Monday, February 27, 2012

Wargame: European Escalation Review

Wargame: European Escalation, developed by Eugen Systems and published by Focus Home Interactive.
The Good: Tons of units with detailed attributes give many strategic options, supply and reconnaissance vital to success, large maps give room to maneuver, resource zones captured with fragile command units, quick games, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Unrealistic plateau-heavy terrain, unlocking gives experienced players access to more units, no difficulty settings for repetitive and poorly designed campaign with static enemy positions, interface lacks a comprehensive list of all your units, no formation options, limited skirmish features, maps don’t scale to player count
What say you? Tactical flexibility using supply, recon, and lots of different units gives this real-time strategy game a unique and welcome tilt: 7/8

An intriguing strategy title was released by DRM master fiend Ubisoft (thus, no review from this site: you can take your “always on” copy protection and shove it up your French derrière) in 2010 entitled R.U.S.E. The game used fakery on top of traditional real-time strategy elements: phony troops and invasions meant you were not really completely sure of what the enemy was up to. The developer of that game, Eugen Systems, is back with a new strategy game and different publisher (yay!). Wargame: European Escalation is a game about war (spoiler alert!). More specifically, it’s the middle of the Cold War (when the United States and Soviet Union fought over precious resources of glacial ice) and it’s fightin’ time! Eschewing the novel stealth of the previous title, Wargame: European Escalation takes a more traditional approach where strategists must consider supply lines, morale, reconnaissance, and cover while engaging the enemy from the flanks for maximum damage.

Wargame: European Escalation uses an enhanced version of the game engine used in R.U.S.E. and the results are pretty. The game is impressive up close, with nicely animated tanks, infantry, helicopters, and other assorted military hardware. The texture detail is also realistic, and the combat effects (like artillery explosions and the resulting craters) are engrossing. You can smoothly zoom from right next to the action all the way up to a wide view of the battle, with units represented by NATO icons. The map terrain is amazingly hokey, with usually flat farmland separated by plateaus that is totally unrealistic. Still, the level of detail on the terrain is impressive, with amber waves of grain (that are depressed by tanks rolling over it) and other forms of foliage dominating the green landscapes. The interface is quite distinctive, with a faux-computerized theme: full unit names are displayed, along with boxy fonts and large digital displays. The building menu is easily accessible (once you enable it to always stay open from the options menu), and you can quickly transition to the satellite view and get an overview of the action using the minimap (although I wish objective locations were displayed there). The game’s indication of destroyed units should last longer: the sound is useful but the red minimap flash passes too quickly. Wargame: European Escalation does not have a comprehensive list of all your units, so you can easily forget about units away from your current view. As for the sound design, the game features generally solid effects and subtle-so-not-annoying voice acknowledgments from your forces. I found some battle effects to be questionable in their authenticity and not quite as powerful as I suspect they are in real life (machine gun fire, specifically). The music is forgettable and not specific to the setting. But, the high fidelity of the graphics and characteristic interface give Wargame: European Escalation a unique visual feel.

Wargame: European Escalation features a twenty-two-mission campaign, divided into four chapters that alternate the two sides (NATO and the Warsaw Pact) of the Cold War. You must progress through each chapter in a linear order, one scenario after another. There is no difficulty setting to adjust the number of computer units you’ll face (something that, I think, would be easy to add); you can, however, log some time online to unlock more units to bring into the mission. You also cannot skip past missions, so if the developer has placed too many enemy units for your skill level, you’re essentially done playing the campaign. Each mission has a specific table of equipment that determines what you can use during that game (appropriate for the time of the battle and the forces involved); you can then choose anything in that list that you’ve unlocked. The campaign isn’t ground breaking by any means: missions are simply “attack this” or “defend here for 20 minutes”, and your opponent heavily outnumbers you every single time out. The game substitutes clever design and smart AI with sheer clout and magically spawning enemy reinforcements. The designers just scattered random enemy units on the map, without any thought towards balanced, exciting matches. There are secondary objectives that award bonus experience points, but these are either along the path to the main objective (so you'll do them anyway) or too much of a risk to divert some of your main force (and you can even be too good and lose out on precious command points, as you can see here). There is also no replay value, since the AI opponent gets those fixed units at set locations and will do the same exact thing with them each time (namely, sit there until you show up). Once you fail a scenario, you can simply go around the enemies the next attempt, since they will appear in the same place. Alternatively, because of how inert the AI plays, in some missions you can simply let the game run for a while and accumulate enough points to recruit a superior army. The large maps could have been used to vary the gameplay with some alternative objectives (the structure of Supreme Commander’s campaign comes to mind), but instead linear and predictable gameplay is found. The campaign design is really grating, as the game throws wave after mindless wave of enemies at you until you run out of tanks and have wasted half an hour of your time. However, the campaign is a way to earn a lot of command stars and unlock more stuff for online play. Still, this small carrot doesn't replace tired and annoying design issues.

Beyond the campaign, you can play skirmish games against one computer opponent, an arbitrary limitation. During the campaign, the computer’s starting positions are scripted and your opponent will occasionally attack your positions using their numerically superior forces. As for skirmish battles, the AI likes to attack undefended objectives and use a mix of forces, although it’s not as smart (attacking anti-air units with helicopters) or as aggressive (using only two or three units in each attack wave) as I would like to see; maybe that’s why you can only play against one AI at a time. The computer seems to be without purpose more often than not, halfheartedly attacking objectives with piecemeal forces. Online play is much better: you must register for Eugen’s online matchmaking system, which works quite efficiently at listing and finding matches. There isn’t an indication of ping in the server listing so you can end up playing against people with really terrible connections, though. I like the fast match times: a single game usually takes right around twenty to thirty minutes, perfect for getting in a quick game. Online games slow down time when you’re playing against people with bad pings (which happens often enough to be noticable), which can turn a twenty-minute match into a forty-minute contest, but I guess it’s better than not playing at all. There are only two game modes: destruction (where you must destroy an specific amount of enemy troops) and a time limited contest. The eleven maps are large, giving you ample room to flank your enemy and sneak around to their undefended base. Of course, most maps are too large for small games (2-4 players), and the objectives don’t scale down. There are plentiful forests and towns for cover, but the terrain is atrociously flat: unrealistic plateaus and maybe one hill. I first mistakenly took the dark greet plateau transitions as rivers until I zoomed in closer. I suppose it's done to simplify line-of-sight calculations, but seeing the same flat farmland in every map gets tiresome quickly. Because of that, Wargame: European Escalation lacks distinctive maps (you know, the one with the fields?) and each one looks the same as the one before. It’s odd that the components of the maps look so good and the terrain looks so bad: the map design is easily my least favorite part of the game.

Wargame: European Escalation has a lot (over 350!) of units helpfully divided into several categories. You start with the pleasingly important logistics units that deliver supply or capture objectives. Infantry units come with their own vehicles (cutting down on tedious micromanagement) and can take on enemy tanks, helicopters, and infantry when unloaded. Support units include artillery, multiple rocket launchers, and anti-air artillery. Tanks come in light and main battle varieties, recon units include helicopters and jeeps, and helicopters can attack the enemy or transport units across the expansive terrain. While a Russian and a French main battle tank might not have huge differences between them, the subtle changes in attributes and use of historical names and likenesses means you’ll still want to obsessively unlock all of them. Those attributes include range, accuracy, high explosive attack, armor piercing attack, speed, armor rating, optics value, and fuel capacity; the game color-codes (from bad red to awesome green) these attributes in the unit detail card so you can assess your alternatives at a quick glance. You can (in multiplayer) recruit more experienced units from the get-go, which improves their accuracy and morale for a modest cost increase. There are always several options to counter any enemy threat, and that level of flexibility makes Wargame: European Escalation an intriguing strategy title.

