Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade Review

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade, developed by Neocore Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Unit experience grants improved abilities and new skills, battle loot, time acceleration, nice graphics, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Terrible pathfinding and group cohesion while moving, scripted missions with unimpressive AI, chaotic melee combat, lacks a true strategic mode, can’t save progress during a battle
What say you? This medieval tactical game is not quite a Total War: 5/8

People in the High Middle Ages were pretty dumb: Christians sending thousands of soldiers to Muslim-controlled lands to die in a pointless war that was ultimately met with defeat. I mean, that would never happen today, right? I guess people were bored back then, with nothing to occupy their time like television or the Internet. Luckily, they could fight one another with sharp, pointy things to pass the time. Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is a tactical simulation that covers this bloody time in human history, where mounted, ranged, and melee troops engaged in deadly warfare. How does this follow-up to Crusaders: Thy Kingdom Come and King Arthur (both not reviewed here) game stack up to more well-known entries in the genre like Total War?

The visuals in Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade are impressive. The units are quite detailed, with high-resolution textures, fine animations, and meticulous models for life-like replicas. It is stunning to watch the legions of troops march across the terrain towards certain death. Speaking of the terrain, it exhibits exceptional textures and varied topography appropriate for the region. Some of the city layouts could look more realistic, but the more rural locations are striking. The game also puts lighting to good use (most notably clouds passing over the landscape) and some of the damage effects are enjoyable (the catapult impact being the most damaging). The sound design is decent, but requires some tweaking to reduce the loud volume of the music, which tends to be in the foreground more often than the background. The campaign also features voice acting that introduces most new scenarios and the tutorial, which is a nice touch. The game also includes repetitive but authentic battle sounds, unit acknowledgement, and effects for movement: nothing too innovative but effective nonetheless. Overall, I was quite pleased with the graphics that Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade brings to the table.

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade features two campaigns highlighting the struggle for control of the Middle East: the European Crusaders and the Arabic Saracen. Both of the campaigns are quite linear, typically offering one to three choices for the next battle on the game map. The scenarios are also quite scripted, offering the same enemy each time with predictable encounters. The campaigns are better designed on the Crusader side of things, offering up a more interesting progression of things as you march across the desert. Apart from the campaigns, you can undertake skirmish tactical battles against the AI. These involve either eliminating all opposing units or controlling a majority of the victory locations scattered around the map. You are given a set of resources to purchase and upgrade units from all of the available types, although you have to curiously purchase troops for the AI player as well (huh?). Skirmish play comes on six maps, so it’s a bit more limited than the campaign mode, unfortunately. Multiplayer is skirmish with a single human opponent, done using in-game matchmaking to search for other players (by the way, thumbs down for having the single player and multiplayer games being separate executables, requiring you to exit the game if you want to switch modes). Finally, Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade features a tutorial that takes a bit too long teaching the basics of the controls.

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade doesn’t offer a real strategic mode, as your time on the map of the Middle East is primarily spent choosing the next battle map while upgrading and replacing troops. You only have a single army, so you will only be choosing one province to assault at a time, so there is really no strategic layer to the game. That said, there are some nice features to be had. The first step is recruiting your army, done using cold, hard cash you earn by completing missions. In a nod to role-playing games, units gain experience during combat, allowing the ability to add new active and passive skills and improve their ability ratings for melee combat, ranged combat, defense, morale, and stamina. You can also incorporate smaller upgrades to morale, damage, and health for a reduced cost. Refilling your ranks after combat can be expensive, especially replacing skilled units. In another salute to role-playing games, Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade allows you to collect artifacts, such as weapons, armor, potions, and elixirs, from defeated units on the field of battle and then give them to units in your army. The combination of weapons and choosing specific upgrades lets you tweak your forces how you see fit as you progress through the campaigns. Each side has research that is a bit different. The Saracen simply gets points they can spend on new spells or units, or general percentage upgrades to stats. The Crusaders, on the other hand, get improved abilities for completing quests for various European nations. Despite the roster of features here, the “strategic” mode of Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is really a misnomer, as there is hardly any actual strategy to implement.

