Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade came as somewhat of a surprise to me. I’ve always been a fan of the Total War series – but I really don’t like where they’ve taken the series in the last installments. The periods just don’t appeal in any way, shape or form – so an alternative to the stale series was something I was really hoping for. And then came Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade. Neocore Games haven’t just taken the Total War concept, but changed it to do something completely different. And to my absolute surprise, it works beautifully. Intrigued? Read on!
What is Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade?
As per definition of Paradox Interactive, the publisher of Lionheart: King’s Crusade, it is a real-time strategy game that places you in the era of the Third Crusade, spanning the years 1189-1192. Control and upgrade the leaders and their armies, lead your men into fierce battles, complete the objectives of the campaign by guiding various historical factions through political events, collect relics, and unlock new content on your crusade.
In reality this means that you play a campaign on a map of the middle-east, divided into 16 different regions. In the Crusaders Campaign you play the role of Richard the Lionheart with the aim to bring the entire middle-east to its knees. In the Saracen Campaign, you take the role of the great Saladin and defend your people against the invasion of the Crusaders. You do not manage cities or build armies on the campaign map – but rather play with a persistent army which acquires experience and skills over time. Before you worry about this removing depth from the game, do not worry – the management of your army has enough depth to keep you more than busy!
In this review I will focus on the Crusaders campaign, as playing the Saracen doesn’t really hold all that much interest to me. I do wish to state that the decision to include two distinct campaigns in the game really extends its lifespan – and many players will find it very interesting to play the opposing forces. The Campaign is semi-linear but largely leaves the player to choose his or her own path. In the Crusaders Campaign, you start by conquering the Kingdom of Jerusalem, followed by Jerusalem itself. After that, the map really opens up and lets you choose which region to conquer next. Each give distinct rewards and have completely different objectives and difficulties, so choosing where to go next is often an important decision.
Each region has completely different objectives, and before you enter combat you will be presented with a few choices. Depending on the mission, different factions will have different ideas of what your battle plan should be, and the mission will play out quite a bit differently for each choice. This adds additional depth and replayability to the game, as you could play the same campaign again by picking different battle plans. Each region you conquer has between 1 and 4 choices – representing the factions in the game: The French King, The Holy Roman Empire, The Templars and The Papal Court.
By choosing a faction’s battle plan, you gain fame with that faction. Increasing fame with factions unlocks new units, rewards and special abilities so it is very much worth bearing your choices in mind when you want to enhance the strength of your army. Unlike Total War, Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade combat is often objective-based and additional events can be triggered during combat. Reinforcements can spawn – or a mission can consist of multiple stages, including the construction of siege engines or fortifications during the mission itself. All these elements really add a lot of depth to the game, and makes the game much more fun to play than other games in this genre. I’ve never found myself bored or ‘waiting for things to happen’, as can often be the case in the famous TW series.
After you finish a battle, the campaign map will update, representing the regions that you control, and the regions which you don’t control yet. You will also see all regions which you can choose to conquer next. At this point, ‘events’ also spawn on the map. Events are represented by various units on the map itself, and depict historic events and other related stories. Often you’re presented with several choices, each of which often affect your standing with the factions – as well as your faith. You will also have the opportunity to earn and lose gold – and occasionally one of these events will lead you to combat, if you choose to do so. The rewards are usually worth it, but be careful that you don’t leave yourself with heavy losses.
Heroes & Armies
At the start of the campaign, you control Richard the Lionheart and a handful of units. Richard is a hero unit and is significantly more powerful on the battlefield than your other units. In one of the first missions I played, I was flanked by several units of cavalry – with Richard standing on that flank. To my surprise, he absolutely slaughtered the attackers showing me how powerful these heroes can become. Throughout the campaign you will have the opportunity to unlock additional heroes, which has a huge effect on the strength of your army as a whole.
Your army throughout the campaign is persistent, meaning that any surviving units can participate in future battles. Between missions you are able to ‘replenish’ units, as well as upgrade them in a number of ways. Each unit can receive four levels of ‘Armor Training’ and ‘Weapon Training’ which increases their Defense and Offensive ratings. You can also assign healers, priests and captains to units. Healers ensure that 30% of a units losses are negated after combat, priests increase the morale of the unit and captains act as a ‘mini-hero’ within the unit, significantly increases its strength. On heroes, you are also able to purchase horses – though this comes at quite a steep price. Essentially it changes a hero from Heavy Infantry into Heavy Cavalry, with absolutely devastating offensive capabilities.
