Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe - names that every British school child holds dear, and whose rip-roaring tales of love, life and derring-do in these sceptred isles never fail to hold teary-eyed readers spellbound... Well maybe they don't have quite that effect, but at least you've heard of them. Now what if I said to you - Luo Guanzhong. Then you'd look at me blankly or say bless you. But you might say, 'Ah yes, Luo Guanzhong, the famous 14th-century novelist, author of The Three Kingdoms.' Which would tell me you either went to school in China or you're one of those irritating gits who knows everything and always wins at Trivial Pursuit.

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Thanks to Eidos however, the venerable Luo is about to become, if not a household name, at least a little better known outside his native land. It is his historical novel about the fall of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century and the subsequent division of China into three separate kingdoms that forms the basis of this real-time strategy game. To add to the authenticity the game itself is also a product of that vast and ancient nation, having been developed by Chinese team Object Software.

Deja Vu

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The blurb that comes with the game tells you that you must take up the mantle of one of the three warlords of the time, Cao Cao, Lui Bei and Sun Quan. By using guile and cunning, or failing that, outright brutality, you must lead your third of China on a mission to bring the other two kingdoms under your wing and rebuild the shattered nation. Great, you're thinking as you eagerly open the box while simultaneously phoning for a number 23, a 54, and some prawn crackers on the side. The evocative intro sequence, depicting the three generals battling it out on the plains of China only seeks to get you even more in the mood for something a little different and then...

At this point you might be forgiven for checking that you haven't put one of your old games in the CD drive by mistake. For by now a rather alarming sense of ddjd vu will be creeping over you.Hang on, haven't I played this somewhere before?

Indeed you have, because Three Kingdoms: Fate of the Dragon bears an uncanny resemblance to Age Of Empires. We're not just talking a passing graphical likeness here; great swathes of gameplay have also been liberally lifted from Ensemble's masterpiece, especially the style of settlement building and resource management.

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Saving Graces

Having made my point - Three Kingdoms is more of a tribute band than it is the next Abba -I won't dwell on it any further. Let's turn instead to some of the more original touches that Object Software has implemented. The first of these becomes apparent in the way you use your non-combatant population in the game. While it is necessary to build up a sizeable force of workers to gather resources, build new structures and turn raw materials into more useful ones, they can also be pressed into active service. By sending members of your population to a barracks you can train them up as sergeants and thereby begin to build your military force. Where this dual-use scenario really comes in handy is during times of peace. Instead of having your army standing about idly and consuming all your hard-earned resources, you can put them back to work as humble builders and gatherers. Then, when things start hotting up again, you can retrain them as soldiers at a fraction of the original time and cost.

Some thought has also gone into the art of war. Your soldiers march on their stomachs and need to be kept fed and watered if you want them to perform at their peak. While they are garrisoned in a friendly town they have free access to food and wine, as long as you have some stockpiled, and will stay on top form. However, as soon as they start traipsing about in the wilderness they will begin to decline. Keep them hungry and thirsty for long enough and they will degrade to the point that they look about as dedicated and confident as England going into another World Cup.

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Fortunately you can offset disaster with a bit of forward planning. By equipping your army wifh one or more supply wagons, you can set up staging camps en route to the site of your intended conquest and these help to keep your force in good shape.

A Siege My Liege?

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Provided you spare enough resources for some research you can also build a variety of siege equipment, and fortunately each city in the game has a pre-made gate and walls to avoid disappointment. After all, there's nothing worse than dragging a siege ladder halfway across the country only to find that the inconsiderate sods haven't even bothered building a wall in the first place. However, whether you scale the walls or just tear down the gates, every combat situation tends to deteriorate quickly into a bit of an unstructured brawl.

Three Kingdoms employs an unusual two-map system, which is more akin to some older RPGs like the Ultima series than most RTS games. Each city has its own detailed map, which is where most of the construction and resource-management activity goes on. There is also a 'wilderness' map at a cruder scale in which cities are represented by buildings. You control units in exactly the same way in both maps, but just switch between the two as necessary. No doubt Object Software had sound reasons for arranging things this way rather than having the customary single-world map, but I have to confess I found it rather annoying having to switch repeatedly between the wilderness map and the various city maps in the game.

It's great to see some original product coming out of China, and hopefully we'll see a lot more of it in future. But I have to be honest and say that Three Kingdoms didn't quite do it for me. If you haven't played any of the Age Of Empires series extensively and the Chinese scenario sounds like your bag then you will definitely get many hours of pleasure out of this product, but sadly a classic it is not.

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