Butchering history and your enemies in a Company of Heroes-like swords-and-boards RTS.
There’s a spectrum with games about knights and vikings regarding how much they lean into the popular perception of history rather than the reality. Ancestors Legacy definitely falls on the end that would make Braveheart seem like a PBS documentary, with Norse warriors screaming about Valhalla and how much fun it is to slaughter peasants. While it may not live up to its claims of being a “historically accurate” depiction of the “harsh, brutal times” of the Medieval era, it is a reasonably entertaining, squad-based RTS.
The bread and butter of its six historically-inspired campaigns, multiplayer, and skirmish versus AI modes is a familiar and well-designed throwback to RTS classics. You build a main base that produces units while capturing and fortifying smaller villages that generate resources around the detailed, tactically interesting maps. Units are organized into squads of five to ten, creating a level of intimacy that reminded me a lot of Company of Heroes in mostly positive ways.
Each of the four factions has a unique identity and preferred playstyle that keeps things from stagnating. The Vikings’ offense-focused infantry are the best around, but they lack good horsemen. The Germans have excellent heavy, mounted knights, the English have the best bowmen by far, and the Slavs get horse archers that open up some deadly hit-and-run tactics. There are also some unique strategic technologies available to each, like the Norse ability to fortify buildings, which gave a further dimension to playing as or against any given faction.
Engagements between well-balanced forces ultimately come down to luck.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of how the core infantry warfare works, though. The three melee units are spearmen, shieldbearers, and axemen, which have a rock-paper-scissors relationship to one another. While it’s possible to counter an enemy’s army composition by building a lot of the unit that counters the one they’re focusing on, I found that engagements between well-balanced forces ultimately came down to luck. If I happened to have my spearmen in the center and my opponent had axemen there, I usually didn’t have enough time to adjust between spotting the enemy and battle being joined.
There is a retreat mechanic, but it sends a unit fleeing a fair distance from the battle even at the best of times. There really isn’t a way to disengage and maneuver. This takes some of the utility out of the clickable tactical abilities available to certain units, such as the ability to enter a defensive stance to brace for a charge or berserkers sacrificing defense for added attack. The melee almost always devolves into a big blob of assorted troops who are stuck in for the duration or until one side decides to route. There’s also a morale mechanic affected by things like flanking and being outnumbered, but neither the manual nor the tutorial missions really explain what low morale actually does. I was only ever aware of the fact that keeping it high was probably a good thing.
Archers and cavalry allow for much better in-the-moment decision-making, thankfully. Ranged units are very powerful, but can inflict a devastating amount of friendly fire if, for instance, they’re firing over the backs of your own army at a unit that has engaged them in melee. Positioning of archers and using my own archers to quickly and decisively counter the enemy’s own ranged troops, or executing a rear cavalry charge from concealment right when the enemy was committed, created many of the most satisfying moments I had. Unlike infantry skirmishes, it really felt like my planning and quick thinking won the day over pure statistical advantages.
I never got tired of watching huskarls chop through an enemy formation.
I was also really pleased with the inclusion of a cinematic camera that lets you zoom way down to troop level and temporarily disable the UI to watch the carnage unfold. The units and animations look really good from this perspective, and I never got tired of watching huskarls with their massive, two-handed axes chop through an enemy formation. The uniforms and armor, unlike some other elements of the world, show a reverence for history that I appreciated. And it runs really well on my system (GTX 1070 and a Core i7-4770K with 16GB of RAM) even with everything maxed and massive battles raging.
Ancestors Legacy explores some interesting territory across its 30 total campaign missions. There are a number of fairly competent stealth missions, a few exciting, historically-inspired set-piece battles that ditch base building to have you command a wing of a larger army, and even a particularly enjoyable excursion in which you must unite all the Polish tribes of a region – either politically or militarily – to fend off a looming German attack.
Saying they can play fast and loose with history is a hilarious understatement, however. The Viking campaign in particular was almost cringe-worthy, depicting the Norsemen as bloodthirsty berserkers and portraying the raid on Lindisfarne – which was essentially a small group of pirates robbing a largish, undefended church – as a siege of a heavily-fortified citadel right out of the Crusades. I can see why a mission based around mugging some unarmed monks wouldn’t exactly be enthralling, but given that the vikings actually sieged some really major cities like Paris and Constantinople in this time period, I don’t know why they decided to go with such an ahistorical retelling of a well-known but incredibly minor “battle”.
A lot of the more traditional conquest missions became far more infuriating, and not for their lack of historicity. Several campaign levels give the resource-deprived AI the ability to continually crank out units almost faster than you can kill them when their main base is threatened. This artificial difficulty didn’t add anything to those missions other than duration, which caused them to greatly outstay their welcome.
Partly because I knew no one was getting infinite money cheats, the multiplayer was a highlight. Up to six players can compete over some well-balanced maps in either a traditional “destroy all the enemy bases” mode, or a more interesting, objective-based challenge in which control of more villages than the enemy team inches yours closer to victory. I didn’t encounter any connectivity issues and was able to find quick matches with only a couple minutes of wait at most times of day, which is always a plus.