Alexander - The Heroes Hour Review
Role Play/Strategy combination that is plagued by poor controls and some sloppy execution.
When I read the back of the case for this game, I thought it sounded very promising. A role playing/strategy title, which seemed along the lines of Dungeon Siege (which I love), but set in the world of Alexander the Great. The blurb promised me that I could fight alongside Alexander, leading my heroes through a 'thrilling campaign'. I'd be gobsmacked by the wonderful 3D graphics and battles, and tremble in delight at the action loaded mixture of RTS and role playing. There would be multiple factions to fight, such as the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians, highly complex battle skills to learn, unique bits of equipment to collect and demanding missions. Sounded great. Eagerly, I installed the game. Or... tried to...
Well, to get off to a horrendous start, when I tried to install the game, the installation programme failed to install an important file. So the game wouldn't launch at all. This happened twice, after I'd uninstalled and tried again. There was no info about this fault on the game's web site. Luckily, a techie friend was able to track down the offending file, (which wasn't a straight forward task, even for him) and put it in the right place, but not everyone has the benefit of techie friends.
OK, the thing was actually running, so now what?
On first viewing I was disappointed. I began by playing the Tutorial, to learn the basic ropes, and found the controls for the characters cumbersome. Also, the Tutorial wasn't that brilliant at describing how to play. The developers haven't hired any voice actors to bring life to the characters; all you get is little text boxes. Nowadays, I think that is a big no-no. Also the game crashed continually during the first few levels. This improved as I progressed, which was odd. In a couple of the early levels there were 'broken quests', in that I'd achieve an objective but the quest still appeared 'unsolved'. If I played the scenario again, this would sometimes fix itself. In one scenario, some of my soldiers got stuck: they froze and I couldn't move them, and they actually blocked a point on the map for the main characters. All of these initial glitches and annoyances spelled sloppy and rushed production to me.
But despite this early disappointment, I thought I'd be fair and give the game a good go, and to be honest I've quite got into it. However...
You begin play by controlling three heroes; Megacles, who's your typical meaty fighter - and who would be a barbarian if this game was set in a fantasy world; Ekhedem, who's your nifty sword fighter and Bilikidi, whose speciality is bows and stealth, with the addition of later stealth attacks and poisonings. You meet with Alexander, who gives you instructions for your first mission.
Initially, you start off with the most basic of equipment, and the start is similar to Dungeon Siege, except that you have three characters rather than one to control. However, you can't visit earlier levels; this is an extremely linear game. Each character has a storage space - which is appallingly small. But Megacles has the capability to expand his space, so he can carry some of the extra bits you pick up - eventually.
At the beginning of each scenario, (or rather before its actual launch), you have the opportunity to go shopping for equipment or else put things in storage for later collection. Naturally, at first you have little money, and the only way to get money in this game is to collect equipment dropped by slain enemies and sell it at the start of each scenario. That, I found, was also a bit disappointing. No gold? What kind of role playing game is this? Given that your characters can carry so little, and most of their available storage space has to be taken up with potions to save their lives, you don't get much dosh to spend. Well, not nearly enough as you'd want, anyway. This situation doesn't appear (yet) to improve as you work through the scenarios. I mean, you expect to start any game as a pauper, but surely this should get a bit better? It would be more bearable if there were merchants within the game itself, but more of that later.
Once you've sorted out your purchases, you launch the scenario and you're off. I liked the way that the first one wasn't too easy, but not too difficult either. As each hero levels up, you can acquire specialist skills for them, and these really do beef them up remarkably eventually. For example, Megacles can learn a sort of bull charge and multiple blow attacks that knock a whole circle of enemies out. As in each scenario you tend to fight against enemies that are higher in level than your heroes, not to mention there's far more of them than in your party, Megacles is a wonderful battle engine.
In the first scenario, you have to take out various bunches of rogues, sort out some shifty Persian merchants, and start to collect equipment to make your heroes less death-prone. Once the first few quests are solved, the king, Phillip, is murdered and you get to fight alongside Alexander (who's part of your party, but you can't control his stats) to take out the murderer. I've played quite a few scenarios after that, and presume Alexander will make a reappearance later, but for now it's just been me and the main three heroes, and whatever additional troops they're allowed for each scenario.
At least you can risk two of your heroes 'dying', because you don't get the dreaded 'Game Over' screen unless all three actually die. If one survives (i.e. Megacles, to be honest) and can take out the baddies, then the others revive when the fight is over. You then have to give them health potions to restore their life energy. Unfortunately, if they die, they lose all their experience, so it really is better to employ careful strategy and avoid as many casualties as you can.
I thought the graphics for the game were quite good; it looks fairly pretty. And the music was quite nice too, somewhat atmospheric. The landscape is well realised and there are lots of things to explore and do, such as visit shrines where various puzzles or tests of your mouse action can earn your heroes big bonuses. Most of the main scenarios have several secondary quests hidden within them, which I really like. It really is far more than the hack and slash of Dungeon Siege, which in my opinion is a huge plus, even though I like that game immensely. You have to deploy your heroes carefully, and once you're used to their various strengths and weaknesses, two thirds of them become very effective.
But there are more downsides. And here they are...
