[Warlords logo]

Review by Shiuming Lai and Wiesbaden Gaming Lab, Germany


UK-based Creature Labs is very proud of its latest game development, carried out for Infogrames, so much so that it sent us an import copy of the North American market Atari Revival pack for PC, featuring among others its new millennium take on Atari's Warlords.

Now anyone over the age of 25 will probably hear alarm bells. People still like listening to old records, because the teeny bopper renditions and trendy re-makes blighting the charts are so dreadful. Games are no different and messing with a good formula often ruins a classic.

Preconceptions aside, let's see how this shapes up. First things first: the box is gorgeous. Glossed, embossed and a holographic type reflective surface on the front which produced nasty streaks when scanned, so here's the somewhat less sparkly back for you to enjoy.

[Photo: Atari Revival rear box art]

How many Atari gaming fans could walk into a shop and pass that one up? Upon closer study of the packaging and contents I had a sense of déjà vu... Missile Command was produced quite a while ago, under Hasbro's ownership of Atari. I remember getting a demo of this from a magazine cover CD, playing for about 30 minutes and coming away disappointed with the graphics (restricted to 640x480, most annoying) on what should have been a stunner, given the undemanding nature of the game logic itself. Someone should also tell Infogrames that the "cosmetically-enhanced" Atari logo it inherited from Hasbro is naff! The cheesy rounded box has been dropped but the Fuji symbol is still out of proportion at the sides. If old Atari gamers are part of the intended target audience then this will be seen as sacrilege... Fortunately the official Atari web site ( has the correct, classical form of the Fuji, exactly as it made its mark in popular culture.

[Screen-shot: Atari official web site]

In the deep end
I'm not about to explain the original concept of each game, I'll assume if you're reading you already know. They're not very complicated anyway.

[Image: Combat icon]Combat was installed first. Part of my first experience with Atari was playing this on the VCS, 20 years ago, getting soundly thrashed and being amused that if two tanks were lined up face-to-face, it was possible to deflect each other's shots by firing them back out as they entered each other's gun turrets!

This update boasts 3D graphics, lots of power-ups, a range of tanks with different handling characteristics, and network play via LAN or internet. Conceptually it is like a 3D Gauntlet, each of the maze levels being interconnected by a portal orb that you have to find in order to exit the level. As you can see from the box it includes "...the original Combat for the Atari 2600" though I'm not sure where despite having checked the game options and manual several times. For beginners there is a training mode supposedly based on the original levels from the VCS version but it's still 3D and I think this is slightly stretching the definition (if someone knows there is a "real" original version hidden in here please tell us where).

Right from the start I noticed a lot of niggles about this game which interrupted my getting into playing it. Not a good sign, after all, the charm of the old VCS games was their pick-up-and-play quality. First annoyance was having to re-start the game after changing up from 640x480 (very chunky on a 21" monitor) to the maximum 1,024x768. I chose the first level to evaluate its basic game quality before delving into other features. Look at the screen-shots below and you can see it's done in a first-person style 3D. The graphics immediately appear bland and lacking imagination, it all looks like a really old first-person shooter, before programmers got the hang of decent lighting effects.

Get your head around the over-sensitive controls (not to mention the tanks are now hovercraft, therefore you also have to deal with inertia, expect to make heavy use of the emergency brake!) and then you're faced with the steep angle and narrow panorama of the perspective. It simply feels slightly unnatural and closed-in, not helpful in a game where you're supposed to move in all directions. Switch the view to a lower angle and the inflexible camera tracking becomes more evident as entire surfaces disappear revealing the background bitmaps and polygon structures, very disturbing. I soon got bored: the gun-fire is a damp squib, things explode and instantly disappear without trace, enemies also come from off the playfield (airborne) and then the music just becomes irritating.

For me, Combat doesn't cut it as an action game, it didn't hook in the first five minutes and there isn't the arcade feel. It lacks conviction in its design and execution. Too bad because first impressions count and there was promise and potential - I wasn't compelled to try the other game options, how could they bring any improvement if the fundamentals are not right?

[Screen-shot: Combat]

[Screen-shot: Combat firing]

[Screen-shot: Combat low-angle view]

[Screen-shot: Combat's disappearing polygons]

[Image: Warlords icon]In my frustration with Combat I installed Warlords, hoping the distraction would allow me to sub-consciously "get it". To keep my main machine free so I could write my review in "real-time" I installed it under 98 Second Edition on a spare test machine consisting of a PIII 600E at 781 MHz, 256 MB RAM and 32 MB Creative GeForce 256 DDR with NVidia's latest WHQL certified reference driver and Creative's Display Director to pump up the core and memory clocks to 135 MHz and 333 MHz respectively. First, to get in the right frame of mind, I loaded the "classic" mode (developed separately by Digital Eclipse). Expecting an emulation of the VCS version, I was pleasantly surprised to find it is in fact based on the arcade version. It's beautifully done, made to look like the real arcade cabinet with original artwork, even the large monitor scan-line effect is simulated, very authentic indeed.

