Review: The Golden Horde (PC)

The Golden Horde
Genre: Real-Time Strategy Game
Developer: WorldForge
Publisher: Dreamcatcher
Release Date: 07/15/08


Making a good real-time strategy game takes a lot of effort. Units have to be balanced, the pace has to be just right, there has to be a significant amount of variety, and the game has to be able to keep the interest of the player for the hours it will take to get through the campaign and beyond. The difference between a good game and a bad one can be as simple as an over-powered unit or as complex as some odd online or map-balance issues, and while games like the Warcraft, Starcraft, and Command and Conquer franchises are remembered fondly for their excellent experiences, many more games are forgotten to time for the opposite reasons. The Golden Horde seems like it has the tools to be another excellent RTS title, between an incredibly solid concept and some interesting mechanical ideas, and it is certainly interesting in several respects, but it isn’t quite as spectacular as it first seems.

The storyline of TGH is certainly an interesting one; instead of either making up a story or taking a story from some historical era we’ve seen a million times (because Roman RTS games never get old), this time around we are instead presented with an RTS set during the thirteenth century, centering around the general time period following the demise of Genghis Kahn, and the wars and political strife in Eurasia at this time. Taking on the role of either the Mongols, the Russians, or the Crusaders, you play through their respective stories through history. In fairness, most of the actual history associated with the events is fairly accurate (even though the actual mechanics of the game aren’t quite so), though the story is largely more of a mood-setter than an actual “story”, as most of the time, it’s essentially impossible to really have any feelings for the characters you’re working with, heroes or otherwise, making the story more of an entertaining history lesson than an entertaining story, as it were. Again, it’s not bad, it does the job okay, but it’s not anything special and really doesn’t DO anything or make you FEEL anything so much as it just fills in the history of the events.

Visually, TGH looks decent enough, if not outstanding. The environments look generally decent, and the weather effects are nice all in all, but the character models look mildly out of date, the polygon seams are occasionally visible even when running on a system far superior to the system requirements, and the game slows down occasionally during large battles (well, large being something of a relative term). Aurally, the music is generally well assembled, both for ambient tracks and battle tunes, and the sound effects are generally decent enough and sound as they should through steel on steel combat, but the voice acting is fairly… intolerable. In similar games, numerous different troop types would have different voices, but when dealing with TGH many of the troops that speak are made up of similar basic members that all use the same voices. This is an especially big problem with the Mongol campaigns because all of their troops are based from Aduuchs (basically, their Peasant class, or slaves in their case), so you’ll literally spend hours hearing “Where are my horses?” or “What does the son of the sky want?” until you’re about ready to help the Russians kill them yourself. It’s not even that the lines are badly delivered (they aren’t) so much as it just gets to be TOO MUCH after a while.

Now, if you’ve played an RTS game (especially one of the ones mentioned earlier in this article) you’ll be able to jump into TGH and learn the basics immediately, but if not, the basic gist of the game is, in most respects, to build a town and army which you use to crush your opponent’s town and army. You are generally provided laborers of some sort or another to build up your town, which you can instruct by way of a menu in the bottom right hand corner to build various things, be they buildings, defense stations, or machines of some sort or another (IE Ballistae, Cannons, War Wagons and other such vehicles) to aid you in your wars. The various buildings can spit out your troops for battle, more laborers, heroes and other personnel types for you to use on the battle lines as needed. You can take control of individual troops by clicking on them, or you can take control of large groups by either shift-clicking individuals or by dragging a selection square over all of the troops you want to use. To move the troops around you can either use the menu at the bottom right or simply right-click where you want them to move, with both having their advantages (simple right-clicking is easier, while choosing “Attack” for example and pointing at a location will make your troops attack anything en route, for instance). Troops can have their default behavior customized depending on how you want them to respond to situations, IE they can attack anything they see and chase it down, or hold position, or not attack unless instructed, etc. As in similar games of this sort, both your regular troops and your heroes have various special abilities that they can use to help turn the tide of battle, ranging from turning enemies to your side to healing the troops to stat boosts to invisibility and beyond. Each faction has a total of four heroes, each with their own different abilities, and they may be summoned into battle (depending on the mission) so long as the minimum requirements for them have been met, and if they die in battle, resummoning them is a simple matter of going to the building they spawn from and clicking the icon. There is also, of course, some resource management in play, as in most of these sorts of games, meaning you’ll have to farm for metal and wood (the two resources in this game) to build troops and buildings, and you’ll have to subjugate villages to your will to bring more troops into battle, as opposed to simply building troop supplies, meaning that in most respects, controlling villages is a vital tactic to survival. There are also stables you can take control of to build horses, which offer additional mobility in battle, and in a nice touch, if a foe is killed but his horse is alive, one of your troops can take control of the horse and use it for their own ends, though if the horse is weak, it may die before the character riding it does, thus sending him tumbling to the ground and making him a prime target for attack as he recovers.

