It’s impossible to talk about King Arthur without making reference to it’s heritage, so it’s best to clarify from the start that Neocore’s fantasy epic is built around the familiar gameplay of Creative Assembly’s long running Total War series. The core architecture of a turn based strategic map paired with real time battles between large scale armies will be extremely familiar to anyone who has played either of Creative Assembly’s Medieval based efforts. However like Volition before them Neocore have used this solid structure to create a game with it’s own flavour, specifically the unique fantasy setting of Celtic mythology and Arthurian legend.
Mechanically the main difference between King Arthur and the Total War games is a strong emphasis on RPG aspects, with the Knights of the Round table being presented as hero figures who govern your lands on the campaign map and lead or fight alongside armies in battle. Knights come in three different flavours, Warlords are strategists and leaders of armies, Champions are warriors with hard hitting melee attacks and Sages are spellcasters with access to devastating ranged spells. Each army can contain up to four knights, with each taking up as much space as a full unit, this is usually worth while, as the combat prowess of a champion or the lightning strikes of a sage can often be the decisive factor in battle. This emphasis on your knights as characters is King Arthur’s greatest strength, it invests them each with a unique personality absent from Total War’s cookie cutter generals whilst also giving access to some of the more fantastic spells and abilities.
In additional to governing and battling your Knights can also go on quests, one of King Arthur’s most unusual additions. Quests take the form of a short sequence of ‘choose your own adventure’ questions where the Knight’s stats and your moral standings come into play in order to dictate events. It’s a very simple, stripped down system, but surprisingly enjoyable, taking RPG story mechanics down to their core. Choices within quests will often impact on the morality compass; King Arthur’s two dimensional depiction of the player’s moral standing. As well as the traditional good/evil (Rightful/Tyrant) the player can also move between Christian and Old Faith, I played through as Rightful Old Faith, but it’s clear that I would have had a very different game as a Tyrannical Christian, with different units and spells being available, even different Knights and Quests.
The setting is another of King Arthur’s triumphs, far from the generic Tolkien inspired fantasy most gamer’s have come to expect, instead it draws heavily on Celtic mythology. Anyone who has read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will recognise the old English lore that King Arthur draws upon, particularly the use of the amoral, otherworldly Fairie as the main supernatural aspect. The game does not, however, remain particularly true to the myth of Arthur itself. The split morality choices result in the player being unable to recruit all of the Knights mentioned in the legends (Merlin and Sir Galahad, for instance are mutually exclusive), similarly the Knight’s personalities and stories are different, Sir Lancelot has no affair with Guinevere, and Sir Gawain becomes a Tyrant and the tale of his encounter with the Green Knight is merged with that of Tristan and Isolde.
Battles themselves play out in familiar total war fashion, but with the addition of Relic style ‘Victory Points’ which can be captured, own more than the enemy and their morale begins to drain, in theory making it possible to win a battle without killing a man. The system is somewhat awkward, while it offers another layer to the strategy of the game, and discourages dull defensive tactics, it can also mean a small mobile force is able to win and otherwise impossible battle, frustrating for those on the receiving end.
The game also has some frustrating balance issues, the options menu offers the chance to use ‘weaker archers’ something I fully recommend doing, as the original settings make them so dominant as to make other units almost unnecessary. Fast cavalry and light infantry are also of limited use, so easily are they cut down by bowfire and the former are made obsolete by the Old Faith’s teleportation spell, resulting in armies consisting largely of heavy infantry and cavalry with supporting archers. The Knights too seem oddly balanced, Champions and Sages are abundant, but I only encountered two Warlords in the entire campaign, resulting in me never building a third major army.
However the biggest problem with King Arthur comes in it’s terrible tendency to fail to illustrate the consequences of your actions. Unlike total war your actions follow a linear story, and while this is great for driving you forwards it’s entirely possible, even very easy, to accidentally advance the story too far and get into an unplayable position. My first attempt at playing had to be shelved when I accidentally started a two front war and triggered an unstoppable tide of ghosts to emerge in the centre of my Kingdom. A simple note that finishing this quest would lead to another Kingdom declaring war was all that was needed, yet this is repeatedly left out. The game also suffers from stability issues, repeatedly crashing during the load out of the battle view.
King Arthur has several clear problems, but it is nonetheless a solid effort from a small studio attempting a subgenre that was previously dominated by a single developer. The emphasis on story and progression drew me in far better than Total War’s aimless world conquering ever did, and even after this review I’m still tempted to play it again from the Christian side. In the end King Arthur doesn’t really fulfill it’s potential, but shows enough to suggest that future installments could well give Creative Assembly the competition they’ve so far lacked.