Return of the King
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I've played so many real-time strategy [RTS] games over the years that they all seem to blend together. To find something truly unique and cool is a rare find indeed, which makes Lionheart: Kings' Crusade pretty special.
What you basically have today is the 4X strategy titles where you are expected to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Then you've got the ones that eliminate resource gathering in favor of tactical battles. Finally you have the grand strategy titles where you manage every aspect of your chosen nation from diplomacy to industrial production.
So when I was handed Lionheart: Kings' Crusade, I didn't really know what to expect. Then I saw that it was made by developer Neocore Games, which made the excellent RTS and role-playing blend game King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame, and my interest was peaked. King Arthur was kind of an open world wargame where you had to role-play, which lead you into battles. While Lionheart is different in that you go from mission to mission inside of one of two campaigns, there are plenty of RPG elements. So Lionheart is more like an RTS with RPG elements whereas King Arthur shifted that balance more the other way.
But Lionheart will appeal more to RTS fans. There is some really deep strategy involved, and the RPG elements are just there to enhance that. For example, if you are playing the Christians, you will have four different types of factions that make up your overall army. You will have to deal with units loyal to The Holy Roman Empire, The French King, The Templars and The Papal Court. At the start of battles, each faction will tell you how they think the battle should be fought, often using vastly different strategies from infiltrating the enemy camp at night to kill off some men while they sleep to a straight fight with massive numbers of knights on an open field at high noon. Who you choose to listen to will vastly change the types of battles you fight, and leads to a lot of replay value. So even though there are only two campaigns, the Christians and the Saracens, there are many ways those different battles can go.
The factions are fun to deal with, even when they sometimes become a pain in your side. Listening to one faction could turn the others against you. Not that they will take up arms against their leader, but you need to be well-liked with a faction before they will give you their best troops and highest rewards. So you will probably need to pick one or two of them that best matches your play style and try to keep them as happy as possible.
You can also change the strengths of various units, which will change the way they fight, and your strategy in using them. You can make a unit more defensive in nature, which may come in handy if you have to protect an area you've conquered, or if you need them to guard your vulnerable-to-melee-attacks units, like archers. Or you can hire them a healer so their losses won't be so great in combat (almost always a good thing actually). You can even find holy relics and other items that will give boosts to their morale or other scores.
Lionheart: Kings' Crusade follows the historical aspects of the Third Crusade, an interesting time in history for sure. But it also lets you change history significantly as well. You can conquer and hold the holy city as the Christians, or forge a new empire throughout the Middle East as the Saracens. Either event would have changed history in a big way, and you are given the chance to do just that.
There are resources in the game, but you don't have to worry about mining them, which is nice. The main one is gold, which is given at the end of each battle. Gold is used to hire mercenaries, upgrade and train units, and generally maintain a working army. There is also Faith, which makes relics work better. Faith is earned in different ways, but is generally picked up as you complete missions or side objectives in various ways. There is also fame, which helps you unlock new units and heroes to really help out in the field. It's nice that resources were included in the game, but really good that you don't have to spend your time getting them when you would rather be fighting.
Graphically, the game is a spectacle. It looks amazing even when you have huge battles going on all over. In that respect, it looks better than the Total War series, though graphically it's comparable. You can command from a top-level view or drill down and see individual links of chain mail on a soldier. I'm not sure how they do it, but even with those beautiful battles going on, there was no slowdown on our moderate PC test system.
The sound is also pretty good, though not as spectacular as the visual aspects. The tutorial actually speaks to you, which is nice. A good tutorial is a must for an RTS these days, and this one leads you through all aspects of the game and even makes it interesting by adding a bit of a story. Battlefield sounds are realistic, and there is a nice musical score that seems appropriate for the setting, yet never gets in the way.
As always, Neocore Games has given us an RTS game that is different from everything else out there on the market with Lionheart: Kings' Crusade. It's not a makeover that will confuse players, as all the normal RTS elements are present. But it does add some interesting aspects that really do make this a unique experience.
And, a free DLC was just released that adds mythical creatures into the mix, so perhaps Lionheart isn't so different from King Arthur after all. Kudos to Paradox and Neocore for letting us have a great DLC for free.
Published by Paradox Interactive, who knows a good strategy game when they see one, Lionheart: Kings' Crusade will find a home with anyone who enjoys real-time combat, and especially with somewhat jaded masters of the RTS looking for something a bit different to challenge their skills. It earns 4.5 GiN Gems for its war chest, and will conquer your heart.
Dominic reviews odd games for GiN that don't exactly fit into main categories. He loves the odds and ends of the industry, and sometimes finds a real gem.