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)
(+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.