Preview: Lionheart: King’s Crusade

Ah the Crusades. Such a fun time in Christian and European history. Obscene amounts of money and materiel spent to conquer, re-conquer, then not-at-all conquer a certain quasi-barren, marginally inhabitable stretch of land just because some guy they really admired hung out there over a thousand years ago. It’d be like taking the U.S. First Infantry Division to go visit Graceland. It rightfully is considered one of the worst foreign policy initiatives ever, and would have been completely unforgivable except for the fact that while the combined armies and heads of state of Christian Europe were out slaughtering and oppressing Muslims and Brown-Skinned Christians, their respective homelands enjoyed a period of peace and economic stability at the peasant level, mainly because the armies weren’t there to slaughter and oppress them.

And, to be fair, let’s consider the Slaughtered and Oppressed, the valiant defense of the Saladin-led Muslims. It’s a wonder how they stopped the infighting, polygamy, political intrigue, and small-scale genocide long enough to mount a successful defense against Whitey. Then again they were dealing with the collective intelligence and military cunning of a group of coddled inbreds… wealthy coddled inbreds. Nothing against ol’ Sal, but I could probably figure out how to defend myself against an army led by Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, even if he had won the lottery.

And such was my task in Lionheart: King’s Crusade, a new RTS from Paradox Interactive due out on October 8th. Reminiscent of the old Sid Meier title Gettysburg (and the follow-up Antietam), the game roughly follows the military campaign of the Third Crusade – 1189-1192. The game is a series of battles, where you control the deployment of medieval forces, such as archers, light infantry, heavy infantry, cavalry, and siege engines, and employ classical military tactics. A nifty concept for the Sun Tzu-reading crowd which I’m a member of.

A brief tutorial – which worked after about five attempts, God bless beta code – was really very instructive on the different aspects of controlling the combat. It laid out different units, the correct strategies for deploying those units, just enough hands-on training to get the basics down, and hints that proper military strategy may actually be expected here.

After the tutorial, I sat down to try the Crusader campaign (on “ËœEasy,’ naturally) and was able to complete the first mission, but was stymied in the second mission by several things, none of which were related to my skill in military strategy. I’ll get to those later on.

Visually, the game is quite good. I’m loathe to say “Ëœstunning,’ but I was thoroughly impressed with how the frame rate didn’t seem to mind at all no matter how far I zoomed in, or how quickly I did the zooming. I was also impressed with the environmental touches very close to the ground. Dust clouds, blades of grasses of irregular sizes, it was very well done. Never mind that you’ll spend little if no time zoomed in that far since you’ll be busy managing things all over the battlefield, but it should still be admired.

Controls were common-sensical, and it shouldn’t take any good RTS player long to adjust to them, with the possible exception of the camera. I don’t know why, but I had a devil of a time getting the camera the way I wanted it. You can translate, rotate, and zoom your view quite easily, but the interface took some training for me. My biggest complaint is that rotating the camera required far greater precision than pretty much anything else you do with the mouse in this game, thus I found it easy to whirl the camera around so that it was difficult to figure out which direction I was looking at any one time. Fortunately, the space bar pauses the game and you can right yourself in those situations with minimal loss of men.

The setup mechanics were simple enough to be easy to do, but deep enough to give some real customization to your army. You may purchase units between missions, and you may also spend money on training and outfitting units with unique items. Another interesting twist is the fact that part of the story arc is dealing with the competing factions within your own force. For the Crusaders, these are the French, the Knights Templar (you Illuminati tools, you), the Holy Roman Empire (read “ËœGermans’), and last but definitely least, the Papal Court. Each faction has their own ideas as to how each mission should be carried out, and any time you side with a faction you gain fame with that faction, which eventually leads to unlocking even more abilities and such to aid you.

I really looked forward to getting deep into this game. There are two distinct game arcs, one for the Crusaders and one for the Salacen (the historically accurate name for the Muslims under the command of Saladin). Alas, beta code is beta code.

It seemed as though the game didn’t want me to complete the second mission, because the first three times I attempted it, there was a new wrinkle keeping me from completing the missions. The second mission starts out by bombarding the walls of Jerusalem, then invading the city and eliminating enemy troops. The problem was that I couldn’t ever enter the city. The first time I knocked down the wall segments and nothing happened. The wall didn’t fall, I couldn’t pass through, and I couldn’t even target the wall section anymore because apparently someone thought I’d already knocked it down. The second time I did knock down the wall section (by the way, the animations of the walls falling were one of my personal favorite parts of the game. Just beautiful and organic in the motion) but it still wouldn’t let me traverse the now-open space to enter the city. The third time the game just barfed after I completed the first mission.

On another (read “Ëœthe first’) mission, I also ran into the “Ëœinvisible wall’ problem, although that seemed to fix itself after the first time, but later I ran into an interesting situation where segments of wall would disappear if I moused over them. There were still there – I couldn’t enter the city, and I could still target the segments, but graphically they would just vanish. They would return – briefly – when bombarded, though.

If I were sure the bugs would be fixed I would definitely recommend this for the history buff of either Christian or medieval military history. For general consumption… that’s another matter. Moving your troops sometimes takes excessively long, which leads to the temptation (which I fell into) of simply sending your cavalry ahead en masse and attacking single enemy units until my cavalry were toast or the mission was over. Also, more than once I was surprised by an enemy expedition to my flank, and the game was content to let my poor archers get slaughtered while I was focused on another part of the battle field. Yes, the enemy troop movements were shown on the minimap, but how about a little stronger warning that I’m about to be overrun? Something on the main part of the screen for those of us that get locked in, or those of us enjoying the wonderful graphics work?

All in all, Lionheart: King’s Crusade is a fine historical RTS. It accurately depicts the strengths and weaknesses of the period units, educates, and provides that rare experience of a slow, methodical RTS. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it does hit its target market square on (with grape shot from a trebuchet). Provided the aforementioned bugs get fixed, any fan of historical military strategy should give this a look.

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