The vast majority of RTS games fall into a handful of tried and true settings: science fiction is probably the most popular, with World War 2 and kind of a generic Tolkienesque fantasy following up behind. Which makes a prehistoric RTS where you can train such units as Ankylosaurs and Tyrannosaurus Rex kind of stand out from the pack, at least to my mind.
I have to say though that a prehistoric RTS was kind of a hard sell for me, at first. Right out the gate, caves and stone weapons didn’t really strike me as thrilling fodder for epic battles or compelling base building. But in the end, I’m glad my curiosity overcame my skepticism, because I’ve been largely pleased with what I’ve encountered in War Party.
Let’s take a look at our War Party review.
Even calling War Party a ‘prehistoric RTS’ is a bit misleading. The game is set after the fall of an advanced cadre called the Go’n, who had what amounts to science fiction or magical powers. The leaders of the game’s 3 factions have each reclaimed an artifact of the Go’n and are using that artifact as a way to get the edge on the other tribes digging through the dreck of their near-mythical predecessors. Among other things, these artifacts grant their owners (2 of them at least) control of dinosaurs.
War Party features the RTS standard of 3 factions: the human Wildlanders, who use dinos as advanced support units, the once-human Necromas, who utilize the undead, spirits, and Golem constructs, and the Vithara, who use dinosarus supported by nature spirits.
The core gameplay is inspired mostly by Age of Empires games – Age of Mythology is probably the closest direct comparison. Like in Age of Empires, you’re tasked with training a metric ton of workers, who must be split between the game’s 2 resources: a StarCraft-style crystal, and food. Kind of like Age of Empires, though with a slight flavor of WarCraft 3’s creep camps, there are dino ‘camps’ spread across the map, guarding map objectives and harvesting locations. Killing the dinos can be difficult in the early game, but nets you a nice little boost to your food resource.
If you’ve played an Age of Empires RTS before, you’ll be familiar with the core gameplay loop. As I said, there are a ton of workers, and you have to build a lot of houses to support your population. There are farms, and dropoff locations, and priests that function as healers (each faction’s priest has a different heal mechanic, which is a nice subtle touch). There’s the idea of increasing your ‘age’ by upgrading your settlement to the next tier
Heroes and Support Powers
Where we start seeing differences are the ‘hero’ units and support powers available in War Party.
Each faction has a ‘hero’ unit with a large health pool. I use the quotes around ‘hero’ because this isn’t like something in a MOBA or in WarCraft 3. The hero doesn’t progressively get more powerful as the match progresses – there’s no leveling or ultimate abilities. It’s just a strong unit that’s most useful in the early game.
3 global upgrades that are unlocked as a match progresses: you can choose between 2 options at each tier, specializing your army in the way you want to approach the game. Additionally, each faction has several unique support abilities – things like area healing, area damage, causing buildings to work faster, stuns, and other sorts of buffs, debuffs, and ways to tip combat in their favor.
Those support powers are summoned via a 3rd resource: Go’n Power, which is gained over time based on how many of the map’s control points you own. These control points look like something out of Company of Heroes or something, but don’t count a victory timer – instead, they just give you points for your support abilities. It’s a nice little thing to think about and fight over while you’re worrying about expanding your economy, and it encourages players to keep their army out on the map.
Overall, the combat is enjoyable, and support powers add a nice touch, allowing the player(s) to mix things up in interesting ways.
Map Design and the Gestalt
Speaking of maps, I’ve seen people worrying/wondering how the game’s map design works. Unlike Age of Empires, there’s no randomized map design. Maps are symmetrical, though unlike many ‘esportsy’ RTS derived from StarCraft they’re not really full of choke points. Maps tend to be fairly open, with dinosaurs often but not always in sort of out of the way areas (and guarding control points). It’s an interesting dynamic, as you’re encouraged to always be out contesting the map and clearing out dinos and being cognizant of where your enemy might be trying to slip into your base to kill some villagers.
Overall, the maps and the game systems, while not reaching out to achieve new heights in unit counts, or to innovate with new mechanics, are just fundamentally well designed and well considered. Everything is focused on giving a smooth experience: there’s not too much micromanagement or unit abilities (though some units have active abilities). The tech tree has some depth to it, but each faction doesn’t have 20 or 30 units to learn. There’s a carefully selected stable of economic, unit, and ‘armory’ style upgrades, but not an absolute glut.
While it is evident that War Party has Age of Empires’ DNA (units behave and feel more like Age units than something like StarCraft or WarCraft 3, for instance) it’s done in a way that strikes out on its own trail while still being familiar. My largest complaint related to the game is that workers’ build menus feel a little disorganized, and buildings aren’t shown (even grayed out/inaccessible) until they’re available, which has made the game a bit more frustrating to mentally model. When learning the game, it can be frustrating knowing what to build towards. Still, that’s a minor quibble.
While they don’t have replays (often a much sought-after and expected feature in larger budget RTS games, and any RTS that looks to foster a competitive scene) they do have fully functioning leaderboards, including for their survival mode, and they do have spectator mode, which is important for tournaments and shoutcasting/streaming. They’re currently seeking to boost their multiplayer community by running a $1000 tournament, announced on their steam community: https://steamcommunity.com/app/777770/discussions/0/1770385542765378301/
Art and Campaign
The game’s art is bright and colorful and really stylized. The characters are almost cartoony, with units like the Wildlander’s Axe Thrower kind of build like Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove – he’s basically all torso. This is liable to turn off some players – I personally like it, but it’s not for everyone. And for all that, some units are surprisingly tough to tell apart, which is weird coming from a game where some of the units are frickin’ dinosaurs. This problem is most prevalent for the Necromas faction – zombies, workers, and basic infantry tend to have kind of similar silhouettes, as do their tier 2 units, the flame spirit and ice spirit.
The buildings, too, can be a little underwhelming. Mostly, they’re literally a rock with skins draped upon them, or a tree with a clutch of eggs under it. It’s a stone age game, after all. But for all that, your base being a huddle of rocks and sticks can kind of feel a little underwhelming. I got over that feeling – mostly, after acclimating to the game, but I can’t help but occasionally wish for something a little flashier. It feels like a petty complaint, but it’s there.
The campaign is a little underwhelming, but I’m glad that the developer took the time to add it in. Each of the 3 factions gets their own (some missions are re-used, with players taking opposite roles depending on which faction they’re playing. I’m not sure I’d recommend getting War Party to experience the campaign, but if you’re thinking of getting it, a campaign is a nice extra. There’s also a survival mode, but that too feels more like a box checked than a core piece of the game. War Party is mostly focused on skirmish and multiplayer, and that’s definitely where it shines.
War Party might be the best designed and most polished indie RTS to come out in a long time. Its design is clean and overall it works well. The single player content could easily be better, but the core systems are very strong. It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to carry them on to success – I feel like a big single player or co-op content update might be a good start towards winning over additional players, but they’ve built a system that feels fun, that has lots of potential right there waiting to be exploited.
So far, I’m happy I’ve bought the game, and I’m going to be paying attention to where they go from here.
A Note about this review: a War Party review code was offered, but the author had previously purchased the game in early access and did not make use of the review code.