King Arthur: Role-Playing Wargame Review [PC]

18 Dec 2009  by   Paul Younger
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Considering his noble lineage, King Arthur has appeared with very little pomp or fanfare. There’s been no hype and little in the way of coverage (indeed, I only learned about the game thanks to some developer-diary videos posted on a games forum.) At present the game is only available digitally through Steam, but Hungarian developers Neocore suggest that a boxed version will hit stores “in the coming months.” By then, it’s quite possible that word of mouth will have generated a lot more enthusiasm for this title.

Anybody familiar with the early games from the Total War series – particularly self-contained, island-based installments like Shogun or the Viking Invasion expansion for Medieval – will be at home in Arthurian Britain. The main campaign stays faithful to the classic mythology and starts players off in Cornwall, from which point they must expand their influence over the South of Britain and unite the petty, local kings under one banner. Britannia itself is divided up into a mixture of period counties, from familiar provinces like Kent and Dorset to long-gone areas like Dumnonia and Mercia, where chess-piece armies go about their business. In the North lie the mist-shrouded Bedegraine forests, where giants, wargs and elfish fairy-folk dwell (I know, I live here), and even further afield the witch Morgause schemes on the Orkney Islands. All of these things will have to be confronted, in time.

The game uses a protracted tutorial to ease players into the realm. It begins with simple stuff like moving units around the turn-based map, controlling troops in the real-time battles (much more on these later) and reviewing objectives, but within a couple of hours it ramps up the features, unlocking research trees, allocation of fiefdoms and additional troop recruitment. A clever seasonal-based turn system dictates when certain activities can be performed (armies are unable to move during winter months, but this is also the only time decrees can be issued.) Almost anything you could expect to find in a contemporary strategic wargame is represented here, and represented well.

Indeed, the Total War comparison, while useful as a reference, does rather a disservice to King Arthur. There are multiple aspects unique to this title which set it apart from Creative Assembly’s series. Each of these aspects are also neatly symbiotic, interlinking with and impacting upon one another with great craft. Take the Morality Chart, which represents the overall morality of King Arthur – and thus of his kingdom. This closely represents the classic political compass except with Rightful-Tyrant and Old Faith-Christian axis in place of the traditional left-right stuff. As Arthur’s knights undertake deeds on the campaign map (such as quests, which take the form of choose-your-own-adventure style text interludes), the overall morality shifts accordingly. In turn, this can unlock new spells, new abilities and new units for hire. However, it will also affect precisely which knights you will be able to employ to your service (Mordred is unlikely to side with a Rightful king) and may even upset the loyalty of some already in your service – if they are a pious Christian and your faith moves too far towards Druidism.

Expansion of Arthur’s rule is partially story-led and partially freeform. Narrative objectives generally have two potential outcomes, where each will have an effect upon Arthur’s morality and bring differing rewards (an early example involves two warring brothers, one tyrannical and the other righteous, where offering your aid will result in the victor joining your service.) Certain of these narrative-specific objectives need to be completed to advance the story, but it is up to the player how they set about achieving these goals or even how long they take. Other time-limited but non-crucial quests and objectives will also appear on the map which offer their own rewards and challenges. An early, key objective is to establish the Stronghold of Camelot, which unlocks the chancellery, research possibilities, building improvements and all manner of other important functions for maintaining a strong kingdom. Two possible locations for Camelot are offered, and each path has its own problems and attendant solutions. Whichever location the player chooses it will have a long term effect on his campaign, demonstrating the combination of narrative and player-guided actions that drive progress in the game.

Naturally, this being a title rich in medieval myth, success in many of the objectives is down to the clash of steel and crackle of magic on the battlefield. When armies meet in King Arthur, the game switches from a turn-based strategy to real-time action, where deft command of units will win the day. Several aspects of the real-time battles do owe a debt to Total War. Peg markers for deployment zones and the little info circles for key events that pop up along the left-hand side of the screen seem especially familiar. So too do the camera controls and the rock/paper/scissors system of troop superiority (archers will cut down most things with ease but can be trampled by a well-timed cavalry charge, spearmen effectively stop cavalry, and so forth) – though this is was not unique to the Total War series by any means.
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Army morale is handled in an interesting way, and again demonstrates how activities on the campaign map and in the real-time battles affect one another. Unlike Total War, morale affects armies as a whole rather than individual units. Special victory locations on the battlefield also affect morale and provide handy bonuses (such as 20% extra food spoils or temporary access to a spell) when captured. Starting morale in a battle is determined by factors such as the army’s fatigue, previous victories and defeats and even the inclusion of too many troop-types of differing morality. So although individual units do not break and run on the battlefield, if the overall army morale falls to zero it results in instant defeat.

