Battle Realms
Liquid Entertainment, 2001

Every warrior has a name. And they will all die for you.

This is not going to be an unbiased article about a game. This writeup is about a game that has been a personal part of my life, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for months. Battle Realms is a Real Time Strategy game for the PC, set in an original oriental themed fantasy world. It is a game about an exiled lord, a fallen and degenerate people, the loss of nobility, and the reclamation of dignity by a people enslaved. But it's mostly about kick-ass multiplayer games.

Battle Realms began development three years ago in the mind of Edward Del Castillo, one of the founders of Liquid Entertainment. The company Liquid was formed, and the game was contracted to be developed for Crave Entertainment. The dream was a new game, by a new team, with new, in-house developed technology. This game was to compete with Blizzard's Warcraft III, and the secret project under development at Ensemble Studios (later to be revealed as Age of Mythology.) A small startup of fifteen people, versus two companies of over a hundred people and with far more resources to throw into the development of their projects. Yet somehow, Battle Realms got made.

The people of Battle Realms align themselves with one of four factions: the noble Dragon, the treacherous Serpent, the corrupt Lotus, and the savage Wolf. Each of these groups are playable in the game, and all have radically different units and abilities. The Dragon clan excels at straightforward cavalry charges and assault. The Lotus clan depend on magic to debilitate their foes and swing victory their way. The Serpent depend on sneaky tactics and dark alliances. And the Wolf struggle with a savage strength born of desperation.

Each clan has peasant huts, which generate peasants automatically over time. The player can assign these peasants to various tasks such as constructing the town, harvesting rice and gathering water, or they can be trained in the martial arts. Sending a Dragon peasant to the dojo teaches him melee combat, and he emerges with spear in hand as a spearman. Send this spearman to the archery range, and he'll learn the meditation and accuracy of the bow, and emerge from the building as a Dragon Warrior, a mystic warrior who can focus his chi into blasts of energy, or engage hand to hand with his blade. Send this Dragon Warrior to the alchemist hut to learn magic and he emerges a samurai, fully trained in the martial arts. But you're not done with this guy yet, now you can send him to the fireworks factory to receive hardened dragon armor, making him immune to enemy projectiles, if you wish. Or perhaps you'd rather send him to the shrine to focus his meditative skills and grant him the power to charge his sword with the mystical yang of the Dragon clan. Every building teaches a different art, and you can generate over 60 different types of units, with nearly all of these having at least two different upgrades you can choose between to equip them with. Most of these upgrades, or BattleGear, give the unit new capabilities, such as the razing ability of the Serpent Raider, allowing him to torch enemy rice fields.

This game is all about finding the combination of units and powers that you think you can exploit to defeat your enemy. I have played this game every day for months, and I still see new combinations of abilities used in a surprising fashion almost every game we play. Team games are truly the high point of this game, in my opinion. Being able to coordinate your own unique clan powers with another clan's... There are just so many options available, that the only team guaranteed to lose is the one that doesn't coordinate.

Combat is fluid, with a model system that animates the units flawlessly. You really don't know how much of a difference it makes until you place Battle Realms and its competition side by side. Other RTS games typically involve units lining up and trading blows, pausing, and repeating their animations. In Battle Realms the units dance around the battlefield performing martial arts moves inspired by kung fu movies. It really is so beautiful that it almost becomes a distraction, you have to focus on the battle to use your units effectively and not get wrapped up in watching.

If this game has a fatal flaw, it's that it doesn't follow the Warcraft/Command and Conquer/Age of Empires RTS formula. You don't buy units. You aren't building up hordes of units to throw at your enemy. Every unit counts. You rarely see more than twenty combatants on a side. You have to take advantage of the terrain, position your units to their maximum effectiveness, defend your support units, and really pay attention to the combat. Many testers have criticised the game as simplistic, because they see it as a Starcraft clone. After they sit down and play the game, invariably they hit a point where they realize how much depth lies in the game. It has enough familiarity to the players of the clone games that it's easy to assume such things... But the unit weapon types, armor types, battlegear, and countless other variables bring far more depth to this game than exists in any of the currently released RTS games as of this writing.

I couldn't recommend this game more. I've only touched on a fraction of the features, ignoring techniques, healers, horses, wolves, heros, monks, ninjas, weather, fire, boulders...

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