King Arthur - The Role-playing Wargame Review
Review - posted by YourConscience on Wed 13 January 2010, 09:00:52
King Arthur - The Role-playing Wargame Review
As a surprise to many gamers, the rather unknown developer Neocore Games has released a new game recently, dubbed King Arthur - The Role-playing Wargame. And while so many gamers keep complaining about missing innovation in the game industry, this title tries to do precisely that - to not only produce one more entry into a genre that has seen too few entries, but to also innovate it. As such, the game settles somewhere between a Total War type of game, with elements from Space Rangers, Crusader Kings and a King's Bounty type of game. It has an overland map similar to that of a Total War game, yet it is different (nicer but shallower). It has role-playing and text adventure elements like Space Rangers and it has quite a nice tactical battle feature reminiscent of Total War (again). This combination sounds very interesting and the crucial question is whether it lives up to the expectations. The answer is that there is no clear answer to this - it is too much of a mixed bag.
King Arthur is not a single fairy tale, nor is it someone who really existed, probably. Instead, there are a number of differing versions of tales about either a fabulous king or a fabulous leader of Bretons fighting defensive wars against the Anglo-Saxons and later even some conquests. King Arthur is most probably a virtual historical person amalgamated out of several other really existing persons and their unique stories, plus a lot of imagination. The different versions of the tales contain various elements, such as a round table of knights (probably to prevent jealousy among the knights), adultery (Sir Lancelot), magic (Merlin), treachery (Mordred) and Avalon (as a fabled Island where Arthur went in the end). All of this can easily be used in a game in many interesting ways, but the present title unfortunately and ultimately comes short in doing so.
Under the hood the game is structured such that an overland map is divided into provinces, in which armies, lead by up to four heroes and containing up to twelve squads/units, can freely move around and engage in battles or text adventures very much like any Heroes of Might & Magic game. The battles themselves play almost like those in Total War. Unlike Total War and HoMM though, the overland adventuring is structured according to objectives, thus it is not a linear conquering of lands, instead it is both conquering and meeting certain objectives. There is also research, but the research tree is rather small compared to other games and a good half of the game will be spent with everything researched. The overland map is turn-based, with each turn representing one season of a year. There are two resources in the game, gold and food and they are collected only during the winter season.
Additionally the game is structured around a so-called morality chart where the player may lean towards at most two morality extremes at the same time: The player may be a righteous or tyrannic ruler, and he has to decide to lean towards Christianity or the Old Faith.
The Overland map
The overland map provides a very light simulation of an economy, with 6 per-province values such as public safety, general health, military (important for recruiting), loyalty, population count and religion (whether a province leans more towards the Old Faith or the new Christianity). Problems within provinces with any of these values result either in battle possibilities or in opportunities to lose some money (in order to avoid a battle). Apart from that there is almost no other direct way to interact somehow with a province. It is impossible to build or destroy settlements, forts, or buildings. Hence, players seeking empire-building on the admittedly very beautiful overland map should go looking elsewhere.
Apart from the provinces, while pursuing the objectives of the game, the player will eventually come into the possession of up to three so-called strongholds. These are places which do allow you to construct buildings, but in general they have not the same kind of impact like those in the Total War series, only providing a few bonuses here and there. The most important decisions on the overland map are where to send your armies next and whether the two resources, gold and food, will suffice until the next winter season. In fact, it is very easy to suddenly have an army three times bigger than can be sustained by the economy. Given that there is almost no way to affect the income from the provinces (apart from assigning a province as a fiefdom to a hero which might provide something like 1.5 bonus to food production based on his stats), such a situation could only be solved through getting rid of a better part of the army somehow quickly.
The Tactical battles
Most actions or events in the game boil down to a battle between exactly two armies. The battles are real-time and can be paused or sped up at any time. The opponents start out at opposite parts of the particular map (which can sometimes be chosen by the player). An innovative feature (over Total War) is that most maps will contain a number of so-called victory locations. The more victory locations a player holds, the faster the morale of the entire enemy army will drop and once it reaches zero, it automatically loses, no matter how many soldiers are left. Hence, theoretically it is possible to win a battle without killing a single soldier. Unfortunately, in reality the victory locations never are important, since it is much more effective to simply kill off all the enemies before the morale of either army sinks too much.
