By Adam Smith on April 9th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
Eador: Masters of the Broken World will be released into our very own fractured realm later this month and I’ve spent a few hours with a preview copy and had many of my expectations defied. Is it more of a King’s Bounty than a hero’s swordsmanship and spell-biffing, or is it something entirely different? I’m still not entirely sure, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
The particular way in which Eador’s world is broken does not involve a history of imperialism, and a present of corporate colonialism and financial malfeasance. More accurately, I should say that it may well involve some of those things, but the bigger issue is one of total physical collapse. The place has done a magicsplode and is separated into shards, each now adrift in space and glittering like a jewel, presenting just the sort of challenge that demands the conquering attentions of some sort of strategic master of magic.
I’ve been typing ‘master of magic’ quite a lot recently in between bouts of describing moody rogues, but fear not, I haven’t been moonlighting as Criss Angel’s press agent. I am, however, happily bearing witness to the arrival of a new Thief and, more pertinently, a group of fantasy strategy games that look back to one of my favourites. Following Warlock, which switched out Master of Magic’s turn-based tactical grid battles for Civ V style unstackable warmongering, Fallen Enchantress followed with its own hero-focused take on mystical world-seizing.
Foolishly, I wasn’t expecting Snowbird’s Eador to fall too far from the tree but from the moment the surreal and spectacular sight of the shard map is seen, more science fiction dream than fantasy cliché, the Broken World sets out to confound. It certainly achieves that aim. After a few hours with the preview code, I’m still not entirely sure how the long-game will play out, or how much variety there will be in repeated campaigns, but I’m perfectly happy to be perplexed and to put in more hours when the game releases on the 19th because the process of discovery is entertaining. I enjoyed Warlock but it rarely surprised me and many of the additions and changes to the expected formula in Fallen Enchantress left me cold (though I am looking forward to trying Legendary Heroes in the very near future), and it’s not clear which pole Eador is closest to yet.
Much of what feels new, fittingly considering they are referenced right in the title, is in the presentation and nature of the shards. They are of various sizes and their content, in terms of landscape, inhabitants and opponents, is randomised. In order to control one, the player must capture the capital of every leader who controls part of the shard to rule over it and this is where the game shows that it has several tricksy ideas up its voluminous sleeves.
As in Fallen Enchantress and the Heroes of Might and Magic series, units tend to be part of a general’s entourage, and in Eador they come in four flavours: mages, scouts, warriors and commanders. That’s the one with the spells, the one with the ranged weapons and the one with the melee weapons. Oh, and commanders, who are great multi-taskers and can bring more units into battle with them than other heroes and boost their will and ability to fight. As the campaign to control each shard begins, the player sends one chosen hero across the shard, which is essentially a game board made up of random components, including monster-haunted ruins, the settlements of various fantasy races, and various types of province.
Entering a new area tends to lead to a fight, which takes place on a tactical hex map and it’s this aspect of the game that is closest to King’s Bounty and HOMM. In battles involving late-game units, which can be used in standalone scenarios for the purposes of the preview build, units’ individual abilities come into play, countering one another through increased mobility, resistances or offensive powers. There’s nothing particularly fresh in this part of Eador but it’s all effectively crafted, and picking and choosing the right fight for a hero and his companions is vital. Raid a dungeon to acquire its loot and you may have to face creatures too powerful for the losses to be worthwhile, so it can be wise to conquer some territories first and build up the capital and its ability to generate more efficient troops.
The overall goal, achieved via the process of increasing hero and army strength, is to conquer provinces in a chain that leads to enemy capitals, which can then be assaulted. The matter becomes complicated by the demands of those provinces that have been captured and events that happen within them. There’s a much more involved management aspect threaded through each shard’s campaign than I first thought, even if the choices are randomised and swiftly resolved. The karma system, altering the overarching plot and relationships with other Masters, is influenced by these management decisions, many of which are ethical as well as economical.
What I hope to discover, when playing the full game, is that each individual shard doesn’t feel like a campaign in its own right. At the moment, the bigger picture, of a broken world to be reunited under one rule, appears to be made up of a lot more bigger pictures. On one level there is the levelling of heroes and the construction of armies, then the tactical combat, then the conquest of provinces and capitals, but at the highest level the fight is between the various Masters, all of which can be encountered on a shard, interrupting the attempt at dominance and introducing direct rivalry. That, to my mind, is the natural basis of the strategic game, but the conquest of a single shard feels like an entire campaign in itself and I’m not convinced that starting from scratch each time, in terms of territory at least, will be satisfying as the possible tens of hours slip by.
There are qualms and hesitations then, but there is also the very real appreciation of a visually pleasing strategy game that has a character and flow of its own. I particularly enjoy exploring the map at the opening stages of each new shard. Encountering cultures that have been isolated and thrown apart from the other fragments of the world is evocative, as is seeing how they have adapted and how they fall into position as neighbours in a dangerous wilderness. More importantly, the layout of each map is also efficiently functional, presenting decent strategic challenges that also lend themselves to the roleplay of the universe.
It’s a far more ambitious game than I expected going in and each part is appealing, but it’s also difficult to understand the thing in its entirety without more time at the table. The preview code isn’t complete (nor, I should add, does it represent the current state of the game this close to release), particularly in the campaign mode, and the biggest queries I have are to do with the progression through a full journey across the broken world. Will the sense of achievement be maintained as map after map is uncovered and controlled? Will there be a fitting sense of escalation as the other Masters are encountered and crushed? I’ll revisit as soon as all of the pieces are in place.
Eador: Masters of the Broken World is out on April 19th. Preordering from Steam or GoG.com provides a copy of Eador: Genesis which, to my shame, I’ve never played.