King Arthur – The Role Playing Wargame (KA1) is on its last legs. The sequel, named “King Arthur II – The Role Playing Wargame” (KA2) has been announced and there are screenshots and a blog and lots of good buzz. So why would Paradox release a KA1 collection, and why would anyone buy it?
I'll tell you why.
First off, there is no official KA2 release date yet. I suppose Christmas is do-able, but who can really tell? It wouldn't be the first time a game was late, or the first time one was buggy upon release. In short, it could be a long time before you get to play a new game set in the Arthurian world.
Second, they're selling KA1 for $4.50! Yes, four dollars and fifty cents. This game is way more than even 5 bucks worth of entertainment. Heck, watching the opening video is worth a couple bucks, and that happens before you even start playing. It's a better game than “Total War: Shogun 2”, which, while not saying much, makes it worth at least 10 bucks right there. At this price point you will definitely get your money's worth and more.
Not everybody has played the original game or the expansions, so I will cover them all in this review. The collection contains them all and you can pick which you would like to play, so it is like getting two games in one.
The original game, pre-expansion, was generally well-received by both critics and the general gaming public. This had a lot to do with the hybrid style KA1 brought to the table. On the one hand, it looks like “Lords of the Realm” or “Total War” in which you are presented with a map of Olde England divided up into various territories where each territory provides men, money, food, and the like to its owner. As a would-be king it is your job to build these resources into an army with which to conquer other territories until you have vanquished all before you in real-time combat.
On the other hand, you are a king (or at least want to be one) and have to deal with people. There will be lieutenants to appease, rebellions to crush, marriages to arrange and quests to undertake. Your kingdom's status on the strategic map can determine what options you are offered (more territories can lead to better marriage prospects) while success in a personal quest can lead to a powerful martial artifact. Quests are generally handled through a text-based choose-your-own-adventure style interface. When embarking upon a quest (say, finding the Lady of the Lake) you are presented with some text describing the situation (“You see a lake”) and are provided with a set of options (“Swim the lake”, “Wait for boat”, “Leave”). Which options(s) you choose determines whether you succeed on the quest. It makes for an interesting way of telling a story within a generally TBS/RTS framework.
As a bonus, the whole thing is set in early Arthurian times. Arthur has just pulled the sword from the stone and is embarking on his quest to rule England. The primary conceit is that Arthur is not particularly Christian – he represents a pivot point, with the ability to lean toward Christianity, follow the Old Faith, or steer a path in between. Go Christian, and the Saxons will love you and you will get access to special Christian-type units. Go Old Faith and the Druids will love you and you will get access to special Sidhe-type units – the warriors of Faerie. This is all rather fun and makes for lots of replay value as you try out different routes to victory.
All in all, KA1 laid out an interesting game system - there was no real reason to change it much, so they didn't. The basic game did not change much through the expansions or the DLC – the expansions in particular were just more equipment/spells/abilities/units – but there was one subtraction, one addition and one big change worth noting.
The primary subtraction in the expansions was the relative lack of quests. The story of each expansion is the story of that side – the Saxons or the Druids – and, lacking a (semi-)historical figure to focus on, having a lot of quests didn't make much sense. Some of the feeling of being in a story is gone, but so is the feeling of being railroaded through a pre-set story.
The primary addition was the diplomatic system. Before the expansions there was really only you against the world. Your destiny as Arthur was to conquer all of Britain, everybody knew it, and that was that. The ability to negotiate a truce or forge an alliance was welcome.
The big change is more one of feeling. The expansions play a lot more “Total War”-y and a lot less like a role-playing game. There is a real tradeoff between feeling immersed in the Arthurian mythos (the original) and having some freedom of action (the expansions). To some extent this was unavoidable – RPGs have notoriously low replay value compared to RTSs – but this is definitely a case of taking the good with the bad.
Luckily, the collection has all of this stuff included, although not neatly integrated into one cohesive whole. We will have to wait for KA2 for that. Until then, the collection looks good, has a handy interface, and doesn't have all that many bugs. The morality crosshairs offer some replay value to the basic campaign and the expansions provide even more options.
So what is wrong? The strategic map is still too close to the ground. The RTS combat system is still too tilted toward archers. Some of the quests involve more “guessing” than “figuring it out” or “roleplaying”. The late game difficulty curve is more like a cliff – one minute things are fine, the next the King of the Sidhe beats you stupid. The economic model is overly-simple – there really is not much to build other than units, or much to trade or research.
Even with these blemishes KA1 is a good game. Not great, but a good, solid game. You could easily justify picking it up for $4.50 when you get tired of those AAA summer titles you bought and are now tired of. Basic game + DLC + expansions + bug fixes = solid game. A B for the game itself, and a + for the price.