Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade Preview

22 Sep 2010  by   Paul Younger
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Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is the latest strategy-stew-with-RPG-bits title from Neocore Games, the Hungarian team behind 2009’s sleeper hit King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame. As well as moving the setting from Arthur’s mystical version of Britain to the Holy Land during Pope Gregory VIII’s Third Crusade, Neocore has switched from self-publishing to sign up with Paradox Interactive.

The game offers the chance to partake in two alternative history scenarios for the Third Crusades, presenting both a Crusader and Saracen campaign option. In the first, players must lead Richard the Lionheart’s armies to victory in Jerusalem and beyond, while the second depicts a Holy Land already under complete Crusader control, which the Saracen leader Saladin must gradually retake. In the real Third Crusade (1187 – 1192 AD), the European forces recaptured much of the land taken by Saladin, but fell short of taking Jerusalem. This did not bring hostilities to a close, however, as various attempted incursions continued well into the 13th Century. Good job the West learned its lesson from those failures, eh?
While King Arthur gave the appearance of being more of an unrestricted strategy title than it actually was (ultimately being relatively fixed to a single storyline,) Lionheart doesn’t really try to disguise its linear nature. There are periodic choices to make over, say, which particular region of three to progress to next, but aside from collecting the spoils of war in a different order this does little to radically alter the game.

It rapidly becomes obvious that the focus of Lionheart is to look after your loveable bunch of warriors as best you can. There’s something of a balancing act involved here, as the only way units can level up is through seeing combat action – though this, of course, is also the quickest way to get them slaughtered. Succeed in keeping them both active and alive, however, and you’ll quickly have a dangerous regiment tooled up.

Indeed, the sequence of semi-linear tactical mission followed by spending experience points, recruiting new troops, and distributing any looted weaponry is very similar to an old Games Workshop title called Dark Omen. In that title, if too many troops were lost there’d never be enough gold to adequately replace them. This tended to create a downward spiral where it was possible to limp through maybe one or two more missions, but ultimately doomed the player to overall failure. What remains to be seen with Lionheart is how quickly a poor performance on one of the tactical missions can ruin any chance of progression, and how frustrating this proves to be.

Though the narrative progression is linear in nature, choices in Lionheart are found in the number of options available for approaching missions. There are a wide range of troop-types to recruit, even from early in the campaigns, meaning experimental armies entirely made of cavalry would be possible to construct. Both Crusaders and Saracens are also able to invest points in research that can unlock more powerful units, heroes and abilities. The Saracens have a fairly traditional ‘tech tree’ interface, while the Crusaders must court influence from one of four European powers by achieving particular objectives during missions. There are far more potential pathways than it would be possible to unlock in a single campaign, forcing players to choose a particular strategy to pursue and offering potential for replay value. Units can also be enhanced with healers, champions and morale-boosting effects, meaning they can be tweaked and customised to your hearts delight.

The aim of all this army management is to retain the combative edge on the real-time tactical maps, which return in similar form to King Arthur (which, in themselves, were quite similar to the battlefields seen in the Total War series.) This time, of course, the sands and imposing cities of the Holy Land replace the densely forested areas and swamp planes of Great Britain. Said cities play a key role in many of the missions, and a key addition in Lionheart is the access to a variety of war machines which can be used to bust down city walls and spread panic amongst the ranks of soldiers. There’s a potential power-balancing issue here too, as one particular Saracen war machine that acts curiously like an ancient rocket launcher can, at present, cause astonishing devastation.

It seems that the AI could also do with a bit of tweaking. At the moment it seems very ‘reactive’ and scripted, triggering only when players move troops within a certain range. This can lead to some fairly amusing situations where armies will just face off against one another, with the AI quite prepared to wait forever for the player to make any kind of move. It also results in a few aggravating incidents where the AI uses its omnipotent powers to keep its archers out of harms way, leading to a situation where (if you happen to have no cavalry on hand,) infantry units are left in a costly game of kiss chase with the pretty-much-as-quick archers across the map.

Helpfully, morale plays a more important role than in King Arthur, meaning the above situation can often be avoided by routing front-line units and spreading terror to the nearby archers, removing them from the battlefield. Units suffering from catastrophic losses of morale now spread a visible aura of fear around them, which can trigger an extensive rout of troops.

One or two stability issues have cropped up while playing the preview build. My early forays were interrupted by several hard-locks and crashes, but a steady stream of patches seems to have solved the majority of those troubles (there will still be the occasional pause in gameplay, but no crashes.) Based on this, the stability should only improve as we approach the 8 October release date.

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade creates an evocative version of the events surrounding the Third Crusade. While it has a semi-historical air, the tone Neocore is aiming for is perhaps best shown by Richard and Saladin themselves. Rather than being portrayed with total historical accuracy, the two men are the legendary, mythologised versions of themselves. Likewise, while some units can be given ‘powers’ and equipped with potions that have a mystical air, none of the magical stuff tips over into outright fireballs and teleportation abilities. It’s a delicate balance between a historical basis and flight of fantasy, but one which Neocore seems on course to successfully achieve.

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