Wot I Think: King Arthur II

By Tim Stone on February 8th, 2012 at 12:49 pm.

When The Hivemind asked me if I had any experience of pulling swords from stones and I replied “None, but I’ve removed quite a few splinters, thorns, and bee stings from T. Stone.” everyone in the room collapsed into helpless laughter. It was the subtle kind of helpless laughter, the kind where the laughers don’t make any sounds, or show any outward signs of being amused, but I could tell my little word-play had gone down well because moments later I was being asked to provide a joke-free (they were most insistent on that point) Wot I Think on Neocore’s latest Arthurian epic.

Before we get started there’s two things I feel duty-bound to disclose.

Thing 1. During the course of the past year I’ve received several unsolicited King Arthur 2-branded gifts from the lovely people at Neocore. The gifts include a leather-topped desk blotter, a leather document folder, and a leather-bound choose-your-own-adventure book. In a bid to bring KA2 to the attention of this English game reviewer, at least one Hungarian cow has been violently relieved of its epidermis.

Thing 2. Despite receiving no leather goods in the run-up to its 2009 release, I adored the original King Arthur. The Merlin’s cauldron of real-time battles, absorbing turn-based realm expansion, quirky text-adventure quests, and hands-on hero customisation, totally disarmed me. After a fortnight in its company, the peerless Total Wars felt a lot less peerless.

If, like me, you adored King Arthur, I suspect you’ll struggle to adore KA2. Enjoyment is certain, but true first-thought-on-waking, badger-your-friends-into-buying adoration is unlikely. You see, Neocore have meddled with things that really shouldn’t have been meddled with.

KA was basically Medieval 2: Total War’s weird yet wonderful half-sister. It worked for many of the same reasons the TW series works. You raised armies and marched them around a misty map of a quasi-historical Britannia. You fought regular real-time battles and fretted over unrest in Nottingham, plague in Peterborough, and wheat stocks in Winchester. You spent half your time doing sturdy TW-type stuff, and – this was the revelation – spent the other half away with the fairies (often, literally), tiptoeing through text-adventure quests in which every choice impacted your hero’s eel-like alignment and, thus, his spell and unit options.

This sequel has the bookish quests, the slippery alignments, the sorcery-seasoned real-time scraps… What it doesn’t have – rather bafflingly – is its father’s realm management dimension or dynamic territorial tug-of-war.

The domestic duties that once funded armies and provided a pleasingly prosaic counterweight to the quests and magical mumbo-jumbo, have been cast out. Now the bulk of play consists of reading quest texts and fighting battles triggered by those texts. We’re left with too much tale-spinning and giant-slaying and not enough tax collecting and rebellion quelling. The perfectly-balanced KA lance has become tip-heavy.

With the greater emphasis on narrative, comes restricted military freedom. In KA1 you were free to sprinkle the strat map with as many armies as you liked, and march on almost any town that took your fancy. Those rights have been revoked. Plot progress now determines how many armies you field (three by the close of the campaign) and, sometimes, which regions are open to conquest. At times Pendragon (Arthur’s son and your starting hero) feels more puppet than potentate.

Of course, you can’t shackle the player to a story without doing the same to the foe. Most demon armies spend the entire game pacing up and down in their starting provinces like caged bears. There’s no sense of fiendish forces attempting to finish the job they’ve started. When the preamble talks of tides of monsters and time being short, it’s talking out of its moth-eaten arras. If, instead of striding out to meet your blood-spattered destiny, you decide to spend your first 100 years (400 turns) sitting in Bedegraine polishing your codpiece collection, absolutely nothing will happen. Not one extra province will fall to the demonic hordes. Even your dad, apparently on his deathbed, will patiently persist.

Disappointing simplifications and heavy-handed scripting doesn’t mean KA2 is short of absorbing decisions. The devs might have ditched some perfectly decent TW-style fundamentals, but there’s still plenty here to snare the attention, and warm the cockles of a cynical, seen-everything strategy veteran. In my last turn alone, I rejigged and repaired a ravaged army. I spent the skill points of a levelling-up hero, commissioned new building projects, organised research, awarded a fiefdom, conducted diplomacy, fought a cracking battle, and did a spot of Dark Ages detective work via a typically intriguing story quest.

