capsule review

Legion Arena

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Freeverse Software is best known to Mac gamers as a publisher of original Mac games, but at a time when many game publishers are cutting back their efforts to port PC games to the Macintosh, Freeverse has stepped up to the plate. Its first effort is a conversion of Slitherine’s Legion Arena, a real-time strategy game that puts you in command of armies during the time of the Roman Empire.

If you’re a fan of History Channel fare about ancient Romans and how they battled to forge the greatest empire of their day, you’ll find yourself instantly immersed in this game. Legion Arena puts you alternately in command of Roman and Celtic legions, staging battles, commanding from the field, and improving your legion—both in terms of recruiting new soldiers, equipping the ones you have and training them.

Essentially you’re working your way up the ranks, starting as a commander of a few squads of men and cavalry, but nothing else. Thrust into the political intrigues of ancient Rome that unfold through a series of interstitial movies that are narrated by a voice worthy of I, Claudius , you gradually gain power and influence as you and your men face ever-greater enemies.

On the battlefield, each of your squads earns experience as they fight. This experience goes toward making them better soldiers and can be parlayed between battles to add new skills. For example, militia can learn dodging and parrying techniques, javelin throwers can become marksmen, and so on.

Your superiors reward you with denarii (money) and fame upon successful completion of a battle. You can trade some of your fame down to replenish your troops when they suffer casualties on the battlefield. And you can spend your money on more troops or better equipment for the ones that you already have—such as boots, helmets, better weapons, and so on. All these add to your soldiers’ skills on the battlefield.

The game has an incredibly simple point-and-click interface; it takes only a few minutes to learn enough of the basics so that you’ll be off and running. (A quick tutorial will help you play through the basics.) Everything is controlled from the screen except for camera movements, which are handled with the mouse—if you have one with a scrollwheel, you can zoom in and out of the action, or use the keyboard if you don’t.

Once you’ve outfitted your soldiers (you can even customize the look of their uniforms—a surprisingly handy feature that helps you differentiate newer recruits from seasoned veterans in the heat of battle), you fight. To that end, you’re moved to the Deployment Screen, where you can actually position your units on the battlefield and give them orders—charge, advance, hold for a short time, or outflank your opponents.

You’ll need to pay close attention to the terrain and your enemy during these times—boggy ground will slow your men down dramatically, for example, while wooded areas may help disguise militia who can then burst forth and surprise the enemy. Over time, as you and your men build skills, you’ll unlock new formations and new types of units—heavy infantry, elephants and much more.

Once you’re done deploying, you click on the Fight button and watch the battle unfold. Depending on how well you’ve set up your troops and how well-trained they are, it’s possible to be completely passive and just watch the battle play out. But it’s better to remain a hands-on leader, commanding your units hither and yon, sending resources where they’re needed. For example, if your skirmishers have already sent their foes in high retreat, you can tell them to fall back and recover—or you can send them to the aid of your militia, which is still in the heat of battle.

Graphics are acceptable, though I did notice some really peculiar OpenGL-related texturing weirdness when it came to objects like rivers. (As I wrote this review, Freeverse told me it’s a glitch in the PC code that the company was waiting for the original developer to fix.) Music and sound effects help set the tone—the score is suitably cinematic and triumphant, and the battlefield sound effects are chock full of men screaming and battling.

Multiplayer capabilities are handled through Freeverse’s own Gamesmith online game matching service, which is kind of wonky—you’re presented with different chat rooms filled with players for different games, as opposed to being shuttled somewhere specifically for Legion Arena. You can also host your own games on your Local Area Network (LAN) if you want.

Freeverse hasn’t had the Mac version of Legion Arena rated by the ESRB, but the PC version scored an M rating. It’s violent, but more than that, after you unlock the Celts there are “Naked Fanatics” that frighten opposing teams with their….well, you know. It’s not vulgar or obscene; in fact, it’s historically accurate, more or less, but it’s enough for the M stamp.

Legion Arena ships as a Universal Binary, by the way, so it’s good to go on Intel-based Macs. A playable demo version of the game is available for download from Freeverse’s Web site, so if you'd like to kick the tires before laying down your money, give Legion Arena a shot. It measures a hefty 227MB, so make sure to have a fast connection—or a lot of patience.

The bottom line

Just the thing for armchair generals, Legion Arena brings you back to the glory days of the Roman Empire for a good old-fashioned bloodletting.

This story was updated at 9:40 a.m. on July 26, 2006, to include information about Legion Arena’s free demo.

Rome where you want to Pay attention to the terrain when you deploy your troops in Legion Arena -- boggy ground will slow down your advancing fighters.
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