Real Time Strategy or RTS as we have come to know it really started to get fun with the advent of such great games as Warcraft, Starcraft and of course the various Command and Conquer games. Then came Total Annihilation and the many clones of both of these games. Future, past and present have all been done to death. I was starting to find the genre had become a little stale - like most genres tend to do after a while.

Often with these games it becomes a case of too few units, too little variety and no personality to the actual units themselves. Hard to do I grant you in a War Sim where tanks and jeeps et al clash for the hundredth time. It also becomes a case of too much to keep track on, too many resources and not enough thought in the actual world-maps themselves.

Until now...just when I thought the RTS genre was about to die a death from lack of inspiration. Ubi Soft publishes a really refreshing and quite stunning game. I speak of course of the aptly titled Battle Realms.

I was really impressed with Battle Realms when I first checked it out - starting with the tutorials, which are nicely put together and show you all the crucial skills you need to learn to survive in the hostile world of your forefathers. It's set in a mythical pseudo Japanese world full of myths and legends where four great clans are locked in a battle for supremacy - previously the world has been broken and the clans were once all fairly well aligned. The top clan was the Serpent Clan and they ruled the lands with an iron fist - but by all accounts were mostly fair. The other clans are the Dragon, Wolf and Lotus.

In a game of this kind it's crucial I think for there to be a great deal of life to the various units portrayed and it's obvious that the game's developers have taken the time and trouble to put this life into their units. Each individual unit in Battle Realms has many animations that set them apart from the others - from the cleaning of swords to the stretching of arms and cricking of their necks as they wait to march into battle. Then you have the combat animations where rather than a few taps of a sword and a bit of gore you get fully blown martial arts and sword play, as the various units duke it out - they even limp around injured when low on health and become sluggish and slow.

All of this cleverly builds a sense of artificial personality along with a genuine atmosphere - you might also become attached to a small group of units who have done particularly well in battle, only to watch them cut down by a larger force or a better-developed force. Each Clan has a number of specific units that they can make/train in the various structures in the game and I'm pleased to see that on the whole the various clans stand out from each other - which again adds to the fun of playing the game, since you can experiment in Skirmish/Multiplayer with the other two clans.

There are only three commodities for you to keep track of in Battle Realms - two of which are physical resources and the third is a tactical resource that has a real impact in the game for once. Firstly you have Rice and Water - these are used to build the various structures and train various units. You begin the game usually with a peasant unit or a few.

Usually you are given enough water/rice to start a small village. Build a few Houses (huts) for the Villagers and soon more will arrive - the rate at the start of the population expansion is pretty high, though it does slow down when you have a reasonable amount of peasants/units...Each hut helps you store a little more rice and water. A tip for those who do have the game - build your first few huts near water and rice fields, it really shortens the time the workers have to get from the fields to the drop off point.

When you have a nice and small functioning economy - peasants working rice collection and water collection (with one or two watering the rice - to help it re-grow quicker) you can start to build the first of two main 'training' buildings. There are quite a few structures in BR's and all of them are different for the four clans. I won't touch on the Wolf and the Lotus at all in this review apart from saying that they have some pretty kick ass buildings and units - including my favourite (the Werewolf)

The first training building you can construct is usually a Dojo (For the Dragon) or a Tavern (For the Serpent) training Spearmen and Swordsmen respectively. Training takes very little time and pretty soon you can send peasant after peasant into your building to be trained into warriors. It's vital that you become fairly familiar with the units in BR's and train a small assault group of diversified characters. I must point out that unlike a lot of RTS games BR's has another unique feature - that of Unit Alchemy, this is the ability of certain units to have their skills enhanced by training them in other buildings.

Let us take the Dragon for example, constructing an Archery Range allows you to train Archers but it also allows you to train Dragon Warriors who are harder and tougher than the regular spearmen and archers. To do this you can drop Spearmen into the Archery Range or Archers into the Dojo. When the training is complete you'll have a new Dragon Warrior who has a huge sword, can fire magical bolts of energy and take more hits. Later on in the game you can drop the Dragon Warriors into the Alchemist's Hut and create the epitome of the warrior - The Samurai.

Through Unit Alchemy it's possible to have truly unique and diversified units in this game and it's another mega-bonus point for the system the developers have worked long and hard on. Apart from training new warriors and different units, the buildings like the Dojo, Archery Range and Alchemist's hut can also be used to give your units new and impressive powers, from more health and damage to magical effects and special gifts. These are paid for with the aid of Yin/Yang - the mystical force of light and darkness in the universe. Good aligned clans gain Yin for each number of enemies slain and evil aligned clans gain Yang - these can be spent to permanently give the units new skills/abilities and powers.

Married to this wonderful system of unit creation and training is the flawless and quick to use interface that shows you all you need to know at the flick of a button, all the controls are there and they're all user definable. Left click to select a unit, right click to order or move said unit. Again the tutorials are excellent and really do impart the skills you need to keep ahead of the game. A few indicators are there to really help, like the battle icon and idle icon that takes you to a fight once you click on it. The idle icon showing you the next idle peasant you can put to work.

Of course you can have the best game play and features of any game out there and still be let down by the graphics and sound - well I'm happy to say that Battle Realms is a gorgeous game which is richly brought to life with detailed animations - both of the units and the very scenery that surrounds you, it's all 3d and it's all vividly coloured. From butterflies to the various animals that prowl the forests and plain lands, see the majesty of a rushing waterfall and you're instantly transported into a bloody and mystical land. All the maps of the game are extremely well created and come with a variety of features that can be used against the enemy. Mostly height and line of sight of course (The third resource) although there are a few boulders that can be shoved down onto the enemy's buildings if one is sneaky enough.

Line of sight and elevation (as mentioned) play an important role in BR's and are useful tools if you can employ them. Archers can do more damage and reach a little father from up on high, you can see more of the surrounding area and also you can detect incoming threats much quicker. Forests are a nice place to stage ambushes but you'd better be careful since they are also living eco-systems of their own and usually if you move too fast or too near birds they'll scatter alerting the enemy to your troops.

From time to time you'll encounter wild horses on the maps and you can send off a peasant or two to bring them back tamed, they'll be taken into your stable (if you have one) and can be either war horses or pack horses for your village - units can mount and dismount horses at will too, which makes for another cool feature. It's possible to nick off with a idle warhorse of the enemies - most warriors can be dismounted if they're hit hard enough and they go flying off the horse landing stunned for a while.

The sound in BR's is effective and plays an important role too, listen to the nearby forest and you'll hear the sounds of the birds rapidly taking flight - a sure indication that the enemy is on the way. Swords clash, blows hit and the screams of battle echo from your speakers. It so reminds me in some ways of the films such as Crouching Tiger and Iron Monkey. This is of course a good thing for me since both of those happen to rate alongside Stormriders as two of my all time favourite Hong Kong action movies.

Finally you can play Battle Realms in single player mode (choosing two possible paths - good or evil) complete with in-between mission and mission specific cut scenes using the in game gfx engine. Or Skirmish mode with AI help across a number of maps (All excellently designed and formulated). A full suite of options is available in Skirmish mode and online Multiplayer (Net or Lan) to tailor the game to the way you want to play it. It's safe to say that it really does have something for everyone in the Multiplayer side of BR's - from a survival to a siege and destroy the keep mode.

So there you have it - Battle Realms does truly deserve the title of Best RTS of 2001's E3...and I can't wait to see more maps/units and ideas for this great game. Buy it if you love the RTS genre and want something that's going to keep you occupied on many levels, graphically, tactically and mentally. I really am impressed by this title and hope that they make an even better, bigger and meaner sequel.