Warlords IV: Heroes of Etheria Review
developer: Infinite Interactive
PIII-450, 128MB RAM
|ESRB rating: T
release date: Oct 21, 03 (released)
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Any time you want to single out a proper fantasy based turn-based strategy, you can always turn to brilliant games like 3DO's Heroes of Might and Magic and Triumph Studios' Age of Wonders. Warlords IV: Heroes of Etheria, however, may yet become one of those titles of excellence. This game will claim its rightful place in the gaming world by offering a challenging strategy experience. The name Warlords may sound familiar to anyone who has been playing Warlords Battlecry 1 and 2 Real Time Strategy games. Rather than using a same approach as in these RTS titles, Warlords IV: HoE builds upon the successful turn-based style of play present in the original Warlords - a game created by Steve Fawkner and Australian developer SSG. So, once again, Steve returns to the Warlords franchise, accompanied by a team of designers and programmers from his own company, Infinite Interactive.
Damn, this heat! Gotta take off this bloody armor.
I'll roast your tin ass straight to hell!
The single-player campaign in Warlords IV takes us through a very standard fantasy tale. Long ago, an exiled Dark Elf named Mordaine unleashed an unspeakable evil, so powerful it could not be stopped by any spell or enchantment. He opened up a portal in the hope of summoning great Daemon Princes to help him conquer the realm of Etheria. Hordes of untamed Daemons poured into the lands, eventually leading to the downfall of Mordaine. This devastating period was known as The Sundering. Our story begins 3,000 years after that event, when a female Dark Elven Mage named Aravein began digging up records on Mordaine and his work. She didn't want to make the same blunder he did, so she summoned Lesser Daemons (tens of thousands of them to be exact) and placed them in command of her Orcish commanders. With the help of daemons, the orcs began to plunder city libraries and mage towers, constantly searching for any documents that would reveal more about The Sundering and Mordaine's activities. You are a Warlord and your job is to stand in the way of Aravein and her armies. Okay, in general the whole idea is not exceptionally original, but it ties well into the gameplay and keeps you on your toes throughout the campaign and scenarios.
The gameplay revolves around upgrading cities, leveling heroes, and expanding your territories. As indicated by the game's caption (Heroes of Etheria), hero units are your first priority. Inexperienced grunts left to fight without any heroes to boost morale and inspire combat efficiency are likely to get exterminated very quickly. In that respect, heroes usually come as a very important part of a successful battle plan. Each area should be occupied with at least one hero to maintain firm and stable defenses. The same goes for offense; any potential raiding party or advancing army will need a hero. The first stumbling block in the game might come from its slightly steep learning curve, which could easily hold off many players right from the start. Engaging enemy units one-on-one might also appear like an unusual system for a turn-based strategy, but after a while the whole concept begins to grow on you, ultimately making you an expert warlord.
The good thing is that the game's slow opening and a steep learning curve actually build up towards some serious gaming. So, if you are patient enough to learn the system, you just might find yourself in the midst of an interesting epic conflict between great Elven, Human, and Orcish warlords. It is only after several hours of intense gameplay that players can begin to enjoy and appreciate the true value of this game. Foes are always in plentiful supply and ready to advance on your kingdom at a moment's notice. It's not wise to spend too much time poking around and seeking riches, although that can be a good way to nab some useful items and provide your units with additional experience points. While players build up their small empire, enemies will amass waiting for a perfect time to strike. And when they do, you can expect them to go for the weakest point in your defenses. The way the enemy AI thinks is no doubt one of the main positive features of the game. As we all know weak AI is sometimes the death knell of a good game, the strength of the Warlords AI gives this game excellent playability. While struggling to fortify my positions, I was forced to monitor each and every castle, since my CPU-controlled adversary would always seem to have a new dirty trick up his sleeve. It was a real pleasure to witness such an effective AI at work. Each time I had the edge the enemy would catch me by surprise and penetrate my domain with a sneaky maneuver. On one particular occasion I managed to secure almost every conceivable path into my realm, overlooking a canal that ran across a little stream at the bottom of the map. By the time I transported my main force deep into hostile lands my adversary vigorously marched across the unsupervised passageway and broke through the defensive perimeters. (What the...? All units fall back!) At the same time, you must constantly think of ways to perform effective counter attacks... and that's where the challenge lies.
