The theatrical release of King Arthur may have come and gone, but the purportedly historical tale of the mythical king will grace televisions everywhere in a few weeks with a DVD release and a new action game from Konami and Krome Studios. It has been a big year for movie-licensed games, so we were understandably curious to see whether King Arthur would uphold the apparent tradition of movie games that aren't downright abysmal. From what we've played so far, the game presents a solid action experience that re-creates a lot of the more exciting scenes from the film, and with multiple playable characters and two-player cooperative support, it's one that may well be worth revisiting.
As you're no doubt aware if you saw the movie or even much of the advertising campaign from last summer, King Arthur claims to tell the real-life historical account of Arthur, eschewing all that Sword in the Stone-style hocus-pocus stuff in favor of a tale that casts the legendary knight as a Roman warrior assigned to protect a besieged England from Saxon invaders. A license like King Arthur obviously lends itself easily to a hack-and-slash sort of action game, and that's essentially what we've got here. The game will follow the storyline of the movie closely, with each level being introduced by a clip from the film that segues seamlessly into prerendered CG footage of the same scenario. These sequences help to set up what you'll be doing in each stage (hint: killing people), but they often consist of simple action footage that's bereft of dialogue, so watching the movie beforehand might help would-be players establish a firmer context for the game's storyline.
Once you get into the actual gameplay, you'll find a straightforward action experience that sends you hurtling from one place to the next, cutting down scores of enemies along the way. Each level provides you with the choice between a couple of playable characters (depending on the situation) that are taken from the movie: Arthur, Lancelot, Tristren, Bors, and even Guinevere are playable. Each has different weapons that make the character subtly unique: Arthur carries a massive sword, for instance, while Lancelot wields dual short swords, and Bors uses a wicked set of scythelike blades. Aside from the obviously different attack animations, you'll see differences in combo delivery and attack speed that make it worth trying out each fighter to see which one works best in a given level.
Though the characters share the same basic moves, your choice will in fact have a significant impact on the way you play. All the characters have a consistent set of basic abilities: light, medium, and heavy slash, a ranged bow-and-arrow attack (made more effective with an auto-targeting system), a ground-stabbing finishing move, and a berserker-like rage attack that builds up as you kill lots and lots of enemies. Your three slashes can be combined in a number of basic attack combos that are good for taking out enemies quickly, and sometimes you'll have to use your heavy attack to break through the guard of some more heavily armed foes who carry shields and other sorts of defense.
Some levels in the game will focus on equestrian combat, which radically changes the dynamics of the gameplay. While mounted, you won't have the extensive melee combat abilities you do on foot, but frankly, you won't need them. Just slashing from your horse will take out most basic enemies in one or two hits, and you'll also be able to use your trusty steed to wreak havoc. You'll be able to rear the horse up on its hind legs to knock down enemies in front of you, kick out violently to take out foes behind you, and even trample fallen, but not dead, enemies underfoot to keep them down, permanently. The horse action provides a nice contrast to the regular melee combat and helps to change up the pace of the game from time to time.
There's more depth to King Arthur than simply hammering on the attack buttons until all your enemies are dead. Much like the similar action games based on The Lord of the Rings, you'll gain experience points based on your kills and your overall performance in each level, and then these points can be cashed in between stages to purchase upgrades in a variety of categories. You can upgrade your character's abilities in areas like strength, which bolsters your attack power; speed, which naturally makes you move faster; defense, which lets you take more damage; and ranged, which increases the effectiveness of your bow-and-arrow attack. Furthermore, all of the upgrade categories will provide you with new special moves, giving you even more options for waging war in subsequent levels.
Though you won't exactly be racking up a score while slashing through the hordes of enemies the game throws at you, King Arthur does have a fairly arcadelike feel to it, and you will find some assistance as you play through the game's levels. The assistance comes in the form of power-ups that drop randomly from enemies or are otherwise located strategically on the map. Health potions will drop periodically from fallen foes, and you'll also find special power-ups, such as an experience bonus or an item which temporarily maxes out your ranged attack ability, placed in particularly opportune locations.
The presentation in King Arthur is solidly appealing without being wildly innovative, but after closer examination we were actually quite impressed by some of the subtler elements of the game's environments and characters. The backgrounds do a pretty good job of re-creating the battlegrounds of the movie (which, granted, all look awfully similar), and the forest environments in particular feature an evocative use of foliage and low-hanging mist that help to sell the overall package. The way the game uses its rag-doll physics system is also of note. In one level in which we fought in and near a stream, we noted how the bodies of downed foes floated realistically downstream with the current, limbs lolling around as if buoyed by the water. Another level featured a spiked, swinging log trap that was just as lethal to enemies as it was to us. When the log crashed into a few of them, they were pinned to it by its momentum, but then tumbled to the ground when the log reached the height of its swing. We found little touches like these to enhance the overall experience of the battles.
King Arthur looks like it will provide a lot for fans of the film, and even if you haven't seen it, you'll get what seems to be a good, solid melee combat game with some decent replay value. The included two-player cooperative mode doesn't change up the gameplay much--each of you will play one of the two available characters per stage, and you'll rack up experience independently--but it's always more fun to play games like this with a friend than with the AI. The game is slated for release in mid-November, so look for a full review at that time.