April 15, 2009

Sidetracked to a Fantasy World

I was planning to devote myself to playing AGS games for at least a month, but got sidetracked.

While browsing for games to buy, I stumbled upon the Gold Edition of Fantasy Wars. I was aware that the title was well-received by both, the press and players, but never had a chance to play it. I was greatly enthused over the find and thought it would be the perfect specimen for my vast video game collection. Unfortunately, I decided to install and run the game, just to check if it was as exciting as everyone else thought it to be.

The game sucked me right in and didn't let go for three long evenings. After completing it (only the original Fantasy Wars), I felt horribly tired. Not only I barely got to sleep, but also struggled to have a single normal meal during the hours I spent playing. So captivated I was.

Quick Reference

Fantasy Wars was developed by Ino-Co, a Russian video game development company, a subsidiary of one of the biggest (if not the biggest) Russian video game publishing companies - 1C. It is a turn-based tactical wargame boasting with a fairly deep story set in a fantasy world.

Up to this moment there have been five Fantasy Wars titles released, but only two of them were translated to English - Fantasy Wars and Elven Legacy. Gold Edition includes all five games in their original language (Russian).

Following is the list of all the games in the series.

Full length games:

* Fantasy Wars (original title: Кодекс войны) - Russian release: August 31, 2007. EU release: November 7, 2007.

* Elven Legacy (original title: Кодекс войны: Высшая раса) - Russian release: December 21, 2007. US release: April 7, 2009. EU release: April 9, 2009. This is a stand-alone expansion (doesn't require the original game).

Small add-ons (all of these require either Fantasy Wars or Elven Legacy CD to play):

* Кодекс войны: Рейнджеры (no official English title, translated as Fantasy Wars: Rangers) - Russian release: March 14, 2008.

* Кодекс войны: Осада (no official English title, translated as Fantasy Wars: Siege) - Russian release: June 20, 2008.

* Кодекс войны: Магия (no official English title, translated as Fantasy Wars: Magic) - Russian release: December 26, 2008.

Fantasy Wars - Welcome to the World of Illis

In the original game there are three campaigns: Human Campaign, Orc Campaign and Elf Campaign (actually, it's called the Alliance Campaign). The latter one is unlocked upon completing the first two, no matter the order.

The story is not particularly original, but is interesting and detailed well enough to keep you captivated. There are two distinct conflicts: Humans versus Orcs and Alliance versus the ultimate evil (represented by the demon Farrakh). Orc and Human campaigns occur within the same time frame with most battles taking place at the same areas. Even so, the fights are never identical because Ugraum Grableg and Derrick Pfeil, the Orc and Human commanders, never got to clash with each other on the battlefield. After uniting the independent Orc tribes, Ugraum leads his enormous army to conquer Humans. Derrick is following the Orc leader's path of destruction, trying to regain control of the land.

It's loads of good fun to first hear about Orc invasion (it's better to start with the Human Campaign, however not mandatory), but then actually get to lead the unstoppable Orc army and relive the stories. At the end of the Orc Campaign you see a glimpse of things to come in the Alliance Campaign and are introduced to the evil force thirsty for power.

The Alliance Campaign is a different breed as it is not related to the Orc-Human conflict. The Alliance story starts with a group of Elves going on a quest to find a magic relic, and ends up with Human-Elven-Dwarven conjunction saving the world from an ancient force of evil. To add even more spice, someplace in the middle of the campaign you get to play Orcs again. This way the fate of Ugraum Grableg after the final events of the Orc Campaign is revealed - not a written message, not a cut scene, but a whole playable level. This is how the things roll in Fantasy Wars.

No matter which campaign, you start with only a few units under control. As the game progresses, the army grows bigger. Every unit surviving one battle, can be deployed in the next one. It is possible to buy new units or upgrade the existing ones using the money acquired during the conquest. The further in campaign, the more unit types are unlocked. All of the unit types have their own specific weaknesses and strengths. Some are good at defending city streets, others are more deadly when under cover of a forest. The variety is shocking - Humans, for example, have two various types of archers (not including the upgraded versions of them two). The crossbow archers are good at taking on the heavily armored units, and the longbow archers are priceless against the light units. The game pushes you to analyze the environment and learn the units' strong sides. There is no place for brute straight-forward approach, with the smart planning your army can beat a force three times bigger.

