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Spartan PC CD-ROM

Published by Just Play
Developed by
Slitherine Software
Released - Out Now
Price : £29.99

Slitherine Software have built a reputation for creating deep and enjoyable, historically based, turn-based strategy games. First of all it was Legion which put you in the time of the Roman Empire, then it was Chariots of War that took you back to early civilisations and now with Spartan we go back in time to Ancient Greece. Slitherine have not wasted any time in developing Spartan (in fact it's a lot less than a year ago since we reviewed Chariots of War) but the improvements they have made would make you think they've been developing the game for a few years. Anyway enough chitchat, on with the review.

If you've played Legion or Chariots of War you'll be familiar with the basics of Spartan. There are some key differences though such as advanced diplomatic options, research is now a central part of the gameplay, battles have been improved and of course you can now participate in LAN or Internet games. These aforementioned aspects are the main improvements in the game but almost every aspect has been tweaked and Spartan is a better game as a result. The game offers three tutorials (on army management, city management and empire control) as well as a sandbox mode and eight historically based campaigns including The First Peloponnesian War and Thracian Unification. Of course a Grand Campaign has also been included with that many different territories to play, I kept losing count when trying to count them all. It's also worth mentioning that for any of the campaigns you can choose from five difficulty levels (ranging from easy to impossible) and you can also randomise who controls what territories, which is great if you want a break from historical accuracy.

One of the main areas of improvement with Spartan is research. In Chariots of War research was something that the player didn't handle but in Spartan that's all changed. In fact the research in Spartan needs to be taken very seriously because it affects all aspects of the game play ranging from diplomatic actions to structures that can be built. You have nine areas of research (gold, food, iron, bricks, horse, marble, copper, wood and silver) and each of these areas has 7 levels of improvement. You have a set number of research points that are allocated by the use of sliders. However, in the beginning it will take you ages to research unless you either focus your research into one or two specific areas or you build a university and allocate researchers to them to increase the number of research points available. Choosing what to research though is a serious business and you'll need to study what benefits it's going to give to you. The best way is to choose a strategy before you begin and then map out your research accordingly. This is something I really appreciate as it adds a whole new layer of depth to the game and after playing Spartan for a few days going back to Chariots of War felt like I was playing a game with it's heart ripped out (and yes I still think Chariots of War is a great game).

One of our main complaints with Chariots of War was that the 'diplomacy model used in Chariots of War is virtually non-existent and deeply dissatisfying'. I'm pleased to say that this is no longer the case and Spartan offers a far more satisfying diplomatic experience. In the paragraph above I mentioned how research affects all aspects of the game play and diplomacy is a great example of this. Diplomatic choices can be expanded by building various structures. Initially you can only build a foreign embassy but by researching your gold technology to level 2, you can upgrade this to an embassy or if you research to level 4 you could build a diplomatic school. The plot thickens though because you can upgrade your foreign embassy to either diplomatic structures (embassy, diplomatic school and league headquarters) or covert structures (cryptography centre, assassins guild and central intelligence centre). Once you've chosen your path, diplomatic or covert, you won't be able to reverse the decision so once again forward planning is necessary. Each of the aforementioned structures will give your diplomats new actions. Taking the diplomatic route and having a diplomatic school for instance will allow you to 'poach a philosopher' or attempt to arrange a 'marriage alliance'. Taking the covert route and upgrading to an assassins guild will give your diplomat such actions as 'temple defacement' or 'starve field armies'. Of course how successful these actions are depends on the skill of your diplomat just as in Chariots of War.

Battles were a plan and watch experience in Chariots of War but in Spartan you do have a certain degree of control once the battle has commenced. However first things first and I was pleased to see that before the battle commences you are given the details of how your forces compare with the enemies. You are given the choice of commanding the battle yourself or auto-resolving the battle and if your army completely overwhelms the enemy you might want to quickly auto-resolve it. You can now take 16 different armies into battle, which gives you greater tactical options. As with Chariots of War you place your armies, give them orders and then begin the battle. You won't see all the enemies before a battle starts unless you've got excellent scouts and even then the skill of the enemy scouts and nature of the terrain will prevent you from spotting all of the enemy. Once the battle has started you get the option to charge the enemy, rally your troops and retreat. You could retreat in Chariots of War but it meant that all of your men would be lost. In Spartan it's possible to salvage your men by retreating them, which makes a lot more sense. On the whole the battles are more enjoyable and it's great that you have, to some degree, control once the battle begins. Sieges and naval battles can now occur (naval battles occur because now naval transportation is possible) but they aren't as elaborate and aren't shown in as much detail.

