6Praetorians has as much to do with ancient Rome as that hopping-mad Martian with the broom on his helmet in old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Which is to say, pretty much nothing, aside from funny headgear and togas. But if you’re looking for action-first strategy with a swords-and-sandals flavor, and aren’t too fussy about interfaces, the latest effort from the developer of Commandos is worth your while. Pyro Studios has incorporated cunning artificial intelligence and heated battlefield action heavy on tactics into the game, making it a welcome diversion for those who prefer ancient history in their RTS.

Drama is certainly what you get here. Neither antiquity nor real-time strategy conventions are allowed to get in the way of the game design, as Pyro has removed complications like history and resource gathering. The 24 missions that make up the single-player campaign might follow Roman annals through the Gallic Wars, a dalliance with Cleopatra, and the civil war that ended on the infamous ides of March, but historical accuracy is sketchy. You don’t have to worry about anything other than a steady supply of villagers to conscript and kicking, er, asinus, on the field of battle.

Roman, Egyptian, and Barbarian sides featured here are more fanciful than factual. Tolkien is mixed freely with Tacitus. Roman Hawk Scouts, for instance, can see through the eyes of their winged friends, Egyptian Officials can create mirages, and Barbarian Druids can cast spells to blind enemy archers. You can get even pickier over anachronistic references to the “Roman Empire†sixty years before the birth of Christ, Gauls who have distinctly Pictish characteristics, and the presence of pharaonic troops on the Nile at a time when the country was more Greek than Egyptian.

9Or at least you could if the gameplay didn’t hold together. It does, partly because of the decision to Hollywoodize history, partly because of great play-balancing and AI. Pyro gives each side just ten military units and a handful of ancillary items like battering rams and ballistas. Units balance each other almost perfectly thanks to the logical use of special abilities. For instance, where the German Cavalry can inflict the devastating “impale charge†on enemy infantry, Roman Spearmen can counter this with a “protecting†formation where they form a wall with their weapons.

This intricate balancing act is shown to great effect in the campaign and skirmish options, as the computer is skilled at using its troops, and in the online multiplayer modes, since there are no major holes for players to exploit. Other tactical concerns are also vital. If you want to keep those concubines and hot baths, be mindful of casualty rates. Lose too many men and you’ll empty your villages quicker than your can say “pyrrhic victory.†This, coupled with a slow repopulation rate, means that you’ll have to be careful in every battle. Terrain is another major factor, mostly in Western Europe.

14Forests and rolling fields there affect every engagement. The former is good for ambushes and escaping cavalry like the Roman Equites, while securing high ground means the difference between a triumphal procession past the Campus Martius and “et tu, Brute?†Mission objectives play up the need for strategic thinking. In addition to the usual search-and-destroy stuff, you have to defend a base from overwhelming opposition, besiege fortresses, and kill enemy leaders to swing their troops over to your side.

That’s about all that is familiar about Praetorians, though. Even with the somewhat annoying design flaws and less historical authenticity than a first-year Classics student’s term paper, Pyro has created an innovative game that veterans will find to be a refreshing and challenging change of pace.

System Requirements: Pentium III 1.5 GHz, 128 MB RAM, Win98

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