kingarthur1.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on the best bits of less-than-excellent games. This week, Tom enjoys King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame.]

In my last column, I expressed my disappointment with Starcraft 2’s wasteful, inelegant mixture of RTS, upgrade menu, Normandy Mark 2 spaceship time-wasting, and turgid narrative. It’s not easy to find exciting, convincing strategy game narratives, to let Starcraft 2 off the hook just a bit. My favorite RTS, Dawn of War 2 has a better story than Starcraft 2 mostly because Dawn of War 2 doesn’t rub your face in its story, unlike Blizzard’s new masterpiece.

As is the case with most games, when story and play are well-interwoven, the gameplay that emerges is all the more exciting. When Left 4 Dead 2’s characters exclaim over new finds, it makes the game and its action feel much more reactive. The same can’t be said for the Prince and Elika’s conversations in PoP 2008.

They may be entertaining, but the fact that I had to sit through every one (you can’t move while talking) caused the game to lose any sense of momentum or pacing. The more unimpeded and granular the flow of play and story are, the less jarring the transition (or cohabitation) between the two are.

When games resolve the play/story issue with inelegant, stilted solutions, it’s plain for everyone to see. The ubiquitous cutscene (replacing the ubiquitous wall of text) is the most obvious, most vulnerable approach to reconciling play and story. Cutscenes have nothing to do with playing games, by and large. The adventures and acts cutscenes depict are almost entirely impossible to replicate ingame. Sometimes in-cutscene characters will talk, shoot, punch, or jump, as they might ingame. Still, they carry out these actions with a fluidity, specificity, and grace unattainable for in-play characters and gamers.

If play is a narrative of action, reaction, and consideration (all in response to AI or player-controlled actions), then out-of-game story is a narrative of inaction, passivity, and disassociation. Players notice this gap between the two experiences. More and more people complain about the difference between the lovable, bumbling-yet-competent Nathan Drake of Among Thieves’ cutscenes, and the deadly killing machine and Olympic gymnast of the same game’s playable portions.

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Turn based and real time strategy games tend to integrate story and play inefficiently. The seams always show through, and even more than games with strong, carefully written heroes like Drake (who are so different from their more cinematic representations) strategy game cutscenes and exposition have almost nothing to do with playing strategy games.

My squads in Dawn of War 2 (lead by individual characters with roughly sketched personalities) spend all of their time under my command assaulting fortified locations, weeding out snipers, and launching surprise attacks on enemy squads. My squad leaders spend each cutscene talking about faith, honor, and courage. Admittedly, they discuss these same things in-mission, but this repetition is just that: the story and the script (and thus, these characters) don’t really have much to say, though they expertly reproduce 80’s and 90’s action movie clichés.

Dawn of War 2 isn’t trying that hard to tell any kind of story, however. The collectable miniature game from which DoW 2 gets its setting is full of honorable men in huge mech suites and dastardly aliens (and honorable aliens in mech suits, along with dastardly men, to keep things lively). That’s all the game aspired to portray.

Some strategy games try to do a bit more, and it’s quite interesting to experience the design gymnastics these games go through to present players with stories and play that (hopefully) work well with each other. King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame (a title that unsurprisingly belies the game’s conflicting impulses) goes so far as to introduce a series of truncated Choose Your Own Adventures into the main campaign. Instead of reading through a bunch of text and “completing” a mission (like recruiting your next Round Table knight), characters click through a short interactive text adventure. Each adventure has a point on the map that kicks off the text portion. From there, players chose dialogue branches, courses of action (wait for nightfall to attack, or rush in half-cocked?), and how to deal with crises.

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Interactive text adventures are much more exciting than your average cutscene, block of text, or other non-interactive bit of exposition. They’re tied to ingame stats and consequences and they’re colorful and descriptive. It helps enhance the “RPG” vibe that both the game and its earnest title are trying to emphasize. These CYOA story scenes have their work cut out for them, sadly. If there’s something that’s not unique about Arthur, it’s the game’s more real-time, strategic elements.

Towns and cities offer players various recruitment options, and there are a large number of units of differing skill levels and strengths available for hire. Though they may have different looks about them, most of these units are wearyingly similar. There are 3 or 4 kinds of sword-based, pike-based, and horse-based units for each tier. They’re all somewhat different from each other (one sword unit may be stronger against heavy armor than another), but in battle the only noticeable differences are between unit classes, not sub-classes within each general area.

Each hero’s special powers are almost as underwhelming as the units. Most of them are passive skills or buffs (even those that have to be activated), and the offensive spells aren’t really that exciting either. When combined with the game’s well-intentioned (but completely broken) real time capture point-based battles, the result is a bland Total War knockoff. An Arthur campaign really only has two things going for it: the CYOA’s and the beautiful art and music.

I’m not thrilled with entering instanced areas in games. I prefer games like Far Cry 2, or Left 4 Dead 2, games whose combat, exploration, and conversations all take place in spaces that generally follow the same rules. Just because no one’s attacking me in my Act 1 camp doesn’t mean that I control my character any differently. This consistency keeps me focused on the game, and on the story, for what it’s worth.

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Arthur’s expansion, The Saxons, seems like it’s headed in the right direction, vis-à-vis uninterrupted play. All adventures are boiled down to one-screen quests requiring cash or food infusions to gain favorable outcomes. The more you spend, the better the outcome. It’s the same mechanic used to bribe factions and buy services. These stripped down “adventures” are also quite boring compared to the little CYOA vignettes from the vanilla game.

In place of more detailed stories and unique-feeling adventures however, The Saxons has created uniformly identical adventures. They may have different introductions (this one concerns rebellious peasants, this one tells the tale of a lost piece of magic armor), but the solution to each is to throw money at the problem. It would have been better if the CYOA’s had been streamlined and integrated into the main game, retaining their extended, unique stories, but using an interface and set of resolution techniques that meshed well with the overworld and strategic map. Really, all The Saxons needed to do was provide more than one way of solving adventure “problems.” It completely fails to give players meaningful choices, something its predecessor excelled at.

King Arthur is in desperate need of another expansion, one that combines the faster, more streamlined questing of The Saxons with the charming, intricate CYOA’s of the original game. It also needs to fix its badly broken strategic play. These two elements could be combined for some interesting mechanics. I’d love to see CYOA adventure elements added into the battle maps. It would be great to have the game’s (now pointless) capture be worth something besides a boost to strength or movement speed. What if different capture points housed mini-adventures or story bonuses and consequences?

Arthur’s problems stem from trying to mix a well-established brand of strategy game with a quite unique method of ingame storytelling. It’s I game I prefer infinitely to its more polished competitors, simply because it tries to do exciting things with its story, setting, and play. I hope they find a way to mix these elements together less clumsily in the future.

[Tom Cross is a managing editor at Rules of the Game, writes for Popmatters, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]