A unique blend of Total War and Dark Omen set in the Arthurian mythology with gorgeous presentation? Count me in.
There are two main elements of the game: real time battles, and management of your country. Be it building, research or simply sending your knights out to tackle problems that arise in the land.
The real time battles handle well but the lack of polish shows itself at times. While the graphics are indeed nice, the animations are somewhat lacking and every unit in a battalion looking the exact same seems a bit dated when compared to the standard of the genre, Total War. The AI could also use improvement in encircling the enemy's units for better coverage. For example, my 48 units facing an elite of 12 units will result in a 12 vs 12 battle 4 times over with the elites winning each time without losses, instead of my units using their advantage in numbers to even the odds. The battles also have victory locations. These grant various bonuses like spells or stamina regeneration to the ones that capture them, in addition to slowly draining the enemy morale, which plays no role in the battles whatsoever, unless it is depleted to 0, which means loss to the respective army. Starting morale is determined by the win/loss ratio of your army and whether you have opposing races and religions among your ranks.
The overworld management brings a really nice mechanic to the table. You wage war in summer, spring and autumn, and winter is when all units make camp to level up and you are left to attend to making laws, researching and building in your strongholds. This is a very refreshing change of pace and eases some of the constant micro-managing needs of other similar games.
Heroes are one of the most fun aspects of the game. The classic adventuring is handled well with some fun and memorable quests and the spells of the knights can easily turn the tide of battles. There are 3 classes, each with unique skills and general skills that can be assigned regardless of class. You can recruit the knights of legend or you can pick your own roster from different sources. The knights of the round table also bring an interesting strategic layer, since having more heroes in a single army will often end up dramatically increasing efficiency with spells that compliment each other, but armies can only move when they are with a leader and you often need to cover several fronts. Have few unbeatable armies and suffer some inevitable losses in your provinces or keep more areas covered with much weaker forces? The choice is yours.
The story advances through main quests that often provide alternate routes and some of them are dynamic, making sure later playthroughs won't feel too predictable. These are very well done and will have you wanting more even if you're quite familiar with the myth. While playing, your actions will shift you either towards christianity or old faith, and righteous ruler or tyrant. Each provide different bonuses and add a lot to replayability. Beware though, that your knights have their own views that might oppose yours and weaken their loyalty.
The game's presentation is top-notch. The music and sounds are pleasant and the graphics do justice to the fantastic art style. All the mythological creatures are designed well and feel like a breath of fresh air for those of us who are tired of seeing orcs, elves and dwarves everywhere.
The difficulty is scalable but the game is hard by nature. That leads us to my biggest gripe with it. Balance. I like it when a game is hard but not when it's unfair. The dynamic game world doesn't work as well as it should. The technological advances mean nothing to the enemy, they will always be much ahead of you and you will constantly keep playing catch-up with no end in sight. They will probably have several maxed out armies of end-game units by the time you even reach half of the unit tree. If you don't establish Camelot and gain research ability within a few turns the quest is given, you will be faced with odds that are near impossible to overcome and might as well restart. Sometimes you're showered with random quests all over the land every turn. These are just simply impossible to cover due to your few armies, and contain the hardest possible battles, further thinning your already disadvantaged forces. Finally, heroes. The few heroes you gain early on will be leveled up by you and you can focus on desired skills and abilities, making them very valuable assets. Some of the later heroes though, even the knights of legend, are flat out gimped and useless in comparison, with their spells and stats all over the place.
I have to add that the developer team has been doing an admirable job in interacting with the users, providing support and addressing the issues presented by the community as quickly as possible. My hats off to their attitude. Despite the rough edges, this is a very solid and very satisfying game that brings some interesting elements to the often stale genre. I'd recommend it to any fan of strategy games and I'll be sure to keep my eyes on Neocore in the future.