Crusades: Quest for Power may bear the logo of The History Channel, but the only thing this half-baked RTS teaches us is a lesson in terrible game design. Any notion that this budget title is somewhat educational is dashed by a simplistic focus on tank rush-style combat and killing enemies for gold. It is also something of a buggy mess that has nothing to do with the actual Crusades and even less to do with fulfilling, engaging gameplay.
Actually, it's pretty difficult to even tell what sort of gameplay the developers are trying to present here. Crusades is ostensibly a traditional real-time strategy game, in that you build bases, collect resources, and crank out units. But it is so stripped-down that at times it feels like a blend of Age of Empires and Diablo. Scenarios are fast-paced and jammed with right-click combat, so they often have the atmosphere of an isometric hack-and-slash RPG. You even have to pick up sacks of gold that are dropped by slain enemies, and you must also open treasure chests containing holy relics.
The RTS elements are as flimsy as the scenery in a grade-school play. Building your armies involves nothing more than erecting infantry, bowman, and crusader/holy warrior tents and issuing build orders for the respective units. Gold is the only resource. Combat is so fast-paced that there is no need for tactical thinking. Abysmal pathfinding would negate such strategizing even if it were an option. Every scenario is a tank rush where you band-select groups of soldiers and their supporting holy men healers and then have at it. There isn't much of a challenge in any of this, either. The developer seems to be aiming for the casual gamer, and, as a result, anyone with the tiniest amount of RTS experience will be able to breeze through the missions featured in the Eastern and Western campaigns. Since there aren't any multiplayer modes, and there's just a cheap "instant action" skirmish option that features a pair of maps, you can see all there is to see in just three or four hours.
History is also barely there. Units are generic medieval soldiers who wield generic swords and bows. Crusaders look like the popular conception of the medieval knight, complete with heavy silver armor, jug-shaped helmets, and bloodred crosses on their tunics. Saracen holy warriors look like the Western conception of a medieval Arab, meaning that they wield scimitars and look like something out of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Stereotypes are something of a hallmark of the game design.
The scenarios don't make reference to historical events, and they often don't even make sense. Much of the Eastern campaign, for instance, has the Saracens defending the capital of their Byzantine archenemies. The very Christian city of Constantinople (in the time period of the Crusades, that is) is decked out with mosques, and the Muslim Saracens bizarrely fight to save the Church of the Holy Wisdom from "sacrilege" in one mission. In a further oddity, Christian artifacts are stocked in the mystery treasure chests in both campaigns. This presents you with the strange spectacle of seeing Muslim holy men being blessed with monk's robes and flasks of holy water. It's hard to believe that this game has the seal of approval from The History Channel.
Presentation values are somewhat higher than expected for a budget game. Graphically, Crusades looks pretty good. The fully 3D engine does a nice job with soldiers and backdrops, though the lack of variety in unit types takes a toll after just a couple of scenarios in each campaign. Zono has done a great job with the camera. You can zoom right in on the action and pan out to see a tactical view of what's developing in the distance, though the latter isn't useful because enemies just pop into view from out of thin air. There are also some nice flourishes, like Christian soldiers who run around cartoonishly and scream whenever they're set alight by a Saracen flaming arrow.
The audio doesn't fare as well. The musical score consists of a flute-heavy tune that sounds vaguely Middle Eastern but is hampered by being about 10 seconds long. It constantly loops and gets so irritating so fast that you'll be hard-pressed to keep away from that mute button for more than a couple of minutes. Voice acting is handled with all the ethnic sensitivity of a 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoon. The developers don't even get this right, as they give the Arab Saracens overblown Indian accents more befitting of Apu from The Simpsons than Saladin.
Bugs are another major problem. It's pretty obvious that Zono made this game on the cheap, but was it really necessary to skimp on quality control? The game was initially unplayable because of a problem that locked the mouse cursor into the top right corner of the opening menu screen. Switching from a cordless mouse to one of the corded variety solved the problem, though only momentarily. While the game could then be started, the cursor often went astray, would momentarily get stuck, or would wind up becoming immovable in that top right corner again. Occasionally, the cursor refused to budge when the game was loaded, forcing a Ctrl-Alt-Del restart. Then the game wouldn't come back until Windows was rebooted. Incidentally, reducing video acceleration (which often helps when facing cursor troubles) did nothing to correct this problem.
About the only unabashedly good thing you can say about Crusades: Quest for Power is that it retails for just $20 as part of the Activision Value Publishing line. Even this isn't a deal, as you can find much better and far more stable RTS games in the bargain bin for the same price or less.