Forget about shoot-'em-up games, The Ancient Art of War is pure strategy. Your task is to assume the position of a battlefield commander and secure the route to victory. Instead of a single storyline or campaign throughout the game, AAoW gives you a list of battles to choose from. Each is unique. Once on the battlefield, your task is to bring about the conditions for a victory. This very rarely happens in an all-out war. Terrain, composition of units, correct formations and planning will ensure victory. When the battle is over, you are given statistics of how many men were captured, killed, etc, and the level ends.
Before a Battle:
Your first task as a commander is preparation. Your army consists of four types of soldiers: archers, barbarians, knights and spies. Spies move very quickly and can see far, but are useless in a fight. Your barbarians move quickly and use a melee attack, knights are slower with a stronger attack, and archers are very slow movers with a ranged attack. In an ideal world, you would have a mix of all these units. Barbarians kill archers, knights kill barbarians, well-placed archers kill both, while poorly-placed archers get killed. Your units' placement is determined by selecting a formation; there are nine default ones, ranging from scattering troops randomly around the battlefield to lines, boxes and so on. Each formation has its advantages for a certain makeup of troops. As well as a standard attacking formation for ideal situations, you need formations that can compensate for the lack of archers, barbarians or knights. If you only have one spy, place him in a good position for an easy retreat. Barbarians do best at the front. Archers who have people in front of them cannot fire at the enemy. In addition to the default formations, there is a very good “Train Formations” function in the “Make Changes” menu. I recommend using this function once you become familiar with how the game operates. In this screen, you train your soldiers where to stand when attacked or attacking. You must delete a default formation in order to save a new one.
Once you go to war, you choose your mission. Every mission has many variables such as whether villages will supply the troops with food and the number of obstacles such as bodies of water and mountains. The variables are set by default by the designer of the mission, but modifying these defaults will change the mission's level of difficulty.
Once the mission has been selected, you can choose the opposing commander. Every mission has a default commander, but again the difficulty can be changed depending on who you select. Every commander uses unique tactics, which directly affects how each mission is played.
There are two main prerequisites for a victory: wiping out the enemy and capturing the flag.
In the battlefield view, you decide where your troops move, see their condition and put them into groups. There can be a maximum of fourteen men in any one group. If you march your men fast, their food runs out faster, and their condition goes down. Once their condition goes down, they move slowly and fight poorly. Villages and forts supply food.
Depending on the mission, you must defend, attack, race or sneak your way through the battlefield. Terrain plays a big part in the game. Forests slow you down, but they conceal you. Forts defend you, and will train extra soldiers. Villages replenish your supplies. You must keep soldiers at strategic locations, such as flags, to ensure they do not get taken. Then you must rotate your soldiers, because soldiers who are standing around eat food. When their food runs out, they starve.
In the zoomed view, you have a close-up view of battles. You control your squad, rather than individuals. If you send all of your forces to attack straight away, they will be destroyed. Once again, careful strategy is required.
The sound is poor, and the graphics are average. The game seems only to allow PC speaker sounds, which are simply irritating. I found the menu and title screens excellent, but the in-game graphics are somewhat annoying. Especially in the battlefield view, the soldiers look like stick figures moving across flat surfaces. Although the graphics could be much worse - considering this is a game which dates all the way back to 1984 - it would have been much nicer to see a bit of texturing on the landscape.
The interface is not difficult to understand, but can be irritating sometimes. The mouse is not supported, only keyboard and joystick (joystick not tested). You select squads by scrolling over them with the cursor, and typing the first letter of the commands that appear. Problem: both the cursor and friendly troops are white.
The game lacks depth. All you can do is fight battles. There are no civilians, no diplomacy, third parties, economy or building involved. The warfare aspect is excellent, but the developers did not add anything on top of that. One other thing is that because each battle has its own storyline, there is no sense of cohesion between battles. Unlike an RPG, where you follow a story with one character, gaining levels and moving forward, this game has little of that.
Some levels are very hard, and require you to think. I like this in a game. The levels are well planned, and there is never a straight path to victory. The Ancient Art of War is designed to be a strategy game in which you command an army in battle, and it does this very well.
I really enjoyed this game, but was disappointed with the technical aspects and flaws mentioned above. This game really is a 5/5 for some people, and a 1/5 for others. You will find this game really boring if you like action, and intriguing if you like strategy.
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