From the 1st to 2nd centuries AD, the reigning Han dynasty in China furnished its goods all the way to the Roman Empire. In all realms, from military to philosophy, the Chinese made incredible strides. However, like the Roman Empire, triumph is usually succeeded with stasis and then finally, decline. So, this universal motif is what happened to the Han dynasty in Fate of the Dragon's (FOD) recount of the period and novel known as Romance of the Three Kingdoms. FOD is set between 184 AD and 220 AD in a particularly tumultuous time of the Han dynasty when rebellions and intrigue effectively reduce the central government to nothing but puppets and loyal generals who begin carving out their own fiefdoms out of the ashes. Among this struggle, three characters eventually emerge: Cao Cao, Sun Quan and Liu Bei. This novel's recount has such a profound effect on the psyche of Chinese culture that the name Cao Cao actually figures into expressions that still carry on till today. The epic exploits of Liu Bei and his supporters, Guan Yu (who is later worshipped as a god), Zhang Fei, Zhao Yun and Zhuge Liang are still alive in Chinese culture. Thus, it is no surprise that FOD follows a long tradition, most famously Koei, who developed a long series of turn-based strategy based on rich backdrop of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Overmax Studios, a company set in China, aims to bring this theme up to date in an RTS setting.
Any average PC gamer, upon loading FOD, will decry two things. First, they will, as I did, nearly jump up in shock at how much this game resembles a slightly lower grade version of Age of Empires. The homage to AOE is prevalent down to the very placement of the menu system and iconic displays. The second most shocking thing is the inclusion of seven different resources, which will certainly lead diehard AOE fans to believe that this game is but a clone whose only prowess is in expanding the quantity of features presented in AOE. But after some half an hour with this game, the open-minded gamer will no doubt come to appreciate the merging of several genres into one, as Overmax pays homage not only to AOE, but also to Impression's city building games (Zeus, Pharaoh, Caesar), Blue Byte's Settlers, 3DO's Heroes of Might and Magic and last year's Warlords: Battlecry.
The first and foremost thing one notices is the complicated seven-resource system: corn, meat, timber, iron, food, wine and gold. Only the first four components are harvested while laborers produce the food and wine. The gold can only be retrieved through taxation and gift-like endowments; it cannot be mined. The introduction of a mini-economic system that rests on converting corn generated from farms into food highlights shades of the Settlers franchise, although the laborers can be directly controlled to do things. Much of the harvesting of resources will be done within the city walls. Here, AOE fans' wishes are answered as the city incorporates immense walls that can be manned with troops, like archers and stormed with siege weapons, like ladders. Every city you occupy will be walled in a similar fashion and the walls themselves are invincible, so you must either break open the gates or climb over the walls. You can command more than one city and each city is like a microcosm in itself. Resources cannot be shared between metropolises and to do so, you need to transport items from one place to another. Thus, a city will undergo bouts of economic recession, on its own or with the aid of events like earthquake. These can be bribed off, similar to the Pharaoh or Zeus, through shrines and temples. Not only is the government (that means the player) asked to provide relief for such disasters, production will be disrupted in such a way that you will have to intervene. For example, one time, the harvest of timber was disrupted because an earthquake had destroyed a storeroom making my laborers walk incredible lengths to harvest one load of timber. As timber dwindled, there became no resources to make farms. Without farms, there was no corn to make food. Finally without food, there is nothing to feed my armies.
This highlights one of the most revolutionary features of the game and that is the inclusion of supply lines in order to sustain the effectiveness of your troops. All military units, with the exception of siege weaponry, possess two vital statistics: health and strength. The latter is kept up by having troops posted within city walls or outside in supply camps. Without it, there is a definite amount of time before a unit runs out of food and wine, in which case its effectiveness in battle is severely hampered. Inability to produce food in a city will lead to this result as well. But, ultimately, starvation will not kill off any units; it only makes them easier to kill. By conducting campaigns far away from the main city, you will effectively need to establish a chain of supply camps. Moreover, these supply camps require laborers to make the trek from the cities in order to keep these camps stocked. Shades of Settlers again emerge. Military units are drafted from a pool of laborers produced and once they are trained, leave the laborer pool completely. Furthermore, units are able to gain in skill level as they eliminate enemies and skills acquired can be transferred back to the peacetime operations through the demilitarization (transfer option) that barracks can perform. Thus, it becomes easy to switch from wartime to peacetime production or vice versa, providing one has enough gold among other resources. There are basically four types of units: pikemen, swordsmen, archers and siege weaponry. Producing horses and uniting these two will create cavalry of various kinds. In fact, horses can be captured from the wild or from enemy troops, reminiscent of the recently released RTS game, America.
