Brilliant faction system
*A lot* of depth
Massively varied units and tactics
Many paths to victory
In depth economy system
Satisfying kingdom-building experience
Tons of replay value
AI General Editor is excellent
Buggy pathfinding - can be worked around, but don't expect a fix - the game's devs went bankrupt and it's 11 years old
AI generals can be predictable
Music can be jarring, dull or downright irritating
Extremely small multiplayer community
This is the first review I've ever written for a game, and I usually refrain from writing them but this game holds a special place in my heart. I've played this game since it came out in 2003, and let me tell you it is one of the best RTS games there is. The level of freedom in choosing an alignment or faction is brilliant and unique, and the replay value, thanks to its skirmish mode, is massive. I have spent countless hours playing this game before it came out on Steam, building massive kingdoms and launching invasions on enemy cities with vast armies. But like all games it has its strengths and weaknesses.
The game is set in a fantasy pseudo-medieval world where all the things people of that time feared and believed in are real. The selection of units is truly vast, ranging from Barbarians, Arch-Demons and Witches to Inquisitors, Archangels and War Elephants, to Arquebus-wielding Gunners, Bombard cannons and Rocket Artillery, as well as less fantastical troops such as pikemen, knights and archers.
Of course, the game is quite old now, so the graphics aren't its strong point, appearing blocky and, when zoomed in, blurry and lacking detail and definition, but who plays games solely for graphics anyway? The art style is not as iconic as other games nor as distinct, but it's certainly not sub-par, and it creates the necessary medieval feel. Building a large and bustling city filled with shops and merchants, with carts going back and forth delivering goods from outlying farmlands and settlements is truly a sight to behold, and is extremely satisfying to just look at especially after spending a lot of time building it all.
The music is either hit or miss, with some tracks being really good and some being really bad, and the way the music jolts around at times can be very unsettling and quite disruptive. The game plays quite relaxing, serene tracks while not in combat, but when your troops start fighting the music ramps up to war-drums. This would have been a good thing if it didn't keep stopping and starting, playing war drums when your enemy sends a lone man into your base (like a scout) and you order your men to kill him. Some of the tracks are too loud as well, and play in instances where they seem inappropiate, such as epic-battle music playing when the enemy sends a small scouting force and kills a few peasants. However some tracks, namely the ones carried over from the previous game Warrior Kings, are very good, and really capture the essence of the world of Orbis.
The Campaign is not as good as the first game, being a series of rather simple skirmish-type maps, with a number of AI generals to overcome on each map. What makes it worth playing through however is the fact that you unlock the maps and the AI generals for the skirmish and multiplayer modes as well.
There are five factions, or alignments in the game (or seven depending on whether you build a Church or a Maypole while following the Renaissance path). These are the Imperial, which features zealous inquisitors and powerful knightly units, the Pagan, which features Demons and savage barbaric warriors, and the Renaissance which has access to the most powerful technology. In Skirmish or Multiplayer modes each player whether AI or human starts off with a basic Manor and several Peasants, and may choose any alignment as they go along, and the alignment is determined by which buildings you construct.
For example, you can choose to follow the Imperial path, building churches, monasteries and cathedrals and you will get access to Acts of God, allowing you to call down meteors, lightning storms and plagues upon your enemies to cause mayhem while building a solid force of troops with powerful knights and longbowmen. Alternatively you can follow the Pagan path, and doing so allows you to summon hordes of powerful demons and use sorcery and subtlety to disrupt your enemies' economy before invading with powerful close-combat warriors. Methods of doing this include possessing enemy peasants and spreading heresy, which stops peasants in a radius around the possessed unit from working until the heretic is killed.
Of course you can also eschew superstition and follow the Renaissance path, the "technological" faction which gives you access to the best economic upgrades, the best unit upgrades and the best war machines, including the truly devastating Rocket Launcher and cannon at the cost of sub-par melee troops, but with ranks upon ranks of deadly musketeers enemies will be hard pressed to actually get into combat with you!
The actual battles themselves in this game are very similar to the Total War games, following a doctrine of "combined arms" - that is, heavy infantry beat heavy cavalry, ranged troops beat heavy infantry and so on. Each type of unit is countered by another, but some units if massed in large numbers can overcome even their counter units, and if you use flanking and the right formations you can beat heavy infantry with heavy cavalry. Terrain also plays an important part in this game, with ranged units benefiting from increased range and damage when firing from on top of a hill, and suffering from greater inaccuracy when firing into forested areas. Cavalry move more slowly through forested areas and when moving over certain types of terrain such as muddy areas and through forests.
Not only are there the combat units, but also agent-type units like spies, priests and merchants. Spies can do a lot of disruptive things such as blowing up gatehouses, committing arson, stowing away on enemy carts then disembarking in enemy territory and spying on them. Priests will protect your troops from demonic influence such as Succubus powers and can also buff your troops with blessings and exorcise or banish demons, defending your kingdom from supernatural forces. Furthermore there is a Diplomacy system that, while simplistic, allows you to form alliances with other players, request for peace or declare war. You can also send tributes to other players to "buy them over".
There are ships in the game but you only get access to them in Multiplayer matches, if you can find one that is. There is no multiplayer community to speak of for this game, however there is a group on Steam that organises games every so often, but it is mercurial, so don't get your hopes up. Of course you could always play against your friends on a LAN.
While there are a few small issues like pathfinding (that is admittedly quite rubbish, but not gamebreaking and can be worked around) the rest of the game makes up for it. The way you build a kingdom, choosing your alignment as you go along is totally unique and I haven't seen this kind of thing in any other RTS, and the depth of the factions with all their little ins and outs are superb. The music could be better, or rather better implemented and the pathfinding is very weak, but the game is deep, with tons of replay value trying out the different alignments and then trying different tactics with each alignment, using pike & shot formations, artillery batteries, demonic hordes, massive formations of knights or disrupting your enemy with espionage and subterfuge.
Overall I give this game an 8.5/10