A scary amount of work has gone into creating the forest of word-trees that stand between the young Pendragon and a Britain cleansed of frogspawn hellspawn. Though the writing tends towards the functional, the plots, riddles, and puzzles invariably engross. The only times I’ve fled in frustration from a challenge is when faced with a maddening text labyrinth:

You have arrived at a junction. Go north? Go south? Go east? Go west? You have arrived at another junction. Go north? Go south? Go east? Go west?… There are some aspects of pre-graphics adventuring that are best left on the midden heap of history.

Swelling the game’s extensive lore, and testing the regional accent capabilities of the admirably enthusiastic narrator, the quests encourage role-playing in its truest sense. You regularly find yourself suppressing personal feelings in order to push a hero’s alignment star a little further towards a nearby Tyrant or Rightful unlock. Consistency, whether moral or religious (Half of Briton cleaves to the druidic Old Faith, half to new-fangled Christianity) is crucial if the sweetest fruits on the alignment disc are to be plucked.

Returning to Britannia’s battlefields after a long spell in medieval Japan, I’m reminded how much I like Neocore’s use of victory locations and take for granted Creative Assembly’s superb interface. Though Arthurian generals can no longer win battles simply by seizing power-bestowing magical sites (holding more VLs than an opponent no longer causes your enemy to bleed morale) only a fool would neglect them. The rush for bleached dragon skeletons, crystal-encrusted towers and monumental statuary, usually triggers telling side-skirmishes, and prevents the head-on clashes that are so common in Total War. Cavalry rarely stand idle during the preliminary phases of a KA2 engagement.

Where Total War still has a noticeable edge is in the efficiency of its controls and the crunch of its combat. Plunge the camera into the midst of a KA2 bloodbath and you’re guaranteed some stirring sights. What you won’t see, is much in the way of animation variety or synchronisation. The young pretender’s battles can be tricky to follow too, thanks to an absence of outcome-predicting tooltips and the annoying altitude limits of the camera. There’s an attempt to provide combat clues via voiced messages but as these mostly seem to consist of a man repeating ‘Your men are going to die’ over and over, such updates are currently of limited use.

The relentlessly pessimistic combat commentator is one of KA2′s lesser bugs. Wander the handsome Britannia map for any length of time and you’re sure to stumble upon worse. Occasional crashes and faulty quests, graphic anomalies and performance problems… Neocore are tackling the issues with impressive haste (there have been several patches already), but I’m still savegaming obsessively and making daily fact-finding visits to this slough of sorrow.

Would the technical problems together with the shrunken scope, prevent me from recommending KA2 to a curious Total Warrior? I reckon that question is best answered in the form of one of the game’s own adventure dialogues:

While waiting at Gamers Gate you are approached by a ragged pedlar. He offers to sell you two uncommonly rich and atmospheric, role-playing wargames …

-You buy both games.

(+6 enjoyment, +1 frustration, -55 gold)

-You buy King Arthur 2.

(+2 enjoyment, +1 frustration, -30 gold)

-You purchase the original King Arthur together with its numerous expansions and DLCs.

(+4 enjoyment, -25 gold)

-You slay the pedlar, bundle his body into a nearby well, and walk swiftly away, clutching both games beneath your cloak.

(+6 enjoyment, +1 frustration, +5 tyrant)

-You bid farewell to the pedlar, promising to buy King Arthur 2 once Neocore’s poultices have done their work.

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51 Comments »

  1. Sheng-ji says:

    Ooooh, where can I get myself a copy of that CYOA Book, I collect such things!

  2. Tams80 says:

    Was I the only one who thought “Pass the Pigs” for the photo with the cow and leather trinkets?

    • Premium User Badge MonkeyMonster says:

      No, I too was going with a new game called “cradle the cow”

    • Tams80 says:

      Makin’ beef doesn’t sound quite a as good as Makin’ Bacon though. =(

    • Skabooga says:

      You are not the only one. I don’t think I ever got a legitimate leaning snouter.

  3. Eclipse says:

    “This sequel has the bookish quests, the slippery alignments, the sorcery-seasoned real-time scraps… What it doesn’t have – rather bafflingly – is its father’s realm management dimension or dynamic territorial tug-of-war.”

    that really sucks :-\

  4. lordcooper says:

    “You slay the peddlar, bundle his body into a nearby well, and walk swiftly away, clutching both games beneath your cloak.”

    Pirate!

    • NathanH says:

      Yeah, yet another pro-piracy article from RPS :-P

    • Premium User Badge Kong says:

      @NathanH
      The Author did not recomend to collect the +5 Tyrant nor did he order “Pirate!”.
      I may be wrong, since I only started to learn how to read english language when I was relatively old.
      Why do you feel that RPS promotes piracy?

