Thursday, January 26, 2006

Legion Arena Review

Legion Arena, developed by Slitherine Software and published by Strategy First.
The Good: It’s just battles, streamlined troop management between battles, multiplayer, clear indication of losses, restricted order quantity, kinda fun
The Not So Good: It’s just battles, repetitious, linear campaigns
What say you? A combat-only version of Rome: Total War: 6/8

They say, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and those people died because of multiple stab wounds. If strategy games are any indication, war is the ultimate mediator in a disagreement, and it’s a lot more fun to order troops around then come up with historical peace accords. Back in the day (you know, 100 BC), force was the primary method of gaining new territory, and Legion Arena covers this time period, featuring numerous battles covering historical events as Rome tried to take over the known world. Legion Arena is a combat-heavy strategy game where you develop an army and send it off to distant lands, meet interesting people, and kill them.

Legion Arena looks better than you’d think, holding its own both from afar and up close to the action. The models used in the game are just a notch below those seen in Rome: Total War (which was released over a year ago), and the environments are varied enough to make for a believable and realistic theatre of action. Legion Arena definitely conveys the chaos that was prevalent in this style of combat. The game does a good job of clearly displaying how well the battle is going, counting off damage using color-coded numbers that float above the action: seeing a lot of red numbers is a bad thing. This is greatly appreciated as an unrealistic but effective way of surveying the landscape for desperate troops in need of support. Far too often you need to select each group to see how they are doing, which is pretty difficult if all the troops are in one big group of sweaty men. The sound is appropriate for the action, with cries and battle yells accompanying the slashing of weapons and trampling of horses. I was slightly impressed with the quality of graphics and sound in Legion Arena, given the fact that it’s a lower budget game without the deep pockets of the evil empire.

Legion Arena features a tutorial campaign featuring the Latins, and two main campaigns featuring Rome and the Celts. There is also multiplayer over LAN and the Internet using Gamespy, which is a nice addition. The main game features two phases: upgrading your armies and having them fight. In the Army Camp, you use your denari and fame earned by winning battles to heal damaged troops and upgrade your equipment. You can also promote troops that gained experience in the last battle. There are a lot of skills that can be learned by your veteran forces, which all provide general bonuses (such as increased attack ratings) or against a specific foe (like cavalry). You can also spend your denari and fame on new recruits; there are a lot of different troops you can call up, including skirmishers, light and heavy infantry, archers, light and heavy cavalry, elephants, and generals. Each of these troops are best against a specific foe, but there isn’t severe countering like in other games where wrongly matched troops will be instantly decimated.

Speaking of instantly decimating enemy troops, after you have tailored your forces, they meet on the battlefield. First, you need to deploy your troops in (surprise!) deployment mode. You need to place your troops, keeping in mind the terrain. Then, you issue orders and formations. This is probably the most important part of the game, since once the battle begins, you are slightly limited in how many orders you can make. Orders include advance, charge, short hold, long hold, envelop, outflank, seek enemy, and hold fire. You can also issue waypoints to further customize the movement of your armies. Formations include balanced, offensive, defensive, wedge, square, and disciplined (advanced, more powerful) versions. There are enough options in orders and formations to satisfy any keyboard general. Once the battle begins, your armies keep fighting until their morale gets too low, and then they run like the wimps they are. You can issue orders during the battle, but there are some restrictions. Using a realistic cue, your orders are delivered by messengers, which imposes a delay between issuing an order and it being carried out. Also, you are limited in the number of orders you can give; each order you give costs command points that regenerate over time, so you must issue orders wisely. I really like this method, which rewards overall tactics and giving quality orders instead of clicking the mouse. The direct orders are either movement to a specific point or attacking a specific enemy, although troops will automatically engage enemies that move close to them. You can also give general orders to the entire army, such as retreat or a signal to charge. Your troops can also break-off and reassemble, although this can result in some severe losses for your side. Legion Arena is not overly complex but has enough options to make the game quite enjoyable.

Legion Arena takes all of the extra fat attached to strategy games and leaves us with a lean, mean, combat machine. Legion Arena has some good features, such as upgrading troops, numerous initial orders and formations, and restrictive orders during combat. You can also destroy complete strangers using Gamespy multiplayer. Some strategy gamers who are used to a more rounded approach with their games, featuring both battles and an overall strategic display they can control, may be disappointed by the limited scope of Legion Arena. However, the aspects the game does have are pretty fun, easy to learn, and quite enjoyable in the long run. It is slightly repetitious in nature, but the enemies you face are varied and there are some role-playing elements as you raise your army from new recruits to a sophisticated killing machine. Legion Arena should appeal to all fans of strategy games, but especially those beginners who want something a little bit simpler to cut their teeth on.