The tactical battle system is not bad, however. There is weather (which can be manipulated by abilities of the heroes), there are different unit types (light, heavy infantry and cavalry, archers, mages, etc.) and tactically relevant terrain types (plains, slopes, woods, swamps, rivers). Theoretically, this allows for a large variety of tactics to try out and the outcomes of the battles tend to depend more on the skill of the tactician compared to the Total War series. Unfortunately, in practice again this only tends to underline the weakness of the AI against a human opponent, as well as a certain unbalancedness of some units. Additionally, the simplified morale system means that many interesting tactical choices known from a Total War game are missing here. Even if the morale of an army is close to zero, not a single units will try to flee the battle.
While the AI is not outright stupid like in most other games, it becomes rather predictable soon and it also never attempts to lure the player into traps or anything of that sort. At least it doesn't seem to be buggy. What unfortunately detriments from the enjoyment of the tactical battles most is that very soon it boils down to using the same tactic over and over again: Find a hill, place archers there, wait for enemy to come, destroy them. If the enemy is too strong for that, use some magic additionally. In fact, there are spells available to some of the heroes, which easily destroy entire enemy squads of the best possible soldiers. A single lightning strike can destroy a fully upgraded squad of 21 Sangreal knights (one of the strongest in-game units). Given that an experienced hero can cast lightning at least three times during a battle and there are up to four heroes per army, this easily computes to an auto-win of any army having three or four such heroes without any losses. Considering this, the missing per-unit morale system is the smaller problem, but it does underscore the problem. For example, once three out of 120 knights survived the initial lightning onslaught. But robotically they just continued their charge into the huge arrow cloud closing in on them...
Text Adventures and King Arthur
Next to battles, the only other way of introducing and solving conflict within the game are text-based adventures. They also convey most of the background stories. Or at least, that is what they try to do, using both text and pictures, and seemingly offering many choices to the player. Also, some of the choices depend on skill-checks with the hero who is attempting the text adventure. This is also the part of the game that could have profited most from the rich and diverse existing text-base, the many different versions of King Arthur's saga. And this is also the part that seems to fall short most.
Most of the text adventures offer only few if any real choices, usually altering the result of the text adventure. Most choices are just for looks, they don't lead to alternating paths. Since the player has to play according to some chosen morality combination (for example to be a righteous believer of the Old Faith), it is also usually very clear which of the real choices to favor. This also kind of predetermines the rewards of these adventures (whether some hero will join the player, or fight him). The biggest let-down is the shortness and simplicity of these quests. The whole beautiful story of Tristam and Isolde is covered in less than 15 sentences. Compared to the very entertaining and deep text adventures in Space Rangers 2, these ones really pale. And this feels doubly sad because even in these short versions they are enjoyable already.
King Arthur himself is actually not present in the game as a hero. Hence, while the whole game plays in the setting of King Arthur, the identification of the player with King Arthur does not really happen. Instead, the player feels most attached to one of the heroes/knights, probably the one the player prefers to do all the text adventures with.
The graphics in this game are breathtakingly beautiful. If only the overland map of Europa Universalis would look like this one! On the other hand, the interface both in the overland map and in the tactical battles, while not outright bad, isn't good either. Most actions require far too many clicks or are not accessible intuitively. Also, lowering graphical settings will completely remove important visual cues for the player, such as the locations of quests. In the tactical battles, the controls are awkward and the camera feels sluggish. On the other hand, the game proved to be quite stable, no save-game corruptions, no crashes, only a few minor bugs related to battle restarting.
What matters more than technical issues, though, is the general flow of the game. Here King Arthur introduces something interesting: Somewhere between the extended tutorial and the mid-game it gradually switches from a pure adventure mode like King's Bounty to a more Total War based one with economy and conquering. Unfortunately, it later switches again (unintendedly so) into a game where everything is conquered already and the player is just defending his territory against crusaders or other powerful invading armies. It is unfortunate because defending really boils down to moving around with that one stack of an untouchable army killing off all the other armies without losing a single soldier using the same tactic (arrows plus lightning) again and again.
This game is an interesting, serious take on a setting that hasn't been used much in games. While all the parts of the game make sense and they also fit together, the general balancing of all the parts against each other is lacking and requires some serious work. This game throws a lot of extremes at the player: It is beautiful, yet difficult to control. It is deep, yet has shallow text adventures. It is tactical, yet is very unbalanced.
In the end, this refreshingly innovative game demonstrates precisely the risk that being innovative in the games industry poses: Yes it is interesting, yes, it motivates to play it for a long time and no, it won't be a huge seller. And actually, it is doubly unfair because it is even relatively bug-free and has very nice graphics.