posted 7/7/2004 by Tyler Sager
other articles by Tyler Sager
When it comes to playing RTS games, I’m a “turtle”. I like to take my time, building up behind massive defenses until finally I’m able to field an army and chew up my enemies slowly and cautiously. What this really means is I can hold my own against most AI opponents, but once put up against any aggressive human, I generally suffer bitter and humiliating defeat. So when an RTS comes along that promises to cater to my defensive nature, I’m a happy boy. And how can a game called “Besieger” not be laden with all sorts of fortification-y goodness, an RTS turtle’s dream? Alas, this is not the case. Besieger does boast a relatively easy-to-manage system for quickly building up walls and towers, and it also brings to bear some nice anti-wall units. But the actual play of the game, hindered by poor AI, clunky camera control, and bland units leaves Besieger firmly mired in RTS mediocrity.

The story is all too familiar. Konin, king of the Cimmerian people, sets of on a quest to find the Sword of Krom…no, not that Konin. Anyway, once the king is away, his sister Mara (who has apparently embraced the Dark Arts) takes over the kingdom and begins a campaign of terror. Nearby Vikings end up on the business end of some of this Evil, and they and the ousted Konin set out to put an end to the upstart Queen. The single-player campaign follows the exploits of both the Viking people and Konin’s Cimmerians as they try to oust Mara, both through traditional “build and conquer” missions and through some more dungeon-hack levels. Once the single-player campaign is done, skirmishes, either against the computer or other human opponents, are very run-of-the-mill fare, dropping some combination of Vikings and Cimmerians onto the field and letting them build up and destroy each other.

The units themselves are about as generic as can be, with very little to differentiate between the Viking and Cimmerian armies. Vikings get their melee guys (Berserkers and spearmen), and their ranged guys (spear throwers). Cimmerians get melee and ranged units as well, but some of them ride horses. Riding horses might give a bit of a speed advantage, but due to the fact that all units need constant babysitting to move around the map, I didn’t notice much of a difference between mounted and foot soldiers. Both sides also get a few siege units, handy for taking care of those pesky walls, and each side gets a few flying units as well. Units are able to gain experience and increased power levels as they survive fights, but I wasn’t able to see much of an advantage in these upgrades in the regular units (besides the instant full-health given upon leveling up). The single player campaign introduces some unique Hero units, which do add a little flavor to the mix. Each unit has a special ability it confers to nearby units, like increased damage or increased health regeneration rate. Unlike the regular units, as the Heroes gain more and more levels, they become truly frightening. Toward the end of the campaign, the Heroes that managed to survive become one-man armies, able to dish out incredible amounts of damage. These units almost seem a little unbalancing, but it is important to keep them safe (and the poor AI and clunky control makes this difficult at times).

My favorite part of any RTS, the defensive buildup, is the high point of Besieger. Building walls is simple, just a click and drag. There may be an initial confusion, as walls have an “outside” and an “inside”, and it’s easy at first to accidentally point those defensive towers inside, rather than out. Walls can be given little ramps to allow ranged units to greet the enemy with pointy death from above. A few different kinds of towers can be constructed along the wall, armed with either heavy arbalests or exploding heavy crossbows. Once fortifications are in place, the business of setting up the rest of the town can begin. Building and gathering resources is very similar to just about every other RTS—send workers to the tree/rock pile/iron mine, and have them haul out the goods. Various buildings allow for researching tech upgrades or training soldiers. In a slightly unique move, military buildings don’t create soldiers from scratch. Instead, a worker unit must be ordered to enter the building, and after a time, the soldier is trained. This seems at first to be a neat addition, necessitating a balance between worker units and offensive units, but it tends to get old after a while. And since most RTS games have a population limit anyway, meaning you’d need to balance military units with workers in the long term, the worker-to-warrior shtick just means an extra step in building up the army.

The graphics are quite good in Besieger. The terrain is fully 3D, complete with varying elevations and slopes and such. The buildings look great, and are nicely detailed. The units themselves look good, although when the camera zooms too close things get a bit cuboidal. The game could stand to be a bit more colorful, though. There is a day/night cycle, and everything tends to get a bit washed out and difficult to see during the evening. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Besiegers audio, however. The unit voices, while not the most annoying I’ve ever heard, certainly aren’t anything to brag about. Everything else, from battle sounds to background music, was decent enough, but the lack of voice quality was a disappointment.

While everything looked good, the camera control was lousy. I was often losing site of my units at very important times, especially while fighting in a canyon pass. The camera would leap and spin around dizzyingly, I’d no longer see and be able to baby-sit my units and they, left to their own feeble AI, would stand there and be mauled by the enemy. After a while I was able to deal with the camera, but camera control should never be that large a part of the learning curve. One thing that I never got used to was the terrible path finding. When ordering any army larger than a few units around, they would inevitably get bottlenecked somewhere, and just refuse to move. Many times I tried a spirited charge into a breach in the enemy wall, only to find that the army would split apart, about half deciding they just didn’t want to go in, the other half trickling in a few at a time to be conveniently mowed down by enemy troops. There was absolutely no way to order an army to march across a large map unattended—they would end up spread across the entire battlefield.

Besieger tries to be more than “just another real-time strategy”, but doesn’t manage to pull it off. While there were some fun moments, most of the game just felt like any other generic RTS, albeit one with questionable controls and less-than-impressive AI. With so many other great RTS games on the market, there’s just not enough here for a recommendation. Unless you’re just frothing at the mouth for a Viking-and-Barbarian real-time-strategy, give this one a pass.

Just another fantasy RTS, this time with Vikings. Shoddy pathfinding and clunky camera controls don’t help much, either.