Ancient Wars - Sparta
When thinking about an introduction to a games review a lot has to be considered. It's a tricky process. There are usually loads of reviews of the same game and the reader, as is his or her prerogative, can read as desire demands. So an intro is important because it can potentially draw a reader in a way that other reviews might not - you lose interest, read a paragraph or two and move on. So my predicament when faced with a game that borrows from a tested formula is substantial - it's difficult to find something interesting to say about just another RTS game.
Ancient Wars - Sparta is tactically riding the crest of popularity the film 300 conjured. Chronicling the plight of the Spartans centrally - but also the Persians and the Egyptians - although obviously their involvement in this specific conflict is especially detailed. In saying that there's plenty to wade through even though the Battle of Thermopylae is central to the game's forward thrust.
Narrative aside - the story of the Battle of Thermopylae will always provoke interest - on the surface there's a lot about Ancient Wars - Sparta to be uninspired about. You're expected to construct a settlement, houses for your villagers, farms to feed them, barracks for your military units, etc. There's nothing setting this apart from the usual paint-by-numbers approach to resource building, even the genre's heavyweights are built on the same foundations. The difference here being Sparta takes a standardised middle ground strategy toward resource management rather than the monolithic overwhelming experience seen in Supreme Commander. However, Supreme's gargantuan number of units was something of a pock on an otherwise un-blemished face.
Ancient Wars: Sparta has only three types of infantry, or so it may seem. While the number of on screen infantry doesn't compare favourably to Supreme Commander this is a much more intricate affair. Each soldier can be adjusted, equipped and reequipped to suit the situation at hand. Different weapons offer tactical advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation. Give the unit (formally a peasant that transforms into a military unit once given a weapon) a long spear and a shield and he'll have the long distance attacking and a defensive capability. Or give him two short swords and he'll go on a frenzied attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence type rampage. In reality he'll be dropped fairly quickly, but not before making an impact. The best type of unit depends on what job you need doing at that given time. Due to the number of weapons available the sheer volume of different units that can be created with different types of effectiveness is something to marvel at. The game lets you decide what works and what doesn't without a hold-your-hand tutorial. You can build a stable that produces horses, these only become cavalry once a soldier has been placed upon them, any soldier.
However despite this massively in-depth unit tinkermanship (a great niche for developer World Forge) the game offers nothing like the tactical challenge you might expect. Disappointingly, considering the potential, the conflict in Sparta falls into the vat of familiarity where the side with the most units wins. However this is where the future of RTS gaming lies, where each troop can be individually manipulated, where the way you equip your army is as important as how you use them in battle. Ancient Wars hasn't pulled this off, but it has laid a blueprint for other developers to build upon.
Otherwise, Sparta is a pretty average, no-frills affair. The game works, but on a basic level. The graphics are well below what we've grown to expect - offering an 'in close' perspective that makes it difficult to plan strategically, but does give visual detail to units. There's a waypoint system that displays objectives on the map, something Age of Empires did 10 years ago. The sound is bad and the AI is abominable in places; the repetitive nature of all NPCs drives you to distraction. You'll also lose units as they go on an illogical walkabout round the hills when a leisurely stroll down the path would suffice. Worst still as this carries through to the voice-overs that are repeated over and over with little by the way of variation.
Unit pathfinding is not as bright as you might like either, with soldiers taking ineffective routes at times. The enemies meanwhile do not think through their actions at all, nor do they use any tactics more complicated than 'Charge!' The multiplayer offers relief from the beyond-basic AI, but then with RTS games dripping out of our ears, Ancient Wars simply offers nothing more than any other game and indeed falls far short of the kind of experience offered by the big genre contenders. Although, in an attempt to rescue a small shred of dignity for the game, it must be noted that sea battles are quite pleasing to play, offering a nice change from land-based combat.
The three campaigns on offer, where you fight as one of the primary factions, are moderately well built, with a little bit of variety to discover as you progress. However, you soon fall into old routines of resource management, base building and churning out the warriors. Your army will grow with all the speed of a legless sloth, thanks to the interminable build times and the general sluggishness of the game mechanics. This is acceptable if you enjoy taking your time, spending many hours on some battles, but most RTS devotees are used to more celeritous affairs, testing their nerves and quick-wittedness.
Most importantly, ancient Sparta and Persia were not just common fighting forces. They were trained war machines, both unique and highly effective in what they did. Their leaders were cunning and clever, using mixed force armies and innovative tactical stratagems to accomplish their aims. The history books are full of astounding tales from these nations and Sparta in particular deserves an amazing game conversion after such a successful film adaptation - I'm sure many developers are out there right now, dreaming of exotic and wonderful ways in which to digitally realise the full glory of Sparta and its awe-inspiring people. Yet playing Ancient Wars, you get no such feeling; it's as bland and by-the-numbers as any other generic RTS.
Will you gain much enjoyment from Ancient Wars: Sparta? That depends on whether you play it for a simple RTS fix, or for the value of the civilisations and subject material it covers. For a brief play it serves a purpose well enough, but if you really want to get the most out of this exciting period of ancient combat then you'll want to wait until something more inspired comes along, because Ancient Wars is just a bit too spartan to give you the experience that you are hoping for.
Given the intriguing nature of the narrative and the potential for development in such a plot, it's surprising to see such a bland title. 300 offered a glimpse of what could have been created with a little imagination and it is a shame that Ancient Wars - Sparta, despite the innovative unit management system, fails to deliver overall. 50%