Much like any recent first person shooter, Wargame: European Escalation makes you unlock new units with game experience (either online or offline in the campaign). My feelings on unlocked content are well established: you shouldn’t restrict new users from important features, putting them at an instant disadvantage. However, Wargame: European Escalation tries to balance this out by limiting every player to only five units in each category and twenty-five units overall (plus variants), making better units much more expensive to recruit, and letting basic units take out expensive ones (like guided-missile infantry in cover against a high-level enemy tank) when appropriate. It doesn’t take too long to unlock things (I could usually unlock new units after every couple of online games), you can unlock things in any order (except for variants, which need to be unlocked sequentially), and you start out with a basic assortment of units that are effective when used properly, but I think I’d still rather unlock all of the basic units for everyone and leave only the improved variants to be unlocked with experience. Although having “better” units doesn’t guarantee victory, experienced players will have access to units (supply helicopters, powerful tanks, anti-air missiles, MLRS, special forces, armored recon, et cetera) that beginners simply do not. Units are organized into decks, since you are restricted to bringing only five units of each type into battle. Conceivably, once you have enough things unlocked, you could have a deck of units for different strategies. I would like to see an automated deck feature that includes the last five units you unlocked of each type to cut down on deck management, but overall the system works well enough.

Everybody starts out with the same number of recruitment points to call in units, but more points can be earned by capturing clearly marked zones around each map. You must capture zones using a fragile command unit that must remain stationary (preferably hidden in trees). This is a good dynamic that eliminates the enemy sneaking in and capturing your bases with a single unit (unless it’s a commander, of course), while forcing players to be more cautious when attacking new targets. Some objective locations around the perimeter of the map also come with large arrows; these places can spawn new units that travel onto the map using the indicated path (a sneaky tactic is to hide infantry in the trees along an enemy recruitment path, taking out newly ordered units as soon as they arrive). While capturing bases won’t earn enough points to replace all of your starting units, it will accentuate your forces and tip the battle towards the side that controls more territory.

Wargame: European Escalation comes with very basic orders: move, attack move, fast move (which uses roads: very helpful), and fire on a position. There are no options to place multiple groups units into a formation, which can lead to some unorganized battles and increased micromanagement. Wargame: European Escalation utilizes a couple of mechanics that elevates the game far beyond your typical real-time strategy game. First, the importance of supply cannot be understated: fuel and ammunition run out quickly, leaving even the best units stranded and useless. You must shuttle supplies using trucks or helicopters from your base to the frontlines or an assault will stall. In addition, scouting where the enemy is in advance of your attacks using recon should be a priority: usually, a unit’s weapons range is beyond its visual range, so the use of recon units is important for spotting potential targets. Recon can also tell you what type of units the enemy is using (so you can see if you need to spent points on tanks or anti-air units, for example), and it will improve the accuracy of artillery units that fire nearby. I really like how infantry units are automatically given transport, which makes getting them into defensive positions within cover (where they excel) a lot easier. Artillery units that attack air or ground targets are also an important part of your military, as are helicopters that are deadly to tanks but susceptible to those air artillery units. Matches can suffer from artillery spam, with players fielding only artillery units that fire pot shots from their base across the map, but this can be countered with reconnaissance and precise counter-artillery strikes of your own (among other viable strategies), and recent patch-based adjustments to increase have balanced things out appropriately. In fact, all units are very deadly when used properly: a cheap anti-air artillery unit can take down an expensive helicopter in one well-placed shot. Of course, you can’t afford to have all of the tactical possibilities covered, so choosing the right units can determine the ultimate victor.

Each unit has a morale rating impacted by combat, related to the amount of damage incurred. Artillery can cause units to become worried without actually hitting them directly, which could then pave the way for a more direct attack. Units will rout if possible, allowing you to then bring in a supply truck to repair and refuel your forces. You must also maintain line of sight and line of fire to the target, allowing you to retreat behind trees or up one of those hackneyed plateaus if the action gets too chaotic. Wargame: European Escalation is pretty free of micromanagement, as units will engage any enemies within range automatically and there are no special abilities to worry about. Units will not move to attack nearby (but out of range) enemies unless ordered to do so, which is good even though it requires more management, as your forces won’t be lured into an enemy trap without your consent.

I can't remember a fast-paced real-time strategy game that emphasized realistic aspects warfare, such as reconnaissance and supply, quite like this. Usually, high-fidelity simulation is reserved for slow turn-based wargames where you push lots of square chits across a 2-D map, but the mixture of a modern presentation and strategic depth Wargame: European Escalation provides is quite refreshing. Most importantly, you must resupply your units as they will run out of ammunition and/or fuel, adding a significant strategic aspect to the game. In addition, you must scout the enemy forces in order to determine which units to produce and where to attack, and then place those units in cover to spring the trap at the right moment. These aspects of warfare are generally ignored by real-time strategy games that reward whoever pressed the most keys per minute, but they definitely play important roles here. By capturing resource zones with vulnerable commander units, you can call in a bunch of different units that offer a wide range of strategic possibilities. Wargame: European Escalation offers good unit balance, as every unit always has a counter, no matter how powerful. Micromanagement is reduced by not having tedious special abilities and giving infantry teams their own transport vehicles, but lacking formations for grouped units is a small misstep. All of these varied units are not initially available, however, and must be unlocked by playing through the single player campaign or online matches. This obviously gives benefits to veteran players who have unlocked more stuff, but players are limited to only five types of unit per class, while better units are significantly more expensive and cheaper counterparts can destroy them. This helps to offset the veteran advantage a bit. The map design is repetitive and features unrealistic terrain, and objectives are not removed when fewer players are present. The linear campaign is only vaguely interesting (although it is an easy way to unlock units) and suffers from lazy design with repetitive objectives against unfairly superior numbers. The limited skirmish matches (with only one-on-one games) highlight the shortcomings of the AI that likes to attack with few units at random times. However, joining a match online is easy, although bad connections slow down the game time. The short game times work quite well with the accelerated pace of the game, and it means you won’t have to suffer through imbalanced matches against superior opponents for too long. The 3-D graphics make Wargame: European Escalation feel a lot more realistic than an abstract wargame, and the game also looks great up close with lots of unit detail, although most of the time you’ll be playing from a distant perspective. The interface is distinctive, and I would only add a unit list to make navigating the game even more efficient. In short, Wargame: European Escalation provides the tactical depth and variety needed for a compelling real-time strategy game.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pitman Review

Pitman, developed and published by Rat King Entertainment.
The Good: Randomly generated levels consist of manually unlocked sections, decent loot, $3
The Not So Good: Bland drawn-out combat, slow experience gain, very small initial inventory, limited interface
What say you? This rougelike role-playing game provides the occasional cheap, simple thrill: 5/8

Dungeons are dangerous. Filled to the brim with monsters and traps, the allure of gold and treasure simply isn’t enough to get me to want to venture inside dark passageways of doom. Good thing, then, that computers have long simulated the experience for the less brave among us. While I generally avoid generic action role-playing games due to their linearity and repetition, I do enjoy roguelikes due to their inclusion of randomized content and generally faster-paced action, which results in more replay value. Not coincidentally, here comes roguelike Pitman, released last year for something called an “iPad,” but now gracing the glorious PC in all its glorious glory of gloriousness. Originally developed over seven days and now expanded into a full game, how does Pitman stack up in a reinvigorated genre?

