From the people behind the reasonably popular "Cossacks" series of games comes a game touted as a true hybrid of RPG and RTS - Heroes of Annihilated Empires, which is dubbed "Chapter 1" obviously hinting that more chapters are on their way in the near future. Based in a fantasy world much like the world featured in just about every other medieval/dark ages era based fantasy game, HoAE does a good job of being a jack of all trades type experience, but like the saying goes, it ultimately winds up being a master of none.
The first notable screen you will see once you actually manage to get in-game past HoAE's Starforce style security system (tsk tsk! having to reboot a PC after installing a game is naughty) is a rather impressive pre-rendered CG movie showcasing a typical pre-epic battle scene outside a fortress, war horns blasting and all. Unfortunately though, it doesn't take long into the game's single player campaign mode to find that the game tells most of its story from rather scrappy looking cartoon style illustrations portrayed in the style of a comic book with usually decent, but sometimes questionable voice acting thrown on top, rather than pre-rendered CG cutscenes like the nifty opening sequence. In any case, it also doesn't take HoAE's single player campaign mode long to jump into the thick of the story, which basically revolves around the same old classic tale of a flourishing prosperous land being taken over by a dark force, controlled by one powerful entity who is after total control, which can be achieved by ownership of a certain ancient relic. Naturally, it is up to a few heroic forces on the good side to save the day, the focus of which is "Elhant" - an Elven warrior under your control.
While not much can be said for the storyline's originality, HoAE attempts to make its niche with the combination of both RTS and RPG elements in the core gameplay. This is basically achieved, in the single player campaign mode at least, by making the entire game an RPG, with some RTS elements thrown in to mix things up. For instance, Elhant, like the gamer controlled character in any good RPG, can gain experience and level up in various categories, learn spells, obtain potions, and equip himself with varying weapons, armor, amulets and so forth (which, by the way, are not rendered in the game on Elhant himself, who looks the same visually from start to finish). However, at the same time as all of this, some missions will require you to maintain and defend a base, which is mostly done thanks to the aid of forest fairies, who are building and resource gathering specialists in HoAE. On top of this, you will also be able to control more units than just Elhant in most missions, like lesser Elven warriors and other friendly races, and this is done like your typical RTS - click and drag to select, right click to attack/move. RTS also has a strong presence outside of the single player campaign mode, where the only other major mode on offer is "skirmish" in both offline and online environments, which as most gamers will know is a trademark of RTS games.
However, while the combination of both RTS and RPG in HoAE does actually manage to produce a very balanced experience, neither of these two gameplay elements really stand out at all. Basically, if you've played a few RTS and RPG games in your time, nothing in HoAE will surprise you. The units in the game are all pretty generic - orcs, trolls, demons, archers, swordsman, wizards etc - and not much can be said for the RPG elements either, such as the spells and items available to purchase and find, which all seem to more or less be a case of "been there, done that". To make matters worse, the campaign mode itself also features some rather unvaried missions, where it seems you're basically doing the same thing over and over again in different map environments. This is not to say the gameplay on offer is weak, or the campaign mode is boring, it's just, for a game based on the reasonably niche RTS/RPG mixture, HoAE never seems to stray from a rigid formula, and most certainly doesn't seem to produce the niche experience you'd expect.
With that said though, there are some aspects the game does get right - the first of which is the 3D engine. While the graphics aren't spectacular, and as I've already stated, Elhant's visual appearance does not change depending on what you equip him with, HoAE feels and plays, in a mechanics sense, better than most 3D RTS/RPG games I recall in recent memory. Moving the camera a full 360 degrees is easy and powerful, the game runs smooth while rendering a lot of units, and unlike some RTS/RPG games, damage in combat actually seems to be based on clipping and where the 3D models touch and collide, rather than the game calculating whether two units were close enough for a certain attack to succeed, which means you can actually do stuff like dodge attacks by literally getting out of the way in HoAE - it sounds simple, but a lot of these types of games do a lousy job of unit to unit interaction, or at least a worse job than HoAE does.
On top of this, HoAE also features some pretty solid unit AI. While you will see the occasional mishap like a frozen unit, and it isn't exactly hard to exploit the CPU enemy units at times, it is refreshing to see a RPG/RTS game that at least tries to minimize the amount of babysitting you have to do with your units, as well as a game that at least tries to make enemy AI a little more dynamic. For example, in missions where you have to build a base, as stated you usually call on the help of forest fairies to build your up your operation, and unlike most RTS games, the worker fairy units will do their own thing, whether it be collect food, wood, or help in the construction of a new structure, without your input needed every step of the way. All you really have to do is tell the game how many fairy units to build, and what they in turn should build, and they more or less manage themselves. This independence also translates into your combat units - they seem to do a good job spreading out their attacks rather than focus on one enemy unit, and they usually do a good job positioning themselves so they can best contribute to a battle.
Speaking of battles, this is easily HoAE's biggest gameplay attraction. The storyline, the items, the units, the variation from map to map - all of those things are secondary to the actual battles in HoAE, and while that's hardly ideal for a great game, some gamers will definitely quickly forget about the game's prior shortcomings when a battle commences. I wouldn't say the battles are in the scale of Total War, but don't be surprised if your hero unit racks up 3000+ kills in one map, particularly in the missions which feature "undead" enemies, who are generally weak but seem to attack in droves and droves. Since there is a lacking of any real mechanical or otherwise war machine type units, and since there is also a lacking of effective base defense buildings, the battles fall short of epic, but they are large and action packed nonetheless.
For some RTS and RPG fans, I'm sure the prospect of a game combining the best of both genre's is enticing. Unfortunately, Heros of Annihilated Empires falls short of achieving this, if only by a small margin. The fundamentals of the game are sound, and the polish is certainly there to give it a shine, but there just isn't enough original content and innovation on show to make this a must have title. The actual concept itself of combining an RTS with an RPG sounds like enough innovation at first, but it doesn't turn out like combining red and yellow and producing orange - it turns out being more like if you put the color red next to yellow and called it a day. In other words, more often than not, it feels like HoAE separates the two and focuses on one or the other more than truly combining the two. This isn't a bad thing really, it's just a little disappointing because a lot of potential was here, and the fact a lot of the plugin content - storyline, units, maps etc - are generic and unoriginal at best doesn't help as well.
Basically, if solid gameplay without much in the way of innovation is good enough for you, Heroes of Annihilated Empires is certainly worth a look. Otherwise, you probably won't find enough here to keep you interested. All in all, a nice effort for Chapter 1, but here's hoping Chapter 2 takes the next step with some truly innovative and unique gameplay.