Summary: Liquid Entertainment and Ubisoft score big with their Asian/fantasy themed RTS, Battle Realms. BR features some creative twists on the standard RTS build systems and combat systems. Read the review and find out why else we liked Battle Realms.
Publisher: Ubi Soft
Official Battle Realms Website: http://battlerealms.ubi.com/
Battle Realms has been on the radar for a while now, particularly since its closed door previews at E3 2000. You’ve probably heard a lot of writers citing similarities between Battle Realms and Warcraft 3. Guess what: A) Battle Realms came out during our lifetime, and B)You can’t compare two games if one hasn’t even come out yet. Liquid is smart for getting Battle Realms out way before War3 too – they may actually give Blizzard a run for their money. What is Battle Realms? In a nutshell, Battle Realms is an RTS game, light on the economy and heavy on the combat. It’s a mix of Ground Control with Warcraft – small squad battles with a fantasy setting.
Macromanagement vs. Micromanagement… again
Combat in Battle realms is on a scale smaller than what you’re used to with most RTS games. This is accomplished by having no “cannon fodder” units. Every unit in the game has a place in battle, a unit it can counter, or a special ability that you can’t live without. Often you’ll find that the most basic unit is the most crucial in a battle. I like this because I never understood the need for fodder units – if no one’s going to use them, then why put them in the game? Units also last a while (unless they’re hit by the proper counter-attack). With healing abilities, resurrection, and mutation abilities, battles are complicated and long.
I don’t like the fact that economy management is less important than battles since it makes the game less rounded, but the deep combat system in Battle Realms makes up for it. I like that you need to plan ahead for your battles by assembling squads of specific units. But if your opponent chose the right counter units, you need to think on your feet to come out on top. You can create so many different types of squads with so many different strategies that you could literally write books on the different ways to attack and defend. Battle Realms provides a great deal of depth in terms of tactical decision making.
400 MHz CPU
16MB 3D card
600MB Hard Disk Space
1 GHz CPU
32MB 3D Card
512 MB RAM
Top to bottom, I like the graphics in Battle Realms. Everything is 3D, but the camera has a limited range of motion, closer to a standard three-quarters view RTS game rather than a completely free camera (like Ground Control). The interface is clean, and quite similar to Starcraft’s (plagiarism isn’t always a bad thing). I do wish that you could zoom out more than the game lets you, since you would be able to see more of the battle and perhaps control it better. Liquid probably decided against that because you’d lose a lot of the unit detail doing this, and it would also cause your computer to chug with all the polygons on the screen.
The best aspect of Battle Realms' graphics is the artistic style. The maps have a lot of detail – you can see rocks strewn about on river banks and the trees rustle as birds fly out of them. The units and heroes have a Final Fantasy VII style anime look – eight foot swords that defy physics and disproportionate bodies. Each clan has a distinct style as well, so it’s easy to tell which units belong to which clans. There isn’t a lot of detail in the textures; they had to save room because there are a lot of moving objects on the screen at any given time. But there is a lot of detail in the units when you combine the models, textures, and animations. This is one game where the concept sketches are pretty damn close to the final product – and both kick ass.
The amount and quality of the unit animations is also notable. Units stand at attention when you select them, they have several idle animations, and they also have a handful of attack animations. All of these animations give the impression that your units have character and life, rather than just a bunch of pixels on a screen. For example, Samurais kneel and prey periodically while idle. They also commit suicide when they are defeated in battle, rather than being struck down by an enemy (don’t worry; they only do this when their health runs out). I enjoyed watching Kenji practice move with his sword, slashing to and fro in a routine. I caught myself forgetting about the mission and watching my units goof off several times.
Battle Realms features an excellent orchestral soundtrack, so none of the overdone techno you see a lot of in games lately. It also fits the style of the clan you’re playing. If you’re the Dragon clan, you’ll hear a pseudo-Japanese soundtrack. If you’re the Lotus it’s creepy, dark, and a perfect fit with the clan. The music becomes more exciting when battles start, but it still keeps to the theme of the clan you’re playing. And the basic question asked about a game soundtrack: Does it ever get annoying? Answer: In Battle Realms, no.
Battle Realms handles resources a lot differently that other RTS games. Your economy and army are based on Peasants. As Peasants are given to you, you can send them to collect resources, or send them to training facilities to become soldiers. That means you can’t “buy” a military unit like most RTS games, you need to convert one of your peons to get one. There’s also a very low cap on the number of units you’re allowed to have in comparison to other RTS games. Most single player missions are limited to 30 units, and this is also the default on multiplayer games. The rate of peasant growth is out of your hands too – when you have little they generate quickly, but if you have more than two-thirds of your population limit they generate very slowly. Building more peasant huts may increase the growth rate, but it didn’t feel like it to me.
What the hell does all this mean? It means that your “army” is small; about 15 units on average. If you try to make a bigger one, you’ll be sitting around a long time. You also need to be careful with how many peasants you have gathering resources. Too many and you can’t have an army, too few and you won’t be able to build one.
