Gamers wage war on dual fronts in this RTS from first-time developer Black Hole Entertainment. Armies of Exigo offers nearly all the contemporary conventions of the RTS style -- a fantasy setting, three distinctly different factions, and online competition for as many as eight players -- but it also offers something relatively innovative to 3D RTS gaming: warfare both above and below ground. On the surface of the land (and in the skies above), battles of swords and sorcery play out in a recognizable fashion, while beneath the earth, armies plan ambushes and mount surprise attacks. Players can choose to lead the humans, the beasts, or the fallen, and the single-player campaign gives them a fair turn at each. Wood, gems, and gold, the game's three main resources, are found both above- and below ground, and each of the three factions has units and abilities to allow its troops to move through either realm. The game's dual battlegrounds pose new challenges even as they suggest new tactics.
What's got three well-tweaked races, a lulu of a real-time 3D engine, and more fantasy melodrama than Viggo Mortensen and Liv Tyler in a Gondorian sauna? If you said Warcraft, you're forgiven - it's the gold standard, after all. This year, however, there's a new kid on the block, and its name is Exigo -- as in Armies of Exigo. Despite its dripping homage to said gold standard, it still manages to distinguish itself with a mature game system, a prodigious (albeit predictable) story, and a few modest innovations that make this one of the better RTS affairs of 2004.
Leave it to EA to release two epic RTS games at the same time, thus arguably consigning the one without "Rings" in its title (as in "Lord of the") to relative obscurity. It's too bad, because while both are great games, Armies of Exigo actually feels like the "smarter" one, albeit not by much. You wouldn't know it from the story, however, which seems to meet all the low intellectual requirements of second-banana pulp. The rule of the aristocratic class (The Empire) is being threatened by the forces of anarchy (The Beasts), and - queue X-Files music - there's a sinister third faction (The Fallen) burrowed deep underground that appears to have it in for humans and beasts alike. Offsetting the clichéd narrative are some truly spectacular 3D cutscenes, and if you didn't know better, you'd swear you were playing something crafted by Blizzard.
The game divides into three campaigns that unfold in scripted sequences of twelve missions each. The Empire is composed of your garden-variety knights, wizards, and elves, while the Beasts host the obligatory thuggish bestiary of ogres, trolls, and lizardmen. The Fallen - an alien race of creatures that seem like a cross between Wizards of the Coast's Drow and the bugs from Starship Troopers - inhabit a dark and loamy underworld. Maps are divided into resource nodes consisting of gold, wood, and gems, and there's always just enough to accomplish your goals before staking out the next closest lode. Missions either involve escorting units across maps, or the traditional dig-your-heels-in buildup toward some awesome final polygon orgy. To its credit, the campaign is paced very well, carefully dolling out growth options through varying mission types so that you don't see top-line technology until the last few scenarios for each race.
Of course, Armies of Exigo is a peasant-pusher from head to toe, so if you're on the lookout for RTS metamorphosis, there's not much to salivate over beyond each race's equivalent 15-16 structures and 14-16 unit types. Each unit has its nemeses; for instance, pikemen are fabulous for poking enormous trolls to death quickly, but suck royally on the front line against smaller, faster enemies. There's also a welcome bit of variety to the way races accumulate experience: while Empire and Beast units can earn extra hit points by advancing levels, Fallen units must entrap souls to level up as a collective. It's a tremendously ubiquitous advantage, but one which results in their need to guard a serious Achilles heel; simply knocking out their "soul trap" instantly emasculates the entire Fallen unit base.
Most battles are won or lost according to the way units enter combat. Fortunately, mixed formations (limited to fifteen each) will self-organize, placing missile units behind melee, though units in battle will often act autonomously and muck up the most carefully micromanaged plan. Formations can be further organized into "supergroups," unleashing up to the game's maximum 200 units at once. Best of all, the game hardly skips a beat, even as hundreds of units collide in gorgeous frenzied chaos. Don't try this on an archaic rig, but systems that meet the minimum requirements should be able to crunch things without faltering.
The underworld is probably the only notable innovation -- basically a real-time version of the system pioneered in Simtex's venerable Master of Magic that adds extra "choke points" to either explore or guard against surprise enemy incursions. Sadly, all of the underworld sections are static and feel more like an excuse to merely extend the overworld than to capitalize on the novelty of a true multi-layered environment. Black Hole smartly placed two automaps in the interface, so you can quickly click between levels (or use the TAB key) and deploy troops that remarkably never get stuck, and tend to follow orders faithfully.
What holds Armies of Exigo back from loftier heights is the combination of a difficult interface and just the game's difficulty level in general. Click on a potion to heal a unit and the unit screen disappears altogether, forcing you to hunt on the main map for that one nearly-dead trooper. Expect to play most missions several times, from dozens of save points, before getting them right. Yes, this is one of those "just right" games, where the enemy AI pumps out endless hordes of fodder at clockwork intervals, forcing you to play every mission on the defensive. At times, the difficulty level is appropriate and welcome, but several missions had me raising my fist (and one finger in particular) at the screen in frustration.
Multiplayer tends to be less exciting than the campaign, simply because of the limited number of unit types and too-familiar game mechanics. The game's saving graces are its graphics and well-balanced races, and if you crave long backbreaking campaigns, you'll find plenty to keep you occupied here, but it's too bad that Black Hole couldn't have fleshed out the game's embryonic innovations to deliver something more daring and less imitative. Still, there are worse things than betting a game on a tried-and-true formula and delivering something that looks fantastic and plays bug-free.
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