Is it just me or does every game want to be an RPG these days? True or not, RPG is certainly the current buzzword, though technically an acronym, in the gaming industry today. Every game seems to have 'RPG Elements’ or 'RPG Style Gameplay,’ I swear if this trend continues we’ll have Madden the RPG in no time, knowing EA it’s probably already in development. I remember the days when RPG was the last thing on earth you wanted attached to you, a time when these three seemingly innocuous letters could spell social as well as romantic disaster, a time when RPG playing was a more closely guarded secret than cross dressing. Anyway 'The Punic Wars: A Clash of Two Empires,’ is the latest game with so-called, 'RPG Elements,’ so is it all just marketing guff or is there some truth to it?
What’s a Punic I hear you ask? Well Punic were the three wars that occurred between the Romans and the Carthaginians, i.e. the people from Carthage, in the years between 264 and 146 B.C. If you don’t want to know the result and hence spoil the surprise skip the following sentence. Rome won all three wars and thus became the most powerful force in the Western world. If Punic wasn’t in your vocabulary perhaps the name Hannibal is more meaningful to you. Aside from being the leader of the A-Team he was, in a previous existence, a truly extraordinary Carthaginian General who led his Army and his Elephants, most of which died, over the Alps and attacked Italy in the second Punic War. Never mind all this Alexander hype, Hannibal is the man and in 'The Punic Wars,’ you get to play out his story as well as that of his old man Hamilcar Barca and the Roman General, Scipio as well as others.
RPG elements withstanding, this game is certainly an RTS and a pretty good one at that. 'The Punic Wars’ is Haemimont Games’ follow-up to their 2002 game 'The Celtic Kings: Rage of War’. The single player consists of single battle mode or adventure mode. The adventure mode is made up of five campaigns, which are in turn made up of a varying number of missions and set against the backdrop of the Punic wars; the general history of which is presented via good narration and introductory cut scenes. You get to play the campaigns as either the Roman or Carthaginian armies depending on the particular campaign you chose. Outside of the campaigns you can also play as the Gaul or Iberian armies giving you a total of four armies to choose from. The adventure mode should keep you going long enough but Haemimont Games have been generous in the supply of gaming options. There is a random map generator and single and multiplayer games can be fully customized, you’re permitted to set bonuses or handicaps, choose from three different game types (Elimination, Score Limit and Time Limit) and choose between different climate and seasonal options. The single and multiplayer games both provide you with the option of including up to eight opponents either A.I. or, in the case of multiplayer, human controlled. Unfortunately as yet I haven’t come across any players online so this title’s multiplayer potential is limited at present to LAN play or to games against AI opponents that are sufficiently competitive and challenging.
Graphically speaking, 'The Punic Wars,’ can’t hold a candle to titles like 'The Battle for Middle Earth,’ 'Warcraft’ or 'Age of Mythology’. For a start the game is in 2D which rules out the rotating view option, absent too is a zoom feature. Ironically, 'The Punic Wars’ doesn’t suffer from its graphical inferiority but rather benefits from the leftover graphical power of your computer by compensating you with huge maps and loads of units. The character animations can be a bit dodgy but I don’t want to dwell too long on the graphics for fear of giving the impression that they are an impediment to the gameplay. The maps are sufficiently detailed and varied to keep you interested, the locales range from eight types, Mediterranean Islands to Mountainous Alpine regions. If you’re coming to this game expecting something on a graphical par with the above-mentioned titles you’ll be disappointed but otherwise I don’t foresee any problems.
The sound, much like the graphics, is perfectly mediocre. The soundtrack is sympathetic to the locations and the personnel involved. The most grating aspect of the game has to be your units’ apparent compulsion to speak with every click of the mouse. I wouldn’t mind but they seem to expend valuable energy in exercising their vocal chords with such mind-dulling lines as 'For the Glory of Rome,’ when all I want them to do is move the other side of the bloody building; there’s a time and a place for war-cries and the most basic movement isn’t it. I’ve got to say your units’ talkativeness is liable to encourage you to retrain them as kamikaze units, anything just to shut them up. The voice acting is not surprisingly terrible and to be honest you really wouldn’t be missing much if you turned down the game sound and up your hifi, some good rock music ought to do the trick and what the hell give yourself a slap on the back and shout, 'For the Glory of Rome,’ every so often and you’ll be doing just fine.
