Can a strategy game from 1997 really be worth playing today?
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Developer: Strategic Studies Group
Publisher: Slitherine Ltd.
Release date: 21 Aug, 1998
Playing old games can be an interesting experience. Sometimes you find a game that’s just as good as the day it was released, in a few rare cases the games turn out to be even more fun to play a few decades later than they did at release, because you’re no longer going in with the expectations you would have had back at launch. And quite often, these old games end up feeling clunky, unintuitive, limited and frustrating. So how well does Warlords 3 hold up?
Warlords 3 was originally released back in 1997, under the name Warlords III: Reign of Heroes, and an updated version was released a year later, called Warlords III: Darklords Rising, which added a bunch more content. 1997 was probably a tough year for a PC strategy game to be released in, as the tail end of 96 had given us Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and Command & Conquer: Red Alert, and a few months before those, we got Civilization 2. Yet despite this, Warlords 3 did well enough for itself. It might not have had the same impact on the industry as those other games, but there are still people who hold it in very high regard.
The main Warlords series was finally re-released digitally on GOG in late 2019 (all apart from Warlords IV). This review is for the GOG-release of Warlords 3. Just for full disclosure, I did play Warlords 3 when it was relatively new, but it was never a game I owned.
Story & setting
The fact that I’m struggling to even remember the name of the setting, despite looking it up just 5 min ago should say something about how memorable it really is.
Warlords 3 takes place in the fantasy world of Etheria. A fantasy world that really takes the kitchen sink approach to world-building. It has most of the popular fantasy creatures in it, elves, orcs, dragons, daemons… There are 95 units in the game, representing the different races in Etheria and their armies, and not a single one of them feel very original. Well, maybe the two-headed dwarf mutant, but just barely.
In the Darklords Rising version of Warlords 3 there are 5 campaigns in total, detailing the return of the evil Lord Bane, and his attempt to take over the world. The story is told in the form of a paragraph or two of text between each level, with an accompanying picture, and a few paragraphs at the start of the campaign. The stories, or even the setting, never feels particularly important, or fleshed out.
Graphics & Sound
The original version of Warlords 3 was released in 1997, and even for a 1997 game, it’s not great looking. This game was released after Heroes of Might and Magic 2, a far better-looking game. The game is viewed from an overhead perspective, and units are small, barely animated sprites. The maps also don’t look very detailed, and rely heavily on repeated tiles. Also, something that will bother some people is that this game, stretches to fit the screen, giving it a slightly stretched look. It’s far more noticeable on screenshots than when you’re actually playing, but it still does not look quite as good as it could have.
Credit where it’s due though, the artists who worked on this did a great job with many of the images that are shown through the game. Every unit has a unique image, every hero class has two (one male, one female), the campaigns also have a few, as well as a few other things like the victory screen, or when you chose what to do with a city you’ve just conquered. These are generally quite inspired, and look like something you could find on a Magic the Gathering card from that era.
While the graphics look somewhat lackluster, even for a game this old, the music is quite decent. It’s probably not going to be anyone’s favourite, but it’s decent enough as background music for a game like this, with a more relaxing than action-focused tone. There’s a bit over 30min of music here, and it sounds coherent, but the game tries to switch tracks quite often, usually when it switches from one player’s turn to another, and the switch is not seamless. It would probably have been better if they just let each track play in full.
Finally we have the sound effects, and there’s not much to say about those. They’re there. They’re perfectly serviceable for the most part, although some can be a little bit annoying, particularly the deep drum sound that plays when some armies move.
Warlords 3 is a turn-based strategy game, with up to 8 factions fighting over a map with a limited number of pre-defined cities on it. Each side usually starts with one or two cities, and a few units, and then quickly expands from there.
And quickly is the keyword here. Playing through a Warlord 3 level does not take very long. Even the largest maps can be completed in a bit over an hour, and the smaller ones in far less time than that. This is a nice change of pace from similar-looking games, like Age of Wonders or Heroes of Might and Magic, where playing a small to medium-sized level can usually take well over an hour. Warlords 3 is also not very complex, you don’t need to worry about tricky resource management, large trees of pre-requisite buildings in order to get the best units or anything of that nature, instead you can get whatever units your faction has access to right from the get-go, if you can afford them that is.
Building units works differently from other similar games. Building a unit is free, but requires an upkeep cost. The costly thing is “installing” the production capabilities in your cities. Every city has room for 4 units, out of the 8 that each faction has access to, and once you’ve paid this one-time cost for a city, you can just keep pumping out that unit. Weaker units, like basic human infantry, giant rats and zombies take a single turn for a city to make, while the most powerful units, dragons, takes 5 turns. There are of course 2-4 turn units as well. Assembling a good army is really one of the key parts of the game. Most units have secondary effects, which are often army-wide. A unit with say Leadership +3 will give +3 strength to its entire army, but having multiple units with leadership won’t give you any additional bonuses. Some units will strengthen other similar units, like a giant rat on its own is very weak, but every rat in your army beyond the first, up to 6, will make every other rat stronger. Have 7 of them, and each one will, individually, be stronger than a giant. But no army can have more than 8 units, so if you go for 7 rats, you’ll only have room for one other unit.
