Today I’d like to talk about a fairly obscure RTS game series called, Warlords Battlecry. Based off the turn based strategy series Warlords, Warlords Battlecry was released in 2000 by Strategic Studies Group as an attempt to spin the series off into the RTS genre. This shift of taking the series from a more traditional turn based strategy game with heavy RPG elements into an RTS series yielded some interesting results, especially since we’d see a similar blending of gameplay elements later in competitor Blizzard’s 2002 title: Warcraft III. 2 years prior to Blizzard popularizing the idea of Hero units in RTS games, something that would help give rise to Defense of the Ancients and the now popularized MOBA genre, Warlords Battlecry was already having you enter the fray with hero units that could level and learn new spells to aid their army. I remember a demo sold me on the original Warlords Battlecry and I ended up following the series all the way up to its final entry, Warlords Battlecry 3 in 2004. Even now I still go back and play that final entry thanks to Good Ol’ Games (http://www.gog.com) and think a nice public retrospective could do the game some good.
Now, normally this would be where I’d go into the plot a bit, but since the Warlords Battlecry series was a spinoff from an older fantasy series, it came with quite a bit of story baggage. Now, that isn’t to say that the series doesn’t do a good job of immersing you into its past narrative quite a bit. It’s simply that there is lots of ground to cover. Suffice to say, Warlords Battlecry uses its lore nicely and allows for a great number of playable races. More so than any other RTS I can think of to be honest.
That may sound scary to some folks, but the number of playable races is actually something I’ve really enjoyed about the series. For how much of a balance nightmare it must be to properly balance that many races, each race tends to still feel relatively unique in what its strengths and weaknesses are. By the series end, they had the following races: Human Knights, Human Imperials, Wood Elves, High Elves, Dark Elves, Undead, Orcs, Minotaurs, Barbarians, Dwarves, Dark Dwarves, Lizardmen, Insectoids, Daemons, Diseased Cultists, and the Fey. Whew, that’s quite a mouthful. I can see how this may seem scary and overwhelming to new players, but each race thankfully has its own gimmick that helps centralize their theme quite nicely. For example, while all 3 elf races have a unique centralized gatherer mechanic, all 3 of them focus on different types of units. Dark elves focus on more critical hit / poison assassin type characters, wood elves focus more on ranged units and guerilla tactics, and High Elves strike a balance between those two by having a fairly strong cavalry. Meanwhile both Dwarves build fairly defensively strong buildings and slow units, but normal Dwarves focus humanoid armies while Dark Dwarves specialize almost entirely in siege weapons and explosives. Undead have a unique unit upgrade system where almost all units start as skeletons, Daemons have high cost units that eventually in late game allow for their units to summon other units for only the cost of magic, Insectoids focus on resource denial; the list goes on and on. No two races play completely the same and I love it!
Now, I can see some of you RTS fans out there raise an eyebrow there at race specialization. While the rock/paper/scissors approach to balancing can be a dangerous game, Warlords Battlecry has two things going for it. First, no race really hard counters another with their specializations. There are some soft counters, such as Dark Dwarves and their area-of-effect units putting the pain on the Fey who specialize extremely heavily in mass amounts of cheap but weak units. But even in these cases, the game still tries and allows for armies to have about one or two units and/or upgrades that help dampen this weakness. Second, Hero units and their entourage really help customize and cover for certain armies’ weak spots.
While the standard “select a race and build armies to conquer the land” gameplay is still the main focus of the game, it goes extremely in depth to ensure that Hero units are a strong secondary focus in the game. When playing the series, you make Hero units of any race to lead your armies into battle and choose a class for them. By Warlords Battlecry 3, there were about 28 classes to choose from and, truth be told, they cover lots of ground. You have a merchant class to help provide your army with income buffs, an assassin class that has an extremely small but present chance to instant kill enemy units and heroes, and even a necromancer class who can summon units from the Undead army to serve as free labor and warriors. In addition to their class, the race and basic general abilities of Hero units are also important. While any race of Hero can lead any army, Heroes and of the same race tend to have a morale bonus for being in combat together that allow units to be slightly tougher in combat. A Hero’s race also allows them a unit set of skills equal to that of their race. One example that comes to mind is that while being a Runemaster class allows Heroes to learn Rune magic, all Dwarves as a race also have the ability to put points into Rune magic, thus learning the same spells with the only penalty being that they may fail at casting the spells more often. As you may be able to tell, talk of points is also my way of letting you know that yes, there is a persistent leveling mechanic for your Heroes. For completing battles, quests, and just generally killing units, Heroes can slowly level up and grow stronger as you continue to play the game. Ugh, this isn’t even beginning to scratch the surface about how you can gather equipment for your Hero to increase their stats, how individual army units level up and may join you at the end of battle as unique named units that can join you in future battles, or the story campaigns.
Which, ultimately, because of all of the above reasons; I can’t give this game a Game Recommendation article. Personally, I love this series, but as you can see, it has a lot of things going for it. That’s on top of already being a standard RTS which sometimes scares away people due to too much micro and macro managing. Still, Warlords Battlecry experiments a lot and successfully so in what it is trying to do. It’s crammed full of fun things that make incremental differences, allowing you to either ignore them or embrace them and not suffer too much for your play style. I’m a sucker for games that get messy and try new things and I adore the titles out there that somehow pull it off. If you’re like me, pick it up. Even if it isn’t your cup of tea, you might learn a thing or two from it.