TGH does a few other neat things beyond the above to make it a different experience from what you’re used to, however, which helps to make the experience feel fairly fresh. For one thing, troops aren’t simply divided up by their class, but are instead divided up by the weaponry they equip, which is made interesting because YOU have to make their weaponry and assign it to them. Generally speaking, you’ll acquire weapons either by building a forge and making the weapons yourself or by having your grunts scavenge the field of battle for weapons that have been dropped by the dead, which are then added to your inventory. Your troop barracks, instead of spitting out default troop types, is instead a place for you to build troop templates by equipping them with weaponry and shields, and the troops can equip weapons of three types: short-range melee weapons (swords, axes, flails), which are fast but require close-range combat, medium-range melee weapons (pikes, spears) which are slower but can keep troops at a better range, and ranged weaponry (throwing spears, bows and arrows), which go a significant distance but aren’t as powerful as a good whack in the head. You can equip your troops with better weapons as they are researched/acquired from battle, meaning that upgrading will keep your troops in top battle shape, which will also help them to survive battles. This is positive as well, for as long as the troops survive battles, they gain experience, which helps them become stronger and more lethal on the field of battle. You can’t RELY on this strength, mind you, as death is always a possibility, but by properly managing your troops and waging war intelligently you can build up unstoppable forces with some skill and effort.

The three different factions are also varied enough so as to make playing each one interesting without completely forcing the player to re-learn their tactics. The Mongols feature mobile buildings (meaning they can be relocated if better strategic positions have been discovered), grunts (Aduuchs) that level up into warriors (which means the entire town can be a menace to invading forces), and several interesting battle machines to use (like the Bamboo Cannon, which fires pellet shot at groups of foes). The Russians feature great defensive options (IE building a wooden wall around the ENTIRE TOWN, as well as swamps and other neat things) and a town hall that has most of its upgrades build off of the main building (which conserves space in small camps). The Crusaders feature the best available forges (and thus, weaponry) in the game pound for pound as well as some interesting (albeit expensive) defensive and offensive options, like, say, giant stone walls for keeping invaders out. It also bears noting that weather conditions and environmental changes can have an effect on how well your troops do in battle, meaning that heavy winds can throw off archers and snowfall can slow travel, and walking across ice can be hazardous if your troops fall through cracked ice to their deaths. This doesn’t come up often enough to matter in combat, but it’s a nice touch all the same.

The game offers three main campaigns to play through, one each for the three factions in the game, and each is decently long and should hold your interest for a while as you learn the mechanics of the game. TGH lacks any sort of online play at this point (though that’s not to say they couldn’t add it later, possibly), though it does come with the ability to create single-player skirmishes for up to eight teams, and it does offer LAN play if you have friends to play the game with who can haul their systems over to play. The lack of online play hurts the product a bit, as that tends to be where a lot of the long-term play value of such products comes from, but it actually hurts this game more so because WITH the inclusion of online play the game might have had a recommendable feature; without it, the game becomes a lot harder to recommend to anyone but fans of the genre.

