Ancient Wars: Sparta (PC) review
"While Sparta may look nice, it feels as though somebody took great elements from all over the RTS genre and put them all together in one game. It's a case where the whole is less than the sum of its parts, probably due to the fact that most of the parts are quite dated."
These days, any Real-Time-Strategy title needs something to set itself apart from the competition. Something like Supreme Commander’s sheer scale that lets you zoom all the way out to see the entire battlefield, or Warcraft III's blend of RTS and RPG elements, or the fully three-dimensional playing field that Homeworld became known for. Sparta's edge?
That's rather the problem. Ancient Wars: Sparta doesn't really bring anything new to the RTS genre. It's a very basic, cut-and-dry RTS of Ye Olde Schoole: Build a base, collect Food/Wood/Gold, build an army, attack another army. While this model was what made the genre great, Sparta's core gameplay is essentially a giant step backwards to the late 1990's, but with better graphics.
Now, I came into this expecting something like Rome: Total War, a tactical-level RTS interspersed with turn-based empire management. What I got was more like Age of Empires meets Warcraft III, with a sprinkling of ancient Greece for flavour. Right off the bat, Sparta loses points for historical inaccuracy; I doubt the armies of Sparta, Persia, or Egypt constructed a small city every time they went on campaign. There's your Age of Empires element; the Warcraft III bit comes from the inclusion of historical figures, notably the Spartan king Leonidas, as “heroes” that become more powerful as they gain combat experience.
As for more mundane soldiers, infantry are built from customizable “templates” and their equipment is unlocked through research. Though this is commonplace in modern turn-based titles, and even tactical real-time ones, it's an uncommon thing to see in a strategic-level RTS (though it's definitely a bright spot). This feature allows you to mass-produce cheap infantry to deal with a sudden strike or replace unexpected losses, while constructing powerful, more expensive soldiers during lulls in the action, each customized with a number of ranged or melee weapons each with unique properties. Spears, for example, are more effective when battling mounted units, while swords excel at defeating footsoldiers. My one quip in this area is the lack of a phalanx in some form or another – since the phalanx was, traditionally, the backbone of Sparta's army. Units in Ancient Wars: Sparta can be grouped into formations, but still fight as individuals – a glaring historical inaccuracy in this setting. It's, quite simply, madness.
Now, I know what you're thinking:
But now that we've got the obligatory “300” joke out of the way, let's get on with the review.
While it loses points for accuracy regarding soldiers and historical details, units and structures in Sparta do manage to capture the architectural feel of the three nations. While not what the hype promised, both the graphics and physics engines are superb; walls and buildings sag and crumble as they shrug off siege weapons, buildings look oh-so-pretty as they catch fire and burn to the ground, dead soldiers are sent flying back with satisfying, if totally unrealistic force, or simply fall from their horses as a sadistic giggle escapes your lips. And then there's the stuff about trees and grain fields and wind and waves, but come on, this is a war game. If you're paying enough attention to the beautifully-rendered scenery to appreciate it, you aren't playing properly.
But then, given the wind-up time in your average skirmish or multiplayer game, you may very well spend a lot of your games looking at the scenery. For an otherwise tactically-oriented game, Sparta takes, in this reviewer's opinion, an unnecessarily long time to get the player's infrastructure established and start producing soldiers. But then, Sparta can't seem to quite decide whether it wants to be tactical or strategic; things like heroes and customizable units seem to say “Micromanage!”, things like resource infrastructure and economy management scream “Macromanage!”, and all the while the dumb-as-a-doorknob unit AI doesn’t help at all. On top of that, the game maps, while nice enough to look at, are less than inspired.
Speaking of units, most of the unit speech is--I won't mince words--awful. A combination of bad voice acting and bad writing gives us unconvincing, bland readings at best, and wince-inducing performances at worst. And the directing isn't great either; else we wouldn't hear such blunders as the Persian archer who proclaims, “My bow serves Persia.” The way he pronounces “bow” would be more suited to a ship's captain than an archer.
While Sparta may look nice, it feels as though somebody took great elements from all over the RTS genre and put them all together in one game. It's a case where the whole is less than the sum of its parts, probably due to the fact that most of the parts are quite dated. Couple that with unimaginative, railroading level design, bad voice acting, and historical inaccuracy (for which I'm a stickler), and Sparta just doesn't make the cut.
Freelance review by Will Roy (July 01, 2007)
Will is grumpy, sarcastic and Canadian. He occasionally crawls out of his igloo to cover sci-fi and strategy games. Has a love-hate relationship with cats. And the colour purple.
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