There probably isnít much more exciting to a grown man from Britain with some knowledge in legend and mythology than the chance to role play and strategise as King Arthur - the once and future king who removed Excalibur from the stone and united Britannia. This makes the chance to review King Arthur II - The Role-Playing Wargame a sincere honour, especially given the fervour it stirred within when time was spent with its preview code. Having had the chance to play the finished title and sitting down to review it, the question I keep returning to is why then do I feel so flat and indifferent?
The first clue was provided in the opening of the game whereby you learn that you will in fact be playing the role of William Pendragon, son of the titular King Arthur, rather than the great man himself. This might not be such a big deal to everyone but if the name of this series is even part responsible for the pique in interest then this is going to deliver a hammer blow of sorts, even if said hammer is rubber. It also impacts upon the consequent investment any player will put into this game. Itís not a real-time or turn based strategy game (despite having plenty of such gameplay) but a role-playing game. If the role doesnít grab you by the throat from the start then the game is always playing catch-up at best.
Once you get over the eponymous mis-direction the game offers various tutorials and effective guidance in the early turns, with more options available from which to learn if so desired. Being a newcomer to the series with no familiarity carried over from the first game or the standalone DLC this is extremely helpful as depending on how you choose to play it, the game has a great many facets to it all of which can be very complex and in-depth if so desired. The help is not equally distributed though and battles can take some effort when you first begin.
Fundamentally the game front-end is an animated board game which is advanced through turn by turn. Within turns battles will occur and these are fought in real-time. Research and resource management is incorporated also and handled within turns in a similar way to Civilisation (e.g. research trees). Arguably the most interesting part of the game though is the old-fashioned choose your own adventure aspect, similar to older childrenís storybooks (only with this thereís no option to turn ahead to option 3 and then try again if it doesnít look like the right choice!). This means there are three key aspects to the game - enhancing resources, fighting and adventuring.
The reason for performing these various acts is to ultimately restore Britannia to its great state, a state it isnít in right now only a year after King Arthur first performed his magic, as it were. Heís got some currently incurable wound, enemies are present all around and William is but a crown prince who folk are yet to fully trust and believe in. Over time the threat to the kingdom will be banished, King Arthur restored to health and the throne and also, as a side note (at least early on), Merlinís disappearance will be understood and resolved as necessary. In a nutshell, thatís King Arthur II - The Role-Playing Wargame.
Adventuring is a real throwback to days of old and initially seems all too quaint an idea to sit in a modern day PC blockbuster of a game. But it works. It sucks the player into the world, forcing you to read the story surrounding each challenge be it the search for a healer or investigation into murder. The more information thatís absorbed the more engrossed in the world one becomes and therefore more excited by all that happens within it. It affects relationships and resources depending on choices made. Do you gain trust of a nearby Lord or do you lose significant chunks of gold trying to leave with some semblance of dignity and status? Whichever route through each adventure you choose it all carries things forward and is done so by generally good quality - if repetitive and sometimes disparate versus the written text - voice acting and does evoke a genuinely enjoyable atmosphere given the chance, ensuring that come the latter stages (if still playing) youíll be driven to keep going.
Fans of turn based empire building will find plenty to get involved in here. Turns equate to the four seasons and come winter time there is no movement allowed and itís the time to build, to research and so on. As mentioned we have research trees with options discovered or invented once a certain level of lore is reached. Lore is gained over time as you play the game. Buildings can be constructed to provide benefits to a certain region and the empire as a whole. Morality plays a part in the game, too. Depending on the choices you make you will be seen as a man of the old faith or Christianity; a tyrant or a gentle leader. Itís like the religion lever in Civilisation IV but without it spreading throughout the land, merely affecting the way NPCs interact with you and therefore potential outcomes. Thereís a lot going on, then, but itís not central to the game and on lower difficulty levels doesnít need to be focused on that sharply if disinterested.
Battles are the other main part of the game. To the untrained eye when starting out it seems like itís Total War with magic and beasts. Disappointingly it doesnít give you the same feeling as that does; you wonít find yourself declaring that you are Sun Tzu when you win. When you donít win thereís no real feeling of failure, either, because after reloading youíll succeed. Very early in the game youíll realise that to win you do not need to employ military tactics. In fact the only tactical decision you need to make is what order to attack the enemy, and then you can instigate the attack. Even on higher difficulties this can all be worked out without the need to arrange your different types of troops so that you have flanking, long-range and short range variation, advanced attack and so on. Of course, if you want to do more than just succeed and, for example, ensure your heroes are unharmed, or protect the units you have upgraded through multiple winters, then thinking more about your battle and doing things a better way will allow you to reap the benefits.
You can choose to completely ignore battles and let the computer auto-battle for you. Itís just a roll of the dice after all in that regard. A strange decision though is that you canít always do this. Why give the player a choice then take it away and force them to play the fight? Battles are the least well taught in this game and even if familiar with the original King Arthur or similar games it can be somewhat daunting to suddenly get asked to go and wage war against some beasts. Especially given the introduction of winged baddies and boss fights this time around means there are some novelties. It is never right to let a player determine the way they want to play a game and then randomly take that away from them. They wonít be prepared and will probably feel some level of hatred towards the developers.
If the battles are the aspect of the game youíre most looking forward to then thereís plenty to enjoy even if it is unreasonably awkward to organise your camera angle and aspect to allow for a good vantage point. The fights themselves ensure good military practice will bring success, but also being a King Arthur game involve magical options if needed. Time will need to be invested here to get truly au fait with the system but once you do itís unlikely there will be much challenge, even on higher difficulties. itís a shame though there is no way to take your battle-hardened skills onto the internet and compete against like-minded individuals to see how good you really are. As King Arthur II - The Role-Playing Wargame is about more than that itís possible the developers decided the whole experience couldnít be captured online and didnít want to compromise but more likely it was a decision made given release dates and resources.
Looking at the game as a whole the overriding feeling is that Neocore Games have stretched themselves in this follow-up to King Arthur and in so doing gone a little too far and opened up some cracks in the foundations. The story whilst good in and of itself starts from a negative position and will never be as good as that of King Arthur, holy grails and Merlin based magic. There are so many aspects to the game and of such variation that unless you are the very small percentage of gamers this was written directly for, a lot of it is going to pass you by. Whatís left is then done perhaps not so well as it could have been had things been streamlined. If you want real-time battles there are superior titles. If you want turn based empire building there are better games. If you want to choose your own adventure this is the best youíll get but were someone to do that with Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones then again it would better it, although they havenít - yet - so itís a somewhat redundant criticism. Unfortunately King Arthur II - The Role-Playing Wargame is a jack of all trades. If this were the aim itís succeeded. The suspicion though is that it wanted to be a master of something and in this it just doesnít quite manage it.
Does King Arthur II take the original's winning formula and enhance it by magic, or stay stuck in the stone?