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History Officially Too Boring

September 16th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

When first announced, Ancient Wars: Sparta was being plugged as the real historical alternative to all those games that say they are based on history. In an interview last year, the developers said

The name Ancient Wars has been chosen to establish a brand for potential future RTS games like Sparta, but with different historical content. It is new for the genre of RTS games that actual events and historical facts will be the base for such a game. In the past, many games were set in such scenarios, but were freer in terms of storyline, characters and units. With Sparta, we have put much effort into research about the time, and living and dying in those days. Also, we did not implement any fantasy or scientific elements in the game, like magic or gods. So, everything you will encounter is a real part of that time!

No fantasy elements! No magic or gods! Though I noted earlier that some of the units betrayed more interest in coolness than real history, there was not a lot of indication that Playlogic would depart from this mission statement.

Now we have more info on the game courtesy of a hands-on from Guy Cocker at Gamespot UK. And what do we find?

Set in the years 500 to 300 BC, Sparta lets you play as three different races, each with diverse abilities and strengths. The Persians are able to use animals such as war elephants, camels, and horses on the battlefield. Spartans are particularly strong warriors and are excellent in hand-to-hand combat. And the Egyptians have a cast of exotic characters, such as a priest that can train panthers to attack the enemy and women who can spray venom clouds over the battlefield.

That’s right. Women who spray venom and trained panthers.

Having not yet played the game, I can’t comment on whether this design choice works or not. It could be very cool in a Herryhausen movie kind of way. And the description of the physics engine piques my curiosity.

But if a company that starts out committed to a realistic vision of an historical RTS can’t stick to it, is it any wonder that every other game has elephants running amok as classical versions of T-72’s?

I’m a bit of a pedant, but not so much that I look for light strategy games like RTS to be perfectly realistic. Or even remotely realistic. Wargames and simulations are one thing, but if an RTS wants priests chanting ho-yo-yo and catapults the size of houses, I’ll deal with it so long as I get to do cool things.

The shift from a desire to do history properly to magic animal trainers is more worrisome, though, since it raises the likelihood that the developers thought that the history they found was too dull without scythed chariots straight out of Spawn or Egyptian women throwing biological weapons around. And it isn’t. I give Ensemble Studios a lot of credit for trying to deal with history head on, because even when they don’t get it right, they communicate a deep and abiding interest in it.

We could give Playlogic some credit and accept that this is the game they always intended to make; that they didn’t, in fact, find Herodotus too dull to handle. So why emphasize historicity at the beginning of a project if you plan on tossing it overboard? Well, it gives a nice hook for the press accounts. “Playlogic will make the most historical RTS ever.” “No more wizards!” “Physics and phalanxes and formations, oh my!”

I don’t feel betrayed, but I do feel a little let down that the cave-in was even more brazen than I could have imagined.


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