As well as being effective conventional fighters, cavalry units have a momentum bar that gradually builds as they pick up speed (particularly downhill.) Order them through a lightly armoured unit and they will trample right over the enemy, causing huge amounts of damage. It’s also worth paying close attention to the various terrain types – heavy infantry hate swampy ground, and lurking about in forests can provide excellent ambush bonuses. Terrain can even change during the battle due to heavy rains from the Storm of Avalon spell. Formations too are important; spreading units out into a loose ‘horde’ can save vital men from the ravages of deadly opposing archers.

Chief amongst your armies though, are the Knights. On the campaign map they lead armies, rule counties and represent Arthur in quest and deed. On the battlefield they are spell-casting murder machines, picked out by a holy beam of light. Victories result in experience points, which in turn can be allocated to different Knightly abilities such as adventuring and magical talent or used to acquire new skills and spells. Magic artifacts for your Knights can also be acquired through quests or looted in battle. Standard troops gain experience points too, used to improve abilities like stamina or reduce the cost of upkeep.

An unfortunate aspect of the real-time battles is that the sounds of battle themselves only really play when the camera is zoomed right in on the action. Those bow-string twangs and tormented cries of pain disappear completely when the camera is presenting any kind of overview, and of course this is the position it will be in for the vast majority of the time (though it is great to get in close and watch Sir Balan send men flying left and right with his ‘cleave’ skill.) The music which plays is decent enough (and changes to suitably stirring stuff when units begin to engage one another), but it’s a shame to be missing out on the full aural turmoil of battle Another potential flaw is revealed during some of these close-up zooms. At times it appears that only a handful of men from the clashing units are involved in the fight, so it’s hard to tell precisely what the game engine is calculating. Is it number-crunching for just the guys doing combat animations, or for the whole unit (even if they appear a little inactive)? The results tend to come out as you’d expect (footmen never unexpectedly defeat superior infantry, for example) but nonetheless is does look a little odd. Some kind of hot-key for making units run rather than march would be welcome too, because the double-clicking to command your units into faster speeds is extremely fininky.The in-battle AI does an impressive job for the most part. It knows how to use trees as cover for a sneaky assault and is especially good with the timing of its spellcasting. At one point I was smugly looking forward to peppering an opposing army full of arrows, only to see the range-halving Fog of Avalon descend on the battlefield, leaving my archers far less potent. Nor will the AI tend to do anything particularly boneheaded. It won’t charge its heroes headlong into a fight they cannot win, it will tend to send out fast units to grab victory locations and it effectively uses cavalry and wargs to harass and destroy light infantry and bowmen. However, I have also witnessed it leaving a unit standing around to be shot to death with arrows (though this, it must be said, is rare) and at one stage it was keeping a full unit of cavalry standing off a victory location that was defended by a terrifying six spearmen. Campaign map AI is also sensible, striking at vulnerable provinces with armies and attempting to withdraw from any overwhelming odds. Though it does appear to suffer from the irritating, artificial ability to occasionally conjure decent troops out of nowhere that it cannot possibly afford.A quick note too about price. In the UK, this retails at a hefty £31 (and that’s with 10% off at the time of writing), but if you happen to know an American chum on Steam you may be able to work out something out. For US buyers it’s a far more reasonable $36 USD (roughly £20 GBP).There’s so much to King Arthur that it’s a struggle to fit a full critique of every single one of its features into just one review. Capturing enemy champions, marrying off ladies in waiting to your Knights (or, er, rather distastefully ‘trading’ them with people) and juggling the different cultural backgrounds of certain counties (Briton, Saxon, Welsh and so on) are just a few of these additional aspects. It can also be pretty damn tough. Later battles are not a breeze (even on Normal difficulty) and a couple of false moves on the campaign map can leave you fatally exposed. The game has charm and character in abundance, but it backs it up with real tactical and strategic depths. Each feature complements every other, meaning decisions and battles have long-term consequences in all areas of the campaign – testament to terrific design work by the developers. King Arthur is, without doubt, the most fun I’ve had with a strategy game this year.

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