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Posted on Aug 12, 2011 in Electronic Games

King Arthur Collection – PC Game Review

By Neal West

King Arthur Collection. PC Game.  Publisher: Paradox Interactive.  Developer: Neocore. $29.95

Passed Inspection: Beautiful rendering of Arthurian legend. Successful melding of RPG/war game elements. Smart use of Battlefield victory points.

Failed Basic: Play balance. Brutal campaign and tactical AI, Haphazardly placed quests.

King Arthur: the Role Playing Wargame and its Downloadable Content (DLC) progeny, Saxons and Druids, are an unusual mash-up of several game genres. King Arthur takes elements of Total War, Kingmaker (Avalon Hill PC game, 1994), and Heroes of Might and Magic to create a unique real-time strategy/turn-based/role playing world. The potential for disaster was great but Neocore created a mash-up that, for the most part, works well and captures many of the fun parts from those older games.

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Like the Total War series of games, King Arthur is played on a turn-based campaign map. You play the role, naturally, of King Arthur. But you don’t have a character on the map. Just like Total War or the Civilization series, you are the omniscient ruler moving your pawns over an isometric rendition of “Britannia” in the days of Merlin and the Lady of the Lake. You begin the campaign soon after pulling the sword from the stone with only the territory of Cornwall in the lower southwest of Britannia in your control. From there you embark on an adventure to bring the entire island nation under your rightful, or tyrannical if you choose, rule. Your pawns, just as in the earlier Might and Magic games, are knightly heroes in your thrall. You start out with only a couple, but gain more by completing quests that appear regularly throughout the game. Your heroes fill the roles of ambassador, army commander, recruiter, and liege lord.

The game turns are each three months long. Each spring, summer, and fall you’re exploring, fighting and questing. Each winter the map is covered in snow and your armies pitch tents to rest. The winter turn is used to make improvements to your stronghold that increases your revenue (in terms of gold or food collected from provinces in your control) or the efficiency of your soldiers through the research of more powerful units. Winter is also a good time to check your knight’s loyalty and perhaps provide them a new wife or present them a new province, or give them a set of magical relics – each of which provide boosts to your heroes’ stats and/or abilities.

With the spring your armies are ready to move again to attack another province or accomplish some other goal the game generates. The campaign is heavily laden with Arthurian legends that are presented in “Books.” Quests in the form of glowing scrolls gently pull you along in the story. Many introduce new heroes, relics, or diplomatic dilemmas for you to recruit, gather, or resolve. Some quests are “choose your adventure” puzzles; some require you to take sides in a royal squabble, or back one religious faction over another. Christianity and “The Old Faith” are competing for influence in Britannia and your actions in these quests affect your “morality compass,” the loyalty of provinces, and the types of spells your knights use. A devout Christian knight might have offensive spells while a knight leaning to the Druid faith has more defensive and nature-oriented spells.

King Arthur has been compared most to Total War, but what sets King Arthur apart from that series is its extensive use of magic. As mentioned, performing quests often rewards your heroes with magical items, but they aren’t used on the campaign map. The campaign map is reserved for strategy: movement, recruiting, diplomacy, etc. Once one of your armies makes contact with an enemy army the game loads a real-time tactical level game – again just like Total War, but with a uniqueness that sets King Arthur apart from The Creative Assembly’s effort. It is on the RTS battlefields that magic makes its mark.

The battlefields have three to five victory locations scattered around. Each victory location not only affects the morale of the enemy army, but also often provides some magical advantage to your own arms. Infantry, missile troops, and cavalry make up most of your force but successful quests can also bestow magical creatures with powerful attacks or special formations. Combat is resolved through a basic rock/paper/scissors fashion: pikemen take out cavalry, cavalry take out archers, and archers take out heavy infantry (once you research crossbows). But the victory locations are the key, even an outnumbered or inexperience army can win by taking enough victory locations. Your hero magic abilities and/or relics in their possession add various offensive or defensive spells to your repertoire. Once used, each has a cool down period before it can be used again.

