I’ve sentfootsoldiers to overwhelm rival clans in Total War: Shogun 2 and helped encourage the prosperity of foreign lands in Europa Universalis IV. I’ve helped escort innocent civilians through platoons of enemy troops in World in Conflict, held the royal throne by executing my power-hungry uncle in Crusader Kings II and just the other day I ensured the destruction of my enemies over rather trivial disagreements in Sid Meier’s Civilization V.
What I guess I’m trying to say is that, destructive tendencies aside, I like to think of myself as a fairly competent strategy gamer.
This is what got me excited at the notion of playing Hegemony III: Clash of the Ancients, a historical real-time strategy and the third installment in the Hegemony series by Longbow Games. The core of its gameplay centres around Italy in the classical era and the struggle to grow and maintain a dynasty (read: hegemony) therein. It’s a setting fit for any history buff.
As with any strategy game I threw myself into my first scenario with little thought or planning involved in my actions. An idiotic move? Definitely. But I find it helps me determine just what kind of an experience I was in for.
Naturally, it went poorly. I neglected to set up supply lines between my resources and mismanaged my lands abysmally. My enemy’s troops arrived mid-winter to find my citizens peeking over the walls of my capital and longing to receive food from their well-stocked neighbours just across the field from them.
The next time around, I decided not to throw away people’s lives and take some time to learn the meat of Hegemony III’s gameplay instead.
You begin by choosing a faction, each of which has roots in Italy’s history and carries its own specific strengths, mainly what type of units it begins play with unlocked. Some start with horse-mounted units while others have well-armoured footsoldiers. You can customize the profile image of your ruler as well as some of their strengths and weaknesses as well. The game also features a seasonal cycle which affects factors such as unit attrition and food production, with resources being produced at a lower rate during winter, making planning ahead an important factor.
The core of Hegemony III’s gameplay involves the holding of resource buildings scattered throughout the map which are used to supply your cities with provisions. A well-stocked city acts not only as a bastion of defense but also a location from which you can spawn combat units to attack and defend your holds, as well as civilian units which are required for more mundane tasks such as running resource buildings and exploring foreign territories. You can also build improvements on your resources to improve their efficiency in some areas like their efficiency or defenses. Using your captured resources you build up victory points towards a few types of victories: military by both land and sea as well as cultural and trade victories.
However, it was in maintaining my holdings where I found the most tedious process of Hegemony III. There are essentially three big factors that determine how happy your citizens are: how much you tax them, how much you feed them and how much you recruit them for your units. The values of these factors can be adjusted per-city to micro-manage this and ensure you’re feeding them the least, taxing them the most and ensuring they don’t decide this new government isn’t for them. There are factors that can mitigate this disapproval, such as stationing a unit in your city or constructing buildings and researching technologies that appease them.
Generally I found the bulk of my time in game was spent frantically moving between menus trying to ensure my people were happy with my rule all across the board, but in a game where units are constantly moving and clashing this felt like a lot of busy-work that eventually grew tiresome to keep up with when there were other factors I needed to worry about, like whether my troops were being ambushed on a battlefield across the map. It gave me a sense that no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t keep anyone in line, and needing to manage a number of different locations and warfronts in real-time for combat to play out was a hassle, to say the least.
A number of other factors posed a problem for gameplay as well: I scarcely had the opportunity to unlock most of the improvements in the tech tree since it advanced at a snail’s pace (by the time I had taken over half of Italy it was only a quarter completed), quests are also given by advisors which the game suggests you don’t need to complete. I rarely did so unless it was convenient for me since many of the rewards for doing them were so meager it hardly felt worth the time or the effort to work towards them.
Hegemony III does stand out with a interesting camera system that allows you to view the world space on a few different levels. You can watch battles and cities in a Total War-like fashion from up close and zoom all the way out to see how the entire map is doing - something that really gives you a sense of scale, especially when you can get so close as to view every little citizen in your city mulling about their daily business down below you. It does have a tendency to slow and stutter during the execution of this that takes away from the effect slightly though, and being able to view your citizens in such detail feels wasted when the most you ever interact with them is through a window on the corner of the screen, but it’s still an interesting touch that helps you navagate around the map. It also allows you to pause the game to plan your troop movements or change supply factors with relative ease so you don’t always need to worry about events unfolding in real-time.
The art in Hegemony is unique too. The UI uses a ‘designs from the side of a terracotta vase’ style throughout, including character portraits and the main menu. It's even present when you zoom out all the way on the map and see the game world embedded in the side of a vase-like pattern, as if one crazed Greek painter decided pottery just wasn’t for him anymore and instead chose to etch a painstakingly detailed rendition of classical Italy on someone’s spittoon.
