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.