Pitman is in 3-D, and it includes a mix of graphical qualities. Since the maps consist of tiles, the dungeon environments are blocky by necessity. That said, the terrain is varied and each floor uses a distinctive texture for the walls and floors. The characters and enemies, however, lack texture detail and are generally just simply colored models. The most impressive aspect of the game’s graphics is the lighting, which looks great and overshadows (so to speak) a lot of the graphical shortcomings. The sound effects consist of a small selection of battle noises, though some were entertaining (the pitiful death sounds for some of the enemies, in particular). The music is also pretty good, providing some simple tunes to go along with your dungeon exploring. While Pitman doesn’t deliver cutting-edge graphics or sound design (although the lighting is very nice), it does maintain an appropriate presentation for a $3 game.

With a name like Pitman, there aren’t many career opportunities other than dungeon crawling. In the grand tradition of rougelikes, Pitman features randomly generated levels that are unlocked one piece at a time. Instead of entering rooms, you can choose which large square portion of the map to appear next. I really like this approach as it makes it feel like you have more control over your adventure. You can also survey the next block and see whether it’s worth venturing in, based on the enemies and treasure contained inside. Besides those enemies and valuable loot, dungeons may contain obstacles (which may even block your path into the newly revealed section), generally useless NPCs, and a ladder to the next level. While Pitman is by no means a complex game, it does have a lack of tool-tips explaining things in the game and there is no tutorial, although a help file accessible from the in-game menu covers the basics.

Pitman is a turn-based game, and each turn you can use an item and then move and attack. If you choose a destination outside of your movement range, it does not automatically advance through the couple of extra turns required to reach your waypoint, requiring you to manually click the mouse after each turn, which does tend to get annoying after a while. Items are scattered around the dungeon and occasionally dropped by enemies. These include three types of weapons (blunt, blade, and bow), five kinds of armor (boots, trousers, chest, helmet, and shield), and a wide assortment of interesting magical potions, runes, and scrolls, all with randomized stats (you will find two knives with different attributes). In addition, you should carry food that replenishes health and fights hunger (you can die of hunger even if you have a full health bar) and ignite a torch to light the way every so often. Weapons and items must be replaced as they are used, and most items imbue a penalty (to movement or dodge) while using them. Switching and picking up items is a pain, however, as you can’t equip with a right-click and you can’t use things that are on the ground and not in your inventory. The very limited inventory size doesn’t help matters, either, as you must make hard choices about which items to bring and which to leave behind. You simply don’t have room for a ranged weapon, melee weapon, helmet, pants, boots, food, and magical scrolls until you level up. There is no trading in the game, so you don’t need to keep obsolete items, but keeping yourself fully equipped is impossible. The limited inventory also means you’ll have to swap a lot of consumable items in and out of your possession: drop an item, pick up apple, select apple, eat apple, pick up dropped item. This process gets tiresome, and a more efficient method would be appreciated.

Pitman has no classes, so you can tailor the character’s upgrades based on your play style instead of being locked in to a “mage” or “elf”. Experience is gained very slowly over time (you need to defeat around ten enemies before you level up for the first time) and offers upgrades in several areas. You can choose one upgrade in strength (increasing your damage and inventory size), dexterity (increasing the probability of dealing a critical hit), or intelligence (regenerating mana faster and identifying magical items). In addition, you get three points to increase your health, mana, blade damage, blunt damage, bow damage, blocking, walking speed, or dodge. The best path is choosing upgrades based on your current weapons (blade damage if you a sword, blunt damage if you have a mace). Because you must rely on randomly dropped spell scrolls for magic, specializing in mana-boosting upgrades is a tricky choice that may not pay off if you don't happen to find any spells.

Combat in Pitman is a plain affair. Firstly, the enemies are uninspired with no special powers to force you to alter your tactics. In fact, you can’t even see their health or level after they have spawned in a newly created room. The combat is unnecessarily long, with lots of misses and blocks that only make you click your mouse more before the enemies (or you) die. Longer battles would make more sense if enemies surrounded you more often. The tiny inventory makes you choose your tactics more carefully, but ultimately limits the variety you’ll see in a single game, an interesting contradiction in a game that relies on randomly generated content.

Pitman has a solid foundation for a rougelike with some pacing issues and feature limitations. First off, I like the map design mechanic: randomly generated sections drop in when you choose, allowing you to scout the next section and see if the treasures are worth the risk. Like most role-playing game, Pitman comes with a variety of weapons and items to equip, though the limited inventory size never allows you to carry everything you need and forces you to make tough decisions on what to keep and what to drop. You also must carry scrolls to cast spells, which eat up even more precious inventory space and limit your tactical flexibility. Your character gains experience very slowly, spreading out rewards thinly over time. Combat is dull, with a lot of blocks and misses and repetitive enemies that lack special abilities you’d need to intelligently counter. The interface could be more informative and easier to use, and it’s simply annoying to have to swap items between your inventory and the ground just to eat an apple you don’t have an open slot for. Still, for only $3, a lot of the shortcomings could be forgiven, and fans of rougelikes will find a light take on the genre.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Conquest of Elysium 3 Review

Conquest of Elysium 3, developed and published by Illwinter Game Design.
The Good: Greatly varied hero classes and unit attributes, relatively straightforward economics, randomized maps, lots of spells, quick games
The Not So Good: No tutorial, high difficulty and a measured pace leads to many quick early deaths, cautious approach and limited scope may be boring to some, dated interface
What say you? An approachable turn-based fantasy strategy game offset by the obscene hostility of the environment: 5/8

One of the best turn-based fantasy strategy games ever made was Dominions 3. Featuring strategic variety, sixty-or-so nations, 600 spells, randomized maps, plenty of units and items, and an amazing spiral-bound manual, it was a landmark title that's still very expensive to purchase (but totally worth it). Of course, a game of that level of complexity isn't easy on newcomers. Enter Conquest of Elysium 3, another turn-based fantasy strategy game by the same developer that still brings a large variety of spells and monsters and the random maps, but simplifies and quickens the gameplay. Is the game more accessible this time around? Does it maintain strategic depth? And why are we conquesting the Greek afterlife, anyway?

Conquest of Elysium 3 borrows the graphical style of its predecessor, which is to say “simple”. Now, the unit sprites are detailed, but most of them are way too small to tell without squinting. The maps look nice, with varied background textures for each terrain type. The battles are crude: a few spell effects are used, but mostly it is colored numbers against a plain black background. More pressing is the archaic interface, adapted largely from Dominions 3: while the tool-tips are informative (although the meaning of the icons are not explained in-game), the game doesn’t take advantage of high resolution displays and buries a lot of commands within menus instead of placing all available commands on the main screen. For example, why not just list all of the special powers a commander can use instead of making me click on “special powers” first? And it should not take three clicks through different menus to save the game. And troop transfer is initially confusing (a green “X” indicates a unit is included in a stack, not excluded). And there are a lot of hidden keyboard shortcuts that are not referenced outside of the game manual. And there isn't a quick way of figuring how if enemy units are more powerful than your forces (like a rough “strength” rating). The interface screams of an effort that was meant to simply be functional instead of efficient. The sound design follows along the rudimentary presentation of Conquest of Elysium 3: some of the basic sound effects (especially some spells) are downright annoying, although I found the music to be pleasing to the ear. While graphics aren’t the end-all-be-all of strategy gaming, you should at least have an interface that makes accessing different parts of the game quick and easy, and Conquest of Elysium 3 falls short in this area.

