The concept of Crusaders: Thy Kingdom Come got me quite excited. “What’s this?” I asked, “Medieval 2: Total War, but with a linear campaign meaning you actually have to care about your troops? Where you’re rewarded more obviously for your strategic prowess, and punished more harshly for your blunders? Onwards!” I cried. Then I played. Then I actually cried.
Sadly, Crusaders’ battle system is flawed both strategically and technically, and although the mission screen was promising, and only really let down by being slightly unhelpful, it was let down in full by its companion gameplay. With improved battles, the mission screen might be considered able to stand tall as an effective upgrade, briefing and diplomatic system, but there’s no helping a strategy game that offers the opportunity for strategic thinking only when you’re not taking part in the actual gameplay, or when you are, only to the extent that you can be strategic when the opposition’s movements and decisions are shamelessly scripted or just plain stupid.
There are two modes: Campaign and Scenario (plus LAN multiplayer), with Scenario being a selection of 5 predefined battles. Campaign mode consists of 15 missions that also occur in the form of battles in the battle screen, but are preceded with various options in the management screen. You take the role of a crusader in the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century making your way towards Jerusalem. The idea of fighting for Christian imperialism in order to vanquish the Muslim enemies, who, being in the Islamic Golden Age, were more culturally advanced in many respects, didn’t particularly appeal to me. But hey, I went with it.
I fought for the Pope and I fought for the factions of my choosing to gain ‘fame’ points and money, enabling upgrades in the management screen. Building up my army and deciding which factions to fight for, which units to recruit, how to best train my current units, and even (which I thought was a great idea) which secondary objectives to choose, if any (secondary objectives offer fame points with certain factions but also potentially take away fame from rival factions, forcing you to choose your allegiances), was actually quite a well-thought out and appreciable factor in the game. The problem was, the fighting itself wasn’t particularly enjoyable.
What I was hoping for was a campaign mode similar to Dark Omen and a battle system like in the Total War series. Dark Omen was a 1998 game in the Warhammer universe where you had an army which you could upgrade and which required you to be painstakingly careful, as when losing these troops, you lost them forever. This element of building up and looking after your army, present in Crusaders, is a feature not often used in strategy games – probably as it makes it too difficult and frustrating for the player – but if done well it keeps you on your tactical toes and gets you to form attachments to your men. Although the battle system is sublime, losing troops in Total War games is much less significant, and I think a game that exploits the affinity you might gain towards your army and combines it with a decent battle mode could be very fun indeed.
However, Crusaders doesn’t do this part well. Some of this is because of the story – or lack thereof. As Crusaders follows an historically authentic path – and admittedly it does this part quite well, being true to its material while not too overbearing – it doesn’t really contain any storyline other than the historical context given surrounding events. Sure, this contextualises and sets the scene quite well, but there’s no characterisation or plot to really drive you forward through the campaign, or for you to form attachments to any of your men for any reason other than their functionality.
For a strategy game, though, story isn’t essential, and being historical, Crusaders is perfectly justified in being stingy in this regard. But then, for a strategy game, Crusaders is just so… unstrategic. This manifests itself in many ways. For starters, the AI is terrible, just terrible. Enemy units might stay still until the exact moment you begin firing arrows on them (of which your archers seem to have an unlimited supply), or when your units are within a certain distance. Or they may even, as I found in a scenario battle, stay still and let you fire at them for however long you want. Or worst of all, they might just bug out and make it simply impossible to end a mission. What strategy you do use feels cheap when the AI is too stupid to respond, allowing you to simply arrange your troops appropriately before you move in on the enemy. And none of this even mentions how your own AI don’t automatically engage in battles that are happening right next to them after finishing battles of their own without being explicitly told to (and even then it’s difficult to click the enemy unit).
Missions see enemy units following scripted paths or waiting in inevitable ambush in the forest beside the inevitable road you follow. There’s not really much strategy in fighting off ambushes even if you know they’re there other than to just send in your troops, and to keep your archers back to fire before the melee begins. Missions themselves are somewhat poorly made; the second mission gives you a secondary objective to clear a village of a Seljuk unit with the primary objective being to hold a tower elsewhere along with a mercenary Byzantine unit.
