It’s finally here, the much talked about RTS title Battle Realms from Liquid Entertainment. As the game has just hit European shelves we thought we’d pull on our armour, grab our spears, swords, bows and arrows and put the game through it’s paces.Battle Realms follows the story of Kenji , second son of the Serpent Clan’s Lord Oja, who has become estranged from his people after being found standing over the dead body of his father Lord Oja. With Kenji out the way the Lord Oja’s other son Yukio takes over for a period but suffers an accident and dies. Battle Realms follows Kenji’s struggle as he returns to his homeland to guide his people and bring stability to the realm.The first thing that strikes you as soon as the game loads up are the visuals. Liquid Entertainment have come true to their word and created playing areas that feel very much alive. As you walk through the maps you’ll see birds flee from trees, the forests hide the enemy well and contain creatures like wolves that will attack if disturbed. The game’s story is told via in-game cut scenes which means the story flows well keeping you in the game which familiarises you better with the world in which you’re travelling.The game features four different Clans, the Dragon and Serpent being pretty similar, all based on feudal Japanese characters and weaponry, the Wolf Clan a strange woodland race and the final the deadly looking Lotus Clan with their powerful magic abilities. The story is played out on a mission my mission basis and between missions you choose your next path via a world map and there are and advice given during the narration. Once the mission kicks off you get a short briefing and you’re away.Liquid Entertainment have broken some of the conventional RTS rules with Battle Realms. The game features a complex system of unit upgrading and building. To create buildings peasants are selected and a sub-menu at the bottom of the screen shows what structures are available. Once the peasants set to work on the buildings and a few key structures are in place the real fun begins. Instead of creating peasants by a clicking a menu, peasants are automatically created from Peasant Huts. To keep strategy a key factor there’s a unit cap which prevents gamers having huge armies and rushing in to attack, this game is all about managing and controlling your units .The lack of a unit build menu has been worked around with the use of a sort of waypoint and unit upgrade system or as Liquid Entertainment call it, Unit Alchemy. To create units peasants are sent into the structures to change into whatever unit that particular building creates. Sounds simple but it’s a little more complex than that. As the unit emerges you have a couple of choices. Use the unit as is, or upgrade the unit to a better unit. For example, if you want peasant to be a spearmen send them to the Dojo. Once the unit emerges you can then send him to the Archery Range and upgrade him to a Dragon Warrior. If the Dragon Warrior doesn’t pack enough punch for you then send him onto the Alchemy Hut to become a Samurai. It all sounds very c*bersome but this is where the building waypoints come in handy.What you can effectively to is a*ign tasks for each building. The easiest way to achieve this is to make a peasant from a peasant hut automatically move to the Dojo then get all units that appear from the Dojo to automatically go straight to the archery range, onto the Alchemists Hut and so on, You can then a*ign units from the last building in your order to head to the shrine where their secret abilities can be unlocked before battle. What you have is a chain of movement through your base which results in a finished product. The tricky bit is figuring out is what buildings to send the units into and in what order, different combos can produce different results but this is half the fun and means each player will have a favourite set up making multiplayer a bit more interesting than usual. This a clever system that works extremely well allowing you to be hands free and concentrate on combat and strategy once your plan is laid down.To fund your war efforts there are only two resources in the game, rice and water. Each unit or building will need a certain amount of each to be created. On each map there are rivers and rice paddies for your peasants to collect the resources. Units also have the ability to run so you can get your peasant to run back to the rice field as quickly as possible but they will only be able to walk back with their load. Rice does run out but production can be boosted by a*igning peasants to water the fields, a great way to keep the resources flowing, but this also means there’s unlikely to be any war of attrition. There’s resources aplenty on every map even if it doesn’t look it. It may have been better to have larger resources available on some maps and made it harder to replenish rice fields making resources play a more strategic part in the game.The key factor of any RTS is game is the combat and Battle Realms doesn’t let you down. After each battle you‘ll receive yin or yang points which can be redeemed for upgrades to buildings which in turn will give your units better abilities. This system means you can’t just sit back and keep building, you have to get into combat situations to improve your army, a real plus point in