The control of the heroes and their additional troops is maddening. First, it's very difficult to deploy them individually; I would have liked to see 'group' buttons somewhere, so you could manoeuvre them more effectively. You have to frantically try to draw a circle round them with the mouse to group them, and in the thick of battle that often loses you precious time. You usually start each scenario with some 'shreddies', i.e. extra soldiers who so far, for me, haven't lasted too long. It would be better if you could group these and be able to control them separately to the three main characters. The only way you can direct a character is by clicking on it, or grouping them with the mouse, so if you've got groups in different areas, you can only control one at a time, and every time you swap between them you have to 'redraw' the group. This is cumbersome.
Controlling the heroes in battle is not easy, not in the slightest. You point them to go somewhere and for some reason they amble off in the opposite direction, deciding the longer route is better. Megacles is a sod for this when he really needs to be covering poor Bilikidi's back! Even if you've rounded them up as a group and told them to go somewhere, the chances are they'll all take different routes, and one of them (usually the weakest) runs into a pile of slavering enemies and gets trashed immediately. This is extremely frustrating. They also move very slowly, so if you direct one of them towards a particular enemy they simply stroll there at their leisure and they always seem to take the long way round. You can double click to make them run, but in a big melee situation this isn't always ideal, plus the fact you'll be trying to control all the others at the same time.
Cut scenes happen at awkward moments, and the most infuriating aspect of this is that the action continues while you have absolutely no control over your characters, so often you get back to the action only to find everyone on the point of death with no chance to save them, and you have to reload.
I also don't like the fact you can only visit the shop before each scenario launches; it would be better if there were merchants within the game too, so you can offload all the loot you've picked up and buy better equipment. This is pretty much a standard in other games of this type. As it stands, you have to leave a lot of stuff lying around, which is an annoying waste. Also, the gathering of dropped spoils is awkward. If you command your heroes to pick stuff up, the nearest one does it, and if they're loaded up already, you get the annoying 'can't pick up this item' message. Megacles is usually the only one who has space, and he might be some distance away, which means you have to select him individually and direct him, which can waste precious time. It would have been better if there was some 'gather all' option, so that whoever has space in their inventory can pick up the dropped gear. Again, this is a standard in most games of this type.
My other main beef is with the heroine Bilikidi. As I said earlier, she is allegedly a bow-woman, but I played about 6 scenarios of the game and then realised I've have to start again and build her up in a different way. Although the men were well tough by this stage, she was still pathetic. She got killed so many times, she hardly ever levelled up. This is a drag because in some of the scenarios, you need her climbing and stealth skills and she has to sneak into enemy camps alone, without the muscle of the others to back her up. Her bow skills were risible. She'd die even before she could slither off into the shadows. And once she's dead, with a heaving mass of enemies round her, that the men can't get at because of the obstacle she climbed, you can't revive her. The only way I could win one level was to use her to entice enemies to a particular fence and then get Megacles to whap 'em with his axe through the slats. Needless to say, this took multiple reloads to get right, since most times she was iced before she could climb back over or the enemies would skid to a halt beyond Megacles' reach. It would have been better if the poor wench had had slightly more beef herself. She is not as nimble as she should be. It would be better if she could nip over a fence, dash around, and nip back to avoid trouble, (even if that means careful deployment - I'd have no objection to that), but usually she ignores my commands to flee, dithers around slowly, and sacrifices herself needlessly. Again, control of the character is at fault. So, I started the campaign again, and this time have expended more points on her single weapon, stealth and poisoning skills. She's levelled up slightly better, but is usually still the first to die, which means she hardly ever gains any experience. Ultimately, she ends up moving twice as slowly as the other two, (they go slightly faster with experience), so is always lagging behind, sometimes only reaching battles when they're over. And the heroes don't share experience. They have to hit things themselves to gain it. It might be deliberate on the part of the developers that this essential character has to be used so carefully, of course, because as I said, she is the only one who can accomplish certain objectives. I just wish she was easier to control.
The one thing this game has going for it is that the scenarios are interesting and varied. You don't just have to do the same old things time and time again, only in a slightly different setting. You need to use your brains and build up the heroes with a bit of thought. You get the opportunity to use all of their specialist skills. In fact, you can't win some scenarios without them. I played till 5 am one morning, so it can't be that bad! The game follows the campaigns of Alexander fairly faithfully, although to be honest the game world isn't that important. It could be set in any environment, really. I do like the game, but I just wish its downsides weren't so glaring. In many ways, it's primitive in comparison to other titles, as if the developers have rushed it through production to get it out in time to coincide with the release of the Alexander movie. This is a shame, because with a bit more care, thought and time, this would have been an excellent game.
In between scenarios you can visit the Arena, where your three heroes fight against continually appearing opponents to gain experience. You might need to do this more often than I have to beef up the weaker characters. Even if this is a plus for the game though, I do think it compares badly with others of its type.
If you can cope with the teeth-grinding annoyance of your wilfully disobedient and sluggish heroes, this is an OK addition to the RP/RTS genre. I doubt there will be an Alexander: the Hour of Heroes 2, as I suspect that the Alexander slant is all to do with the movie, which is sad, as I'm sure a sequel would be far far better. However, if it is a possibility, I just hope that the sloppy execution of the original title doesn't prevent it happening.