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Genre: Strategy & War
Min OS X: Any Version    RAM: 128 MB    Hard Disk: 60 MB

Battle For Wesnoth
October 26, 2005 | Michael Scarpelli

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Welcome, traveler, to the main screen.
There's something to be said for advertising a sale. Typically, I gloss over ads I see in print and on television. However, at the first sign of a bargain, I tune right in. Sale, you say? Sign me up. This is why I find myself, from time to time, browsing Apple's download sections, hoping to find that small bit of neon green loveliness proclaiming that a piece of software is "freeware." Nowhere is the old edict of caveat emptor more true than the bargain bin, though. While I may download tons of those freeware items, I rarely keep any for more than a few minutes before sending them on their merry way to my trash bin. Imagine my joy, then, when I stumbled across Battle for Wesnoth: a true diamond among the freeware rough. Of course, if this introductory paragraph can handle another analogy, even the diamond with the most sparkle will reveal flaws when examined closely enough.

Battle for Wesnoth is a strategy game in the tradition of old school titles such as Ogre Battle. Using General units (the military rank, not the adjective), players recruit troops that they then send around a hex-grid landscape to do battle one on one with enemy units. Levels typically consist of simple objectives along the lines of defeating particular enemy units, moving friendlies to a particular area, or surviving for a set number of turns. Gamers earn gold to purchase units by controlling (moving units onto) cities around the map. These cities can also be used to grant extra defense to units and will heal units that rest upon them for a turn.

There is a nice array of units available for recruitment in Battle for Wesnoth that cover the standard fantasy genre archetypes. In the main campaign, gamers can pick from elven units such as fighters, archers, healers, riders, and mages and will unlock various other units as the campaign unfolds. Other campaigns let gamers play as orcs or humans, and some downloadable campaigns feature the undead or even dragon-like creatures to play as. Each unit recruited has its own measure of personality. Units have a slightly varied attack strength and are all given unique names and personality traits which can affect how other units fight alongside them or even how quickly that unit can advance to the next level.

Mythic Proportions
If the individual unit personalities in a game where you will recruit hundreds of units over the course of a campaign reminds you of Bungie's superb Myth series, it should. It's clear that Myth was a source of more than a little inspiration for Battle of Wesnoth, and the game benefits from this royal heritage. Assigning those personalities is a nice bit of variety for the game. It also shows that a hefty amount of attention went towards the little details.

The other Myth-like element that will stand out the most to gamers is the use of veteran units. Combatants that prove strong enough to survive a battle can be recalled in the next step of the campaign for a flat fee. By recalling units, gamers can carry over units with a high level or experience to get a one-up on the ever-strengthening enemy hordes. The veteran system adds an interesting level of strategy to battles, as gamers will struggle to swap out healthy low-level units to bail out their embattled vets.

The veteran system is a double-edged sword, however. Enemy armies are more often than not able to recruit higher level units immediately and will, without fail, assault the gamer with a zerg-style rush attack (for all you StarCraft fanatics out there), overwhelming any units that stand before them. The opposition will also always attack your weakest units directly, hammering away at them until they've been eliminated. Also, healing units only happens after a full cycle of turns, which means that the enemy will get a full chance to beat on troops before they get a chance to heal up. Healing is passive, as well; there are no direct actions a player can make to heal units during their turn. All of these elements add up to mean that it is exceptionally tricky to keep any one unit alive for very long, let alone through an entire campaign.

This on its own would be workable, but when the campaign is advancing and scenarios are balanced with the idea that the gamer has a certain amount of veteran units and a certain stash of gold saved from the previous scenario it gets to be exceptionally frustrating to not have been able to keep veteran units alive under the enemy onslaught. After struggling my way through six scenarios I reached a level that I could not for the life of me manage to get past. I did some forum browsing to see if anyone wiser than I had some advice for weary gamers and was depressed to find that the general consensus was to start the game over and go back, trying to keep more units alive as I went. This is bad enough on its own (gamers should never be punished for advancing), but I've replayed the campaign several times now and met with the same level of failure. Veteran units in Myth were a way to add to the strategy of a level and gave the gamer some advantages in battle, but a strong battle plan would always allow the gamer to overcome superior enemy units. I just didn't get that feeling from Battle for Wesnoth.

At the risk of sounding like I'm whining on all fronts, I went back to play through the main campaign on easy and, admittedly, felt that I got a stronger handle on the nuances of troop movement and how to keep my players alive, but the AI opponents are massively weaker on the easy level of play. Their tactics remain essentially the same, but enemy units produce a far lower number of units than on the normal level. So, while playing on easy will get you used to Wesnoth battle strategy, the missions on normal difficulty will still be a kick in the pants.


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