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Praetorians (2003)

April 20th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Ancients, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review, RTS

Though there is no rule that a discussion series should have ten parts, it felt odd to leave my list at nine. One spot came down to three titles: the HPS Ancient Warfare games, the Tin Soldiers games or Praetorians. All three took their turn on draft lists, and I will certainly get around to writing up the Tin Soldiers games at another time. But I settled on Praetorians, mostly because I wanted to have a post Age of Empires RTS on the list. So I went back to play Praetorians (I returned to as many of these games as was feasible) and rediscovered why I had remembered it at all.

This is one underrated real time strategy game.

Not underrated in that no one appreciated it at the time. In fact, Praetorians did very well with the game critics. But it’s forgotten. There were no sequels, no prequels, no updates. It suffered the fate of far too many good games in a crowded genre.

Praetorians was developed by Pyro Studios, the house behind the tactical/action game Commandos. The game follows the career of Julius Caesar from his war against the Helvetii to the Civil War and his fight for Egypt. It is one of those story based campaigns that has dates and locations right, but then gives you mission assignments like “build a bridge” and “escort your tribune to meet the druid”. So, nothing especially original there, but it’s all about the journey, and the journey here is interesting. In fact, Praetorians is almost the perfect inverse RTS. The campaign game is better than the skirmish game, which makes it perfectly clear that the three factions aren’t that different from each other and the race to control outposts isn’t as interesting as the typical race to control resources.

In both modes, Praetorians works because of its emphasis on terrain. Forests and tall grass can be used to plan ambushes on passing enemies. Hills provide an advantage to ranged troops, and heavy infantry work best in open spaces. It’s an RTS that uses its maps for more than choke points and resource nodes. Your troops are smart enough to lie down in tall grass when they are in it, too, so there’s no mucking about with “hide” orders. The illusion that you are navigating the forests of Gaul, for example, works because the paths are too small for everyone to be in attack range.

And you can’t just build a tower to keep an eye on things. You can occupy existing watch towers, but you rely heavily on your scouts, each of which has an animal companion to share duties with. Because troops are so mobile, securing your rear becomes a matter of crucial importance.

I’m generally very critical of story based campaigns in RTS, especially ones that try to capture the “you are there” history thing. The first two Age of Empires games, for example, had short history based campaigns that made zero attempt to connect with the past. Gathering axemen to destroy farms is as evocative of displacing Dorian Greeks as my body type resembles Adonis. Because the campaign scenarios in Praetorians bear a plausible link to some larger military campaign, you don’t get that disconnected feeling.

Praetorians big design problems are its speed and lack of transparency. Units move quickly and the maps are small enough that an attack can be upon you before you know it. This isn’t much of a problem in the campaign since so much of the game is scripted. A bigger problem is that the resource collection is done entirely through control of villages (population) and engaging in battle (honor). There is no easy way of telling how long an opponent has controlled a village or how quickly he is accumulating honor. In many RTS you can tell what a opponent is planning by how they structure their economy; lots of hunters generally means a rush for the next town center upgrade in Age of Mythology, for example, and a quick glance at a Greek temple will let you know how heavy he/she is investing in myth units.

This is difficult in Praetorians, so it takes longer than usual to get a sense of the proper pace. How quickly should you be building units? Stronger units take noticeably longer to build – are they a worthwhile investment?

Still, Praetorians works as an RTS because the villages offer two options for a player – conquer or raze. If you build an outpost near a village, it becomes yours. The enemy can’t take it back until he/she destroys your outposts and builds one of his/her own. If you don’t think you can hold a village for long, you can attack it and drive its population down to a point where it becomes nearly useless as a recruitment center. This allows hit and run tactics on towns as well as troops, and requires some sort of defense force near your villages. Though the speed of the game certainly makes a beeline assault on the enemy possible, failure to guard against losing any villages between you and home base can lead to destruction.

