Chariots of War presents the fierce battles of ancient Mesopotamia. Players take control of one of 58 nations -- Egyptians, Babylonians, Nubians, Assyrians, and others -- and mastermind economic development projects, sell marketable commodities, collect resources, and take direct control of their armies during battles. The citizens of every empire have varying happiness and welfare levels depending on how well they are fed, how crowded their cities are, how many young men are conscripted, and available entertainment. Players must balance military needs with domestic improvements, or risk rebellion. Diplomats are sent as emissaries between nations, but they can always be returned headless to send a message. Barbarian tribes wander throughout the Fertile Crescent as well, looting and giving players an additional threat to neutralize.
Chariots of War is the follow-up title to Legion, last year's underwhelming turn-based strategy game set in ancient Rome. This time around, developer Slitherine Strategies turns back the clock and shifts the playing field to the ancient Near East, allowing you to play such empires as the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Nubians. In fact, over 50 empires are in the game (ten of which are playable), as well as four campaigns; it certainly doesn't fail due to a lack of scope and size. But fail it does. While Chariots of War is undoubtedly a better game than Legion, it still has a generic, paper-thin feel to it.
The key difference between Chariots of War and other strategy games is that the combat model is completely hands-off. When armies meet on the overland map, you play the role of general and draw up a basic battle plan, and then watch as your army runs off in real-time to slug it out against the enemy. The problem is, you cannot control the units manually; when the fighting ensues, you're merely a spectator. The idea behind this method of combat is a sound one; devising a pre-battle plan to outwit your opponent and hope that your boys can pull it off. It's like that famous line in the movie Patton: "If you defeat Rommell's plan, you defeat Rommell." The problem is that while it's a bit better than it was in Legion, the combat model still isn't fleshed out enough.
First off, the battle map is still too small. It makes it difficult to plan and orchestrate flanking maneuvers. The orders that you may give each army group are more varied than before, and you can still issue formation orders, but a few key commands are missing, such as ordering your skirmishers to unleash their javelins and then withdraw, or ordering spearmen to simply stay put and wait for the oncoming charge. There is also no rallying of units once they start to flee. Once they break, they head for the hills. While terrain plays an important role in combat (as does attacking from the rear and flanks, if you can pull it off), it's upsetting that your combat options remain a bit limited. Also upsetting is the fact that when you fight a battle, the losing units are completely removed from the game; it doesn't matter if they were simply routed off the field or died in battle. You cannot live to fight another day, which is odd because ancient combat rarely (if ever) saw every man die by the sword.
Whether or not you enjoy Chariots of War will directly correlate to your opinion of this combat interface, since the game is all about building armies and fighting it out. Diplomacy is pretty much worthless as all it's good for is learning the attitude of an empire or the identity of its best friend or enemy. You cannot win, or even get a leg up, by playing nice with another empire.
There are some improvements from the Legion design model. No longer must you wait a full year (four turns) for city structures to be constructed. Smaller buildings are thrown up in a couple of turns. This helps speed the game up which is nice considering the staggering size of the "Grand Campaign." There are also many more types of structures to build. If you did happen to like Legion, Chariots of War throws a lot more stuff into the mix in terms of what you can do with each city.
The biggest problem with the game is that it just feels generic. Sure, there are oodles of empires included in the package, but they're all pretty much the same outside of a unique unit and a different starting location on the overland map. The leaders of each army are still these faceless pawns that have little to no impact on the game; while the armies themselves earn experience and improve in battle, you never get a sense of who is leading it, something that would have added a much needed dose of personality.
The fact that multiplayer support remains absent is a bit of a surprise. Games such as these are ideal for multiplayer gaming, especially play by e-mail, but the game remains a single-player only affair. While graphics and sound aren't vital to enjoying a turn-based strategy game, it's upsetting that the combat graphics are as poor as they are -- the animation is way too fast and it looks a bit comical. Audio is pretty much an afterthought, as you only get a few grunts during combat, some hammer and pick noises in the city menu, and a musical score.
If you are interested in ancient combat and want something with a bit more realism than the Age of Empires games, then dig up a copy of I-Magic's Great Battles of Alexander, or better yet, the Great Battles of Hannibal. Or you could simply hold out a while for Rome: Total War. Regardless, Chariots of War, just like Legion, remains a good idea waiting to be fully realized and simply needs more depth to compete with the competition.
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Celtic Kings: Rage of War, Ancient Wars: Sparta, Caesar IV, Axis & Allies, Castle Strike, Civil War Generals 2, Battleground 6: Napoleon in Russia, Against Rome
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