[17 August 2010]
I’m happy to welcome NeoCore’s King Arthur series back to my computer, following the release of the game’s first proper expansion, The Saxons. With a name like that, I was expecting some excellent religious and feudal confrontations, a lot of real-time army management, and more of NeoCore’s lush, beautiful England (this is a fantasy game, so that last bit actually makes sense).
King Arthur is a peculiar game in many respects. Despite its many similarities to the genre heavyweight Total War series, the title King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame was boldly plastered on the front of the game. Play consists of controlling armies, cities, and political machinations across a segmented map of Arthurian England, doing battle with trolls, men, and faerie hosts, while romancing ladies, recruiting knights, and deciding whether you’ll support the old ways or the upstart Christianity brought by invading armies.
The Saxons places players in control of the titular invaders, those Saxons, who (in the world of the game) take up arms under the banner King Raedwald and swear to destroy Arthur and his dark paganism forever. As befits an expansion, it isn’t nearly as hefty as the original game. The Saxons may be a pared down experience in some respects, but it’s also much more flexible.
King Arthur was an uncompromising game, which is saying something for a fantasy strategy game. It took me several restarts and reloads (and hours of play) to even figure out how to hire new units and reinforce damaged units. The real time battles that decided quests and key conflicts in King Arthur were a mix of traditional Total War-style tactics, moment to moment skills and spells, and a weird kind of capture-point play. All of that is back in The Saxons, and it’s just as frustrating (or comforting, I suppose) as it was the last time round.
It’s still quite possible to win the battle using clever capture-point tactics, while losing almost every unit that the player has. While it is entertaining to spit in the enemy’s eye and through the use of carefully orchestrated techniques pull off an “enemy’s gate is down” win, it also reveals the greatest flaw at the heart of King Arthur, and sadly, at the heart of The Saxons, the RTS parts, specifically the enemy’s AI, is badly broken.
It’s the capture-point play that really ruined the RTS bits of The Saxons for me, as they ruined Arthur before. On every battle map, peppered across the verdant English countryside are three to five vital capture points. These can be towns, fortresses, monasteries, and places of old magic. While holding these spots, units close to them gain significant bonuses to various battle skills. More importantly, whichever army controls more points (there are always an even number of points) slowly wears away at the other army’s “strength” meter. Both armies start with such a meter. The larger, stronger army gets the larger meter. It’s possible to win by destroying the enemy’s forces, capturing the enemy’s hero units (though this generally works better in the early game) or by controlling the capture points for a long enough period of time.
This is where the AI can be incredibly foolish. At the beginning of each battle, smart players will always use their cavalry to rush to the closest capture points because that’s exactly what the AI will do. This generally leads to one side possessing three points while the opposing side gets two. The trick here (even if the AI gets those three points) is that nine times out of 10, the AI will never recapture those points. After all, points are controlled, and it’s quite possible to use a few cavalry units to sneak around the enemy and take back the points captured at the beginning of the match.
In the final deciding battle of my Saxons campaign (the culmination of ten hours of scheming, fighting, and negotiating), I fought an overpowered, overwhelming Old Magic force, full of Unsealy (the Fairies’ version of the undead) archers and powerful swordsmen. They had 150 units to my 600, and I was hopelessly outmatched. For fun, I set the first battle to “auto-resolve” and watched as my army was wiped off the map, the enemy suffering nary a scratch.
Then, I hopped into the battle, used my guardsmen, spearmen, and archers to tie up the bulk of the enemy’s units in battle, and used my elite horsemen to run around the map and capture the enemy’s points. At the end of the round, I’d lost 510 units and my enemy had barely lost 100. I won the battle handily, thanks to my judicious capture point acquisition. This is the kind of thing that can be accomplished in every single battle.
It’s really quite a shame because I love the capture point mechanic. It rewards clever tactical play in a slightly different way than the standard “take the high ground, use cover, and surround the enemy” tactics that the game would otherwise confine itself to. With the AI this broken, it also means every battle is a guaranteed victory if you play your cards (and your horses) right.
The rest of The Saxons is also a delight. The diplomacy options are much more extensive than they were in Arthur. There are four main factions to barter with and cozy up to. The Marauders can be paid off to invade other territories (or protect your own), the Thieves’ Guild can spy, incite rebellion, assassinate, and poison, the Church’s representative can grant blessings and gifts, and the forces of the Old Ways can provide armies, leaders, and dangerous old magic. Knights can be wooed and recruited and married off to ladies. My faceless king even married, although I couldn’t tell what difference it made at all (aside from the fact that I couldn’t get married again).
City building, upgrading, and army management also take up a huge amount of time. Each large city (every faction gets its own, so after I’d conquered most of England, I had five) possesses a set number of slots into which structures can be built. Each structure has its own set of upgrades. That’s not even counting the large set of research tech trees, which cover army upgrades, civic and judicial advances, and new technologies. Problematically, as long as your civilization is doing well, these upgrades are interchangeable. Yes, having roads changes the early game, but I didn’t realize that they were there until the late game. All of these various techs and upgrades are fun to strive for and acquire, but they’re not necessary. I never once lost a battle or war because I hadn’t smartly developed my infrastructure.
Along with these new civic options, the “choose your own adventure” bits of Arthur have been axed or altered. These were really what set the first game apart from the pack for me. They might have pulled me out of the game, but the tiered skill, alignment, and army-based CYOA segments, full of overly descriptive text, were really unique. Instead of entering into long text conversations, Saxons lets you decide every “story” conflict by paying a certain amount of money or food, unlocking different resolutions to each conflict. With 1000 gold, I can suppress the uprising, gaining tyranny points. 3000 gets me the +1 to Right Morality. 6000 gets me the coveted “rebellious forces join your army” ending. The feeling of adventure that the original segments provided Arthur are gone. In The Saxons, adventures and stories are just something that you throw money at until they go away.
What’s left is still quite fun. I played a 12-hour campaign and didn’t once regret it. There are a lot of new options to customize your campaign. I set my two main objectives (become fully Christian and capture ten territories), but I could have set ten main objectives and really challenged myself. Of course, thanks to the disappearance of the original game’s peculiar CYOA adventures, all objectives in The Saxons boil down to killing or buying off your target. It’s just a big, pretty war game with a robust turn-based structure and a faulty RTS portion. It used to be all that and a bit more, thanks to Arthur’s adventures. It also used to be a bit more broken.
With The Saxons, NeoCore traded a bit of character for a bit of usability. Considering the final product is still a bit broken, I’d honestly like the quirky text adventures to make a return. They, along with the game’s magical, pseudo-historical RPG trappings are what set Arthur apart. Making the game less unique hasn’t done it any favors. It’s still fun and just different feeling enough, but The Saxons is a step in (one of many) wrong directions. Hopefully, Neocore can do an about face and bring us something quite different the next time that they return to Arthur’s world.