Pity poor Dimitry Shalinakov. He was a unit artist in the RTS department of Ukrainian developer GSC Game World. For five solid years he did nothing but draw men with muskets. French chasseurs for Cossacks: European Wars, Swiss harquebusiers for Cossacks: Back to War, British redcoats for American Conquest, Dutch musketeers for American Conquest: Fight Back, Mexican cazadores for American Conquest: Divided Nation, French chasseurs (again) for Cossacks 2... the monotony drove him to the brink of madness. Then in the summer of 2005 he heard the wonderful news that the company were finally ditching historical strategy in favour of fantasy. His spirits soared, his imagination gamboled like a wild Don pony. He waited excitedly for his first job on the new project. When his boss came over with concept art for a Dwarven musket trooper, Dimitry rushed screaming from the office straight into the path of a passing tram.
If Dimitry had only hung onto his sanity for a day or two more he would have discovered that Heroes of Annihilated Empires is actually quite a departure for GSC. Though there are echoes of the studio's earlier work in the high headcount armies and modelling of broken morale, the design borrows as much from Warcraft 3 and Diablo as it does from Age of Empires 2 (Cossacks' primary inspiration). The borrowing is sometimes embarrassingly brazen, but the Ukrainians add just about enough of their own ideas to this RTS-RPG centaur to justify its existence.
The plot and race compositions are areas where more originality certainly wouldn't have gone amiss. The fabulous introductory battle cinematic is Blizzard quality, but so strongly reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings films that you have to wonder whether HoAE wasn't originally conceived as a licensed project. A couple of episodes into the 16-mission campaign and another major influence becomes glaringly obvious. Azeroth - sorry Aquador - is a land occupied by four factions. The tree-hugging elves, invading undead, and mechanically-minded dwarves are all painfully derivative. Only the fur-wrapped Cryolytes - a tribe of mammoth-herding, yeti-befriending barbarians - feel like they haven't been scavenged from the bins behind a certain office block in Irvine, California.
Fantasy-themed games are inevitably going to share common ground but where in the Game Designer's Handbook does it say all wizards need to wear pointy hats, orcs have to live in round huts incorporating giant tusks, ents have to speak ridiculously slowly, and gnolls have to wield flails? HoAE happily laps-up all the genre clichés, then inadvertently draws attention to them with corny dialogue, a hackneyed plot, and some dreadfully unimaginative nomenclature. Accessorising your hero with hard-earned magical tat is an important and appealing part of the game, but it could have been so much more involving if the items concerned had more evocative names than 'Ruby Ring', 'Orc's Boots' and 'Belt of Endurance'
No easy way of slaying this
You'll need the real-life equivalent of that magical girdle to slog through some of the arduous single-player missions. Perhaps conscious of the fact that the game is pretty light in the campaign department, the scenario designers have stocked their sequence with some real ball-breakers. One early episode, where you have to build a base while fending off assaults from four undead settlements, had me cursing out-loud the lack of an 'easy' difficulty setting (strangely there's only 'normal' and 'hard' available) until I reluctantly donned my dusty Cap of Thinking. It is worth persevering though. Once your hero has levelled-up a few dozen times and amassed a good-sized kitbag and spellbook, the game's strengths do start to show themselves.
GSC has pushed the hero-focussed RTS concept about as far as it can logically go. Primary characters boast thirteen upgradeable stats. They have their own mini inventory mannequins and customisable spell armouries. Managing all this stuff is surprisingly simple, using it to turn battles surprisingly satisfying. Because ever weapon, charm or scrap of armour has disadvantages as well as advantages you find yourself switching equipment around to fit particular situations rather than just selling or discarding obsolete items. Because of the wealth of different spells and auras available, combat tends to be pleasingly hands-on. Instead of leaving your force to chew its way through enemy hordes you are constantly looking-out for opportunities to employ particular spells. Zombies approaching in a nice neat column? Now would be a good time to drill them all with a single spectral ice arrow. Friendly centaur cavalry surrounded by a pack of vicious werewolves? Plant a restorative tree of life in their midst then place a protective eye of lightning (yes, the spell names are crap too) over the canopy. Obviously there's mana costs and cool-down periods associated with these spells (the various auras put a constant drain on HPs and mana reservoirs until deactivated) which adds another facet to the tactics. Oh, and of course morale also plays a role. By taking-out enemy standard bearers and employing auras like 'fear' (genius!) you can cause vulnerable enemies to temporarily flee.
Army of one
Campaign episodes mix-up traditional base-building activities with some solo heroics. In what has to be the game's most interesting and innovatory feature, skirmish and multiplayer modes actually give you the choice of playing in a traditional RTS fashion or fighting entirely alone. Starting with a single hero you can immediately summon the workers you need to construct a base (knowing that this step will mean your hero will remain petrified and useless for the next thirty minutes) or alternatively you can wander about the map waging a one-man war. The latter strategy isn't quite as insane it sounds. By duffing-up vulnerable groups of creeps you gain XP, level-up, and enhance your stats. By plundering scattered caches, and selling booty and spells to merchants you can generate enough gold to recruit neutral tribes. Troops hired in this way are not directly controllable, but will periodically march off to attack your foe's camp or hero. Buy-off enough villages and eventually an enemy settlement will be under constant attack.
The starkness of the choice - RTS or RPG - is quite arresting. Sadly, it was also plainly a balancing nightmare. Currently, playing a lone hero against a base-building foe is very tough even when the enemy is CPU controlled. Some serious stat-adjustment is urgently required, as is a mapmaker. Incredibly HoAE only ships with three maps. Considering there's no random battlefield generator, the selection is criminally slim. Hopefully the inevitable patch will also rectify occasional pathfinding glitches and improve the IQ of the boss creatures in the campaign. After slaughtering your way into the lair of the fearful Gravedigger it's a tad disappointing to watch it perish without even attempting to defend itself. Another evil overlord can be beaten simply by parking your hero behind a pillar then setting him to sling arrows. The boss fails to realise its own magical missiles are too fat to pass the column.
Other problems and potential issues? I guess it's worth mentioning StarForce, the pointlessly idiosyncratic controls, the lack of tutorials, and the insanely slow default game speed. Next week's Steam release should eliminate the first of these concerns, and the rest are only minor irritations. Assuming GSC do a spot of balancing and deliver more maps and an editor fairly promptly then Heroes of Annihilated Empires should flourish in the same modest way that Cossacks did. Watch the official forum (http://www.gsc-game.com/index.php?t=community&s=forums&s_game_type=fg) for news of patches, SDKs and map packs, and spare a thought for poor Dimitry Shalinakov the next time you polish your musket.