Preview by: Tim Eller
Posted On: 29/02/2004
The burgeoning world of empire sims and their realtime military ventures has not yet slowed in innovation, as evidenced by Magitech’s ambitious historical romp, Strength & Honor. Though the innovation shows in smaller ways and in fewer areas, it feels like a fresh take on a genre of games that hasn’t quite been overdone. There is, as would be expected, more than enough to keep track of in S&H to keep an avid thinker and strategist busy for quite some time, though many of the details have been seen before (the most prominent example that comes to mind is the Total War series). Where S&H builds its strength is the inclusion of historically prominent leaders of various nations and their ambitious goals of acquisition, dotting Old Europe and the Middle East.
Campaigns are always the meat of a game like this, enveloping great lengths of time, a myriad of sociological and economic considerations, and the slow and steady march of the army you lead, to conquer or protect. S&H presents an initial choice of more than twenty leaders of varying locales and timelines. In the beta I was given to peruse, three campaigns were named, but only one was playable. Each took place in different circumstances of the world order, between 270 BC and 44 BC. Though the factual scope of adding more campaigns would be breathtaking and serve to add a robust realism, the three campaigns that are already in S&H could provide more than enough play time.
Inside the campaigns, the majority of your time will be spent paying attention to three things: your army, your money, and your favor. Each has their own corner of attributes, and surprisingly enough, there do not seem to be too many complexities involved. While this may disappoint the hardcore administrators amongst us who can keep track of a thousand details for as many individual elements, S&H also becomes available to those who don’t necessarily feel like fine-tuning the philosophical center or market conglomerate of every city available to them. There is a feature that will allow for many of the finer details to be taken care of automatically, if the burden feels too big. As it is, currently the management interface for each city comes very close to being completely obtuse and confusing, which can lead to clunky gameplay.
The main map shows, at scalable distances, the cities of all your allies and future conquests over the length of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. Some can be brought into your jurisdiction by military might alone, while others will negotiate openly with treaties, and still others require the delicate hand of subversion and assassination from within. All of these techniques used to extend the grasp of power and territory require more than just blind decisions. A resourceful city may not sign a proposed military treaty, defaming your leader. A combative onslaught might fold under unanticipated numbers. In a sense, it’s a math game; more variables than the obvious need to be taken into account. Fortunately, the leaders and generals of your cities offer advice on pressing issues, such as tax income or military reserves. There’s just no substitute for an extra set of eyes, and with S&H, there’s enough to keep track of, that these proffered tidbits really do help ease the burden of leadership.
Economic flow is also a part of the favor mix. From the national level down to the city level, trade and tax details can be manipulated depending on the needs of a particular area. Within the cities, and depending on their advancement, a mini-map building layout will determine what aspects can be adjusted. For instance, the city hall manages overall costs and taxes for the population, an arena supplies entertainment and boosts contentment amongst your people, barracks and stables produce reserve units for your armies, and so on. The library and market buildings will show important statistics regarding the predominantly taught philosophy, city bonuses for accelerated progress, and goods production. Several sub-screens lay out numbers involved in the various nuances of ruling an empire, such as diplomatic resources and coercion, national alliances and city status, and personal information regarding the ruler you’re playing as. So much is done in the confines of these screens, and it would be a shame to leave the menu interface as it is. There are good ideas for integrating and consolidating many of the menus in S&H, but there are still levels that seem unnecessary or remove the player from the absorbing scope.
There are, of course, real-time battles to engage in. Obviously you can throw down in Campaign mode (which also gives the option of simulated battle, absolving you of getting your hands dirty in combat). But if you just want a quick battle, Magitech has included a healthy handful of historical skirmishes mapped out in its own section, and these battles play out much like their counterparts in the Campaigns. In Historical Battle, you’ll choose power plays from the Hellenistic era for a little one on one, whether it’s pitting Caesar Octavius’ might against the ailing popularity of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra, or bringing the Kalinga empire into the Indian fold using brute force. Each one of the pivotal or infamous scenarios is selectable by region or battle location, and span the years from 260 B.C. to 30 B.C. All are accompanied by a brief description of the battle you’ve chosen, as well as some historical information on the major players involved.
After choosing which fight to engage in, a new screen brings up a thin listing of generals of your own forces and allies on the left-hand side, and a much larger map on the right containing a field position for your armies. The field position is broken into several boxes, where each box is meant to contain one of your generals and his army. In the upper right-hand corner of the screen is a formation listing, presenting many different troop formations of varying strategic value, along with a brief definition of its purpose and the primary usage of that particular martial order. However, if you don’t like the exact positioning of the formation, you can always tweak, within certain limitations, the starting point of any general you believe would benefit from an adjustment. Say for instance, that you want to orient yourself as a sweeping flank, but you’re in the corner of the map and there are trees to one side of your armies. A few easy movements of one group or another to the right could make the difference between utter defeat and a crushing coup de grace.
There are side markers on the battleground map, which designate key secondary movements for your armies. Care to ambush the HQ from behind? Place an army in a side-box on the opposite end of the field as your armies. Want a reserve force to show up after a short period of time? Place a couple of generals off to the side in mid-field boxes. Distrustful of your adversary and his own penchant for ambushes? Place an army in a box meant to intercept and engage the clandestine enemy endeavors. All of these army troop placements, including those on the actual field of play, are a simple drag-and-drop away.
Battles play out in great numbers and are pretty impressive, considering the on-screen activity and army morale. It’s not unusual, once the enemy flags have fallen, to look at the mini-map and see an instant dispersion of the foe’s forces as a thin cloud of tiny dots in complete disarray. Your generals will engage close troops, and can be directed and redirected at will to fight at any specific point.
Strength & Honor is definitely pitted against some high watermarks in the turn-based strategy genre. However, what it presents as its own unique points become visible very quickly once in the game, such as a finer selection of societal influences or the diverse and very functional battleground options. Hopefully, a scaled-down menu system and a fully implemented tutorial (very competently realized in paper form during my beta playtime) will bring Magitech’s beefy empire sim to life. There’s no doubt that S&H will be easily distinguishable in its own right, as it folds specific histories of the world’s great leaders and conquerors into a dynamic experience for the armchair-czar gamer. Even in its incomplete state, Strength & Honor is already looking ready to dominate.