I did find the UI to be cluttered and confusing from time to time - a lot of this artwork blends together and makes it difficult to determine differences in icons, which results in some guesswork being necessary to find the item you’re looking for until you have the UI layout memorized. It’s also very opaque, which makes it difficult to keep tabs on what’s happening behind it on a few occasions.
Some notifications were easy to miss too, likely due to the fact they use the same pop-up sound of an unenthusiastic drum effect which also plays when you plot any kind of unit movement. I lost a few good men because I didn’t notice the notification telling me they were unhappy with standing in the middle of a snowy, God-forsaken field for weeks on end.
War is a constant factor in Hegemony III, so much so that you’re often paying fees to stay at peace with other factions, or else there’s a very high possibility of them declaring war on you simply because you exist. In fact, I struggle to recall a time where I was at peace with my neighbours and not terrified of them forging alliances and declaring war on me on a whim.
Since war is such a large factor of gameplay, combat is an important aspect of Hegemony III too. Enemies will usually attack frequently and en force, which isn’t always bad thing since there were a few occasions they caused me quite a struggle and kept me on my toes. It doesn’t feel like they plan their assaults in any capacity, however. Sending one starved unit through the dead of winter to assault a city or capture a bridge surrounded by my heavily armed soldiers is not an uncommon occurrence and it left me treating even my most hated rivals as a simple pest from time to time.
Different unit types will group up together and move in effective formations automatically (instead of needing to manually place shield-bearers in front and archers in back for example) which is a great feature. Unfortunately, the player unit AI can also be unreliable. There was an instance where I sent a group of spearmen to stop an enemy who was raiding my livestock farm only to find my troops standing around with their hands in their pockets and their formation broken. Zooming in revealed to me one man at the end of the line who had run into a rather stubborn knee-high slope and was stuck relentlessly running into it. I had to move them around the slope myself and by then the enemy was long gone.
Bugs such as these were frequent during my time with the game. I had plenty instances of lost troops whose pathfinding sent them the craziest route possible, menu items constantly displaying incorrectly, text boxes losing their formatting and becoming unreadable, consistent stuttering, freezing and jitter when running on brand-new hardware and repeated occurrences of the game locking up for several seconds at a time.
I would like to highlight one experience in particular I had that I feel best summed up my experience with the ups and downs Hegemony III: Clash of the Ancients offers.
It was late autumn when three of my platoons of hoplites had made their way into enemy territory. Things were more-or-less stable back in the homeland, but with the enemy’s constant assaults on their home and winter creeping in around the corner I was desperate to secure the city of my foe. Despite the time-sensitive circumstances, morale was high - my troops were strong, fresh and itching for a fight, and I was eager to take the city and wait for winter to blow over.
But I knew the colour had washed from my face when I saw the enemy’s troops come into view through the fog on the hill ahead; eleven platoons of hot-headed Kaulonian soldiers armed with bows, spears, javelins and any other sharp object they could get their hands on charged downhill at my troops who hastily got into formation and guarded against their assault. They had been expecting me.
I watched as the battle unfolded, failing to find reinforcements who could come to my hoplites’ side. They now had two options: fight or die.
I ordered minor movements in their ranks but mostly sat gnawing on the collar of my shirt as I watched my warriors slowly lose faith. Their food supply dwindled in foreign lands. But then, my eyes widened as my hoplites swung blow after blow, managing to push back wave after wave of the enemy assault. My few men recreated their own rendition of the 300 Spartans. They kept formation and left a field of bodies in their wake, ravens flying above to signal their victory in the heavens. What few enemy troops stayed behind were captured as my troops marched up the hill, finally taking the Kaulonian capital.
I was ecstatic - I think I had shouted at the monitor once or twice. I rushed to the save game menu to commemorate the moment, typing “DID ITTTT” in the save game dialogue box. Hitting enter did nothing and I soon found I couldn’t close the box no matter how hard I tried. I was locked to the save game screen with no solution presenting itself to me short of closing the game.
Despite flaws such as these, I honestly do myself blown away by the potential the game has down the road. It features a robust level editing tool that allows for the creation of scenarios and huge, complex maps. It has Steam Workshop support for user-generated content and (if the patch notes and Longbow Game's Facebook page are any indication) it's still being improved and updated tirelessly by the team at Longbow so many issues described here could very well be patched and improved in future updates.