The Holy Grail has been shattered into pieces. King Arthur lies deathly wounded, struck down by Morgause, the Witch Queen of the Orkney Islands and suffers from a magical wound that will never heal. The Holy Roman Empire has absconded from Britannia leaving a fractured land full of squabbling nobles. The armies of the Picts are breaking through Hadrian's Wall to the north, Vikings are mooring off the coast to the east, and Wales has fallen to an invasion of Dragons, replacing the Welsh druid masters. It's a bad day in Albion.
Sitting down with Orsolya Tóth and Linda Bozorádi of Neocore Games, I was privy to an hour long demonstration of King Arthur 2, the forthcoming sequel to Neocore's previous strange hybrid of RPG and RTS. It was an interesting game strengthened by its emphasis on plot, but it suffered from a few broken mechanics that impeded progress. From what I saw in the demo, Neocore have been hard at work rectifying those problems.
Fortunately, much of what made the game interesting remains. Your attention is still divided between the high-strategy of overseeing the map of mainland UK, which is now twice the scale of the previous game, and the real-time battlefield skirmishes of your armies.
Much of the UI and the mechanics of the map screen remain the same: turn based movement split between four seasons, with Winter being the time for levelling up, recruiting and researching and building upgrades. It's these upgrades that will help reduce the old problem of running out of crucial units: Castles and guild halls in owned provinces can produce new troops, and mercenaries can be easily hired, including all sorts of fantasy creatures such as the mighty Welsh Dragons - although expect to pay a lot of gold for one of those to join your ranks.
The Morality wheel is still in effect, with your decisions in the regular quests effecting how tyrannical your reign is and where your religious devotions lie. I was shown an early quest from the prologue campaign, which tells the sad story of Septimus Sulla, one of the Roman nobles left behind. A victim of political wrangling from the other houses, he stands in front of the assembly to protest at his unfair treatment.
Quests have been described as simple text adventures, though they’re more like a choose-your-own-adventure. This one was long and involved, twisting and turning between decisions, a pleasing increase in complication from the first game. Your resources can also affect certain outcomes: Tóth mentioned the chance to assassinate political opponents by use of Assassin Guild Halls during these quests. She also boasted a game length of around 50 hours if you pursue all the optional quests and 20 if you just burn through the main story.
After the assembly meeting was over, Sulla returns to deal with a Pict incursion to the north at Hadrian’s Wall. Moving to the real-time portion, a sweet depiction of green fields surrounding a sleepy hamlet, the battle between the groups of little men played out much the same as battles did in the first game, with a couple of notable exceptions.
The biggest change to real-time combat is the removal of Victory Locations from the battlefields. These control points could easily frustrate battles in the first game due to exploitation of unfair game rules. In their place are the aptly-named Capture Points. These are still important control points, and you still need to send the fast Calvary to capture them, but they no longer determine outright victory and are in fact entirely optional to progress. They instead provide unique bonuses and spells that can be deployed as the battle continues. In the demonstration, Sulla's horsemen captured a tower that granted the powerful Lightning Bolt spell, which blasted holes in the opposition's ranks.
Magic effects are now governed by an army's magical resistance, displayed as a health bar for each army on the UI. The bigger the bar, the better able that army is equipped to shrug off any magical attacks against it. This is influenced by your chosen hero's equipped inventory of magical quest loot and the capture of the aforementioned Capture Points. The attacks themselves are ranked in order of power, so cheap spells will have little effect against an army suitably protected.
The really powerful spells now come with a warm-up as well as a lengthy cool down. Casting a properly big one can take ten seconds of preparation after you've marked the target zone before it strikes, which brings a pleasing strategy of leading the target when you're casting, and a frenzied panic of preparation when the enemy is targeting you. An outright attempt to interrupt the enemy spell caster before he cracks off a particularly nasty eldritch chant of doom is also possible.
Coming out of the battle back to the map screen, Winter set in. The time for thinking, Tóth spent all her hard earned XP on a variety of upgrades. The army ranked up to Tier 2 Veteran status, Sulla enjoyed a few unlocks on his unique hero skill tree and the local towns began work on building a Granary and Barracks. The kingdom a hive of activity, there wasn’t enough time at the end for Tóth and Bozorádi to explain the dozens of involved menu screens, though they clearly enjoyed deciding where to put the points in all the same.
That was what I took away most from the demo. All too often, the representatives on hand during game previews stick to a rote script, and you can see the boredom in their eyes as they do it all over again for yet another journalist. Tóth and Bozorádi, however, regularly seemed to forget I was there, turning to each other to discuss the game they were supposed to be previewing, content to just play about with the demonstration and agonise over upgrades, XP and loot equips. They were having fun playing their game, and come 2012, I hope to do the same.