[Screen-shot: Warlords classic]

[Screen-shot: Simulated monitor scan-line effect]

That's attention to detail. Of course, you could get the same effect by running the aforementioned 640x480 on a 21" or larger monitor.

Pokey-esque sounds blast out accompanying the frenzied pace of action. Think street football: no flashy paraphernalia, just raw energetic play, simple yet difficult to master. For fun, I expanded the atmosphere by routing the Windows Multimedia wave device output through a high quality DSP reverb. This is on my main "power" machine. By this stage I'm getting all tangled up and doing different bits on different machines. Don't attempt to comprehend that yet, I'll explain the significance later!

Creature Labs' updated Warlords
Installation was a breeze - in common with the other games in this pack it requires the original CD to be present each time you want to play. I find this not only inconvenient, in real terms it offers no security in this age of CD-R. Why do publishers still insist on this outdated method? I've already damaged my Unreal Tournament CD beyond repair, due to its permanent residence in one of my drives, and had to buy it again (partly as self-punishment for being careless enough to wreck a CD this way for a second time - hint: CD drives work equally well horizontally or vertically but don't ever change the orientation while the machine is on and the disc potentially spinning). A program launcher comes up before every start so you can tweak options and, more importantly, choose the version to play (classic, which I've just covered, or updated). Resolutions range from 640x480 to 1,280x960, the latter of which puzzled me enough to do some quick maths leading to the mystery of how I manged to totally convince myself and others that my default desktop mode of 1,280x1,024 is 4:3 aspect ratio rather than 1,280x960!

[Screen-shot: Program launcher]

Before I knew it my "quick go" on the simple one player against the machine match had effortlessly idled away 30 minutes. This is much more like it! In stark contrast to Combat, Warlords' key to success is subtlety and dedication to craft, it doesn't attempt to fix something that ain't broke. The graphics are lush, look at the screen-shots and details, the control is finely weighted, the dynamics of the animation are believable and there are fanatical embellishments like the character expressions, somersaulting upon victory and wincing when a fireball gets dangerously close - this is what makes a fantasy scenario engrossing. When fireballs bounce off the sides of the playfield there is a "splashing" effect like water, they have transparency, and when they hit a wall, debris tumbles out, unlike Combat where there is not so much as a shard of space-age alloy (except for when your own tank gets destroyed, as if to rub it in), flames from explosions rise, giving a true feeling of depth in the screen. Catch a fireball, whizz it around the corner and your hand is followed by a realistic red-hot trail of flame, but don't hold on to it too long or the excess energy starts destroying your own walls, faithfully carried over from the original.

Check these screen-shots of the very first level. I was immediately at home with the game mechanics and presentation, nothing stood in my way of playing, only enhancements like the excellent rain effect, plasma style energy bolts, explosions and flashes, subtle but highly effective lighting and shadow rendering, a stirring, but never intrusive, well-engineered soundtrack with medieval/gothic overtones, giving precedence to the pounding game effects. Supercharged fireball impacts are announced with a more substantial explosion further spicing up the audio and the quality of the texture maps is also far superior to those of Combat.

[Screen-shot: Score table]

[Scren-shot: Level 1]

[Screen-shot: Level 1 reverse controls!]

[Screen-shot: Level 1 castle explosion]

On the bonus rounds you have to shoot the dragon by returning its own fireballs, supercharged (by grabbing them), not as easy as it sounds because not only does it fly around it also swoops up and down, scaling smaller and becoming darker as it goes near the ground and larger and brighter as it comes up. At this point a well-aimed fireball can fry it, do this several times and the creature is satisfyingly destroyed.

[Scren-shot: Bonus level 1]

The second theme (of which there are ten each with several levels) set in a desert shows off yet more excellent detail with a great sand-storm effect. As befits a modern game, the various options may be called up mid-game and changed at will, everything from resolution (without re-start) to toggling particle and lighting effects, for slower machines. A neat game-play feature: if you find yourself going cross-eyed from the sheer mayhem of textured 3D walls, multiple fireballs, falling stone, passing birds and so on, the grid feature under the video options menu cleverly draws a white 2D grid under the bricks on each castle top, revealing itself as the fireballs blast bricks away. Once again this is a wonderful touch which shows the development team hasn't got carried away dolloping on features without a thought for their potential consequences. There are also two types of castle bricks adding depth to the game, larger bricks take more hits to destroy. Straight from the old-school wisdom of game design, as are the effects of some of the power-ups. Use them strategically to outwit opponents - you can enlarge (or down-size, most unhelpful, this is a power-down!) your shield (just like the bat in Breakout), get multi-shields, reverse fireball trajectories, repair wall damage or even switch castles if yours has taken too much of a battering and left your defences wide open. Power-ups are activated by hitting them with a fireball, quick reflexes are needed because only one power-up is ever on-screen at once and its function "cycles" so you have to hit it at the right time as well!

