The legend of King Arthur has been covered countless times in both literature and media. From arguing with cranky owls in Disney’s Sword in the Stone, to banging coconuts and conquering killer rabbits in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he’s a true figurehead of folklore. The story of Arthur and his knights is retold once more in King Arthur: The Role Playing War Game, a new role-playing war game (well, duh) from Neocore. The subheading may be accurate, but personally I would have gone with something more exciting, such as King Arthur: Violence Solves Everything.
In the beginning, King Arthur appears to be nothing more than a simple battle simulator. You’re presented with a scale map of Britain, complete with oversized knights that represent entire armies, and told that your townsfolk at the edge of your territory are rebelling. The handy tutorial strolls you through the subsequent battle as you crush your unruly subjects and from that point onwards you’re free to prance across England, stealing territory and stabbing anyone that objects.
However, once you’ve won a couple more battles and conquered a region, the game’s depth finally shows. Life apparently isn’t as simple as merely invading an adjacent territory. Every county has its own internal politics, with rightful heirs and cruel tyrants and sometimes even otherworldly creatures all vying to take control. You can take advantage of these conflicts by playing the sides against each other, or by joining forces with one to double your odds of victory. You can even turn on your allies afterwards to gain full control of an area. Sneaky and devious players will get a real kick out of King Arthur, as the game allows you plenty of opportunity to be a complete and utter bastard.
Morality also plays a strong part in the quests, which advance the story of Arthur’s mission to unite the whole of Britain under one rule. Most quests are a simplistic text-based adventure affair - at least to begin with - which you undertake in the role of one of Arthur’s knights. An early example sees you visiting an estranged prince who is hiding out in another king’s castle. If you talk to the messenger that accompanies you, you’ll discover that the prince is possibly being kept there against his will. On arrival you can choose to either announce yourself as Arthur’s representative, or disguise yourself as a servant and sneak inside. Sneaking inside leads to yet more choices - do you hunt for the Prince’s chambers yourself, or ask for help?
King Arthur’s adventure segments are quite basic, and usually involve little more than talking to everyone you come across and making the obviously sensible choices. A diplomatic approach to problems will likely end in a peaceful resolution and cause your morality to increase, which affects the spells and units your armies can take advantage of. However, if you’d rather resolve issues by killing anything that stands in your way (much like John Cleese’s Lancelot), then chances are good that the quest will end in conflict and your morality will plummet. This kicks off a battle, identical to those when invading an enemy town.
The battles themselves are sadly a rather mixed bag. At the start of each conflict, you begin at the opposite end of the map to the enemy. Your units appear clustered in groups which you control using standard strategy game controls: click a unit’s icon in the HUD or highlight them on the game screen to select them, then use the mouse to move them and issue orders. A minimap shows both your location and the position of the opposing army, as well as any ‘victory points’ that may be scattered around. These are structures such as cathedrals that can be won by holding at least one of your units nearby for a short period of time, and which grant you pre-determined bonuses (such as a place to take refuge). The HUD is finished off with a bar which shows the number of troops you have compared to the enemy, and the morale of both armies.
Morale is a very important factor in each battle. Draining your morale meter to zero results in defeat, the same as losing all of your men. To increase your men’s morale, you need to gain control of more victory points than your opponent; owning less victory points causes your morale to seep away. Unfortunately this often leads to frustration, as your starting position is frequently miles from the nearest point while the enemy just happens to spawn right in the centre of a huge victory point cluster. Unless your army consists of a huge amount of cavalry, you don’t stand a chance. You can be crushing an opponent and have them down to their last few infantrymen, but still lose because they started with a massive and unfair advantage. Where’s the sense in that?
If you can ignore the annoyance of victory points (and I can’t, as my broken keyboard will testify), the actual battle part of King Arthur is fairly enjoyable. You can recruit different kinds of unit, from the basic infantrymen to archers and cavalry. Each troop type has their advantages and weaknesses, and it’s essential to learn these to conquer on the battlefield. For instance, archers can effectively take out grunts, but are susceptible to attacks from the quick-moving cavalry. Supposedly you can use terrain as cover and to remain hidden, but my motionless army buried deep inside a huge forest were still spotted miles away by enemy archers and promptly turned to shish kebab.
Any units left standing at the end of a battle will gain valuable experience, which can later be used to boost their skills. This is a great incentive for keeping as many of them alive as possible, even if the levelling process is limited to increasing attack/defence-type stats. Your knights are a bit more in-depth, and you can increase their ability to lead, maintain morale, and a bunch of other stuff. Knights also have the ability to cast spells within battle, and you can choose which skills to build to suit your style of play. The spells actually sit well within the King Arthur universe, which balances realistic and fantastical elements with great success.
As well as building you knights’ skills, you’ll need to ensure they stay loyal. To do so you can grant them land, or even find them a girlfriend for some happy fun time. With loyal knights you‘ll conquer more and more regions, and while this brings in more money through taxes, you also have to deal with rebellions and hostile takeovers from enemy troops. Armies have to be recruited, then paid and fed to keep morale high. There’s plenty of gameplay here to keep budding kings busy, especially when you progress further through the story and multiple quests open up at once. King Arthur is pretty damn big too, so you’ll certainly have to put the hours in if you’ve got any aspirations to conquer the entire country.
While not perfect and sometimes a little frustrating, the depth and longevity of King Arthur means it’s well worthy of attention, especially if you just happen to be a fan of role-playing war games. Your rig shouldn’t suffer too much either, as the system requirements ask only for a bog-standard dual core processor, and 1.5GB RAM. I’m off now to smite some peasants and execute a whole bally load of traitors. Verily ho!