The sword in the stone, the lady in the lake, and the knights of the round table are all present and accounted for in King Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame. But this mix of role-playing, real-time strategy, and turn-based grand strategizing doesn't quite work out as smoothly as the infamous accident that resulted in Mr. Reese's blending of peanut butter with chocolate. Hungarian developer NeoCore Games has created a compelling epic here that delves deep into Arthurian legend and builds a strong fantasy role-playing atmosphere but at the expense of some of the strategy. So even while you can easily get hooked on guiding King Arthur to the throne of Britain by vanquishing enemy monarchs and negotiating with watery tarts throwing swords at you, taking armies into battle is more problematic because of balance issues and grueling difficulty in the campaign. While the overall game is well worth playing because of the outstanding development of the Arthurian theme and some innovations on both the role playing and strategy sides of the fence, the flaws that mount up after a while will leave you hoping for a patch.
In the beginning, however, King Arthur is one impressive game. Visuals strike you right away. The rolling green fields of the countryside and the sunshine glimmering off the sea really provide an old English atmosphere. The detailed soldier models and the ability to zoom in for close-ups of battles also lend wargame credibility. It's all a bit more grim than one would expect from a King Arthur game, with a Warhammer influence evident in the painted art seen on loading screens, although it still sets a great dark mood. Only the occasional typos in the onscreen text, along with the forgettable music and sparse voice samples detract from the otherwise immersive atmosphere. And even then, the game sometimes surprises you with some spooky sound effects during battles or when scrolling across the map screen of Britain.
Basic gameplay is at first reminiscent of the Total War series or even a more hardcore game of grand strategy, such as the Europa Universalis franchise. You take on the role of King Arthur himself in the single-player campaign (one-off skirmish scenarios and multiplayer battles are also offered, although the meat of the game is in the campaign) and must work to unite all of Britain by using turn-based tactical moves on a countrywide map screen consisting of numerous provinces. The strategic component of the game should be pretty familiar to most players. Most of your time is spent building up armies by recruiting in towns that you control, shuffling them around the map to attack rivals, and expanding your kingdom. Running your empire has been streamlined in a straightforward system that sees you advance through a season of the year in each turn. Recruiting new soldiers is handled by simply heading to a town with enough citizens to press into your service. Troop types are relatively standardized, with the expected mix of axemen, cavalry, spearmen, bowmen, and the like. All gain experience and level up, though, so you can customize your armies by buffing skills--such as attack, defense, or shooting accuracy--during the winter turn when attacks are halted while everybody hunkers down to wait out the snow. Managing the economy is also a snap because you only have to look after a pair of automatically collected resources in food and gold.
Battles themselves take place whenever two armies clash on the map. At this point, the action shifts to a real-time battlefield where you maneuver columns of troops and deploy them with basic formation commands. Battles play out just as they do in other similar strategy games, albeit with a couple of interesting innovations. Attacking, for instance, gives you the option to choose a specific battlefield. This lets you decide if you're going to fight in a forest, on an open plain, amidst hills, and so forth. This can be very useful because the game gives pluses and minuses to attack, as well as defense calculations based on terrain (as an example, you can launch surprise attacks from the woods). But perhaps the most rewarding new feature here is the addition of victory locations to every map. Each battlefield comes with a handful of key strategic spots that can be captured to provide boosts to your overall army morale (which can fall enough to trigger the loss of a battle even if your numbers remain strong, so you have to keep a close eye on how it ebbs and flows).
Battlefields also include specific buffs, as well as access to special healing abilities and spells. So these locations provide both in-game rewards and ways to emphasize the tactical importance of certain areas on each map. These locations always make perfect sense. They can be found on high ground or in buildings, such as old churches and Stonehenge-like stone circles, in critical places on a map--sites that any army would naturally attempt to seize at the onset of a battle. Going after such multiple objectives typically presents you with a tactical challenge because you need to divide your forces and tackle at least three victory locations simultaneously to have a hope of winning most battles. This really makes you think first instead of just band-selecting everybody and hurling your army at the enemy en masse.
