Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fantasy Wars Review

We recently discussed how re-installing old games is often a disappointment, and that the better idea is often to play a modern remake of an old classic. One of these classic games I used to play is Fantasy General from 1996, which has been remade last year under the name of Fantasy Wars. Being a bit burned out on MMORPGs, I recently downloaded Fantasy Wars from GamersGate, and am now somewhere in the middle of the first campaign.

Fantasy Wars is a classic turn-based strategy game on a hex-map, playing in a fantasy world. Thus besides classic units like infantry, cavalry, or archers, there are also units like tamed eagles, or spell-casting mages and other heroes. And the orc side has various sorts of goblins, orcs, and trolls. The number of units per side is limited, typically to something between 10 and 20 in the early maps of a campaign, not sure if that will get more later. Every unit has stats describing attack value, defense value, movement points, and various special abilities. Units also have a level from 0 to 5, heroes up to 10, and with each level their stats go up, and you get to choose one of three so-called perks. That can be a general bonus to one stat, or something terrain-specific, so you could have units fighting especially good in forests. This makes choosing perks an interesting element of gameplay, because you must decide whether you want units to have lesser bonuses which work everywhere, or whether you want to specialize in certain terrain bonuses, which are higher.

Every battle begins with you deploying your units on the map in designated areas, and proceeds turn-wise from there. Most units can only move once per turn, even if they didn't use up all their movement points, with the exception of skirmish troops, which can move several times. Units can only attack once per turn, so skirmishers can move next to the enemy, attack, and move away again. The outcome of every combat is determined mostly by the stats, with a small random factor, and is influenced only by terrain. Facing, or being surrounded by enemies, doesn't affect combat. Thus the combat system is pretty simple, but nevertheless fun. If you have a line of troops and the enemy attacks you from one flank, he doesn't win because of some artificial flanking bonus. He wins because he can send his faster troops to kill your archers in the second rank, and because your troops on the other end of the line are too far away to counterattack next turn. The only advanced combat rule is that archers can "cover" a friendly unit that is attacked next to them. Terrain plays a huge role in Fantasy Wars. If your unit stands on a hex with some combat bonus, and fights somebody standing in a river or bridge hex with a combat malus, the result can be pretty devastating. And of course rivers cost lots of movement points to cross, so most units will have to spend one round on the river hex to cross, making them extremely vulnerable. Every unit consists of several men, while heroes have a number of hitpoints. Men in units can become dead or wounded. You can heal wounded units by skipping a turn. You can replace dead men by recruitment during battle, but that costs money and lowers the units level, so often it is better to wait for the end of the battle, where all units refill to maximum at no cost.

You win each battle by fulfilling certain victory conditions, called quests. They usually include that your main hero must stay alive, and that you must capture certain towns or castles on the map. Often there are also optional quests, which grant you additional money, troops, or artifacts when you complete them. Capturing a village, town, castle, or ruin outside of quests will also reward you with money, troops, or artifacts. So you might be tempted to go slowly and clear out all the map. But your level of victory is determined by how many turns it takes you to win, with gold, silver, or bronze victory giving you less and less final rewards for beating the map the longer you take.

Between maps you reorganize your troops. With the campaign progressing, better troop types become available, so you can upgrade for example your peasants to militia, then swordsmen, then foot knights. By upgrading surviving troops you keep their level and perks; if you lost troops in battle you can buy the better troop types right away, but starting at level 0. Buying new troops or upgrading old ones costs gold, of which most often you don't have enough. You can also redistribute artifacts, of which heroes can carry three, and normal troops just one. Artifacts can give all sorts of bonuses, for example an ice orb that freezes river and lets your unit cross them faster, or a banner that raises the stats of all adjacent troops. Simpler artifacts just give some stat bonuses. Once your army is reorganized, you fight the next battle of the campaign, which appears to be strictly linear. But there are three campaigns in the game, the human campaign, the orc campaign, and the alliance campaign, the latter only becoming available after having finished the two former. If you aren't in the mood for a campaign, you can also fight a random map. Fantasy Wars also has multiplayer capability, but I didn't test that.

The old Fantasy General had a very similar gameplay, with fantasy units fighting battles on hex maps, leveling up over the course of a campaign. The major improvement of Fantasy Wars is that everything is now in colorful 3D, and nicely animated. Fortunately not every single combat is shown in full animation, because that would take far too long, but apparently some combats are randomly chosen to be animated. Very well done, without distracting too much from the strategic aspects.

As you know, I don't give ratings for games on this blog. I like Fantasy Wars a lot, and would recommend it. But some people would never dream of playing a turn-based strategy game, and so Fantasy Wars is clearly not for everyone. If you never played turn-based strategy games before, Fantasy Wars might actually be a good place to start, because it is a lot easier to learn and get into than some of the hex map strategy games replaying historical wars. There are some truly scary games with hundreds of units and miniscule detail out there, which are more for the hardcore fans. Fantasy Wars is as casual as hex map strategy games get. Recommended.

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