It isn't easy for a real-time strategy game to distinguish itself these days, because the genre is saturated. And it isn't just filled with fluff--no matter what your tastes or gameplay preferences may be, chances are good that there's been an excellent real-time strategy game in the last 12 months that would be a perfect match for you. Earlier this year, Blizzard's Warcraft III met with tremendous success, and it is still widely played and very popular. The more recent Age of Mythology makes a suitably good counterpart, with its larger scale and more epic feel. Meanwhile, Medieval: Total War has a level of depth and tactical complexity not found in most other strategy games, and Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin uses real-time turn resolutions and extremely realistic military units to completely reinvent modern wargaming. With such fierce competition on all fronts, it's difficult even for last year's most notable real-time strategy games to remain relevant only a year after their release. This is really the biggest problem with Battle Realms: Winter of the Wolf, which is technically a pretty solid add-on to last year's distinctive martial-arts-themed real-time strategy game.
Winter of the Wolf is an expansion that also ships with a full version of the original Battle Realms.
The $30 expansion actually comes packaged with the original game, and so is clearly intended to draw new players into the world of Battle Realms rather than just give those who already own Battle Realms some more units and campaign missions to play with. However, those who haven't played Battle Realms before in some ways have already missed the boat on this game, as it hasn't aged too well in the last year. The graphics that were state of the art last year now look noticeably worse than those of Warcraft III and Age of Mythology. More importantly, Battle Realms' gameplay problems have not been addressed in the expansion, while more-recent real-time strategy games have incorporated some of Battle Realms' innovations (and stylistic touches) to better effect. Nevertheless, the core Battle Realms real-time strategy gameplay is still unusually different from the norm, and now you can get a lot of it for your money. Also, those who already own Battle Realms will get a $10 rebate when purchasing Winter of the Wolf.
The original Battle Realms campaign focused on an exiled hero named Kenji, who would become leader of either the Dragon or Serpent clans and fight to unite the country under his flag. Along the way, he'd inevitably square off against the vile Lotus clan and the barbaric Wolf clan. The latter two did not play a central role in the story of Battle Realms, but they figure most prominently in this expansion pack, which takes place before the events of the original game. It chronicles the story of Grayback, a Wolf leader who begins the campaign by staging a rebellion against his Lotus-clan enslavers. Grayback must unite and rally his forces and restore the Wolf clan to freedom over the course of an 11-mission campaign.
A new campaign focuses on Grayback, a hero of the Wolf clan.
The campaign gets off to a slow start, because it'll be a while until you actually break free from the Lotus clan's shale mines and can actually begin building bases and training units. You'll at first just have to make do with what you've got and go from point to point in several highly scripted but not altogether engaging missions. These use in-engine cutscenes to drive the story along, and while the voice-over is pretty good, the unflattering close-ups of the game's blocky units aren't. Also--and this has been a problem with Battle Realms all along--because you have limited tactical control over your forces, the battles in the early stages of Winter of the Wolf merely require you to sit back and watch.
As a more general criticism of the campaign, it's odd that it focuses on what's arguably the least interesting of Battle Realms' four factions. The various martial-arts-style units from the first game were one of the main attractions--it was a game in which you could control armies that looked like they came straight out of a Hong Kong kung fu movie. The Wolf clan's Stone Age-looking barbarians, with their bulging muscles and crude weapons, stood in sharp contrast to the other factions and made for interesting opponents. But Grayback and his wild clansmen can't carry a game as well as Kenji and his brothers-in-arms.