    • lordcooper says:

      To get back to the corporate machine…man

    • NathanH says:

      I think it’s because Kieron Gillen secretly controls all pirate websites and is raking in millions every day. And, as we all know, every RPS writer is a zombie under his power.

  5. Bumble says:

    King Arthur Collection is the Daily Deal today on Impulse so it’s only -6.24 gold.

  6. Darth Roxor says:

    You DO know that the exact solution to the maze under Merlin’s workshop is given in the chronicle before you even being the quest, right? Right…?

    Hell, it’s even hinted at the first time you get lost. :decline of RPS:

  7. Staggy says:

    I got the original free with PCGamer and it’s been sitting in my Steam list since, worthy of an install it seems.

    • Skusey says:

      Yeah, I’ve just dug out that issue to finally redeem the code. Print may be dying, but it’s death throes are generous.

    • siegarettes says:

      Oh man, I just realized that I have a free copy of the game as well sitting on my Steam account. Now I can indulge my curiosity without paying a single gold coin!

    • Man Raised by Puffins says:

      Yes, it was a jolly nice gift that. I actually installed it at the time, but didn’t get around to playing as my Total War itch was being scratched by Shogun. Now my Genpei war campaign is in tatters I may just give it a go.

    • Torgan says:

      Steam has a demo of KA2 if you want a try too.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      Well this article finally convinced me to buy KA 1. Sounds like it might be worth checking the second out this fall.

  8. battles_atlas says:

    “Consistency, whether moral or religious (Half of Briton cleaves to the druidic Old Faith, half to new-fangled Christianity) is crucial if the sweetest fruits on the alignment disc are to be plucked”

    I hate this mechanic. It was awful in Mass Effect and I’m sure its awful here. Any interesting moral conundrum becomes subservient to the desire to access the coolest unlocks. Besides which, it promotes one-dimension behaviour which is not only an exceedingly poor rendition of real human experience, but makes for intensely dull storytelling.

    • Premium User Badge HermitUK says:

      In general I agree, but in this case it seems in part because you have multiple heroes, each with their own alignment and alignment rewards. Perhaps not the ideal solution, but it does stop every one of your men having the same moral compass.

    • battles_atlas says:

      That is a salient fact of which I was unawares. Fair point, if its not ‘you’ making the choice, but multiple characters, the equation is somewhat different

    • BoZo says:

      This is what I loved the most about The Witcher 2. In all RPGs I love playing the evil character, because I’m an asshole, but in Witcher 2 the world seems so fucked up already and everyone tries to cheat everyone that I genuinely wanted to be the good guy. But it was so often not clear if what you did was the right or wrong thing.
      A moral grayscale is such an uncommon thing in gaming unfortunently. In the Mass Effects and ilk its just; top dialog button, top dialog button, top dialog button, top dialog button, top dialog button, top dialog button, top dialog button, top dialog button, top dialog button, top dialog button.

      • belgand says:

        See my problem is that I like to play evil characters, but too many games make it about being an asshole for no good reason. Why give a reasonable answer and get what you want when you can just be a dick to everyone? A great example was in Knights of the Old Republic. I want to be a Dark Jedi, but the evil options are just to shake down everyone for more money and act like a petty thug while the Light side options generally have you so bloody concerned with being polite and selfless that you can’t ever take a reward and get more XP. For one, I’d rather have the extra XP so it’s being broken because the decision is based more on game effects. For another I don’t want to be a thug. Where’s the fun in that? I want to be a subtle, manipulative, Machiavellian villain slowly bending the world to my desires and convincing people to give me what I want. Sweet talking them into what I want and then callously discarding them when they’re no longer useful. Iago, not some brutish fool who can’t anticipate the consequences of his actions.

    • DuddBudda says:

      Bozo! How did you crack the code?

      [To self: goddamnit middle dialogue option what made you say that?]

    • Premium User Badge HermitUK says:

      Middle option selected: +5 Sarcasm.