Conquest of Elysium 3 is a turn-based game where you attempt to defeat other heroes in a fantasy setting, while attempting to survive in a hostile environment. You lose when either all of your commanders die or your starting citadel is captured, so keeping some forces back in defense is necessary (though not usually possible, as you will see). There is a difficulty setting that gives the AI an additional economy bonus (that it doesn’t need), but the strength of the roaming creeps and defending monsters remains the same no matter what setting you choose. Conquest of Elysium 3 features multiplayer, but you must know the host’s IP address in advance, and the game does not support play by e-mail (even though Dominions 3 did), although hot seat play is offered. Conquest of Elysium 3 also lacks a tutorial, which is simply insane; it took me five games to figure out what was going on, even after reading the manual twice.

The general strategy in Conquest of Elysium 3 is to capture things, allowing you to recruit more troops and eventually defeat the enemy heroes and capture their citadel. A primary feature of the game is the use of random maps, which makes exploring the landscape a lot more interesting, since you never know what’s going to be in the fog of war. There is also a map editor if you’d like a more scripted experience, but I found that the random map generator produced plausible, interesting maps every game. You can customize the map size and the level of society development, which basically controls the number of cities, villages, and enemies you’ll encounter out in the wild. Maps are densely packed with many things to find and hopefully capture: farms, villages, towns, castles, mines, jungles, swamps, forests, mountains, and more. These provide resources (gold, iron, herbs, fungi) or have special attributes (extended vision, temples for spell research) of varying amounts, and are always guarded by hostile animals. If you are short in a specific resource, you can trade some gold for that item each turn, a helpful tool if you begin the game in a barren part of the map.

Each side gets a hero (and usually an apprentice, too) that can lead troops and perform special actions. Since Conquest of Elysium 3 is a turn-based game, each hero has a number of action points that can be spent doing one thing per turn, usually moving and attacking, but sometimes doing a special action. Impressively, there are seventeen distinct classes of heroes in the game, each with some unique property that makes their strategy a bit different. For example, the demonologist can summon demons using human sacrifices collected on the map, the barbarian gets more powerful units, and the warlock can collect gems from mines and then use them to summon special (flying, amphibian) units. So, there is a lot of interesting, well thought-out variety here. Magic is also quite varied, offering spells divided into forty-five different disciplines, each with their own hierarchy of spells. However, your hero can only memorize a limited number of spells at one time, and research is done automatically as your hero gains battle experience. To accompany your hero on his/her epic journey, a variety of units can be recruited. They are divided into melee, ranged, and magical units, and further differentiated based on stats (hit points, armor, strength, magic resistance, morale), weapons (blunt, piercing, fire, acid, poison), and abilities (fast, flying, immortal). Units, like your hero, gain experience over time that automatically increases their hit points and defense, and can also get permanent afflictions (disease, blindness) during combat. Unit recruitment is straightforward: most units cost 50 gold, while more advanced types require another resource (usually iron). You can also recruit additional commanders, required to move units around the map, that randomly show up each turn and must be recruited immediately: save your cash, kids!

When two opposing forces meet on the field of battle, Conquest of Elysium 3 plays out the ensuing combat automatically without any input from the user. Unlike in Dominions 3, you can’t customize unit placement or tactical strategies (like which spells to use); while I am sure this was done to simplify the game, it does remove strategic depth from the battles. However, the big problem I have with Conquest of Elysium 3 is balance. You see, there are lots of dangerous monsters surrounding your starting position; those defending resources don’t move, but the rest do. The problem is that you don’t have enough troops starting out, and your starting income is so low that you need to capture additional structures to afford more troops. That’s fine, but you need more resources to buy the additional troops you need to capture more resources. See the dilemma? On some games, you might luck out and spawn next to lightly defended cities that provide enough gold to get your army up to a size where you can take on most defending creeps. Or, you might spawn near a giant troll you can’t defeat who walks over to your citadel and defeats it in three turns. In addition, you must defend each place you capture (wandering deer can come in and take your undefended cities, although I wonder what the deer will do with all that gold income), which gives you even less troops in your main army. The bottom line is that you have to be really cautious in the beginning of the game, and the overwhelming difficulty of the surrounding environment is simply too much. It was relatively easy to expand in Dominions 3, but you really have to plan who to attack and where to defend in Conquest of Elysium 3. A challenging game is OK, but being unfair is not. Another issue is that there is just not that much to do: order troops to move, recruit troops, and....that's it. Since the battles and spell research are both completely automated, the depth of Conquest of Elysium 3 is limited. The AI heroes play the game well, recruiting several commanders (don’t know how they can afford it on the default difficult setting that does not give a resource bonus to the computer) and capturing additional resources with ease. In short (too late!), the slow, inequitable starts of Conquest of Elysium 3 spoil the streamlined, simplified heroes, units, and magic.

Conquest of Elysium 3 has some good design elements that try to break free, but they are crushed under the unrelenting pressure of difficulty. Games can be very quick, since you might be surrounded by heavily defended villages and dangerous roaming monsters you can’t possibly defeat with your starting forces. And since buying new forces is expensive (especially in the beginning), you need those villages to bring in faster income. So, you might simply be stuck, or have to wait too many turns to afford new units. Exploration and expansion should be fun, not an exercise in constant worry. That’s too bad, since there are several aspects of the game that I do enjoy. First off, there is remarkable variety in the seventeen hero classes, introducing unique abilities and minor gameplay changes. There are also a bunch of spells organized into forty-five disciplines, though they are researched automatically and your choices on which spells to use are limited. Units can wield a wide variety of weapons and can gain attributes over time. Combat is completely automated and you can’t customize any tactical strategies, but you can still tweak the results based on the units involved and the spells your hero can cast. Still, there simply isn't a lot to do during the course of a game, and what you are allowed to do can be limited by the difficulty. The enemy heroes controlled by the AI are aggressive enough to provide good competition throughout Elysium. I like the inclusion of random maps, which makes the exploration aspect of the game more unpredictable and interesting, but the bare multiplayer options and lack of a tutorial are disappointing. And while I can live with crude graphics and sound, the limited interface does make navigating the game more work than it should be. The lack of balance and fairness when starting out in Conquest of Elysium 3 partially ruins the remainder of the game, throwing away the potential the heroes, magic, map, and unit variety brings to the strategy genre.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Crusader Kings II Review

Crusader Kings II, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Detailed character attributes and relationships, military size and income tied with vassal relations, varied tasks for council members, lots of semi-random events, an assortment of provincial improvements, competent AI takes advantage of vulnerable neighbors, laws that determine succession and levy and tax levels for vassals, decent tutorials, multiplayer, easy to modify
The Not So Good: Not enough plots, only a couple religious-based options
What say you? This role-playing grand strategy game is full-featured and highly interactive: 8/8

The Middle Ages was a time of transition between the glorious Roman Empire and Disco Fever. This period was not known for great technological advances (the Internet, for example, was not invented until Amerigo Vespucci found TCP/IP buried deep within the jungles of Brazil), but it was a time of constant small-scale conflict between the family dynasties of Europe. Rather than countries uniting on a national level, nobles tried to expand their personal dynasty as dukes fought dukes, kings fought kings, and counts fought over chocolate breakfast cereal. Crusader Kings II takes the grand strategy design used in several Paradox Interactive products and applies a layer of role-playing, where you control specific characters within Europe and attempt to survive the harsh conditions and testy vassals. Is this marriage built to last?

