It's not surprising that many fans of strategic war games are also history buffs. Learning about a particular time period and committing its names, dates and social information to memory is very similar to mastering the intricacies and subtle details of virtual warfare. When something like the real-time strategy (RTS) title Praetorians comes along, a game that chronicles the military career of the Roman general Julius Caesar, it has the difficult task of engaging the gamer as well as satisfying the historian by accurately representing the time period.
A recent discussion with my step-father, who fits the stereotype of war gamer/history buff perfectly, reveals just how picky people can be. He was disappointed by the game's title because the Praetorian Guard soldiers for whom the game is named were not actually founded until after Caesar's death. To be fair, if one were to go through the game with a fine tooth comb, one could find other small inaccuracies. However these quibbles are easily squashed by Praetorians' success in communicating the magnitude of Roman power and the impact that they had on the rest of the world during Caesar's life-time.
The time period covered in Praetorians is 59 - 45 BC, which those who have studied their history will recognize as being a turbulent time for Rome both at home and abroad. Several powerful Roman generals jockeyed for power before Caesar eventually emerged as the victor. He achieved this through a string of successful military campaigns in Gaul (modern day France), Egypt, Asia Minor and Spain before defeating his military and political rival Pompey during a civil war in Italy itself.
The game's 24 missions manage to touch on every campaign in a scattered mosaic that jumps from Gaul to North Africa, back to Gaul, before simply branching out in every direction, dropping historic names like Vercingetorix, Crassus Longinus, Mithridates and Labienus like textbook chapter summaries. All names are carefully used in the proper context, however, and will mean something to the historian even if they mean nothing to the gamer. For the latter group, the story can still be enjoyed on a more shallow level as simply context for the upcoming battle.
That the presentation of scenarios is unflinchingly chronological means that campaigns are often left unfinished as the scenario then changes to a location thousands of miles away. It is, nevertheless, an accurate depiction of the way things really were; given Rome's vast and always-expanding borders, wars on multiple fronts that simmered for decades were simply the way of life, and resolutions to the conflicts were not always swift or absolute.
Like the Dynasty Warrior series, the action in Praetorians revolves not around the main general, but around a lesser commander in a vast military network. Caesar himself is never actually on the battlefield; the gamer directs a series of lesser officers who are given greater responsibilities as the missions progress. Missions offer a mixture of offensive and defensive strategies. Some call for the troops to defend an encampment or protect allied villages, while others call for sieges or simply razing all enemy cities to the ground in an overt show of power.
There is no resource management in Praetorians, and the lack of gold mining, lumber harvesting and town-building is a testament to the single-minded focus on combat and to the fact that the Romans were more concerned at that time with subduing or subverting existing populations rather than founding cities of their own. The only structures possible to build are a town garrison for recruiting troops, defense towers, bridges and siege weapons like catapults and ballistae. The only resource the game concerns itself with is people. Troops can be recruited from controlled towns and function as a renewable that when exhausted will regenerate slowly over time.
The freedom created by not having to micromanage the settlements is tempered by the fact that the game is extremely difficult. Winning involves mastering the intricacies of each fighting unit: the legionnaires, spearmen, archers, equites (cavalry) and various mercenary and specialty units who have characteristic strengths, weaknesses and movement abilities. Physicians heal the wounded, while the only risky "gimmick" is the addition of hawk and wolf scouts. These human-and-animal teams act as reconnaissance scouts to disclose enemy unit locations by means of the animal "communicating" the information to the human somehow. Only here does the game stray perilously close to "magic" in a way that compromises its historical integrity.
Success in Praetorians, even on the easiest of the three difficulty levels, involves not only mastering the intricacies of each fighting unit, which is a given in any war simulation, but also understanding the terrain and how it can be manipulated to the army's advantage. The scenario maps, which are presented in an isometric perspective, contain cliffs and raised ridges of land, grasses, streams and forest that can provide a tactical advantage when exploited correctly.
Multi-tasking is inherent to the RTS genre and Praetorians is no exception, although juggling several thousand troops in sprawling army formations that they arrange themselves in by default is significantly more of a challenge than controlling single character sprites as in, for example, the WarCraft series. By using hotkeys, the army can be divided into individually-controlled sections or grouped according to unit type. These techniques become essential to maintain order during melee combat when the troops have a tendency to congeal into a single massive blob.
The AI of the units is passable but idiosyncratic as well. For example, there is an insistence on marching in formation, and even in the heat of battle the soldiers may take a few extra seconds to arrange themselves into a beautiful rectangle before charging into combat. Sometimes troops will remain stationary even when being shot at, or take questionable shortcuts that lead them straight into enemy territory. Each soldier in the unit reacts in real-time to the situation, and it takes time for the archers to hoist their bows or the spearmen to arrange themselves in a stationary defensive position. This attention to detail is appreciated even though it bumps up the difficulty level.
Besides Roman units, there are various opportunities to control two other factions: the Barbarians (made up of allied Gauls and Germans) and the Egyptians. The factions are either hired as mercenaries or assimilated as allies; only rarely is an opportunity given to control one of their towns and actually produce non-Roman units. It's an area that could have been expanded, given that the instruction manual and unit charts devote equal attention to all three factions, giving the impression that each will get equal playing time.
A multiplayer option is offered through local-area network or the internet, and I found the online experience to be underwhelming. Challenging people over the internet is done through GameSpy Arcade, a service that has to be separately installed on the computer. Clicking on the appropriate desktop icon loads up the Praetorians lounge, where active games are listed and can be joined (theoretically at least). While an eight-player free-for-all sounds exciting on paper, getting them to actually happen is quite another challenge. Clicking on the games before they fill up with people is the first challenge; not getting randomly booted out of a game is the second; the third, interestingly enough, is finding a game that's actually in English.
Praetorians is a visual masterpiece. The sight of rows of legions marching in perfect formation as the music swells dramatically is awe-inspiring to say the least—even moreso when the music seamlessly transitions into a more intense variation as the enemy is engaged. The only fly in the olive oil is that the voice acting ranges from emotionless to inappropriately corny in all characters except the narrator.
As an historical RTS, Praetorians does an admirable job of integrating its subject matter with solid gameplay, as opposed to simply using the historical period as a backdrop for a slew of war scenarios. Playing Praetorians does feel like being Roman, and the game manages to uncannily capture that particularly tumultuous time in Rome's history when it abandoned the Republic to become the so-called Roman Empire.