Praetorians is the latest title in the stable of the developer Pyro, it's an RTS game in essence, in the good old classic mould. But pushes aside fiddly resource management and base building. Concentrating on the glory of combat and the strategy behind it. There's a tiny amount of resource management, but it's cleverly pulled into the main theme of the battle you might overlook it, if you weren't thinking as laterally as the developers were when they made this. I'm talking of course about the various key locations in the game, like Villages, Towns, Outposts.
You might find yourself having to rebuild them, or ransack them, burn them to a cinder and then rebuild them for your people. The game offers 24 missions and is set in the period of history best described as the 'Glory' of Rome. You can command the Egyptians, Romans and even the Gauls and often the key to your success will be understanding how these forces work in battle, for each are different and focus on different tactics.
Each force has different structures, war machines and special units for you to learn the strengths and weakness of. Thankfully there's a nice fold out that comes with the game which details all of these, to save flipping backwards and forwards through manuals and the like. And these forces can be grouped into various formations and units a-la other RTS games, but unlike many RTS often a single unit represents a group of 15-40 soldiers - the exception to this are the special units such as scouts, healers and the like, they remain steadfastly individual.
There's a nice wealth of troop options available, splitting the group, reforming and rebalancing them as and when you see fit. This comes in handy if you've taken serious losses and you need to revaluate your position and bolster an existing group. A little like Warrior Kings in that respect, which is no bad thing, since I loved that game. Before I move on to speak a little more about how the game plays, I feel as though I must mention where it loses points in my eyes, the camera. I'm a fan of fully 3d rotating cameras or at least a camera that remains steadfastly one or the other. This is like some kind of twisted hybrid of 3d and fixed, it doesn't quite work and I found it a little fiddly in my humble wolfy opinion.
There is a camera angle function, but I found the slider control in the options screen to be much better, allowing you to play with camera distances. It put me off a little, but I suppose the advantage of this system is you're never going to lose where you are, as you can with full 3d camera titles that don't have a reset camera button.
I like the fact that Pyro put scouts into the game, and especially that one of the things a scout can send out is a wolf or eagle, since my favourite creature happens to be a wolf, you should have seen my grin. Ok, it's a little far fetched some of you might say and they probably didn't have that kind of thing in those days, but it's a game and it works rather well. Units that are found show up as a kind of lit outline and often hide in deep woods and the like. It's all very fun.
This brings me to another point that I'd like to make about the game, rather than telling you the graphics are gorgeous (which I think they are) and the sound is superb (which I think it is) I want to talk about something that's often left out of these kinds of games, line of sight and terrain. One of the reasons I spent so much time drooling over Warrior Kings was that it had a decent line of sight and terrain feature. This game also allows you to take to the high ground and use it to your advantage, be that evil or good. And like in Warrior Kings, you gain better range and archers do more damage if they're up on high.
It's a good game but often let down by some niggles, such as while the animations and the effects are great, with lighting and shadows, little ambient touches like the animals bouncing around and frolicking in the meadows. It gets confusing when you're up close and personal, hacking and slashing, it begins to represent the January Sales in the UK - except the Romans are replaced by handbag wielding Grandmothers and psychotic Housewives piling onto the nearest bra with vengeance and blood in their eyes.
It has multiplayer of course (Which games of this kind, don't offer the chance to decimate your RL friends and enemies these days) and one very interesting feature is that certain units that fall below a certain value in numbers...worked out from towns and less than 10% of the enemy units...will be made visible on the map. This is very nasty and quite fits the theme of the game, it also helps you hunt down those annoying players who like to hide their defeated ass in woods and the like.
All in all, this is a worthy contender to the RTS genre that will also impart a little history to anyone who plays it. If you love the Roman period of time and the thought of mass battles (which they are) excites you to screaming 'Hail Caesar' at the top of your lungs, I urge you to go out and grab a copy of this game and stage your own small Russel Crowe scene.
'At my signal - unleash hell!'