Crusader Kings II continues the refined graphics exhibited in previous Paradox products Victoria II and Sengoku. The map, while not as detailed as the one featured in Sengoku, it is still an improvement over Europa Universalis III, with better textures and terrain. Mountainous regions look imposing and forests are lush, striking a balance between realism and illustration. Your councilors have distinctive character models if you zoom in far enough, and unit sprites carry colors of their lord (identifiable if you are nerdy enough and have the coats of arms memorized) along with exact counts of the soldiers involved (you can also click on the soldier shield to find which province they hail from). I also really like the use of stained glass icons, putting you into the setting of the game. That said, I did experience some minor map bugs with my NVIDIA 560 Ti (borders flashing each time a day passed), but when I rolled back to the latest non-beta drivers, the problem was solved.

While a pretty map makes for good screenshots, the real meat of a strategy game lies in the interface. The user interface continues to progresses towards perfection, placing important messages as alerts and filing less pressing information appropriately: every in-game event is displayed in the bottom window, stuff in your realm is placed into high and low priority messages along the right, and things that need your action come in at the top. The outliner continues to offer handy quick access to your units, demesne, and council members, and the ledger presents randomly thrown together bits of information they couldn’t find a better place for. Tool-tips are pleasingly detailed, showing exactly how relationships values, tax income, and traits (among many other things) are calculated. The comprehensive map modes display pertinent information such as independent realms, diplomacy, religion, de jure duchies, provincial income, revolt risk, and dynasties. Overall, the interface of Crusader Kings II provides easy access to almost everything.

The sound design is pretty standard fare, with repetitive effects when units are selected and battle begins. There is background music for each interface page that some might find annoying, but I didn’t have a problem with it. There are distinctive sounds for each notification type (call to arms, peace treaty, guardian needed), so you know exactly what kind of news is incoming before you even glance at the top of the screen. Although I wasn’t expecting it, it should be noted that there is no voice work for events or notifications. The music is not as period-specific and instantly recognizable as in some other Paradox titles, so overall the sound design lags behind previous efforts. Still, the overall presentation offers no significant shortcomings and is solid overall.

Crusader Kings II allows you to take control of any European count, duke, or king starting on any date between September 15th, 1066 and January 1st, 1337, with the game ending in 1453 or when your dynasty ends with no heirs. It's impressive that all of the national, character, family, and relationship data are present for every date for almost 300 years of history. Difficulty can be customized somewhat by choosing more difficult characters to play (such as a count that owns only one province). Your game score (calculated by adding the prestige and piety of all the characters you played) is then compared against historical dynasties, although these families use rounded numbers for their scores; it would have been more interesting to compare your results against the other families actually in your specific game. Learning the potentially complex game is made easier by using the somewhat interactive tutorials (using the same system as Victoria II) that cover all the aspects of the game through twenty-seven multi-level lessons. The tutorials are done well and serve as a nice introduction to the game mechanics. Multiplayer makes a return, for those who aspire to leading the greatest family in Europe online against thirty-one others. Finally, like most Paradox grand strategy games, most of the game files are simple text entries that can be easily modified by aspiring designers to adjust or add a wide range of content.

Crusader Kings II is focused on characters. Each person in the game is rated in five key areas: diplomacy, martial ability, stewardship, intrigue, and learning. In addition, values for fertility, health, culture, and religion define a person. A considerable number of traits can also be earned through events, which further adjust the player attributes: brave, content, cynical, genius, ill, poet, proud, shy, stutter, wroth, and zealous are just a few. When a character becomes an adult, a career is assigned that adds even more changes to attributes: a thrifty clerk gets additional stewardship points, while a tough soldier excels in military matters, for example. The amount of variety in the traits and careers makes relationship values quite varied (as opposed to Sengoku, where you basically had the same relationship values with everyone), and subsequently the inter-personal dynamics are much more interesting. Each character also has amounts of wealth, prestige, and piety the game tracks over time. Crusader Kings II provides dynasty, family, and kingdom trees to track others within your realm, and childrens’ appearance is based on that of their parents. Finally, the interface gives one-click access to potential partners in marriage, which can be sorted by rank or attribute; it would be nice to have the same feature for finding matrilineal marriages, too.

To assist in running your province/duchy/kingdom, a five-member council can be appointed, and each member can conduct one task (unless they are currently leading troops) in one province. The chancellor can improve relations, fabricate claims for land, or sow dissent between a vassal and his liege, the marshal suppresses revolts, trains troops, or researches military tech, a steward collects taxes, oversees construction, or researches economy tech, the spymaster uncovers plots, builds a spy network, or studies technology, and the court chaplain converts religion, researches cultural tech, or improves religious relations. Between these five people, you are given a good variety of tools and decisions must be made on which activity to undertake at the moment; it’s comprehensive without being unwieldy. Like in Sengoku, you don’t have direct control over all of the lands in your duchy or kingdom. Rather, the size of your demesne (the provinces you do have control over) is determined by your ratings (instead of being fixed at five, as in Sengoku) and there you can send your council members and construct new buildings. Your wealth is primarily spent on building new things in your demesne, like moats to improve the fort level, increasing the city size for more tax income, constructing a keep for increased levy and garrison sizes, or erecting new military buildings (archery range, barracks, stable) for additional troops of a specific type. There are many more options in Crusader Kings II than in Sengoku, which consequently increases the strategy. You can also pay a hefty sum to construct a new castle, church, or town in one of your provinces. The options in managing your provinces are deep without being overwhelming.

Laws determine the…uh…laws of your realm. When changed, they are voted upon by your vassals, so only popular changes in the customs of the region will ultimately be approved. The first kind of laws deal with succession: who’s getting what when you die. Settings include primogeniture (the oldest son gets everything), seniority (the oldest male in the dynasty gets everything), gavelkind (titles are evenly divided), and elective. Each law can further be customized to involve only males (agnatic), females if no males are available (cognatic), or females on equal footing (true cognatic). Additional laws involve the level of crown authority, which determines the amount of control the king can have on his vassals. You can also dictate whether the king or the Pope determines which bishops are employed within your realm and the levies and taxation that are drawn from your feudal lords, cities, and churches. While most options won’t be changed during the course of a game, the availability of these choices allows you to potentially alter the kingdom to better suit your dynasty.

Want to change a law but can’t fight the king alone? Start a plot! You can select from an assortment of options, like altering the succession laws or tax levels, and then recruit like-minded individuals (clearly indicated with green “thumbs up” icons) to back your desires. You can also assassinate fellow characters in the game, although Crusader Kings II does a really poor job saying who these people are when presented in the potential plot list. You can use your spymaster to discover the plots of others, and then throw them in jail for being such a jerk. Even with these options, I feel that the plot system in Crusader Kings II could use more depth (can you say “future expansion”?). I’d like to see a lot more options for plots, such as non-marriage alliances against a common liege, manufacturing claims on territory, and a wider range of assassination attempts (especially against vassals with whom you have poor relations). The game also does not combine existing plots, so you could have five AI characters all attempting to assassinate the king but in five different plots, with none of them able to execute the plot because potential backers are all doing their own plot against the same person. In addition to killing others and getting new territory, you can choose less violent ambitions like earning money, becoming married, or having a son. Crusader Kings II also gives you some decisions like inviting new people to your court, asking for land from your liege, or holding an event such as a grand tournament or summer fair. More direct, traditional diplomatic options are also available: declaring war (you must have a reason, such as a holy war, claim on a territory, or the target has been excommunicated), giving titles, sending gifts, educating children, and offering vassalization. While shortcomings in the plot mechanics are disappointing, the potential for underhanded mayhem is certainly there.

