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An Hour With... King Arthur II

60 minutes and still no Merlin

The masterful Mr Stone is currently tackling the full-fat Wot I Think for Neocore and Paradox's 'roleplaying wargame' King Arthur II, but curiosity and the desire for a quick break from pretending to be a football manager guided me to have a very quick nose at it myself today.

I knew almost nothing of it going in, so I wasn't expecting the roleplaying element to be in the form of a choose your own adventure book. Between Total Waresque battles, you'll explore plague-ridden villages and demon-infested dungeons and make consequence-fatted decisions about how to handle the situations you encounter, leaving a trail of human triumph or tragedy in the wake of your attempts to best aid the land as a whole. If Commander Shepherd was the son of a King, was tailed at all times by a huge army and never left the British isles, (s)he'd be this guy. Except you see none of these grand tales of monster-troubling and (optional) peasant genocide.

Instead, you're presented with oddly small text boxes, with a selection of decisions that usually bear an icon hinting what sort of alignment and faith (and thus eventual perks) they're likely to nudge you towards, and that's about it. I'm in two minds: the sleazy graphics whore mind thinks 'but that's not very exciting, is it?', while the shrivelled mind that still remembers how to read, think and imagine offers 'you are actually reading this stuff, thinking about how it affects your sense of right and wrong and who's going to profit or suffer as a result of it, rather than just clicking through it. Go you!'

While the presentation is undeniably flat, there is much to be said for imagining the sickness-blighted villagers appealing for mercy or bolshy rival Lord refusing to help, as opposed to watching a puppety denizen of the uncanny valley do its little dance. I know what I'm like though, and fear that, over time, I might just want to click-click-click through to pursue whatever morality I'd decided on as quickly as possible. It's an odd way to tell a story, and very much at odds with the lavishly-lit prettiness of the battles. But there is something to it: I certainly felt a powerful urge to ensure I behaved like a for-the-people goody two-shoes rather than an anything goes despot.

The other roleplaying element is the collection of loot, the exploration of a semi-open world and the upgrading of your heroes and their armies in a Heroes of Might and Magic style. The world is node-based though, and split into territories that must be conquered or allied with (or ignored, but I suspect you'll pay for totally sidestepping diplomacy), so no random punch-ups with roaming goons is apparently to be had here. Instead, you need to reach towns, castles, forges and other key locations, defeat who or whatever's defending them and then it's added to your territory, replete with unit building and assorted upgrades. Quests were dragging me in specific directions, but it seemed I could go off-piste and greedily snatch other territory if I decided that was more important than saving Britain from demonic invasion and plague.

The battles, which offer more trees than I think I've ever seen on my monitor before and which my poor graphics card had a right old moan about on high settings, are stripped-down takes on the Total War formula. If you've turned up to this party because it said 'roleplaying' on the invitation, you will need to kick the dusty chess part of your brain into core tactical thinking such as flanking, using height and cover and rock-paper-scissoring melee, ranged and mounted troops, but random poking at the various on-screen buttons didn't reveal too much micro-management. I'm terrible at wargames in this vein, but I managed to pull off three consecutive victories with a basic strategy of 'keep the archers out of harm's way while running the horsies around to the back and charging the enemy's rear' so I think there's a way in for non-strategy types.

There's also the seizing of key points on the battle map that grant various bonuses to your soldiers, but I couldn't figure out how to capture them in my short time with the game. Also, spells, but a magic shield system means that most of my attempts at offensive magic were 'absorbed' unless I'd done stuff to raise my 'penetration level.' There are so many things wrong with that sentence, even if I actively try to avoid innuendo. Point being, magic didn't seem to be much of a substitute for a good old swords'n'arrows barney, at least not in these very early stages of the game.

As for King Arthur, would I/will I keep playing beyond my all-too-brief hour? Yeah, I'd say so. It pressed a few of my regular buttons pretty convincingly. Particularly, there looks to be plenty to get my teeth into in terms of the turn-based civilization-building, researching and exploration, even if I'm likely to use the auto-resolve option on battles more than I probably should, because, as a leader, I am a lazy coward who'd much rather make poorly-paid men of far greater physical capability and patience do my dirty work for me.

The game does feel a little awkward as a whole - there are interface oddities such as upgrading skills requiring a double-click even though most everything else is singleclick or click and drag - and again the presentation of the non-combat quests is about as inspiring as a traffic warden, but much will, I suspect, swim into better focus after more time with the game. I hope to return when my soccer saga is complete, and I look forward to hearing what Herr Stone reports about the later stages of the game.

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