Savage: The Battle for Newerth

8_1Trapped somewhere inside Savage: Battle for Newerth is a great game trying to break free. A cross between a strategy game and a shooter, it’s a mechanically brilliant design, a seamless fusion of action and real-time strategy that that adds an element of organized tactics that you won’t find in most other team shooters. Like the land of Newerth, however, which is locked in an eternal struggle between human and beast, the game is a Jekyll and Hyde mix of entertaining concepts and uneven execution. It’s often hard to decide whether to love it in spite of itself or reluctantly hate it.

If you’ve played the “Natural Selection†mod for Half-Life, or the underrated Allegiance, then you have some idea what to expect. Two teams of beasts or humans face off against each other on one of fourteen different maps. Most of the players jump into the game as warriors and fight it out with the enemy from a first- or third-person view (if you aren’t using one of the longest ranged weapons, it’s best to stick with third-person). One player on each team takes the role of Commander; instead of fighting on the ground, these players get a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield and are responsible for organizing tactics, building a base, and researching new technologies for the troops.

15_1While it’s not an entirely novel concept, Savage strikes an interesting balance between the action and strategy elements. It’s simple enough to pick up without the need for tutorials (a good thing, since it doesn’t have any) while providing just the right tools to keep Commanders and troops working together. Commanders can issue various orders to other players, such as “protect this unit†or “mine this resource†or “attack this target.†More importantly, they have the means to reward compliance with gold or equipment.

Commanders can also promote players to officers, giving them a special banner that appears on both the character model and the mini map and an aura that heals nearby units. Experienced Commanders will use this clever mechanic to hand pick the best tacticians and give the rest of the troops a reason to follow them around, greatly reducing micromanagement in battles.

Unfortunately, good players are also rare. The first and most troublesome problem that you encounter in the game is the fact that you can only play it via LAN (you could play it online at one point, but Savage was never very popular). The quality of the game experience depends largely on the players, especially the Commander. A single inexperienced Commander can spoil the game for the other players. With so few viable servers and only two Commanders per game, it takes a good deal of persistence to get any command experience at all.

When things work and you manage to get a handful of players in one game, Savage can be savagely fun. Bases flourish, coordinated groups of players fight well-orchestrated battles, players keep voting to extend the time limit, and you realize that you’ve been playing the same scenario for two hours and you still don’t want it to end. But alas, those time have likely long passed, and what remains is a game that is both forgotten and perhaps underappreciated.

System Requirements: Pentium III 500 MHz, 128 MB RAM, Win98

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