However, just as you finish the secondary objective, the army assaulting the tower appears, and appears closer to the tower than your troops, even though you don’t yet have control of either the tower or the mercenaries. If you contact the mercenaries then the army appears straight away, and you can’t complete the secondary objective once you’ve completed the primary one. This is possibly intentional, but for the second mission (first excluding the tutorial level) I feel such an inclusion is unfair, though I suspect it was just an oversight on the part of the developers. The third level is an escort mission where the Papal Legate is perfectly happy to march straight into the enemy just because it is impatient, and all the missions feel linear, with very few options to do anything, especially tactical – though walkthroughs show little things I didn’t realise were possible, such as posting archers in towers or using rocks as weapons.
All of this, however, is secondary to the biggest problem with the game: the battle mechanics. The camera is awkward, making it difficult to effectively watch your soldiers fight – there is just no way to change your vertical angle of view without it being from too high up, and horizontal rotation moves you horizontally in an arc while it rotates – a very odd feature. You cannot issue movement waypoints and there are limited formation and unit options. ‘Keep the range’ is quite useful for archers, but other than that there is little positive to say. The battles are far too long and slow, even at x2 speed. In Medieval 2: Total War there was a very handy x5 speed which Crusaders is sorely lacking; when you’re just waiting for your troops to walk across the huge map, you end up lamenting the time you’re wasting staring at an eventless screen – it also causes your mind to wander and potentially miss ambushes from the trees.
To be fair, there is more to the strategy of Crusaders than I have given it credit for. There is an art to keeping as many of your troops alive as you can, be it a swift retreat to high ground or a pre-emptively positioned archer unit. As more units enter the fray, such as cavalry and hero units, extra layers of thinking are required. Scenarios also offer something slightly different, allowing you to play as the Saracens and try out different approaches without the incessant need to preserve troops constantly playing on your mind.
One arguable problem in Campaign mode is this requirement of minimizing as many casualties as possible, where you end up replaying battle upon battle to know what happens when and where. This is epitomised by a quote from a walkthrough (yes, shame on me) for the fourth battle: “After failing this mission a few times, you can locate the approximate escape-routes of your targets, and thus win the next time.”
Thus, the game can degenerate into an endless cycle of replaying missions, adapting your strategy and improving based on trial and error. This is an unavoidable facet of this kind of lose-units-forever campaign style, and not necessarily a bad one, but it would be nice if the game didn’t rely so heavily on it – or even better, if battles weren’t so slow and drawn-out. Call me impatient, but I wouldn’t mind replaying (or just playing) missions if it didn’t take 10 minutes to simply move my army down the road!
In terms of presentation, the game isn’t bad. The menu and management screens are nice and show just the right amounts of information in a visually appealing way. During battles, the user interface is quite good at displaying your units and their circumstances, appearing to take inspiration from M2:TW, but actually adding a wonderfully useful feature which shows up your individual units’ stats, strengths, weaknesses and average HP by hovering over them with the pointer.
The graphics are acceptable, but in comparison to its two-year-old predecessor M2:TW, are generally lacking – though admittedly Neocore Games probably didn’t have the same amount of resources at their disposal. Still, units are very detailed up close (if just clones), which would be great if you could ever get the camera to easily focus on them. Their animations are sometimes glitchy though, and fighting and death animations are unconvincing, seeming far too artificial. The scenery and environments in general are satisfactory, but offer poor performance in proportion to the quality given. Changing video quality during battles is a worrying process, causing my PC to jar without the traditional black screen indicating the change and making it crash on one occasion – though perhaps due to changing too quickly from one setting to another (but still, a problem that shouldn’t be there).
The music is also reasonable, being of Middle-Eastern style, and provides an appropriate backdrop to your fighting. The sound of fighting and marching is how you’d expect – nothing breathtaking but nothing to let you or the game down.
In summary, Crusaders tries to merge an under-developed battle system with an innovative, if not unparalleled, between-missions management screen. This two-pronged strategic approach in an historical setting almost manages to unite together the brilliance of elements previously seen elsewhere, but ultimately fails to bring a seamless or unflawed assimilation to the strategy genre. Missions can feel long and dull and feature uninspiring objectives and AI; what strategy does exist feels weak and cheap and game options are limited to just two modes with very little room for variation. At best, what you will find here is an example of an involving and historical strategy game that occasionally forces you to think carefully, to worry about the wellbeing of your veteran soldiers, and to keep on battling with your ever-improving army. At worst you will find a frustrating and tiresome example of a failed effort to reconstruct history in anything approaching an exciting or tactically profound way. It’s a shame, because the game seemed so promising – but if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to play some Medieval 2: Total War.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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