To this day, one of my favourite RTS titles is The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring. With that game (and its sequel) EA (yes, EA!) achieved something truly special: a streamlined, authentic RTS that perfectly captured the aesthetics and drama of the source material, and allowed you to command small units of warriors, while supporting them with a range of heroes drawn from the film series. By doing that, it really felt like you were recreating the grand conflicts that we saw in the films. Where other RTS titles now tend to aim for complexity or speed, the War of the Rings games struck a nice balance with a methodical pace, battlegrounds that had a good too-and-fro design to them, and plenty of opportunities to let the heroes shine. What I love about Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin is that it feels like it is a continuation of that philosophy.
Where the Total War Warhammer games are much more epic in scope (and that in itself is good as they come across as the natural evolution of the classic Shadow of the Horned Rat and Dark Omen), Realms of Ruin is pitched at a more skirmish level. Levels are really small arenas, across which are dotted key objectives for you to direct your units to claim or capture from your opponent. There’s also relatively minimal base building, meaning that at a first glance the game looks more like a Warhammer-themed MOBA than a RTS title.
In some ways it does resemble a MOBA in the way that combat flows, too. On most maps there are three or four possible fronts, with the early stages of each game designed so that the skirmishing happens in the middle of the arena, for the key locations there. From there, though, you’ll start sending forays down the “lanes” to capture enemy territory on the flank, and then scramble units to defend your own lanes from the counter-attacks. Though the game itself moves fairly slowly, the ebb and flows are endless, and you’ll never have breathing room to stop or the opportunity to focus on defence. With the relatively small-sized forces that you have, you need to be constantly on the move, patrolling, capturing and engaging the enemy.
Tactically, Realms of Ruin is streamlined, but engaging. Most of the units have unique capabilities, and there is a Fire Emblem-like “weapons” triangle at play, meaning that some units have a natural advantage over others. Throw in the presence of leaders, who have tide-turning special abilities, and it’s possible to build forces that can defeat larger forces. That’s something I always hold as good design in strategy game design. “Strategy” should never be a matter of building the biggest army to overwhelm enemies through sheer numbers.
Though Realms of Ruin does do it better, it is worth noting that it also suffers from the same problem that most multiplayer-focused RTS games (and MOBAs, for that matter) suffer from: once one side has a clear advantage, nine times out of ten the result is foregone. Once one side solidifies a capacity to use greater resources, or gets the edge by having an advantage of a few units over the other side, then in most cases the game becomes a battle of attrition, because it becomes difficult for the weaker side to manoeuvre themselves into a position to retake the losses. There is a rare case where a player might make some catastrophic mistake and allow the enemy to claw back to a neutral position, but even then, turning that into a momentum shift that changes the eventual outcome of the battle is a fleetingly rare experience.
That’s common to most games in the genre (including the Lord of the Rings ones… and even the likes of Chess and Go), so it’s a broader issue and Realms of Ruin’s only “flaw” is in not having a perfect answer to it. On the plus side because the skirmishes are relatively small in scope, at least once one side has got the distinct advantage, the end game isn’t going to be dragged out for long.
What is disappointing and can be laid at the feet of this game, however, is how focused on the multiplayer experience Realms of Ruin is. The single player mode really only offers a fairly thin narrative, which is playable but clearly designed to act as a tutorial for multiplayer action. There’s a lot of it – it’ll take around 15 hours to run through the whole thing – and the cut scenes show solid production values, but it’s still going to be ultimately forgettable, and it’ll only be even harder to care about if you’re not already a fan of the Age of Sigmar setting. And yes, there is a “Conquest” mode as well, but that’s really just a variation of a skirmish against the AI in a series of linked battles.
From as far back as there have been Warhammer games, the single player experience has been a major feature and selling point, and the video games were an excellent pathway into the hobby if you were still wondering whether it was for you. The classic Shadow of the Horned Rat remains one of the most replayable RTS titles of all time because it offers multiple (upon multiple) paths through the narrative, and each path gives you a different set of units to recruit and enemies to fight. Meanwhile, today Total War Warhammer offers epic-scale campaigns that are perfect for single player play, and while Realms of Ruin was never designed to compete with that, the limited scope and vision of the single player quest is disappointing.
The only other issue is that this is clearly a game that is better to play on PC, with a mouse and keyboard. The controls on the PlayStation 5 controller work – indeed the user experience is almost surprisingly comfortable, but there is still an inherent clunkiness when it comes to manipulating a cursor icon with an analogue stick that’s never going away.
Despite these criticisms, Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin gets the fundamentals right, and provides a highly effective and engaging streamlined RTS that feels like it a genuine effort to modernise the classic approach to the genre. The MOBA-like battle maps and focus on constantly-moving aggression might put those players off who enjoy a more defensive tactics, and the whole thing will be over way too early if you’re not prepared to get involved in the multiplayer, but no one can deny that this is a flashy and exciting skirmish-level Warhammer game that sits nicely within the broader library of grand strategy, RPG, and action titles that use the license these days.
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