Sunday, March 25, 2007

Chariots of War Review

Chariots of War, developed by Slitherine Strategies and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Unique setting, lots of nations to choose from, large numbers of resources and units, resource usage is clearly indicated
The Not So Good: Each army must be explicitly instructed to move each turn even if a path has been set, outdated graphics, restricted strategic options
What say you? A Civilzation-like strategy game that’s sufficiently enjoyable but limited in strategy: 5/8

Although most periods of human history have been covered in strategy games, the early Middle East is relatively untouched, except for the occasional Egyptian-themed city builder. There have been games that have included this era (most notably Civilzation IV and Rise of Nations), but the Fertile Crescent has been glossed over as part of a history, instead of being the focus. Chariots of War hopes to fill this void, covering the battles of tribal nations thousands of years ago. This is actually a re-release of the original game published back in 2003 by the developers of Legion Arena under a new publisher. But, I suspect there are a number of people who didn’t play (or never even heard of) Chariots of War when it was released, so we’ll take a new look at this old game.

Not surprisingly, the graphics and sound Chariots of War are very archaic; they were slightly outdated when the game was released in 2003, let alone in 2007. Well, actually, the game map looks pretty good: pleasing art for the terrain and fairly detailed units. It may not have the “wow” factor of more modern 3-D games, but the map holds up well. The battles are not that exciting: they are on par with the graphics of Shogun: Total War, and they obviously cannot compete with more recent games. Still, there is a fair amount of simulated chaos associated with the battles, and as long as you’re not looking for a graphical feast, you’ll be fine. The one thing Chariots of War has going for it is the low system requirements, so that’s something. The sound is a generally forgettable collection of background music and battle effects. I was not expecting much in the graphics and sound departments, since the game is four years old, but there are some bright spots to be had among the generally old-fashioned effects.

Chariots of War lets you take the helm of one of about fifty nations in the ancient Middle East. The game offers a tutorial that does a good job relaying the basics of the game. You can choose to play in the grand campaign that features the entire region in one scenario, or from a suite of smaller offerings covering areas such as Egypt, Levant, or Anatolia. Each of the game’s countries is divided into ten ethnic groups, which determines special units. Chariots of War has a decidedly military focus: you will construct buildings to produce resources and troops, and then order the troops around to attack your neighbors. All of the nations are at war with all others at all times: there are no peace treaties to speak of. This is meant to simulate the tumultuous times of the era; this limits the game’s victory conditions, however, as you must essentially exterminate all of your opposition in order to win. Those looking for numerous approaches to victory, like in Galactic Civilizations II, will be disappointed at the narrow scope of the game.

Chariots of War does feature a large number of different resources, required to build structures, feed your population, conduct trade, or construct weapons. Your income rate is clearly displayed at the bottom of the screen, so it’s never a mystery which resource you need. All of these resources are collected by constructing buildings in your cities and assigning workers to those buildings. It’s a very straightforward approach to economics that most everyone will easily understand. You can also trade for goods with other nations through a central market; normally, you’ll have a surplus of resources provided by your buildings, so trade is a good way of filling in your economic gaps. Your city size determines how many buildings you can construct; in addition to providing resources, buildings unlock better troops and increase peasantry happiness. Again, constructing buildings and recruiting troops is very straightforward. Although you are at war with every other nation, you can send diplomats to opposing countries to make them less likely to attack and receive information about their military and economic strengths.

Chariots of War has a good selection of units: peasants, auxilia, skirmishers, swordsmen, spearmen, archers, horse archers, heavy cavalry, camels, and (not surprisingly) chariots. This variety of units allows you to use different strategies during the automated battles. Units stationed in the same city are automatically grouped, and you can give them basic movement orders. However, armies must be told to continue along their path every single turn; this becomes highly annoying, especially when you have a lot of troops scattered over a large area. Once your troops encounter an enemy army or city, it’s time for a battle. Chariots of War strikes a balance between the tactical battles of Medieval II: Total War and the completely automated battles of Europa Universalis III and Civilization IV. You get to place your units and give them general orders before the battle begins, but after that they are on their own. You can give advance, hold, or envelop orders and give them formations like wedge, column, and checkerboard. Your troops will generally stay in formation until the chaos of war starts, and the results are believable, rewarding players who use successful counters to the opposing force. Not having direct control over your army might sound like a disadvantage, but the battles really just play out the same way. There’s no noticeable difference between the battles here and in Medieval II: Total War in terms of viable strategies and their successful execution due to decent tactical AI.

Although Chariots of War never really shows it age, the scope of the gameplay does feel outdated. Chariots of War will appeal more to beginning players, as the straightforward approach of the game makes playing very simple. However, the military-only focus of the game really hinders the title, as everything you do in the game is geared towards making a gigantic army, instead of focusing on research, economics, or diplomacy like in other games. Chariots of War lacks the depth of Europa Universalis III, the wide appeal of Civilization IV, and the multiple victory conditions of Galactic Civilizations II, so the appeal of this four-year-old game is very narrow, especially when you see how many quality grand strategy and 4X games have been published recently. Chariots of War is fun to play for a while, but it lacks the depth and longevity of competing titles.