Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown Preview

Cinemaware recently showed us a great deal of its upcoming strategy game, Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown. How does the game live up to its legacy? Read on, and find out.

Anyone who played computer games in the 1980s is surely familiar with Cinemaware's games. Whether they were played on their home platform--Commodore's Amiga computer--or on the handful of consoles to which they were ported, the company's games were hard to miss. They blended slick, cinematic presentations (hence the name) with strong, focused gameplay elements. The company's games were very distinctive, and they bore a certain quality that garnered them legions of fans--fans who remained loyal long after the studio closed its doors in 1991. Cinemaware is back again, however, with a horde of fresh faces, and it's ready to establish itself as a premier developer of console and PC games. The first game on Cinemaware's agenda is Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown, a modern reinterpretation of the company's classic computer strategy game for the Xbox, the PS2, and the PC.

Those who've played the original Defender of the Crown will feel right at home with this modern version. The game's focus is essentially the same: You must reunite medieval England, which is in the midst of a civil war. Specifically, the vile Prince John's men have abducted the good King Richard, and the latter's loyal vassals have been replaced with cronies of the former. Where the modern iteration differs from the classic, however, is in the role of its starring character. As the name implies, Cinemaware's latest will put you in the shoes of none other than Robin Hood, defender of justice and champion of the downtrodden. Arguably, Robin Hood is a much more compelling character than the stars of the classic Defender of the Crown--a horde of relative no-names such as Wolfric the Wild, Geoffrey Longsword, and Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Robin Hood, however, did play a role in the original Defender, albeit a minor one. As one of the aforementioned lords, you'd occasionally enlist Robin Hood and his band to sabotage a rival's stronghold to make a subsequent siege easier. Cinemaware sees the value in having a strong character associated with a game, though, and has decided that Robin Hood is the man for the job.

While it boasts a variety of diverse game elements, Defender of the Crown is definitely a strategy game at its core. To depose Prince John, which is the game's primary objective, you'll have to engage in battles with the lords who are more than content to uphold the status quo--that is, the lords loyal to the evil prince. Defender of the Crown's England is divided into 19 territories, each of which is further split into three distinct counties. To fully control a territory, you'll have to conquer each of its individual counties by defeating the army of the lord who controls that county.

All this conquering will take place in the game's battle interface, which bears a superficial resemblance to the one used in Koei's recent Kessen. Amidst the clean battle menu is a large window that treats you to a dynamic view of the ensuing battle. Rather than issuing commands to individual units, though, you'll feed your army general strategic orders, which dictate how the units will interact with the opposing force. The results are largely determined by each army's statistics--the system, according to Cinemaware, is highly reminiscent of collectible card games á la Magic: The Gathering, putting more of a focus on building your army intelligently, rather than fielding and managing it effectively. Tactics chosen on the field do play a large role in the battles' proceedings, however, so discounting their importance isn't the mark of a skilled general--choosing the right tactic at the right time can easily turn the tide of even the grimmest battle.

True to its heritage, Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown will have a host of gameplay elements aside from its core battles. These minigames of sorts play a variety of roles throughout the game. Some will let you "conquer" territories without engaging in actual battles, while others will serve to further the game's story. The jousting event--which most people have come to associate with the classic Defender--is back in the modern version, and it's benefited from a superb face-lift and trumped-up gameplay elements. In the original game, jousting served as an alternate means to gain territories. You'd challenge the land's lord to a joust, with the winner taking possession of the territory in question. You could also compete for the mere sport of it--if you won, you'd gain a certain amount of fame, which had varying effects on the game in general. If the challenger lost the joust, though, and if there was territory in question, he'd lose a territory of his own. Cinemaware has done a great job of imbuing the jousting game with a new level of depth. Aside from obvious cosmetic enhancements (everything is now in full 3D and animated wonderfully), jousters can now weave and sway on their mounts and control their lances with much more precision. This lends a bit more of a strategic element to the proceedings. As your opponent nears, you'll have to position both yourself and your weapon optimally to avoid being trounced. Even if you lose the joust, though, you'll still have ample chance to save face (and territory). If the loser so wills it, both competitors can engage in a mace fight after the joust, for double-or-nothing stakes. While the mace fights hadn't been implemented in the early build of the game that we saw, we have fond memories of them from Defender of the Crown. Cinemaware assures us that they've put a lot of thought into their mechanics, and they've been drawing lots of inspiration from boxing and fighting games. We're really eager to see how they turn out.

The other event Cinemaware displayed was the castle siege. Basically, you're given control of a catapult and its team, and your objective is to wreck the opposing army's castle as much as possible before an actual battle. Because sieges take place before the standard battles, they'll mostly be employed as preemptive measures--they're used to soften up the opposing force before the upcoming battle. The siege event employs a unique play mechanic: To arm the catapult, you'll literally crank the PS2's dual analog sticks in opposite directions, simulating the siege engine's actual mechanisms. Once you pull the catapult's arm back far enough, you'll release it, launching its contents into or over the wall of the enemy stronghold. Though Cinemaware only had boulders and Greek fire armed in the current build of the game, you'll ultimately be able to hurl diseased cattle over enemy walls to infect and demoralize the enemy troops. As you lay siege, enemy archers will continually bombard your team with arrows, which causes you to siege defensively, as it were. The graphical effects used during the sieges were very impressive--the Greek fire trailed, the castle walls crumbled realistically, and the members of your squad scurried and scattered impressively. In the final game, you'll also be able to defend your castles from similar assaults by taking direct control of your archers. While this feature hadn't been implemented in the build we played, we were informed that it would use a first-person perspective and let you pick off catapulters from the safety of your stronghold's battlements.

The final game will feature a host of other gameplay elements--some new to the game, others revamped versions of what you saw in the classic Defender. There will be archery tournaments, which, alongside jousting tournaments, will let you peacefully gain lands. Midnight infiltrations will also be possible, much like in the first game, and they'll feature a good deal of swordplay, though the sword battles will be more involved than in the original. Finally, post-infiltration retreats will also be in abundance--you'll have to flee pursuing guards on horseback and pick them off with your bow and arrow via a first-person perspective. Robin Hood is known for his skill as an archer, and Cinemaware seems very enthusiastic about fleshing out that part of the character with engaging gameplay mechanics.

Other members of Robin's band also play large parts in the game. You'll be able to employ certain characters to capitalize on their strengths and make use of their unique skills. If you use Little John as your general, for example, you'll have a greater number of options available during the game's battles, to reflect his battle prowess. And if you eventually rescue Maid Marion, she'll be able to gather intelligence from neighboring territories and inform you as to Prince John's movements. Ultimately, the way you choose to play will have an effect on how the game turns out. As mentioned before, ousting Prince John is the game's primary objective. There are three others, and they'll determine the type of ending you garner once the game is completed: You have to rescue Maid Marion from Price John, ransom King Richard (who is currently rotting in John's dungeon), and reunify England. By all accounts, it's possible to fulfill the game's primary objective without doing any of the above; both Marion and Richard can rot in bondage, and England can remain splintered and lordless, as long as you successfully depose Prince John. But the endings will reflect such negligence, forcing you to play through the game more carefully, if you want to complete it in earnest.

Even though the game we were shown was less than 10 percent complete, we were very impressed by its polish and Cinemaware's desire to make good on the legacy established by its forefathers. It's rare to see a game this early in such a polished state. Cinemaware certainly has it together enough to produce a top-notch game, and we're anxious to see more of Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown. The game is scheduled for release in the fall of 2002, so it looks like Cinemaware will have plenty of time to complete its development. We'll keep you posted as to its progress.

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