King Arthur II – The Role-playing Wargame Preview

The prologue chapter of King Arthur II begins notably far from Camelot.  The intro cinematic – a dramatic slideshow similar to many of the chapter-ending cutscenes present in King Arthur I – opens on a Roman army squaring off against a Pictish rabble north of Hadrian’s Wall.  It is quickly revealed that this Roman army is not an iron-willed, unified force of the Pax Romana, but rather a politically fractured relic.  Rome itself has fallen, and the last vestiges of its influence in England are fading fast.  Septimus Sulla, the prologue’s main character, is betrayed by his allies and left for dead on the battlefield, surrounded by fallen brothers and defeated foes.

However,  Sulla, through some mysterious magical to-do, is alive, and he meets the spirit of Emperor Hadrian, who makes a deal with Sulla to return him to life.  From there, it’s up to the player to either seek redress for his betrayal or make nice with the rest of the marooned Romans to unify and face the various threats to their kingdom.

How you play out the story depends largely on how you’d like to be viewed by the rest of the kingdom.  The nuanced morality chart is back, letting you pursue either a tyrannical or righteous kingship, as well as choosing between the Old Gods of England or the upstart Christian faith.  You can’t make much of a dent on the chart in the (roughly) three-hour prologue, but the effects of each quest have political ramifications with the rest of the Romans, which makes the gameplay experience vastly different.

Though Sulla’s quest for vengeance underscores the length of the prologue, the main plot involves Sulla either becoming a conqueror of the reticent Romans or a unifier.  Whatever route you choose is available through quests, which involve a balancing act between appeasing former enemies and demonstrating your leadership potential, or eschewing the politics and carving a bloody path through the indecisive senate.  No matter what you decide, however, you still have to utilize King Arthur II’s quest system.  The quests, like in the previous title, involve a wide array of storytelling styles.  The whole experience tends to come off like a choose-your-own-adventure story, involving a number of choices that have a dramatic impact on the way the rest of the campaign continues.

Some of your routes  frequently involve battles.  Some quests inevitably lead to clashes, but others are the unfortunate result of political missteps, or simply player choice.  However the player got there, battles are an integral part of the experience and King Arthur II delivers this element just as strongly as all the others.  The battles play out in essentially the same pattern as in the first game, with large, varied battlefields concentrated around areas of power which the players can exploit to get a magical edge on their opponents.  The nature of the combat is totally unique, and though a lot of parallels can be made between King Arthur II and, say, Total War, the magical element as well as the clever way of concentrating the battles around the areas of power really help to create a wonderfully singular experience that is at its best in King Arthur II.  Some of the worrisome elements that were rampant in the first game have been corrected, even if the archers are still damnably powerful (though noticeably less so than in the first game).

The same kind of clever hybrid RPG RTS elements that highlighted the experience of King Arthur I are strongly at play in the sequel.  The music, the look, and even the gentle rumble of the narrator’s voice all help to create a powerfully immersive atmosphere that successfully brings the mythic power of the King Arthur story to life.  The fact that you’re not playing as King Arthur, or even playing in the same kingdom as the titular monarch, is actually relatively minor.  The developers have done such a good job of breathing life into King Arthur’s magical Otherworld that the experience feels like it’s an integral part of the mythos, even if it’s a new story that has very, very little bearing on even the most tangential elements of the King Arthur myth.

In short, King Arthur II seems like a perfect sequel.  It takes the qualities of the first game and expands upon them while addressing some of the more irritating and noticeable flaws.  The core of the experience – the unique and nuanced storytelling, the hybrid genre elements and wonderful, immersive atmosphere – are all playing to their strengths here.  I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of this title in the near future.

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