An old RTS formula with a fresh coat of blood-red warpaint.
The easiest, inevitable comparison to be made for Ancestors Legacy is that it’s Company of Heroes in early medieval Europe. For some, that will be enough of a selling point in itself. For others unfamiliar with the popular RTS, Ancestors Legacy brings neat tweaks and a frantic yet slow-paced approach to a tried-and-true formula.
You’re thrown into bloody conflict in campaigns involving the four playable factions: Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Germans, and Slavs. Some factions will be more interesting to you than others depending on the flavour of medieval carnage you prefer.
You command squads of units in what amounts to a muddy, grim battleground hosting a complex game of capture point. Squads are groups of one type of soldier that can be commanded and upgraded, each playing a role in the rock-paper-scissors dynamic. Spearman slaughter cavalry, cavalry trample axemen, axemen destroy shieldbearers and so on.
The number of squads you control is capped at ten, so you need to carefully plan your composition to counter enemy units and what approach you will take. Squads gain experience through combat, allowing them to be upgraded with perks that narrow their development. Eventually, you can get some hefty upgrades, but they must all be carefully considered. You can give your soldiers plate mail armour to withstand frontal assaults, the balance being that this sacrifices their speed and maneuverability.
Campaigns will also provide hero units that must be protected. Thankfully they live up to their name and can successfully take on whole squads during sticky situations. Their unique abilities can create interesting strategies and shift battles in your favour. An Anglo-Saxon hero can terrorise an enemy squad into fleeing, allowing your longbowmen to pick them off. These interesting combos are the strongest, and most entertaining, elements of the action.
There are tonnes of strategic opportunities and playstyles. Patches of dense vegetation dotting the battlefield are perfect for ambushes, and each squad can lay traps that will devastate the enemy. Cavalry will charge and flank, and bowmen are incredibly effective at lighting buildings on fire. If you’ve ever played a Total War game you’ll understand the fundamentals effectively enough.
The moment-to-moment control of squads can lead to satisfying results, but the combat is slowed by unusual unit behaviour. The only way to disengage from an enemy squad is by the retreat command, even if they are vastly overpowered. This leaves you helplessly waiting for your units to finish their orderly business.
Let’s say you have four squads attacking one enemy squad. Once they’ve whittled down the squad to lower numbers, your units won’t circle the enemy to deliver the coup de grâce. Instead, they stand in line waiting for a turn as their last soldier stubbornly duels whichever unit is next in line.
It sounds like I’m picking on a rare scenario, but it significantly drags the responsiveness down. If you could disengage some of your units from a losing squad to prioritise new targets, you would feel less stuck. I’ve lost half a squad because I couldn’t get them to finish one soldier quickly enough to target the encroaching cavalry charging their flank.
Using squads in defense can also be a struggle. When a unit is fired upon at range, unless they are also a ranged unit, they will stand still taking heavy damage until you tell them to move or attack. I longed for a defensive command, allowing automatic movement to combat ranged units. Significant time was spent away from the frontline in my matches, annoyingly trying to hold capture points against ranged units.
I understand that Ancestors Legacy focuses its entire being on controlling and experiencing the flow of combat. But, the almost non-existent defensive AI and lack of responsiveness to unit commands critically hinders enjoyment.
The campaigns themselves serve as a tutorial for the multiplayer, often providing more interesting scripted situations than the multiplayer allows. I never particularly enjoy capture-the-flag games, but if that’s your thing then the larger scale of combat won’t be too grating.
Villages act as capture points, bases, and resource collectors. Controlling villages is the main objective of nearly every battle – especially in multiplayer. They also play a vital role in healing and replenishing your squads. You need to manage resources collected from villages to build your main base, recruit units, and upgrade your technology.
Your main base is different than in most RTS games. Veterans may find it frustrating that buildings are placed automatically and are limited in number. I found this refreshing as I spent more time focusing on my frontline units than my base. It removes a layer of tedium too often found in RTS’s with lackluster base management systems.
I appreciated the intuitive interface for managing villages and bases; it reinforces Legacy’s focus on combat over busywork. I never spent more than a few seconds at a time glancing at my base menu for available upgrades or purchasable boons, without the need to centre the camera away from the action.
Most campaign missions involve rounding up allies and raiding the enemy that is more heavily guarded than you can ever be. They’re flavoured with some spectacular in-engine cinematics but very little in the way of a story.
If you’ve played any RTS aiming for historical accuracy you’ll be familiar with the way campaigns feel more like extended chess games than fleshed-out stories. While the campaigns are nothing to go crazy about storywise, they do take a few hours to complete and there are more on the way. The missions are varied and offer a decent enough departure from multiplayer skirmishes.
The dialogue can be particularly cheesy and the accents are all over the place. The crunching combat slashes and battle cries are fantastic; it’s a shame the voice work doesn’t meet that high standard. It can break immersion, but ultimately, this is only an issue during campaigns.
I also encountered issues with the loading cinematics. They pack loads of narration into beautifully animated artwork sequences that stutter and freeze while loading. You might not experience this with a newer SSD, but it’s a shame that such beautiful artwork can’t be appreciated as intended.
The visuals are impressively done – fairly muted for an RTS but with animations that help everything stand out. The dark in the Dark Ages is strong here; it’s about as grim as expected. Colourblind options would have been useful for unit command markers, as it can be difficult to position units properly when the dashed lines blend in with the sea of browns.
Otherwise, the visuals are solid. The weather effects are striking and the performance is silky-smooth even on ultra settings. You can zoom all the way to ground level, following individual units to get a feel for the front line. The music matches the visual quality, with a guttural score by Adam Skorupa and Krzysztof Wierzynkiewicz that will bring out your inner Viking.
The multiplayer matches I played ran smoothly, and the balancing seems decent at this stage. For as much grief as I gave the pacing of combat earlier, things tend to progress far quicker in multiplayer. I’m hoping for more maps to come in updates, as currently there are only seven maps in total.
Domination mode involves racking up points through controlling villages and Annihilation is self-explanatory. Two modes and a small number of maps might get old quickly for some, despite the maps being interesting and unique.
Ancestors Legacy feels more iterative than innovative. It follows the Company of Heroes formula closely and brings some appreciated efficiency to the table. While the squad abilities are nuanced and impactful, their movement and control feel lackluster and unresponsive at times. There’s clearly been a lot of love put into this RTS, and with a few updates it could be truly great. Until then, there’s still plenty here for die-hard RTS fans and admirers of bloody medieval history.