In the '80s, if you had three friends over who all wanted to play Atari with you, there was really only one game you would reach for.
Warlords was the go-to game for multiplayer combat, and it was also the source for many frustrated arm punches and the first cases of thrown paddle controllers among buddies who lost the round. And while it has already received a 3D update (on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008), Atari is taking yet another crack at rehashing this classic title.
Have they found the right balance between old-school gameplay and new-school play mechanics?
Warlords (PlayStation Network [reviewed], Xbox Live Arcade)
The game itself is fairly straightforward: two to four players guard a castle by maneuvering a shield at the front gate to not only block fireballs from destroying your own castle walls, but to also ricochet them to take out your opponents'. It plays like an awesome hybrid of Combat, Breakout, and to a certain extent, Pong, as each hit depletes the strength and structure of your walls until they're all knocked down and a final fireball entering the castle knocks them out for good. For this iteration, however, they've thrown in a few new features to liven things up.
As multiple shots bounce around the stage, if timed right, you can catch one with your shield and charge it as a shot for more damage to your enemies' walls. However, the longer you charge it, the more your wall will be damaged until it's released. These attacks can be utilized to your advantage, as bank shots can slip past your foes' guard, and the shot, while charged, cannot damage your own wall once released onto the field.
As more fireballs are dropped into the battlefield (by a flying dragon, no less) the action becomes chaotic, with a possible total of five fireballs on the screen at once. Once a castle is taken out, the number drops back to one fireball, and increases incrementally again as the other castles follow suit. This keeps the action varied enough so that each player is constantly adjusting to each new attack.
One of the biggest new additions, however, is the inclusion of your minions, known as Snoots. These goofy little creatures are used for a variety of tasks, such as repairing your own walls, directly damaging your opponents, or gathering power-ups for bonuses and take-down assists from your fireball attacks. You direct a flag-carrying Snoot with the right analog stick and his troops will follow him blindly, even attacking enemy Snoots on the battlefield, taking each other out at a one-to-one ratio. The more you lead, the more chance you'll win against opposing forces when trying to stand on one of the power-up icons on the field in order to fill a meter to obtain troop invincibility, shield extenders, or the ability to slow or reverse the controls for your opponents' shields.
Juggling control of the Snoots while deflecting fireballs with your shield is difficult enough, but careful concentration on this real-time-strategy element of the gameplay can really turn things in your favor. Thankfully, the main tasks of healing your wall, attacking your opponents, and running to the power-up battlefield icons are also each hot-keyed to a direction on the D-pad to make things a bit easier to control in the heat of battle.
Is that not enough for you? How about we throw in a Black Knight, who will randomly appear to start bashing in everyone's walls? Your Snoots can attack him, but the White Knight power-up is what's best for allowing them to stand a chance. You can also direct the fireballs toward him, but that only makes him mad, and if he isn't attacking you before you launch one his way, he will be soon after.
All of this may sound like overkill and a bit much to handle -- and in some heated battles, it is -- but that's part of the beauty of this game. The micromanagement of the Snoots never feels intrusive and the Black Knight only shows up often enough to be a mild nuisance. There's a careful balance in effect here that each of these play mechanics feel like an enhancement rather than just a cheap gimmick. I worried initially that I wasn't going to be able to handle every new gameplay feature, but I found myself preferring the new techniques over the classic mode.
The graphic presentation is a highlight -- as well as where the game starts to see its downfall. While the characters of the Snoots are entertaining and in some cases downright funny, the framerate in battles can slip and stutter on occasion, making battles stretch out a bit more than you might like. Still, the color coordination of your own Warlord, Snoots, their castle, and charged attacks keep things in focus; the framerate issue only presented itself in a couple of matches, never really hindering gameplay. The battlefield can be viewed at a 3/4 isometric view or in classic overhead, though the action is a little tougher to follow in the former. The sound is also excellent, with an entertaining announcer's deep bass vocal echoing through battles over heavy metal guitars.
For a downloadable title, there's plenty of game modes on offer including the invaluable tutorial mode, a short-but-fun campaign, single-player vs. CPU, and of course local and online multiplayer. The campaign tacks on a rather unnecessary storyline, but it's short enough that you won't care, and it serves as a good way to get some practice in before tackling friends in battle. While playing against AI-controlled enemies has its merits, nothing compares to fighting against real people, and the inclusion of local multiplayer along with online brings those glorious old-school memories back.
More than just an HD remake, Warlords adds enough new things while keeping the core gameplay at its heart to make everything fresh and fun. It may not be a perfect game with the (thankfully occasional) framerate dips and a story mode that could honestly have been left out, but it's certainly an entertaining one, and a blast to play with others.
And with online play, I don't get punched in the arm nearly as much when I win.
THE VERDICT - Warlords
Reviewed by Ian Bonds