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Posted on Feb 14, 2012 in Electronic Games

King Arthur II Prologue: Dead Legions – PC Game Preview

By Charlie Hall

King Arthur II: The Role-Playing Wargame Prologue: The Dead Legions. PC game preview. Developer: Neocore. Publisher: Paradox Interactive. $39.99. Prologue: The Dead Legions ($9.99)

The last good sword and sandal movie I saw was The Centurian. I streamed it on a whim one night off Netflix. It was one of those movies where a quarter of the way through you’re hoping your wife won’t come in and find you watching something so inane, and then halfway through you would fight a bear to get the bandwidth needed to finish streaming it. The story hooked me in the end, and I do recommend the flick. The problem with the first half was, in my opinion, the severe lack of historical accuracy. Legionaries didn’t wade into combat, flailing about themselves with a short blade, whirling and twirling their bulky armored frames in between the enemy. There was a method to their madness, honed since the time of the ancient Greek phalanx, refined through generations of unrest, and eventually perfected (or at least well marketed) through the so-called Marian reforms in the second century BC.

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The legions were steamrollers. Their armor was, first and foremost, their shield, a thing so big and wide as to be nearly useless unless it remained fixed in front of you. The immobility of it was actually an advantage, as coupled with the immobility of the shield of the man to your left and right together you created a wall, which you used to stop the enemy’s advance.

The gladius—sword—was short, barely more than 2 feet long, because space was at a premium in the crush of the front ranks during combat. Enemies crashed into your shield, you held your ground, and stabbed at them relentlessly until you tired. Like in modern hockey games, the line would change: you and your rank fell back, and were replaced by men behind you. The grip of your gladius was deeply grooved, the pommel the size of a fresh apple, because your hands would be covered with the blood of your enemy after several shifts at the front. These were the tactics that made Rome great. Perhaps the best example I have seen in modern cinema was some of the early episodes of HBO/BBC’s Rome, starring Kevin McKidd.

The detail on individual units was surprising. In action, movements were fluid, and clipping was not as obtrusive as other games.

Imagine my surprise when, in Dead Legions, the prologue to Paradox’s King Arthur II: The Role-Playing War Game I was placed inside the body of a Roman warrior. Here I was expecting chainmail coats, longswords, heavy draft horses and lances. Instead I got gladii in spades—as well as a fairly thick spell book, but more on that later.

King Arthur II (KA2) describes itself as dark fantasy, and pulls from a rich history of its own devising. In the Prologue I’ve been given access to, you play the head of the Roman family Sulla, one of several noble clans left over in Britannia after the legions proper evacuated the region. Hadrian’s Wall is as much a part of this community of nobles as is the local baths, and by that I mean to say the wall is the source for more cunning and betrayal than the seasonal arc of Desperate Housewives. But in KA2 Hadrian’s Wall is 200 feet high and studded with magical energies that keep out not just the wild Picts to the north, but their demonic allies as well.

The Picts have access to fantastic creatures, including these giants. The units themselves, however, felt balanced.

The strategic map focuses on distances and seasons. March to war in the south and you may not make it there before winter hits, and your armies will be forced to make camp in the bitter cold. Units level up when idle, growing unique powers and gaining boosts to their stats. Additionally, they spawn captains to lead the men more effectively into battle. And battle you will.

The first battle of the prologue pits a group of your family’s oldest, most faithful soldiers against a rag-tag group of rebels. The fight is a nail-biter, as your units are low level and lack the teeth more experienced forces grow over time. It contains a curious mix of threats. Along the left flank a desperate skirmish breaks out. Fail to advance on a statue of Jupiter that overlooks a hill and the enemy who takes it will unleash lightning bolts upon your rear echelons while streaming down the hill to attack your unprotected flank. Rushing off towards the statue yourself denies the enemy this divine advantage, but leaves your main force with too few skirmishers to slow the enemy main line’s advance. With their momentum unhindered your hero unit must rely on his own magical powers to slow the enemy with poisons, and blast huge rents in his advancing lines with lightning of his own.

But what the game teaches you in this first battle is how to use your limited number of units most effectively, and here is where their fantasy extends beyond the magic and the history into the tactics of Roman legions.

Each unit has a value listed as “will to fight,” which rises and falls before and during a battle. Clearly, these melee units have lost theirs as my cavalry charges down the hill. And yes, those are Vikings. I also fought “Crusaders” and “Lionhearts” with my legion. Why should that offend your wargamer sensibilities any more than the giants?

Your mainline shock troops are legionaries. They can be screened by lower-level warriors as skirmishers, supported by troops with polearms to protect against cavalry charge, but in the end the killing will be done by these heavily armored legions. You their commander are given the choice of their formation. Stacked into a neat rectangle they move well across the battlefield, and their defense and attack is well balanced. Spread them out in a rough circle of unevenly spaced skirmishers and the game grants you a bonus to your defense against archers. In reality, the best defense legionaries had against archers was to pile together, shields interlocked above their heads, where their neigh impenetrable turtle would mosey across the field unless broken by heavy cavalry (which had yet to be invented—hence, the domination of Rome).

Two additional formations are granted to these elite infantry units, the wall and the wedge. The wall moves the men from their rectangle into two long ranks with a smaller third rank, ostensibly the unit’s leadership. I found this long string of soldiers to be impervious to infantry assault, where in reality this formation would not have had the depth or stamina to stand for more than a few minutes without breaking. The wedge, alternately, turns the basic rectangle into a triangle, which speedily arcs across the battlefield to knife into opposing forces. Were these real legionaries the first five ranks of the triangle would be mutilated, trampled, and frankly wasted as their comrades rushed into them from behind. But in KA2 this wedge proved to be the trump card, as nothing could stand in its way. After six attempts at the engagement it was the wedge that allowed my army to leave the battlefield nearly unbloodied, despite its comedic attempts at historical accuracy.

Formations break up in the forests and deny elite units like legionaries the ability to create their deadly wedge. Instead of prescribing a set of tactics the maps left themselves open to improvisation.

But once I divorced myself from the knowledge I have about real legions and how they fought, once I bought into The Centurian mindset and forgot McKidd’s dutiful leadership in Rome, the game opened up. The plausible real-time grew on me—on me, an avid RTS hater—and I became truly engrossed in the tactical potentialities dreamed up by the designers. The maps, unlike Rome: Total War, are a true sight to behold, featuring sheer vertical drops, grim chokepoints, dark forests, and misty, stirring skyboxes. And the text-based roleplaying had me cheering during interludes on the world map. In the end, I’m very excited to dig deeper into KA2. Fans of the Total War series should lighten their historical load and give it a try, while Skyrim fanatics will find much more engrossing decisions to be made in KA2‘s roleplaying.

About the author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs. His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at charlie@gamerswithjobs.com. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois.

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