Heroes are also characters that gain experience. Heroes are simply units with exaggerated attributes and they come in three flavours: academic, mage and warrior. The heroes come with spells but they are not the usual AD&D type spells but more like enhancements (of one's defense ability for example) in keeping with the game's realism motif. Heroes are recruited from an inn and cost only gold but each hero has a loyalty level, which can be kept up by awarding titles or gold. The hero management is somewhat a cross of Warlords: Battlecry and the old Koei games. What type of heroes you attract depends loosely on the prestige of your country. There are
different uses for heroes besides the usual RPG elements. Your country, independent of the number of cities you own, will require the usage of public security, sacrifice, science and administrative affairs officers. There is no need to appoint anyone to win the game but appointments will help a player. For example, you can conduct diplomacy with the administrative officer, using techniques like insinuating other players to attack each other or making alliances. This was a given in games like AOE. An academic in this position will do much better than a warrior. Conversely, a warrior will excel much better at public security. To perform nationwide sacrifices beyond the ones on a city level, a sacrifice officer is needed and to research the highest echelons of advancements in the national academy buildings, a smart science officer is a plus.
Appointing a public security officer will boost the confidence of your city and hence, your city will grow. Population of the city is independent of the amount of laborers you have. As in real life, greater amounts of population equal a greater amount of tax revenue. Tax revenue is the main source of gold income in this game, distributed at specific intervals. Without adequate taxes, you can't hire heroes, draft military units or create items like horses. To supplement the income provided to your country, you can annex nearby counties that have populations of their own. These counties are not full-blown cities that you directly manage. Rather, they are more like client towns. Tax rates, like Zeus or Simcity, can be set and of course, lower tax rates will attract more people. But then, at the same time, more people in the cities (but not the counties, who feed themselves) will create more stress on your economy, like on the available amount of food. Counties will periodically ask you for relief, for example when there is a plague or locusts. Inability to furnish relief will decrease the morale of a city.
The other revolutionary element of FOD is the fact that units can interact with buildings. That is, you can actually go inside buildings or travel up and down city walls. The developers take this concept very seriously. To create a farm for example, one merely builds the farm and then tasks up to five laborers to go into the farm and work on it. Replanting farms, one of the woes of the AOE franchise, is handled even more elegantly here. The laborers effectively replant and rebuild their plots of land or pigsties. All one has to do is assign a task to them. For example, in the workshops, laborers can be assigned to produce food or wine. After making food, the laborer must take his food to the nearest storeroom and thus, the more laborers; the more production there is (but then, the faster your corn supply is depleted.) In fact, the city itself is just a building that people enter because there are essentially two maps in this game. First, there is the city map of the cities that you rule. This is straightforward and works like most RTS games. However, as you physically leave the city, you move on to the territory map. On the territory map, your city is just a building to be entered and the resources harvested by laborers here must be tugged all the way back home. This is an extension of HOMM's attempt to implement a map for the underworld, directly beneath the main playing area. In the case of FOD, it expands the game incredibly as you can deal with the very microcosm of city building to the macrocosm of intra-city or indeed, national level campaigns. Water transport is treated similarly. Instead of building a dock immediately on the territory map, only cities adjacent to water can feature docks. The water flows past the city gates and thus, after a ship is built in the bay area of the city it can be sent outside the city into the adjacent water. So for these cities, players can circumvent the traditional land-based defenses to attack the city from within.
As everything from the AOE franchise is made more efficient, so too is the combat. No longer is there a need to win the game by obliterating the enemy. Merely taking over their courthouse will result in you taking over the entire apparatus, laborers included. Therefore, it becomes a prudent idea not to practice scorched earth policies when besieging an enemy city. City walls, being completely invincible except at the front gate, are a challenge for an army of any size. Good tactics can usually bring down even the most well trained army. However, besides an amphibious landing inside the city, the developers of FOD have created several noteworthy siege engines to get past this obstacle. There are the traditional artillery machines like catapults. FOD also features a flying kite siege weapon. A few infantry units can be loaded on to these kites and flown over enemy walls. Ladders can be used to do the same thing as well. The main gate is the Achilles heel of the city walls. But with the fast rate of repair, a few laborers can keep this part nearly invulnerable.
