The Crusades are becoming an increasingly popular topic for gaming. As this reviewer lives under a rock, he has no idea why this might be so. As an era, the Crusades hold a lot of promise for a war game. Nobody does pointless, interminable wars like the Middle East. Throw in a few religions and you have a party.
The Crusades were a lengthy period of time. There were plenty of different actors – nation-states (e.g. France), pseudo-nation states (e.g. the Templars) and the outright strange (Assassins, anybody?). The Saracen side was never very cohesive. Egypt was probably the biggest player but Syria was directly involved as well as the Seljuk Turks and a large number of smaller groups who each had military power and an agenda. Saladin, the in-game Saracen leader, was an exception to this general rule – he was able to unify most of the Saracen armies for a period.
The Europeans were not any better. The French were the biggest players but there were also Germans and English, none of which would work with the others. Stir in the warrior-monk Templars and Hospitallers who answered only to the Pope and were probably the best soldiers on the European side and you have a political mess. Richard the Lionheart lead the biggest contingent the English ever sent on Crusade and is the in-game European leader.
The history is fascinating, but this is a game review so I will leave you, Gentle Reader, to pick up any of the popular histories and continue on reviewing the game.
The basic game mechanics are three-fold. At the top level the Holy Land is divided into areas. The player chooses (or has assigned) an area in which to battle. The area itself determines what kind of battle. For example, the area surrounding Acre will have a battle concerning the fortress at Acre. This is an unexceptional mechanic seen in plenty of recent games.
The actual battles are fought in real-time. They are pretty much standard RTS fare with a medieval flavor. The usual suspects are here: archers, heavy and light infantry, heavy and light cavalry, and siege weapons. The sides are differentiated by the types of units they have available. Saracens go for archers and light cavalry to support their hit and run tactics. Europeans opt for heavy cavalry and heavy infantry, reflecting the combat styles prevalent in Europe. This can be a problem for Europeans in desert areas as the game models exhaustion and guys in heavy armor get very tired very quickly in the desert.
The third mechanic is experience. As units survive battles they gain experience. Experience improves unit stats, so more experienced units are tougher, deal more damage, get tired more slowly, and the like. This can make for tactical decisions about which unit to send in – the old hands that will probably win but which we can't afford to lose, or the newbs who might lose but are easily replaceable. Experienced units also accumulate cash (useful for buying better equipment) and even relics (semi-magical items that can improve stats or have battlefield effects).The three mechanics mesh well. The between-battle Management Phase gives the player the opportunity to load-out their army for the next battle. This is where money can be spent, troops recruited, and relics can be acquired. It works well tying the various elements together without interrupting the flow of play. It is obvious that the game was designed with all three elements in mind rather than tacking one on at the end when the game seemed thin.
In addition to the common game mechanics, the two sides have some different features to make playing both sides worthwhile. The Europeans have to deal with factions – the French, Germans, Templars and Pope. Each faction wants the player to do something. Maybe the Pope wants a monastery seized, while the French want to take the castle. Pleasing one faction may anger another, but happy factions provide benefits. Pleasing the French, for example, might lead to free troops for the next battle.
The Saracens, on the other hand, spend money and Upgrade Points to advance on a tech tree. The techs provide Legendary Leader actions (magical abilities leaders can invoke in battle), unit upgrades and new unit types.
That's a lot about mechanics and not much about how the game feels when played. That is intentional, as the game will stand or fall on how well it blends its various elements. Some words on the gameplay experience are in order, however.
Playing the game is enjoyable. There is nothing here that stands out and says “I am SO AWESOME!!!!” but what is here, is well-crafted. The various mechanics work well with each other. The sides are different enough to make playing both interesting. Controls are RTS-standard and the graphics are informative (if kinda brown) so the game can be picked up and played quickly.
So what's wrong? Well, it doesn't really feel like the Crusades. There is nothing about the Acre map, for example, that looks much like Acre. The game could have, with sprite changes, been labeled Orcs vs. Elves without losing any feel. This is hard to quantify – after all, there is lots of Crusade-y stuff here (Templars, Saracens, sand) – but it just doesn't feel like a gigantic clash of cultures. The contrasting goals can't really carry the load of conveying how fragmented the Europeans really were.
In addition, the unit AI could use some work. Perhaps the greatest threat to your melee units are your archers. Units can also wander off on their own, fatally attracted by some enemy they can't possibly hurt. Last but not least, expect a fair share of bugs.
To sum up, Lionheart is a solid hybrid turn-based/RTS/RPG style game which does a good job of integrating the various styles. If you are a fan of medieval-style RTS's this would be a good addition to your collection.