Every campaign offers about ten levels, still it can take a vast amount of time to complete one, even on the easiest difficulty setting. While fighting, units cumulate experience and eventually gain a new level. With every new level not only unit's primary attributes are increased, they are also granted a variety of selectable perks. Some of the perks can dramatically change the unit's fighting abilities. If experienced units are defeated due to a bad tactical decision, the chances are the next battle will be lost. Leveling up a new unit demands a lot of time, and without the experience it can't offer much of an assistance on later stages. The game seriously punishes you for losing experienced units and suggests to replay tough situations in order to keep everyone alive.

Each level has a set of goals. Some of them are considered as primary while others - secondary. Upon finishing all the primary goals, the level is complete. In addition to the primary and secondary goals, there are also awards for performance. Most of the time, the performance is judged by how many turns it takes to finish a level (sometimes it is also required to complete some of the secondary objectives). There are three types of awards: Gold, Silver and Bronze. Depending on the award, you are prized by either money, free units or an artifact. Most of the time the Gold Award has it all.

Artifacts can be collected while exploring a level and visiting the places of interest (most of the time it is not mandatory and sidetracks you from the primary objectives) or by receiving either of the awards. Every unit can be equipped with any kind of artifact. Hero units have three artifact slots, while regular units - only one. Artifacts are really important as they bring delicious bonuses.

I finished the Human Campaign on the highest level of difficulty while always gaining the Gold Award (I just had to). It took a vast amount of time. Every time I was losing a single unit or two, I had to revert to an earlier save game and think of a disparate tactics. Sometimes even start the level anew (I think I did it only once though). I was confident the reason behind the heavy time consumption was the high level of difficulty, so, by the time of the Orc Campaign, I grew confident it would be a healthier idea to switch to the lowest difficulty. At first I was relieved as the game appeared much easier. Somewhere in the middle of the campaign I switched to the toughest difficulty again (possible to select before any level), just to compare. To my great surprise, things didn't get that much different. At this point I can't really say there is a world of contrast between the easiest and the hardest levels of difficulty. Just to make it clear, the only difference between the three possible difficulty settings is the level of enemy units. The higher the difficulty level, the higher the level of (only some) enemies.

I spent one whole night playing the Alliance Campaign from start to finish. There were eight levels and it took me about eight hours to finish them. I wasn't checking how long did it take me to beat a particular level, but most of the Alliance Campaign levels are a cake thanks to their non-linear design - almost every time it is possible to uncover a safe route, to stealth your way to the key points while avoiding most of the fights. What got to me was the last level of the campaign. I was trying hard to get the Gold Award, but couldn't even come close to achieving that goal. An interesting thing about the last level is that you can select participating units not only from the pool of Elven/Dwarven army gathered at the start of the campaign, but also the units left after the end of the Human Campaign, with all their original attributes. I really couldn't see that coming and played the final level of the Human Campaign rather carelessly without caring to lose even the best of the best, so sure I was the battle for Humans is over for good. I had plenty of good units still, but found it impossible to succeed in the last level of the Alliance Campaign without completing the secondary objective first. I can't wrap my mind around it - if it is considered a secondary objective, it means it could be possible to leave it out. While in fact it was implausible. And with the secondary objective in the way, there is not enough time to receive the Gold Award.

That being said, I don't consider the game to be difficult over the top, even on the highest level of difficulty. There is just a bit of a learning curve (to understand all the units' abilities) and plenty of try-fail-try-differently situations. There are cases when, even with the most attentive planning, things can go wrong.

Fantasy Wars also has very rich and colorful graphics, nice music and an intuitive interface. This game is as fine as the day is long, and I entirely recommend it to everyone. Keep one thing in mind though - it is HIGHLY addictive.

Some Technical Details

Fantasy Wars doesn't support 16:9 format one hundred percent. The only things which are not supported in widescreen format are the world map, the loading screens - these are stretched incorrectly to fit the screen - and all the in-game cinematics - they are always running in 4:3. Even though everything else is displayed correctly, I could only wonder why developers wouldn't spend just a bit more time and make the game completely compatible with both, 4:3 and 16:9.

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