You may know Warlords from its multiple previous incarnations. I don’t, but I would love to have played the original version as a kid to compare with this recently released reimagining. Starting life as a four player game for the Atari 2600, Warlords has been reworked and rereleased on multiple systems including the PlayStation, Nintendo DS, and now on the Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. If, like me, you missed out on all of the action to this point, Warlords is an exciting multiplayer game that should be a hit for co-op play, but stumbles as a single player experience.
Warlords is, fundamentally, your typical brick breaking game, along the lines of Pong, Breakout or my personal favorite, Arkanoid, but the experience is amplified with additional layers of options and management to increase the chaos and depth of the battles. At its most basic, and as it was in the original Atari 2600 release, each player is barricaded into a corner of the screen and controls a shield that can be moved around the approximately 90 degrees of exposed wall. A ricocheting ball bounces around the battlefield, destroying a brick in the wall every time it gets behind a shield to connect, until the wall is gone and your character inside the castle is finally hit and you as the player are eliminated.
That’s just where this Warlords incarnation starts. When a ball reaches your floating defensive shield, you have the option to catch it and release it in any direction you want, in addition to just deflecting it. As you are holding the ball, you are charging up the power of your shot, which does more damage if it connects with a wall, but also does damage to your own wall as you charge. Additionally, there is an RTS-style element to this game. With your right analog stick, you control your snoot captain (basically the Pied Piper for your snoots) around the center of the battlefield. Snoots exit your castle and follow the snoot captain, where they can activate a number of power ups, which include: reversing the direction of or slowing down opponents shield movement, strengthening the walls of your castle or transforming all fireballs into power shots.
The brave little snoots can also be held back to repair your own walls, or sent forth to opponent’s walls to attack them directly. Controlling and managing your snoots is not particularly taxing, but can get hectic when trying to fend off multiple fireballs at the same time. One additional wrinkle to the gameplay is that at any time, The Black Knight can be summoned to the battlefield, where he can attack snoots and walls alike. It feels a little cheap when he enters the game and starts bashing you, and you then have to divert your attention further to deal with him by capturing all of the power up plates or launching power shots into him. At this point in the game, there can be upwards of twenty objects on the battlefield, which makes it tough to keep track of what is going on.
Warlords gameplay can be frenetic and exciting, though it can border on being out of control at times. Sadly, Warlords doesn’t do enough to support this core concept, especially for people playing the game alone. The tutorial is well done and helpful, but only needs to be played once. After that, you have a campaign of sorts, though it amounts to no more than a series of battles that increase in difficulty with scrolling text in between to provide the context that you are trying to become the next Warlord. You can also engage in quick battles, which is basically all that is left after the brief campaign, but by that point, the game has shown everything it has and no longer provides any real incentive to continue playing alone. You can play with a single opponent instead of three, and alter some other match options, but these minor tweaks do little to extend the life of the title. While the gameplay is fun, there is really only a couple of hours of solo gameplay to be had, which just doesn’t feel like enough.
The online multiplayer probably works well enough and has full voice chat integrated, so it seems like an excellent way to really change the dynamic of the game and give it lasting appeal. I say probably though, because I never saw a single person online to get a game in with. This is a scary proposition for a game that is in its first week of life. The most fun I can imagine having would come through the local split screen option. As with many party games, the level of excitement of playing with a buddy on the couch next to you would seem to mesh well with the chaotic back and forth nature of this game. If that is a situation you can easily set up, I would wholeheartedly recommend picking up Warlords.
For those of us without the option for frequent couch co-op sessions, we have to deal with the sad, solitary game that is left. The experience is not all gloom though, and the game does try to inject some life and levity into the proceedings. The snoot on the home screen does pushups while waiting for you to make a selection, which made me chuckle the first couple of times that I saw it, and when you win a match in the campaign, you get a strange little clip of a snoot jumping off the wall, crossing the field and falling over. These don’t really add anything to the game, but any attempt to break up the sterile feel of sequential games played alone is welcome. I do like the little dragon that flies by and shoots the fireballs into the battlefield. These cute touches mix with the color and element associated Warlords to give the game a lively vibrant look, though this is marred a bit by the low res textures that are evident anytime you see something more closely than in the default view. I also encountered a fair amount of slowdown in the menus and, occasionally, in-match that was obvious, but didn’t detract much from the overall experience.
Warlords is the seed of a very fun game surrounded by the withered husk of a shell that does not let it reach its full potential. It does a good job at striking the balance between easy to pick up and learn, while being complex enough to remain fun through the frenetic pace and layers of simultaneous management required. If you have the option for local co-op, you’re in for a blast. If you stumble upon someone in the online mode, that would also be a fun way to play. In the absence of those two options though, there just isn’t enough here to keep the game from getting stale in solo play pretty quickly. Warlords is a great party game, but cannot transcend its party game trappings.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.