The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome DVD CD-ROM
Published by: Black Bean
Developed by: Slitherine
Release Date: Out Now
For years we had both entertainment software (often dubbed edutainment) and of course we've had many strategy games that have been steeped in history but it's not often we see a product that's a mix of the two. Indeed that's exactly what I was expecting when The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome arrived for review. Imagine my surprise then when the game turned out to be more of a simplistic strategy game with its fair share of RPG elements. Having played the game over the course of the last few weeks I'm still baffled by the fact that despite being a middling strategy game in many ways, it proves to be addictive and can easily swallow up hours at a time.
The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome gives you the chance to take part in a Roman and Celt campaign and engage in a multitude of battles. When you load the game for the first time you'll have to play through a mini tutorial campaign that explains all you need to know to play the game. This tutorial sees you controlling a Latin army through a couple of battles. You'll learn how to setup your forces for a battle, how to control them during a battle and how to upgrade them after a battle. You're also shown how to customise their appearance (nothing more than changing the colour of their clothing) and how to recruit more units. Finally you're shown the options menu before being led into the first real campaign where you'll play as the Romans (on completing the Romans campaign you'll also have access to the Celt campaign). There is also a Multiplayer mode that enables you to take part in network battles against human opposition.
The main focus of Great Battles of Rome is creating your own army of units and developing them in a unique fashion. There are around 20 different unit types in the game but when you first start a campaign you'll only be able to recruit the basic unit types such as Skirmishers, Militia and Peasants. Of course you'll begin with a Legate (your leader) and Scout to accompany your Militia and Skirmisher units and in the early stages these are more than sufficient to deal with the enemies. As you advance the stronger unit classes (war elephants for instance) become available for recruiting. The two main resources you'll use to recruit, improve and care for your units are fame and denarii, which you'll earn in battle. You'll be able to name these units, if you wish, as well as purchasing better weaponry and armour for them. Of course recruiting units and purchasing weaponry and armour upgrades costs denarii and early on in the campaign you won't have access to much. During the battles your units will gain experience and eventually they will level-up. When they do level-up you'll be able to select an ability for the unit which will give specific attributes a boost. Being able to mould an army to fit your playing style is surprisingly satisfying and undoubtedly the highlight of the game.
Battles are the main focus of the game and there are plenty of them to get through. At the start of a battle you'll drag and drop your units into position. Each battle only allows a specified number of units on the battlefield so it won't always be possible to bring all of your units into the fight. Before the battle commences you'll give your units a variety of instructions. You can order them to advance, charge, stay where they are for a short while or even longer, envelop, outflank, order them to seek the enemy or hold fire. You can also tell them to remain defensive, offensive or balanced in regards to their formation. When you're finally happy you can begin the battle. From this point onwards your units will carry out the orders, in real time, that you've given them. You can intervene but doing so will cost you order points. These points replenish after a while but you have to be careful what orders you issue because you'll only be able to issue a couple of orders at any one time and then you'll have to wait for the points to replenish. Essentially this gives a feeling of limited control over your units. The game offers three difficulty modes - Normal, Hard and Very Hard. It's worth noting that the battles are actually very easy on the default difficulty setting (Normal). It's also worth pointing out that you can also play the game in Arcade mode where you have unlimited order points which will allow you to give out as many orders as you want to in the heat of the battle. The battles are time limited and there are victory and defeat conditions that have to be satisfied. Your units are subject to the effects of the terrain in each battle. You'll want to keep your cavalry away from trees for instance and you certainly won't want them wading through a river. You won't always be aware of every enemy unit prior to the start of a battle as some may be hidden and not detected by your scouts. Seeing as the battles are such a key part of the game it's a shame they aren't more interesting and that they can become very repetitive. Fortunately most don't last that long and you can speed them up at any time.
There's no getting away from the fact that the game looks very dated. The game only offers one screen resolution, 1024x768, and you get a choice of 16 or 32bit colour. There are a few other settings you can tweak to optimize the performance although it's highly unlikely you'll be running a PC that can't handle the game with all of the graphical settings maximised. The various units in the game are all low on detail and the numerous locations you'll battle in look sparse with maybe a few mountains, trees or a river here and there. Does the quality of the graphics matter much in a game such as this? Probably not in truth but it's a shame that it didn't look even a little better and offer the choice of playing in higher screen resolutions especially with a good amount of gamers owning LCD screens that only look sharp when displaying in their natural resolution. There are a decent amount of video clips provided by The History Channel but disappointingly these are of a low quality.
Great Battles of Rome won't cause deaf gamers any problems. The mini tutorial campaign that we mentioned earlier is delivered exclusively via text. A text tutorial is also given when you enter the multiplayer mode for the first time. All of the information during the main game is given in text. You'll be fully aware of what your objectives are and when units have earned promotion (denoted by the use of a + icon on your unit card). Damage inflicted and received during a battle is shown via floating, colour-coded, numerical values with red numbers showing the damage inflicted to your units and yellow number showing the damage your units are causing. You'll also see horse shoe icons to show when units have been trampled by cavalry units. Your unit cards will also redden to show you that your unit has take heavy damage which allows you the chance to take them out of the battle before they are destroyed. During a battle the gauges will inform you how many General's Order Points you have left and whether you have enough to issue orders to your units.
Judging by the name of it you'd think that The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome was some kind of 'edutainment' product but that's really not what this game is about. Looking around on Slitherine's forum it appears as though the game is a reworked version of a game called Legion Arena (which we haven't reviewed) with a few extras thrown in to enhance the experience. Comparing the game with other strategy titles it feels rather shallow and very limited. However, with that said the RPG elements are certainly interesting and I have to admit rather addictive. Those who have played Legion Arena and those who want a more traditional strategy game would probably feel disappointed with what Great Battles of Rome has to offer. However, if you're looking for a lightweight RPG experience and don't mind a linear walk through the great battles of Rome, then this game is definitely worth a look.
If you're expecting a Roman flavoured traditional strategy game you'll find The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome extremely limited and ultimately disappointing. The RPG elements do rescue the title to some extent and make the game surprisingly addictive.