Strategy gamers play through the military turmoil and triumphs of the legendary Macedonian emperor in this real-time game. Though released alongside a number of other PC games that follow the life of Alexander the Great, Ubi Soft's Alexander is based directly on the 2004 Oliver Stone film, and features clips and music from the movie. The game's series of battles follows the military campaign of the leader, as portrayed in the film, and alternate history scenarios are offered as well, allowing players a fighting chance if they decide take command of Alexander's enemies.
Alexander the game is based on Oliver Stone's Alexander (the epic, critically snubbed movie), and seems to follow the latter's lead in chartering high production value, then locking it in a straightjacket. This is real-time without the strategy, a pretty history hack with crummy controls, and it's really too bad, because the new hybrid 2D/3D engine (developed for the forthcoming Cossacks 2) looks great. Oliver Stone may have a point when he says his movie was too morally ambiguous for Americans, but a similar appeal to avant-garde game design won't explain Alexander the Sprite and his battle fodder wading tactlessly into melee after melee despite your best efforts to save their witless necks. Picture Mongolian swarms of armored soldiers lurching across attractive 3D maps, barely responding to your increasingly frantic clicks -- if only they'd called it a Magic Wand of Maybe instead of a mouse.
Campaign mode tracks Alexander the Great's progress from Macedonia to India, one territory at a time. After beating the Alexander campaign, the game unlocks three additional campaigns from the vantage of Persia, India, or Egypt. The campaign map has no strategic value, and merely indicates your progress between scenarios. Battles occur on large 3D maps scintillating with detail and typically consist of dozens of goals, but nothing you haven't seen before: escort a unit, capture an outpost, engage an army's flank, establish a foothold at some location, wipe the enemy from the map, etc. Despite the game's licensed cutscenes, beautiful 2D art, and Vangelis' stirring soundtrack, there's not much about the basic gameplay that doesn't feel conventional and tired. If you've played Rome: Total War, these disappointing "lasso-and-charge" mechanics feel like a sadistic wayback machine.
There's no tutorial, but don't worry -- Alexander isn't complex enough to need one. Units can be grouped or singled out with the left mouse button, and commands are executed by right clicking on terrain or buildings. After generating enough units, you can lock them into formations of up to 100, which improves management somewhat, but as soon as combat begins, hundreds of howling spearmen, priests, chariots, etc. simply vanish in undulating blobs of color that not even preset keyboard groupings can unsnarl. Just getting units to the intended location can be a chore. When right clicking on terrain, sometimes the game provides a red confirmation animation, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes units will enigmatically stop halfway to their destination, their path clear and unhindered, sometimes they won't. Sometimes units placed in defensive mode will still attack, and then utterly ignore your commands to draw them away from battle. The incompetence of the A.I. is pretty appalling.
Outside of the scripted missions, skirmish and multiplayer battles put you in traditional resource contests. Forests and farms provide wood and food, and stone quarries yield stone for buildings. Scattered about the map are gold and iron deposits that require mines to control. New structures unlock god-like units, and dwellings can be constructed to expand your population cap, which is where the other part of the game comes crashing down: there is no cap on population. Resources are infinite, so forests never thin, gold mines never empty, and if you remain relatively unmolested, your army can swell well into the thousands. Two things happen once you break the 1,000 unit barrier: first, every control problem mentioned above occurs in triplicate. Second, all those units stretched across massive swathes of the map (note my specs) slow the game to a stuttering, completely unplayable mess. On a more average computer, performance dies at over 500, and if you want to play with more than two or three opponents, you might as well try swimming in cement.
Of course, the enemy pays no attention to your computer's CPU speed or lack of memory, and will attack you mercilessly, wave upon wave. This turns any un-timed match, whether online or against the computer, into a total quagmire. Where's the population cap option in the skirmish setup screen? It's no-brainers like these that transform a potentially interesting albeit conventional real-time game into a disagreeable slog. Alexander isn't a matter of taste; it's a matter of functional incapacity. If you're looking to get your fix in this historical period, there are plenty better and recent arrivals.
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