Game Over Online ~ Preview - Praetorians (c) Eidos Interactive

Preview - Praetorians (c) Eidos Interactive

Published: Monday, January 27th, 2003 at 04:57 PM
Written By: Fwiffo

Developed by Pyro Studios, Praetorians takes place in the tumultuous period of the First Triumvirate during the Late Republic and its heady transition to the Principate. A cursory glance at Praetorians would suggest this is a real time strategy title; one, in fact, along the lines of Age of Empires and others of the same ilk. Graced with a 3D engine and a sharp presentation of classical antiquity, Praetorians has a leg up on its past predecessors, but what of the gameplay? Pyro Studios has made a change to the real time strategy formula, and in doing so the focus of Praetorians is not on micromanaging a civilization but micromanaging specific set battles.

As a result, they've done away with the harvesting and building parts of the strategy; the only buildings you'll make in the game are temporary fortifications, bridges and siege weapons. Towns represent pivotal points to control on any given map because it grants the power, provided you have a centurion, to generate more units. But even in this aspect, Praetorians is more realistic than most titles. You draw your soldiers from population pools supplied by towns and these people will serve as replacements for what troops you bring to a region. While there are building queues available, don't expect to be building five or ten units at once; an average military unit consists of thirty men and some prestigious ones, like Gladiators or Praetorian guardsmen will sap the manpower pool even more.

To further reinforce the tactical scope, Praetorians has only three viewing distances. Partly, this keeps the title simple. You don't have to fight the camera in order to fight the war. On the other hand, it also restricts your vantage point. You can only see so much beyond the range of your units, encouraging you to use the ability of scouts and cavalry to screen ahead of your main army.

In the single player campaigns, this will become particularly important. Pyro Studios has spent a good bulk of their time scripting the single player missions. In the forests and hedgerows of Gaul, barbarian troops can easily hide amongst the shade and ambush you from far away. To further give you headache, cavalry and heavy siege weapons can't trespass through them, so the only way to avoid a good ambush is to either plan one of your own or circumvent the area altogether.

The pace of the title is deliberately slow. Aside from cavalry, your units move at a marching pace and the Roman units in particular love to exhibit this discipline even under fire. If you click all your forces into the general vicinity of the enemy, you'll either be left with a few men standing or none at all. That's the overall tone of the game. The need for tactics is central to winning battles in Praetorians, especially when you have no base of operations to start with. That means you'll have to manoeuvre missile troops into surrounding areas of height. That means you'll have to assemble ambushes of your own or construct defensive towers to hide behind. It might mean hit and runs with cavalry, or using the famous 'turtle' formation pioneered by the Romans. The possibilities can be endless, especially in the multiplayer skirmishes. And while the single player design generally favors one approach or another (usually the one that the developer has in mind), I can safely say that even on the simplest difficulty setting, you'll be slaughtered if you simply shepherd your soldiers haphazardly into battle.

Luckily, controlling troops is easy in Praetorians. Your units will automatically face the enemy when engaging in battle. They can also be configured to adopt different stances and formations to better counter different enemy configurations. Spearmen, for example, can have their first rank kneel, or they can form a square. There are "hitpoints" overall for units but there is also a fixed number of men. An under strength contingent of soldiers can be at full health but number only a few men. Praetorians lets you balance, join and divide armies into different pieces. Auxiliary infantry for the Romans, for example, will split apart to man siege weaponry they build.

Praetorians is really about inflicting as much damage on the enemy as possible while ensuring the number of modifiable factors tilt your way; making your enemy run up hill, making them hit against dug-in formations or harassing them with archers. Battles will be decided very quickly this way. You'll get the notion of whether you want to commit your reserves within a few seconds.

Supporting up to eight players online, Praetorians will feature skirmish modes for its multiplayer component. You're also allowed to use the enemy factions of the Egyptians and Gauls. There is a good sense of balance in the game already. For example, building functions can only be done by the auxiliary infantry. These aren't the toe-to-toe fighters you see in Hollywood movies but (at least in this game) they do most of the engineering work, which is arguably half the equation towards Pax Romana.

And it looks like Pyro Studios, who hail from the Iberian peninsula once known as Hispania, did a lot of homework to get the Roman side of things down pat, although the Gauls obviously left a lot less in source material, and the Egyptians (who should be by that time, nothing more than a Hellenistic state) provide some spicy flare to the overall campaign. One curious note: the troops in the game all speak English instead of Latin and the units themselves refer to emperors often (even though the imperial system did not emerge during the conquests of Gaul and Egypt).

The period between Late Republic and Early Empire is one of the better known time periods in classical antiquity, and the setting will be ripe for expansion packs since we're only looking at Caesar's forays here. Frustrated during his campaigns in Gaul, Caesar once mounted a winter offensive (something you don't want to do even in modern times) to subdue tribal unrest for good, clearing six-foot snowdrifts on his way from Rome. You'll have a chance to do the same come late February when Praetorians hits the shelves.

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