Lords of the Realm II
Strategy games tend to focus on either micromanagement or massive battles, and no matter which one the game tends to focus on, the other almost always suffers. That's not the case in Sierra's sharp update to 1994's medieval strategy award-winner Lords of the Realm. Virtually everything is improved this time around: gameplay, graphics, siege and battle engines, audio and, well, everything. The full version of this game is nothing short of awesome. Despite the stiff competition offered by Westwood's Command & Conquer series and Blizzard's Warcraft line, Lords of the Realm II eclipses both and easily gets my nomination for strategy game of the year. Very, very few games achieve the sort of balance that Lords II does, and seldom is a computer AI in a strategy game really up to the task, but on all accounts Lords II is totally engrossing and achieves a very impressive balance between strategy and action; battles are real-time, but start out paused, allowing each player to survey the battlefield prior to the battle for strategic locations and terrain. And if you're not the kind who likes to play general, you can let the computer simulate the battle and tell you how you did.
The point of Lords of the Realm II is, of course, to conquer the other fiefdoms, counties or colonies that surround you (depending on which of the many maps you play, you can fight in 14th century Italy, 18th century Massachusetts, 19th century Africa or any of two dozen other unique scenarios). You accomplish your opponents' demise by means both military and economic, and manage everything from what type of weapons your blacksmiths produce to whether your farmers should raise cows or wheat, or let the fields go fallow. As in other strategy games, you have to keep the populace happy or they'll revolt, so make sure there's enough cheese and enough of the local boys left at home instead of out kicking some Earl's butt or there'll be hell to pay. What's worse, if your peasants do revolt, they not only knock that territory and all it produces out of your holdings, but they have the audacity to ambush your troops when you come back into town to put down the rebellion. You'll have to give them triple rations and lower taxes at least or they'll just take up their pitchforks again.
Gameplay in Lords of the Realm II is very similar to other turn-based strategy games: you make several key decisions regarding resources, exploration, and armies, allocating food for your people, deciding what crops to grow, how many peasants to put to work cutting trees, quarrying stone, etc. Now don't worry; if you want to just fight the other nobles, you can leave a good deal of the micromanagement to the computer and concentrate on battlefield tactics. However, if you want a good deal of realism, the many options that are included allow for a very challenging historical simulation. Everything in Lords II is mouse-driven and quite intuitive (more so than in the original Lords of the Realm). Most actions and decisions are carried out via slider bars, grouping of peasants, or clicking on easy-to-understand icons. There are finer points, but the basics are easy to master fairly quickly.
One of the most unique aspects of this game is the synergy between the turn-based strategy of provincial governance and supply, and the real-time battle engine. The combat in Lords II is very well carried off via an extremely friendly point-and-click interface -- and your troops are smarter about circumventing obstacles than their counterparts in Command & Conquer or Warcraft II. The only complaint I have about the "real time" battle model in Lords II is that, if anything, your troops (and the enemy) move too quickly to control as well as I would have liked. For instance, as mentioned above, archers are notoriously wimpy when faced with hand-to-hand battle with pikemen, so I try to keep my archers to the back and my swordsmen, etc. at the front. The problem is, there is no good way to keep you troops in the formation they are as you set them up prior to a charge. I know, generals have probably been saying that since time immemorial, but in a computer game where such things can be controlled ... anyway, the battles are fun and fast-paced -- the tactics are just a bit different from what I've become accustomed to in other real-time strategy games.
Overall, the gameplay is quite addictive -- you begin to feel really bad when your peasants aren't fed, or take offense when the Duke of York insults your efforts at kingdom-building. The personalities and strategies of your computer opponents are also markedly varied, which makes for more well-rounded play -- what works against one will often antagonize another, and I have seen one noble hold a grudge because you chose to ally with his sworn enemy. That's pretty cool.
The graphics in Lords of the Realm II are wonderfully done -- the animations leave a bit to be desired, as they are the same canned routine after each battle, etc., but the battlefield animations, castle building and castle siege graphics are good, and the whole look and feel of the game's graphics is rich and appealing. Each turn in the game is the equivalent of 3 months' time, so with each passing turn the landscape changes a bit to reflect the current season, much as it did in the old conquest classic Seven Cities of Gold.
Similarly, the audio in Lords II is well thought out and appropriate to the era without ever seeming cheesy or overdone. The background music that runs throughout the game is a sort of medieval flute melody, and the sound and music that accompanies events and actions in the game does a good deal to set the mood of the game. In addition, there is audio instruction when you are first learning the game, which walks you through the basics of how to control your territories and troops.
At first you might think that the computer opponents aren't all that swift, as it seems like they just set up in battle and wait for your forces to come to them ... but once they have sized you up in a battle or two, watch out. On the easy setting they pick up your tactics and adapt to them pretty well, and on the hard setting they are truly ruthless. It takes a bit of practice to defeat the AI players in Lords II, as they are excellent at picking out a strategy that exploits your troops' weaknesses. For example, archers are deadly at long range, but awful at hand-to-hand range, so the computer makes sure to try to flank your slower armored troops so he can drive a wedge of pikemen in to decimate your archers. Protect your archers with pikemen of your own, and he sets up long-range archers of his own on a piece of high ground from whence he can target your pikemen.
And the computer's wile and guile goes beyond just the immediate battle. A very solid job has been done programming the AI players to look out for themselves at all times. You will not see any suicidal behavior from the other nobles -- no headlong all-or-nothing charges -- they prefer to leave such ill-advised tactics to their human opponent. Believe me, if you try the do-or-die approach in this game, you will die. Patience and good planning are of utmost importance if you are to become king or queen. After all, a strong ruler must be strong in many talents. Lords II rewards wise decision making and prudent alliances. To me, it suggests a welcome evolution in the construction of computerized opponents, as well as a good focus on more than just a single dimension of warfare and strategy.
Lords of the Realm II is rated 13+ for animated violence, although the violence in this title is much more like something you'd see on a PBS documentary about medieval battles. It isn't gory or gratuitous in any way, and this game would make an excellent learning tool for teaching kids about history, economics, etc.
An excellent manual accompanies Lords II and even includes quite a few of the sort of strategy tips that many companies make you pay extra for in the form of a hint book or strategy guide. The manual is very thorough, well indexed, and makes it easy to find what you're looking for. The setup and installation were both very smooth (this is a Windows 95 title) and everything was a breeze. I was playing the game five minutes after I took it out of the box.
486 DX2-66 or greater, 8 MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive, 34 MB hard drive space, local bus video, Windows 95 or DOS 6.0 or above, sound card with DAC. Pentium 75 or better and 4X CD-ROM drive recommended
Of all the strategy games I've played in the last couple of years, Lords of the Realm II seems to have the best balance of strategy and action, and recalls some of the best computer games from the ancient era of the 1980s. If you ever spent hours playing the text-based strategy games that were popular for the old Atari, TRS-80, Vic, and Apple IIes, then Lords of the Realm is the perfect synthesis of modern gaming technology and good old-fashioned gameplay. Your enemies are smart, your peasants restless, and there is a kingdom to be won and a king to be crowned. Sierra has hit the mark squarely with this one. If you like strategy, but find Civilization and Ascendancy to be too lengthy and involved, or like action but find Warcraft and Command & Conquer too action top-heavy, then definitely check out Lords II -- it looks like the kind of game that could suddenly make you wonder how it got to be 4 a.m.
Oh, and one last thing -- unlike its earlier incarnation, this version is definitely multiplayer -- 2 over the modem or 4 on a network.
Download Lords of the Realm II
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