The Druids expansion changes up the basic game somewhat. Instead of portraying the Christian-leaning King Arthur, you play as an Old Faith Welsh prince fighting to bring Britannia under your Druidic devotions. Basic game play is relatively unchanged but diplomacy is greatly expanded. In the original game, diplomacy (outside of questing) was just a matter of attacking a neighbor or not. In Druids you have many more options. Not only can you bribe, threaten, or ally with neighboring kings you now can sway fair maidens to your court or cajole heroes to join your round table. There are also four factions that can be influenced to help your side or hinder your enemies. Marauders, Rogues, Druids, and Sidhe can each be convinced to perform various dastardly deeds – or protect you from the same. Druids is also more of a sandbox game as well. Unlike the original King Arthur, you set your own victory conditions: amass so-much gold, capture so-many provinces, etc. Those who prefer a more story-driven game may not be enchanted with Druids, but players who enjoy unstructured games will likely relish it.

Multiplayer is included but is limited to two players and only on the battle map so that restriction might disappoint those who hope for a full campaign.

Summary of best features: King Arthur is a beautifully rendered game. The maps are gorgeous on both the strategic and tactical levels. On the campaign map seasons change, villages ring with voices, and oceans lap on the shores. On the tactical level, lightning flashes, magical shields spring up, arrows fly, and spells shoot across the landscape. The heavy use of Arthurian legend sets the game apart from more fact-based wargames.

Summary of worst features: King Arthur is not without some flaws. Your knightly heroes are powerful units but you never seem to have enough of them and troops are useless without them. Armies are recruited and led by your knights, but unlike Total War, units without heroes cannot move by themselves. This is frustrating in that occupying certain ancient fortresses, magical ruins, abandoned monasteries and the like on the map give you many benefits when occupied. Some provide revenue, mana, research points or other goodies. The problem is your knights and their attendant armies are often needed elsewhere and while you can split and combine armies; a unit peeled off a hero is unmovable so you’re unable to move a leaderless force to garrison a valuable location.

Another issue is that of play balance on the campaign map. It seems the AI has an inexhaustible supply of heroes and units to throw at you. I would invade a three-town province with an army and occupy two of the towns, out of the third rises a wellspring of enemy armies. I may dispatch the first two but each one weakens me enough to eventual defeat. Since it takes me much money and many turns to recruit a full size army (a hero only has a certain number of slots to fill with units), I suspect the enemy AI has no such constraints judging by the number of individual armies tossed at me. Enemy units also seem to possess quite a bit more movement points as well and move huge distances at a time.

On the tactical level, the AI is a bit simpler. On the easy level, I have found it ridiculously easy to bamboozle. At the start of the battle I immediately dispatch cavalry units toward the victory locations. I can usually capture two or three before our main forces meet while converging on a third. While fighting the main enemy force, my horsemen sweep around the enemy rear to capture other victory flags. Equally unforgiveable is that the enemy AI makes no effort to recapture victory flags once they’re mine; in fact, enemy units heading to a flag will stop and turn around if a flag flips into my control.

Things are different at higher levels. On Normal difficulty, enemy units seem to start closer to the victory flag than my forces and I’d swear they move faster as well. Archers are another problem; they absolutely devastate any unit that comes within range. I’ve had entire units destroyed by bowmen before they even get within sword-poking range. Neocore responded to player’s complaints and added a special setting to weaken archers.

On the whole, however, the minor flaws in King Arthur do little to mar an otherwise deep and challenging game. Gamers who enjoy Total War and Heroes of Might and Magic will find a lot of familiar concepts and will most likely enjoy this game as well. King Arthur is not as tactically deep as Total War, but the heavy emphasis on magic gives players a different series of tactical considerations. The game is gorgeous and stable with no serious system crashes. Since the release of King Arthur in the spring of ’09, two DLC expansions have been released, demonstrating Neocore’s commitment to the game.

Armchair General Rating: 78%.

About the Author

Neal West retired USAF in 2000. In 2009, he received a BA in American Military History and will complete his Masters degree in 2012. He began wargaming as a teen with such board classics as PanzerBlitz, Jutland, and Rise and Fall of the Third Reich before graduating to computers with Chris Crawford’s Eastern Front 1941 on the Atari 800. Throughout the ’80s and ’90’s he crushed his enemies, saw them driven before him, and heard the lamentation of their women (and sometimes the men) through most of the old SSI and Microprose catalog of games. Today, he’s fond of grand strategy games, FPS, and air/naval simulations.

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