Available: Q4 2003.
Best Price: N/A

Battle Mages © Buka / Targem
Preview By: Tim Eller

With any fledgling effort, it’s sometimes best to stick to an established archetype and build upon what’s already acknowledged as credible and, in this case, entertaining substance. Targem’s first game, Battle Mages, takes the RTS genre, then spins in healthy doses of RPG elements and tweaks general nuances to create a game with enough differences to make it relatively fresh. While this is not a novel notion with regards to the tactical game arena, there’s a great deal of room yet to explore in combining the two sects of RTS and RPG gaming at various degrees and depths. Battle Mages exploits this fact by presenting the mage as a pivotal “commander” of forces, while not being physically involved in the action.

The story is set in a world simmering in turmoil as an evil wizard is trying to destroy a powerful crystal. The Crystal in question, buried deep under the earth’s mantel, exudes a serendipitous power that promotes peace between the many races of Daenmor. But in recent times, the elven people have been led by the miscreant wizard in war to destroy the Crystal, and regain their former status in the world before the Crystal of Life came into being. After an initial failure in leading this war against the humans and their defense of the Crystal, the wizard has gone into hiding to mastermind his next move. Meanwhile, attacking hordes of goblins and undead, along with the stray bad of militant orcs start to appear on the scene, creating additional chaos. It’s up to you and your magely skills to put an end to the dark events sweeping the land and, presumably, thwart the evil wizard once and for all.

As a novice mage, the initial stage outlines your objectives and role in the suppression of the adversarial forces quite well. You’re given a certain number of units, including swordsmen, archers, and paladins to move around the map and basically do your bidding. More of these units can be acquired if you have the gold (which replenishes over time to a level-dependent maximum), and are in a town area that has a ready supply of soldiers. Sometimes the mission will involve a simple geographic objective, requiring that your troops make it to a certain point on the map. Other times, the domination of certain key points is necessary, such as a dilapidated house that produces undead units, or a small encampment of brigands; search and destroy, basically.

At the command helm of these traipsing troops is the titular mage of the battle variety. Initially, you’re required to create your own mage from a choice of magic schools and... well, that’s about it really. There are four schools to specialize in: Chaos (fire), Nature (earth, healing), Energy (electricity), and Commander (failed magic, excellent leadership). Choosing Commander allows you to focus solely on your battle coordination, with very little emphasis on magic. Having the option of choosing how much magic to use, if any at all, presents the player with a character they can develop and specialize as they desire, running the spectrum from wizened powerful magic wielder to mana-less battlefield General. Character advancement is, of course, a large part of Battle Mages. Spells and spell books can be supplemented and upgraded using points accumulated in battle. Character attributes are handled in much the same way; XP is collected and spent to level up attributes like Magic Skill, Mana (total mana points, presumably), Combat, and Leadership. Along with the inherent ability upgrades, there is also a list of skills that can be developed with the same XP points: abilities like X-Ray (more detailed enemy troop info) and Slider (faster camera movement) could well come in handy as you progress through the game.

One of the more interesting changes from the staples of the RTS genre is the eschewing of the Fog of War for a more dynamic, and somewhat more limited, landscape viewing system. As a mage, your physical character is secured within an invulnerable tower placed somewhere on the land map. To command your troops to their proper end, the mage accompanies them in spirit form, hovering above or around them as they travel or fight. The trick with this system is that if the mage’s ethereal body (read: camera) travels too far away from the squad of soldiers, there is a mana point depletion that will continue until the mage is once again within a certain proximity to your soldiers. Once the mana gauge is empty, the camera movement slows down to a barely noticeable crawl, which effectively keeps the player from whipping all over the map, prematurely discovering secrets and enemy positions. This unique play dynamic should present its own challenges in the final version of the game.

The control scheme for all of this is comfortably familiar. Grouping troops to a number key on the keyboard follows the unofficially standard Control-n key combo. Moving soldiers is as easy as a right-click of the mouse. I found that you could even align them once they arrived at the point where they’ve been directed by clicking and “pulling” the mouse in the desired direction. This would help to set up troops to face an enemy in the proper order (melee units in the vanguard, missile units protected in the rear.) Mage character sheets, quest logs and the map are all easily accessible by pressing a suitably intuitive letter. The map, unfortunately, is not an interactive medium – it’s a small gripe, but significant when considering the tactical pertinence of knowing the lay of the land. You are given a rudimentary land layout, but you cannot choose to view any portion of the map and have the corresponding coordinates shown in real time in the game. Having a limitation like this may seem necessary, tying it into the mage’s inability to venture too far from his soldiers, but it’s a limitation nonetheless – an inconvenience that could pose equal doses of challenge and frustration.

The pleasant blend of character building and real-time tactical battles in Battle Mages is sure to attract those who are already enamored with the RTS genre and its morphing features. The early build shows rather sparse graphical environments, but those could be elaborated before release. Ambient sounds like birds chirping, and well-orchestrated musical backdrops are a nice touch to the verdant, medieval terrain. Character models are a bit blocky, but look good when they’re moving and fighting. Aesthetically, there isn’t much to complain about. It’s already apparent that Targem is going after some ambitious goals. With the essential epic storyline to help flesh out the world of Daenmor and its troubles, Battle Mages should be easily distinguished from its RTS contemporaries.