Computer Graphics Memory Disk Space Minimum 386 VGA 4 MB 2.3 MB Max/Rec. 486 8 MB Control: keyboard, mouse, joystick Sound: Adlib, Aria, SB family, Wave Blaster, PAS family, Roland family, General MIDI, Soundscape, Soundwave 32 Notes: different devices for music and sound effects supported; double-speed CD-ROM drive recommended Reviewed on: 486DX-33, 16 MB RAM, Trident 8900 SVGA card, SB16 ASP + Wave Blaster, NEC CDR-84J, MS Mouse 2.0, CH Flightstick Pro, MS-DOS 6.2, QEMM 7.03, Norton Speedrive 4.0
Designed by Silicon Knights, Fantasy Empires is the second Dungeons & Dragons (as opposed to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) product from SSI, the first being D&D: Stronghold. Set in the world of Mystara, it is a fantasy wargame of conquest along the lines of the award-winning Warlords from SSG and SSI's own AD&D: War of the Lance and Sword of Aragon. Combat is, however, real-time; although the arcade segment will be fairly acceptable to most wargamers who dislike frenetic action games. It is also possible to have a two player game with the second player using the keyboard to control the combat segments.
The CD-ROM version of the game has several enhancements - more digitized voice samples of the Dungeon Master, the ability to select your character's shield design, three new terrain types (broken lands, black sands, and swamp), three new strategy spells (dispel evil, obscure, and timestop), and six new combat spells (disintegrate, transmute flash to stone, resist fire, striking, metal to wood, and warp wood). My review will, however, not address these enhancements specifically, but will look at the game as a whole.
The 58 page manual is fairly comprehensive. However, the game was sorely in need of a separate reference card, particularly a list of the function key operations in combat mode. This was provided, but in the manual! A separate map of the Known Worlds of Mystara should also have been given, instead of having it as the centrefold of the manual. Cost savings should not be at the expense of utility! The manual also serves the usual look-up-the-word copy protection scheme, which may be acceptable except for the way it was implemented. I had thought I'd seen the last of the look-up-the-word-everytime-a-new-session-was-started scheme with SSI's Gold Box series, since they went to a less intrusive look-up-the- word-within-certain-segments-of-the-game in the Eye of the Beholder and Dark Sun series. In Fantasy Empires, the earlier method has returned, and can go from mildly irritating at first the downright annoying, considering it takes quite some time to load the game from the CD drive, even with Norton Speedrive 4.0. All these ensures that this manual is going to a well-thumbed one, and perhaps for the wrong reasons.
There are basically two interface screens to the game, the strategic map view where all planning, building, and diplomatic moves are made, and the combat screen. Movement about the world map is very simple, one just moves the mouse to the edges and the map will scroll smoothly in that direction. One can also click on a small world map in the middle of the icon bar at the bottom to go instantly to the area highlighted. All actions are icon driven, which implies that the intuitiveness of the iconic interface is of utmost importance. Alas, not all the iconic representations are obvious, and hence the learning curve can be quite steep. While designing icons will always be perceptively dicey, game companies should learn from the application software leaders like Microsoft and Lotus, who have implemented a system which does not take the user for granted. If one points to their icons with the mouse, a description of what it represents will appear somewhere on the screen. If game companies were to adopt such a system, with an ability to turn it off once the interface has been mastered, it will be an absolute boon to user-friendliness.
While the mouse is the main interface device for the strategic map screen, it is completely disabled in the combat screen! Here, the advisable input device is the joystick. I simply don't understand this. The real-time combat is not your typical arcade game where quick reflexes is paramount. Using a mouse to direct your hero/troops would have sufficed. In fact, it may even be possible to implement the ability to give varying orders to different troops by highlighting them in a box with a mouse, making the tactical combat much deeper and challenging. Worse, the combat and view orders must be given via the keyboard as there is no cursor at all in the combat screen. This makes the absence of a reference card even more glaring. The combat area is also vast relative to the area that can be viewed, and while there is a little screen that shows all the combatants as dots, there is no way to quickly go to another area by using the mouse to highlight it as in the strategic map screen. The only ways to do so are by scrolling all over with the joystick, or jumping through each combatant or hero with a keystroke.
Play begins by deciding whether to play one of the ten scenarios, which can be useful tutorial sessions, or going to the campaign game. In the latter, one must first create a character D&D style, which can then be used in future campaigns. One then chooses the opponents one will face, up to a maximum of 4. Each player begins with one territory and then it's grab as much as possible till contact is made. From here on, things get complicated.
One is likely to encounter at least 2 or more foes eventually along the borders of one's fledgling empire, so diplomacy is going to be important. This can take the form of demanding, accepting, and offering tributes and treaties. You can also make diplomatic overtures to other players whom you have yet to encounter, and may be strategically useful if you know they must be engaging in a bitter war with one of your foes. The neural network technology employed throughout the game ensures that the other players remember your actions in dealing with them, and this will affect their posture towards you in future dealings. Beware, though, the computer players are also capable of backstabbing and betrayal as any sniveling human.
