Continuing the series that began in 1989, Warlords IV: Heroes of Etheria is a combination of strategy and role-playing. A Dark Elven mage Aravein has been summoning lesser daemons into the realm of Etheria and placing them in charge of her orcish minions. Aravein has sent these evil creatures on a number of quests to plunder libraries and mage towers. She seeks dark knowledge required to summon powerful daemon lords.
Players take control of a hero of Etheria who must protect the land from Aravein's evil hordes while crossing paths with dwarves, elves, orcs, and the undead forces led by Lord Bane. In the Campaign mode, players will have to make decisions on the battlefield and on the economic front: when and where to build new cities, whether to upgrade existing cities, and when to spend gold on building more armies. A diplomatic system is also in place that allows users to form and break alliances.
Heroes are the most important unit in battle, as they can boost army morale and turn the tide of battle. Experience gained through combat will let heroes gain new abilities and skills over time. During battles players will also find treasure and items to help turn the tide of war.
Warlords IV: Heroes of Etheria is a fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game (not to be confused with its real-time brethren Warlords: Battlecry) where diplomacy takes a back seat to simply building armies and marching them at your foe. It sounds simple -- and it is. It's also one of the elements that make Warlords tick; the design is elegantly simple. Each race has a specific retinue of units with strengths and weaknesses and it's up to you to build the proper "stacks" to counter balance what your enemy builds. Hired heroes lead your units into battle, offering bonuses to morale, leadership, combat strength, etc. Sure, there are other trapping like spells, magic items and so on but it's pretty much the same formula that has made the series reach its fourth version over 13 years. The problem is that Warlords IV fails one of the most important tests for any "sequel": it's not as good as its predecessor, Warlords III: Darklords Rising, which was released back in 1998.
Perhaps the most important factor in determining the long term playability of a strategy game is its AI. If the computer can't put up a fight, it makes the whole thing a big waste of time. Warlords IV's AI is decent and certainly playable, but it's a surprise that it isn't as decisive as in previous Warlords games. The problem is one of aggressiveness -- or lack thereof. The computer opponents simply lack a killer instinct, attacking deep into enemy territory and then calling off the dogs, allowing you to dig yourself out of a hole. A strategy game does not have to be extremely challenging to be fun, but when the computer fails to take advantage of obvious mistakes it takes some of the luster off of the game
The Warlords series has never been known for lavish visuals or first-rate sound effects, so with the hard-nosed AI stripped away, the overall experience suffers. You won't find yourself saying, "Well, at least it looks pretty." There are some balancing issues as some spells and skills are vastly overpowered (such as the Hydra's multi-attack which is just downright unfair). It's also a mystery why there are no boats in the game; to cross a river you need to either control a stack of flying units (dragons, unicorns, giant bats, etc.) or find a bridge.
One thing you can count on with every Warlords release is a smorgasbord of features and Warlords IV does not disappoint. The game comes with a robust editor, a huge campaign, ten races from dark elves to dragons, and two important new features: the STS combat system and a persistent warlord hero that stays with you from battle to battle, earning experience and gaining power and skills along the way.
The Speed Tactical System (STS) is new to the series. In the past, combat was completely automated-you simply watched the outcome unfold. This new system allows you to pick and choose when each unit enters the fray. There is quite a bit of strategy involved as to when you should send in your more powerful units because there is no retreating; once a unit goes to the front he fights each round until he either dies or the opponent's army is destroyed. Adding to the strategy is that grunt units (level one fodder) can still do serious damage if they get a bit lucky. As a result, one strong creature rarely defeats a stack of eight grunts. Plus there are oodles of special skills and modifiers that pop up during a fight so what at first looks like a bare-bone combat system is actually pretty deep.
The persistent hero idea adds a bit of role-playing to the mix as you tweak and shape your warlord how you see fit. You may also take your warlord online and into battle with other players via the usual protocols. Multiplayer games support 1-8 players as well as hot-seat play on the same machine and Play by Email (PBEM) if you want to play a game over several weeks.
Despite its shortcomings, Warlords IV remains an entertaining game, but if you have had your fill with the series then the fourth version is not going to rekindle your desire to play another version. Hardcore fans will find a lot to like, but until the AI and balance issues are fixed it remains merely a good game but one that falls a bit below expectations.
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Warlords 3: Darklords Rising, Warlords 3: Reign of Heroes, Warlords II Deluxe, Warlords 2, Warlords Battlecry 2, Warlords, Warlords Battlecry, Warlords: Battlecry III
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