Review – Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades
This game was reviewed on PC.
Poland after the Third Crusade. This could be seen as a bizarre start, considering the events they’re portraying – the Northern Crusades – definitely don’t rank among commonly known or commonly loved historical wars. As a brief primer, the Northern Crusades were fought by Christian kingdoms against their pagan neighbors, using religious piety to disguise naked land grabs. The choice of time period is interesting and nuanced, one that has the potential to breathe some life into the generally stodgy and distant Real-Time Strategy genre.
Unfortunately, Northern Crusades never quite gets there. The player character is indeed a disgraced knight, and his task is to make up for his oft-referenced failures by pursuing the war against the pagan kingdoms with fervor. The player, of course, has no choice in the matter. While the game description and many of the design features steer toward RPG territory, they make no effort to maintain the element of moral choice that any run-of-the-mill RPG would allow. Instead, the player is essentially told that the illegal and immoral wars against relatively peaceful neighbors are a glorious campaign against obviously and inarguably evil pagans. in. Instead, the player is a Good Guy Ordained by God on a Sacred Quest and the pagans are, of course, totally evil and must be destroyed. All this delivered with not a single hint about greed or religious scapegoating. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem as if this apparent self-righteousness is ironic. The introductory cutscenes seem to play it all pretty straight, and that self-righteousness never approaches doubt. Ah well.
The story is decent enough, but it ultimately serves as a broken tutorial. The player is given real-time quests and very little instruction, and it is common for a player to be led into unwinnable situations by simply following the quests given by NPCs. For example, in the first quest line, the player is directed to lure a bold raider named Pippin into combat by attacking his subordinate raiders. After defeating several smaller armies, the player is told to go near a bridge in Prussian territory and trigger an ambush by Pippin. Simply following the quest’s directions would lead the player’s army, which at this point would be no more than four units, into direct contact with Pippin’s army of more than ten. The only alternative is to wander about the map looking for weaker armies to level up the player’s own. The game allows unit upgrades, as well as hiring new units, but the restrictions are poorly defined, leading to a lot of frustration with the unit leveling mechanic. For example, at one point in a mission, despite having all the requisite gold and army experience to upgrade a unit of levies into pikemen, the game mysteriously forbade me from doing so.
Northern Crusades relies on the oft-used formula of splitting the game into two distinct modes: the strategic map and tactical battle. The strategic map shows parts of Northern Europe in the late 14th century, including the southern half of Scandanavia and covering Denmark, Poland and Prussia with towns and cities that are free to explore, trade with, or sack at the player’s leisure. However, when a player must deal with town defenders or roving bandits, it zooms into the familiar tactical battle mode. One key difference between Northern Crusades and, say, King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame (the similarities between the two games are obvious) is the distance which both forces must travel to come to grips. At first, this seemed like a design oversight. When it takes five minutes of pure travel time before a player can even decide how he’s going to fight, what’s the point? As the game advanced, however, it became clear that this was a feature; allowing a great distance between the opposing armies gives a clear advantage to the defender, who gets a fair bit of time to find terrain that might be just out of their deployment zone. Given the vast variance in battlefield terrain, it makes each battle a potential nightmare for an attacking force. Approach routes can be watched and handed to ambushing units, forcing the attacker to advance with a vanguard or split his troops up, making them easy bait for the extremely quick and deadly light cavalry, or allow single units to be slowly whittled down by skirmishing archers. While the battles don’t pack the punch they could have, a few subtle design features allow tremendous leeway for a player devoted enough to recognize the advantages.
Graphically, the game is nothing to marvel at, but neither is it prohibitively bad. Character models are a bit dated, and the animations are nothing to write home about, but the game does look very nice overall. Supporting bloom effects and robust lighting make things pop, and large battles are suitably bloody. Individual soldiers carry different shields and wear different uniforms, but units are never so mismatched as to affect a player’s perception of them.
One of the most interesting features is the advent of the real-time world. Northern Crusades definitely shares elements from quite a few current strategy titles, but its continuous real-time world is an impressive departure from other RPG/strategy hybrids. Raiders prowl the woods and roads, armies march from city to city, besieging or sacking as they will, and Teutonic patrols get into frequent skirmishes with both. One very minor issue is that the player has unlimited perception of all of these threats, allowing him or her to avoid stumbling into an unwinnable battle. While it’s good to avoid those situations, for a game entitled Real Warfare it would be nice to put a little fog of war in there somewhere, forcing the adoption of scout tactics. This brings up another small complaint, regarding tactical options. Again, the warfare presented in the game is touted as being real, and though the player must concern himself with keeping his force supplied, there’s no time in which supply lines can be cut or supplies attacked directly, which would both threaten a large force and give tactical options to a smaller force. Allowing nearly unlimited travel and supply space in a world with no fog of war simply makes things too meat-and-potatoes for my taste.
However, it’s hard to find fault with the game in a lot of aspects. The story, while uniformly one-dimensional, gives the player decent impetus and grounds what could be an overwhelming experience. Despite the lack of detail in the tutorial levels, they do allow some forgiveness that you may not find in later levels. With a little bit of patience, hacking your way through the confusing leveling, army creation and maintenance and even navigating the quests becomes rewarding when the player is given free rein to run around Northern Europe to purge the place of pagans. The battles are well balanced enough for an experienced player to thrive, even going so far as to take on and crush armies listed on the strategy map as Invincible, with a bit of maneuvering.
Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades is at times a clever experience, and others a frustrating one, but all in all it’s an ambitious attempt to ground the forever turn-based strategic simulation in real-time. It makes mistakes, but those mistakes are made in attempting to create something relatively unique, and for that I can hardly fault it for its excesses. While it’s not the best looking game around, Northern Crusades is far from ugly, and although some of the aspects of the game are poorly designed, the experience is generally bug-free. Combining some solid strategic and tactical gameplay with a competent (though familiar) story, the game hits far more than it misses, and will make a unique addition to a strategy fan’s repertoire.
Wanderson.net gives this game a 3.75/5
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