This time last year Neocore were just about to release King Arthur, a fantastical Arthurian spin on the Total War framework that Jim ended up rather liking. Displaying a remarkably quick turnaround time, this month Paradox released Neocore's Lionheart: Kings' Crusade, a similar strategy jaunt which sits you in the role of either a crusading Richard the Lionheart, or the Muslim-uniting Saladin. Poor Saladin, he hates the crusades. Do I hate the crusades? Read on to see wot i think.
No, I don't hate the crusades. I've been having myself a great time. The first thing you should know about running a decent crusade is that it's all about the money. Do you have enough money? Are you well-off? You won't be in Lionheart, and your army's poverty has consequences that reverberate right down to the base tactical decisions you make in battles. Send your noble knights down into the valley of death, cannons to the right of them, cannons to the left? No, fuck that, they're far too expensive. Send the spearmen instead.
Let's say you're playing as Richard, and you've just captured a new territory. You've suffered moderate losses, and earned yourself a whopping 12,000 ducats. The first thing to do would be to recruit new soldiers to replace your casualties, right? Well, yes and no. Replacing your losses would vaporise 9,000 of those ductats straight away, and since the battles in Lionheart gradually amp up as the campaign continues, you need your army to be growing in size, strength and in the quality of its equipment over time.
Instead, you'll likely bench the units with the worst casualties, since any "resting" units recover 1/3 of their numbers for each battle they don't fight. Then maybe you'll buy some cheap light infantry regiments for 2,000 ducats per, just to plug the gaps in your forces. You'll probably find some money to upgrade the armour of your most expensive regiments, and you'll grudgingly approach some pilgrim traders to swap your unwanted potions and special arrows for some more useful gear.
Or maybe you'll take out a loan from the Venetian banks. During my campaign as Richard, from the moment the Venetian banks opened for business there was never a time when I wasn't in debt, fretting over the interest accrued with each battle. As a games journalist I'm ordinarily quite good at being in debt, but Lionheart does not play ball. There just wasn't any money. Where was the money? Not in my coffers, that's for sure.
As such, the financial decisions you have to make are engaging and tricky, and engaging and tricky is what Lionheart does best. As units and heroes survive battles, they rank up, allowing you to improve their stats, equip them with loot or grant them special abilities. You can collect relics for Richard and the other heroes to carry into battle, or you can improve Richard's "faith" and therefore the power of your existing relics by sending some of those relics back to Europe, never to be seen again. I didn't actually realise you acquired other hero units who could also hold relics, so when they showed up I had nothing for them. Sorry, Raynald of Tripoli. We'll try and find you something nice and Holy in the next town we sack.
Then there's the omnipresent shadow of the European powers- the French king, the king of the Holy Roman Empire, the Templars and the Papacy all have fingers inserted gently into Richard's dirty little crusade pie, and all will gift you with tiered rewards if you win favour with them. This is half done by choosing different responses to special events (reinstating a particular king instead of killing or imprisoning him might win you +1 fame with the French king, and a unit of French White Lion infantry) , and half done by agreeing to their various plans.
Excellently, each time you attack one of the map's 15 territories, you can choose which faction's plan you like best, thereby scoring points with that faction. So, you might be a single fame point away from the French king dropping all your equipment upgrade costs by 50%, but the French king wants an aggressive charge up the defended hill while the Templars recommend a sneaky, much safer-sounding night-time attack. Hmm. There's a lot of "hmm" in Lionheart's campaign map. A lot of tricky choices.
In fact, I suppose that's all there is. While Lionheart's campaign map might look like that of a Total War game, it's really a glorified mission select screen. You don't move units around, and you don't have to defend territories you've conquered (though bonus missions will occasionally pop up in them, offering special rewards but often NO MONEY). You won't be feeling the absence of unit movement, though. Once you've taken your first couple of territories and the game opens up, it provides a robust enough challenge without it.
Trouble is, only some 25% of your time is spent on the campaign map. For the most part you'll be fighting battles, where Lionheart manages to be similarly interesting but also puts feet wrong repeatedly and apologetically, like a bad dancer. I've got to report the same criticisms that Jim pinned on King Arthur. The real time combat is at best a little clunky, and at worst fairly aggravating, with AI foibles and a painful need to mop up every last unit on the map sometimes getting in the way of your fun.
Often, I wasn't too fussed about how when certain units meet, their stats can collide in interesting ways. I quickly discovered that one unit of heavily armoured foot knights in my possession had high enough armour and resistance stats that they were basically carved out of stone, and I also learned that archer units are so good at destroying other archer units that you're best off engaging the enemy in a kind of archer battle royale.
What got on my nerves was the smaller-scale moment-to-moment oddities which I couldn't trace the cause of. Sometimes enemy units would break far too quickly, and sometimes they'd be possessed of a mystery zeal and would stand and fight to the last man. Sometimes I'd glance at my unit bar and spot that one of my units had lost half its men, and zooming to the battle I couldn't see why. I don't blieve this was ever a bug or inaccuracy, I just think the game wasn't keeping me informed enough. Likewise, while the game encourages you to apply all kinds of elixiers and stat increases to your units, this often doesn't have the effect you'd expect.
For example, the cost of upgrading a unit's armour is the same across your whole army. I dropped almost two grand on improving the armour of my archers, hoping they'd stand up longer in the brutal archery competitions that were happening every match. They didn't. Eventually I spotted that the armour upgrade only improves the unit's armour by 10%, and archers have zero armour in the first place. Facepalm.
As was the case with my immortal foot knights, the trick to upgrading units is to bend their stats in devious ways, except Lionheart never tells you what any of the stats actually do. All units have armour, hitpoints and "resistance", for example. Want to know what any of them do? Your best bet's to conduct some field experiments, which isn't always a possibility. Just before writing this, I was wondering whether to give one of my heroes the ability that causes him to attack faster, or the ability that causes his regiment to attack faster. I was lost.
But I do like Lionheart, so let's end this talk of the battles on a high point. A thing worth loving about them is that each faction's plan for all the different battles provides you with a genuinely dramatic scenario, the kind of epic scrap that Total War gifts you with only rarely. Defending narrow passes, or racing the other army to a well-defended position, or some daring night raid where you whole army picks their way around spiked emplacements and caltrops as quickly as possible.
One awesome battle saw me attacking a Muslim army situated on top of a huge hill, with another crusader general attacking a different side of the hill at the same time. This supporting general was a political thorn in the side of the Templars, whose recommend plan for the battle was as follows: conquer the hill, but make sure this other hero is killed in the fight. What then happened was that I conquered the hill, realised the hero in question wasn't dead yet, then called for a hugely costly retreat just so the hero's regiment would be surrounded and slaughtered. I then watched with mounting despair as this hero's entire entourage got killed, only for him to single-handedly rout some 70 Muslims. Which kind of sums up Lionheart.
Look! Here's my Richard, the sole survivor of his regiment, taking apart an Arabic mortar thing. G'wan, son.
I know there are a great deal of you about who are disillusioned with Total War right now. As much as I'm eagerly anticipating Shogun 2, I'm going to go ahead and recommend that you guys give Lionheart a shot. It's clumsy in places, but the wealth of tough choices it faces you with, both on the strategic and tactical maps, make it a strategy game that routinely comes close to greatness. And I haven't even touched Saladin's campaign, which swaps out the factions and gives you a tech tree instead.
Plus, anybody who buys Lionheart before the 18th of October will receive November's New Allies DLC pack (featuring new units, new heroes and optional "fanciful content" including Joan of Arc and The Ghost of Godfrey of Toulouse) for free. Give it a think. I doubt you'll regret it.