Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Third time lucky?

Armies of Exigo
Game Category: Real Time Strategy
Developer / Distributor: Black Hole Games / Electronic Arts
Release Date: 30 Nov 2004 
Rating: ESRB - Teen

Introduction
There's gotta be something enchanting about the number three. In case you have been keeping tabs, this is the third review this week that features a real time strategy game with three factions that you can play.

Unlike the last two games, Armies of Exigo is probably the closest there is to being a clone of Starcraft. In fact, of the three factions available - Empire, Beast, and Fallen - the last one closely resembles the Zerg's need to place buildings on a carpet of biomass. It had me wondering how Black Hole Games and Electronic Arts got away without getting sued off their pants by Blizzard Entertainment - (I guess I had better learn more about legal issues concerning game development).

A unique thing for Armies of Exigo is that it allows for fighting on a two layer map. In fact I don't ever remember any other game that simultaneously shows you two mini maps - one for above ground, and the other solely showing the subterranean world. It is easy to see that the strategy element becomes much more complicated when you have to watch out for enemies appearing from under your feet to sneak up and destroy your Town Hall, Stronghold, or Dark Fortress.

The calm before the storm
Game Play
After watching a very beautiful and detailed introductory movie, you start the game from what appears to be the inside of a large cathedral. The menu provides for a single player and multiplayer experience.

Single player will put you through 3 campaigns that must be played sequentially. First up will be the Empire - a hodge podge of good fantasy races including humans, elves, gnomes and more. This is followed by the Fallen whose campaign is mostly underground at the start. These guys represent evil creatures like dark elves, fallen knights, and things that do more than just "bump in the night". The last campaign is that of the Beasts. They are generally humanoid type monsters like goblins, ogres, lizardmen, and so on. With a total of 36 missions, each faction gets their fair share of difficult challenges to win.

There's a tutorial available should you need help
One thing that reminds many of Starcraft in Armies of Exigo are the Fallen faction. You have to build all your structures on what is known as deformed areas. You deform an additional area by building deformer structures on existing deformed areas. It all sounds very complicated, but like I mentioned earlier, these guys play just like the Zerg.

Single player also features a bucket load of missions including 22 custom and 33 skirmish missions. You can use these same missions in multiplayer mode. Multiplayer allows you to fight against a total of 12 players either on LAN or on the Internet - but the number of players is really dependent on the map design.

Setting up for a huge multiplayer game

Almost everything else about Armies of Exigo is like any other real time strategy game. A typical game of Armies of Exigo has you collecting resources - wood, gold, and gems. The former is obtained through chopping down trees, while gold and gems can be gathered from gold fields and gem mines respectively. With these resources under your belt, you can then start to dream big and build the most lavish base that is within your means.

Each faction in Armies of Exigo has its own build tree, so there is incentive in completing each of the campaigns and continuing on to see what happens next. Units in Armies of Exigo gain experience and can level up to Level 5. Some of these units can even cast very useful magical spells. With experience, means either more damage can be dealt to your enemies, or the unit may attack (or even move) faster and so on. Higher level units are denoted by tiny icons that float over them. For example, Empire units use shield icons for low level units, and a gold eagle to represent a high level unit.

The guy at bottom left is the impatient teacher of the tutorial

The use of the underground provides the opportunity to organize a sneak attack on your enemies. However the use of the caverns in the deep depths of the world is not without its dangers. There are skeletons, spectral horrors, and other such denizens that make you think twice about going down into the subterranean areas.

These subterranean dungeons aren't deserted


Graphics
The full-motion video cutscenes in Armies of Exigo are incredibly detailed works of art. The opening video itself depicts an epic battle between the Empire and the Beasts and is exciting as it is surreal. Later videos use the game engine to render a scene with text shown at the bottom of the screen. These interludes are pretty decent since the 3D models used are quite detailed and also the scene is dressed with enough extras and props to make it noteworthy - Hollywood style.

It's nice when the game interface is different and dependent on which faction you are playing. The maps are also nicely detailed and well designed with gaping chasms, forests of gnarly trees, and even snow particle effects that look realistic that you can almost reach out to touch them.

Graphics for the Empire faction
Audio

The main menu music in Armies of Exigo sounds pretty ominous and is not my cup of tea, while the in-game music is the type of music that I'd expect to find in a fantasy RTS. The sound effects are pretty good with the voice over acting very impressive. The impatient attitude of the guy narrating the tutorial was a sweet surprise and it really made my day when I heard him grumbling during the short tutorial mission.

The voice acting in the Armies of Exigo cutscenes and in-game movie renderings are also rather strong and most definitely worth listenting to. The sound effects are generally above average stuff. I thought some of the monster sounds could have been more lively.

An in-game cutscene


Pros:
  • You can actually set yourself as an observer instead of a player in skirmish / multiplayer to see how your friends (or enemy AI) do in the game. I use this mode to have an inkling of how to defeat the AI at higher difficulty levels.
  • The production values for graphics and audio in Armies of Exigo is generally very strong and overall rather well done.
  • If you wish to, you can even have a hand at designing your own maps using the provided Scenario Editor.
The Scenario Editor
Cons:
  • You can only play the campaigns in their current order and are not allowed to skip campaigns.
  • The game play is just too familiar. In fact, if you compare Armies of Exigo with more recent games, you may be disappointed that is not much new in the game. For example, the developers could have expanded on the subterranean portion of the game. 



Conclusion
Armies of Exigo is a surprising gem that should have done better when released on day one. After all, who wouldn't want to play a game that has borrowed game concepts from Starcraft. Moreover, the game features very strong production values, especially in the graphics and audio voice over department. However, due to its formulaic and repetitive game play, you may feel just a wee bit disappointed with it.

Nevertheless, I must add that Armies of Exigo is a good addition to your collection of real time strategy games. I have always enjoyed good RTS games, and Armies of Exigo definitely belong in this category. So don't delay, get a copy of Armies of Exigo for yourself now.

Daily PC Game Review Score: 7.5 / 10
Review Date: 1 Jun 2011

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