Attention all units! Please refrain from inhaling!
My scale's prettier than yours.
Warlords IV involves a lot of diversity in fantasy RPG elements. Skills, spells, character and unit advancement, and the like are all present in the game. All of these will play a significant part as you progress through the scenarios. Each skill advances during combat and the more your characters and units fight, the more skilled they become. There aren't that many spells altogether, but each one can be put to good use throughout combat (or at any time on the main map). Casting spells also uses up mana reserves, so unless you've squandered it all on holy armor, weapon improvement, healing, and similar things, you should be able to cast some powerful enchantments (like summoning, curse, inspiration, etc.).
Once you have the gameplay workings down, advancing through the game will be a fun effort, thanks to the intuitive interface and a clear-cut combat system. Spells, items, and skills are activated through a small, but easily assessable, pop-up menu (available to players at any time). As you engage in battles, there won't be any redundant options or statistics clogging the main screen. Instead you have a clear display of the health and status of all your units, accompanied with a spell-book icon. So, it all works quite smoothly. In combat, all experienced melee units (spearmen, swordsmen, cavalry, knights) should be rushed into battle first, while long-ranged units (archers, crossbowmen, catapults) are, as expected, better off assailing enemies from a distance. Perhaps the only thing I regret when it comes to combat is the simplistic way the developers handled castle sieges. There's basically nothing to tackle but a mixture of defensive units stationed within the castle and a single guard tower that can only be demolished by catapults. The mother-castle (as I like to call it) is also guarded by a huge and powerful warlord unit. This colossal unit presents a nice addition to the gameplay, but it still doesn't have exceptionally interesting characteristics. Otherwise, the quick-paced battle system works okay and never drags the player's attention away from the larger picture (i.e. having to cope with multiple enemy assaults on relatively sizeable maps).
The pleasing overall experience I had while playing Warlords IV was somewhat downgraded due to the slightly outdated visuals. For the most part the graphics were alright for a turn-based strategy of this type, colorful 2D backdrops, decent character art, and a variety of spell effects should be enough to from an adequate visual appeal. Yet, somehow I have the feeling that units and characters are too darn small, while the maps lack additional details. Don't worry, this doesn't hinder the gameplay in any way, but it stands as a down point in the game. The situation does improve with occasional cinematics (actually more like comic style panels), which display some impressive-looking sketches and artwork provided by a talented group of artists and designers from Infinite Interactive. On another pleasing note, the game was completely bug-free (bug-free? damn, I'm going to have to get used to that). The one thing that annoyed me though, was the occasionally choppy frame-rate while playing at 1024x768, which is unacceptable considering my system specs. Thankfully, these frame-rate drops were rare enough not to thwart the overall experience. Ironically, other available resolutions seem practically useless. In 800*600 res. unit models and textures are exceedingly ugly to look at. And, if you set the game to run in a 1600*1200 resolution, units and monsters become so tiny, that they are virtually impossible to make out.
The sound doesn't possess any particularly innovative features, but it will treat you to some fine epic Lord of the Rings-style melodies as well as a gratifying range of cute-sounding voiceovers (some of which are even humorous). I'll have to admit that an additional sound or two in the background would've added a nice flavor to the ambiance.
Should you feel the need to try out the game against your friends, Warlords IV provides a number of multiplayer options. Allied and free-for-all matches can accommodate up to 8 players online. Next to that, you may also enjoy MP matches via one computer (each player waits for the other to finish a move). All multiplayer variants appear to work rather well, and there are also plenty of skirmish maps available, so there's enough reason for you to keep coming back to the game.
On a final note, I strongly encourage turn-based fantasy enthusiasts to give this game a try. The somewhat high learning curve and other minor issues shouldn't be a reason to miss out on it. The game's appropriate pacing and good AI should be more than enough to provide you with challenging and addictive gameplay. By the way, RTS fans should be on the lookout for Steve Fawkner's upcoming title, Warlords Battlecry III.
8.3 Very Good
Challenging AI, well-designed maps, balanced gameplay, satisfying audio and fun multiplayer;
Occasional frame-rate drops, substandard visuals and unit size problems, castle sieges are relatively simplistic.
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