While religion was a big deal during the Middle Ages, its role in Crusader Kings II is surprisingly minimal. Sure, you (obviously) have crusades against heathens, which grant you a casus belli for declaring war and a ton of piety if you succeed, but the Pope’s influence on the day-to-day activities of your realm is minimal at best. You can request the Pope to excommunicate an adversary or allow for an invasion, and he’ll occasionally send some money if you’ve been a nice Catholic, but that’s about it. That said, excommunication is a death sentence in the game, as large nations won’t hesitate to gang up on you and defeat means losing the throne to your heir. It’s also relatively inexpensive to request the excommunication of another character if you have good relations with the Pope, and it’s a strategy the AI employs somewhat frequently. Still, I expected a bit more interaction with the Bishop of Rome.

While the Middle Ages was not a time of dramatic technological advances, improved technologies do occur. You can focus on research in military, economic, and cultural areas, improving light armor, siege equipment, fortifications, church tax levels, keeps, popular customs, spiritual art, and a number of other areas. A map mode shows the current tech levels of all other provinces, so you can scout good areas to send your spymaster to steal higher-level knowledge in areas you desire. New techs unlock additional buildings for your provinces and improve other aspects of your empire, so while it’s usually “set it and forget it,” research can play an important role in your realm over time.

Rather than slowly building up and maintaining a standing army, military units are instantly recruited from your demesne and the lands of your vassals. The amount of troops you get to use is determined by the buildings in each province, the laws of your realm, and the relationship values you maintain with each vassal. This makes it important to recruit vassals who like you based on compatible traits and then maintain those positive relationships over time. Because of this, while a larger empire will usually get more troops simply because they have more provinces to recruit from, this might not be the case if the king has poor relationships with his vassals. This use of relationships makes Crusader Kings II a lot more interesting because smaller, better run kingdoms might prevail in war. You can also recruit expensive mercenary troops, both in terms of the initial cost and monthly upkeep, to supplement your levies if you have the cash (if they are available: the AI does use them and I ran into situations when they were all hired out). But mercenaries can be very powerful if you can afford them, easily taking out traditional levies that stand in their way. Holy troops can also be summoned during crusades against heathens, costing piety but no upkeep.

Automated battles consist of three phases, each of which involves a different type of unit: light infantry, pikemen, archers, heavy infantry, light cavalry, horse archers, and heavy cavalry. First, the ranged mode lets ranged units have at it, then the sword-and-pike-wielding melee units have a turn, then the mounted units gallop in pursuit. All of the numbers are clearly displayed using tool-tips during battles, so you can see exactly why units are routing and then formulate a strategy (constructing specific buildings in your provinces to alter levied troop types, for example) to combat this next time. In order to mount a successful siege against an enemy city, castle, or church, you must have more troops than the usually significant defending garrison and levy, making it much more difficult for small, annoying troops to successfully take land (a great feature, in my opinion).

The AI in Crusader Kings II seems to be a competent opponent/ally. They accept diplomatic proposals when appropriate, attack suitable targets when they are most vulnerable, recruit mercenaries, engage in plots, and play the game intelligently as a whole. The AI does like to raise armies in territories that are under siege (handing you warscore points), but I never experienced any outlandish behavior from AI-controlled characters. Overall, Crusader Kings II delivers a varied, interesting experience. The semi-random events keep you occupied, even if nothing major is going on. The constant adjusting of vassal and liege relationships, the threat of war, keeping succession within the family, and deploying council members give you a lot to do. Certainly, I’ve done less “sitting around” in Crusader Kings II than in any other Paradox title. Playing as a vassal gives you a different perspective, as your liege raises your troops and sends you the upkeep bill. Crusader Kings II also features less automation than Victoria II, while offering more depth than Sengoku. Plus, the role-playing elements make for great stories.

Crusader Kings II is an engrossing game that successfully combines grand strategy pageantry with role-playing intimacy. It starts with the characters: complex relationships based on a large variety of traits drive the game, determining how many troops you can recruit from your vassals, the income you generate, and who might revolt against you. Your five-member council can be used to improve your provinces, suppressing revolts, increasing tax income, recruiting more troops, or improving relations. Gold can also be spent upgrading the provinces under your direct control (the maximum number of which is determined by your attributes), increasing tax rates, defenses, and military levies. Laws enacted in your realm can also determine how many troops and taxes you collect from your vassals. Diplomatic actions are varied, allowing you to align yourself with others through marriage, give land to vassals, and educate your children. However, the plot system, where multiple characters can join a single cause like lowering crown authority or killing off a rival character, doesn’t offer enough choices for my tastes. Religion is also a bit underdeveloped: the Pope can start crusades or excommunicate others, but that’s about it. While the Middle Ages wasn’t known for its great technological leaps, you can conduct (slow) research, improving various aspects of your realm. Like previous Paradox titles, military battles are completely automated, but the level of detail is high and I like the fact that character relationships directly impact the number of troops you’ll recruit from your vassals. There are also a lot of events that will crop up; they become a bit repetitive, but most offer interesting choices for your character. Games can produce drastically different results even if you start with the same character on the same date, increasing replay value because you just don't know what's going to happen next. The AI is good, asking for alliances through marriage and striking enemies while they are weak. Crusader Kings II lets you start on any date during the time period, taking control of any prominent character, and you can also ruin peoples’ lives online. Crusader Kings II is Paradox’s best game (and certainly the most accessible), as it presents more than enough to keep you busy as you attempt to become the greatest family in Europe.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Star Prospector Review

Star Prospector, developed and published by Cryptstone Games.
The Good: An extensive universe with randomly generated planets, lots of items and upgrades to purchase between missions or find scattered on alien worlds
The Not So Good: Same starting build order every game, arduous pace, no real differences between mission types, high difficulty and less strategy in early scenarios, no multiplayer
What say you? This exploration-based real time strategy game has role-playing elements and randomly generated content but suffers from very repetitive, very slow gameplay: 5/8

Eventually (assuming we don’t go extinct, which we will at some point), humans will have to venture out among the stars in search for precious resources. Much like the Europeans who scoured the New World in search for gold and muscle cars, adventurous souls will search the stars for the next great planet to colonize and rape of natural resources, all in the name of mankind. Star Prospector takes this premise of exploration, adds in a cup of real-time strategy, a teaspoon of base building, and a dash of role-playing. Does Star Prospector come up with a tasty recipe for strategy gaming among the stars?

Unfortunately for Star Prospector, the first thing we always talk about is the graphics. This is clearly an indie effort, with bare graphics across the board. While the unit models are decently detailed (if you look at them from far away enough), the planets are very bland, with almost entirely flat terrain (with the occasional river) and rare foliage. Combat isn't very inspiring, either, with simple lasers and gunfire exchanged between foes. Units are destroyed in either a fireball or blood spatter: a fitting, simple end given the remainder of the game's graphics. Well, at least the game is in 3-D. As for the sound design, it also follows the simple recipe: really basic sound effects (though I found the “hooray!” when units gain experience to be mildly entertaining), no voice acting or unit acknowledgments, and decent music.

