Originally developed under the title "Druid King," this real-time strategy game is set in ancient Gaul. Celtic Kings' "strategic mode" allows players to take command of one of four historically based factions: the Gauls, the Romans, the Teutons, or the Druids. The game also features a "story mode" campaign, which leads the single player through a series of missions in the role of a Gaul warrior named Larax, who has sworn to avenge the murder of his lover by the vicious Teutons. The story of Larax progresses through the Gauls' introduction to, alliance with, and eventual rebellion against Caesar's mighty Roman Empire.
Celtic Kings: Rage of War is set amid a highly fictionalized backdrop of Julius Caesar's campaigns in Gaul, back in the 50s. (B.C., that is.) There are two primary modes of game play in Celtic Kings: adventure and strategic mode. In the adventure mode, you take on the role of Larax, a young Gallic warrior seeking revenge for the brutal murder of his girlfriend and fellow Gauls by raiding Teutons. Adding mayhem to misery, the vengeful widower vows to serve the goddess of war, Kathubodua.
Of course, it's a war game, so love-ins and fuzzy bunny suits weren't really in the cards. Thankfully, there's a benefit to Larax's allegiance to Kathubodua: he gets to lug around a nice big magic hunk of rock wherever he does battle, granting him the power to slay entire armies single-handedly, if need be. As the plot unfolds (and thickens), others join in Larax's quest, but every so often, it's just down to him and slew of enemies.
It's a bumpy ride at first, and playing through the tutorial mode prior to starting the adventure is a good idea, although not essential for seasoned veterans of the standard point-and-click, hack-and-slash RPG (or those who take five minutes to peruse the instruction manual). It is, however, quite essential to familiarize yourself with the ever-handy F6 button, to quick-save the game whenever you've made progress. I was severely agitated by the adventure mode at first, as I wound up starting from scratch several times prior to learning the joys of the quick-save, simply because a key character under Larax's protection kept getting himself killed early-on.
Once things start falling into place, the adventure mode improves by leaps and bounds. With entire armies at your disposal, you'll conduct epic Braveheart-style battles geared towards freeing the oppressed and executing the oppressors. I was astonished the first time an opposing force approached my group, attacked, and then fled, to lure my soldiers to their well-armed, highly populated camp. Ambushed!
Tacking military units to your hero (by selecting them and then right-clicking on him) allows you to create battle formations and increase the experience points of the individual units (this holds true in strategy mode, where it is particularly useful). At times, you will need to part with your sympathetic allies, wandering alone in search of answers. These points tend to be the most frustrating, and the best course of action is to explore every area until something crops up.
Although the graphics are crisp and well animated, controlling the view is woefully limited. There are two perspectives to choose from: near and far. The full-screen mini-map displays all explored areas from a locked overhead perspective in which characters are reduced to tiny color-coded squares. The closer, angular overhead view reveals the details of characters and objects within a small portion of the map; moving the pointer to the edge of the screen in this view forces it to scroll. Although these limitations are not uncommon, and ultimately do not detract from the inherent joys of playing this game, I've been spoiled over the past decade or so by interfaces with considerably more freedom of movement, so I do consider this a minor letdown.
More upsetting by far are the sudden, disorienting camera jumps that occur during narrative interruptions in the adventure mode. I appreciate the need to propel aspects of a narrative, but games with far more complicated interfaces, such as the innovative 3D space RTS games in the Homeworld line, more fluidly incorporate such events, and this strikes me as an amateurish aspect to an otherwise topnotch title.
A final complaint, and then it's back to ranting about the many strengths of this game: Although humorous at times, the redundant voice samples, which tend to cycle through three or four main phrases, can be truly grating after a while. Every single time you click to move Larax around, he will announce (often to no one in particular), "Follow me!", "True warriors are hard to find!", "I lead armies!", or "I need more men!" I wondered at times if the trauma of losing his true love might have prompted a complete mental collapse. I'm certain that a few simple lines of code could have minimized this grievance, which again, is not an uncommon one, but remains a letdown.
These offenses aside, Celtic Kings should still be applauded for its highly successful balance of RTS and RPG elements. The adventure mode, which improves vastly over time, will provide a good 50 to 60 hours of game time to the average player, and is rewarding in its own right. There's something to be said for a point-and-click adventure in which you're controlling 40 soldiers, are offered assistance by another army of 40 or 50 men, and are then given the option to "call in the elite forces"... and still have trouble defeating the enemy.
There's even more to be said for the strategy mode, which took me roughly ten minutes to fall in love with. Although some RTS enthusiasts will be put off by the inability to build structures, the focus here is on building a population, feeding it, amassing wealth, harnessing military strength, kicking the snot out of opposing armies, and taking over their resources, which are generally quite different from your own. The strategy mode can be played against the computer or against multiple opponents, with too many options to catalogue here.
Whether you play as a Gaul or a Roman in strategy mode, the bottom line is learning how to use your resources and grow. Amass enough wealth as a Roman and you'll afford some deadly Praetorians to further your cause. As a Gaul, work your way towards equipping an elite force of women warriors, capable of killing weakened units with a single blow. Gauls also have Druids at their disposal. The initial purpose of the Druids is to heal your units, but over time, they may acquire additional abilities, including the power to summon ghouls, control wildlife (excellent for spying purposes), turn invisible, and perform sacrificial rituals. Similarly, Roman priests are initially healers, but ultimately harness the powers of Jupiter to harm the enemy.
Amid the clang of swords, the woosh of arrows, the clomp of hooves, the blaring of war horns, the firing of catapults, and the swelling of the background score, there is a majestic grace to Celtic Kings that vastly overpowers its few shortcomings. The powerful, easy-to-learn in-game editor, which allows players to create new adventures and strategic scenarios, is gravy on this tasty dish, virtually guaranteeing a long shelf life for this product, particularly among the hardcore. Definitely worth checking out.
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