Bringing classic Warcraft-style gameplay to the small screen
Warlords RTS is, as the title suggests, a real-time strategy game set in Aldfarne, a fantasy kingdom overrun by orcs, ogres, goblins, and other such Tolkien-esque riff-raff. Its simplified control scheme makes a tricky thing of complex maneuvers, but RTS fans are nonetheless likely to find it a pleasant way to scratch the strategy itch when they’re away from home.
Warlords RTS is more than a little reminiscent of the classic Blizzard game Warcraft, back when it was known first and foremost as a real-time strategic conflict between orcs and humans. Unlike that game, however, and most others of its kind, in this one you’ll personally lead your troops into battle with a “Warlord” avatar: a Ranger, a Wizard, a Warrior King, or a Huntress, each with unique skills, an RPG-style inventory of rings, amulets, armor and weapons, and the ability to wield powerful magic. As “you,” the Warlords are the most powerful tool in your arsenal, but they’re still far from invulnerable; fortunately, death is little more than a brief and temporary delay of four or five seconds until you’re back on the field, and a ding against your final score.
The game looks and sounds great, and while the story driving it is a very thin, conventional high-fantasy tale of a good kingdom overrun by the forces of darkness, the two or three lines of narrative between levels is flowery enough to be legit without tipping into the overwrought. It’s all very well-polished, and new units, spells, and control options are introduced slowly, giving players plenty of time to experiment with and grasp their use.
Your army will be made up of fantasy archetypes ranging from lowly swordsmen and archers to powerful mages and healers, represented by elves, dwarves, humans, and possibly even a hobbit. The number of units you can maintain at any one time is tightly restricted and can only be grown by conquering villages on the map, but even a “big” army isn’t likely to number much more than 20 or so. Warlords RTS is a relatively small-scale game, a concession to the limits of touch interfaces on small screens; but the upside to that is that it’s also fairly fast-paced, so you won’t need to invest half your day to start and finish a battle.
Armies in the game are somewhat self-regulating, in that they automatically combine into single, larger forces when they come within close proximity of one another. There are options to divide them into two smaller army groups, or to select one specific unit type, which can itself be divided into two; they can be forced to move to specific spots on the map, even if they’re in the middle of battle, directed to attack specific enemies or simply dispatched to an area and left to fend for themselves.
It’s a reasonably flexible system, but it can still be a chore managing more than one group of units at a time. For one thing, just getting them apart can pose a challenge: You can divide your army in half and send one group off to a different area of the map, for instance, but if you select the other half before the first is far enough away (and the precise necessary distance is never indicated), you’ll end up recombining them into a single large group and have to start over again. It may not sound like much of a problem, but a delay of 10 or 15 seconds in the heat of battle can be the difference between victory and defeat. There’s also no overhead map, and while the map can be zoomed, you’ll still need to drag it back and forth to keep tabs on things.
Because of this, simple strategies tend to be the best. I made it through a good chunk of the game using Soviet-style “human wave” attacks, building up the biggest mass of soldiers I could and then driving toward the objective. Of course, that eventually becomes unsustainable, and that’s when things really start to get tough. The difficulty seems to ramp up rather suddenly and dramatically, and even though I’m not a particularly skilled RTS player I was still left with concerns about the game’s balance. With virtually limitless enemy forces attacking your base from multiple directions at once and no way to impede their production (the only in-game resource is gold, which is generated automatically and seems to have no bearing on the size or frequency of enemy attacks), maintaining a viable defense while undertaking offensive operations at the same time becomes very difficult, very quickly.
It’s at this point that you may find yourself tempted to spend more on the game than you expected. The App Store entry for Warlords RTS describes the in-app purchases as “fully optional” and not necessary to complete the game in normal mode (hardcore mode is presumably a different matter), but there are an awful lot of cash-only items on the table. Powerful magical artifacts in the market run from 99 cents to $6.99, while three of the game’s four Warlords, each more powerful than the last, can also only be acquired through cash. Upgrading your keep to improve its survivability (which is rather important, since the bottom-line goal is to destroy the enemy’s fortress before he destroys yours) is also cash-only, and not cheap: The first upgrade is $7.99. I didn’t check to see how many upgrades beyond that are available.
Warlords RTS makes some compromises to accommodate the restrictions of its interface and display but for the most part they work well, and despite my misgivings about the large number of relatively expensive in-app purchases, I came away impressed. It could stand some balancing and there’s no question that a PC with a big monitor and a mouse and keyboard remains the ideal way to approach the genre, but for an RTS experience on a tablet – and despite the App Store stating that it’s compatible with iPods and iPhones, I wouldn’t even think about trying it on anything smaller than an iPad Mini – I don’t think you’ll do much better than this one.