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Praetorians Review

publisher: Eidos Interactive
developer: Pyro Studios
genre: Strategy

PIII 500, 256MB RAM, 16MB Video Card, 600MB HD
ESRB rating: T

release date: Mar 10, 03
» All About Praetorians on ActionTrip

Back in the glory days of Pax Romana, Roman Legionaries needed to learn two basic rules to live by: stay in formation and never - and I mean never - piss off a Praetorian. Emperor Augustus (31 BC - 14 AD) created the elite Praetorian Guard to prevent assassins from reaching the emperor and murdering him as Brutus and his companions had murdered Julius Caesar. They were Rome's most elite and feared soldiers. Fearless, battle-hardened and notorious for their unwavering discipline and brutality on the battlefield, they performed their duties with loyalty and honor. Heck, you wouldn't want a bunch of wussies to guard your life when you're THE most important person on the planet, right? That's exactly how Augustus felt, and who could blame him?

It's surprising then that there haven't been more games inspired by these fearless warriors. As it is, it looks like Pyro Studios were the only developers that thought the Praetorian Guard and their history would make a good enough material for a strategy game. Ironically, the game is set at a time when Praetorians didn't even exist as a unit (around 50 BC), but hey, it's not like your average gamer cares about this "technicalities" anyway.

The Spanish team, Pyro Studios, is best known for their work on the Commandos series. But as far as I know, most of the team has actually left the company, so I'm not sure as to who got to finish this game in the end. Praetorians is definitely different than Commandos, so there is a possibility that another group of developers took over the project midway through the development process. Originally, Praetorians was hailed as a "pure strategy game with heavy RPG elements and a thrilling storyline." By the time the game hit gold status, however, it became apparent that a massive number of planned features have been abbreviated or simply thrown out in order to either release the game in time, or simply finish the project and move on. Whatever the reason was behind this is irrelevant. What is important, however, is that the game shipped without a storyline, character development or even a proper RPG facet. There's not even a classic resource management feature present!

Right now, you're probably wondering if there's anything left in that game at all. Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes. There's plenty of strategy and sheer fun to be found in Praetorians. In fact, I am inclined to call this game the most strategy-minded strategy game I've ever played.

But, let's talk about its downsides first.

The most disappointing thing about Praetorians is of course the lack of any plot or distinguishable game characters. The single-player campaign is divided into 20 missions and each of these missions can be played as a stand-alone mini campaign. They are largely not connected, and, as I said, there are no protagonists to immerse the players deeper into the single-player campaign. All we get to see are a few very general cut-scenes that depict various battle scenes and that's about it! You know vaguely why you are where you are, but you have little clue as to what is happening in the grand scheme of things. Heck, if you want to know more about the backdrop of this game, you might as well grab yourself a history book. Or better yet, given the fact that Praetorians is historically inaccurate, I recommend you make up your own story of treason, betrayal and misguided love.

Besides lacking any kind of story, Praetorians is also missing unit advancements, tech-tree or anything similar to it. Fair enough, you get two or three new units along the way (Praetorians for one, German Cavalry, Balearic Slingers...), and the enemy troops (Egyptians, Gauls and Britons) provide for slightly more variety. Nevertheless, that's hardly enough to satisfy players' desire for bigger and "badder" units as they progress through the single-player campaign. The developers paid little attention to the reward factor, and that's a real shame. The only true reward you'll get in Praetorians is the satisfaction of knowing that you've annihilated hordes of savages or the Egyptian dogs that were foolish enough to stand in your way. That probably would've been prize enough for a Centurion back in the days of Ancient Rome, but it's hardly satisfactory when you're playing a game and looking for more cool features as you progress through the campaign.

There are some traces of RPG elements present in the game, but they are underdeveloped to say the least. Each of your generals (or Centurions) has a certain amount of experience points (as well as honor points). They can reach a certain level of experience through combat, which will enable them to command their troops better, have more stamina or generally handle themselves better against the enemy. These experience levels are hardly ever useful however, and most of your troops will fight with the same tenacity, regardless of who's in command. I would've also liked to have a clearer distinction between veteran troops and new, green recruits. Hell, back in those days, technology wasn't really a huge factor in a conflict. But a warrior's heart was. So going up against a seasoned squad of Legionaries or a bunch of frightened fresh recruits would make all the difference in the world. I just wish the team at Pyro Studios paid more attention to this.

It goes without saying that I consider the lack of a story a serious downside to the game. You just get the feeling that Praetorians could've been so much better have the publisher given a bit more time or money to the design team.

Still, even as it is, Praetorians is a very fun game, and a true delight for strategy fans. Pyro Studios have taken a very different approach to game design in Praetorians. Instead of concentrating on all the usual elements that accompany modern RTS games (Age of Mythology is a very good example of this), they've decided to spend most of their time on the core element of gameplay, which is the combat. There is not a wide variety of units in Praetorians, nor a huge selection of unit formations, but the game nevertheless manages to provide a wealth of strategy options. The most notable of all the available special formations has to be Legionaries' turtle formation. When in turtle formation the Legionaries would move very slowly, but they'd also be nearly impossible to hit for the enemy archers. In Praetorians, the number of soldiers in a formation is more important than its specific type. In order to be more effective in the battles, the player has to constantly balance troops and join them to achieve maximum offensive or defensive effectiveness.

