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Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin review - decent but disappointing strategy

Cruel, boys.

A skeletal-looking orc, with a huge spiky metal helmet, and a saw-edged sword, leers threateningly at the camera, so close you can almost smell its breath.
Image credit: Frontier / Games Workshop
A solid core could provide some great competitive match-ups, but the dreary, generic campaign will fail to impress solo gamers.

In the fabled beforetimes of the early 2010s, Games Workshop made the decision to end the world. Not our world, though it may feel like it at times, but the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy Battle. The long-bearded miniatures game was vastly outperformed by its younger sci-fi sibling, Warhammer 40,000, so in 2015 it was killed off and replaced with Warhammer Age of Sigmar. This new setting, literally built from the shards of the previous one, reinterpreted iconic Warhammer elements and added a whole pile of shiny newness, most prominently the Stormcast Eternals, huge armoured warriors designed to be the mass appeal poster boys that GW felt WFB lacked.

To say it was a controversial move is something of an understatement, and while this isn't the time or place for a deep dive into why, it does help explain why AoS has largely been ignored by the video game industry, while high-profile Old World-set games like the Total War: Warhammer series (which didn't even start until a year after the release of AoS) have still been popping up. Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin isn't the first video game set in the Mortal Realms of AoS, but it is the first one to make much of a stir.

RoR, to add another much-needed acronym to this review, is a real-time strategy game in the vein of fellow Warhammer RTS (whoops, another one) Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Eschewing base building and resource gathering, each side attempts to capture Arcane Conduits that generate the resources necessary to build and upgrade units, and can have an assortment of upgrades slapped on top which give additional benefits, such as faster resource gathering or the ability to fire at enemies that come too close. Victory is achieved by taking and holding more Victory Points than your opponent so that their score gradually dwindles away to zero, or by decisively destroying their starting camp. The missions in the story-based campaign mode don't follow this pattern exactly, but the basic rhythm of each battle is the same.

This gives a nice overview of Realms of Ruin.Watch on YouTube

Speaking of game modes, there are a decent array on offer here. Multiplayer comes in 1v1 and 2v2 varieties, both casual and ranked. There are AI bot matches and the aforementioned single player campaign. There's also Conquest, which is a single-player mode allowing you to conquer a randomly generated campaign map. Each battle has special conditions that can help or hinder you, but losing costs you one of your limited number of lives. Lose all your lives and it's game over. It's no Total War, but it's nice that there's something other than bot matches for solo players who have finished the campaign. On top of all that is a creative mode, which has a map builder and the option to create custom paint schemes for your armies. In a nice touch, all the colours are named for, and reasonably well matched to, actual Warhammer paints, but it doesn't really add much to what amounts to some different colour options.

The units themselves are divided into offensive, defensive and ranged units, which have a rock-paper-scissors relationship, and a fourth powerful hero type. Each unit has its own special abilities which cost resources as well as being on cooldown timers. Once engaged, units are locked in combat with each other until one is defeated, or until the retreat ability is activated, which sends the unit running uncontrollably back to base where it can be healed. Being in an engaged state also prevents many abilities from being used, so if you don't unleash them before battle is joined, you're stuck. It makes your choice of clashes incredibly important, as there's no turning back once committed. An outmatched unit will cause you to give ground, either through its destruction or being forced to retreat.

Writing it down like this makes it seem rather straightforward, which I guess it is, but in practice it's hectic to the point of being almost overwhelming. Cautious, defensive play will see you quickly overwhelmed and having too many of your limited number of units (you generally have from six to around a dozen or so under your command) running around together is just begging to be outmanoeuvred. Instead you have to constantly fight battles on multiple fronts, all the while keeping an eye on your levels of two different resources, replenishing your ranks and piling on upgrades.

