When one thinks of the squad-based real-time-strategy (RTS) genre, what tends to come to mind are games focussed around fire-arm combat, such as Dawn of War II, the Company of Heroes series, and the upcoming Iron Harvest. In these, instead of controlling a massive army and economy, players instead command a handful of squads, trying to manoeuver them to gain a tactical advantage (such as to enter cover or to expose the enemy’s flanks). So it’s a refreshing surprise to see the formula adapted for a game which the 8th-13th centuries, starting with the Viking raids on England beginning with the attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 AD.
The moment you start Ancestors Legacy, three things become immediately apparent. Firstly. It looks amazing. Built on the Unreal Engine 4, the level of detail, whether it’s the flashes of lightning on a stormy sea or the character models, is amazing. The opening sequence of the game looks like it belongs in a top-of-the-line 3rd or 1st person game, not an RTS.
Secondly, the animations. In most RTS games, the ‘combat’ consists of units stuck in a never-ending loop of one or two attack animations. Units in combat will simply flail away at one another until one drops. Not so with Ancestors Legacy. Courtesy of extensive motion-capture, combatants square-off against each other, dodging, parrying and attacking in what is some of the most realistic looking RTS combat to date. Destructive Creations are clearly proud of this achievement, as a cinematic zoom function lets you put the camera right amongst the action (though you’ll only want to do this when the fight’s a forgone conclusion, as you lose control and the user interface while doing this).
This leads neatly to the third point. This is definitely not one for the younger players, as combat animations are as vicious as they are bloody. While these aren’t noticeable when the camera is zoomed out – which is how players will spend the vast majority of their time as it gives the best tactical awareness – when you zoom in you’ll catch yourself wincing at just how brutal the animations can be: Spearmen skewer their opponents or use the tip of the spear to slash out their throats, Shieldbearers slam their shields into opponents faces, and 2-handed weapon wielding units may trip their opponents before repeatedly slamming their weapon into their prone foes. If the battles in Total War: Warhammer 2 are like watching the battles from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, then combat in Ancestors Legacy is closer to HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Rome series. You’ve been warned.
Gameplay-wise, Ancestors Legacy revolves around continual tactical decision making, and knowing when to retreat is very much as important as knowing when and what to attack. The game uses a scissors-paper-rock mechanic, and if you send your units to engage the wrong foes (say, sending your Shieldbearers against Beserkers) the result is a speedy defeat. Also, unlike traditional RTS games, once melee combat starts, the only control you have is whether to retreat or not. Hitting the retreat button once will result in the selected units disengaging and fleeing for several seconds back towards friendly territory (particularly useful to stop your archers getting massacred by infantry), while a quick double-click of the retreat button will send them careering back to your main base, where you can once again take control.
It’s far cheaper to heal injured units and replace downed squad-members, than it is to recruit whole new squads. As such, battles tend to turn into a series of running skirmishes, with each player trying to force the other to flee the field. Of course, there’s more to combat than knowing what counters what and when to run, with each of the four factions (Vikings, Germans, Slavs and Anglo-Saxons) and their units having different attributes and abilities. The Viking’s Beserkers, for example, can hurl throwing axes as they charge, but once engaged in combat they cannot retreat. So they can be super-powerful, but if you deploy them unwisely or let them get caught by the wrong sort of foe, you’ll lose the entire unit. Another example is the German’s ‘Panzer Spearmen’ unit, which can activate an ‘intimidate’ ability, which lowers enemies’ combat effectiveness, and stops them from retreating – great, if you want to annihilate an entire squad. These abilities, when combined with tactical maneouvering (flanking, ambushing, laying spike traps, and so on), temporary faction-wide bonuses, and the weather (see below), make for a very satisfying experience.
Part of this comes from Ancestors Legacy’s twist on resource acquisition, and how you have to destroy your opponents’ buildings. Instead of acquiring resources to build your base and army by capturing and holding abstract ‘strategic points’, such as in the Dawn of War and Company of Heroes games, Ancestors Legacy has villages. Each village has an associated number of resource generation areas of varying sizes (farms, mines and logging camps). To generate your income, you have to first capture the village – by sending your troops to burn and then occupy the main hall – and then send the peasants to work for you. Not only do these villages provide economic bonuses, but also a place to replenish your troops and, if upgraded with towers and a garrison, a handy place to fall back to. Needless to say, these act as lightning rods for conflict, and a large amount of combat will revolve around trying to capture your opponent’s villages whilst defending your own.
Building destruction also has its own unique twist. Soldiers don’t simply attack a structure, they attempt to set it alight by throwing torches or shooting fire-arrows. Once the building has taken enough hits, it then catches fire and starts to take damage, gradually burning to the ground. The weather plays a large role in when you decide to push towards and enemy’s base, as snow makes it harder to ignite a building, and rain makes it all-but-impossible. Of course, there are a few siege engines at your disposal, including the slow moving catapult. With an absolutely massive range, this terror can launch flaming boulders capable of igniting a building and knocking a large chunk off its health in one go. While destroying an enemy’s base in any RTS is fun, it’s surprising just how much more enjoyable it is to burn it to the ground.
Ancestors Legacy looks great and plays well. In fact, the only criticisms I can level at it are that the voice acting in the campaign borders on the stilted, and the singleplayer campaign was not the most engaging (but that’s my personal taste). For me, the most fun was to be had in the skirmish mode, where players can choose their map, starting resources, and game mode – in this instance Annihilation (win by destroying the enemy’s base), and Domination (whoever holds the most villages the longest/destroys the enemy’s base wins).
While squad-based RTS games aren’t for everyone, Ancestors Legacy is easy to recommend if you’re a fan of the genre, and looking for something with a mediaeval flavour. That said, even if you prefer the more traditional style of RTS games, I can still recommend downloading the free demo. You may be pleasantly surprised. ■