I know it seems trivial to talk about the games interface but nothing breaks a game faster than having an awkward interface and nothing makes a game a joy to play more than a well thought out and intuitive interface. I'm delighted to say that Spartan falls into the latter category and has an absolute dream of an interface. Easy access to every function has been provided and most things are tool-tipped (a further explanation of their function is displayed in text when placing the mouse pointer over them). Although the game comes with an impressive 64 page manual it's doubtful that you'll need it that much to be honest. However, it makes for a good read when you're away from the PC. The presentation of the whole product is excellent and in addition to the splendid interface and useful manual you'll also get a pull out poster that shows the details for the research and the structures the research leads too as well as, on the reverse, the military units and the resource production centres. In an age when so many games rely on you purchasing strategy guides and make do with releasing poorly presented products, I take my hat off to both Slitherine and Just Play for doing strategy gamers proud with the quality of the overall package of Spartan.

Spartan also allows you to play against human opposition and you'll be able to play either a LAN game or Internet game against an opponent. If you've ever played a turn-based strategy game online you'll know that it can be a real bore waiting for your opponent to take their turn. Slitherine have come up with a solution for this and have called it Always Active Multiplayer (AAM). AAM means that both players will always be involved in the action and the way it works is that if your opponent initiates a battle (or is attacked) by an AI enemy then you will take control of the AI enemy's army and compete in the battle. Of course this means that all battles involving human players will be against human opposition so in effect you'll never be twiddling your thumbs waiting for your opponent to complete their battle. I don't know if this is the ideal solution but it's certainly a novel one and it's great to see a developer trying to spice up turn-based multiplayer action.

Graphically you have a choice and can play the game in either 2D or by default, 3D mode. The campaign map, what you'll be looking at for most of the game, looks great and is a lot more detailed than the one included in Chariots of War. The battles are where you'll really notice a difference though. Spartan includes a full 3D battle that not only allows you to zoom in on the action but also rotate the map too with the cursor keys. This means that you'll have a better idea of what's happening instead of just relying on the onscreen radar (although it's still there and still useful). I also found the town/city view a lot better looking in Spartan and the biggest compliment I can make is that if Civilization IV looked as good as this in 3D then I would be very happy.

Spartan is absolutely fine for deaf gamers. All information is given in text and the tutorials, which are much improved on those in Chariots of War, are also shown in text. You'll be informed with a message when buildings have been built, or diplomats have arrived at their destination (or have carried out an action). As we mentioned earlier the interface is superb and all the information it gives you is in text. The manual is also very impressive and you'll find all you need to know about the game. In fact there isn't anything here to disadvantage deaf gamers at all, which is brilliant news.

In closing then it should be fairly obvious that we think Spartan represents quite an improvement over Chariots of War and fans of Slitherine's previous games should be delighted with most of the alterations to the game play. Research has gone from being out of your control to being of primary importance and now your whole strategy depends on how you focus your research priorities. Diplomacy is also more satisfying which is great to see. More control has been given over battles but now we have naval warfare that needs beefing up and I'm sure Slitherine will see to this is their next game. In truth this review hasn't been as comprehensive as I would have liked because of time constraints and there are a lot of small aspects that I haven't mentioned but I've tried to mention all the major improvements. Spartan is a truly great effort from Slitherine and I for one think it deserves to be a turn-based classic and I would love to see a sequel to Legion that takes on board the new game play concepts of Spartan.

Overall Game Rating: 9.0/10
Spartan improves upon Chariots of War in many ways, in fact more than I've mentioned here and for me it goes down as a turn-based strategy classic.

Deaf Gamers comment:
Absolutely no problems at all for deaf gamers.