multiplayer.Each unit achieves special abilities which they can unleash in combat and this is where the real strategy kicks in. Piling a bunch of units into battle is never a good idea in Battle Realms, you need to make sure units compliment each other for the best effect. When a group of units are selected you can see the list at the bottom of the screen and each unit with a special ability has an icon beneath their avatar. To really let fly in battle activate the special power to help gain the upper hand. Some abilities will also transfer onto your other units in the battle giving an over all benefit to your attacking force.There is a drawback with special abilities, they drain stamina, and with low stamina your units don’t move or perform quite as well. Wounded units will move slower and slouch in combat making them sitting ducks which means you need to keep your eye on their health and stamina bars at the bottom of the screen. Touches like this show that Liquid Entertainment have certainly thought hard about the combat which makes the game all the more challenging. Many games that feature melee weapons can get dull very quick, there’s nothing worse than watching a bunch of units just standing rooted to the spot whacking at an object giving you time to go put the kettle on while they finish up. Fortunately the combat in Batttle Realms is usually quick and and exciting to watch so you won’t suffer from the tea break syndrome.One thing I haven’t mentioned yet are mounts. Finally someone released an RTS with horses which you can use to your advantage in a variety of ways. Peasant can go out and capture wild horses from the surrounding landscape, tame them, then bring them back to your stables. Once tamed you can either place combat units on them or use them for better resource collection.. The game’s AI is pretty good, units spread out and enemies can attack the most inopportune moment which is always a good sign. Despite the fact you can control units by a*igning group numbers it can be hard to control larger groups in battle, they sometimes tend to attack regardless when you are trying to pull them back. This is a bit frustrating in the early missions where you fail if Kenji, who is a hero unit, dies.Another issue is the ease an can enemy to set up a base once they are nearly defeated. If a single enemy peasant is left alive the AI seems to be able to kick up a new base pretty quickly. This means an area you thought you had cleared could have been completely repopulated again while you’ve been scouting the rest of the map looking for the last foe. There was one mission where I had 3 groups going round in circles and bases were popping up all over the place which was a bit frustrating. The only way to combat this is always attack the peasant huts (unit generators) first before the major structures killing of their ability to reproduce. These issues are frustrating to start but with a bit of practice you know what to look out for.So how does it look. Battle Realms looks fantastic, the 3D engine is very solid, the characters all look unique making identification easy in the heat of battle and the character animation is excellent. Units idle by posing or even throw their weapons into the air, and once selected they stand to attention ready for your command. The map landscapes look polished, really vibrant and interesting to explore. Battle realms features some nice touches, the game world is very much alive as we mentioned earlier, even the clouds moving overhead can be seen as shadows on the ground and waterfalls spill over cliff sides, it’s a delight to watch. There is one gripe with the game though and that’s the zoom. As the game is 3D you can zoom in and out of the action but it would have been nice to be able to pull out further to get a fuller view the playing area when the fog of war is uncovered, a minor gripe but worth pointing out.The sound department doesn’t disappoint. The game’s Japanese themed music subtly plays in the background changing between scenarios. The thing that definitely stands out are the sound effects on the weapons and spells, some of the special ability sound when activated give a real sense of power when clicked. The unit voices are well done and don’t wear thin which can always be a problem with RTS games when you’re clocking about. Overall top job by the sound department.Multiplayer is handled by Gamespy at the moment but will no doubt be added to Ubi.com eventually with any luck. In multiplayer you get the chance to play the three other Clans, so it’s a breath of fresh air after the single player campaign. If you need the practice you can always dive into a skirmish game where all the Clans are available, there’s also a decent variety of map sizes and types to keep you busy for a while. As with just about every RTS, multiplayer is what keeps the game going and Battle Realms should keep you coming back for more, it’s d** addictive.So what’s the verdict? Well to put it simply this is one excellent RTS that has shown innovation in places providing an entertaining gameplay experience, despite a few flaws here and there. Liquid Entertainment have produced, as far as I’m concerned one of the best RTS games of this year. If you’re an RTS fan you can’t afford to be without Battle Realms nestling inside your beige box of tricks.