Review by Mr Creosote, Wandrell (2011-07-27)
[Wandrell] After remaking Merchant Prince, a company called Holistic Design thought "why can't we reuse all this work into actually creating a new game". One where middle ages Vikings would take the place of renaissance Venecia.
[Mr Creosote] Right. So at first glance, you might think this is Merchant Prince, but Hammer of the Gods is actually a very different game which just happens to look like it. The gameplay is much more reminiscient of King's Bounty.
[Wandrell] Actually the fights look a lot more like King's Bounty's successor, Heroes of Might and Magic. But the main point is that the game tries to make itself different using a famous, yet not exhausted, setting. And, mostly, stays true to the Viking age, except for those Tolkien elves.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, let's start from the beginning: The game is set in the early Viking age. Odin summons the chiefs of four tribes in front of him – only one can become the Hammer of the Gods, whatever that means.
[Wandrell] These four are humans, trolls, dwarves and elves. And they are told that the way to show they are worthy is fulfilling a series of quests, first for the lowest of the gods, then for the Vanir and at last, once you have made your way through the quest structure, for the Æsir, the main gods.
[Mr Creosote] These quests give the game some welcome structure. Some are very easy (give one of your daughters to a god for marriage), but some can force you to change your strategy – for example, when you have to re-route some of your armies to some remote cave in order to defeat a group of monsters.
In the end, whoever fulfils Odin's quest first wins. The exact goal of this quest depends on the selected race, but in the end, they basically all boil down to world domination. What brings in more of a difference for the gameplay is the nature of the races themselves, especially their custom units.
[Wandrell] Custom units, and starting placement, is the difference between one faction and another. I mostly did play as human, which get Berserkers, but elves with their archers are great. The other two factions get trolls and dwarves, but still can buy the basic units. Apart from that you won't notice much difference, and the objective ends being always the same: expanding your empire.
[Mr Creosote] Unfortunately, I found the races quite unbalanced. The elves, controlled by a careful player, are virtually unbeatable. Their regular units are the only worthwhile ones: a stronger variant of the basic archers. The Berserkers are slightly stronger fighters, so are the custom dwarves and the trolls. In a direct confrontation, an army of regular elves will defeat a pack of each of the other custom units easily every time.
[Wandrell] Combat is lacking on the game, I ended using automatic combat and high speed. I actually preffered the way they handled it on Merchant Prince, with the outcome being calculated automatically.
But that's not the only problem with battles, all the pillaging/taking towns thing after victory is a bit overcomplex, starting with their three levels of pillaging with no clear reason to use one or another, except the movement points they consume.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, this brings us right to the central part of the game: You start out with one single city and a small army. The world is basically ruled by Saxon settlements. These cities, you can attack and then either pillage (to get more gold) or raze and re-settle with your own folks. It is not quite clear why you cannot just conquer a city and rule the original population.
[Wandrell] There are several sizes for the settlements, which mean different resistance. But once you take one of them, the size seems to mean nothing, as they won't get bigger no matter how much the population rises. Also, don't worry about the production of food and goods, because as far as I could find, settlements serve only for giving money, and adding recruits to the capital.
[Mr Creosote] Quite unreastically for Vikings, another aspect of building up and defending your empire is the construction of fortresses. These act as stationary, defensive armies which will try to intercept approaching enemies.
[Wandrell] My towers actually just served to look while the town got blazed. But I suppose the idea is using them to cut roads that will be used, as they are an enhacement of the road. But mostly, they are there to take back computer cities (again, your towers won't do that) or attacking you if your turn ends too close to them. And that's all you will get, villages and towers.
But the computer has got a few extra things, like monasteries, which you can visit each time you need spare cash (really, these monks don't learn), and dungeons, to get into a battle with monsters, usually to complete a quest or getting a magical item.
[Mr Creosote] You already mentioned the tactical combat, so let's talk about that a little: Whenever two armies (each of which is restricted to a maximum of eight soldiers) meet, the game zooms to the battle field when you can move your men in turn-based fashion. The tactical options are rather small, though, as the small battlefield restricts movement quite severely.
