Monday, September 17, 2007

Gladiator Trials II Review

Gladiator Trials II, developed and published by Tagged Software.
The Good: Straightforward gameplay, large gladiator matches can be fun, level editor
The Not So Good: Very elementary city building and resource management, small battles are uninteresting, light on features, abbreviated tutorials
What say you? This city building/turn based strategy hybrid is a bit too simple: 5/8

About eight years ago, there was a role that elevated Russell Crowe to superstardom. A grizzled action movie where men were men, fighting for their livelihoods during the darkest of times. That movie was, of course, Mystery, Alaska. Oh, and there was that movie about gladiators (I forget what it was called). Speaking of gladiators, wouldn’t a game surrounding the gritty underworld of muscular combat be fun? That’s the premise of Gladiator Trials II, a combination of a city builder and a turn-based strategy game. Encompassing the development and support of your fighters in addition to the matches themselves, Gladiator Trials II hopes to successfully combine two genres in a smooth, satisfying experience.

The graphics of Gladiator Trials II are very basic, which is to be expected considering the small roots of the independent developer. The city building portion of the game is played from an isometric perspective, and the game features basic textures, static buildings, and sparse animations. These might have been cutting-edge graphics fifteen years ago, but now the game looks very outdated. The turn-based mode is also devoid of much elegance: even the arena battles are very boring to look at. The game is played from a fixed 800 by 600 resolution, which makes navigating around each map a chore (and the lack of a mini-map doesn’t help things). The sound is along the same lines: appropriate background music coupled with generic sound effects. I wasn’t expecting Gladiator Trials II to be a spectacular game in terms of its presentation, and it certainly reached my low expectations. Of course, if the gameplay is good, who cares about the graphics, right?

In Gladiator Trials II, you train and fight a gaggle (I think that’s the right term) of gladiators. This takes place in the campaign, which gives you small goals to reach before unlocking more advanced buildings and weapons. There is a two-mission tutorial in the game that teaches the basics, but it is too short and not comprehensive enough. Gladiator Trials II does come with a level editor so that you can create your own campaigns: a nice feature. There isn’t any multiplayer action to be had, but really it would be the same as the single player campaign and it’s frankly not worth the effort.

The first phase of Gladiator Trials II has you constructing your headquarters of domination. First, you will need to purchase the few plots of available land on the map. Then, you pick a building to construct and then assign a peasant or gladiator to use that building. Camps are used to recruit new people, armorsmiths make armor, markets are used for trade, weaponsmiths make weapons, wells provide water, bakeries provide food, inns are where peasants eat and drink, and gladiators can use the training yards, libraries, and archery ranges to increase strength, intelligence, and dexterity. Since you are limited to just a few structures, you need to be almost perfect in your planning. The city building phase of the game is very straightforward and almost trivial, if it weren’t so hard difficult to make money. You are required to engage in constant combat and trade in order to just break even. Problem is, the arena matches grow in difficulty and it’s very difficult to keep up with the pace, since buildings are expensive and wages for those people who maintain the buildings are quite high. Only in this sense is the city building mode of Gladiator Trials II challenging, as the rest is underdeveloped and limited in strategic scope.

The arena matches are where you are going to earn the big bucks. They are turn-based affairs where you move or attack with your squad of ruffians. Once your gladiators have advanced a few levels, they can be equipped with spells and weapons that make the fighting much more interesting, but in the beginning the arena matches are quite bland. I guess this makes sense, as Gladiator Trials II eases you into the turn-based portion of the game, but it’s still tedious in the beginning. Each turn, you can either move or shoot, which makes for some strategy when opponents become close. The AI tends to move straight towards you instead of playing a game of chicken, waiting for the other person to move and allow their opponent to attack first. Still, close combat doesn’t really warrant any advanced strategies, as everyone needs to be adjacent to each other. This further shows that the later battles with more advanced weapons and spells are far more interesting. When you start playing with multiple people against multiple people, with traps and other surprises scattered around the arena, Gladiator Trials II can get fun. But, unfortunately, it takes a while to get there and I doubt many people will hold out that long.

Gladiator Trials II is a good idea and it’s designed well, but there isn’t enough depth to keep people interested for a long period of time. The city building more needs a bit more complexity, through the addition of more buildings or bigger maps with more options. The arena mode can be entertaining, but it takes a while to ramp up the action to fun levels. This is one of those games that has potential, but it a couple of features short of being wholly entertaining. Thankfully, it’s also one of those small developer games, so the chance of seeing improvements in the future is high. I do think that Gladiator Trials II might appeal to novice players looking for a “light” strategic experience, since the mechanics are straightforward and the game is easy to learn. Still, more experienced players won’t find the depth they are accustomed to, but Gladiator Trials II is still a promising framework for a game.