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Posted on Oct 20, 2010 in Electronic Games

Lionheart: King’s Crusade – PC Game Review

By Kyle Stegerwald

Lionheart: King’s Crusade. PC Game. Developed by Neocore Games. Published by Paradox Interactive. $39.99.

Passed inspection: Rudiments of a Total-War battle system; two lengthy, distinct campaigns; many opportunities for customizing units; hints of historical flavor; good graphics.

Failed basic: AI that frequently can’t provide a challenge; lack of strategic-level back-and-forth,  unit balance issues.

Lionheart presents itself as a Total War clone with all the fixin’s: the high level/low level divide in the action, the focus on recruiting and maintaining units of diverse types, lavish height-mapped battle-scenes and "epic" scale. Neocore’s additions to that well-worn schematic include a novel setting (the Middle East during the time of the Third Crusade), RPG elements, and some flirtations with alternate history and outright fantasy. Lionheart‘s combination of role-playing and high strategy is so precarious that it barely succeeds.

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I namedropped Total War in the first sentence, but thinking about this game as a Total War clone is not as helpful as it might seem. First of all, on the macro level, the other side is completely unresponsive. They do not raise armies or conduct their own diplomacy or handle their own finances, or even have a visible presence outside of the tactical mode. Comparing Lionheart to a more traditional linear RTS campaign is more fruitful than comparing it to a true full-fledged battle map as seen in Medieval or Shogun. Losing a battle is not an option: either you win or you reload. And even though you are given the freedom to complete any mission in any order you choose (constrained by space, of course—you can only invade Armenia if you control a province that borders it) the actual campaigns resemble "levels" in the traditional sense of the term. You hop from one to the other, keeping your units and your special weapons and armors with you but not worrying about constructing forts or levying taxes or any of that other nonsense. Thinking of Lionheart as a linear RPG with brigades taking the place of individual characters is much more accurate.

Several things about this hybridization are very attractive. You’re given much more control over your own army than is typical for a strategy game of this type, and given the length of the campaigns and all the possibilities you’ll have in which to use your army, you become much more familiar with each unit. Battles become more intuitive once you know the effective range of your crossbowmen and how fast your cavalry can pursue fleeing archers through a forest. You also get to shape your army into your own unique instrument—if you want to create an army filled with archers (way more effective than it sounds) you can go right ahead. If you want spearmen that can jog through the desert sands for hours, you can do that, too.

Another fun bit Lionheart borrows from RPGs is the quest mechanic. Throughout the game, in either campaign, you’re given the opportunity to respond to particular events that pop up on the map. A Crusader might have gone rogue and attacked allies in Cyprus, or there might be intrigues involving the Byzantine court developing in Edessa. You’re alerted to the event and given several possible courses of action. Typically you can pick favoring one faction over another. For instance, when Barbarossa dies you’re given the option of sending the entire German contingent home or allowing them to stay; picking the former option grants you the favor of the German princes, and picking the latter nets you extra units. But sometimes you’re asked to send armies out to solve particularly intractable problems. This means extra battles, which means more wear and tear for your troops but also more loot, experience and cash. As in a competent RPG, choosing which quests are worth completing is up to you.

And, of course, the strategy elements are welcome as well. Morale is modeled, and dispersing large formations by shocking them with cavalry charges or sudden arrow barrages from hidden archers is a necessary skill. Flanking penalties seem to be modeled as well, so sending the cavalry around a hill and coming up on enemy catapults and archers is sure to put them out of commission.

Your units, and those of your enemies, can run out of stamina if they are forced to climb steep hills. Some battles, such as one in which the Crusaders come across an apparently weak Saracen force but are suddenly ambushed by Assassins and archers hiding in a ravine, are real nail-biting set-pieces. Many battles are multi-stage, and players are frequently required to prioritize their forces, deciding which units will arrive first to hold off the enemy and which will arrive later to finish the job. Others involve the construction of siege engines (more on them later) and the storming of cities (Jerusalem, Baghdad).

Modifying each battle (in the Crusader campaign, at least) is the presence of factions. The Crusader player must balance the demands of four separate participants in the struggle: France, the Holy Roman Empire, the Templars, and the Papal court. Each faction can propose a battle plan for you to follow at the start of each mission. The plans differ considerably. The French always propose a straight-ahead assault, the Germans are hyper-cautious and have a fetish for constructing siege engines, and the Papal court and the Templars are always working at cross-purposes (no pun intended). Picking a given faction’s battle plan (or completing one of the quests I mentioned in favor of a particular faction) grants you fame with that faction which in turn grants you bonuses such as new unit types, new hero units, upgrades, etc. The Crusader campaign is considerably more interesting for the addition of the faction system. The Saracens, by comparison, have a much lamer method for dispensing upgrades: you gather "upgrade points" by completing missions and just invest them in a tech tree.

In fact, the Saracen campaign is the first part of the experience that breaks down a little bit. It’s intended to be a more difficult follow-on to the Crusader campaign, and if it’s looked at as a peripheral experience that’s more acceptable. But the fact that it is not as interesting and lacks many of the more interesting quests and intrigue of the Crusader campaign is unfortunate. It would have been nice to have two strong campaigns instead of just one.

But the most outstanding deficiency in this game is not any particular campaign or scenario. It is the too-frequent combination of poor scenarios and weak tactical AI. During one battle in particular, I was able to select my entire army and order it forward, and that was all the direction my troops required. Losses were not nearly high enough to convince me that pursuing a more micro-intensive strategy would have been worth the effort. And while Lionheart looks good (really good, actually) no game is attractive enough that staring at it for five minutes is acceptable. I have to be doing something—not a million things at once, of course— but at least something more than ticking the speed up to maximum and looking on as my troops roll up another hapless Saracen army. This wasn’t the case for every battle, but the scenarios where I felt that positioning, timing, force composition and the rest actually made a crucial difference were few enough to be alarming. Particularly towards the end of the game, when your army is gigantic, filled with crack troops and decked out with rare poisons and impervious armors, you rarely have to worry about being routed. The "epic" final battle for Baghdad was a bit of a joke for my Crusader army. I outnumbered the Saracens in their own capitol, apparently, and none of them moved from their positions deep within the city until my own units got within arrow range. It was more of a chore than anything else.

Sieges (or any battle involving stationary artillery) are in a similar vein. During the Saracen campaign I was forced to defend a river crossing against vastly superior Crusader forces, and managed to do it with two or three pieces of artillery that looked (and fired) like Patriot missile systems. Powerful siege artillery is one thing, but superweapons (and an AI that didn’t seem to know how to handle them) are another. Going from "Normal" difficulty to playing a higher difficulty level just seems to make it harder to kill units, not to outmaneuver them or to outsmart the AI.

Something else I have to mention is that the Steam version of the game seems to have a bug that prevents the player from advancing beyond the first mission in the Crusader campaign. The GamersGate version doesn’t suffer from that issue, although both versions had crashes-to-desktop once every few missions. Neocore has a bit of patching work to do here.

Putting a score together for a game this conflicted is difficult. The blending of disparate genres gets Lionheart pretty far, but ironically it’s the game’s failure to implement the basics of the strategy side that drags it backwards. With a truly crafty AI (and maybe some more strategic-level action, such as counterattacks, raids, diplomatic agitation, etc.) this game would be amazing. As it stands, it’s a first-rate diversion, even if it’s only a fraction as good as it could be.

Armchair General Rating: 70%

About the author
Kyle Stegerwald has been reviewing strategy games for various publications for over eight years, and playing them for much longer—from his first rig, a secondhand Macintosh II, to his latest, which is slightly more sophisticated. He lives and works in Salt Lake City..

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