My first impression of King Arthur II, upon watching a few videos, was that it was a Total War clone. Having not really had a PC capable of playing anything released this century until relatively recently, many core games have completely passed me by, including the original King Arthur. So my first judgement was based on an almost forgotten obsession with Shogun: Total War and whatever media Paradox had made available: mainly screens showing huge battlefields, thousands of soldiers, and an overview map from which to send out armies to defeat enemies. I had no doubt in my mind that my journey through a semi-mythological Great Britain would be a good one, but I was worried that it would be an experience too old hat for it to really capture my attention.
I think originally, perhaps, I looked at it the wrong way, and I suspect the marketing team at Paradox did as well. The RTS portion of the game, where you do get to control multiple units of hundreds of soldiers, is only a small slice of everything this game offers and I occasionally found myself skipping the battle segments entirely – although that might have been down to the abysmal loading times. Instead, you have to look at the whole package to see why King Arthur II is such a unique title and well worth your hard-earned money; the RPG elements are fantastic and parts of the game put me in mind of a choose-your-own-adventure. The effect you can have on the world is key, and the odd problem isn’t enough to detract from that.
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that the game is split into two parts, the first a prologue, which begins when you start a new game and has you focussing on only the northernmost parts of Britain: the civilised “New Rome”, filled to the brim with arguing families, greed and drama and, further north, Scotland, home of marauding armies and magical beasts. I’ve heard that this portion of the game runs at about fifteen hours, perhaps a little more, and because of the different things you can choose to do, playing through multiple times could take far, far longer. I can’t confirm that it would take that long to get past the prologue, but I can say that it didn’t feel like I’d played it as long as I had and I could certainly see it lasting much longer.The main part of the game, selectable from New Game (you don’t need to get through the prologue), focusses on a sick King Arthur and a country torn apart by purposeless knights. As Arthur’s son, you must bring the country back together and generally bring peace back to the land, either through diplomacy or force. It’s odd to go into the main game after playing so much of the prologue because, frankly, it seems like two different games using the same engine. If you let the price (£34.99 on Steam) put you off, you’re sorely mistaken; if you enjoy King Arthur II, you could easily get hundreds of hours out of it. But where’s the fun in having hundreds of hours of gameplay if the quality simply doesn’t stand up?
Thankfully, King Arthur II is actually something pretty special, although the beginning of the prologue lowered my expectations entirely. The opening cutscene is long, wordy, contains a lot of information in a small space, and has you trying to care about things you couldn’t possibly so early in the game. Your family is also killed almost immediately and, no matter if you choose to be good or evil, you decide quite quickly to use this for political gain - and why not? I was underwhelmed to say the least but it took moments, literally less than a minute, for me to forget about the opening and truly get into the game.
“You walk into a crowded hall and the noise dies down as people see you are still alive. You are the centre of attention.” There are a set of options to choose from. I can sit quietly and wait for the discussion to officially begin, or take advantage of people’s surprise to try to gain the upper hand. I end up punching the guy signing people in for not recognising me as a senator and I’m soon promoted to my rightful place (“he’s been under a lot of stress, his family just died, you know”). It’s a terrific system and something that I’ve never really seen before; the narrated descriptions of what is going on are incredibly well read and the range of options to choose from usually mean you can be as noble or ignoble as you choose. Sometimes, using these, you can avoid battle entirely by using your political knowledge and your allies to sway general opinion to your liking.It’s perhaps the best diplomacy system in a game I’ve ever played, because there aren’t any right or wrong answers. Every choice you make has consequences, both good and bad, and sometimes you’ll see those consequences right away, sometimes it’ll take much, much longer. It’s not unusual to annoy one of your neighbours while making a decision, but at the same time you’ll probably make some friends or gain important knowledge for use as blackmail in the future. Balancing your friends and enemies and choosing your battles is a big part of King Arthur II, and it’s been handled so well that I feel it outweighs the actual focus of the game’s marketing: the battles. I’ll say this: they’re not nearly as well-tuned as their Total War cousins, but they do add a fairly nice twist in that your army can use magic.
There are a set number of statues on each map which grant you the use of a magical ability. It’s your choice to decide whether the risk of sending a unit to those statues is worth it, or whether you want to focus your whole army on the enemy. If you don’t decide to push on to the statues, your enemy probably will and you’ll soon find yourself overwhelmed. It’s perfectly possible to gain an advantage without magic though and the game fits whatever your strategic style fairly well, so long as you’re longsighted enough to carry out those strategies. The graphics are good enough for the purpose – they look a little rough if you zoom in too much, but there’s no real reason to do that mid-battle – and the narrator fills you in on any major changes.
King Arthur II is a game with great intentions and, for the most part, it succeeds in those intentions. With the occasional let-down (the loading times really are incredible in this day and age), you can mainly look the other way and see this for what it is: a game that’s going to be nearly perfect after a few patches. For now, nearly perfect is still damn good, and if you’re starving for some quality strategy gaming, look no further. Limitations of the genre mean that more action-focussed gamers will find this adventure slow, and their passive role in the battles frustrating, but if you’ve ever played a Total War, and enjoyed it, and felt you wanted more of a personal role in the development of your troops and the direction in which your country goes, don’t even hesitate: boot up Steam and buy this now.