Warlords – Full Play Preview

Warlords is an XBLA and PSN remake of the Atari classic from 1980 (’81 for the home release) of the same name. But a lot more than just the graphics have changed in 30 years. This is one of the most frantic tests of hand-eye coordination and concentration that you’ll ever face. But is there beauty behind the chaos or is it all just a big mess? Find out my early impression as I played through a debug build.

To be clear, what I played was not technically a final build of the game, but I foresee very little change between now and then. This game felt ready for release and indeed included all eight single player campaign  missions. However, some alterations could be made so this is not our final review.

At its core, Warlords plays like a competetive Breakout. Two to four players can take control of one of the namesake battlers: Kroi, the fat red warrior representing the element of fire; Goelus, the icy blue Viking; Restivo, a cowboy of the green forests; or Tarorthane a scythe wielding wizard-of-sorts representing purple and… death? His elemental motif was much less clear.

Think these guys sound cool? Well they are! But they have absolutely no bearing on the game whatsoever and single player mode can only be played as Restivo (or other warriors under his banner). Why green was chosen to be the starring color – I have no idea, but the story definitely depends on this dedication.

But don’t get confused, if you aren’t skipping the scrolling text exposition before each mission, you’ll be forgetting its plot soon thereafter. For those desperate to know, a great evil presence known as the Black Knight has returned to the world and it is your job to prove yourself as a warrior, recruit allies, fight those allies when they get possessed, discover the source of the dark power, and ultimately defeat the Black Knight in his home realm.

The story is just an excuse to set up different skirmish types across eight different missions. These include 1-on-1 duels, 4 player free-for-alls, and 2v2 allied assaults with progressively complex mechanics to build up the difficulty.

The player’s immediate goal is to defend their barricaded tower while trying to destroy the opponent’s. The tower is guarded by multiple pieces of wall that arch in front and direct control is given over a sliding shield. A fireball is dropped onto the field at the beginning of a match and bounces and ricochets in constant motion.

Holding A or RT when the ball reaches your shield allows for a charge shot. This maneuver slightly damages your own walls while held so a quick release is advised. As a trade-off, charged shots move much faster and deal greater damage.

As a match progresses more fireballs are dropped on to the field. For the early missions this only works up to three, but final quests have you contending with five burning spheres at once. Things at this point are hectic and we’ve just scratched the surface.

Using your RS you can control a flag-waving Banner Snoot. This little dude is the guide for your warrior henchmen, the cute and armor-clad Snoots. Willing to fight and die at your command, Snoots follow the Banner Snoot wherever he goes and assist you depending on their position.

Putting Snoots at your wall will put them to healing while located them beside the opponent will cause gradual damage to their fortification. You can also pit Snoots against each other for mutual elimination. This will happen a lot when trying to get Control Panels – points on the map that offer bonuses if claimed long enough.

These power-ups include healing your walls, damaging the enemy’s, creating a buffering barricade, widening your shield, increasing Snoot spawn rate, reversing enemy controls, turning all deflected shots into Charged Shots, slowing enemy movement, or making all current fireballs beefed in your color. The problem is that unless you’ve got an ally on your side, you’re rarely going to get a contested Panel.

At the beginning of matches everyone’s Snoots spawn at the same speed so you and your opponent can literally spend the entire match fighting for one point without either ever making progress. I found that, except for a few powers like slow and heal, it was better to sick my Snoots on the enemy, possibly retreating for support if the battle got too heated.

The final element to battle is the Black Knight himself. From time to time this brute will appear on battlefield with his explosive minions, ready to do some serious damage to your fortifications. The Knight will make his way to each player smashing at their walls. It’s worth it to take a few fireball hits in exchange for putting your shield between the Black Knight’s sword and your precious bricks. He also makes charging shots a new risk as getting hit by one draws his immediate attention. Players can dispatch the menace by claiming all of the tiles which have been converted by his presence.

The Black Knight was the most exciting part of combat as his presence can be either extremely beneficial or terribly detrimental, depending on where his attention lies. I often found myself using the time to put my Snoots at the enemy gates, rather than contributing to the Knight’s banishment.

While it might sound cool to have so much depth to Warlords’ skirmishes, its greatest faults lie directly in this complexity. By around the midway point in the game all of the features are being implemented. This means four players bouncing five fireballs, throwing charged shots, directing Banner Snoots with several potential trailing regular Snoots, trying to capture up to four Control Panels, often whilst battling the rampaging Black Knight. It honestly is just too much to keep track of and I often felt that the difficulty lied not in tactics or ability, but in keeping my eyes from lingering too long on any one thing.

Perhaps some people will like this kind of challenge. I certainly found a certain degree of enjoyment out of the high intensity but with the high durability of everyone’s walls (and thus potentially lengthy match times) I felt I was competing against my own attention span rather than within the game’s mechanics. Having so many elements active at once means none of them are able to get proper credence during play.

Speaking to the difficulty, I found myself wondering who the target audience is meant to be. The cartoony animations and voice-overs, which I felt were very successful in their intentions, clearly slant the aim toward children. But the frantic pace of the battles require at least a moderately advanced system of hand-eye coordination. But perhaps the ADD generation is just the one to take on the scurrying attention challenge the game demands?

Once you learn to live within the free-for-all madness you’ll find it’s just a matter of finishing the levels. Pending a midway difficulty hump, I was able to complete the entire campaign in just over an hour. With nothing new unlocked after completion, and having played each game-type variation, I had no reason to play again – even multiplayer. The campaign has it all and it runs it down enough to sufficiently grind away any interest your brain may have had to go through even one more time.

Ultimately Warlords is a game that nails its style: Castle Crashers meets Saturday morning cartoon, with short but entertaining music loops, and appropriate voices and sound effects. But its overly-frenetic gameplay and lack of true variety means you’ll be testing the endurance of your brain’s interest, rather than its tactical or even twitch-action ability. This would be worth a few free plays with friends but I don’t recommend shelling out the cash yourself. There are better summer arcade titles worth your time.

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