Although FOD borrows from many other genres, it also introduces many intriguing concepts never before considered (or at least fully realized) in an RTS. That said, FOD doesn't seem to borrow enough from AOE. For example, when the cities are under attack, there is no easy way to ring a bell and collect all the laborers together. Supply camps are the only ones that can defend themselves and only archers garrisoning them can enable this. Another noteworthy feature that is missing is the ability to organize troops in formations. My academic heroes would often be trailing too far away from the main force, until the enemy easily picked him off, as he can never ride a horse. Siege weaponry, though the most logical candidates for depending on supply lines, actually do not need food or wine to function. At later stages of the game, masses of these can be built on the almost infinite resources and used indefinitely in the territory map where supplies are needed for regular infantry. Overwhelming siege weaponry can also make short work of any city defenses one may have. Three or four ladders are easy to beat but twenty ladders deployed seem to give an edge even to the most qualified defenders.
Artificial intelligence is also ambiguous. One of the main touts of this game is the intelligent use of laborers. Inside the city, laborers constantly have bubbles on top of their heads to represent what they are thinking, much like Bullfrog's Theme Park or Dungeon Keeper. When laborers have a question mark, they have limited autonomy. If a building is being built in the immediate vicinity, they will proceed to assist in the building. Similar results are achieved when a building is in need of repair. Laborers can be sent to transport material from one site to another. Such a case arises when material needs to be transported from the city to a supply camp. Yet when that supply camp is destroyed, the laborers in transport merely pause and often, there is too much going on to care about tracking down all these laborers. It is a shame because each route (from city to camp) must be made manually. You cannot simply select a bunch of laborers and tell them to transport in the same manner. This could be because laborers can actually be attached to a whole train of cargo carrying horses. But this option too is negated because of inadequate pathfinding; not necessarily of the laborers, but of the animals in tow. In one instance, four horses were lodged between a building and a city wall. The horses were stuck and barring killing all the units, I had to destroy the building in order to move the horses. This was fine until I found on his next sortie, the horses attached to this laborer were again stuck in another position.
The enemy is only formidable in the single player games where often missions are scripted. In one certain mission, the player is supposed to attack a city along with a computer ally and take it over. Since I did not know that you only need to take down the courthouse, I proceeded to annihilate the entire city only to find out I was soon outnumbered. Moreover, the scripted mission becomes even more inflexible when it sends enemy reinforcements to attempt to retake a city I was already having trouble taking in the first place. In fact, most of the missions you are tasked to do in single player are to relieve sieges of one form or another. Often other cities need to be taken or need to be defended. The developers also threw in some "run the gauntlet" type missions so I found the campaigns rather dry. There are three campaigns, one for each of the principle characters. The good thing is, every campaign results in triumph so you don't have to play for a player who will inevitably lose the war (although that is an intriguing scenario). Each campaign tries to follow roughly, the chronology of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, the mission briefings are too dense, full of names that people not familiar with the novel will undoubtedly not know and soon forget because they do not figure into the mission. Thus, the player will feel a bit alienated from the story as a whole. As there is an insane amount of characters introduced, it would have been nice to have access to a quick reference encyclopedia. AOE (AOE2 in particular) is the best example of this, par excellence. Alas, no such convenience can be found.
There are precious few amounts of in-game dialogue that illuminate this era, either of the actual history or of the novel. The national academy, where enhancements are researched is supposed to help with this, since they provide some information on why these enhancements are unique to the era. The relationships are tenuous though, between cock fighting and improving a laborer's work attributes. Players new to the theme will find a few pages in the manual explaining the backdrop but again it only rests on the principle characters, Liu Bei, Cao Cao and Sun Quan. No overview of the cadre of intermediary characters that appear in the briefing or in the games can be found. Furthermore, there is no need for it anyway as the heroes you develop, gain control of, or hire within the game do not carry over in the campaign, much less to the multiplayer arena, as Warlords: Battlecry had. Technically the game seems a bit grainy at first but under 1024x768, the maximum resolution, the graphics appear more amiable. The buildings are of proportional size to the units and feature some animation but most importantly, can be trespassed by units. The cutscenes are impressive and if anything, the artwork in this game exudes great authenticity of the oriental tradition.
