If you thought the medieval real-time strategy theme was over-used, then you definitely need to think again. Ballerburg is a innovative title from HD Interactive that could help make those pesky autumn evenings go faster. It manages to combine strategy, action and humor in a way that not many have. The story takes you back to a medieval time filled with maids, knights, magic, and most importantly: castles! You see, in Ballerburg you take control of a general who has been ordered by her queen to blow her mean sister to smithereens. You will need to build buildings, research, plan your strategy wisely, and of course you will need to be good with weapons. A lot of excitement ahead, for those willing to try something new.
Ballerburg is actually one of the first medieval real-time strategy games to take the step to full 3D. It certainly looks good, but it uses an approach that's slightly different from the norm. The camera is always centered on your castle, but by holding down the right mouse-button, or using the arrow-keys you can adjust the camera to your liking. The castle, and its nearby buildings also look very good, with special marks on them so you'll know whether a building is a farm, or a superbrain (a scientific building). Both modeling and texturing is above par, without the fuzziness and cheapness of other titles. What's more; the environments you play around on look terrific. You could assume everything you got was a plain field like most castles reside on, but instead you get to play in volcanic areas, in the midst of an ice-kingdom, and much more. It's obvious that the developers wanted to give us 'more', and the result is quite simply more fun for the player.
Finally, you can't have a action-packed strategy game without cool effects and huge explosions. Those craving that should get plenty with Ballerburg. The weapons available throw for instance rocks and fire "bombs", and when playing you are very likely to get nearly hit with something huge. You see, when playing you are either looking down at your castle (and surrounding buildings), or if you double click (or press F2) you are in control of a weapon. When in the latter you have a much more direct view, and that's where most of the huge explosions and such are apparent. Besides rocks and things we're accustomed with you also get to use nifty magical spells that can wreck havoc on a pesky opponent's castle. I'll go more into those in the gameplay section, but I can tell you right now that like the rest of the game; they look very good.
At the beginning of the game you're fairly likely to choose one of the game's three tutorials. Normally this is a fairly boring part of a game, but thanks to a hilarious helper this should be a much more enjoyable experience. Humor is indeed an important part of the game, so instead of dead-serious action you might actually smile and laugh a lot. When playing the campaigns you also get witty comments from your helpers, and instead of only three or four comments, there's quite a lot. After a few hours you're bound to have heard most of them, but in general the voice commentary helps this title a lot. Also, the leading females have great voice-overs, and it really sounds like they mean what they're saying, instead of just blindly reading from a piece of paper.
The musical score is a bit hard to put in a specific genre, but it fits fairly nicely into the whole medieval theme. Its volume is low by default, but its tempo is so high that you refrain from slacking off so that your mind is focused on reducing the other castle(s) to rubble.
The whole gameplay concept of Ballerburg is as you might've gathered; to blow up your opponent. Unlike many other games you won't be able to send off legions of foot-solders etc, instead you have to rely on cannons, magic, and zeppelins. At first you could think this would get a bit boring in the long run, but luckily you get bigger and more powerful means of destruction as you progress in the game. And, since there are four different campaigns with four different leading women you will get to play in very varied terrain, with different views upon the story, and last but not least; each faction has its own very powerful weapon.
The strategy aspect of the game lies in the management of your castle and its surrounding buildings. Often you will start with very little funds, so it's important to consider what buildings you need, and also when the best time to attack is. You can not only build fourteen buildings and eleven weapons, you can also erect towers and walls to guard it all. Setting up a good defense is incredibly important, because your houses can't survive for long if the enemy happens to get a good hit with a Long John, or an even more powerful weapon.
On the other hand, the action aspect of Ballerburg lies in the blasting. At the beginning of the game you will have fairly basic cannons, but later you get trebuchets and other weapons that have higher capacity, can fire longer, and more accurately. Aiming is harder than I had expected, so don't expect first-person shooter aiming. To aim you need to press the arrow keys to rotate the cannon in the right direction, and then try to set a length. The problem is that the crosshair doesn't move forward as you press forward, so you often just need to fire, see where it went, and adjust as needed. This way the battles aren't done in a minute, and especially when playing against real people the innovative way of firing gives you a different gaming experience. The missions you play in might also require you to do precision shooting, because your queen might not want you to actually kill her sister, but instead you would be required to just destroy the farmhouses, and maybe a windmill.
Yet, even though the developers have done a great job at adding depth and content to the gameplay idea, it does get less exciting after a certain number of hours. After a while not being able to issue soldiers and doing other aspects of war that would be natural, gets slightly dull. This could be just me, but at least it's something you should know.
Besides the regular campaign you can also play in pre-defined scenarios. You can for instance choose Action, where you have fully developed castles where the premise is basically just to fire away all you can. There is no cost to shoot, so all you need to think about is aiming. Then there's Quick Game, which resembles a normal game, only with a major difference: all the building has been done for you. The third one is Tactics, where you get the important buildings, but no walls have been erected. So, you need to consider very quickly whether you want to erect walls, or if you should go for better weapons. Finally there's Strategy, where you get a minimum of buildings, so the challenge is to intelligently develop resources and weaponry. If that's not enough you can make your own scenario in User's Game.
Ballerburg was actually released in Germany a good while ago, and it seems like its biggest success there was its multiplayer part. Being able to duke it out against real people is often more fun than against the machine, so if that sounds good to you then Ballerburg has plenty of options. Like in most other games you can host a game, where you can set the premise of the game, and of course you can join games that other people have created. For those who'd like to play against other people on one machine, you can always go for Hot Seat. Here each of the players have thirty seconds to either fire, research or build, and after that the next player gets to do the same.
It impresses me how much the developers have managed to make out of a gameplay idea that could otherwise be boring. They managed to add tons of variety to it, so even though it's slightly dull after a number of hours, its gameplay is very solid. Its visual presentation is also very good, even though it doesn't use the greatest and most impressive engine. The voice-overs are far better than what I've heard in most recent games, and with generally good music it is a game that doesn't fail in any way.