People just love to bandy around the term ‘role-playing’ these days, have you noticed? Everyone and his pet monkey seems to feature role-playing elements. What this used to mean is that you play a role – assume the persona of a character other than yourself, like an actor taking a part in a play or movie. These days it basically means that if you do something for long enough in-game, you’ll get better at it.
On the surface, this looks like a pretty huge disconnect. Playing a part in a story, versus watching a bunch of numbers increasing on a page. But there it is. The modern definition of ‘role-playing’. So when King Arthur comes along, touting itself as ‘The Role-Playing Wargame’, we all know what’s going on. A mass-battle-centred game where your armies and leaders can get better at stuff by doing it.
But soft! What unexpected twist in yonder game doth I spy? Actual role-playing elements, like we used to do back in the old skool! The original King Arthur lived up to its claim of role-playing with a clever – yet extremely simple – series of ‘choose your own adventure’ style quests where you got to play the roles of your Knights of the Round Table. Oh, and you also levelled up stats with experience points, naturally.
It was pretty successful, and in the spirit of watching the numbers going up, it really wasn’t a massive surprise that we’d get a sequel. What perhaps was a surprise is the amount of tweaking, re-imagining and just general fiddling they’ve done.
Now, pay attention, because this is the fundamental bit: Whereas King Arthur was basically a wargame with some natty role-playing elements, King Arthur 2 is a RPG where your main character happens to be followed around by a massive army. This fundamental change hinges on the seemingly-innocuous change in money-management. Now, your armies cost nothing to upkeep, but neither do your ruled provinces provide you with money. The cash you’ll need to replace your depleted troops is earned by winning battles and completing quests.
That said, there’s still plenty of realm-ruling and researching to do, although rather than, say, a region building a barracks that lets you hire knights within the province’s borders, now you’ll upgrade a ‘town of horsemen’ to grant all your knights and cavalry a 10% hit point bonus, or whatever. The buffs are rarely particularly inspired, but the whole thing feels like a stripped-down RPG system more than wargame.
For some reason, the good folks at Neocore have a powerful aversion to letting you actually control the character of King Arthur in the game, despite what the title might lead you to expect. In the previous game Arthur was a sort of disembodied idea of rulership who played no active role in anything. This time around, he’s gone and got himself blown up by an exploding grail (stop tittering!) and you have to settle with controlling his son, William.
This Prince William becomes your RPG character for the first act of the game, legging it round a beleaguered (and significantly enlarged from the first game) Britannia, trying to keep the peace and keep the monstrous forces of evil at bay. You can bring other heroes into your army like in the previous game, but you can’t use them to head their own armies. Which can be a little troublesome when stuff is happening all over the realm. This focus on one major character helps to build up a sense of personality, though, like you’re actually playing a role.
In many ways, the game system has been stripped-down. You spend a lot less time worrying about mopping up small enemy armies and trying to balance the books, and more time actually pursuing quests and objectives. The battles are likewise stripped of the unwieldy morale system from the previous game (that saw each side racing for remote, unevenly-positioned control points in order to stay ahead), but in its place is an equally unwieldy ‘magic shield’ system, which feels rather like a clumsy solution to the problem of the occasionally unfair magical powers of the heroes. Battles still revolve very much around said heroes, however, with magical effects whizzing around the battlefield once the pesky magical shields have been penetrated.
I really have to say a word about the voice acting. It is… well, it’s a metaphor for the whole game, really. It’s both wonderful and occasionally painful, and I’m really having a hard time deciding if I love it or can’t stand it. There are a couple of voice actors, most of which sound like they’re just the programmers hurriedly recording the last couple of paragraphs of dialogue before the game is released. Sometimes whole pages of text simply have their voice acting completely missing. But the lion’s share of the dialogue is voiced by one sublime actor who puts his heart and soul into every…single…word. He plays every character slightly differently, sometimes slipping hilariously between a deep booming baritone and a thin, reedy, nervous voice halfway through voicing the same character. If you don’t think it’s possible to describe a simple, unimportant wooden door with a voice pregnant with drama, you’d be wrong. Sometimes it’s sort of dorky and pretty funny, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t draw you into the story.
I have one big complaint about King Arthur 2, however, and I’m afraid it’s pretty much a biggie. Load times when returning to the campaign map, either on startup or after a battle, are unreasonably long. I’d guess about two and a half to three minutes each and every time. That’s just too long, and it breaks the game up painfully. I could probably cold-boot the mighty Chillaxe about five times in that sort of time, and it’s after every battle. It’s just too much. I hope it somehow gets patched, but I’m not really hopeful. I’d recommend having a good paperback to hand.
Aside from this gripe, however, I’ve got to admit they’ve listened to the complaints of fans and thought about how to improve almost every element of the game. Some of these work well, like the in-depth, fun diplomacy and the hassle-free rulership, and others work less well, such as the generic and lukewarm magic items and the magic shield. The feel of the game has been retained, however, and the solid design of the forces of evil gives the game a suitably epic scope. If it wasn’t for the equally epic scope of the load times, I’d call it great. As it is, I reckon it’s good.
Written by: Stuart Thomas