For one thing, the pacing of the game is SLOW. In campaign missions, the game will often start you off with various troops of some sort or another as well as a few buildings to use, but when you’re tasked to build up anything yourself it takes what feels like forever just to build up any sort of an offensive force; you’ll have to build a barracks and a forge to do this thing, then have the forge make enough weaponry to equip your troops, THEN make the troops themselves, and even with the Mongolian Horde (who just equip their slaves for battle), this can take a not insignificant period of time. The knowledge that the opposition is doing this thing isn’t particularly soothing, as it can take a good period of time just to become equipped AT ALL, let alone to a point where you can go out and do anything. This becomes a bit of a problem when it becomes apparent that you’re going to NEED to go out quickly and start taking over villages and such, because unlike similar games where you simply build your own supply facilities and move on with your day, here supplies amount to “whoever has control of the various villages”, meaning that if your opponent takes more villages than you, they have more troops available to them and will be able to eventually take you out based on a simple war of attrition. It’s also very time-consuming having to wait for weaponry to be manufactured before you can equip your troops, and while scavenging the dead is a neat mechanic, it often means having an unarmed lackey following your war horde around and collecting weaponry, which just feels awkward in most respects.

There’s also not a lot of variety to the game, which is a major strike against any game of this type. Your primary troop types ultimately boil down to ranged fighter, spear fighter, sword/axe/flail fighter, and while different weapons can make all of the statistical difference, your troops will basically be one of these three types of warriors almost every time you build your forces. Each faction has battle machines they can use to aid them and shaman/priests/whatever they can use for some assists, but the former isn’t particularly useful since most of said machines either have little practical purpose (what’s the point of a troop transport that doesn’t move any faster or further than regular foot travel, anyway?), are very expensive, take a large amount of time to build, often eat up more resources than regular troops (as they require troops to manipulate them), and don’t really do very much to turn the tide of battle? They have their uses, certainly, but in most cases, save for traps and walls, you’ll find that simply focusing on your troops to the exclusion of such machinery doesn’t make much of a difference, and even while watching the computer AI play the game, they rarely bothered to make war machines unless they were so far ahead in the game that they had nothing else to do.

The biggest problem that can be laid against the game, though, is that it just doesn’t make a compelling argument to be played. The dearth of variety in troops is matched by the dearth of variety in the game world, making each skirmish feel more or less identical to the one before it. The lack of online play means that unless you have a network and friends who want to play the game, you’ll be playing it alone, and considering how many RTS games you can play instead of this that offer online play, that’s a knock against this. The campaign missions aren’t particularly exciting, and if you’re the sort of person who hates the “run around and hide” mechanic that RTS games occasionally employ in their campaigns, good news, ALL THREE CAMPAIGNS START WITH SOMETHING LIKE THIS. There is no compelling narrative or characterization, there are few compelling or exciting gameplay mechanics, and the game just feels like another RTS experience, albeit one that is slow and requires far more micromanagement than one may well feel comfortable providing.

The Golden Horde does offer some interesting mechanics that hardcore RTS fanatics might find enjoyable, to be fair, and the period of history it covers is one that’s not been beaten into the ground, thus making it possibly engaging to those who are looking for something different to play around with. It’s also more or less designed like your typical RTS game in most of its major control mechanics, which makes it easy to pick up and play if you’ve spent some time with these sorts of games before. That said, it’s a fairly pricey game that’s somewhat limited in actual content, the pace of the experience is slow and requires a bit more management than one would expect in such a game, and with a lack of online play, it doesn’t offer anything to do beyond the campaign unless one has friends one can play against locally. Were this a budget-priced release, it would be a solid, acceptable offering that would be fairly easy to recommend despite its flaws, but as a nearly full-priced piece of software, the flaws are more readily apparent, thus rendering the experience something that only a devoted RTS fan will want to spend any sort of significant time with.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: BAD
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: POOR

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The Golden Horde offers up an experience that showcases a decent amount of original concepts and ideas in a product that’s mechanically uninteresting in most respects. The historical time period used as the backdrop for the experience is surprisingly fresh and different, the mechanics of weather and environmental hazards playing into the game work well enough, and equipping your troops for battle adds an RPG element to what would otherwise be a standard RTS experience. However, the slow pace of gameplay combined with the general dearth of options and a complete absence of online play mean that you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer in a few play sessions, and the game does little to entice you to come back for more. The Golden Horde ends up being a game that might be a novelty for those who are looking for something unique and different and are willing to accept its mechanical flaws, but for those who are used to faster-paced and more diverse products, it will be hard to give the game the attention it needs, as there are other, more interesting games with more options available for the same or lower prices.

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