Warlords IV: Heroes of Etheria Review

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Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Infinite Interactive


Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 450 GHz, 128 MB RAM, 32 MB 3D video card, 1.0 GB HD space, 8x CD-ROM

Conquer Etheria or just battle friends in this turn-based strategy series for the PC. This installment in the series adds a new system of tactical combat and sends players on a massive campaign to save the land of Etheria by conquering it, province by province.

Rating:
Kyle Ackerman


The Warlords franchise is a long-running series of fantasy-themed turn-based strategy games that have been entertaining gamers since nearly the advent of computer gaming. The franchise long ago added heroes (strong units who could search ruins and equip powerful items) to the turn-based strategy formula, and gave us fond memories of dispatching hordes of weak, flying bat units to explore the map and dispel the obscuring fog of war. Unfortunately, for a franchise that so influenced turn-based strategy gaming, the latest installment has fallen behind the times.

There is still a lot of fun to be had in Warlords IV: Heroes of Etheria. The latest game in the series simply hasn't advanced much past previous installments. Those few innovations are also offset by some significant problems. Fundamentally, Warlords IV is the same game as earlier incarnations of Warlords. You play on an overland, two-dimensional map and move stacks of units representing your armies to control cites (which produce more units) until you can sack or occupy your enemies' capitals. To supplement the 2D graphics, there are some fancy effects that shimmer around your cities and link your cities by arcs of light to outlying structures. These effects are window dressing, but combat has seen a fundamental change.

Everyone Line Up for Battle!


Rather than just watching your stack of units blast it out with an enemy stack according to the computer's priorities, you choose the order in which units face-off, one at a time. Battle takes you to a screen in which your forces can be seen swinging or shooting at enemies, and in which you control the time and unit that enters battle next. Each unit, once committed to battle, remains in the fray until it dies or the opposing force is eliminated. Archers can occasionally lob a shot in to give your side an advantage, and defensive towers will take a good shot at every besieging unit as it enters combat. The biggest advantage of defending a city is that ordinary armies can contain only eight units. A city can have an eight unit mobile force as well as an eight unit defensive garrison. That total of sixteen units working together (to an attacking eight) can allow cities to hold on against massive forces, especially if the defenders have a few experienced archers. Siege weapons can be used to take down the defensive towers and better even the odds.

Morale also plays a significant role. Your warlord and certain structures can improve morale, and having high morale can mean extra attacks in combat. In a situation where soldiers and monsters take turns swapping blows, an extra shot can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Morale adds an element of strategy to army construction. While mixing units of different races may produce a more balanced force, soldiers like to be with their own type, and maintaining a force from a single empire can result in troops with higher morale. There are even magic spells. Mana supplies (required to cast spells) are limited, and powerful spells take a long time to learn (they must be relearned in each scenario), but they can tip an otherwise delicate balance if used appropriately. Any given warlord will only have access to a few spells, and proper use of that magic is only important at the higher difficulty levels.

They'll Be Coming Round the Mountains


In many ways, Warlords IV feels like a game that just needed more time in testing. I encountered substantial sound and graphics issues that could not be fixed with the latest drivers, the patch released at launch or significant tinkering. Units speak as they enter battle, and there is a soundtrack, but both stuttered significantly, making it necessary to turn off the sound. At the same time, the outside edge of the map often showed strange artifacts whenever the map scrolled. Beyond technical issues of sound and display, the artificial intelligence (AI) is best described as quirky at the highest levels, and poor at intermediate levels. Computer opponents will simply leave cities without a garrison at intermediate levels (such as Prince). That means enemy cities can be easier to take than neutral cities, as a wandering air unit can easily pick up many new cities to serve as advance bases for your forces.

There are also facets of the game that may be flaws or just poor design decisions. When choosing long paths, the computer pathfinding will never go through cities, despite the fact that cities are usually part of the shortest route. In fact, if a city is blocking a mountain pass, a unit may wander the entire edge of the map to avoid going through that city (even if you control it). Unlike similar games, the movement allocation is tracked by group and not by individual units. That means that when two groups merge, they are assigned the lowest remaining number of movement points. So, combine a unit that has just started the turn and a unit that has used it's allocated movement points and you'll have a group that can't move any more (and the fresh units won't be able to leave). A strange choice was the decision to delete all save games associated with a Wwrlord when you complete a scenario. This is particularly annoying if you are just learning the game and want to explore how the game responds to certain situations. Manipulating save games to artificially increase difficulty is never a good design choice. Let players control their own fates.

Conquer Etheria in Thirty-Two Easy Steps


If you can get past the issues in Warlords IV, the campaign is where you will spend most of your single-player time. The campaign mode ties a long string of scenarios together in the loose framework of a story that spans all thirty-two provinces of Etheria. To begin the campaign, you'll choose a warlord to take control of your forces in every province, and you'll assign starting skills and a favored culture to ally with (so you can play with your preferred minions, be they Elves, Dragons or the Empire). Each foe that you defeat in a scenario will give your warlord more experience that can be used to purchase more skills or structures that can improve the efficacy of your troops and cities.

Only a fraction of the provinces in Etheria must be conquered to further the plot, but you'll want to conquer extra provinces to better prepare you and your forces for future battles. Not only will the additional experience for your warlord help in future battles, but conquering additional regions can gain you valuable bonuses such as the ability to start a scenario with a choice of races or with a useful ally. You can also bring units with you from scenario to scenario as your retinue. You will quickly fill these slots with powerful, favored heroes, equipped with only the best magic items looted from ruins and fallen foes. As the heroes in your retinue gain experience, you will find them critical in future battles for their skills, such as Fear (which weakens enemies) and Leadership (which strengthens your forces). You'll have to be careful, though. Your retinue can take a few turns to show up in a new province.

There is no diplomacy between you and computer warlords, so the campaign is just a long string of battles, but the ability to develop your warlord and your retinue build an attachment to certain units that make later scenarios more fun. As for the story itself, it is mostly told with cut scenes (pictures and text with mediocre voice-overs) between scenarios, and occasional text messages within scenarios. There are, however, epic quests that can be acquired once you have a city linked to a shrine. Each map has a single epic quest available to everyone, and such quests involve completing four tasks at previously hidden ruins. Quests yield worthwhile rewards, far better than the usual rewards for exploring ruins.

Plenty of Maps, If you Like Etheria


As in all decent turn-based strategy games, you can play for many hours on a single map, and the greatest strength of Warlords IV (beyond nostalgia for earlier Warlords) is the diversity of scenarios for both the campaign and skirmish play. There are plenty of maps, and the scenario editor allows you to create new scenarios or edit existing ones to your satisfaction. Much of the replayability for Warlords IV comes from the vast number of play combinations that are created by choosing different magical schools or choosing a different one of the ten available cultures.

Some technical issues aside, Warlords IV is an enjoyable game. It just hasn't come as far as competitors such as Age of Wonders II. Warlords IV is truly best against human players, be it on a Local Area Network (LAN) or over the internet through Ubi.com. That way, you'll get to see the depth of the cultures and magical styles come to full, strategic life.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on November 13, 2003 11:18 AM.

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