Thursday, November 24, 2011

Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades Review

Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades, developed by Unicorn Games Studio and published by 1C Company.
The Good: Outstanding unit detail with very exhaustive attributes, strong AI uses varied tactics, somewhat dynamic campaign with mobile enemy units and straightforward trade and diplomacy, unit and hero upgrades, large skirmish and online tactical battles with generated maps
The Not So Good: Few low-level enemies in campaign, little experience gained outside of main missions
What say you? This medieval combination of tactical battles and campaign strategy delivers detailed, challenging gameplay: 7/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The unbridled success of the Total War series of games no doubt sprung several imitators. From the fantasy world of King Arthur to the crusades-based Lionheart, we’ve seen several series try to capitalize on the popularity of the popularity of combining strategic and tactical gameplay. Another, relatively overlooked (at least by me), series comes from Russia (I assume…Unicorn Games Studio is scant on the details), a fertile ground for PC development, highlighting the medieval time period and the violence contained therein. Starting with XIII Century and continuing with Real Warfare 1242, Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades relies on a dynamic campaign game world and accurate tactical battles to stand out from the pack.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades holds its own when compared against similar large-scale tactical warfare titles. The game features lots of units that will eventually evolve into lots of dead bodies that exhibit decent (not great) animations while fighting it out over domination of the battlefield. The terrain is varied, with forests and hills of different settings serving as a nice backdrop to the chaos of combat. The grass and trees look nice up close when you choose to zoom in on the carnage. Real Warfare 2 does apply way too much bloom, however, rending almost everything on-screen blurry from a distance. However, overall the graphics are quite solid. The sound design delivers as expected: appropriate battle effects and music that seems to be specific to different nations, which is a nice touch. Overall, Real Warfare 2 fulfills its sub-$40 price tag in terms of the game’s presentation.

ET AL.
It is up to the Teutonic Knights to rid Prussia of its pagan scourge, and the campaign of Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades tells this epic tale of epic epicness (caution: epicness may cause vomiting). The campaign’s structure borrows heavily from Mount & Blade: you are given an army and allowed to roam the lands in search of enemy troops and towns to invade, missions to undertake, and trade to profit from. The missions are unoriginal, as most of them simply involve engaging a specific unit on the map; thankfully, you can also choose your own adventure and take on any threat you see in the dynamic game world, as neutral and enemy units move around Prussia as you do. It is harder to gain experience through skirmish battles alone, however, as a significant XP bonus is granted to completing the main story missions. The game displays the relative strength of the enemy as you mouse over them, so you can assess whether the peasants, merchants, brigands, patrols, and lords offer a fair challenge. It can be difficult to target enemy units in real time (since everybody moves), and there are few easy “cannon fodder” units to rank up your initial paltry army. Once you discover how to make significant amounts of money through trade, however, the campaign becomes a lot easier.

The world of Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades is populated with towns, villages, and castles, all of which can be invaded. However, you don’t actually get control of conquered villages, and the goods you reap from victorious battles aren’t aligned with the goods that the village actually produces (a hunting village does not give you lots of meat upon victory, for example). In friendly settlements, you are given options to talk to the mayor for no reason whatsoever, trade resources, and recruit or upgrade troops. Real Warfare 2 features over forty goods that are produced and consumer in villages across the map; there is a production chain buried within the game world (a village produces bread from wheat) and you can take advantage of buying what a village produces and then selling it to the village that needs that particular item. The interface does a fantastic job highlighting the best goods, with clear “thumbs up” icons and a map view that highlights where goods are needed and produced the most. There’s no writing down prices in Real Warfare 2, which is a great thing indeed. Simple diplomatic options are also present: changing stances with a rival nation (alliance, friendship, wary, hated, war) and having negotiations (gifts, trade, alliances, insults, or demanding money) are all part of the game. Experience on the battlefield can be spent upgrading your troops, either by raising their attributes (strength, weapon ratings, morale) or morphing them into a higher-class unit. The hero (that’s you) gains experience as well, and leveling up grants points that can be spend improving sixteen skills: higher trade income, greater spear attack, or more loot from battles), to name a few. Veteran heroes can also field larger armies of more advanced units, allowing you to take on more threats as the campaign progresses. Overall, the campaign is entertaining and the free-form (to a point) nature is far more interesting than the more restrictive or totally linear campaigns of Lionheart or King Arthur.

