Knights and Merchants: The Shattered Kingdom
Reviewed By: Kirk Hiner
Review Date: September 5, 2002
I wonder if medieval times were really as glamorous as we make them out to be these days. I mean, I've visited English castles, I've hiked the Welsh countryside, I've served my King. Of course, my King is actually Steve Martin, who seems genuinely confused each time I bring him my taxes, some bread, and my virgin daughters, but he takes them nonetheless.
Regardless, in my travels, I've learned that perhaps the medieval era wasn't all it's cracked up to be. If computer game developers had their say in the matter, the age would've been nothing but big battles, full mugs and towns populated by happily working serfs and dancing children. I wonder about all the diseases and starvation and toothaches and body odor and such. I mean, if the medieval times were so great, why did civilization bother to advance out of them?
Still, as much as I enjoy having healthy teeth and Combos brand cheese filled snacks, I pine for a time when a man worried only about the quality of his craft and not about how his mutual funds were doing, when the media and mass marketers didn't saturate our lives with crap we couldn't possibly need, and when at least 15% of conversations were actually held face to face. Judging from the popularity of games set in medieval times, I guess I'm not alone.
Knights and Merchants is the latest of these I've played. As with pretty much all other medieval real-time strategy games, you're charged with developing a colony, an economy and a military, then using them to thwart the bad guy and reclaim the land. I wonder why these games always take this route. Why don't they make one where you get to the bad guy, attacking friendly villages and oppressing the people. You can start by inheriting a gigantic army and a huge economy, and then just use them to abuse the population. Seems to me, that happened quite a lot in history.
Knights and Merchants ultimately gets you to the same place as other games in the genre, but it does take a slightly different route to get there. A much longer route. It's like taking the back roads instead of the turnpike to save a few bucks. You need the map more frequently and it's often more trouble than it's worth. You'll get there late and you'll use more gas, but you'll get there nonetheless, and you can eat whatever you want along the way instead of just whatever's at the turnpike travel center. You can also stop off to visit a friend or maybe even Reptileland, and some of the towns through which you pass may be quite quaint, especially 'round Christmas time.
You know, I think I lost my metaphor somewhere in there.
There are two aspects of Knights and Merchants that disappointed me right away. First, no printed manual. This ended up not being a major factor, however, as the manual is pretty much useless anyway. It's included as a PDF, but there's no reason to print it out, and barely a reason to look at it. Aside from detailing the buildings and explaining what needs to be built first, it offers precious little in game instruction. There are two in-game tutorials, however. The one covering construction and economy is pretty good, the one covering the military is pretty useless. More on the military later.
The second aspect to disappoint me were the graphics. The cut scenes were small and pixellated, yet they still stuttered pretty badly. The graphics aren't bad, I suppose, just cartoonish. Perhaps I'm jaded by Stronghold. Although that game didn't take the subject matter seriously, it at least did so with its presentation. In Knights and Merchants, the buildings are slanted, doors reach up through the second floor, people are out of proportion with their surroundings...it's just weird. This doesn't hurt the game play, of course, and actually allows for some interesting animation. However, becaue of the way it looked, I couldn't help but feel I was playing a child's game.
Of course, all thoughts of children's games ended with the graphics. Knights and Merchants is hard. Is this because of the crappy manual? Perhaps, but there are other factors as well, most of which can be seen as good or bad, depending on the gamer. For instance, I liked the detail of the economy. Here, Knights and Merchants is much more complex than Stronghold. Very few buildings can work on their own, instead needing an entire network of support buildings. For instance, the weapons smithy and armor smithy both need iron and coal. Coal comes from the coal mine, and iron from the iron smithy who has to first turn the iron ore into iron. He'll need coal as well, along with the iron mine to get the ore.
Sound complicated? It can be. You also have to make sure you've trained the proper inhabitants. In Stronghold, civilians just went to work depending upon the jobs that were open. Here, you have to selectively train your workers. Sticking with the previous example, the weapons and armor smithies needs smiths, but the iron smithy needs a metallurgist. The coal and iron mines both need miners. At first, this kind of bugged me; too much to manage. After a bit, however, I grew to like the control. It's not difficult, after all. Once the building's complete, just create the worker. He'll figure out where to go...provided there's a road.
This is how detailed the economy of Knights and Merchants gets, you see. Although your laborers will construct buildings on the open land, your serfs will not stock them and the workers won't inhabit them unless there's a road they can use to get there. To facilitate this, the cursor automatically changes to road construction mode after you set the site for a new building. While your serfs are carrying materials to the workers so they can build the new structure, you can create new civilians or lay out the foundation for new buildings. There are thirteen types of "King's subjects" to manage, along with nine different troops.
Now, the troops...they're just bizarre. Aside from placement, controlling them is difficult. I found it nearly impossible to issue commands once a battle had begun, so all of my strategies centered around initial placement. Tell the troops where to stand, order them to attack, then sit back and hope for the best. This actually made the battles more fun for me once I came to terms with the lack of control. I could let them do their thing while I concentrated on repairing buildings, creating more troops, or even building another farm. Good thing, too, as the military campaigns are well neigh impossible at first. Someone will have to explain to me, however, how it is that my archers are able to fire arrows that actually fly backwards.
And get this. You know how most RTS games will gradually ease you into their features...introducing them bit by bit as you progress in levels? Not here. At the very beginning of the first level, your buildings are in flames, your land is overrun with enemies, and your civilians are wandering in a daze. You must immediately defend your town, rebuild it, and prepare for the next battle. The intensity drops drastically from this point, however, as the rebuilding and equipping is long and slow, and it dominates the game.
Ultimately, then, that's what will make or break Knights and Merchants for most RTS fans. I've been comparing Knights and Merchants to Stronghold, and perhaps that's unfair. Stronghold focuses mainly on the construction and defense of castles. It heavily favors combat. Knights and Merchants centers on the construction and management of towns. The military functions as a piece of the town, the reverse of Stronghold. In this way, Knights and Merchants is actually more like Railroad Tycoon II...if Railroad Tycoon II occasionally had train robberies or Mad Max type warrior train battles, that is, which it should.
Don't buy this game for medieval combat. It's there, but it's sparse, confusing, and best left alone.
Don't buy this game for the multiplayer component. It's there, but it's only two features outside of pointless and is not even worth covering.
Do, however, buy it for the depth of the economy simulation. It's deep, it's somewhat educational, and it's fun. This is the game RTS fans will want to play when the combat of Stronghold becomes too overwhelming or mundane. I get the feeling that, of the two, Knights and Merchants is the more true to life. Medieval times were more about building roads and farming the lands than about storming castles.
Me? I can't play either right now. I have to get my taxes and virgin daughters to Steve Martin. It may seem steep, but I consider it fair payment for L.A. Story and The Man with Two Brains. Those were some funny, funny movies.
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