    • Archonsod says:

      “Fair point, if its not ‘you’ making the choice, but multiple characters”

      It’s not multiple characters. They’re literally written like Choose Your Own Adventure books. It doesn’t matter if you send Pendragon himself or Bob his manservant on the quest, you get exactly the same story with exactly the same choices.
      Also note for most of the quests the choices aren’t that huge either. Generally, picking one route over another might give you a small scene where you get given some additional information or a chance to acquire an alignment-specific artefact or the like. Most of the time however all it does is decide whether the funny old man you end up talking to is referred to as a priest or druid.
      Alignment isn’t really used for decision making in that sense. Rather it determines what quests you do in the first place. Sometimes you’ll get a choice – you might get the goal of persuading the leader of a province to do something for example, and it’ll spawn two quests of which you can complete one which are generally tailored towards one alignment or the other (for example you might have the option of beating him in a tourney as a rightful aligned quest, or kidnapping his niece as a tyrant aligned quest). Other times quests are generated depending on your alignment; usually the main quest in each chapter will branch at one point allowing you to go down one route or the other, and once you pick a branch you’ll only get the quests related to that. Of course, you can always go against the intended alignment of the quest, but if you pick an Old Faith branch you won’t suddenly switch to the Christian one.
      So in effect it’s both better and worse than RPGs like ME. On the negative side the story is fixed from the start rather than reactive as per an RPG. On the plus side it makes for a more consistent narrative, and of course there’s a lot of ‘different’ stories available what with having four alignments to choose from (double if you get curious and decide to find out what happens when a Rightful Christian tries to go down the path of an Old Faith Tyrant).

    • Alistair says:

      It’s not true that your various heroes have their own alignments. There is one overall position which affects all your armies.

    • Archonsod says:

      Yup, they removed the individual hero alignments. Although without the realm management capabilities it’s probably a good thing.

  9. Juan Carlo says:

    “Of course, you can’t shackle the player to a story without doing the same to the foe.”

    This was a huge problem in KA1 as well. I played on the hardest difficulty, and it was hard at first–until I realized that enemy armies don’t usually attack unless they are triggered by a main quest event. And since there were experience grinding locations on the map, I couldn’t resist the urge to just camp my generals there, wait several in game decades (which in real time is like 10 minutes). After this my armies crushed all opposition with little to no challenge.

    I still enjoyed the game, though, especially the sandbox DLC’s, which eliminate this problem as the game basically just becomes a “take over the map” type experience with no main story quests.

    • Kizor says:

      I’m of two minds about that. I’ve been playing KA1 on the second-hardest difficulty and enjoying it, but it’s enjoyment I’ve meticulously extracted instead of just trundling along, like in most games. I keep playing a few throwaway turns and then reloading, to check if I hit any triggers or otherwise screw up the situation.

      Right now I’m planning to conquer all but one part of a province, leave one army there to whack the ruler’s endlessly respawning forces, and go clean the map of the various quests, oddities and problems. Taking the province will trigger a massive and apparently perpetual event with no clear end condition, and I’m not sure if I can deal with both that and everything else.

    • eks says:

      @Kizor

      You dirty save scummer you.

    • Archonsod says:

      “Taking the province will trigger a massive and apparently perpetual event with no clear end condition, and I’m not sure if I can deal with both that and everything else. ”

      If it’s the event I think it is there is no end condition. I don’t think you’re actually supposed to deal with it as such, merely stave off defeat long enough for you to complete the final quest.

    • Kizor says:

      @eks:

      One of my best gaming experiences happened in Space Rangers 2, a spacefaring game set in a time of galactic war. I was playing on hard difficulty, and instead of a balanced war the front collapsed and my side was reduced to isolated pockets of resistance. I found ways to outfly the robot invaders and travelled between the pockets, trading and doing missions, but those started winking out too. The free galaxy was reduced to a tiny corner of the map. I flew a long vigil there, with much of my gear left behind in an occupied system, trying to find the cash and surviving experts to keep my ship flying. At least once I prevented the capture of a system by playing mouse and cat with the invaders until the military could arrive.

      When we first freed and held another star system, restored whole sentient species to the galactic stage, saw that space stations could be built again, eventually triumphed in far more time than usual – that was fantastic. And it was that much more intense because the events were completely unscripted, and had a very real risk of losing the war and the game.

      I expect that triggering the event in King Arthur could hit many of the same notes: after getting used to putting down Britain’s warlords and bringing peace to the land, I’d be thrust into a survival situation against an enemy I didn’t know at all. I might have to find new ways to use the knights’ skills, turn my strongholds from trade centers into fortresses, and transform an army built to conquer the material into one capable of defending against the immaterial. Would I have to form it around the knights who could resist magic? Could I still send out cavalry to take outlying victory locations and have the bulk of my army meet the enemy, or could the evil in the air alone kill riders who left the knights’ protection? The whole campaign would rest on my wits alone.

      On the other hand, I’ve put 71 hours into this game over the course of a year, so forget that idea.

