You look at a list of new PC releases. The list is populated by arcane words and you sense strong magic at work behind the somehow familiar titles. To your surprise, the list asks you in an inaudible voice, "Do you like tactical battles with large fantasy armies, but don't know The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings by heart?" Curious, you answer "Yes."
The strange list then asks you another question. "Do you like to go on text adventures while a single narrator reads the stories out loud, using different voices to mimic different characters?" Amused, you answer "Yes."
"Then come play with me, my Lord," the list beckons. You install King Arthur II - The Role-playing Wargame. More than 25 hours later, you leave your computer wondering if you've received a buff or a penalty.
King Arthur II - The Role-playing Wargame (PC)
Developer: Neocore Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Released: January 28, 2012
Rig: Intel E8400 Core 2 Duo @ 3.0GHz, 4GB RAM, ATI Radeon HD 4830 512MB, Windows 7 64-bit
Set some years after the first King Arthur, the lands of Britannia have been ravaged by magic and disaster. Something has happened to Arthur when he went to grab his Holy Grail for an occasion, critically injuring the once and future king with a wound that will not heal and shattering the Grail into many shards. As the King lies on his bed, permanently wounded but alive, hordes of the monstrous Fomorians are now laying waste to the population of Britannia and the land itself.
To make matters worse, the Knights of the Round Table have disbanded to fight the new evil wherever they can and the wizard Merlin has disappeared without a trace. As Arthur's son, William Pendragon, it is up to you to embark on numerous quests to restore the Grail, heal your father, heal the land, find Merlin, and slay thousands of fantasy troops in the process.
The mix of text adventure quests with multiple paths, Total War-esque tactical battles, and role-playing elements in the form of upgrading your heroes and troops makes a return in this sequel. For the most part, players of the first game will feel right at home as they recruit massive armies, walk around an overworld map, and dispatch of opposing armies while trying not to lose any soldiers if they can help it. Along the way, King Arthur II has made some drastic changes in a few aspects of its RPG/adventure/warfare mix, and not all of them are equally welcome.
For starters, the macro level of resource management of your provinces has been stripped bare. Provinces no longer supply food or gold through taxes, but now host a few locations that can be upgraded for different benefits. Castles allow you to swap units between your standing army and a pool of reserve units, villages can yield bonuses to damage or hit points for your different types of soldiers, Stonehenge-like stone circles can be upgraded to allow instantaneous travel to similar stone circles across the map, and various other buildings provide different benefits to things like magic, diplomatic relations, or allow for the crafting of artifacts.
You still need gold to buy new units or to reinforce troops who have incurred losses, which now only takes one turn regardless of how many individual soldiers need to be recruited. Every turn is still one season in a year, with the winter season dedicated to building and upgrading your provinces, conducting research in a somewhat convoluted tech tree that unlocks upgrades, while the winter snows prevent all armies on the overworld from moving. Because you no longer get gold on a periodic basis, however, you need to accumulate it by fighting enemy armies, at the risk of losing troops, or by completing text adventure quests to collect gold the easy way.
Although you still need to take great care with how many losses you incur per battle lest you are no longer able to keep your army at full strength for the next encounter, especially when you are at risk of running out of gold, the difficulty in King Arthur II does not spike as harshly as it did in the previous game. Part of it is due to the incredibly linear path the sequel offers. While this is initially welcome as a tutorial to get players acquainted with all the mechanics -- and it's still a rather complex game despite the new fashion of province management -- it also removes a lot of the freedom you expect in these types of games.
In many cases, progress is made by simply walking from battle to battle without really having any choice where you want to strike next. There are a few instances where a quest can be completed by taking over a few provinces in any order as long as you defeat the quest objective's army, but the overworld is largely reduced to a visual representation of getting from target to target for progression's sake. Many provinces are defended by "impossible" strength armies that have highly inflated stats, making them unbeatable until you've progressed through enough storyline quests to be permitted to fight them. When you do progress far enough, the game's "military advancement" tech tree automatically goes up by one level and all your units -- existing units included -- are upgraded to more a powerful class, while the impossible armies now suddenly have more manageable stats.
It also takes a couple of hours until you can even field a second army, and by the time you are allowed access to a third army, your main army is powerful enough to wipe out anything in sight. In a way, it can feel like you are facing invisible walls that restrict your experience in a genre of games that normally benefits greatly from having the freedom to approach world domination in your own way. This new form of linearity makes King Arthur II more accessible than its predecessor, but it makes you wonder if they haven't stripped down the management aspects too far. Any management on your side on the overworld can yield benefits for battle performance, but you're hard pressed to notice the results of your micromanaging efforts. On the upside, the text adventure and tactical encounters are as fun as you'd expect and better than before.
The new engine makes the large battles a joy to behold, if you have the rig capable of displaying the graphical prowess at a sustainable framerate. Heavy infantry hold the line, archers destroy everything from afar, spearmen skewer cavalry and large monsters, cavalry smash through archers, and the new flying units pester everything on the ground as long as they aren't shot down.