There are three main types of units you will encounter in Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade: archers (ranged), infantry (melee), and cavalry (fast). Each has light and heavy varieties, and there are a bunch of different types for both sides that have slightly varied starting stats in attack, defense, and morale. Commands are very basic: unit formation, attack, hold, and stop. While the auto-attack feature is nice, it can get you in to trouble, as units can wander off to attack the enemy without your consent. The Achilles’ heel of Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is moving units around (typically an important aspect of a strategy game). Grouping units together is pointless, as they will not stay together or move in formation. Even if you select units of the same type concurrently, they will move at their own pace, and attack the enemy in piecemeal, getting picked off one at a time. As a result, Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade requires a lot of unnecessary and tedious micromanagement in order to coordinate attacks. This is something that simply should not be an issue in a modern tactical strategy game. The lack of group formations is simply baffling, and the game does an absolutely horrible job picking where to place units: selecting a set of mixed units and issuing a move order typically places the ranged archers in the front. Seriously? I mean, Rise of Nations got this right seven years ago, putting catapults in the back where they belong. Inconceivable!

I do like how Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade essentially copies Total War by putting cards of all your units at the bottom of the screen, clearly showing morale and health and whether they are under attack. Unit flags also clearly blink white when morale reaches critical levels, not that you can do anything about it since units rout automatically and can't disengage a foe even when winning. They supposed key is to use units against their most vulnerable foe, as indicated in the informational box for each unit, but it really doesn’t matter because units will just attack whatever enemy is closest. The game features a chaotic mess of battles, no doubt what warfare was generally like back then, but not exactly the most interesting strategic gaming available. The game doesn’t let you manually retreat units once they become engaged in combat, but they will rout when overmatched. The enemy AI is quite unimpressive: they do an extremely poor job coordinating attacks and don’t use counters appropriately. The computer is only successful if they have superior ranged and defensive units, or you are playing on a high difficulty level that cheats. In fact, you can clearly see the battles during the campaign are highly scripted: cross an imaginary border and a set number of enemy units will start marching your way, with no regard to tactics or strategy. The battles in Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade can take a long, long, long time to complete because units move slowly and the maps are fairly large. Luckily, you can (and will) accelerate time; in fact, I kept it on the maximum setting of four times real speed for almost the entire game. I also did that because you can’t save your progress during a battle (what is this, a console game?), so I wanted to finish each skirmish as quickly as possible.

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade tries to improve upon the mix of strategic and tactical gaming that made the Total War series, but it fails to differentiate itself from being “just another” game. First off, it really lacks a strategic mode: the map is simply a place to choose your next mission, rather than moving around troops in a calculated manner. Still, there are a number of nice features borrowed (stolen) from role-playing games: experience and research can improve a unit’s abilities and grant new skills, and items can be collected on the battlefield and then equipped, further increasing the effectiveness of your fighting forces. You can play the campaign as the Crusaders or Saracen, each offering slight differences in research. Skirmish battles are also available with the ability to purchase the troops you lead into battle, although you must specify the AI’s army manually (so much for unpredictability). You can also take Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade online for multiplayer skirmish battles. The tactical battles are underwhelming due to poor pathfinding and a propensity for units to move on their own and never stay together: a selection of units will never march at the same pace, resulting in unorganized attacks unless you take the helm and manually group them by type or painfully move them one at a time. The game does feature counters, but you’d never know it as most battles just devolve into a mess of hacking and/or slashing. I never felt like a real commander as the combat was simply too unorganized. The mediocre AI never puts up a real challenge unless it has superior numbers. You can’t even save your progress during a battle, requiring you to finish the entire thing in one sitting (at least you can accelerate time). While Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade features some nice RPG-like features in the campaign and excellent graphics, the tactical battles and strategic limitations hold the game back.