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Warrior Kings: Battles Review

publisher: Empire Interactive
developer: Black Cactus
genre: Strategy

PIII-600, 128MB RAM, 500MB HDD, 8MB 3D accelerator
ESRB rating: T

release date: Sep 30, 03
» All About Warrior Kings: Battles on ActionTrip

May 26, 2003
Ranko "Arjuna" Trifkovic

Would you like to be one? A commander of a powerful army of knights, a feared ruler of the known world and the sole wielder of might-makes-right law. Just imagine all the wealth, the plump peasant girls and the perfumed ladies of the court. Would you really like to be a king? Well, you'd have to forget about McDonald's fast food, Coke, and your slave-like devotion to your favorite popular reality shows. Plus, you'll have to put up with a cadre of plotting relatives, peasant rebellions, religious heretics foretelling the downfall of your empire, your lieutenants reporting of shameful defeats of your seemingly invincible army, and a few other minor trifles like plague, famine and no running water. But, if you can look past all that and still want to try your hand at the crown, Black Cactus and Empire Interactive brought us a new RTS which presents all the upsides and downsides of being a king.

The game takes place in a world called Orbis, a very unusual world that bears a striking resemblance to the dark ages of medieval Europe. The world map looks like Europe, and the names of the provinces reflect medieval Europe, with minor differences (Angland, Rusland, etc.). But the one major difference between Orbis and Earth is that instead of having features like the Internet and indoor plumbing, Orbis features two types of magic, and a whacky rendition of quasi-renaissance technology (arbalests and cannons). An empire reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire fell apart after its last ruler had been slain, and the pagans and demons ravage the empire once more. Local lords and barons have seized all power. You assume the role of a young Anglishman with a goal to unite your island, and conquer the world. It will be up to you to decide whether you will use technology, holy science or druidic mysteries to achieve this.

The campaign concept has been beautifully implemented into WKB. Each territory you conquer brings you a certain enhancement. For instance, one conquest will let you have a higher population limit in the next mission; another will give you additional starting resources, or even unlock new units and structures. You will have to fight two to three AI-controlled enemies for each territory. The background info will vividly depict your enemies which grow increasingly bizarre as the game moves on, and explains why you have to capture that very territory. This is commendable as you're in for 22 maps on which you have to rebuild economy from scratch and hopefully mass a sufficient army to conquer the enemy forces. Depending on your choice of buildings and technology (the choice is rich, but far from overly complicated), you can follow the way of the Pagans, the Empire and the Renaissance, or choose a pagan-renaissance or empire-renaissance combination. Truly a fantastic feature opening many possibilities. When you tire of the campaign, you can play the skirmish mode, featuring many beautiful maps. The skirmish mode also includes a so-called Valhalla mod in which you simply select your initial army (no in-game structure building), and set off to conquer strategic locations on the map. In addition, the game features a multiplayer mode, but in all honesty, RTS multiplayer has been done better - this game will never be well known for this facet of its gameplay.

Good ideas are usually thwarted by poor implementation. And Warrior Kings: Battles is no exception to this trap. First, I had the impression that the code hadn't been really optimized; the game is at times ridiculously slow (it loads for ages and can act quite jerky at times, regardless of the number of units on-screen). The map is in 3D, but for some unknown reason, it is impossible to rotate the extremely inept camera, which only makes you choose between a close-up shot with low visibility and a far-away camera position with senselessly small units. I found the latter choice a better solution. The terrain looks good, but the camera seems to hit into woods and mountains, i.e. it slows down whenever a forest or a mountain appear on screen. The maps are gloomy, and the fog of war is not really fog, but rather bleak darkness. Now, just imagine all this with a mainly dark-green terrain and you will realize how hard it was to try and seek out the dark-blue units on screen. The unit AI is buggy. The game features a formation system with four formations. The units can keep the formation whilst marching but they get completely lost once the fighting starts. The way to add new units to a formation is totally idiotic, you first have to disband the formation, reselect all units and create the formation. This wouldn't be much of a problem were your soldiers not all small blue and way too similar to each other. OK, I can see the difference between unit types with the close-up camera, but then I simply cannot select all of the units I need. If you have the patience to pause the game, micro-manage your units and continue the game, you might have a chance to win... but even then you would have to face some problems. Namely, the cavalry will always blindly rush towards the enemy, and tends to get confused when it has two or more obvious targets in front. The archers tend to sit around like sitting ducks and only retreat when at least half of them gets slaughtered. The machines of war will sometimes ignore your orders altogether. There's one more big flaw: the mini-map is a bit too mini, and you can see absolutely nothing on it, not to mention that it sometimes has a different orientation than the main map. This means that the north border on the main screen doesn't always have to be on the north side of the mini-map, which is something you really have to get used to. Villager management is, on the other hand, quite good. The music doesn't seem to be professionally done and the same goes for the voice-overs. The villagers have the best lines.

As for base development and management, everything offered here is as good as it can get. There are structures that can be freely built on terrain and structures that are only build within your estate, which slowly grow from a mansion to a fort and later even a castle and palace. The buildings will unlock new units and structures.

The game features both spells, prayers and divine interventions, which improves the overall impression of the game. The priests and wizards can perform rituals and pray for nasty things to happen to your enemies; anything from deadly earthquakes and lightning to wrath of god and harsh winters that freeze the enemy's hard-working peasants. These holy and demonic forces influence your whole strategy. The pagans can summon Succubae which can bedazzle your peasants. These are fought by the inquisitors keen on making barbecues out of local heretics. Wickerman is a giant human-shaped construction filled with peasants which are sacrificed in order to summon Abadona, an ultra-unit which levels anything in its path. I somehow got the impression that the programmers liked the pagans best as they made them not only a couple of cute female units (Huntress, Warrioress, Succubus) and an ultra unit which is really worth the effort, unlike the overly slow and imprecise renaissance rocket fort.

Troop versatility is one of the main qualities of this game as it does feature some highly innovative units besides the standard infantry, cavalry and archers. For instance, you can hire mercenaries, which won't count into your food supply, but you have to pay good gold for their services, and they are also capable of setting buildings on fire. The barbarians can loot, which basically means that you receive some resources from every slaughtered enemy peasant. There's also ships, war elephants, demons, archangels, and other miraculous entities; all together - 74 spells/skills for 62 different units. Go get 'em soldier (or Your Highness rather - Ed)!


7.4   Good

A good campaign system, ever-changing technology, units;

Poor army control (AI), poor graphics.



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