Since Frontier Developments revealed Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin in May, the developer has been billing it as a “modern take on the classic RTS” — something with the sheen of the current Warhammer fantasy universe, but mechanics reminiscent of Warcraft, StarCraft, or Command & Conquer. As skeptical as I was following the initial announcement — the phrasing is a bit buzzword-y, after all — I came away from a recent hands-on demo convinced that Frontier may actually be onto something.
I spent the first of three hours with Realms of Ruin playing a brief chapter of the strategy game’s campaign. As the Stormcast Eternals — superhuman knights that use wyverns, huge weapons, and lightning magic to accomplish their goals — I explored a portion of Ghur, the untamed, swampy wilderness where the game takes place. I began with a small group of scouts, battling lesser groups of enemies belonging to the Orruk Kruleboyz faction, and sneaking past caves filled with rogue trolls. But after an ambush sent the scouts deeper into the wild, I gained control of a larger Stormcast force.
At its foundation, Realms of Ruin deploys the usual rock-paper-scissor triangle to dictate unit weaknesses: Offensive units, such as Vanguard Hunters, fare best against shielded units, such as Orruk Guttrippaz; shielded units more easily bum rush ranged troops, such as Man-Skewer Boltboyz; and ranged units can easily dispatch offensive units. Heroes, such as Sigrun, exist outside of the triangle, and have a variety of abilities to buff their troops or annihilate enemy forces. By capitalizing on each unit type’s strengths, as well as Sigrun’s ability to buff the defenses of nearby troops, I captured an Arcane Conduit, which I then converted into a Muster point. This served as the fallback location for any troops I commanded to retreat, and it could also heal weakened squads.
The combat itself is slow, but deliberate — faster than Company of Heroes 3, but slower than Age of Empires 4. At first, it felt too slow, as if I was commanding my units to wade through molasses. However, I came to appreciate the pace over time. Skirmishes take long enough to adjust to the enemy’s tactics, but finish quickly enough to keep overall battles moving along. By the time I had reached the Orruk camp and deployed a wyvern-riding Stormdrake Guard to the front, I had completely acclimated to the game’s pace.
My newfound comfort couldn’t have come a moment too soon: After completing the story mission, I jumped into a string of 1v1 multiplayer matches against another journalist, and each was more tense than the one preceding it. The early minutes were a mad rush to secure as many Arcane Conduits as possible, without overextending my forces. Once I had captured a Conduit, I could then choose between a handful of building types to aid my army. I opted for resource-gathering structures more often than not, the better to upgrade my home base and summon more powerful troops. In the final match, my enemy, playing as the Stormcast Eternals, built a defensive tower on a pivotal Conduit; it vaporized my low-level Orruks before they could do even a modicum of damage.
Apart from Arcane Conduits, my opponent and I also fought for control over three command points. By controlling two or all of these locations, the other player’s Victory Points gradually dwindled, similar to the reinforcements bar that decreases over a match of Star Wars: Battlefront or Battlefield.
The result of these interlocked objectives is a tense tug of war between opposing armies as they feint an attack on one Conduit, before sending the bulk of their upgraded forces to one on the opposite side of the map. At one point, I had upgraded my base enough to summon a Stormdrake Guard and a squad of angelic Prosecutors. The flying units soared over enemy melee units, and it wasn’t until I encountered a duo of Orruk ballistae that I encountered any resistance at all. I landed my Stormdrake Guard, triggered its fire-breathing attack, and made quick work of the war machines before capturing the nearby Conduit with ease.
The demo was an early build of Realms of Ruin, so I won’t dig into the numerous glitches I encountered. At one point, my minimap reversed any command I gave within its boundaries, sending units to the complete opposite side of the actual game map than I intended. I did, however, get frustrated with the game’s key mapping several times throughout my play time. The most egregious problem arose from the fact that the “Charge” and “Retreat” commands are both mapped to the Q key on PC, and the only thing dictating which maneuver the units carry out is whether they’re in direct combat or not. On several occasions, I accidentally ordered powerful heroes to retreat to my base, not knowing that they were technically “in combat” because of a distant squad of archers that were shooting at them. In several other cases, I wanted my units to retreat, but accidentally charged them headfirst into my opponent’s most powerful troops. I suspect that Frontier may separate these polar-opposite commands ahead of the game’s launch.
Despite these hiccups, I came away from the demo with high hopes for Realms of Ruin when it’s released “soon,” as Frontier says. The studio is hosting an open beta from July 7-10, and it will focus on the same intense multiplayer mode that impressed me last week. The Dawn of War trilogy proved that Warhammer 40,000 was ripe for real-time strategy, and the Total War: Warhammer trilogy did the same for Warhammer Fantasy’s Old World setting. It remains to be seen whether Realms of Ruin will do the same for the current Age of Sigmar universe, but after my hands-on time with it, I’ve come away with more optimism than before.