The AI in Battle Realms is almost too good. In some older RTS games units had a problem where if one unit in a group was being attacked, the others wouldn’t help him. In Battle Realms the opposite happens – if a unit is being attacked all of the units around him will help. Sounds good, but there’s a catch. Your units will actually chase after any unit that attacked them, sometimes right into traps. It’s actually difficult to hold your troops back from running across the map to settle a score. There are commands to stop your units from doing this, but it’s still hard to keep them in one place. I also experienced an odd thing where if you ordered melee units to attack a specific target, they would just stand there after the target was killed – even if a battle was raging around them. This is probably just a bug, but the running after enemies doesn’t look like one.
Building units in Battle Realms is very different than other RTS games. You build training structures that specialize in certain aspects of combat, melee for example. If you send a peasant into a training facility, he’ll learn that skill – no big whoop. Battle Realms’ hook is that you can send units to multiple training facilities. Send a peasant to the melee and ranged facilities and he’ll become a third unit that can do both. Send him to three types and he’ll become yet another unit. Some high-level units require more work – the Lotus Master Warlock requires two Warlocks (which take three training sessions already) to combine in a fourth building. It’s actually not complicated, and works well in the game. I like it because it’s something new, and you can build high level units fairly early in the game since the three basic training facilities are available to build from the start.
Like other RTS games, Techniques in Battle Realms allow you to upgrade a basic feature of a unit (more health, stronger attacks, etc.). Most units can have multiple techniques. You can also equip units with “Battle Gear” – basically a spell the unit can cast as a special ability. Some clans require units to go into a building to gain Battle Gear, others require a special unit to “bless” other units with Battle Gear. All together, the Battle Gear system adds to the micromanagement aspect of BR’s gameplay. Since every unit can get one or two types Battle Gears, every unit can cast a spell in combat. This is very different from the spellcasting-only units in Starcraft. This system can have your head spinning trying to keep up with it, but after a lot of practice it grew on me. I liked that every unit was important in the game, and that each unit is very unique with Battle Gear.
Another addition to the RTS world in Battle Realms is the Yin-Yang system. As your units fight and kill enemies, you can gain Yin-Yang points. You need these points to research techniques and summon Heroes. This is good for several reasons. First, there’s a huge incentive to fight. You can’t “turtle” inside your base; you have to go out and fight or your opponents will out tech you. You’re also rewarded for fighting more, since you can do more research with more points. If you’re losing battles, you’re still gaining Yin-Yang points so you can keep up with your opponents. A great idea on Liquid’s part.
SIDEBAR: Leave your horses in the stable until you’re ready to embark. If you’re attacked while some of your troops are on horses, you may loose a few horses. You can’t make new horses, but you can always make new soldiers.
Short but sweet
The single player campaign in Battle Realms is slightly shorter compared to RTS games like Starcraft and Emperor: Battle for Dune. While there are four races in Battle Realms, only two of them have a single player campaign (Starcraft and Emperor have campaigns for each race). The campaign follows Kenji, the Dragon Clan’s leader through his trials reclaiming Serpentholm. The first mission lets you choose which clan to use during the campaign, either the Dragon clan or its evil twin the Serpent clan. No matter which clan you choose the campaign is basically the same (you win), but the clans are different enough that it’s worth playing through both ways. Some of the missions branch (adding replayability) but they end up with the same result. I wish that Liquid added campaigns with the Wolf and Lotus clans as they both have interesting units and stories. Hopefully, Liquid will be making an expansion pack with single player campaigns featuring them soon.
The rest of the single player campaign is well done. Storytelling is the biggest hurdle most games don’t overcome, but Battle Realms does it well. The heroes have character, the story progresses after every mission, there are plot twists, and they’re all cleanly executed. The maps are laid out with a single player game in mind, complete with cut-scenes and triggered events. High-level units are reserved for the later missions, and some of their introductions tie into the storyline. For all you hardcore multiplayer RTS fans, there is such a thing as a good single player RTS.
The mechanics of Battle Realms’ multiplayer matchmaking is pretty standard. Join a lobby, find a game, and play. Right now it’s handled through a built-in Gamespy, which seems to have some issues finding open games. I hope they patch it soon, because there are more people playing BR than the multiplayer menus show.
A good multiplayer game doesn’t feel too long. The low number of units and effectiveness of small hit-and-run tactics keeps the game going quickly. The peasant generation rate (default) is slow, but it encourages you to fight with smaller armies. I didn’t experience any overly abusive tactics (although some people favored a few), so either people need to try harder or the four races are pretty balanced.
The one flaw with multiplayer isn’t a fault of Liquid, or even the game. Dealing with dumbasses online is a problem with every online multiplayer game. You’ll find newbie haters, spammers, and all sorts of twits playing BR online, so be prepared. Not everyone is like that; in fact there are plenty of people willing to help you out.
SIDEBAR: The Geisha AI isn’t so hot – they won’t heal everything in their sight like Starcraft Medics. One way to keep your units alive in battle is to send your forces to attack, select your Geishas, and constantly heal your units. With a squad of 3-4 Geishas it should be easier to keep your units alive.
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