Despite the lack of a classic resource management system, one can still recruit new troops from the conquered villages and build Defensive Towers, Assault Towers, Catapults, and Ballista by using the Auxiliary Infantry. Although Auxiliary Infantry can still fight, their primary role in the game is to serve as a mobile construction unit. The most spectacular missions in the game involve massive castle sieges, and this is where Assault Towers and Catapults will come into full play. A combination of manned Assault Towers, scouts and highly mobile cavalry can be quite deadly when breaking through a castle's primary defenses (mainly archers on the walls). Your catapults don't have a very good line of sight, and if fire arrows hit them they'll quickly burn down and fall apart. Also, the catapults are very vulnerable to cavalry units, so that's why you need cavalry to stay out of harm's way (enemy arrows) but be close enough to quickly defend the catapults if need be. One trick to increase the catapult's line of sight is to strategically place scouts, or use their trained animals (wolves, hawks) to provide a better view for the heavy artillery.

This is just a small example of the numerous tactics that one can use in the game. But the two most important factors you have to take into consideration when playing Praetorians are your units' mobility and stamina, and the terrain configuration. One tactic you should always use in the game is to group units by their mobility. Infantry should go into one group and your cavalry into another. I cannot stress enough how important it is to correctly position your troops and take into account the possibility of having your ranks broken and one of your flanks collapsing. This is when the mobility of your troops comes into play. If you have sufficient cavalry troops you can quickly close the gap and win the day. If not, your slower Legionaries will be forced to march quickly and if their stamina is low from fighting they won't get there in time. Your ranks will be broken and the battle will be over.

Just like in real life, the terrain your troops are fighting on can be just as important as your skill as a commander or your troops' bravery. In Praetorians, terrain is not just the landscape where the action takes place. It is also vital to deciding where and how you can move your troops, and the way you can attack and defend yourself. Certain troops cannot move around certain types of terrain. Moreover, the terrain is important for deciding the line of sight between your troops and the enemy. There are various types of terrain in the game: flat terrain, grasslands (good for hiding troops), forests (perfect for staging ambushes), shallow water, slopes and elevation. Naturally, every type of terrain deserves special consideration before going into battle. That is why scouts can be a very useful unit in this game.

To make things even trickier for a young Centurion looking to test his wits and mantle in the battle, the enemy AI is actually quite good. In fact, I was surprised a couple of times by its brilliant strategies. This one time, I examined the terrain closely and decided to position my archers on top of a small hill overlooking the battlefield. I figured I would easily lure the enemy into a trap and annihilate them with my nicely placed ranged troops. But to my "pleasant" surprise (well, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the AI), the enemy responded by sending its cavalry past my Legionaries and straight for the archers. I didn't have any cavalry at that time and I lost the battle.

Each of the 20 missions in the game is brilliantly designed. The number of the enemy troops is just right, they are smart and sometimes their favorable position on a vantage point or in a castle will give you plenty of opportunity to flex your strategy skills. But most importantly, you'll have plenty of fun while doing so. Praetorians provides a lot more pure strategy entertainment than you would ever find in a game like Age of Mythology. Then again, it's also missing some key elements of a good game that Age of Mythology abounds with, but if you're looking for some truly intelligent strategy gameplay then look no further than Praetorians.

Both visually and audibly Praetorians is very professionally done. The musical soundtrack is atmospheric and exciting, and the unit sounds never get repetitive or boring. They are moody, believable, and bring to life the ambiance of ancient times. The in-game music can also be a good indicator when your troops have been spotted or have engaged the enemy. My overall impression of the graphics is very positive. The engine provides some amazing weather effects (the snow flakes look almost real). The general appearance of the game world is pleasing to the eye and brimming with nice details (like a flock of birds flying from the forest in terror when your troops enter it). The particle effects are very rich and effectively used, which becomes most apparent in the desert campaigns. The only problem I had with the graphics is the relatively stiff animation of the units, and their low poly count. I must say that the appearance of the terrain is in sharp contrast to the units' appearance. The units look stiff and kind of blocky in comparison. On the upside, though, the frame rate remains rock solid (subjectively speaking of course) even when the screen is littered with all manners of fighting units.

After considering all the pros and cons of Praetorians, I'm almost certain that fans of strategy combat shouldn't dare to miss it. Not unless they don't like intelligent and intense strategy gameplay, which is really a contradiction in terms. Many will complain about the game's lack of a more tangible reward factor, plot or distinguishable characters, but I guess there is always the multiplayer mode to increase its replay value once you've dealt with the "savages" in the single-player campaign. Praetorians is definitely not a great all-around project, as it's missing some elements that could've ranked it right up there amongst the best games in the genre, but it's still a very fun, challenging and intelligent strategy game. It's your move now.


8.0   Very Good

A very unique and fun approach to strategy gaming. Deep and intelligent strategy combat. Missions are excellently designed. Excellent music and sound effects;

Complete lack of a storyline, or heroes to draw the player more into the game. The developers could've worked more on the RPG aspect of the gameplay, as well as the game's reward factor. Unit animation seems a bit stiff. They (units) also could've used a bit more polys.



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