[Wandrell] Sometimes they even have walls on their cities, which I don't think the player can get. If they use the walls to force your soldiers to enter one at a time, killing half your people in that time, or if they preffer to attack you outside these walls seems to be completely random. But usually all you get is a small open field, which as said recalls that of Heroes of Might and Magic, but manages to be a bit less boring.
[Mr Creosote] I have to contradict you there. The city defenders rush outside of their own walls when the attacking army has got too many archers. The mechanism is quite obvious and makes sense.
[Wandrell] Well, that shows how much attention I paid to the combat. If it were faster and more simpler, or on the contrary were a bit more complex it would do a great favor to the game. But being in that middle point they got it, it's not a great feature. A problem, I fear, which translates to the game in general, being in a middle point, not knowing what it actually wants to be.
[Mr Creosote] Well, careful combat can make quite a bit of a difference! Especially, as I already mentioned, if you've got an army of elves. The most successful tactic is to shoot at the enemy soldiers as far as bringing them down to only one health point each. Then, when they come close, one single strike is enough to kill them, with no fear of retaliation. Leaving the combat to the automatic mode will result in much higher losses for your army.
[Wandrell] Still it's not much of a problem, as game advances you get more and more troops, many thanks to the quests. First you only have foot troops and archers, later a quest gives you access to the special units and at some point heroes can be recruited too. Until that, those two non-basic units can only be received as a gift from the gods. And to that, of course, should be added the Drakkar, which not only enables you to move on sea, but also can be carried when moving on land.
[Mr Creosote] One thing I also liked about the combat is the size restriction of the armies. This way, you can forced to move many more armies (which is annoying), but at least it prevents all players from building up an invincibly large individual army.
[Wandrell] What makes having lots of armies even more annoying is that they can only get reinforcements at the capital. What kind of Viking prefers working the fields on their village to burning a few monasteries?
[Mr Creosote] There are a few more minor gameplay aspects: rudimentary diplomacy between the races is possible, for example. Nothing to write home about, though – Hammer of the Gods is a wargame, about as complex as, for example, Warlords.
[Wandrell] Still they added a honor rating to each of the factions, which I suppose gets lower if you start breaking alliances without warning. And also there is the partial/full trade option. Maybe that's what all those produced goods are for. What is really new here is that instead of hiring assassins and thieves to become a nuisance to your enemies, like on Merchant Prince, you get mages and their spells. Sadly, they are very rare.
[Mr Creosote] So what we have is a light wargame with some minor attempts at a plot and role-playing. How did you like it?
[Wandrell] At first, the game is confusing. That's usual in some strategy games, but while in Master of Orion, it was fun learning, here you end feeling most of the things are just half done. But once you get the hang of it, the game is fun, just that it's meant for playing long games, and the fun doesn't last that long. If it were shorter, or had a few more options, like the politics on Merchant Prince, it would be a good game, right now, it's nice, but lacking.
[Mr Creosote] I can mostly agree with that. For the first few hours, it is a lot of fun. Exploring the map, conquering the first cities, meeting and interacting with the other races and solving the first few quests. But there is too little variety on the long run. Especially the last third of the game drags on: When it has already become obvious that you will be victorious, you still have to play a lot of rounds and fight a lot of battles.
You mentioned some things feel "only half done". The only thing I can think of where I didn't know whether it was a bug or a feature is that in the battles, you can see the remaining hit points of the enemy units when he's moving them. Apart from that, the game is very consistent. Do you have any other examples?
[Wandrell] I already pointed the food/goods productions, which seem to serve no clear objective. And the towns growth, which is unclear. You can put more people into the town, but that will only increase the number of peasants at much, never will the town become actually bigger. That's the main thing, but also the game left me the feeling they tried too much to reuse all they could from Merchant Prince's remake, instead of focusing into getting new things.
[Mr Creosote] At least one of these things I can answer: The more people you put into a town, the stronger the defending army will get. But in general, you are right: There could have been much more in the game.
[Wandrell] Still, a game to try, even if not for long.