[Screen-shot: Level 3]

[Screen-shot: Level 3 - game options]

Ideally a rotary controller like Atari's old paddle devices would be most suited to this game but mouse is a close second-best. Impeccable rodent hygiene is necessary unless you're using an optical model, for the precision and timing required is not forgiving of little skips due to dirty balls and rollers. You have been warned.

[Screen-shot: Level 6]

[Screen-shot: Co-op mode over LAN]

Multi-player modes
Just like the original, up to four players can get cosy around one machine. Alternatively, each player can have a separate machine connected by a LAN. Furthermore, Creature Labs has implemented a neat variation called co-operative mode, it's essentially tennis doubles and you have to penetrate the opponents' walls and hit a moving target behind to eliminate players! See the screen-shot immediately above.

Other touches that give Warlords arcade-like quality include the bold messages superimposed over the playfield announcing power-ups, in the same font used on the box. No matter how pretty the icons look, in the heat of the action it really helps a lot to have a verbal or written description to give a clear indication of what it is, apart from the obvious ones like speed-up, which can't be said of Combat. Bizarrely this changes to very tiny text when counting down the start of a new level or prompting the player to enter a name for the high score table, not very comfortable at game-playing distance even on a large screen.

[Screen-shot: Control configuration]

[Image: Details]

[Screen-shot: Level 11 blue's about to die!]

Sometimes you pick up a game and the attention lavished on it is very evident, this is such a game. You can tell the designers were aiming for something they wanted to play themselves. Good job this arrived after I'd finished editing and laying out the three main features for this issue!

My only regret with the updated Warlords, of all the games in the pack, is a minor one: it doesn't work with my CreamWare Pulsar II DSP audio card, it stutters like crazy - and there's my spare machine built from scrap with a SoundBlaster 128 costing 100 times less working flawlessly. The only other game I've had so far which is also incompatible is Mercedes Benz Truck Racing (an outstanding racer whose 3D system was programmed by Michael Bittner, a name Thalion Software fans should remember well). On occasions like this I switch over to the stand-by SoundBlaster Live! card and make do without super-revealing D/A and studio quality effects.

[Image: Missile Command icon]Since I reviewed Combat, I thought it only fair to give Missile Command a closer look especially as this is the final released version. Suddenly, perhaps I missed it first time, I noticed an option to choose the 3D display device (it's even in the manual but real enthusiasts don't read manuals...). Changing from software rendering to Direct3D opened up options for in-game resolutions corresponding to those available from the installed display driver (I tried 2,048x1,536 on my main machine with maximum detail for a laugh and it flaked out even with a 256 MB AGP aperture but 1,920x1,440 worked a treat). D3D mode also filters the textures, which are heavily pixellated in software mode (hence my early impression), in the higher resolutions everything is sharp and the lighting effects can be appreciated. Unlike Warlords the classic and modern options are available from within the game. Elsewhere, the music is great, the graphics are nearly as good as Warlords and it has that arcade feel, too - it has an attract mode which was playing for much of the duration I wrote about Warlords, so it sounded like a real arcade machine in the background! This one is also very enjoyable and it's growing on me. I rate Warlords as the star of this compilation, artistically, technically and in terms of game-play, worth the asking price alone, with Missile Command a close second and Combat trailing far behind.

Atari Revival is available at ( for $19.99 plus shipping, that's a pretty good deal.

[Screen-shot: Missile Command options menu]

[Screen-shot: Missile Command classic mode]

[Screen-shot: Missile Command Ultimate level 1]

[Screen-shot: Missile Command Ultimate level 1 explosion]

Following my review session I sent Warlords to Mad Butscher at Wiesbaden Gaming Lab, our game testing facility in Germany. The WGL crew has full access to a large range of original working Atari game systems and an ever-growing reference library of classic software, for the ultimate comparison.

[WGL banner]

Short retrospective
A long time ago, I went to the supermarket with my mother. There I always had a look at the electronic junk area, to see if I could get another VCS cartridge. It was the time when the console market was already dead, but I didn't know that at that time. Normally I found Imagic cartridges in the junk area, like Atlantis and Star Voyager.

This time to my suprise I found an original Atari cartridge: Warlords. It said on the box that it only works with paddles, but I wanted to have a new cartridge and didn't believe it. After I pestered my mother a little bit, I got it! At home I found out that the message on the box was right. I owned no paddles, so I had to give it back to the supermarket.

This was my first encounter with Warlords. The next was more than 15 years later when Mr XY decided that it would be a great game for the After Eight Party. So we had a Warlords competition on the VCS at the party.

