Richard the LionHeart meets Saladin in the Holy Land.
During the course of playing a role-playing game, the player is able to customise their character, or group of characters, and improve upon their base skill set to create something that is both unique and worth caring about. Strategy games generally give the player control over a collection of disposable characters that mostly lack any form or personality. For this reason, it is no big deal to lose them on the field of battle, as they are easily replaced. Combining these to genres can, if successful, lead to a much more personal gaming experience for the player, in which they actually care about what happens to each unit on the battlefield.
Neocore games took a different approach, in that they took the decision making aspect of the role-playing game and combined it with strategy, in their last game, King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame. This method of making decisions in between battles, building up heroes and a good solid battle engine, resulted in what was a surprise hit for a lot of gamers. Personally, I found the game to exceed all of my expectations.
Now Neocore Games have released another title that can be called an RPG/strategy cross over. This time around there is less emphasis on the decision making side of role-playing and more on building a bond between the player and the units through customisation and improvement. The player invests time in building up units and, as a result, must play much more carefully to keep them alive. Which is quite handy really, as the game difficulty is set to punish anyone who is frivolous with their troops lives. But more on that later.
LionHeart: King’s Crusade is set within the Holy crusades of the 12th century. There are two campaigns included and the player can either take on the role of Richard The Lionheart, in his holy quest to reclaim the Holy Land, or Saladin and lead the Saracen armies to repel these invaders. The two campaigns are different enough that they can both be played through without risk of boredom.
The campaign map is split into different areas and, as the player progresses from their starting point and gains control over these different areas, adjacent areas will become available to try and conquer. This moves the game away from being linear and gives the player a choice in how they progress through the game, either based on what forces they have available or simply by what they fancy at the time.
Although there is less emphasis on the decision making process in LionHeart, there are still decisions to be made, especially in the Crusader campaign. Players will have four factions that they need to interact and build relationships with. It is here that the old saying, “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” rings true as, during the course of the game, the player will take on certain missions that will please one faction whilst annoying another. Keeping on good terms with factions will lead to new units or cheaper recruitment. The Saracen campaign offers a much simpler method involving research and cold, hard cash.
Where LionHeart really shines is, as I said earlier, in building that bond between the player and his troops. Each unit will, providing they survive battle, gain experience and level up, unlocking new skills and abilities that can change them from a standard unit into something really special and so much more powerful. This in itself makes it far more difficult to lose a leveled unit on the battlefield. The difficulty level increases at quite a pace and resources are not always available. Having to take a rookie unit into battle in an attempt to level them up is going to put the player at a disadvantage. But also increasing that bond between player and troops is the customisation options. The player can customise their units with weapons, armour and items, making them unique to the player.
Unlike King Arthur, LionHeart is much more based within the realms of reality. But that is not to say that there is no room for a little magic within the game. It comes in the form of Holy Relics, which can be carried into battle and will give the units special bonuses. They don’t play a huge role in the game, but it’s nice to have them there.
The heart of the game lies within the battles though. Anyone who has played the Total War games will instantly be at home here. Played across detailed battlefields, the player will have to carefully make use of terrain advantages and manage their troops with some level of strategic prowess. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses that make them suited to performing certain actions on the battlefield. Unlike some strategy games, the level of difficulty in LionHeart will insist that the player make optimum use of these strengths and weaknesses if they want victory. No more pushing the entire army into the enemy head on, then.
The engine used in LionHeart is more or less the same as that out of King Arthur. It is very capable of dealing with everything that happens, and looks damn good whilst doing it. There is a nice variety in the battles aswell, offering small skirmishes to full on, epic battles, and even some nice siege warfare thrown in to boot. The battlefields look great and the individual unit modeling is of a high standard, helping the player to identify individual units in the chaos of battle.
LionHeart offers the player a hybrid experience that is not quite the best that the strategy or RPG world has to offer. In that respect, some players may well be put off. The difficulty levels will also deter newcomers from the game, who may well find it difficult to make any progress. But, for anyone with any passing skill in strategy titles, as long as they go into the game not expecting a Total War style experience, LionHeart performs very well. Judged on it’s own merits, this is a very involving, impressive game.
LionHeart: King’s Crusade, by Paradox Interactive, is available from GamersGate