Among upcoming tactical real-time strategy games, Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood could be one of the most interesting and unique. Putting you in the shoes of the famed outlaw and his Merry Men, it offers a setting that has rarely been touched by computer games and packages it in a style of gameplay that is exciting and suspenseful.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who does not know the legend of Robin Hood, the charming bandit who steals from the rich to give to the poor. Fighting against the tyranny of Prince John on behalf of the common people and representing King Richard in the monarch's absence, Robin of Locksley is forced to live in hiding when the evil Sheriff of Nottingham seizes his home and holdings. While living under the night sky, he finds similar souls disenfranchised by the despot, Prince John, and creates a band of Merry Men to disrupt and foil the foul prince's plans of usurping the throne while robbing the masses of all they own.
In Legend of Sherwood, you start off playing as Robin Hood. There is a prologue of sorts to the game that you get to play through--two missions that set up the framework for your beginning exploits as Robin Hood.
You've just returned from helping King Richard fight in the Crusades, but when you step back onto English soil, you find that you have no home to return to. You've been declared dead so that Sheriff Nottingham could claim your land. Meanwhile, outspoken critics of the sheriff's boldness, including your family, are imprisoned or killed. In the very first mission of the game, you actually have to break into the castle of a family friend just to get an idea of what has happened to your family and property in your absence. The reason you can't just waltz in through the front door is that this castle is yet another of the sheriff's confiscated conquests, unlawfully seized from its rightful owners.
You soon find that there are others who are equally outraged at the sheriff's machinations, and in the second mission you go to free one of them, an outlaw named Stutely. You have to infiltrate the town of Leicester and free Stutely and his men from the stocks in the middle of the city. A grateful Stutely then invites you to his hideout in Sherwood Forest. It is then that the legend of Robin Hood commences. You meet the Merry Men, become the de facto leader of the band, and then embark on may raids and ambushes to fleece the sheriff's men and reclaim the people's gold.
Robin Hood: Legend of Sherwood actually employs a clever nonlinear mission structure. While the game forces you through the first two "prologue" missions, once you arrive in Sherwood, the game takes on a seemingly free-form approach. Sherwood is your base of operations, and from here you launch into the game's various missions. Conveniently located at the heart of the empire, Sherwood intersects the main roads between the various cities and castles. While there is definitely a storyline to follow, the game does a good job of making it seem like you are in control of what you do. You choose what mission to undertake by going to a map of Sherwood and the surrounding area and then clicking on a location, whether it is a trade route or castle. At various times, different missions will appear at these locations, such as a key meeting you must infiltrate in a nearby keep. While the game sometimes offers only one current mission, the illusion is that you get to have your pick of missions while you train in Sherwood.
Hiding in Sherwood
The game definitely feels like a hybrid of an action role-playing game and a tactical real-time strategy game. There is even a smattering of resource management. Between missions, when you return to Sherwood Forest, you can task your men with harvesting or creating resources that you'll use in scenarios. As an action tactical strategy game, Robin Hood gives you individuals to control, rather than armies, and each individual has unique abilities. Many of these abilities, such as throwing nets on enemies or firing arrows, require a finite resource--nets and arrows in this case. If you run out of these items, your men no longer have access to these abilities during missions. Thus, while you and some of your men are away on business, you have to leave the rest of the Merry Men in Sherwood to craft arrows, sew nets, harvest herbs for healing, and so on. When you return from your mission, the game then tells you how many resources you created based on the number of men you put to a certain task. As your legend grows and more men join your band, you'll be able to stockpile more and more items for your men's use.
The various things that your men can do in Sherwood while you are away include making arrows, sewing together purses, crafting nets, harvesting herbs, picking apples, hunting for meat, resting from wounds, and training in swordfighting and archery. You'll quickly get more men than you can ever take with you on one mission, so the rest will stay in Sherwood, and you'll soon have an army of people busily working and training while you are out in the field. But even here, in the stages between missions, you have tough choices to make as to whom to take and whom to leave behind. You want to be able to take your best men with you, but you also want to leave them to hone their fighting and archery skills.
Having Sherwood as a base is a great game design, and as executed it really gives you the feeling that you have a base of operations from which to plan attacks and muster your strength. Once you choose a mission from the map, you then leave Sherwood and enter the mission location.
There are five surrounding castles and three intersections to haunt, but there are dozens of missions in Robin Hood, so you'll be returning to many of these areas over the course of the game. While the objective is different for each mission, most of them follow the same formula. The three countryside intersections are where you launch into ambush missions, waiting for the gold-filled coffers of the sheriff's caravans to pass by while you and your men lie in wait. You might have to fleece a sheriff, steal from a tax collector, and so on, but the gameplay is pretty much the same. In these missions, the area is small, and the missions are thus quick and short, which is, after all, the point of your ambush: to get in, grab the money, and go. In reality, it seems as if these missions are simply filler for you to amass gold, practice your ambush techniques, and possibly recruit more Merry Men and that they are actually ancillary to the storyline.
It is the castle missions that are the real meat of the game. These story-oriented scenarios push the plot along and are by far the more challenging and interesting.
