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Review by: Rob Beschizza
Published: April 11, 2003
The ancient Greeks drew the blueprints, but it took Romans to build them – roads, aqueducts, citadels and a measureless empire that lasted for centuries. They came out of nowhere: In a world dominated by Hellenic wisdom and Celtic bravura, few paid much attention to the insignificant tribe of Etruscans and their quaint settlement by the Tiber. To condense the works of Gibbon: Bad mistake.
Your job in Pyro Studio’s Praetorians is to expand the imperial frontier. Beginning in 56 B.C., Rome has yet to move into Europe’s interior, which is inhabited by unruly barbarians, nor have the legions subdued the mighty eastern civilizations like Parthia and Egypt, places steeped in history long before Mark Anthony caught a whiff of Cleopatra’s asp.
Praetorians isn’t all about Rome, as the Egyptian and barbarian armies can be commanded in the title’s multiplayer and skirmish modes. That said, those diving into the single-player game will naturally find themselves cast as hatchet man for one of the West’s most famous generals: Julius Caesar, whose name still resonates as a nom de plume for dictators and Eastern European Czars alike. Along the way, you’ll also fight battles for one of Rome’s less impressive leaders, Marcus Crassus, whose name suggests a different meaning in the modern lingo.
As Caesar’s top commander, sweeping across northern Europe will take up the first half of your campaign. Crossing the river Arar is only the beginning, with a host of Gallic and German tribes lining up to fight your invading army over a sequence of tactical battles. These are portrayed in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has played a real-time strategy release: from a bird’s-eye view of the action, using a proprietary 3D engine. The misty island of Hyperborea, known to us moderns as Britain, waits beyond France, but only two missions take place there, as Gallic rebellions led by Ambiorix and Vercingetorix distract the mighty Caesar.
Meanwhile, Marcus Crassius’ greedy invasion of the Parthian empire provides a warmer sideshow in the sandswept deserts of Mesopotamia. Diplomacy is one route to taking classic cities such as Jerusalem, Tyre and Petra – the Sarmatians will swap a temple for peace, for example. Or you can just lead Crassius’ forces in and wipe the lot out, as the man himself did before a Parthian general captured and executed him by pouring molten gold down his throat. Praetorians‘ missions are tightly structured, giving only just enough troops for the job, so whatever path you take, it’s important to decide when and where engagements take place.
Though the game sticks to the facts – Crassius’ middle-eastern campaign is doomed whatever you do – as a subcommander, you’ll get plenty of chances to claim glory along the way, with each battle having its own set of objectives that must be completed regardless of the big picture. The campaign, leaping between the two commanders and their theatres of operation, is thus like an epic movie. The Celts finally subdued, Caesar returns to Rome to battle his enemies in the Senate, and you take up the slack: cross the Rubicon and invade the homelands, battle the perfidious Pompey in Dalmatia, and then pursue him to Africa. So what if Ptolemy XIII murders him? You can fight the Egyptians as well before dashing back to Spain to polish off Pompey’s allies. All in a day’s work – if not for Caius Julius Caesar himself, then at least for the players who’ll fill his boots 2,000 years later.
In practice, Praetorians is simpler than almost any RTS to date, focusing on the intricacies of tactical combat almost as closely as the Total War games, where each set piece is dominated by the strategy of military deployment instead of resource gathering and base management. In fact, Praetorians‘ strategic elements are limited solely to control of the few villages that dot each map. Their sole resource – the inhabitants – can be trained into new groups of fighters to keep the war machine rolling after the ranks become thinned by conquest.
The game opens with a series of tutorials designed to introduce players to the basics of real-time strategy and aspects unique to Praetorians. These and other missions take place within the bounds of a set area of territory, usually an intricate maze of roads bordered by thick woods and impenetrable ridges. Occasionally rivers, shorelines and fortresses make the strategy more complex, but the mechanics of play are the first, and easiest, challenge to overcome.
Instead of moving and grouping individual warriors, entire units stand to attention when selected, moving as a united body of troops through Praetorians‘ landscapes, which range from temperate Gallic climes to African wastelands. The controls are otherwise simple – lasso units, assign battle groups and click the ground or upon enemy units to move or attack. All of the standard hotkey commands are in force – it’s easy to jump between groups or marked locations on the map, examine incomplete mission objectives or do clever things with group selections like add or subtract specific units.
Players start each mission with a solid force of warriors; usually a mixed bag of troop types such as spearmen, equine cavalry and the elite Praetorian guards themselves. Units can be placed into aggressive or defensive stances, which determine how inclined they may be to pursue enemies or hold onto high ground. Archers, legionnaires and auxiliaries flesh out the Roman ranks, while other nations have analogues to match their unique abilities. Egyptians, for instance, use slaves instead of auxiliaries; these worker units are the only ones that can construct siege engines or build defensive fortifications.
Furthermore, single units such as Centurions and healers project certain benefits on nearby units by their very presence: Assign a centurion to a phalanx of fighters and their morale and skill will improve. Centurions also have a dual purpose as village governors, opening up the unit production menu when each settlement is selected. Healers tend to the wounded and even possess an aura – like the centurions’ command radius – that slowly replenishes the health of any nearby friendly units. Risking your medics into the melee can therefore confer an ongoing edge in battle, but they’re easily killed, so cautious gamers might prefer to hold them back until confrontations are played out.
There are two varieties of scouts, both of whom deploy animals to reveal hidden territory. Wolf scouts can investigate the forest’s hidden chambers, for example, while hawk scouts send avian watchers to explore beyond impassable cliffs and rivers.
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