The real-time strategy genre isn't exactly known as a hive of innovation, but every so often a game comes along to breathe some fresh life into the stale formula. Warrior Kings is shaping up to be one of these stand-out titles, which is why, having spent the best part of an hour chatting with one of the developers from Black Cactus as he demonstrated the game at last month's ECTS trade show in London, we hailed it as our pick for Game Of The Show.
I Have Devised A Cunning Plan
Set in a medieval fantasy world of castles, cathedrals, pagan rituals and primitive fire-arms, Warrior Kings promises a healthy mixture of siegecraft, resource gathering and battles featuring hundreds of troops on each side as you try to regain your ancestral lands from a corrupt empire. The whole thing is rendered in real-time 3D with the now obligatory spinny-rotatey™ camera and, as well as looking pretty, the three dimensional nature of the world should also have a big impact on the gameplay. Putting your men on top of a hill will provide a number of advantages; allowing your archers to fire further, giving a melee bonus to your infantry, and of course forcing your enemy to slog their way up the slope to get to you in the first place as you pick them off from a comfortable distance. The focus is on tactics and the placement of your troops rather than simply building up a huge army and rushing at the enemy base, and Black Cactus are aiming to balance the game such that an experienced player can win a battle even when outnumbered, by positioning your troops well and out-thinking the enemy.
An important part of this is the use of formations, which allows a player to group dozens of men into a line, column, wedge or orb. Once this is done the whole group behaves as a single unit, making them easier to control. While this has been done before, formations seem to be far more fluid and easy to manoeuvre in Warrior Kings. Formations also effect the way in which the soldiers that make up the unit react to threats, and how they take damage and earn experience in combat. For example, if you place your troops in a column they will move rapidly but are vulnerable to attack and will try to avoid combat if possible. Put them in an orb formation though and they will arrange themselves into a strong defensive circle and stand their ground. If the enemy attacks your circle, much of the damage your men take will be shared out amongst all of the soldiers in that unit, making them harder to kill. Not only this, but groups of formations can be formed into larger armies that should work together intelligently. Place a line of pikemen and a group of archers on the battlefield and the archers will automatically run and hide behind the infantry if they are attacked, providing covering fire once they are safely out of harm's way. This didn't appear to be working properly at ECTS, but Black Cactus have another three months to tweak the system.
Marching On Your Stomach
The economic side of the game will play a major role in your war effort as well, and troops must be kept well fed to maintain their effectiveness. This should open up the possibility of epic sieges and lightning cavalry raids to destroy supply lines deep inside enemy territory. It's no use having an army holed up securely inside a fortress-like city if the enemy is left free to sweep through the countryside, pillaging your farms and destroying the carts that carry vital food to your palace. Eventually your men will starve once your stocks run out, reducing their health and leaving you vulnerable to attack. The variety of units on offer should also allow for a wide range of strategies, with each of the three factions (renaissance, religious and pagan) getting their own unique troops which you will gain access to as you develop down one or more of the three paths. Eventually you will be able to call on acts of god that can blight your enemy's crops, wheel powerful siege artillery out on to the battlefield and even call upon angels and demons that battle it out with flaming swords as they tower over your men.
Behind The Curtain
The game certainly looked impressive in action at ECTS, with steep mountains and rolling hills to fight over and giant walled cities to defend. The close-up screenshots don't really do it justice, and the animations make the whole thing feel more life-like, with flags and crops waving gently in the breeze and arrows zipping through the air. Meanwhile large groups of troops wheel and manoeuvre out on the battlefield, their formations smoothly flowing through narrow mountain passes and around obstructions. The individual soldiers are nicely detailed up close, but the graphics engine can still render hundreds of troops on screen at once without any noticeable slowdown, something which will be particularly important in multiplayer. With both Quake-style dedicated servers and RTS-style peer-to-peer games supported, up to eight players will be able to battle it out with a few hundred troops on each side, allowing for some truly epic battles. Naturally there will be all the normal diplomacy and alliance options as well, allowing you to share resources and gang up on each other as the game unfolds.
Warrior Kings was already looking very promising when we saw it at ECTS several weeks ago, and since then the game's release has been pushed back to early February to give the developers an extra three months to polish things up. With a little more work on the AI and unit balance it should turn out to be an interesting new take on the genre, and hopefully we will be able to get our hands on playable code in the not-so-distant future to see if it can live up to our high expectations...