In the process of all these, keeps, armouries, towers and castles must be built to sustain and protect your kingdom. Troops (there are several types - human, orc, elf, dwarf, halfling, shadow elf, undead), siege engines (battering ram, ballista, catapult) and heroes (elf, magic-user, cleric, druid, fighter, dwarf) must be trained, and the latter can be sent on quests to recover magical items. Strategic spells can also be cast to spy or wreak havoc on your enemies, and give protection to your lands. In the strategic mode, the computer Dungeon Master will make comments and pass remarks. While he generally gives good advice, he tends to nag; during the latter stages of my campaign, he will invariably say "The world is a hostile place, and you are hated by many, perhaps you should negotiate for peace" EVERY turn! aaarrgghh!! see? I even remember it verbatim, it has been seared into my mind! :-} Denis Dyack, one of the designers at Silicon Knights, assured me that as my character's experience develops through several campaigns, this will occur less often, as the DM's actions are influenced by your experience. I liked the DM's snoring, though. Once, I had to leave the game on for some time while I took a bath, and upon coming back, caught the DM snoring away!
Combat takes place with all buildings like castles and keeps that are in that territory present on the map as well. Defending troops can stay within the castle and let the enemy try to break in. You can place your troops in clusters of twenty, plus heroes and siege engines, in whatever starting formation, or let the computer handle the placement, in which case it is always in squarish rows and columns, with heroes and siege engines in the rear. There can only be 25 troop clusters in action at any time, with the remainder as reserves. These will automatically join in as troops perish. Combat spells can also be cast if you have hero spellcasters among your troops. You can either direct the combat yourself, or just watch the computer carry out your orders in the arcade mode.
The troops generally exhibit intelligent behaviour in combat, they will know how to seek out enemy troops elsewhere if their opponents have already been defeated. However, if three friendly units are already lined up against one enemy unit, any friendly unit coming up behind the three that are engaged will simply walk up and down that line, the possibility of going around that line seems to escape it. The sounds of metal against metal and battle cries are relatively well done, although some of the grunts and cries don't sound right, but we can attribute it to the non-human units. After the battle is completed, a summary screen will show the casualties suffered on both sides. One can also skip the arcade mode and let the computer simulate the battle, in which case, only the summary statistics will be shown.
I found certain oddities in combat - it seems that if I were to just let the computer play out the arcade part (not switch to simulation mode, just play out arcade mode without much intervention from myself), I would get better results if my forces were numerically superior or qualitatively better. I usually end up with no casualties whilst massacring the enemy. However, if I switch to simulation mode in the same situation, I invariably get casualties even when I win the battle. Thus, it was wise throughout the campaign to go to arcade mode when you are sure you would win, and switch to simulation mode if you are losing (in which case, the enemy suffers more casualties than it would have otherwise in arcade mode, although you still lose). A check with Denis confirmed that the simulation will indeed lead to different results.
Apart from taking advantage of the anomalies in the different combat modes, one should pay very close attention to diplomacy and finances. Fighting on more than one front in the early stages is an invitation to disaster. Accept any treaties offered if you are not prepared to fight them, and strike deals with those who don't offer any. However, maintain a garrison on each border territory and those with active armouries.
Never, never get into a situation where you don't have enough money to build a keep (7500 gold)! A keep is essential to maintain control in a territory, otherwise, troops will be lost doing that, and the territory may eventually become neutral again if no troops are left and no keep is built. A minimum sum of 10,000 gold in the kitty per turn should be safe.
Use your elite troops and high-level heroes wisely - mixing them up with regular troops to act as cannon fodder can make mincemeat of numerically superior but lower quality defenders or attackers. Destroy enemy elite forces with spells prior to battle. Low-level heroes should be sent to retrieve artifacts, although higher-level ones may have to be risked to have a better chance of success on the more difficult quests.
I've found that spells directed against buildings are generally not very useful, unless you want to destroy armouries. Besides, conquest of a territory will enable you to use all the buildings there except keeps, which must be rebuilt. I always select spells targeted against enemy troops like metal to wood or transmute flesh to stone, if I have hero spellcasters in my ranks.
It is also wise to include some siege engines with every attacking force, especially battering rams and catapults, so that any castle encountered can be broken into, otherwise, your units will just encircle the castle ad infinitum. In lieu of these, spellcasters like druids and magic-users can also destroy walls for the rest of the forces to pour in.
In spite of the interface problems, once it is mastered, Fantasy Empires is rather enjoyable. Unlike Warlords, however, every territory has to be captured to end a campaign, and this may be rather tedious once victory is a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, Fantasy Empires fills a void in D&D/AD&D computer gaming which has previously seen only War of the Lance in the wargame genre.This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by Sir Launcelot du Lake for GameBytes. All rights reserved.