World of Battles: Morningstar is free to play, but you may wind up paying out of pocket for your victories anyway.

Simply rolling out a real-time strategy game in a fantasy setting probably isn’t going to cause much of a stir, because honestly, it’s been done. Making said RTS free to play? That’s worth a look, and thanks to Frogwares, it’s a reality in the form of World of Battles: Morningstar.

For reasons not entirely made clear, three factions are vying for control of the titular World of Battles. The Good faction (though the descriptions make “Good” a relative term here) consists of Knights and Dwarves, the Neutral side features untamed Barbarians and Amazons, and the Evil coalition includes familiar fantasy baddies like Dark Elves, Orcs and the Undead. After choosing your starting race and naming your army and its leader, a tutorial will school you on the mechanics of movement and combat.

Your initial force is small, but varied enough to take advantage of the game’s rock-paper-scissors relationship between infantry, cavalry and pikemen. Most races also have archers or other missile units to harass enemies at a distance. The most powerful troops are called Master Units, which fall into one of the broader categories but also have extra abilities that can aid friends or weaken foes.

Controlling things in the heat of battle should feel pretty comfortable for anyone who has spent any time dabbling in the RTS genre. A left click takes control of any unit, with a right click sending the unit to a specific point on the map or ordering it to attack. Special abilities for a given unit appear as icons along the bottom of the screen, with army-wide spells – and some you can cast as the unseen commander of your force – getting their own buttons in the upper-left corner. A radar shows you the location of allies and any enemies within detection distance.

 Morningstar

The word “allies” was the key word in that last sentence, because even though there are single player challenges in World of Battles, the meat of the game is definitely its multiplayer battles. The game makes it easy to get right down to the fighting with a single click, dispensing with lobbies altogether. Players who are queued up for a Quick Battle automatically get placed onto teams of 2-4 players per side, with the overall armies roughly balanced out in terms of number of troops. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the matchmaking is somewhat suspect. It’s not uncommon to see one team of newcomers up against several players who have dozens of multiplayer victories. At least you don’t find that out until the battle is over, preventing you from being overcome with dread at your prospects for a win.

At the end of each battle, all participants earn gold and XP based on their performance. Leveling up your army unlocks new unit types, weapons and armor to upgrade your existing troops, and more single player scenarios. Reaching Level 7 also allows you to join a clan and participate in the World of Battles metagame, where groups of players compete for control of sections of the World Map. This goes a little way toward erasing the somewhat generic feel of the game’s setting.

 Morningstar

All of the extra goodies cost gold, and the best gear requires Gems – the game’s premium currency that can be purchased with real money. Here’s where World of Battles starts to feel a little unfair, as paying players can get a leg up on free players right almost immediately. It’s possible to earn Gems through in-game achievements, but the price of most of the best stuff makes it effectively out of reach for quite some time. You can also upgrade to a Premium account to remove some of the restrictions on troop types and get extra rewards from each battle, but this, too, costs plenty of Gems.

Graphically, World of Battles deserves kudos, especially considering it’s free to try. There’s some especially nice looking concept art on display during loading screens, and the giant monsters that can be added to higher level armies are impressive. One thing that stands out as a possible concern is the stability of the game servers, as Frogwares has already had to make some adjustments due to crashes when lots of players are logged on at the same time.

All told, World of Battles feels like the proverbial place that’s nice to visit, but maybe not to live. Getting a taste of some quick fantasy battles takes no commitment, yet the cost of becoming a serious player is likely to rival the price of any big budget strategy game. It’s only nominally free to play, and that very well could make a difference in how much you enjoy it.