Shadowed by the tremendous success of Activision's Dark Reign and GT Interactive's Total Annihilation, another real-time strategy (RTS) game emerged last year that garnered critical acclaim but failed to tip the scale at retail with only 35,000 units sold to date (PC Data). The game was Seven Kingdoms, an ambitious title created by Trevor Chan (of Capitalism fame) that fused real-time war elements of the aforementioned RTS offerings but with a heavier emphasis on economics and empire building a la Civilization. Perhaps the timing was poor, the game proved too difficult or it suffered from meager marketing, but Chan and the savvy design team at Enlight Software were determined to return with an even more realized follow-up. While the sequel situation didn't look good at the onset, with Interactive Magic liquidating its CD-ROM line, Ubi Soft fortunately picked up Seven Kingdoms II and now Chan & co. have another chance to spread their gospel. So, strategy gamers, take heed, because this one is a true winner.
The goal in Seven Kingdoms II: The Fryhtan Wars is to dominate the game world through cunning combat, shrewd economics and/or cautious diplomacy. Players must choose from one of twelve unique human civilizations (Japanese, Persian, Celt, Viking and Mongol, to name a few), each with its own special units, structures and "greater powers", or for the first time in the series, gamers can control one of seven Fryhtan races. The two sides also must adhere to said rules; Fryhtans can't engage in diplomacy, humans recruit military from allied towns while Fryhtans breed warriors, humans are punished for civilian units killing whereas Fryhtans are rewarded, and so forth. These differences between the two species, not to mention subtle differences between the races among them, make for well-balanced and intriguing gameplay (and naturally, added replayability).
As with other popular RTS games, such as Age of Empires II: Age of Kings and Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, resource gathering is also required to fuel the gameplay. Copper, clay and iron must be harvested from mines, which then must be refined and then sold for income (or alternatively, these goods can be bought from other kingdoms if need be). Workers are needed every step of the way, including constructing and maintaining structures, researching a myriad of technologies and serving as a liaison to other kingdoms, and both military and civilian units can double as spies, a key component and fresh twist to the gameplay. Peasants are also need to farm to the land for sustenance, so the population must be balanced accordingly to ensure a healthy integration of responsibilities. This harmony between kingdom denizens is key as little food or scarce supplies may result in defection or even revolts. We're talking a painstaking attention to detail here, folks.
Combat is not limited to aligning newly-trained troops in formations, either. War machines, such as ballistas, cannons and spitfires, can be produced in war factories (providing the technology has been researched), plus humans can also recruit heroes if they offer their services in an inn. For instance, the Romans may get Julius Caesar or Aeneas on their side, whereas the Chinese may benefit from the prowess of T'ai-tsung or Sun Tsun. They also may be carrying some pretty rad weapons, as well.
What makes the game much more interesting (and arguably a welcomed feature by turn-based strategy fans) is the ability to pause the action to make changes (space bar, or P), such as the need to take stock of resources, peruse through trade income, check the availability of heroes, and more.
Graphically, the game isn't anything to hoot and hollar about, though the terrain, unique civilizations and large structures are much better looking than the ones found in Seven Kingdoms (with resolutions now topping 1024 x 768). All in all, it doesn't matter that it's not as attractive as say the 3D Myth or Battlezone RTS series as a great game is never contingent on its visual appeal. A few beefs with the screen real estate, though. Indeed there's lots to do in the game and the keyboard shortcuts aren't for everyone, but a larger game area would've been preferred instead of a third or forth of the viewing area dominated by the right-side menus.
Single-player gameplay options consist of a stand-alone randomly-generated maps or a (luke-warm) campaign mode (also with randomly-generated maps). Either way, the objectives are usually the same: collect, build, research, trade and/or fight. The maps could also have been beefed up with more varied topography (how about rivers, lakes, woods, mountains, volcanoes, canyons/gorges, etc.) instead of littering the greens with sparsely-placed human towns and Fryhtan lairs. Multiplayer gameplay is performed over a LAN or Net. There are multiple options to choose from, as well, such as how many kingdoms will be computer-controlled, the difficulty level, building size, and so forth. At first, the program wouldn't let me create a new player, but it then worked the following day when I logged in again. Also, I found it difficult to find players using the built-in server listing, but alas, I persevered and once started, it was smooth sailing.
If all this sounds overwhelming for beginner gamers ¿ it is ¿ but after a few hands-on hours of gameplay (not to mention a robust tutorial and comprehensive manual), the steep learning curve makes it worth while in the end. Seven Kingdoms II is a highly-enjoyable and highly-detailed strategy game with seemingly limitless options and avenues for replayability. If you were one of the folks who missed out on its predecessor because you already dumped your cash on other RTS games or perhaps felt the genre was over-saturated, be sure to consider this sequel for an entertaining and deeply challenging gaming experience.
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