  10. Jnx says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been on the edge but the terrible performance problems of the demo (and apparently full release) prevent me from enjoying it. FYI King Arthur Collection is just today on sale in GameStop(formerly known as impulse) for 7,5 euros.

  11. Premium User Badge Kong says:

    Thank you T. Stone for this article. Having a fantasy TW would be very nice. Playing the Demo of Arthur II was a +6 enjoyment, would have been a +10 if the battle performance matched Shogun 2.
    I should check out the original game and pray for AI 2020. Natural intelligence declining I am sure my prayers will echo forever in Orcus.

  12. Noodlemonk says:

    If anyone missed the PCGamer giveaway of the first one, you should still be able to sign up for IGN Prime (what, will you wait a second!) 7-days trial, get Rochard and Arthur Le Numero Un for free, and disable your account for auto-renew afterwards. I just helped myself to it using this little workaround: http://www.steamgifts.com/forum/fCo5I/free-rochard-on-ign-prime

    • Williz says:

      Thanks dude, just got King Arthur (Which I was now going to buy after reading this) and Rochard which I missed in the Steam Sale! Pretty good that you can get the free trial at any time and nab some free games too!

    • cptgone says:

      tyvm, picked up a free copy of Rochard \o/
      (already own KA1)

    • Aradalf says:

      Thanks! Nice little workaround you’ve got there. It seems the trial can also be “renewed” indefinitely, by just signing up for the trial again. I’ll try that as soon as IGN has new offers.

  13. Nighthood says:

    Tim Stone should really write more What I Thinks, this was a great read. Made me want to try out the first King Arthur too.

    • alh_p says:

      I agree. Get this man off those ghastly public transport/agricultural/construction sims and onto something more mainstream.

  14. CinderellaMan says:

    Nice review and writing from an obvious fan of strategy and RPGs. I’m thinking I’ll start with the original for now after I finish medieval ii…

  15. Dariune says:

    Wish i had waited for this review before buying the game.

    The game is just so … so … average!

    There is fun to be had, just not a great deal of it.

    Im pretty sure if i walked away, leaving the game on and came back several hours it would have played itself such is the relevance of the players interactions.

    Bit sad i paid full price for this one :(

  16. Kevin says:

    Is there an explanation as to why there are Tyranid Trygons in the grim darkness of Arthurian-era Albion?

    • Sarlix says:

      Oh sure, they came for a bit of a holiday. Nothing like a spot of grim darkness to lift the mood and loosen the bones.

  17. FRIENDLYUNIT says:

    Wot? The cow is fine. See, there it is.

  18. pertusaria says:

    Thanks Tim! I guess I’ll put King Arthur 1 on my list of games to get eventually.

    They’re still going to let you make jokes on Flare Path, though, right?

  19. RegisteredUser says:

    Guess the guy from the other thread that whined about wanting to play games to get away from math got his wish. Removing the management aspects, limiting army count..what, were they afraid we might get to / have to decide something on our own and start wailing away while holding our head?

    Then again I didn’t really love the way combat was fairly slaughtery-random in KA1, especially with wide area destruction spells, so if that actual core element is better this time around, maybe this game can at least play better there?

  20. bill says:

    This (or the previous one) sounds kind of cool. I’ve long dreamed of a game that would capture the feel of some of the fantasy novels I read and loved as a kid. Such fantasy novels (like the Belgariad or Covenant novels, or even LOTR) tended to mix things on a personal and macro scale – you’d have small groups of people off on a mission, but also big armies being moved into position and epic world changing strategic decisions.

    I don’t think I’ve ever found a game that really captures that. RPGs tend to capture the small groups, but the focus is often very small and the busy sidequests distract from any apparent disaster. But big strategy games tend to have either (open map) no overaching story or events, or (campaign) fixed stories that take place mostly in cutscenes.

    (a few games have com close, but nothing has nailed it).

    It’s got to be a very hard thing to get right though.

  21. Seboss says:

    I also like KA I a lot and I’m also disappointed they took away the empire management part which, by the way, was already a bit too static for my taste. Enemy lords would rarely (never?) attack you, and scripted enemy armies would only pace the province they’re restricted to.
    The Neocore’s decision to strip out the empire management completely is a bit surprising though since KA expansions added a fair bit of depth to this aspect. The Saxons DLC diplomacy system is pretty nifty.

    I’ll do as I did for KA, Distant Worlds and Sword of the Stars and wait for the first expansion to come out.