INITIALLY, YOU'LL THINK this is the same old role-playing/strategy bobbins that SpellForce and Warcraft III made passable fists of. That is, to unravel a string of clichés,
you'll think it falls between two stools, it's not one thing or the other, neither fish, fowl nor Fallout Tactics. However, Heroes Of Annihilated Empires surprised us; it's built a Warcraft/Heroes Of Might & Magic game over the Cossacks engine, introduced some
innovative new bits and made something that's quite surprising...
Unusually, we're going to focus on the skirmish and multiplayer modes first. With the relatively short main campaign, these will probably be key for the life of the game. In skirmish and the seven-player multiplayer, you start with a choice; either focus on base building or focus on levelling your hero up - it's that straightforward. Initially you're going to be disappointed because GSC have only supplied three maps in the pack. Throw in the fact that these modes are rather good and it's doubly disappointing.
If you do the base-building thing, you'll collect each of five resources with your peon units and use them to create buildings, which pump out warriors and upgrades. Holding the CTRL button orders infinite building of a particular unit; with armies this big, that's needed. You do have a hero in this mode, but during the first 30 minutes of the game he or she is frozen, so can't level-up or affect the game.
I NEED A HERO!
Do the hero thing and you pick from a ranger, warrior or mage, and level them up by using their magic powers to kill the various creeps around the map. The overpowered thug can learn new magic powers, pick up magic items, use magic potions, level-up, visit shops and so on. It basically crams all the bits of an RPG onto the left quarter of the screen. It's all done in a very simple interface, and the overall plan means you can have one superpowered hero with a small selection of supporting mercenaries fighting an entire upgraded opposing army comprising thousands. He might even win...
Campaign mode combines these two, like Warcraft III, but without losing anything.
Far from overcomplicating the game, this all seems to fit together perfectly. Each hero levels up throughout the two campaigns, sometimes fighting alongside enormous armies, sometimes by himself. However, we didn't always understand what we were meant to be doing thanks to the lack of clear objectives. The initially well-rendered cutscenes turned into passable strip cartoons, but didn't really explain what you were meant to be doing from mission to mission and the voice-acting can only be charitably interpreted as high camp.
Combat isn't the usual 'throw everyone into the meat grinder and hope a pie pops
out' of other RTS titles. Enemy units can have key characters, banner holders, healers and resurrectors. Target these and the unit will crumble quickly; take a hands-off approach and the battle will be won by numbers and force; the typical meat grinder again. With an enormous variety of units and the customisable heroes, combat is never boring, and effective use of different tactics and different units can allow small forces to easily beat larger ones.
The four factions aren't enormously original (why the Tolkien Estate and Games
Workshop are so non-litigious we don't know - there's an Eye Of Sauron, Ents and everything else in here), being basically Dwarves (mechanical magic), Elves (warmth), Undead (death) and Snowmen (cold), but they're nicely distinguished, nicely balanced and come complete with some neat units. As the units get larger, they turn into 3D models as opposed to the smaller sprites - but you seriously don't notice the difference when playing the game, thanks to the zoom limits - and they all look great.