A Realms of Ruin screenshot showing the customisation screen. We see a group of Warhammer miniatures on one side of the screen, with a palette of paints on the the other side. We'll be some time.
2 A Realms of Ruin screenshot showing a Kruleboyz hero rushing to reinforce his troops. We see a dark but snowy battlefield from a zoomed out perspective, and a handful of units battling below.
A Realms of Ruin screenshot showing a Greater Daemon of Tzeentch unleashing its power. The big blue creature is on the left of the screen and the purpley beam of light it's calling down from somewhere is demolishing a structure nearby.
Customisation, some Kruleboyz action, and a Greater Daemon of Tzeentch wreaking havoc. | Image credit: Eurogamer / Frontier / Games Workshop

It wouldn't be so bad if your units didn't require so much babysitting. It's not quite micromanagement as such, units have two unique abilities at most, plus generic charge and retreat, and the fact they get locked into melee combat means that once they're going at it, there isn't much you can do anyway. The issue is that your units will do precisely what you tell them to and absolutely nothing else. Ranged units will automatically fire at enemies within range, but only within their rather limited fire arcs (maybe their helmets block peripheral vision or something.) Melee troops, on the other hand, will quite happily stand around doing nothing while their mates get attacked or a point gets captured a few yards away. I get that you don't want your opponent to be able to easily pull your units out of defensive positions, but at the same time a bit of initiative would have been appreciated, especially since the locked combat means that there's no chance of them being kited helplessly around the map.

Compounding this is a lack of tools to manage your troops. The closest thing that exists to automation is being able to make units attack enemies encountered on the move instead of just going directly to the selected location. You can group units to be selected by hotkey, but between the low number of units and the constant need to reposition archers or move units across the map in ones or twos means that I never found it particularly useful. Instead, I'd need to spend more time rearranging my groups than I'd save compared to click and drag selecting. If I'd had the option to set a few units on a patrol route, or tell them it's okay to engage the enemy sometime before they got bonked on the bonce by a hammer, it'd have been much less of an issue.

The impression that I get is that RoR is an attempt to provide a streamlined RTS suitable for controller play on consoles. I don't mean this in a disparaging way. As someone whose first RTS experience was playing Command & Conquer on the Playstation with the original, pre-DualShock controller, I very much appreciate efforts to make the genre playable on such devices. Playing with the mouse and keyboard, everything seems a little off, with menu navigation and such feeling optimised for TV screens and button presses. The problem is that the clean, stripped-back UI and limited unit control options leave the reality of play feeling messy and scrappy.

I could have forgiven much of this if the campaign gave AoS a good showing, as I'm one of those massive nerds who enjoys the miniatures game, as well as being a huge fan of the spin-off tabletop RPG, Soulbound. Sadly, RoR doesn't show off the Mortal Realms at their best. While AoS has developed a unique, characterful high fantasy setting, its detractors have accused it of being somewhat generic and RoR doesn't do much to dispel that notion. It doesn't help that the Stormcast Eternals come across as bland warrior types, po-facedly spouting cliched fantasy guff. The other factions on offer Kruleboyz, Nighthaunt and Disciples of Tzeentch (that's orcs, ghosts and demons, to be very reductive) aren't overly exciting either.

A Realms of Ruin screenshot showing Stormcast Eternals battling the forces of Death. Classic heavily armoured humans fight off a surrounding cluster of ghostly enemies.
Stormcast Eternals battle the forces of Death. | Image credit: Eurogamer / Frontier / Games Workshop

It's not that the factions are inherently boring, although I feel like it's a wasted opportunity to feature some of the more weird and wonderful factions, like the Idoneth Deepkin, soulless elves who dwell underwater and launch raids on the backs of giant eels, turtles and sharks who swim through the magically-conjured aethersea. Instead it's that none of the forces feel particularly distinct. The on-screen representations of them are great, with some wonderfully characterful animation work, and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses, but the lack of unique faction-wide mechanics and need for everything to fit into the rock-paper-scissors structure makes it all feel a bit samey.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin isn't a bad game by any means, but as an AoS fan who is partial to strategy games, it left me cold on both fronts. There is a decent, albeit flawed, RTS here and I can see some folks who are more into the competitive multiplayer side of things diving straight into that mode and enjoying themselves immensely. It's a very, well, video gamey video game and I can absolutely see the appeal for those who care deeply about esports and APM and the potential for some thrilling high level play. For armchair generals wanting to see armies march around in interesting fantasy settings, it's hard to recommend.

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