Counting the changes
A lot has changed since 1997. Six years ago, weíd yet to hear the name of Monica Lewinsky or Osama bin Laden. Tech stocks were riding so high that AOL was positioning itself to merge with TimeWarner. I was just getting started in this crazy-cuckoo game reviewing biz that keeps me chained to my desk for 25 hours every day, so recent years havenít been kind to my waistline or my once brown hair (hello, Grecian Formula).
The past six years havenít exactly done wonders for the Warlords franchise, either. When last we looked, Warlords III: Reign of Heroes and its standalone expansion Warlords III: Darklords Rising represented the very best that gaming had to offer. They raised turn-based, elf-oriented strategizing to a new level and added enough detail to satisfy even the most diehard follower of fantasy fiction. Warlords IV: Heroes of Etheria is a completely different beast. Where Strategic Studies Group (SSG) did a masterful job at bringing a complex style of game to the masses, the resurrected series has been stripped to its bare elements by developer Infinite Interactive (a spinoff from SSG, which now concentrates on military strategy games such as recent critical fave Korsun Pocket) and new publisher Ubi Soft.
Depth is the biggest concern. Where the Warlords III games had loads of it, from the huge, castle-strewn maps to the detailed painted art reminiscent of old Frank Frazetta calendars, Warlords IV has removed everything not essential to building armies and fighting. Diplomacy has been dumped. Completely. Thereís no more ganging up on a mutual threat. Resources are down to the gold generated automatically by conquered towns and the magic-creating mana generated by some heroes and artifacts. Armies cost nothing to create, though you do need gold to keep them adequately supplied. So there really isnít a working economy.
Combat has been simplified. Your objective is simply to conquer your way across the map. You plunder towers and ruins, take on quests (essentially linked castles, towers, and such) for big rewards, and besiege both neutral cities and those aligned with enemies, gaining more gold and building more armed forces as time goes by. The absence of diplomacy means that you start on a war footing with everybody and must race around at great speed trying to beat your foes to the punch.
While there is still some strategy involved in building armies, most of your planning never goes very far. You see a city, you have to attack it ASAP. Think blitzkrieg or you will lose the game, because the computer warlords arenít just sitting around the campfire with their generals. On the contrary, the AI is so punishing at Prince and up (there are four difficulty levels in allóKnight, Prince, King, and Emperor) that you have to be very conservative with your movement points. Fail to take the shortest route to your objective each and every time and youíll soon find yourself falling well behind your computer-controlled opposition. Aggressive, intelligent AI is a good thing, particularly if youíre an old hand at turn-based gaming, though it also shoeboxes you into one style of play.