Aeris: Trust to your heart, Cloud! Oh, wait...

Picture your local vicar, and you probably think of a smiling, slightly bald man in his late middle age who is partial to the occasional cucumber sandwich. Now imagine him trundling across Israel in an M1 Abrams tank, relentlessly firing volleys of high explosive shells at all and sundry. Good. Now you’ve got an entirely accurate idea of what the crusades were like.

“Crusaders: Thy Kingdom Come” is a cheap and cheerful RTS based on the anarchic punch-up that sparked years of aggression between the Muslim world and Christendom. The single-player campaign sees you cast in the role of one of a handful of unique characters with often-incomprehensible backstories and differing skills and affiliations. The story takes you through a linear series of missions that are played out in a fairly traditional 3D RTS style. In fact, ‘fairly traditional’ seems to be the mantra here – there’s not a lot that hasn’t been seen before, and in the cases that something appears unique, it turns out to be something we’ve actually seen a million times before dressed up in an unconvincing fake moustache.

Take the ‘Relics and Faith’ feature. Your character has a faith score, and the higher your faith score becomes the cheaper units become to recruit, making regular donations of cucumber sandwiches actually a pretty good idea. Or rather, the completion of certain secondary goals in certain missions. Relics are the ‘magic items’ of the game, and are generally powered up by the level of your faith score. So, really, it’s a pretty straightforward mechanic, and while serviceable, it’s not exactly going to make you enjoy the game a whole lot more.

OK, I’m afraid I’ve got to just come out and say it. Medieval 2. There. It’s out in the open now. Crusaders is just like Medieval 2, except worse in every conceivable way. See, if I was going to create an RTS set during the crusades, I’d summon my design team and yell “Listen to me, minions! You’d better take a good look at Medieval 2 and make sure that the game we’re putting out is AS GOOD, IF NOT BETTER!”. I’d also demand a massive gold plaque on my door announcing me as “BARON SQUEE – GAMING MAHARAJAH”, but that’s neither here nor there.

Medieval 2 has individual soldiers in a unit wearing different armour and fighting with a  number of different animations. ‘Crusaders’ has blocks of identical soldiers jerking instantly from idle to sword-above-head. Medieval has units crashing together with furious intensity, Crusaders has ambivalent-looking knights who occasionally stand still and get slowly killed, almost as an afterthought, by equally disinterested Saracens. And, biggest of all, Medieval has a whole game outside the battles where fascinating intrigues weave themselves organically. Crusaders is very proud of their management screen, where you get to choose from a series of predictable bonuses to try for in the next battle.

So I really like Medieval 2. That’s not what I’m supposed to be discussing here, though. There are things to enjoy in Crusaders. The setting is interesting and evocative, even if the graphics don’t do it justice. The secondary quests that unlock new abilities, units and relics are vaguely interesting and save the battles from devolving entirely into the narrow-focus “Kill the guys, defend the knight, capture the village” primary mission structure. The available power-ups offer a number of different grand strategies with which to approach the campaign.  But underneath it all is a poor imitation of a great game.

Okay, it has a £15 price tag over at Gamersgate. So it’s a budget game. But I’ve got to come back to it – you can get Medieval 2 for cheaper than that, not because it’s a worse game but because it’s older.

Right, that’s it. I’ll stop with the comparisons now.

I was amused to see that one of the selling points of this game was its authenticity with regard to equipment and setting. My main hero stood about two feet taller than all of his identical mates, and everyone carries swords which are… I mean, were they really that big? Now I’d be fine with it, had it said “authentic weapons for a Final Fantasy game”, but I’m really not convinced that authenticity should be a selling point in this case. Mind you, there aren’t a lot of other features to really recommend it.

I really wanted to like ‘Crusaders: Yawn Your Way To Antioch”, but I just couldn’t. It’s clearly produced on a budget – the very first loading screen is enough to tell you that. But unfortunately, there’s not enough which compares favourably to the modern games market to make this stand out. Had it been released as a contemporary to Warcraft 2, we wouldn’t have yet become so spoilt by the wonder of modern gaming to look past this unassuming heap of averageness.

Red and Yellow Army!   Red and Yellow Army!