duty to unite and rule over this world by any means at your disposal. But at some point you're forced to choose between a path -Imperial, Pagan or Renaissance. The path you choose will shape both your destiny and the future of the land you hope to unite. The story progresses via in-game cut-scenes and spoken narrative between missions, and if Thompson's previous work Is anything to go by, the plot should be an absolute corker.
We all have preconceptions, especially when it comes to games. Whether they are formed just by reading the back of the box in your local high street games emporium, or by scanning through meaningless writer-obsessed words randomly cut-and-pasted into a magazine article, you will already have figured out - rightly or wrongly - what Warrior Kings is already about. Hell, even if this is your first encounter with the game, just by looking at the screenshots you should have a pretty good idea. I did before I met Steven Bristow and Charlie Bewsher of Black Cactus Games, and could sum what the game promised me in two words; Shogun (for me the best game of last year) mixed with Braveheart (the most ambitious of the year previous).
"Hopefully not too much like Braveheart," says Steven Bristow, project manager. "The great thing about Shogun was this epic sweep, with thousands of guys twitching across the landscape. But the economic aspect of what you might call a traditional RTS is a strength that Shogun didn't really have. It had an economic side to the game, but it didn't happen in tandem with the fighting."
"It's very important for us to keep the economics in real-time," says lead designer Charlie Bewsher. "Without that, you can't use economics as a tool to help you win battles." That was my preconceptions blown out of the water.
Actually they were obliterated an hour earlier, after being lead through the most recent build of Black Cactus Games' first PC title. Real-time strategy, of course, features heavily, so too does a rather impressive 3D engine. First impressions - Shogun meets Braveheart - were, I thought, fairly accurate. Equally you could throw into that bubbling mix Age Of Empires in 3D (with a mythical medieval twist, plus a few other arbitrary game references. I realised then that Warrior Kings was much more than a hybrid of two gaming ideals, only one of which was realised.
"We're not trying to do something revolutionary here," reiterates Charlie. "The core of the game is what you'll find in Red Alert or Age Of Empires, only we want to balance the need for strategic management with resource management and link the two in such a way that both are one and the same."
So what does that mean? Simple, it means that if you are outnumbered three-to-one on the battlefield, it doesn't necessarily follow that you will lose the war. Send a few of the necessary units off into the enemy hinterland, enslave a few villagers or plunder their supply lines and eventually the enemy's supply will become so stretched that they may retreat. Unlike Shogun, where one battle is played out in comparative isolation, in Warrior Kings you fight as much on the economic and resource front as you do the military.
This interdependence of economics and strategy runs parallel to the methods Black Cactus have employed to develop the game: AI, graphics and programming are almost being treated as one big whole, to such a degree that in place already are tools that let the designers create their own routines, rather than place greater strain on the programmers. The end result is that, apart from anything else, Warrior Kings should arrive on time and new ideas can be tried out quickly and dismissed without months of programming work wasted.
What You See...
Visually Warrior Kings is already impressive. Unlike Shogun, every unit is in 3D and even in the early version of the game we were led through hundreds of villagers, infantry and cavalry, and pieces of medieval machinery were seen milling around without putting much strain on the 3D engine. Units are colourful without being garish, scaled in such a way as to look both realistic without blending into the landscape and the animations, from trebuchets to winged demons, all looked as detailed and smooth as any you might see in a first-person shooter - the fact that potentially so many can be crammed into the one screen was almost too much to bear and, if nothing else. Warrior Kings will be as good to watch as we are promised it will be to play. And here again we come back to that word, interdependency. Rather than have to refer to a manual to see how effective your units are, you will be able to see how they act and react, by watching the game rather than reading a list of statistics.
Charlie: "For instance, rather than set aggression levels for your units, their formation will dictate how they react. A wedge is an offensive formation and in that, your troops will be aggressive. In a circle your troops'will be more defensive and the point is that you'll see what state your troops are in withput having to refer to a separate screen." Steven continues: "Unlike, say, in Age Of Empires where you press a button and pay some money to improve the global efficiency of all of your villagers, in Warrior Kings by seeing that a village has a windmill nearby, you immediately can see that your villagers are collecting food more efficiently.