These days, I've got the PC version in my hands...

The multi-player mode
After taking hours to go through the unintuitive menus, you can finally play with up to four players. Unfortunately you can only choose that one player is controlled by the mouse and the rest have to use a keyboard. Where are the joysticks?

In the game you have to exit the whole game to change some options. For example if you found out that even though you chose the key [Y] for some action, in the game it is key [Z] (the German keyboard is recognized in the menu but not in the game), you have to stop the game, change the key and go through all the menus again.

But now we were happy to get rid of the menu and play. The background changes every round, and at the beginning, you have problems to recognize the status of your castle. In some backgrounds more than in others. The backgrounds are nice, but it's hard to keep track. After a while you ask yourself why it took so long to go through the menus when there is no impact on the game. You could choose different characters and the difficulty level for nothing. The different animation of the castle-keeper isn't what you are looking for during the game, simply because of the action you have no time for that. After fighting hard for more than 30 rounds, you have a nice score, but in the multi-player mode the high score list is not used, even though a list is shown. So the score is also for nothing. That is a shame, because beating a high score is a big motivation.

So maybe you get the idea that we totally hate the game. No, not at all, we only hate the surroundings.

The game itself is a funny combination of skill, concentration and action. The everlasting funny principle that you have to keep an eye on three opponements at the same time survived the centuries. Maybe you cannot avoid all fireballs aimed at your castle, so you have to concentrate on the ones which will really damage it. For collectors it is also interesting, the package is a welcome enrichment to you room.

You need some rounds to come in the game, but that's normal. Then, you learn to catch a fireball, which gives you more tactical possibilities. When there are four fireballs on the screen, catching one decreases their number to three, this is also a strategical element. And finally you will even try to get the extras. The extras are tricky to get, but add change to the game. Well "hiding shields" is only stupid, because when your shield is gone you can do more or less nothing, therefore the "faster fireballs" extra is really funny.

If you lack human opponements, the missing players are controlled by the computer. It's also possible to control two players simultaneously. The computer is a fair opponement. It is not too good and not too bad. If you face it diagonally you have more problems to defeat it than you face it across (horizontally or vertically).

It needs some time, but with some friends, you will enjoy the game if you give them a chance.

Atari Revival CD-ROM game system requirements

  • Operating system: Windows 95/98/Me/XP
  • Processor: Pentium II 266 MHz (Pentium II 350 MHz or higher recommended)
  • Memory: 32 MB RAM (64 MB RAM recommended) (64 MB RAM required for Windows XP)
  • Hard disk space: 100 MB free
  • CD-ROM drive: 8x speed (16x speed recommended)
  • Video: 2 MB Windows 95/98/Me/XP-compatible SVGA video card (16 MB Windows 95/98/Me/XP-compatible SVGA video card plus Direct3D-compatible 3D graphics accelerator recommended)
  • Sound: Windows 95/98/Me/XP-compatible sound card
  • DirectX: DirectX version 8.0a (included) or higher

† Indicates device should be compatible with DirectX version 8.0a or higher.


[Photo: Mad Butscher gives 4/5]
[Image: 4/5 stars]
Mad Butscher
A game that makes good fun, in that way that you want to play another round, if you are defeated. If you are out of the round, it doesn't take that long until you can try again to do better. That's what counts in my eyes.

The environment is not intuitive and too complicated for the simple game-play. The up-to-date graphics sometimes makes it hard to keep track of your status.

[Photo: Gunnar gives 3/5]
[Image: 3/5 stars] 
In my opinion Warlords is a "real revival" as it is promised by the box of the compilation.

This simple however good principle of playing was nevertheless forgotten over years. But the game began soon to bore me and I rather put in the 21 year old Warlords cartridge of my VCS console. With the good old paddle controllers, simple but clear graphics and the same principle of playing I enjoyed the game.

I do not need a PC to play classic games and I doubt that the name Atari is getting new fame with such games.

[Image: Jan portrait]
[Image: 3/5 stars]
Basically, I think the idea of Warlords is good, it is something different and as I didn't know the VCS nor the arcade version it was absolutely new for me (if I remember correctly there isn't anything like that for any other computer system). In multi-player mode with at least three players it is quite some fun.

At first I had some problems with the controls (mouse is probably the best), but after I got used to it I wanted more. The graphics are nice, but sometimes too detailed, so it is hard to keep track of what's going on. Really annoying is the user interface - the menus are complicated and not intuitive. And not to forget the classic version, which is unplayable in my opinion. All in all the Warlords principle is nice, but they could have made more of it. It is sufficient to have now and then a fun game if there are three or more people around and no LAN (we didn't test the LAN abilities, and internet play is missing).

[Image: WGL 3/5 award]

Useful links


Top of page ]

MyAtari magazine - Review #1, August 2002

Copyright 2002 MyAtari magazine