Set at the height of the Roman Empire, when Julius Caesar reigned supreme, Praetorians puts players in the role of an up-and-coming Roman general, battling for supremacy against both the Egyptian and the Gaul armies. A real-time strategy game from Pyro Studios, the development team responsible for the Commandos series, Praetorians forsakes conventional base-building and resource-gathering, instead allowing players to focus on the art of war alone.
The single-player campaign sees players trudging through 24 missions that take place as far away as North Africa and the Middle East, as they help expand the might of Rome. By capturing villages -- the game's only resource -- players obtain a supply of new recruits that can be used to replenish their ranks.
Praetorians offers a range of different mission types. When not crushing the hapless enemy forces underfoot, players will find themselves defending strongholds from siege attacks, racing to the aid of allies, and even occasionally retreating from battle under the threat of increasing enemy numbers. Terrain also plays a vital role in determining the outcome of battle -- allowing players to hide particular troops in forests and tall grass, or position them on higher ground for an even greater advantage.
Multiplayer support is offered for up to eight, across both LAN and Internet connections, allowing players to command any of the three in-game factions (as opposed to the single-player campaign, in which only the Romans are playable). Away from the main mode of play, single players can also engage in once-off battles in the Skirmish mode.
Praetorians is a very solid real-time strategy title set during the first century B.C. in a period of aggressive Roman expansion. The good news is that the game manages to be a lot of fun despite some serious missteps; the bad news is Praetorians falls far short of the greatness that it might have achieved.
Praetorians immediately distinguishes itself from the pack of "me-too" RTS clones by shifting the focus away from the traditional mechanic of "build base, build massive army, crush opponents" to a most welcome emphasis on actual strategy and tactics. This is by far Praetorians' strongest feature. The game has only one resource - villagers. Each village has a certain number of people available for recruitment and when the village is emptied it can take quite a while for it to repopulate.
In addition, production of new units is very slow, making each group of soldiers under the player's control extremely important. It's entirely possible to achieve a Pyrrhic victory in Praetorians -- overcoming a particular skirmish only to find that there aren't enough units to accomplish more important objectives. Players who heedlessly charge into battle without worrying about casualties are going to be crushed.
This is where the game's emphasis on tactics and strategy comes in. Each type of unit available in the game has a specific function - Spearmen can be set to defend against cavalry charges, cavalry are designed for fast assaults against archers and archers launch overwhelming arrow barrages against both infantry and structures. Combined arms and their effective use in combat aren't just suggestions in Praetorians, they're absolutely vital. Losing seemingly "weak" units like your scout, the physician, or your auxiliary troops -- things that wouldn't slow a player down in another RTS -- can be devastating in Praetorians.
In addition, unlike many RTS games, the landscape has a huge impact on troop effectiveness. Troops that hold the higher ground are far more effective against enemies and the many forests that dot the landscape can be used to hide soldiers for ambushes.
The upshot of this is that the game rewards players who take their time, study the terrain, use the Hawk and Wolf scout units to spy out enemy positions and attack with the proper array of troops in the right formations. A column with Spearmen on their right flank may defeat a massed cavalry charge that would destroy the same mix of troops with Spearmen on their left flank.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, the initial elegance of the design loses something thanks to faults in the game's control system. First, while the game runs on a true 3D engine, the player is restricted to three camera views - all of which are from the same angle. Not only does this defeat the purpose of having a 3D engine - being able to view the action from any position - none of the three available views is entirely satisfactory for being able to get a good overview of the tactical situation. This problem becomes especially bad in the later single-player missions and some of the larger multiplayer maps, particularly in a game where utilizing the terrain is so important.
One of the ways the game allows the player to set up formations is the game's innovative "follow" command. This allows you to set any one unit to follow another unit directly behind it. This, along with the game's waypoint system, allows the player to create truly awesome columns of troopers moving around the map (and, as mentioned before, these formations can be the difference between victory and defeat). It's a great idea that would have been better if some type of graphic on screen had let me know what "follow" commands I had issued so I could alter them when the strategic situation warranted it. It also would have been nice if the game's wholly inadequate tutorial had taught me about some of these commands.
In addition, despite the need for setting up elaborate and effective columns, actual battles in the narrow confines of the maps inevitably end up being confusing mishmashes of troops all trying to kill each other. Unlike the Total War series, it's almost impossible to properly control individual units to take advantage of situations that arise in battle, nor is it easy to pull troops out once fighting has started. All the emphasis in the game is placed on reconnaissance and troop deployment - once actual battle has been joined, players will either win or lose based on their setup - no room for battlefield improvisation here!
Two other good ideas also deserve mention, one that fell short, and one that worked very well. The first was the idea of leadership experience. Commander units will develop experience and rise in level based on the amount of combat casualties they inflict in battle. This is supposed to increase the effectiveness and range of the bonuses they give to the units within their zone of control. In practice, however, given the difficulty of controlling individual units in battle where loss usually means death, leadership experience ultimately becomes if not useless, not important enough for a player to worry about.
On the other hand, the second idea -- honor points -- worked very well. Honor points are accrued during combat, also based on casualties inflicted. Honor points are needed in order to produce some of the more effective and powerful units. This becomes especially evident in multiplayer when the player must decide whether to commit less valuable units to attack -- possibly losing them in the hopes of trading their lives for more powerful units that won't be available for at least 75-90 seconds (an eternity!).
Graphically, the game isn't much to write home about. They're not bad, merely mediocre. For every nice effect, like the water rippling when units cross rivers, there's one that could have used some more work, like the movement animations of the soldiers themselves. Roman Spearmen fight with a back-and-forth animation that looks like they're trying to row their way back to Italy, and everyone's knees barely seem to bend when crossing the terrain. This is especially bad on the Hawk Scout units who seem to high-step across the landscape like they're auditioning for the sequel to Chicago.
All this, of course, should be taken in the spirit of constructive criticism. Praetorians is a good RTS game, far better and more innovative than most. A strategy game fan certainly wouldn't waste his or her money by purchasing this title. It's just disappointing that Praetorians is good enough to let players see where -- with a little more time, a little more tweaking and a few additions -- it could have been great.
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