On the other hand, the audio cannot be seriously praised in the same light. Firstly, there is only one background soundtrack for in-game music that is not dynamic. Although it is long, I cannot say it matches the work put into the cutscenes or the 2D illustrations. The unit acknowledgement speech is in Chinese but they are marred technically. Some of the voice actors are soft while others are disproportionately loud. There is something about the process of loading the speeches too. Even with a full installation, it takes awhile to load a hero's speech, for example, for a sound that has not been used for awhile. Some of the sound cues are quite humorous. When income from taxes arrives, the cue reminds me a lot of IM software like AOL Instant Messenger. When a science upgrade is researched, the sound cue to indicate this is uncannily similar to the sounds of Office 2000. Finally, with the amount of speech in this game, to flesh out the story, it is hard not to disregard the attempt to imitate an Asian accent speaking English. The result is ridiculous and I often wish they would drop the accents since there is more than enough indication that these people are Chinese. The worst accents come across as a bad audio book where a male narrator tries to imitate a high pitched female voice. At the very least though, there are no grammatical errors in the translation of the various subtitles. I have heard this game in Chinese and that narration seems to perform better.
This game also features multiplayer like AOE. Although it claims to have co-op mode, this illusion is merely created by having human players ally against the computer players. Computer players cannot play alongside human beings although within the game, you can bribe a computer until they commit to an alliance with you. There is also the option for human players to play only one country. An adequate amount of maps are included of various sizes. The most damning feature of the multiplayer portion is the lag. In games with five players or more, the game slows to a crawl. Despite the fact there is a unit cap introduced, it seems to be too high and even on a LAN there is significant lag. After two hours with a seven-player (5 computer, 2 humans) game on the largest map, the game becomes unbearable for anyone except the host. Even then, only two computer players were brought to their knees, so time is something FOD players will have to have readily available. The narration boasts of leaders commanding 150,000 troops but these claims are hollow when a mere 100 troops will lag a game till it is unplayable.
FOD really tries to merge several genres while paying homage to its primary inspirations, AOE and the Koei dynasty of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. No doubt, it achieves much in the way of introducing new ideas. However, some of these ideas can be negated. Supply lines can be dismissed if you can execute lightning fast blitzkrieg style attacks on cities, capturing the cities before your men starve and even if your men starve, a horde of hungry men can easily overrun a few well-fed ones. Warriors may help win the game but mage-like heroes seem to be more a liability than an asset. There is a steeper learning curve in FOD than in AOE. One of the reasons AOE was such a success was because of the fact that within 15 minutes, the object of the game became intuitive. The backdrop of the game was also equally intuitive, especially for Europeans and North Americans. This game is not as intuitive as even a veteran RTS player will take some time to cope with the territorial map vs. city map structure. Much of FOD's magic lies in the interaction of the Zeus/Simcity-like city management, grander labor economy management of Settlers and the top-level military campaigns one must embark on in the tradition of RTS games but with a slight tint of Warlords' heroic component. The interplay between these genres is good and it keeps any player well entertained. However, the technical flaws I cited above, such
as the pathfinding problems or multiplayer, are dramatized by the grander scope FOD attempts. Finally, I jumped on the opportunity to take a look at this game since it is the first Three Kingdoms for the English language in quite some time. I can't but feel how the mythos surrounding Romance of the Three Kingdoms is hampered slightly in this RTS setting. Though I have a cursory understanding of the novel as a whole, others who may not know a thing about this period will undoubtedly feel alienated at first. Compounded with the complexity this game offers, I fear many gamers will give up too soon. Its deceptive AOE clone portrayal won't win it much sympathy (initially) from the staunch AOE supporters. Certainly, something could have been done on the developer's part to reach out to this target audience and indeed, to the audience that needs to be introduced to Romance of the Three Kingdoms; something that AOE excels at. If you can get past this threshold, there is a gem underneath, if only a little unpolished.