Praetorians does force you to build more troops and medics to keep your soldiers healthy, but it also asks you to make small trade offs. To control a new village you need an officer to live there. You can only get an officer by promoting from within a unit. There are, naturally, limits on how often you can do this, but it does take one person away from your infantry unit. What’s one person, right? When you build siege engines, you need to use auxiliary infantry to move them.

Praetorians is, in many ways, reminiscent of last year’s Ancient Wars: Sparta in that the campaigns are the centerpiece, they follow a rough outline of history and it is possible to recover from a weak position through deft troop management. It is a hundred times better as a game, though, because it focuses your attention on the battles. One big problem with story based campaigns in RTSes is that they are, generally, all about combat but insist that your first action be gathering food, wood and gold. I don’t recall Leonidas pausing to build farms on his way to Thermopylae, but that’s how story based campaigns go in historical RTSes.

(On the nagging negative historical end, the game is yet another title set in the classical world that uses the Egypt of the Pharaohs as the model for the Egyptian army. These should be Hellenistic troops – pikes, cavalry, peltasts, elephants – but you get desert archers, slave infantry and war chariots. And Parthian cavalry for some reason. Praetorians was neither the first nor the last to decide that the Egypt of The Ten Commandments is a better choice than the historically appropriate one, and it doesn’t interfere with the game in any major way. No one expects perfect historicity, after all, but it would be nice if they could get the century right.)

The big question, I suppose, is why this game never got much traction. Timing was the big thing, I suppose. Age of Mythology was only five months old, and is probably the best RTS in that period. Even worse, Rise of Nations came out only a couple of months after Praetorians, so people spent the spring looking forward to RoN and then raving about it. Then you had Warcraft III in July. Praetorians was, like so many other games, buried by better and more popular games.

But even if Rise of Nations had been a disaster instead a shiny diamond of design, Praetorians was old fashioned in spite of its little gameplay quirks. The camera was difficult to control, even its simple economy depended on a lot of waiting for the population to increase. And, for a game about fighting, building units took a while.

Of course, you would have to play the game to know any of this stuff, and most people didn’t. Probably because Praetorians was too specialized. In my experience, if you want your RTS game to have both a narrow focus and be a success, it has to be about WW2 since everybody knows something about it and everybody thinks it’s interesting. There are tons of automatic entry points for a WW2 game. But Praetorians would suffer the same fate that awaited Pyro Studios next non-Commandos game, Imperial Glory, a Napoleonic game in the vein of the Total War series that flopped on arrival, both because it was not very good and because it was too centered on a twenty year period; note that Creative Assembly is drawing on the centuries around Napoleon for Empire: Total War.

Which makes this as good a time as any to segue to the big dog, game number ten on this tour through Roman themed games: In a couple of days, Rome: Total War – why it is both better and worse than you’ve been led to believe.


5 Comments so far ↓

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  • shanicus

    Thanks for the write up! I missed this game, I was into Age of Mythology at the time. Boy, that was a fun game.

    But, this game sounds good. Back in those days, I remember wondering if any RTSs had terrain that could be used in the way that this game uses tall grass (etc).

  • JonathanStrange

    I played a great deal of Praetorians for several months; it was an amusing game. It wasn’t a “realistic”wargame as you make clear but a great combination of tactics, troop recruiting and terrain effects. I remember even enjoying the campaign. You had to scout to find the enemy. You had to recruit troops for reinforcements (your only “resource” collecting). It paid to use your troops special abilities whether the legionary testudo or the scout’s hawk. The Egyptian slave infantry’s quicker recruitment rate might offset your legionaries stronger formations. Playing a skirmish game was like being in a gigantic arena: you’d inevitably be found or find a roving enemy company and you’d fight to the death. Without the resource collection of most RTS games, Praetorians really felt like an RTS chessgame.

  • Dave Long

    I totally missed this and really only remembered the title. That title is probably one of the reasons it didn’t sell as most Joe Gamers probably couldn’t even say it out loud.

    For those who missed it and don’t want to track down a physical copy, it’s available on Gametap.


    Every time I think I should cancel Gametap, another game like this shows up and I have even more reason to retain my subscription.