Beyond the entertaining campaign mode lies comprehensive skirmish battles. Six players can duke it out on a number of maps, or you can utilize the map generator to produce seemingly random battlefields. The AI behavior can be adjusted (attack, defend, or a mix), and units are selected based on a budget. Multiplayer games over the Internet also support six players in tactical battles; competitive campaigns would be a fun feature as well. Finally, Real Warfare 2 comes with an editor so you can edit maps and create scenarios.

Real Warfare 2 is highlighted by its astounding attention to unit detail. The typical range of medieval military options is present: cavalry, archers, swords, spears, and assorted castle storming equipment. However, the game goes into great detail calculating and showing unit performance during battle, using fifteen attributes to determine attack, morale, and firing values. Weapons, armor, morale, fatigue, formation, terrain, discipline, speed, and whether the front, flanks, and rear are under attack are all used to gauge how effective a unit is in combat, and all of these numbers are shown clear as day to the player. Now, maybe there is just as much detail in other games of this ilk, just hidden from the user, but Real Warfare 2 makes the smart move and presents all of its data directly and transparently to the player. The result is that you can figure out why a unit is panicking (it’s under fire from archers, it has low-level armor, and is being attacked from behind) and move support units into position instead of just guessing and blindly throwing more forces at the enemy. It’s detail that strategy gamers crave, and Real Warfare 2 delivers.

Commands are typical for a tactical game: move and attack are what you’ll be using the most. You can customize unit behavior (aggressive or avoidance) and set formation (line, column, wedge, circle) and density. You can also utilize the very handy army formations, which organize everybody in one of eight configurations, such as archers in front, infantry behind, and cavalry on left. It’s nice you can choose the overall formation for your army, instead of the game magically selecting one based on where you order your troops to move. Battles can also be accelerated, to cut down on transit time between your spawn location and that of the enemy. Combat itself is interesting enough: the key is to engage the enemy from the front, but keep units in reserve (especially cavalry) to flank the enemy from the sides or (even better) the rear. Add in varied terrain in each battlefield and Real Warfare 2 can be an intriguing medieval warfare simulation. I noticed early on that, during combat, units like to stand around and ignore nearby enemies. I then discovered that this is working as designed, as each unit is given a “self-control” rating that determines how much the AI will guide your unit and how much you need to micromanage it. This makes battles less certain and requires more personal attention, which is more appealing that just selecting everyone once and ordering a single attack on the nearest enemy and then taking a nap while the battle plays out for you. The AI is very strong, using the terrain to hide units and sneaking cavalry behind your army to spring the trap. It gets to the point where the AI does this pretty much every battle so you learn to expect it (and protect archers with pikemen), but it’s so much better than the usual tactical AI of simply heading right towards you and whoever has the larger army wins.

IN CLOSING
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting much from Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades. I figured it would be just another cheap rip-off of Total War, hoping to cash in on yet another unoriginal replica. How wrong I was. This game excels thanks in part to its detailed unit attributes: clear data, from armor ratings to attacks on the flanks, is used to determine when units will rout, resulting in more authentic battle results and interesting tactical gaming. All of these variables are displayed directly to the player, allowing for appropriate action to be made with predictable results. The medieval style combat emphasizes engaging the enemy directly with low-level fighters while using cavalry, ranged, and experienced units to flank and subsequently panic the enemy. While this does produce some predictable, repetitive conflicts, the rapid, devastating cavalry units and mixed unit attributes does make the tactical battles as captivating as possible for what was available during the time period. The user interface allows for easy control of large numbers of units by listing all of your forces along the bottom of the screen and providing several formation options to easily organize an entire army. The AI is impressive: it routinely hides units out of range, using the terrain to its advantage, and then flanks vulnerable troops (archers, namely) with fast mounted cavalry or other appropriate counters. The campaign allows you to undertake missions against scripted enemy foes or engage any opponent in the living, dynamic world where battles take place and goods are transferred without your direct intervention. Trading for profit, recruiting and upgrading units, and checking out the current diplomatic situation is easy, and the campaign makes it seem like you are taking part in a medieval setting, rather than checking off the next mission on the way to the end. There aren’t enough “easy” units to engage in the beginning and I’d like the game to reward you with more XP for taking on enemies of your choosing, but overall the campaign is a good envelope for the tactical battles. You can also engage the AI or online opponents in massive tactical battles, and only a multiplayer campaign would add more value. In all, Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades is a great combination of a notable campaign and meaty tactical battles suitable for any strategy gamer.