With that said, King Arthur has some battlefield problems. While long and dense with plot developments that hinge on what you do with sword and shield, the solo campaign is marred by weird pacing. Everything kind of lurches forward. One moment you're easing into chapter one events, but then you're bombarded with events from chapters two, three, and four. These will offer up all sorts of options that involve taking sides between squabbling brothers, searching for the Lady of the Lake, promoting pagan faith over Christianity, and so forth. These developments build a great story, although you may not be powerful enough to take on many of the scenarios. Such an open-ended campaign increases your sense of independence, making you feel more like a freewheeling real King Arthur instead of some schlump watching Excalibur for the umpteenth time. But you're given so much latitude that you can easily get your armies wiped out.
Also, objectives are not spelled out properly. You don't have to accept them formally by clicking a box to take on an alliance or agree to fight a common foe. Instead, you just read a description of what's going on in the objectives screen, which arranges all the revealed options into a flow chart, and have at it. The game only later tells you what you've been successful at and locks you onto a path heading forward. The end result of this vagueness ranges from the mildly annoying (you click on the wrong town and wind up making an enemy out of the guy you intended to befriend) to the totally exasperating (you take on an enemy you cannot defeat who then destroys all of your armies and forces you to retreat to a save). There is just too much trial and error here. Even something as simple as a warning pop-up asking if you really want to, say, seize King Mark's town would be a big improvement over the current don't ask, don't tell system.
Poor balance also plagues both armies and enemy forces in the campaign. Bowmen seem overpowered in comparison to other troops. They do a tremendous amount of damage, so you need to load each army up with at least four or five of these ranged units to have a reasonable chance of surviving battles. This isn't intuitive in the beginning, which means that you're again stuck with trial and error when recruiting armies. Even more aggravating is the dramatic way that the difficulty quickly soars. Enemy forces appear to level up troops faster than would seem to be possible--even on the easiest difficulty level. You might send out an army that comprises mainly third- or fourth-level troops and run into armies made up of seventh- or eighth-level enemies. Not fun. With the campaign being so wide open in structure, it can be tough to figure out what you're going to encounter until you commit to a course of action. And by then, you're pretty much stuck.
Role-playing aspects of King Arthur are sort of secondary to the strategic play, although they are actually the most well-realized aspect of the game. As the legendary monarch, you manage a team of knights of the round table who serve as heroes with set classes and special skills. Divine powers allow the casting of spells with varied effects that blast enemies with meteors, heal allies, or even send down a fog to obscure the view of archers. Base class skills and default abilities can be selected whenever knights level up. You can even acquire and equip magical weapons, as well as other artifacts, allowing you to treat these heroes like an extended adventure party as in a fantasy RPG. That fantasy angle is quite strong here, too, as you eventually take on magical faerie foes that provide some of the toughest opposition in the entire game. So you wind up with a quasi-historical D&D style of game when it comes to the role-playing side of things.
Even more interesting is a quest structure that runs alongside the battle events. Quest locations are marked on the main map with glowing scrolls. If you visit one with a knight, you take on a story mission told by interactive dialogue sequences. Quests play out like one of those old Choose Your Adventure books, with you answering questions, choosing between sneaking and fighting, and so on. Most quests are exhaustive and span a dozen or more questions that take you through a whole adventure. Some recount new stories about dealings with your rivals to the throne, while others delve into key tales of the Arthurian mythos, such as finding the Lady in the Lake. All are enthralling, and the final results always have an impact on the game in an important way. Actions are tracked on a wheel of morality that shows how you've been behaving as both a ruler and a religious leader. If you stand up for a friend, you gain a point or two toward righteousness; but if you betray him, you drop a point or two toward being a tyrant. The same goes for old-faith paganism and Christianity. If you spend too much time helping the druids, you gain points with the pagans; if you commit to making a Christian province, you earn points with churchgoing folk. All of this influences how you are seen by others and changes how you go through the game because pagan tyrants have different options from nice guys who are keen on Jesus.
Even though King Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame can hook you for a great many hours in its present state, you can't escape the notion that the game could use a pretty comprehensive patch. This is a great concept but only a good execution, which leaves the end result sort of dissatisfying even while you find it hard to stop playing. Let's hope that NeoCore Games keeps at it until the game is brought to its full potential.