The Romance of the Three Kingdoms provides a wealth of information about ancient China for game developers, much in the same way the Iliad does for mythological backgrounds. The book's battles, heroes, and villains inspired Koei to produce an entire series dealing with China's turbulent journey to unification. Now Strategy First dips into the story's pageantry of conquest with Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs, a real-time strategy game that revisits ancient China and its principle power brokers. Unfortunately, any potential excitement is sabotaged by uninspired gameplay.
After the collapse of the Han Dynasty around 220 A.D., China dissolved from one nation into three states ruled by three unique leaders: Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and San Quan. Each man sought to rejoin the fragments by war and diplomacy, with himself as Emperor. In a stunning act of deception, Cao Cao was tricked into linking all his boats together for stability in rough waters near Red Cliffs, but a fireboat attack destroyed his fleet and nearly killed him in a skirmish that defined the lines of the Three Kingdoms. After the famous battle, each general returned to his corner of China and plotted, and it's at this point you enter the period of conquest to direct troops abroad and oversee the production of materials at home.
Although Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs is filled with the unfamiliar names and history of China, the documentation does a fine job establishing the series of events that lead up to the political intrigue and bloody conflicts. In addition to the information in the manual, a .PDF file contains even more information about the Three Kingdom's period, but the game inexplicably doesn't provide the Acrobat Reader program required to read it -- just another example of the oversights missed in production of this title.
As real-time strategy, Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs is mostly traditional fare with little innovation. You recruit peasants and send them to work collecting iron and wood to fund the construction of more complicated buildings. New buildings provide different foodstuffs for supporting an army in the field, training areas for soldiers, and standard RTS-like improvements in unit or production stats. Heavy siege weapons can be made for breaching walls and horses provide the added edge via mounted troops. Dragon Throne begins firmly planted on the coattails of other successful games, but wanders off before developing into a solid game in its own right.
Although similar to other games in the genre, Red Cliffs misses a few ingredients in the recipe. Action is incredibly slow, evidenced by peasants who petulantly creep to destinations only to tromp back even more slowly as the game lowers their already torpid speed by 25% when laden. Construction of buildings is painfully slow and production values are no better. Even with the speed option set at the highest level, no sense of urgency or increased productivity is apparent. In one case, the computer, set at normal AI, took a full 20 minutes to attack in a skirmish match, presumably needing the time to muster its attack force of seven troops. Perhaps the pace is intended to discourage "tank rush" tactics, but it also rules out any chance of a quick match during a lunch hour as well.
Other grievances include a lack of formations for troops and a viable market system. Considering the game is designed in the RTS format and deals with excellent historical strategists, it's ironic that not even the most rudimentary formations can be ordered. A box formation would help protect siege engines, and flanking maneuvers, essential even before ancient China, aren't an option. Melees evolve into "click-fests" with numbers winning out over tactics nearly every time.
Fortunately, building an unmanageable force takes quite some time, since gold is a rare commodity that arrives once a month, as does the merchant who buys excess stock. Since construction, improvements and training all cost unbalanced amounts of gold, the stockpiling of troops takes unseemly amounts of time. Finally, unintuitive fog of war obscures your own home area behind your walls and grows back rather quickly over explored areas. Shouldn't the general know his own territory like the back of his hand? It seems bizarre that these items were overlooked during the development phase. While the flaws don't destroy the game totally, they drive it into mediocrity and ruin a perfectly viable setting, which is even worse.
Dragon Throne showcases its potential in the graphics and sound areas. While the buildings are rendered in the usual isometric view, each has a distinct feel of the age. Animations are decent, even more so in battle. The archers are especially fun to watch when they release their fiery salvos. Sounds are impressive and the Chinese voices are exotic, if a bit distracting, and background music adds an immersion factor. As for gameplay, a tree of 50 officer skills adds some life to the mostly bland action, and two-mini maps allow you to move between playing areas and require building camps to maintain armies on the march. Even so, the distances involved can make maintaining the home front a bit of a chore.
Had the designers stuck to the formula that produced a generation of Command & Conquer clones, Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs would modestly stand out with its unusual settings, decent graphics, and minimal contributions to the genre. Instead, the game fails to join the ranks and will slip into obscurity, noted only for its failure to deliver on a simple promise of engaging gameplay. Until Koei decides to add a RTS to their Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, gamers will be better off playing the Chinese in Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings and hunting down a translation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms instead.
Graphics: Standard isometric viewpoint, but animations are good and the buildings are appropriate to the age.
Sound: The Chinese voices are loud and convincing, but constant subtitles might wear on some players. The background music is relaxing and unobtrusive.
Enjoyment: Gameplay is the torpedo that sinks this torpid vessel. Ponderous building up of forces might accurately reflect ancient China, but it drags the game down. Peasants moving this slowly would have been executed.
Replay Value: After wading through the single player game, multiplayer and skirmish modes add some game longevity.
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