Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Warlords: Heroes

Warlords: Heroes is another game by Ben Olding, which essentially is a combination of two of his previous games: it takes the battle engine of Achilles (review here) and sets it in the world of Warlords: Call to Arms (not reviewed yet). The result is a game which has the satisfying hack-'n'-slash action of Achilles, but with a vastly greater depth, variety, and overall interestingness.

The game is set on the Warlords: Call to Arms map, which has nine different races, each of which controls three or four regions. Unlike Warlords: Call to Arms, though, your goal isn't to conquer the map, but rather traverse it to reach a variety of destinations. (Fortunately, thanks to evil sorcery, all regions that you cross will be hostile to you. How convenient!) There are three main plotlines (or "episodes", as the game calls them), each of which puts you in the shoes of a different character with a different goal. In order to achieve this goal, you usually have to travel to a specific target region, then, when you reach it, you gain information which tells travel somewhere else; this process repeats a few more times. However, the game gives you a great deal of latitude in how to get from one region to another. You can take the shortest path, but sometimes this brings you through some very difficult regions, so you could try to go around then, taking a longer, but hopefully easier path, or possibly retrace your steps to get more money.

When you enter a region, you have to fight your way through it pretty much like in Achilles. You have your main weapon (each main character has his own specific weapon, with its own advantages and disadvantages, which means that they play fairly differently), and also a kick, which stuns enemies and hence is not very useful in regular combat (where the emphasis is killing enemies as quickly as possibly so you don't get swarmed and rapidly killed), but can be very useful in certain situations (for instance, against bosses). The range of enemy units has been expanded widely -- rather than three different enemy types, Warlords: Heroes boasts eighteen enemy types (all, as far as I can tell, borrowed from Warlords: Call to Arms), including mounted units (which were quite the surprise when I first encountered them), and some of them do require a little more subtle tactics than "hack away as fast as possible" to defeat. Each race also has a very distinctive appearance, which adds a nice touch of variety to the game.

Another new feature is that, as you progress across the map, you gain gold (sometimes dropped from defeated enemies, and also a bonus for completing a region) which you can use for a wide variety of purposes: you can buy equipment to protect you, acquire new fighting moves (special moves which you can execute with various special key combinations), replenish lost lives (quite a reasonable investment), or even hire henchmen to help you fight. (I ended up not using this last option very much, since they tended to get killed sooner or later, and usually sooner.) If you're really having trouble with a specific region, then, you can do a few easy regions to get some more equipment or fighting moves to help you out, which is a nice option.

While each of the individual plotlines gets you to explore most of the map as you criss-cross it in search of your goal, the plotlines are constructed so that the three of them intersect at their ends. This is very clever, but it also means that each of the three episodes tends to find you covering pretty much the same ground, so you may find it gets a little bit repetitive if you play all three one after the other. After you've finished all of the first three episodes, you can play the fourth episode, in which you have to (naturally) battle and destroy an ultimate evil, which you can do with any of the first three characters.

In addition to the normal mode, the game offers a survival mode (which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like) and a gladiator mode, which you have to achieve a score of 13 on in order to get the game's impossible badge. The gladiator mode basically involves fighting a series of increasingly difficult bosses, with your health being replenished every fight. In the normal game, it's simplest to just plan to lose a life or two fighting bosses and then replace it afterwards, but the gladiator mode really requires you to hone your tactics sharply -- it's very much like classic NES boss fights, where you need to carefully observe your enemy's patterns and develop a well-executed strategy to attack his weak points. Definitely a good addition. (If you're going to get the impossible badge, you'll probably find the guide linked in the game description to be useful, though I found that the best strategy against the short sword and shield guy, who definitely gave me the most trouble, was to hit him as soon as he came in range, block immediately, and then use my retreating swipe to get out of range again.)

The graphics are simple, but (as mentioned earlier) there is a lot of care in setting up a lot of distinctive enemy looks, which is definitely a good feature of the game. And, of course, there's plenty of blood. The music is not bad, although, as is so often the case, you'll probably get tired of it somewhere around the fifth swarm of enemies you hack through. The sound effects are your standard assortment of clangs, stabbity noises, and so forth.

Overall, the basic action is not too much unchanged from Achilles -- it's simple, but satisfying, although it does get a little repetitive. Still, so much depth has been added to the game that it's considerably more enjoyable than Achilles, and is definitely worth playing. (Oh! One additional improvement from Achilles: bringing up the quick reference screen actually pauses the game, rather than just obstructing your view of the screen while your enemies disembowel you. Definitely a plus. Sorry, I just forgot to mention that earlier.)

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