Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Chapter XXXIV: Warlords

Someone wise once said “We are young when we criticise the elder and we are old when we criticise the youth”. I cannot argue with that, even though that means that I’m getting older. Every now and then I watch how a kid acts and think to myself “I’m sure I used to be smarter”, specially when it comes to videogames.

I remember some of the games me and my best friends used to play together which included lots and fast paced arcadey games and platformers, but also more brainy experiences like Populous, Civilization and Mega-lo-Mania. But the first strategy game that we spent hours and hours playing  together was Warlords. I try as much as I can, but I just can’t picture a bunch of 9 year olds nowadays playing a game like this.

This was the favourite game of my neighbour and best friend Lil’John. I think that between me, and every friend I had in my childhood, there was always a game that was “ours”. Warlords was me and Lil’John’s game, no doubt about it. It’s funny, but he couldn’t even say the word “castles” properly, (which was what he used to call the game) much less the word “Warlords”. So picture this, some kids that barely know how to pronounce more complicated words playing a wargame.

I don’t think we ever managed to finish a game, as we mostly liked the anticipation of searching the ruins in the game and the results thereof. If any of my friend’s heroes died while on his duty, you can be sure that he would spend the rest of the game nagging us to start over or to go out and play football.

Another one of my friends that was quite fond of this game was Louie CF. Every time the game delivered the words ‘in (insert random city here) a hero emerges’ he would do a little routine that consisted in putting one of his knees on the ground and throwing one fist to the sky while screaming “The hero emerges!!” and flexing his muscles. Now that I picture the scene more clearly, I can conclude that we actually weren’t that smart.

I followed these series during the nineties and it’s a shame that these games died out. I loved both Warlords 2 and 3, as they added more elements to the formula while keeping the streamlined mechanics intact. I know there are spiritual successors like Age of Wonders, that while being an excellent game, and in some ways better than Warlords, is a much slower affair and some games can take ages to complete.

Yes, it’s true that there was a big luck element in the game, and maybe that’s why my 9 old version of me loved the game so dearly. I’m a firm believer that a game that removes completely the luck factor of it becomes predictable and dull, like chess. A strategy game to be exciting must give us tools to play with the odds, like Poker and Magic: The Gathering being great examples of it. Still, having our hero killed on his first ruin search is comparable to having mononucleosis on prom night, which was exactly what happened to me in ‘99, but I digress.

The sequels made this game mostly obsolete, also because not only they were a little bit deeper, but also included the original classic map. That means that it’s been a long time since I last played the game.

The first impression is a weird one, because I don’t remember this game having any music at all, even in the intro. It’s also strange that the music comes only from one speaker, leading me to believe that something was broken, and spending time that ensure that isn’t the case. Even if it ain’t stereo, it’s a nice tune, and I’m thankful it exists.

Choosing my kingdom wasn’t exactly hard. I do remember playing Lord Bane a lot (thinking it was called “Lord Bone” back then) because it looked cool, and it gave me the opportunity to roleplay my Skeletor fantasies. But Mr.Bane lived way deep in the mountains and a bit far from the action and so I chose the Horse Lords. Because they’re lords, with horses.

Back in ‘90 I didn’t change the default difficulty at all, so most games were just us kids searching ruins while the AI left us alone in our archaeology tasks. I upped from “knight” to “lord” and gave an extra boost to Lord Bane by making him a “Warlord”. As if having cool black castles wasn’t enough.

The drums that kick at the start of the game is a minor classic videogame moment (at least in my world) and there is no way I could ever forget that. As it is the horns when my turn starts.

And so it was that in “Dunethel an hero emerges”. It’s appropriate that he was named Louie CF. Let’s just hope he doesn’t die in the first ruin he explores. Well, he found a troll and emerged victorious (he really likes to emerge). Then he proceeded to pray at the altar and be ignored by the gods. The gods in this game are really dicks. It was a warning that he should never have left his farming career. Second ruin, wrongly called “Dragon Halls” and he’s slayed by a Devil. I don’t know if it was “THE Devil” but it was a devil nonetheless. Poor Louie CF, you will be missed.

Technically this is a game with a very bare bones look, and feels mostly a PC game. It’s all very utilitarian and has quite a clean UI for the time. For this type of game it suits it well. For the most part it’s very enjoyable, which isn’t something that can’t be said of many other strategy games of this time, mostly because of interface issues, but there’s one thing that’s been driving me insane. Armies that take too much time to move, particularly because I went for the HORSE Lords, and they move an awful lot, as most horses do.

Mechanically, it’s still the granddaddy of many celebrated series, and its influence is most evident on the Age of Wonders series. It lacks those RPG details, like experience points, that became common in the genre. The combat is as simple as I remembered, even though an “Enhanced Combat” option deep in the UI made me curious of what it is about. Don’t see any difference and the manual doesn’t even mentions it. The diplomacy system is equally opaque. The other kingdoms can declare war on you, but attacking is always allowed without any consequences, so I don’t see much use in the system.

While I’m having fun with the game, the plodding pace due to the armies speed is making me restless. I’m not as patience at 35 as I was at 9 it seems.

I gave control of my little horse kingdom to the AI to see how it would turn out, because life without Louie CF isn’t the same thing. Unfortunately, an all-AI controlled game forces us to watch every kingdom’s moves and battles, so it’s possible that it will take even more time. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to all the little skirmishes going on the game, and it sounds like my left ear is a door (only my left, because that’s where all the sound is coming) that is being constantly battered because someone isn’t enjoying that me and my friends are having a party on a Thursday night. Meanwhile I’m going to have dinner and leave the imaginary land of Illuria on eternal strife.

And after dinner, doing laundry and a phone call to my parents, the battle rages on and on. The Sirians, the Storm Giants and the Gray Dwarves went extinct, but everyone else are keeping a stalemate with a slight edge to Elvallie, Orcs of Kor, and The Sellentines. Lord Bane keeps just a couple of castles, so it seems he might go the way of the Dodo if I let this going for another hour. The Horse Lords have roughly the same number of castles ever since me and Louie CF left them. I hope his legacy lives on.

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