Star Prospector is a single-player-only game where you take your mining rig to far away planets in search of money. Your rig is similar to the commander unit from the Supreme Commander games, able to mine resources, build structures, and fight the enemy. The universe consists of randomly generated missions on planets and moons orbiting stars, offering up different mission types...sort of. While you might be instructed to eliminate an enemy unit, destroy a weapons cache, prospect for resources, restore fuel levels, collect items, or clear an area, all of these missions play out the same: you start with no base, construct your units, go to the objective locations, and shoot stuff. The missions take about fifteen minutes to complete, and the objective locations are thankfully clearly indicated on the minimap. The first couple of missions are quite difficult, as you don’t have any advanced units, structures, or abilities unlocked. As you progress in the game, your strategies during each mission can become more varied as you’ll have access to more items, and subsequently Star Prospector becomes far more interesting.

After a successful mission, money is earned that can be spent on a wide range of upgrades and items. These include items for your rig, such as potions (called “canisters” here) to heal, additional weapons (lasers, miniguns, missiles, flamethrowers), speed boost, armor, and shields. You can also purchase better buildings (radar towers, healing structures, turrets) and new units (melee, machine gun, laser, flamethrower, lightning, and air). Some of these items are unlocked only when you gain higher experience levels, even if you have the cash to purchase them. Missions don’t really reward too much money, either, so you can usually only afford one or maybe two new items after each mission. Fortunately, each planet map usually has a couple of items you can discover while scouting, getting advanced components for free. Your rig also gains experience points that can be used for skill upgrades (speed, armor, repair, vision, salvage, range); single units gain experience during a mission that provide small bonuses to attack ratings. Overall, I found there to be plenty of items available in the game, and allowing the user to choose which ones to unlock lets players decide how their overall strategy will progress.

Star Prospector is, at its core, a classic base-building real-time strategy game. The first resource to collect is ore, gathered from distinctive rocks conveniently located right next to your initial spawn point (although it might have game balance problems with enemies roaming the map, it might be more interesting to have to scout for an initial base location). Your rig can scan the rocks to see which ones contain the most resources, then you build a collection point and a factory to pump out the miners. Eventually, you’ll need to produce power to keep buildings functioning at full capacity and fuel to produce military units. The population cap can be continually increased by placing nodes that add computing power to allow for a larger robot army (I like that Star Prospector gives a plausible reason for a population cap). You’ll probably also want to place turrets (once they are unlocked), as the planets of Star Prospector are hostile locations with wandering enemies that will attack your base on sight. Sadly, Star Prospector always gives you the same barren starting conditions, so you have to use the same starting build every game: mine ore, collect fuel, generate power, increase pop cap, place turrets, and then go get the enemy. There are no half-completed bases to rescue or planets to defend, so the first ten minutes of each mission plays out exactly the same. I frankly got tired of doing the same thing every time I started a new scenario.

The slow pace of Star Prospector also hurts the game. Units move slowly, resources accumulate slowly, units build slowly, and combat resolves slowly. The game doesn’t come with time acceleration, and I spent way too much time waiting for things to happen. I think you are meant to scout for loot while you wait for units to build, so at least there is potentially something to do instead of just sitting there. You’ll usually need to explore anyway to find additional resources to increase the size of your army. In addition, because your army moves quite leisurely, it can be nearly impossible to defend against an attack on your base or a resource outpost, placing a higher importance on turrets. Buildings are also destroyed way too easily by one or two enemy units, as they seemingly have almost the same amount of health as units. Strategy in Star Prospector isn’t terribly advanced: just wait until you have enough units by building more pop cap structures and you'll eventually take the enemies out. The enemy AI is very, very primitive, occasionally spawning at their locations and attacking whatever unit or base is the closest. Pathfinding in the game can also be a bit weird, with units taking odd paths towards a destination involving a random assortment of straight lines and 45-degree angles. Units never get stuck, mind you, but two units placed side by side and given the same target might take completely different ways of getting there.

While I like several of the ideas that Star Prospector brings to the table, the overall pace and structure of the game is lacking. Because you start out the same way each mission, with only your rig and nearby resources, identical starting builds can be used for every scenario. It would have been much more interesting if you were given inefficient semi-completed bases to start with or fully-functional buildings to defend; I would think that it would be easy to randomize this content to fall in line with the rest of the game. In addition, Star Prospector has an extremely slow pace that can’t be accelerated: I spent too much time waiting for resources to accumulate and (especially) units to build. Oh, what I would give for a time acceleration option. The very basic enemy AI and sporadic pathfinding doesn’t help the tactical side of things; if you have enough units (and you can keep constructing nodes to increase the population cap), you’ll overpower the enemy. The missions introduce some false variety: while your late-game strategy might change if you were amassing resources instead of assassinating an enemy unit, you’ll still start the scenario the same way. I do enjoy the role-playing elements of the game: scouting the planets for wreckage and technology bits that can then be equipped to your rig is an enjoyable distraction while you wait for your army to build up. Star Prospector has an impressive array of items you can find or purchase, including rig modules that add shields or new weapons, improved buildings, and new units to deal with the increasingly hostile enemy threat. With more varied starting conditions and a faster pace, Star Prospector would be a recommended game thanks to its classic base-building design, role-playing elements, and extensive roster of upgrades and items to equip. But in the end, Star Prospector involves too much repetition and too much waiting.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

King Arthur II: The Role-playing Wargame Review

King Arthur II: The Role-playing Wargame, developed by Neocore Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Magic and monsters make tactical battles marginally more interesting, forging items is neat, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Campaign map mode features entirely scripted pre-built mandatory missions and no kingdom management, tedious story-based quests, chaotic battles leave little room for tactics, terrible interface, superficial and limited diplomatic options, dim AI, odd tactical map design, no multiplayer, severe performance issues for some
What say you? A linear, shallow campaign and underdeveloped tactical battles make this fantasy game fade into history: 4/8

The tales of King Arthur and his band of merry men are well documented. With his trusty sword Little John and cow catapult, he fought gigantic rabbits and Knights Who Say “Ni” across the lands. But what if those tales were true, with magic and dragons running rampant across jolly ol’ England? How do you know, you weren’t there! The second role-playing wargame covering King Arthur, appropriately entitled King Arthur II: The Role-playing Wargame, offers a combination similar to the Total War series, with a larger-scale strategic mode where units are moved and tactical battles where military units meets on the battlefield. Does this new edition offer meaningful improvements to the fantasy-based strategy game?

King Arthur II: The Role-playing Wargame has really nice graphics. The foggy forest of olde England really comes through, along with a very detailed (and slightly cartoonish) campaign map that uses a high fantasy rendition of the historic area. The England of King Arthur II has some distinctive settings with high mountains and desolate monster-laden realms dotting the landscape. The tactical battles follow suit with some outrageous terrain and truly detailed units and landscapes with high-resolution textures that hold up upon closer inspection. The magic spell effects are a bit understated and the animations are a bit stiff, but overall the presentation is top-notch. As you might expect, all of this graphical beauty comes at a steep price, however, as performance is limited. While I personally hung around 25 frames per second using the default (medium-high) settings for my hardware (less than ideal but still playable), others around the dark reaches of the Internet have reported severely crippled performance on a wide range of hardware, so be warned and try the demo first.

If only all of this attention on graphics was paid to the interface, which is awful. King Arthur II tries to copy Total War, with the grand list of units along the bottom of the screen, but fails in several key areas. In the campaign mode, the minimap is almost completely useless: while it highlights who owns which territories and marks quest locations, it does not indicate where enemy units and strongholds are located, requiring you to hunt around the busy campaign map for potential threats. The game also features laborious access to provincial buildings, slowing down the process of upgrading key structures. During the tactical battles, the unit type is not shown with an icon in the army list; instead, you have to rely on the artistic unit portraits that may be hard to decipher in the heat of battle. In addition, there is absolutely no indication when a unit is about to rout: no blinking, no little while flag, nothing. Because of this, you have to manually keep tabs on all eighteen units, constantly switching between them to access your strategic status. Sure, you can guess the morale based on the amount of casualties, but this simply isn’t enough.

