I’m not entirely sure why last year’s Defender of the Crown: Heroes Live Forever is going around the demo-sites again when its been out for over a year. But in the early morning time, I found myself oddly drawn to play it. I had one eye on the reviews last year, where everyone tore it apart. First one to turn up is Gamespot UK’s, which is characteristic in its laceration and its criticism. Which is primarily that it’s some manner of desecration of the past when their actual problem is that the past wasn’t that good to start with. After all, if it were any good, they wouldn’t mind just a minor aesthetic scrub-up. Defender of the Crown, like the vast majority of Cinemaware’s games, were deeply strange products of their time, constructed around ideas which are pretty much discredited now. And playing it… well, I think maybe that’s a shame.
I stress, Defender of the Crown isn’t very good. It’s pretty awful. It isn’t even very hard. It was always the Cinemaware game I barely played, and I just waltzed through to completion within the free hour play in the demo. Not that I was playing very well either – one of the AIs dominated the map, and just didn’t deliver the coup de grace to my castle, busying itself conquering the remains of the map. I managed to fluke a big enough army to take out their main castle and win. I don’t like the use of the word cheesy but… well, in this case, it’s exactly what it was.
But there’s something to it, and has me thinking of something Paul Barlett tends to go off on one about – which, admittedly, doesn’t cut it down very much – to do with the nature of design. There’s things which are designed by programmers. Which, basically, he means board-game gonks, and that they’re all about things being elegantly balanced and… well, the dominant design philosophy of mainstream strategy games.
(And this makes me want to write the piece I had planned against Soren Johnson’s 7 RTS Design Sins piece from a few months back. Not that anything he says is wrong, except his absolutely basic conception of what a strategy game is and can be. Another time, yeah?)
Conversely, Defender of the Crown is just fucking barking. It’s a hybrid between a Risk-esque strategy game, with many of similar conventions – namely, you gain cards if you conquer a province in your turn which can boost your performance. Okay, it’s not really just Risk’s conventions, but there’s something a little like it.
And on that basic structure, they pile on the subgames. They have the battle game, which is where you play the cards to boost whatever forces you’ve amassed. And there’s a siege castle golf-swing-esque game. And Archery ala rubbish freeware darts game. And a kind of rock-paper-scissors guessing game which takes the place of swordfighting in the princess rescuing/kidnapping (Oh yeah – keep princesses for some reason. Why? I haven’t a clue). Oh – and jousting. And perhaps another one I’ve forgotten. Add to this, you have the Templars helping out any Normans and Robin of Sherwood loaning troops to the Saxons and you end up with a game which doesn’t really know what it wants to be.
That’s cinemaware all over – the vast majority of their games had a melting pot approach, trying to use these subgames to imply a larger canvas which they weren’t able to simulate properly. And if you set out to make Defender of the Crown now… well, I suspect the designers would end up making something like a Total War game, which pretty much tries to simulate what it can as closely as it can and totally abstractise what it can’t (i.e. Spying, assassinations, etc). The strength of Defender of the Crown’s approach is in its silliness – it obeys and embraces the swashbuckling genre. Its choices why make it a worse strategy game in a pure sense add a lot of colour – that is, make it feel like an adventure. And while Defender of the Crown isn’t very good at all, I wonder what a game built around a similar theory would feel like today.
How would you imagine a cinema-ware-esque game today? And, for that matter, any Cinemaware game you’d like to see in the modern landscape?
(Me? It Came From The Desert)