More experienced troops will visibly have better armour. More obvious but no less significant is that archers on top of a hill will have a better range than those at the bottom."
In terms of the game's storyline, neither Steven nor Charlie were willing to let too much out at this early stage. Set in the mythical realm of Orbis however, what does sound intriguing is that, rather than let the player decide on one of a dozen different races and race through whatever technology will be exclusive to them, you start simply as human and along the way you can choose to either branch out and be closer to historical fact (building siege cannons and training legions of pikemen), or turn to the games' darker side and fight with demonic creatures. You can build wicker men within which you can sacrifice your villagers (or those snatched from our enemy) in order that the gods may grant you greater powers to enact your will.
But we can leave all that for another time. For now, we're still getting used to the fact that we may soon have a real-time strategy game that is true to its roots set down by the likes of Command & Conquer; simple, intuitive and engrossing, while at the same time thoroughly being disorientating and overly complicated. We've had many games that have favoured resource management over strategy, others that have swung the other way, but there have been all too few games that have embraced the two equally to such a degree. If the chaps at Black Cactus can walk like they talk, we are going to be in for another special summer indeed.
The first game from British developer Black Cactus, Warrior Kings, is a promising 3D real-time strategy that could make some big headlines in the coming months. Fundamentally an economic game with a large military aspect, it might help you to know that when we spoke to Steven Bristow, project manager and designer on Warrior Kings, the games Age Of Empires, Red Alert and Shogun cropped up quite often. According to Steven, it is set in a fantasy medieval world because: "The game mechanics are quite complex, so we wanted to make the fundamental theme quite simple. Everyone knows what cavalry and archers do, and we wanted the learning experience to be about what you can do with the units, rather than what the units actually are." So while it may not be a radical departure from everything that's gone before it, this well-trodden setting allowed the team to concentrate on the internal workings.
You start the game building up a city, watching your tiny men wander around chopping wood and establishing a community around your castle. As time goes by satellite villages spring up and trade routes are created feeding your economy and helping you to expand. Of course, it's not long before you're drawn to acts of violence, as nearby cities attack you. As well as other medieval soldiers, you have to face demonic monsters that tower over your soldiers and have great big gaping mouths instead of bellybuttons. Which brings us to another important aspect of the game: divine power, which can be called upon to perform acts of God. You are given the choice to go down the holy route (by building cathedrals, being good and all that rubbish) or the demonic one (having fun, building wicker men and killing virgins). This affects the acts of God you get to use and the type of monsters you can conjure up. The path you take affects the way your city looks, creating a dark ambience and a deep red sky hanging above. "A lot of the emphasis is on the immediate visual feedback of what's going on in the game," says Steven. "We're trying to get away from this idea that you have to select something to find out what it is and what it's doing."
Military units are supported by farms, which means a big drain on food production and, consequently, on your whole economy. Similar to the power supplies in Red Alert, it's one of the ways Black Cactus has tried to stop the typical 'rushing' problem encountered in so many RTSs, which tend to make them too simplistic. You can't just create a massive army and send them out to kill all its enemies. You have to plan carefully and allocate resources where they're most needed. The developers main emphasis though, is on making the battles more strategically dependant than they usually are.
"One of the things that bothered us about Age Of Empires was the way that if you have 20 soldiers and I have 17 I'm going to lose, and there's not much I can do about that," says Steven.
In Warrior Kings, positional advantage and the type of units you pitch against each other will be of the greatest importance and will attempt to go further than Shogun did.
What will separate it from other R TSs is its emphasis on an involving story, written by Jamie Thomson (the genius behind The Way Of The Tiger RPG books, which he co-wrote with Mark Smith). If you're interested in something more than a string of skirmishes, we're sure Jamie's plot will make this one to look out for.