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Review by: Richard Leader
Published: February 17, 2003
Following in the wake of such giants as Warcraft III and Age of Mythology, 2003 is going to be a difficult year for developers of real-time strategy games, as the amount of available gimmicks to create a unique spin for a product seem to be rapidly dwindling. What many titles seem to be forgetting, with their elaborate multi-million dollar CGI introductory sequences and giant collector’s edition boxes, is that they are still, fundamentally, games. This has not been overlooked by Eugen Systems, a small French developer who has set out to create the most action-packed release that the real-time strategy genre has ever seen with their inaugural title, The Gladiators: Galactic Circus Games.
With its breakneck pace and throngs of combatants – not to mention a constant score that consistently ticks upward during gameplay – many are describing it as real-time strategy meets Robotron or Smash T.V.. While it might hold true for perhaps the first few minutes, in an initial firefight that inexplicably numbers amongst the most difficult episodes of the game, further inspection reveals such an association to be nearly unfounded. A more apt comparison might be made to the venerable Commandos series, where stealth, line-of-sight and the fortuitous use of terrain are all necessary to survive the highly scripted scenarios: The Gladiators just does it a whole lot faster and with much more blood.
Composed of three distinct campaigns, the story of The Gladiators begins on Earth in the 1970s, where Greg D. Callahan, a former major in the Marine Corps, is languishing in prison. When a team of scientists begin preparation for launching a probe into space to study the recently discovered black hole phenomenon, his name comes up and he is “volunteered” to lead the expedition. However, the black hole in question was not what it appeared to be, but was a portal to another dimension, and Callahan soon found himself in an unknown solar system and in the clutches of the robotic Commander Maximix. Chief General of the Myridian Empire, Maximix prepares to publicly execute the human interlopers. Fortunately for them, Princess Lydia is having some troubles of her own, as two other royals are vying for her deceased father’s throne. It is agreed upon that the right of succession will go to the victor of a series of battles in the Deathbowl, a gladiatorial event that happens to be the favored form of entertainment in the Empire. Each of the three contestants chooses a general to lead their genetically cloned forces into battle, with Callahan at the forefront of Princess Lydia’s army, having the chance to battle for the lives of his men in the arena.
The three campaigns of The Gladiators are chronological in nature, giving players the opportunity to experience each of the diverse factions, although only moderate progress needs to be made in each one before the next in the sequence is unlocked. The first several arenas are patterned after terrestrial environments, to make the human competitors more comfortable, and Callahan is dropped into combat alone. From there, he must build a force using an elaborate system of bonus cards. Unlike most real-time strategy releases, The Gladiators is mostly tactical in its play, with no base or structure building whatsoever. Players are given a variety of goals throughout scenarios, forcing them to adapt to the situation at hand, as wave after wave of enemies are unleashed. A mission might require one to defend a base for a certain amount of time, and after a decisive victory over the invaders, the script might change to place one in the role of the aggressor. This scripting is spelled out rather clearly with the play-by-play commentary that is done by the host of the Deathbowl, so there is never any confusion on what to do next – how to best accomplish it, however, is left up to the player.
The first bonus card that Callahan will come across is the troop booster that immediately adds a few units to his command. The units given are predetermined by the scenario, as all cards are placed individually on maps as resources, rather than appearing at random like bonuses in an arcade game. Other cards include a number of temporary augments that aid firepower, defensive armor or movement speed for a short time. The most useful is a medical card that will instantly heal all of the units within the immediate vicinity of the player’s general. These are of immense value when making a hasty retreat when under artillery fire. While there are a few tactical cards that can be played, such as a time bomb, the most common miscellaneous cards are jokers that serve as “wilds.” When collected from the battlefield, they are entered into a pot at the top of the screen and can be drawn from to give nearly any other required effect, should the player not be in possession of the standard cards normally required (though it is necessary to have previously used a card with the desired effect). These can also be used in various “spawn zones” that are located throughout the arenas. There, players can spend jokers in exchange for units of their choice, although more advanced types are set at a higher price point.
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