The thing with real time strategy games is that there often doesn't seem to be too much strategy involved. Confused? Let me explain. Most RTS titles will give the player a set of objectives to complete, based around the old capture this, defend that and the kill those guys philosophy we all know and love. When it gets to that third part, it's entirely possible to be victorious even if there's only one poor soldier left standing! A new army will then magically appear from nowhere for the next battle.
This isn't the case for Lionheart: Kings' Crusade. It follows on from its predecessor King Arthur The Wargame in requiring the player to actually keep their units alive. Why? Well firstly, the more battles a unit comes through, the more powerful it'll get. Meanwhile, if the unit is lost then it's gone forever and you'll have to fork out large amounts of cash to replace it. See, it's worth thinking about strategy, and this clever take on the RTS genre makes Lionheart: Kings' Crusade an enjoyable, if challenging experience.
Neocore Games latest title moves forward from the Dark Age setting of King Arthur the Wargame to the Crusades of the 12th century. Naturally, you may have already guessed that Lionheart: Kings' Crusade puts you in the boots of Richard the Lionheart, the famed King of England. He may not have been able to speak English, but King Richard was certainly pretty good at killing foreigners and it's your goal to conquer the Holy Land. Then you can play the campaign from the Saracens view, assuming the role of Saladin the Great and driving those awful Christians out of your homeland. Getting the opportunity to play as both sides is rather rare in an RTS and Lionheart: Kings' Crusade therefore gets a tick.
Initially, Lionheart: Kings' Crusade appears to play like a Total War game with units counter-balancing each other in a rock, paper, scissors fashion. For example, light infantry units are weak against the long distance fire of archers; archers are vulnerable to cavalry charges, while cavalry can easily be dispatched by spearmen. Morale, weather conditions, time of day and terrain type all play a factor in battles which can make victory - be it through defending an objective, capturing territory, or simply wiping out enemy forces - quite challenging.
As mentioned above, you need to be especially careful when managing troops on the battlefield because if a unit is lost, it's gone for good. This is a problem for two reasons, firstly replacing lost units costs money and you'll often find yourself with not enough funds to do this. Secondly, keeping units alive opens up an RPG style levelling up system which allows you to increase their stats and equip them with special items and abilities to make them more effective on the battlefield. These veteran units can become quite the force, so you'll spend a lot of time deciding on a strategy designed to keep as many of your troops alive as possible.
On the subject of strategy, Lionheart: Kings' Crusade will often offer you a variety of different battle plans to complete missions. When playing the Crusaders campaign, these different strategies come from four different factions - The French, the Holy Roman Empire, The Templar's and The Papal Court. Not only do these different strategies offer you huge amounts of replayability, but selecting a faction's strategy will raise your fame with them. Higher fame with a faction will bring specific perks such as new units and unique heroes becoming available to your army, plus other benefits such as being able to recruit higher level troops. The Saracens meanwhile use a more traditional tech tree.
You can also increase the Crusaders fame with factions through the optional unique scenarios that appear on the world map as you make your way through the 15 territories. Scenarios can be diplomatic which involve you making a decision favouring one faction or another, or they can involve fighting extra battles. Of course, of these different types of scenario provide benefits in the form of money, troops and items, and it's up to you to decide which one will be more beneficial to your style of play. It's unlikely you'll get fame for every faction up to its maximum, which offers yet more incentives for replaying Lionheart: Kings' Crusade in their more difficult campaign.
The game however, isn't without one or two drawbacks. The need to keep your units alive may prove overly difficult for those new to the RTS genre, and that's even on normal difficulty. The AI also seems to suffer from a few minor niggles that are slightly detrimental to the gameplay. There are scenarios in which the computer is only reactive to your actions, which means in theory you could leave your troops standing in their starting formation on the map without the AI actually bothering to do anything. In addition to this, zooming right into the heart of a battle demonstrates that the AI does have a few path finding issues, with surplus troops just wandering back and forth while others are fighting in close combat. Fortunately, these minor issues don't take too much away from the overall experience of Lionheart: Kings' Crusade.
Neocore have certainly produced an impressive RTS/RPG hybrid here which provides an enjoyable challenge. Lionheart: Kings' Crusade is also a massive game, providing excellent value for money. Completing both single player campaigns and the additional ‘scenario' battles could easily result in up to 30 hours of gameplay, and that's before replaying missions with the different strategies on offer. Lionheart: Kings' Crusade offers a different, but very enjoyable, alternative to the traditional RTS format, and is highly recommended to hardcore fans and newcomers to the genre alike.