As for the sound design, the highlight is the voiced quests; the voice acting is a bit too dramatic, but it’s more convincing to have someone narrate the story instead of having to read everything yourself. The sound effects during combat are sporadic and the music falls under “generic grandiose,” but overall the sound design is elevated by the impressive amount of voice acting.

King Arthur II: The Role-playing Wargame (it's not really a “wargame”: this is a wargame) centers on the world of King Arthur, although (spoiler alert!) you don't start out playing as him (just his son). The game does not feature any multiplayer, although you can set up tactical battles against the AI on a number of maps, customizing the victory conditions, army sizes, and available spells. The real meat of the game is contained in the campaign, which features a linear set of occasionally branching quests divided into five chapters. You are really meant to complete the game like a book, from beginning to end, with little player-directed strategy in between. You can choose your units and upgrades (through unit experience and specific buildings), but there’s nothing else to do other than proceed to the next quest, which may involve combat or a story. The story-based missions, where you click on decisions as a lengthy tale unfolds, are completely boring and tedious. I also suspect that the choices I made had little influence on the outcome, so clicking as fast as you can to skip through story might be a viable strategy. The only way you can conquer more territory is by completing quests, and since there is only a handful to undertake at a time, your path through the world of King Arthur II is quite limited. The enemy AI in the campaign is basically inactive: some monsters aimlessly roam the landscape, but they can be easily avoided and never serve as a threat to your kingdom. In order to enjoy King Arthur II, you must like long-winded static quests presented in a set order.

Provinces you conquer by completing quests can contain a number of locations, from castles to lairs to stores to traders. While you can’t build any new locations, and you don’t have to manage existing ones, you can choose to construct a couple (usually two to three) of buildings in each province. These buildings serve to improve existing units (usually providing a health or damage bonus) or allow you to hire a unique unit type. During the winter, you can conduct research (there is apparently nothing else to do in the cold) to unlock new building options in your provinces. Heroes you hire can be granted a fiefdom of up to three provinces, so you don’t have to manage the whole island of England yourself. In addition, you can find a wife to earn more money (and I thought women causes you to spend money) and other benefits. You can also undertake a limited form of diplomacy in King Arthur II: if you have the required reputation (which is earned by, you guessed it, completing quests), you can sign non-aggression treaties or alliances with your neighbors. You can also train troops and hire mercenaries from their lands, or simply declare war on them. The options are limited and not very interesting, providing little alternative from the main quests.

Gold! It’s earned from (surprise!) completing quests, and spent on recruiting new units and reinforcing existing ones. You start out the game with a ton of gold, and budgeting never really becomes a severe concern. Quests can also give you items, like two-handed weapons, staffs (staves? I think it’s staves), banners, shields, armor, and rings. While most of this stuff will be completely useless for your character (hero types can only equip specific items), you can combine unusable items together through forging, which is probably the most interesting part of the campaign mode. Take a crappy staff, mix in some swords and armor you can’t use, and presto: a slightly better staff! Isn’t science wonderful? This system does not replace the kingdom management options that were present in the original game and removed, which would have given King Arthur II a lot more depth. The lack of freedom in the game is readily apparent: there’s just the next mission to undertake, and the flexibility seen in similar games like Real Warfare 2 is sorely missing.

An army can consist of up to eighteen units (including heroes) of different types: light infantry, heavy infantry, spearmen, archers, cavalry, flying creatures, and unique animals. Units are rated according to health, attack, defense, and morale (will to fight, as King Arthur II calls it), and will gain experience during battle. While you can manually choose minor upgrades to damage, hit points, defense, or morale, units will automatically upgrade into a better unit type when the next experience tier is unlocked during the campaign. Heroes come in three flavors: the fighting champion, the magical mage, or the support warlord. Each hero usually has access to a number of different spells: you can eventually choose eighteen (the developers apparently have some weird fetish for this number) out of a possible one hundred spells to use on the battlefield. Your morality during the campaign, based on in-game actions (basically story choices), can also unlock unique units and spells. Once your hero has learned his spells and your units are back at full strength, it’s time to head to the battlefield.

The tactical battles of King Arthur II try to emulate Total War but add in magic, and the result is a disappointing mess. First off, the maps are very hilly and constrained, leaving less room for tactical flexibility. The victory locations, where you can earn spells or other benefits, are seemingly scattered randomly across the map, far from central areas of tactical importance and near the corners of the map where the main armies will never meet. In addition, some scenarios place most of the victory locations near the enemy, giving their side a distinct initial advantage. You are given very small areas to initially deploy troops, and the first minutes of each battle involve a mad cavalry dash for the victory locations. It would have made a lot more sense to place the victory locations in a subtle path towards the starting enemy position, so good tactics could be rewarded instead of whoever’s cavalry runs the fastest. Units can be organized into formations (diamond, wedge, close array), but the dimensions of those formations cannot be adjusted, which makes it impossible to spread out a single unit to cover a wider area. Spells serve primarily as minor annoyances rather than major battle influences: a fireball here and a health buff there rarely changes the course of a skirmish. Overall, the battles of King Arthur II suffer from the same fate as a lot of Medieval tactical games: everything just becomes a gigantic blob. The use of magic could potentially break up the chaos, but either the effects are minor, or it’s the same as using a really powerful ranged attack. Units almost always die before routing, losing all sense of self-preservation on the battlefield (and costing you a lot more gold in the process). The AI seems perfectly content to throw pretty much all of their units at you simultaneously, instead of holding units in reserve like the intelligent computer opponent in Real Warfare 2 does. Your computer opponent operates on two settings: capture victory locations and engage the enemy head-on. Thus, tactical battles are never really that interesting, and the computer only becomes a threat when it has more units. Finally, King Arthur II thankfully allows you to use time acceleration during battles, because once units meet, there’s not much else to do other than cast the occasional spell.

So, I don't like the heavy reliance on story, or the scripted quests, or the lack of campaign strategy, or the tactical battles, or the AI, or the interface. Which reason to play King Arthur II. First off, I was expecting a somewhat non-linear campaign mode (like Total War), but instead just got a fancy cover for a series of scripted quests. The campaign system used in Real Warfare 2 would have worked great here, giving the user some freedom while still providing a structured series of main quests. Thus, there is hardly any “strategy” in the strategy mode, just moving on the map towards the next mission in the story. The non-battle quests are just clicking on responses that probably end up at the same conclusion anyway. Spending gold earned in quests on new units and buildings for minor upgrades isn’t stimulating, and the diplomacy is very shallow and limited. However, I did like the forging elements (combining low-level items to make a more powerful weapon), a small beacon of light in what is otherwise a dreary campaign. The unit selection is pretty generic, except for fantasy units like dragons, and the battles almost always just turn into a mess of Medieval warfare with little room for tactics thanks to the asinine victory locations. Those victory locations that grant extra abilities and the undulating terrain only offer minor enhancements to the chaotic combat, and the spells are either trivial or balanced out by the opposition. The AI is poor at formulating a strategy other than “select all and attack”, and the unpleasant interface makes combat more difficult: it’s too hard to locate units during the campaign, and unit type and morale are hidden from the player during battles. The graphics are outstanding, but this is a small consolation in a game where so many things fall short of expectations. The undeviating campaign and anarchic tactical battles give little reason to travel back to England.