Reviving a classic, or a cheap cashgrab?
Type: Single-player, Multi-player
Developer: Pyro Studios, Torus Games
Publisher: Kalypso Media Digital
Release date: 24 Jan, 2020
Praetorians is a venerable RTS, first released in 2003, to surprisingly little fanfare. It was made by Pyro Studios, who were responsible for the well regarded Commandos series. Pyro Studios is sadly no longer active, but Kalypso has got the rights to it and has decided to give it a fresh coat of paint.
Praetorians is set during the time of Marcus Licinius Crassus and Julius Caesar, and focuses on their famous military campaigns, in Gaul, Parthia and later the Roman civil war, and deals with, in broad strokes, some of the important military events that took places during this time. The game mostly focuses on the tactical aspects of battle, with using the right units and the right terrain to your advantage, and things like resources management is streamlined to the point where it’s just a very small part of the game.
The campaign focuses exclusively on the Romans, but in skirmish it’s possible to play as the two other factions, the Egyptians (more on that later) and the Barbarians, which represent the Celtic and Germanic tribes that the Romans fought against.
Story & setting
Praetorians is set during one of the most famous times of the Roman empire, when Rome was expanding into Gaul, Germania and the British isles, and then nearly collapsed in on itself in a civil war. The Roman armies face off against the northern Barbarians during Caesar’s campaigns, and also against the Parthians/Egyptians (?) as Crassus.
The game does not feel like it’s trying to tell a coherent story, while some events are in chronological order, some are not. It feels more like the campaign tries to highlight some of the more important battles, while not dwelling too much on any single region.
Historical accuracy is not really the Praetorians strong side. While many of the events referenced in the game happened, there are also a lot of things that are not very accurately depicted. The Egyptians are probably the biggest offender here, because much like in the first Rome: Total War, they’re about 1000-2000 years out of date. This makes for a faction that has some unique looking and feeling units, but it’s not the Egypt that the Romans would have faced.
Graphics & sound
Praetorians was first released in 2003, and in some ways it shows. Praetorians HD seems to be re-using a lot of assets, like models and sounds from the original, while improving textures and lighting. The result is not an impressive looking game, although it’s not unattractive looking either. The graphics are functional, and the textures are pretty good, but the models are noticeably low-poly and there’s a distinct lack of foliage and other things that would make the ground look like more than a simple texture over a mostly flat surface. There are a few tufts of things here and there, but you can tell that this is not a brand new game.
While Praetorians might look like an old game that just got new textures and a better resolution, it’s at least easy to read what’s going on. The units are easy to tell apart from each other, and it’s also easy to tell what each unit is at a glance. Terrain features that have gameplay effects also stand out, so you’re unlikely to walk into an ambush without ample warning that the terrain can hide units.
The sound Praetorians is perfectly fine. The different factions have unique voice lines that might not go down in history as the most memorable ones, but they do the job well enough, and they’re not too annoying. The sound effects are also hardly outstanding, but they get the job done. The swishing of arrows flying through the air, and the clanging of swords gives a good sense for what’s going on, but the sound lacks anything “extra” that really pushes it over the top. And the same can be said for the music, it is also perfectly fine, it lacks any really memorable tracks. Had it not been there, it would have been missed, and as background music it works well, but it does not really stand out.
At first glance, Praetorians might look like a traditional base-building RTS, along the lines of Age of Mythology, or Warcraft, but it’s really its own thing altogether. Each faction has a set of units that they can build, that look deceptively similar on paper, but instead of gathering gold or ore, you capture small villages, of which there are usually only a small handful of on each map, maybe 2-3 per player, and from those you produce units. The only resource you have to worry about is how many villagers are left in each village, a number that slowly goes up, and from those you recruit new units. This means that you can’t really rely on out-producing the enemy, but instead need to make good use of the units you have.
Two very important aspects of Praetorians is terrain and scouting. Some unit types can’t cross certain terrain, for example cavalry don’t like heavy forests, and legionaries don’t like to get their feet wet, so they can’t cross rivers if there’s no bridge. At times these limitations might seem slightly arbitrary, but they force you to think about the terrain that’s in your path more so than in most other RTSs. Forests, tall grass and raised terrain can also hide units, so scouting is really important. And this makes for some surprisingly tense situations, where you take a gamble on moving through a forest, even though you’re not sure what’s inside, because the enemy managed to kill your scouts, or you have some cavalry take the long way around a forest, and manage to hit the enemy’s archers in the rear, right as your main force hits them in the front. While combat might not be as complex, or tactical as that of the Total War series, it still offers a good amount of depth.
The 3 factions, the Romans, Barbarians and anachronistic Egyptians, all have access to a similar pool of basic units. There are “workers” (who can build siege engines, and towers for archers to hide in, as well as capture villages), heavy melee infantry, archers and spearmen, and they fulfil a similar role, but there are important differences between them. Romans move and fight in tight formations, which is good for when melee combat happens, but it’s not as good when they get bombarded by catapults, while barbarians move in a very loose formation. The different factions also have a different number of soldiers in their units, and some also have unique abilities. The heavy infantry for the Romans will throw pilums before charging in, and can also use the testudo formation, which slows them down, but make them nearly impervious to arrows, while the Egyptians regenerate stamina faster, which allows them to run more frequently, and the barbarians will throw rocks, which stuns the enemy. Differences like these make the units feel quite different. Every faction also has 3 unique units. These are units like the mighty Roman Praetorian guards, or the Egyptian war chariots (did I tell you that the Egyptians are not particularly accurately portrayed for the time period?).
Praetorian has a moderately lengthy campaign, and also the obligatory skirmish mode, which any decent RTS will have, and also multiplayer support (which was not tested for this review). The campaign is quite varied, with many levels feeling unique, without being gimmicky, although not every level was great. Still, as far as RTS campaigns go, this is a solid one.
Praetorians HD was a nice surprise. It’s an older game, and you can tell both by the graphics, and also the interface, which feels a bit dated (no WASD scrolling, for one), it’s quite fun and engaging. Combat feels tactical, and levels are fast and to the point. Praetorians is simply a good game, one that RTS fans, particularly those who like RTS where you don’t spend a lot of time building up your forces before combat starts, will enjoy. I would not go so far as to say it’s a must-play though.
That said, how necessary is the HD edition? For this review, I booted up the original game, which was sitting in my steam library, and played through a few skirmish levels there. And it felt very similar. The higher resolution, better textures and cleaner looking interface makes the HD edition the clearly superior version, but the difference is not huge, and they could have gone a bit further with it. Thus I think Praetorians HD might be a tough sell to those who already have the original game, at least if you don’t care about multiplayer, but for people who don’t already have the original game, then Praetorians HD is the version to get.