All units also have skills and attributes. On normal units, you can choose a new skill every 3 levels, and an attribute every level. Heroes receive a skill and attribute every level and thus become much more powerful. Their skills also include effects which have an army-wide effect. Skills add all sorts of wonderful abilities to your units, and you will soon find yourself spending a lot of time tweaking and fine-tuning your army. It is worth noting that this is not a ‘fantasy’ game, so you will not find magic among these abilities. I know that magic in these games is not everyone’s cup of tea.
You can also upgrade your experienced units straight to other units in their class – such as light cavalry to heavy cavalry or even Knights Templar, once you’ve unlocked them. The units keeps all its levels, elixirs, equipment, experience, etc so this is definitely worth doing rather than scrapping units and buying better ones.
As if things were not deep enough yet, Neocore Games have also included an item and equipment system which you can best compare with Dawn of War 2. It’s not incredibly in-depth, but each unit can be assigned armor, a weapon and a potion. Throughout the campaign, you will also find elixirs which give your units a permanent increase in certain abilities such as damage, attack rate, armor, etc. Potions can be used during combat and usually provide a boost for a certain amount of time. To give you an example, you might find a potion which increases a units resistance by 20% for a minute. These potions can really get you out of a tight spot sometimes.
Last but certainly not least, you will also encounter relics. Relics in Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade are what Commander items were in Dawn of War II. Essentially they add a significant boost to your hero or your entire army. The exact strength of most relics depends completely on the level of your ‘faith’, which can be found when you are on the campaign map. There are occasionally opportunities during your campaign to increase your faith and it is absolutely worth doing so. At the beginning each hero can only carry 1 relic, but as your faith increases, so does their ability to carry relics.
Graphics & Audio
Graphically Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade more than stands its ground among other games in this genre. The graphics are sharp, pretty and very functional. The screen shots will not all do the game justice as our review machine is getting a little dated and we were unable to run the game at full settings. (Editor: Something we are resolving instantly, a new machine is on the way!) Overall the graphics are not spectacularly ground breaking, but the scenery is detailed and well-presented. I did quite enjoy the effects of bad weather, storms, and sand when armies march through the desert.
Audio wise, the sound effects are functional and add to the atmosphere in the game. They are however not amazing and not always in sync with what’s actually going on in combat – especially when arrows hit enemy units. The music is good but not amazing – it doesn’t compare to, as an example, the sound track in Medieval: Total War 2. (Which was amazing).
UI & Controls
This is somewhere that the game surprised me. One of my biggest annoyances in games of this genre is usually the controls. Arthur had a few little annoyances like that, Total War definitely did. But in Lionheart I had none of these concerns and for some reason it just worked as I expected and intended. That’s not to say it’s all perfect – the camera sometimes prefers to go at pretty annoying angles, but overall I found the game a lot easier to control than similar games.
The UI is another story though. It’s pretty well done, with sufficient feedback to the user on almost every aspect of the game. But I encountered one small nuisance: The unit card of the selected unit / enemy units appears when you hover over them. This means if you want to examine the actually unit card, you have to hover away from the unit – will probably hover over another unit and… well you get the point. It’s not a big issue when you are playing luckily. The only other wish I had while playing was for ‘unit groups’ (e.g. when grouping units with ctrl-1,2,3 etc.) would be sorted in the army list at the bottom right of the screen. They basically stay in their original order with numbers all over them, making it a little confusing mid-combat to quickly see who belongs to what group. Again, it’s not a big issue.
All things considered – Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is one of the most enjoyable games of this kind I am yet to play. I expected to lose interest in the game pretty quickly due to the lack of city management and tactical army movement/positioning – but I could not have been further from the truth. The persistent army approach makes the game much more a cross between Medieval 2: Total War and Dawn of War II and it really works like a dream. It’s lovely to see your army develop in strength and gain abilities – though you have to be careful that you don’t leave a part of your army ‘weaker’ than the rest as happened to me , just by focusing too much on specific units.
I would highly recommend purchasing this game if you have even the remotest interest in the genre. It’s extremely enjoyable, and has just the right balance between combat and management of your army. There is plenty of re-playability within the 2 campaigns, especially if you take the additional event missions and different battle plans into account. That is before you even start with the scenarios. The addition of semi-RPG elements and the persistent army are brilliantly executed and make this game one of the most fun to play RTS titles I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy this year!