The gameplay then is where 'The Punic Wars,’ earns some much needed brownie points and where it begins to rise above its otherwise mediocre components. For an RTS 'The Punic Wars,’ strengths lie in the preparation and organization of your settlements and the management of your resources rather than in combat tactics. There is a fairly sophisticated supply system in place and it’s your challenge to establish a supply network across your territory to ensure that food and gold is kept flowing. The Punic Wars doesn’t go to town on the resource management side of things but rather keeps it thankfully simple. There are only four resources that you are concerned with managing: food, gold, population and loyalty. You cannot build structures, instead you inherit or conquer them, so the building of these is taken out of your control and you are left with the far more pleasing job of releasing their specific uses, for example as the Romans you have access to the Arena from which you can hire yourself some heroes or gladiators or if you prefer you can supply your village with free booze from the tavern. The game interface is user friendly and relatively intuitive, if you have experience with RTS games you’ll be up and flying in no time otherwise you can run through the playable tutorial, something worth doing if only to listen to the voice of your child character, voiced as he is by the village idiot.
In terms of combat each army is made up of eight specific units, from your cannon fodder Militiamen up to Roman Praetorian or Numidian Rider. In addition to these there are a number of other generic units such as catapults, battle ships and ghouls. As the saying goes, 'fail to prepare and you prepare to fail,’ and these are wise words indeed when it comes to the combat system at the centre of 'The Punic Wars’. Simply put the combat has a life of its own and your input is limited to directing your units in the general direction of the enemy and allowing the cards to fall where they may. Success in combat will be as a result of having managed to amass greater numbers with sufficient strength to overpower your enemy rather than any tactical moxie in exploiting their weaknesses. This is rather a shame given that Hannibal’s genius resided in his ability to outwit the much greater Roman forces. For example in the Battle of Trebia River, Hannibal lured the greater Roman force into crossing a freezing river early one December morning, tired and frozen the Roman’s were swiftly defeated. 'The Punic Wars,’ is not total war, it’s in no way a combat simulator, for example your archers remain entirely effective when your other units have engaged the enemy at close quarters. If you’re after realism go play the Total War series. Instead 'The Punic Wars’ has a huge mosh-up style combat system, it ain’t pretty but victory is still satisfying. On the question of realism and historical accuracy this game isn’t quite sure what it is, there are a number of anomalies that blur the issue, prime examples being the presence of ghouls and magic spells but this comes down to a question of personal taste.
The 'RPG elements’ fuse well with what is, in every other regard, a card-carrying RTS game. These 'RPG elements,’ are pretty trivial and in truth amount to little more than minor sub-quests performed by your heroes who thereby gain access to special items and experience. The advantage resides in developing the strengths of your heroes and then attaching up to 50 combat units to him for leadership and to share in the powers supplied by his quest items. As I suspected the inclusion of 'RPG’ on the back of the box is more of a marketing smokescreen than a genuine reflection of the game’s content.
In conclusion, 'The Punic Wars,’ is a solid, enjoyable if ultimately mediocre RTS. It can only come off a poor second best to the current high-fliers in the genre in every respect but regardless I’d give it a thumbs-up and recommend it to those of you willing to give it a chance. All in all there is at your disposal a generous enough gaming arsenal in 'The Punic Wars to keep the battle lust of even the most battle hardened RTS fans amongst you satiated whilst remaining simple enough not to overwhelm the younger player or RTS virgins amongst you. Whilst on the topic of RTS virginity, for those of you revirginized by a prolonged absence from the genre, you may well consider this game a gentle partner to return to the fold with, she may not take you to gaming nirvana but she’ll hold your hand as you find your way.