The strategy genre is experiencing a boon right now. As the lines between console and PC gaming blur over AAA titles, smaller developers are finding their feet by appealing to the hardcore audience with more focused experiences, offering keyboard-jockeys much more in-depth and often challenging titles to tax their minds as well as their systems. Developed by Unicorn Games Studio, Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades demonstrates just what is possible in the world of tactical strategy games.
Comparisons to the Total War series, especially its medieval incarnations, are inevitable, but Real Warfare 2 is far from a cheap imitation of its more widely known sibling. You control a member of the order of Teutonic Knights tasked with purging Prussia of its pagan elements using your wits, wiles and, when necessary, your coin purse to amass an unstoppable force to lay waste to your foe. Rather than the standard turn-based strategic phase followed by instanced real-time battles, everything in Real Warfare 2 unfolds at the same, measured pace. Borrowing from the systems seen previously in Mount & Blade, your whole force is represented by your mounted knight avatar who is free to roam across the map, dealing with enemy forces, seeking out campaign missions and invading anything and everything in your path. Successfully sacking a town, castle or sleepy village nets you some XP and profit in the form of goods that can be redistributed to improve your overall economy. This is one of Northern Crusades real successes as it does away with much of the expected bookkeeping and presents what you have and where it’s needed in simple, quick to understand terms that makes controlling your assets a breeze and with no devilish, text-filled menus in sight! Joy! It would be nice if the rewards you netted from occupying a new area reflected the geography a bit better (invaded our riverside fishing hamlet? Here, take all of our timber!) but it’s a minor niggle that may have been forsaken for the sake of balancing the game – a substantial feat for any strategy title.
While you can move freely about the map, choosing tasks as you see fit, the game’s structure is a little bit to biased towards its campaign-centric missions, offering a far greater reward in terms of loot and XP compared to anything you find via exploration. It’s a legitimate way of encouraging players to experience the game as it’s “meant” to be played, but it does feel like the developers are punishing players who wish to buck the trend and forge their own path.
Thankfully, the battle system allows for as much creativity as any budding general could want. Units have a staggering number of attributes that affect their performance, their abilities and even their personalities (such as how able they are to act independently or whether they’ll just stand idly by until you give them an order). Everything can be upgraded using XP gained from your victories and even veteran fans should find the AI to be a most worthy foe as it properly positions its archers behind defensive lines and makes brilliant use of the terrain for cover and to give attackers the advantage as they flow down a hill to glorious death.
When I watched my first battle, I was overwhelmed by what I was seeing. Granted, this was partly due to the solid animation of the units clashing at my behest, but it was largely due to the excessive (albeit technically impressive) levels of post-processing that the game engine churns out. While face-melting bloom and HDR look good on paper, it was simply too distracting to keep it turned on if I wanted to get anything done. Sadly, the sound, as in most games of this type, is disappointing with a narrow range of unit reactions and bland music that resulted in my medieval experience being set against my own music instead. Nothing like cracking out some dubstep while discussing trade routes with the local mayor.
Due to its largely open nature (even if it can be a bit of a grind to get the most benefit out of side-missions) and an impressive multiplayer skirmish mode that allows for up to six-way battles across massive playing fields, Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades is a worthy addition to the strategy genre. With plenty of longevity and a fair amount of polish, Unicorn Games Studio have proved that it’s possible to wear your influences on your sleeve without coming off as a cheap imitation.
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