Apart from the regular units, you also have heroes, who are able to level up and get stronger. There are 15 different hero classes, and through the game you’ll randomly be informed that heroes want to join your army. Every class brings its own thing, some are better fighters, some are better at strengthening the army they’re in, and some are able to cast spells that can bring with them significant bonuses. With heroes you can also chose what abilities they’ll get when they level up, so you can fill gaps with them. Lack any siege units, that makes your armies better at assaulting cities? Some heroes can get “Siege”. Need a unit with leadership, to strengthen your army? Some heroes have access to that as well.
Combat is very straight forward in Warlords 3. When two armies bump into each other, they’ll fight until one side is dead. You don’t have any way of influencing combat, once it’s started, both sides will just fight to their death. Every “turn” of combat, two dice will be rolled, one for each side, and compared to the strength of the “active” unit, and the winner deals damage to the loser. Once a unit dies, a new unit will take its place, rinse and repeat until one side is dead. There’s a bit more to it than that, but for the player, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Stronger units have a significant advantage, but it is possible for even the weakest unit to hurt a strong one, and if there’s not a significant strength difference between two units, then it’s anyone’s guess who will win. Different units can also take different amounts of damage, a dragon can take 3 hits, and a skeleton just 1, but throw enough skeletons at a dragon, and they’ll probably bring it down, particularly if you bring some units that can make those skeletons stronger. There are also unit skills that can influence combat. A unit with the “assassin” skill has a chance of instantly killing the enemy before it can even attack, and “curse” has a chance to make them weaker.
With a system that random, it’s a good thing that losing a few units to some bad dice rolls is not a big deal. Warlords 3 is not a game that wants you to take good care of your units, and protect them. New units are constantly being made in your cities, and you’re likely to have quite a few cities after just a couple of turns (a medium sized map will have about 40 cities, and the largest size can have up to 80). Your units, and also your cities, are expendable. That obviously does not mean that you should be wasteful, but losing a dragon or two, or a stack of 8 rats is really not a big deal.
With so many units being made, moving them across the map could very easily become tedious, but Warlords 3 has a clever system for moving units, that it calls “vectoring”. Basically what this does is that it allows you to move a unit or army from any city, to any other friendly city, in a few turns (default is 2, but that can be changed). If the city gets conquered while your units are moving there, they’ll be destroyed, so it’s not without risk, but with good use of this system, you can move your armies where they’re needed, and not have to worry about moving dozens of smaller armies all around the place.
Warlords 3 has 5 campaigns, with 10 missions each, and about 30 standalone maps, but the real replay value comes from the games random map generator, which is astonishingly good. The random map generator often generated maps that were better than the pre-made ones, and at worst they tend to end up with some odd clusters of things. It helps that the maps in Warlords 3 are quite simple, you don’t have any complex terrain to work with, but Warlord 3’s random map generator generates better maps than that of most modern games, like Civilization VI. The campaigns are pretty decent as well, with some interesting map. One thing that can make or break the campaigns for someone is how much they value game balance. Between campaign levels you get bonuses that you can apply to your units, and this can make for some really busted creatures. There’s a cap on how much you can improve your units, but these bonuses can still make them strong enough that game balance goes out the window.
One final thing worth touching upon is the faction generator. The game comes with a large set of pre-made factions, but you can also make your own. This uses a kind of point-buy system, and adding different units, as well as mercenaries that can show up, and starting gold, costs points, so you can’t make a faction that only has the absolutely best things, but it’s still not hard to make something that’s stronger than any of the starting factions. On top of that, not all units feel very well balanced, and some even feel significantly better than others.
I’m frankly surprised by how long this review ended up being. At a surface level, Warlords 3 is really a very simple game, and there does not seem to be a whole lot to talk about. But Warlords 3 is a game with simple rules, and a good amount of depth if you start to scratch the surface. It’s also a game that has a lot of stuff in it. Between the large number of units, and heroes, the 5 campaigns, 30 pre-made missions and the random map generator with a lot of different gameplay options, it’s an incredibly feature-rich game. And more importantly than that, it’s darn fun to play.
Obviously no game is perfect, and Warlords 3 does show its age in some regards. The lackluster graphics is one area where modern games have far surpassed it. The interface, while far from bad, also has a few issues here and there. You can very easily see how strong, fast and tough a unit is, and get a decent idea of how well it will perform based on those numbers, but then there are the abilities. They’re not explained in-game, and you need to turn to the manual for that. There were also some very minor technical hiccups with the game. You can’t alt-tab out of it (but the game does have a “boss key” that will minimize it for you. A boss key is a key of command you can press that will minimize the game for you quickly, so if your boss walks in on you, you can pretend to actually be working). I also got an error message every time I started it complaining about lack of disk space. But I had no crashes, messed up colours or anything else of that nature in my time with the game.
Warlords 3 is great. In fact, I was tempted to give this one an Autosave rating, but there are still a few things holding it back, like the lackluster setting and story, and the balance is not perfect. But these are not issues that break the game, they’re just small blemishes on an otherwise incredibly fun game. One that I’m not uninstalling any time soon.