There's a giant, house-sized cyclops at the head of my army, and I have no idea what his name is. I feel as though I should—the 12-mission campaign for 8-Bit Hordes's (opens in new tab) Deathsworn faction kicks off with him surrounded by voxelated orcs who swarm him like dwarves pile on gold, and the fact that I initially can't spawn a version of him myself at first lends him an air of irreparable importance. He's the Wun Wun to their wildlings, the Goliath to their Philistines, and I suppose if Blizzard Entertainment had dreamed him up, he'd have some kind of backstory involving drinking demon blood and swaggering through dark portals to other worlds.
It's not an idle comparison. Much as 8-Bit Armies revived the accessible real-time strategy of Command & Conquer in a syrupy Minecrafty coating, 8-Bit Hordes (as the name not-so-subtly implies) attempts the same with the early Warcraft games. Although standalone and pleasingly inexpensive ($15/£11 or cheaper bundled), it's an expansion of sorts for Armies, effectively reskinning its various units into shapes more fit for the fantasy genre. There are some differences in what buildings you'll need to unlock each unit, but the progression's usually recognizable. Rocket helicopters become dragons. Rocket infantry become archers and sorceresses. The refineries become farms, and the command centers become castles or lodges that look like joints where Anduin Lothar and Grom Hellscream wouldn't mind hanging out.
You might recall that I gushed over the possibility of playing 8-Bit Armies with such a cast back in April. Most of that enthusiasm remains, in part because I was always (and probably always will be) the He-Man-favoring kid who yawned when the other boys would bring their G.I. Joes to show-and-tell, and I don't doubt that many other RTS players there feel the same.
It's just that it all feels so familiar. I played this game just a few months ago, but in a different guise. The strategy, such as it is, still amounts to little more than building up a horde of enemies faster and more efficiently than the other guy, which usually involves slapping down a few farms and barracks early on to trigger production boosts. The troops still need guidance for virtually everything they do, or they'll flow past untargeted enemy units like water rushing past a rock in a brook. The enemy AI seems to compensate for their foolishness with production boosts in the campaign, and sometimes the idiots will keep attacking buildings even when enemy units are firing bazookas at them. I suppose I can forgive that in the evil Deathsworn faction—it's a stretch to expect to find many brains in the skulls of skeleton soldiers—but it's even true of the Alliance-inspired human soldiers of the Lightbringers. C'mon, humans, we're supposed to be better than that.
And yet 8-Bit Hordes still usually manages to be fun. Its voxeled aesthetic already shouts that it doesn't take itself too seriously, as does the new option to pit the modern troops of 8-Bit Armies and the fantasy legions of Hordes against each other in skirmishes and online, LAN, and co-op multiplayer battles. (Happily, owners of both games can play against each other.) This is great stuff. When I first saw a treant of mine smash a rival's refinery to bits, I laughed so hard at the environmental symbolism of it all that I woke up my wife in the next room. The new maps, too, capture the fantasy theme well, right down to an "ice and fire" battlefield split diagonally between vast expanses of snow and lava-warmed pumice.
You won't likely feel the desk-pounding and dejection of a loss in StarCraft II when you lose in 8-Bit Hordes. Here, instead, is a fast-paced game where the matches shift as quickly as opinions about , where most numbers for damage and unit numbers remain invisible, and where the true joy really is (appropriately) crushing your enemies and seeing them driven before you. (It's still quite deficient as regards individualized voice emotes, so you'll have to do without the lamentations on women.) 8-Bit Hordes never really makes you think that hard, but it's pretty obvious early on that it has no intention to.
My thoughts keep going back to my big, green, one-eyed Wun Wun. Developer Petroglyph may have crafted a version of their game that caters to fantasy lovers like myself, but the catch is that we also tend to be a roleplaying bunch and love a good yarn. That storytelling was as much a part of why I so enjoyed Warcraft II and III years ago as the actual strategy, but there's very little of that here. At best 8-Bit Hordes makes a better attempt than its predecessors, sneaking comments about how "death is the only true master" in the Deathsworn campaign while sneering at the Lightbringers' regard for all that is "good and right" amid the humdrum imperative to destroy all Lightbringer command camps. There are no heroes, no real end goal. Social games on Facebook usually did more with less.
I suspect 8-Bit Hordes is part of a trend. Give it a few months, and we'll likely see a space-themed version for players more drawn to StarCraft and it'll play much the same. The AI will still be fools and the campaign story will amount to simple directions. Laser-mounted spaceships will stand in for dragons and helicopters, space marines will take the place of artillery and rogues, and Petroglyph will let us play them all at once in one glorious skirmish or multiplayer battle pitting three stylized eras of history at once.
And while I'd like to see deeper strategy and lore in these 8-Bit worlds, I suspect the next one will be so fun that I'll play it all again anyway.