February 03, 2008
Bladestorm: The Hundred Years’ War is set in the early half of the 14th century as France and England battle for control over Western Europe. From KOEI, the makers of Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi, Bladestorm takes the classic Japanese button masher to the next level. Yes, you can still get massive combos, but now that is simply not enough to win the game. Much more a real time strategy game than an action hack and slash, tactics are a vital element of gameplay.
The story traces the life of a mercenary commander in a generations-long conflict where the best fighters truly were the professional mercenaries. You start as a rookie with no experience and no reputation, and the ability to only bring yourself to the field. The central tavern is where missions are selected, letting you pick and choose not only which battles interest you, but which side you want to fight on. One week you may feel like fighting for the English, and the next week for the French; the game not only supports this but encourages it. You can choose which battles based on side, length of campaign, difficulty, and payment, but are limited by your reputation. If you lose a lot of battles you will not have a stellar reputation and that limits your possibilities. Think of this as a PR issue… nobody wants to hire a loser!
You can play the game as an individual fighter, but the chances are you won’t get far. Ultimately, your success will be determined by how well you can lead others. You start with the ability to lead three types of troops, and only those of low levels of skill. As you gain experience and reputation, your abilities to lead different and better troops increases. You can also hire a team to take with you rather than just relying on forces in the field. This game has a leadership meta game incorporated throughout that is possibly the most important aspect that really separates Bladestorm out from the rest of the genre. Your skills improve as you play, but you can also improve the skills of the troops you hire. Overlooking this pretty much guarantees your failure over the long term story.
The game has a certain RPG quality to it, but only to a limited extent. You do get to decide what your character looks like out of number of provided templates (although one looks suspiciously like Orlando Bloom, and most of the characters look distinctly oriental despite taking place in medieval France) and have a limited ability to spend skill points. As you use skills on the battlefield you can earn more skill points to increase those skills in various ways. In fact, a lot of time will be spent leveling up so that you can be more effective. Looking for open-ended battles is a critical part of this as it gives you much more flexibility in developing skills.
Your home base between battles is a tavern that let’s you hire other mercenaries, listen to gossip, buy and sell armor and weapons, get rid of looted artwork, and most importantly, get new contracts. Once you are ready to deploy, you get to choose where on the battlefield you will start depending upon which side you are supporting in the battle, current areas of control, and what the objectives are. After deploying you choose a unit to command and head for an objective. Different units have varying strengths and weaknesses, and mastering which units are best able to defeat various opponents is important. Even more important is the ability to recognize when your current unit is going to be a poor match for an advancing enemy and retreat until you can find a more appropriate unit to capture the objective.
Battles are happening all around you across a vast battlefield, but they all center around capturing towns and various strongpoints. The majority of loot is found when capturing towns, and after starting the only way to learn how to command new units is by capturing books as loot that are in certain objective towns. Note that all of the achievements are tied directly to these books as well, so winning battles is important for more than just your reputation!
Units have three to four different attacks available to them, and there are special Banner attacks that can be used as well to further enhance the strength of your units. With 10+ unit types, 400+ weapons, armor and other equipment, the combinations are not quite infinite but certainly offer enough variety to keep you experimenting with new combinations with which to crush your foes.
Many historical figures are represented in the game, including Prince Edward (The Black Prince), Joan of Arc, John Talbot, John Fastolf, Bertrand du Guesclin, and Arthur de Richemont. Most of these key figures can be incredible assets on the battlefield when on your side, and serious headaches when opposing you. Rushing in expecting to win against them with a hack and slash button masher approach ensures certain defeat!
Bladestorm has an original score composed with a live orchestra, a choir, and Catholic liturgy. The music really is outstanding and time relevant. If you are into audio, crank up the music all the way because it is that good! The sounds of battle are reasonably done, but the voice acting, sadly, is borderline pathetic. Still, the strength of the score outweighs the voice acting, getting this game a respectable 80 out of 100 for audio.
Visually, the game is decent. Lots of individual units are displayed simultaneously, and the combat graphics are quite involved and complex. For example, it is not unusual to see 50 arrows in the air at a time while 100+ fighters are contesting a strong point using 10 different types of weapons, all with no lag. In order to do this, however, most of the AI fighters look very similar and the battlefields tend to be reasonably barren. For a next gen game, the graphics are actually somewhat close to last gen. Still, if choosing between the approach of Two Worlds (complex and beautiful, but lags every 30 seconds) and Bladestorm (a bit bare, but no lag at all) I will choose Bladestorm every time.
The game is very playable, easy out of the box without cracking the manual. The effect of different buttons for different units is always displayed on the screen, making the transition from one unit type to another easy as pie. On the other hand, the designers clearly used the same templates over and over again for the terrain and strong points, and you are fighting over the exact same ground time and again. This adds quite a bit of repetition to the experience of playing. The AI has hints that it can be quite good at times, but for the most part can be easily countered simply by keeping the manual open with the chart provided that shows which units are strong against each other type. This definitely is not at the level of games such as Rainbow Six: Vegas that take AI to the next level.
The cut scenes can be quite cool, especially the opening scene. But wait until you die at an inconvenient moment and want to load a save game to restart the mission…yeah, that can be a pain. Changing which unit you are commanding is simple, and certainly the HUD is well done and efficient. Overall it is reasonably well delivered.
Sadly unimaginative and driven purely by progressing through the story. Soooo much more could have been done with these. A representative from KOEI was asked to comment on the achievements and stated:-
“The development team wanted to make sure that the achievements for Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War reflected a player's level within the game. In Bladestorm, the various troop types that the player can control depend on which strategy books the player has acquired. Obtaining these books require a certain level of achievement or completion within the game. In a sense, the strategy books hold the key to the player's growth. So Xbox Live users who have played Bladestorm, will be able to tell approximately how far a player has gone, and how strong the player is within the game."
As a general concept, that sounds reasonable, but given the imagination shown in recent games, this could have been done with progression achievements and still left room for more imaginative options. The two secret achievements are along the same line, both strategy books, although somewhat harder to obtain. No clear reason has been provided as to why they are secret, however.
If you enjoyed Dynasty Warriors but wanted more, this game is a good move. It certainly is an excellent step forward and a worthy addition to any library for gamers who enjoy hybrid strategy/action games. The amount of repetition is definitely a drawback along with a difficult method for saving and reloading games, and the achievements are rather bland. Overall, a solid entry in the genre, perhaps even a leader in some ways, but if the genre does not interest you this game will not change your opinion at all.