Breaking and Entering
In these missions, you have to infiltrate a town or castle and achieve some goal, whether it is freeing prisoners, meeting with Maid Marian, taking some items, stealing gold, or sabotaging town defenses for a small invasion. The way these missions are set up is like a puzzle, which is typical of tactical strategy games. But in this case, the missions almost always look absolutely overwhelming, with many guards stationed throughout the level and more patrolling the entire map. Oftentimes, we took one look at a mission and were at first flabbergasted as to how to beat it because of the sheer number of hostiles on the map. This is where the game is good, because it really challenges you to think of ways to sneak in without being detected. If you try to rush through the level, you will attract so many guards that you'll be quickly overwhelmed and lose. You have to employ stealth and take out a few guards at a time in order to successfully proceed through each mission. Even then, you don't always know exactly how to proceed. There is always a destination goal in each mission, but when you first launch into one of these castle scenarios, you don't exactly know where that goal is. That's where the game's beggars come in.
If you give gold to the beggars, they'll point out key locations on the map, giving you vital information as to where to you should proceed during your mission. Without them, you'd be lost and without a clue as to how to beat a mission. Their aid comes in the form of scrolls that suddenly pop up on the map when you hand them money. Of course, these scrolls don't appear nearby; they usually crop up in the area that you have to go to. The beggar points to your destination on the map, a scroll appears, and you have to get there to read the important information contained therein. Typically, the scrolls lie in the heart of the castle and so you have to sneak past or disable a gauntlet of guards to get to it, and once you do, you usually have to find another beggar or give more coins to the current one to find out where else you have to go in the mission.
Avoiding the wandering patrols and taking out the guards is the best part of the game. The guards act intelligently and are very vigilant in their watches, which makes the gameplay all the more suspenseful. They come to investigate strange people that cross their line of sight (which would be you), flee to bring back more guards if they see they are outnumbered, wake up unconscious and bound compatriots, and are quick to answer the summons of frightened townsfolk or the cries of little children who recognize Robin. Because the guards will react intelligently to what they see, you'll need to lift those poor saps you knock out or kill and hide them in houses. Naturally, only one of the Merry Men can do this particular task, so you'll often want to bring him along with you. Other Merry Men have other abilities. Some can tie up unconscious guards, which is handy because they'll otherwise wake up and resume their patrols. Other Merry Men can kill unconscious guards, but this isn't ideal, because the more guards you kill, the more your gallant reputation suffers. That in turns leads to lower recruitment.
Your Merry Men
In each mission, you can have a maximum of five men with you. In some cases, one of those men will be Maid Marian. She has some unique talents and helps you in several missions, although she doesn't actually live with you in Sherwood. In one mission you'll actually have to prevent her marriage to the evil Guy of Guisborne.
Other men who will fight beside you are Stutely, your nephew Will Scarlet, and Little John. You rescue Will Scarlet from the dungeons in the town of Leicester, while you save Little John from the sheriff's men while on a typical ambush mission. You have generic Merry Men who join your band as well. They each have randomly generated names, but each one conforms to a specific archetype and has unique skills. There is the healer, who, ironically, is the one Merry Man who can kill an unconscious person; the big lummox, who is the only one who can carry prone bodies around; and the archer, who can tie up downed guards.
All Merry Men can fight when confronted by guards, but each one has unique abilities, although some are more useful than others. Robin Hood is of course your main character and is the best of your "units." He can fire arrows and is the only character who can knock out guards with a punch and throw gold purses. Knocking out guards is your main way of dealing with them in a nonlethal manner. Gold purses, on the other hand, can be hurled into a group of guards, who will then greedily fight one another for the coins. It's a great way to get rid of a dozen or so men without endangering Robin. Once the fight is over, you just swoop in and knock out the winner, and then call Stutely over to bind them all up.
Stutely is your first unique Merry Man, and he can throw a net, throw apples, and imitate a beggar to escape the guard's notice. He can also tie up downed guards. Throwing a net will temporarily immobilize a small group of guards, but if there are other guards around, they'll simply free the captured men. Apples are a quick way to distract a guard, although in our experience it wasn't as useful as other abilities.
Will Scarlet can fire a sling-stone bullet that has the same effect as Robin's knockout ability, but at far range. This makes him very valuable, but sling stones are hard to come by, since you can't make them in Sherwood and instead can only pick them up as random treasure on the mission maps. Scarlet can also strangle a man, a more lethal alternative to Robin's knockout.
Maid Marian can shoot arrows like Robin, and she can also heal with herbs or use her unique spy ability, which lets her "see" into rooms without entering them by listening intently. The other men also have important skills, although some duplicate the abilities of the unique characters. The healer can throw apples, heal with herbs, and kill sleeping guards. The archer can tie up guards, shoot arrows, and protect others with his shield. The lummox is especially important because he can carry bodies to stash them in faraway rooms.
All in all, Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood seems like a very fun game. It has gameplay that we all are familiar with, but it adds a unique setting and clever mission design. At this point, the game looks very stable, and it ran without crashing. So that bodes well for the impending completion the game. Those who like challenging, puzzlelike tactical games will soon be able to try on the shoes and feathered cap of Robin Hood and free all of England from the tyranny of the vile Prince John.