The victory locations from the first game make a return, but now simply provide access to spells, buffs, and other bonuses instead of acting as positions that can let you win or lose an entire battle depending on who controls them. They work in conjunction with the new magic system that protects you from losing half your army before it has even reached the enemy front lines. Both you and your opponent can have up to three heroes in your army, whose individual skills add up towards a global "magic shield." Every spell that isn't powerful enough to pierce the shield simply eats into the shield's defenses.
It's a clever system that lets you focus on the tactical warfare side of things if you want, although it is also very easily exploited. With three powerful and upgraded spellcasters in one army, you can hurl fireballs at random locations and cast long range damage-over-time poison spells at enemy troops until the enemy's magic shield is vaporized. Once it is gone, it's all too easy to completely decimate an entire army with just your heroes, while the AI never truly gets a chance to oppose you, or runs into a rain of archer fire if they attempt to approach your heroes with troops.
At the start of the game, you can tailor your own version of William Pendragon by answering some questions à la Mass Effect. My William was an evil Sage, a spellcaster, who could eventually cast a meteor spell that instantly destroyed all but the strongest troops within a huge area. It's fun to mess around with your über-strength wizardly trio of doom, but it can also reduce a lot of the battles in the second half of the campaign to a game of watching cooldowns tick and keeping your heroes at a safe distance, well-protected by your ranged units.
Of course, you don't have to exploit the system if you don't want to, but it's somewhat encouraged because this way you don't lose as many soldiers in melee combat, if any at all. Once you've been in a situation where you have two heavily crippled armies, no gold to combine them into a single army powerful enough to deal with an inescapible upcoming battle, and thus no way to gain more gold if you happen to have run out of quests that don't involve fighting, you're naturally inclined to do whatever you can to not lose a single soul -- if only so you don't have to revert to a savegame from over an hour ago. It's a bit like when you pull off a tactical masterstroke against an overwhelming force in Total War: SHOGUN 2, leaving you victorious with 70% of your troops instead of being decimated. Would you choose to win the same battle and keep 100% of your troops? Of course you would, but the process of doing so in King Arthur II is far less exhilirating.
Still, if you play King Arthur II in a more traditional Total War style, there is plenty of fun to be had. Units can hide in forests and gain a brief damage bonus when they ambush enemies in the open, the victory locations can shift a battle either way from time to time, and it's always fun to see hundreds of soldiers clashing steel upon steel. Your units also receive stat increases from provinces or from leveling up through battle experience, but there is a disconnect between the countless minutes you spend pouring your eyes over all the numbers and the actual perceived effect during any battle. Especially when your units' "military advancement" through quest progression can instantly give them dozens of levels worth of stat increases when they are upgraded to a new class, it sometimes makes you wonder why you bothered to spend all that time tailoring them in the first place. Likewise, you can switch a unit from any category (say, archers) to another sub-class to focus on offense or defense, but the effects aren't always very noticeable.
While the battles are as fun as you want them to be and the campaign is too linear for its own good, the text adventure quests are provide a much needed level of charm to the game. You are continuously subjected to the same male narrator who reads the text out loud, whether he's protraying a powerful knight, a wimpy priest, or a beautiful maiden. This guy just changes his voice to match the characters in question, which never fails to sound like the father figure who read you bedtime stories in a hilariously exaggerated manner. These text adventures also tell a story that isn't bad at all, and the decisions you make can affect your performance in upcoming battles, or your personal standing on the game's two-dimensional morality chart.
This morality system doesn't affect the gameplay all that much, but regardless you still allow yourself to believe that it does for the sake of role playing, simply because the text adventures slowly make you feel engrossed in the fantasy world. I was a massive Tyrant dick son of Arthur, and all the choices I made were worth it from a role playing standpoint; benefits or impairments be damned, peasant flesh had to be sacrificed.
King Arthur II is a massive game filled with all sorts of intertwining systems. You'll find text adventures, diplomatic relations, factions that can be hired to perform tasks in an almost hidden away screen, province construction and allocation, and a dozen ways to upgrade your army's strength. It all combines into an experience that takes you by the hand as you move from battle to battle and from quest to quest. Some players who want a more fantasy-oriented Total War experience might welcome the lowered barrier to entry and the change of scenery. Others, and fans of the original in particular, might find it too restrictive. Either way, the sheer amount of tools you have at your disposal to customize your heroes and armies would've been better served in a game that encourages different approaches and playthroughs in a more non-linear fashion.
Upon launch, it was also plagued by some game-crashing and progress-inhibiting bugs, but Neocore has been quick to address most of these issues with patches over the first week. There is still some talk of performance issues on high-end rigs, which is something I can't confirm with my poor old rig. Suffice it to say that it is playable enough on an older PCs if you're not too picky about framerates in a strategy game, and it might take a while before it runs at more than 30 frames per second on any PC from the looks of it. It certainly seems to eat up more resources than it should -- even starting up the game immediately switches Windows 7 from Aero to Basic mode -- yet I found it to be playable enough even at the lower framerates.
Whether or not King Arthur II is one step forward, two steps back or the other way around is going to depend on what you expect from this sequel. The streamlined campaign may raise many an eyebrow while the text adventure quests will elicit more smiles than frowns, and any fan of this genre of strategy will still spend countless hours both on and off the battlefield. It's not quite the diamond in the rough that many have hoped for, perhaps, but you'll be hard pressed to keep yourself from playing just one more turn.